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Movie ReviewsRating: 3 of 5 yaps

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Despite two good performances, stylish set design and relative restraint, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” gets stuck in the negative space between “creepy” and “scary.”

Director Troy Nixey’s film never goes all in on the terror it purports to peddle in the film’s finale. Nor does it fulfill the promise of devil’s-dance playfulness suggested by composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders’ fiddle-riddled opening fanfare.

It’s got a few jostling jolts, but it’s easily the most middling movie to which Guillermo del Toro (co-writing and producing) has attached his name since “Mimic.” Plus, as the softest R-rated movie in years — with no more gore than any given night of CBS programming — it continues to make the MPAA increasingly irrelevant.

Speaking of television, del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins rewrite a 1973 TV movie renowned for what, back then, must have been a shocking conclusion. They’ve added 25 minutes and kept the protagonist female, but they’ve made her a little girl — echoes of del Toro’s own “Pan’s Labyrinth” in a far less imaginative film.

Sally (Bailee Madison) has been cast off by a prescription-happy mother and shipped to Rhode Island to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce). He’s a professional home renovator who’s sunken his savings into the Blackwood estate.

Mr. Blackwood — whom we’ve met in a dentally gruesome, Lovecraftian prologue — was a renowned artist. The national attention from a beautiful restoration of his home is what Alex needs to “get his career back” (although we never learn how he lost it).

Also in the mix is Kim (Katie Holmes), an interior designer and Alex’s girlfriend who fancies herself a Blackwood scholar but not at all a surrogate mother.

Holmes again turns in a nuanced performance in a thriller few people are likely to see (“Abandon,” “The Gift”). And Madison sells Sally’s fright at becoming freight in a failed family with one heartbreaking scene of quiet sobbing.

But this moppet excels at more than crying on cue. She brings to the role the same raw power she did in 2009’s “Brothers” and exudes the idea that Sally is a susceptible soul — one with enough curiosity, weakness … and teeth to feed the creatures in the basement.

Whispering promises of eternal playtime and friendship through the vents, the creatures convince Sally to free them from their subterranean cell. What she doesn’t know is that even if she chooses not to join them, they’ll try to take her by force.

In “Dark’s” early moments, the air is alive and ominous with dread — the demons seemingly as likely to descend upon Sally in daylight as in the darkness. That’s why it’s a bit of a downer when, once the gremlins go on the loose, “Dark” pulls out the dog-eared haunted-house playbook out of its back pocket and disappoints with the creatures’ reveal.

Blame Kim’s shredded clothes on petulant Sally? Show no suspicion after a helpful handyman is mutilated in the basement? Insist beyond reason that this is all in Sally’s head? Check, check and check.

Subtle suggestions of a Brothers Grimm variation on the Tooth Fairy legend offer the occasional respite. But once del Toro and Robbins ladle thick, fat expositional gravy over that, it’s just another heavy ingredient to the film’s overcooked second course. (Plus, this insists that Kim, a supposed expert on all things Blackwood, would know nothing about his late, clearly disturbed period of artwork.)

As to the monstrous baddies, they’re better seen in fits and starts as they skitter from the light like cockroaches. A curator of so many classic creatures, del Toro whiffs here. The tiny goblins resemble biped bats that have replaced their wings with legs — hairy hunchbacks who look like a higher-budgeted cousin to the imps from 1987’s B-horror staple “The Gate.”

One sudden POV shift gives the gut an unexpected loop-de-loop. The creatures’ use of small spaces and objects to generate menace makes for a couple of clever compositions. And the conclusion’s grim irony is worth an appreciative smirk.

But those piecemeal treats are the problem with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” They never add up to a cumulative chill. Honestly, the most frightening thing it has to offer is the use of Comic Sans in its end credits.

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14 Responses to “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

  1. [...] “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (Katie Holmes, Rated R) [...]

  2. Piper says:

    I expected little since it is a remake and I was happy. I never go to the movies with high expectations. I heard all the raving review babble about Black Swan and then hated it. Took 3 days to get through that boring annoying movie. This was creepy albeit annoying at some points, but I enjoyed it.

  3. Bryan H. says:

    I got a chance to see this movie. I have been a fan of Del Toro’s work in the past, and I am not going to put him down for this one, but I guess I just expected more out of it. The movie would scare the heck out of a young child, and even though it had some creepy moments, it just wasn’t enough for me.

  4. I recently saw this movie with little expectations and I am glad I did. While it looked promising, and Del Toro can be quite good, this movie fell flat to me. Katie Holmes never delivered enough of anything to be too believable. And while suspensful at times the creatrues never made me afraid of anything. If you go just for entertainment then by all means go, if you go expecting to me be afraid of the dark at night you do not have to worry about bringing a night light.

  5. Mariann H. says:

    Even though there were only a few actual good actual scares, I thought this movie was well worth a viewing for Del Toro’s gorgeous and creepy sets and overall atmosphere. I thought the young girl did a wonderful job throughout the movie as well. My only wish is that the creature voices were a tad less cheesy–they sort of ruined any actual fear I had once I heard them cackling!

  6. Geoff Arbuckle says:

    I really want to see this movie. I mean if the commercials came on late night on TV gave me serious jitters, I wonder what a full length movie would do.

  7. Nick M. says:

    I love about everything from Del Toro, so I am excited about this. I dont think it will be spectacular after reading some reviews, but I wont free tickets from The Film Yap, so Im going! Thanks Film Yap!

  8. Andrew says:

    I’ve watched both the original and this one. The original is still superior than the remake, which is sad considering it is a made for TV movie. I remember reading somewhere that Del Toro was so scared by the 1973 feature that he got into horror because of it and always wanted to remake it.

    After seeing the remake I know why Del Toro wanted to do it. He wanted to fix the original ending, which probably kept him freaked out for decades. Yep, this movie is nothing but a fix-fanfiction Del Toro co-wrote.

    And another kid is haunted by creepy stuff in a Del Toro project that is not based on Super Heroes? It was ok at first but now it’s all he does: "Put child in creppy situation to generate simpathy from audiences = success!" I’m starting to wonder if he can do something different.

  9. j.c.k. says:

    looks like i dont need to go waste my money on this one?

  10. Karen Lam says:

    This was so disappointing, like a theatrical version of Murder, She Wrote but with the addition of hairless gremlins. The score is heavy-handed, the suspense was absent, and the logic holes were laughable. When there’s a pair of scissors sticking out of your back, it’s hard to explain as: "It’s messy down there." That said, Katie Holmes was fantastic as Guy Pearce was not.

  11. Grant Waggoner says:

    The original was a made-for-tv movie, was it not?

  12. Loved the original. Hope this remake is a good one. Can’t wait to see it. wish they would make more scary movies.

  13. Nick Rogers says:

    Despite del Toro going back to the subject-matter well a second time (after "The Devil’s Backbone") for "The Orphanage," I enjoyed that movie — much more than I did "Dark." Helluva performance by Belen Rueda in that one and a terrific ending that helped negate the familiarity of the story. I’m not down on del Toro by definition by any stretch; I just wish this had a little more zest and imagination. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  14. Keith says:

    Del Toro has shown he picks some interesting projects to produce, such as The Orphanage. He’s pretty smart with horror/fantasy, and I love his enthusiasm for the genre.