Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has Guillermo del Toro's fingerprints all over it. But those brilliant fingers were in a dozen other pies when he was originally slated to helm Dark, so he handed the directing duties over to first-timer Troy Nixey. And boy, does it have elements right out of The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth: the exploration of a creepy new home, spooky set pieces, a child in a supernatural thrall, neglectful parents. While Don't Be Afraid of the Dark never hits the highs of a true del Toro picture, it does a fine job of unnerving.
Naturally, in this age of remakes, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a little-known 1973 TV movie. But more importantly, it feels like a good old-fashioned fright show, with a simple haunted house premise on which to hang all sorts of gothic trappings. When the sullen and neglected Sally (Bailee Madison) is shipped off to live with her clueless architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), she finds he and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) painstakingly restoring Blackwood Manor, a gothic mansion, to its former grandeur. In her wanderings of the estate, Sally stumbles upon a boarded-up basement with a mysterious door full of curious whispery voices, home to a host of fairies/homunculi that want to lure her into their underworld. The haunting of Sally begins.
Spooky and occasionally frightening, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark lacks del Toro's directorial flair—Nixey's pacing is erratic, and many frights are a little too similar to previous jump-scares. Dark is a fine example of a classic haunted house movie—I just wish del Toro had grabbed the reins. Still, I suppose I'll make do with a pretty decent facsimile.