It’s the thing you don’t see that’s always the scariest part of a horror movie. And it’s those places you can’t see as a kid -- underneath the bed, inside the closet, up in the attic -- where the horrible child-eating monsters are always waiting to get you.
Put those things together, and you’ve got “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” a goosebump-y haunted-house flick where the floorboards and the mattresses and the big old furnace in the basement really are hiding something deadly.
A remake of a fairly-effective TV movie from 1973 — the monsters were cheap, but the suspense was smartly ratcheted -- the new “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was directed by first-timer Troy Nixey, although you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a new movie from Guillermo del Toro, whose name gets the most prominent placement on the posters and in the advertising.
Even if del Toro didn’t yell “Action!” and “Cut!” the movie bears his imprint, from his fascination with scary stories told from a child’s point-of-view (“The Devil’s Backbone”) to the elegantly grotesque creatures (which bear more than a resemblance to the creepy-crawlies from “Pan’s Labyrinth”).
The child in question this time around is Sally (Bailee Madison), an unhappy young girl being shuttled from her unstable mother to go and live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce), who’s in the process of restoring a gorgeous old mansion with the help of his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).
Kim does her best to get close to Sally, particularly since the work-obsessed Alex doesn’t pay much attention to her, but Sally resists. And while exploring one day, Sally finds a sealed-off room that Alex opens up over the warnings of Harris (Jack Thompson), the house’s longtime caretaker.
And you can pretty much imagine what happens from there — beasties get loose, Sally hears and eventually sees them, no one believes her. But Nixey (working from a script by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins) cranks up the suspense with each appearance of the creatures; as “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” progresses, we learn more and more about just what these terrifying imps have in mind, and why we should grip our armrest when we see them make off with a pair of scissors.
Strong performances anchor the film — in movies like “Bridge to Terabithia” and “Brothers,” and even in the ludicrous “Just Go With It,” Madison has proven herself to be an expert at tween gravitas, and she nails Sally’s fear and hopelessness throughout.
Even Holmes gets the pitch of the film just right, juggling her initial skepticism about monsters in the house with having stepmom duties suddenly thrown at her. If Pearce registers less than his two co-stars, it’s because the character he’s playing is so inert that he can’t avoid slipping into the background.
If there’s one big flaw with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” it’s that in 2011, there’s only so long that we can watch movie characters face the perils of a haunted house without thinking, “GET OUT ALREADY!”
Long after it should be thoroughly obvious to even the most hardened skeptic that something very unnatural is going on in that old mansion, Alex insists that they stick around, and there aren’t enough plot demands to make his stubbornness ring true. (As clunky as “The Haunting in Connecticut” was, at least the script made it clear that the family couldn’t afford to move.)
But if you’re a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s baroque brand of horror — there’s a disturbing mural here that would fit perfectly into almost any of the Mexican filmmaker’s movies — you’ll find plenty of fun scares and popcorn-box-twisting tension.