A remake of a TV movie from 1973, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark feels as though it, too, were made in the ’70s. Aside from a few (not overly graphic) slashings and assorted mutilations, the scares are resolutely old-school: creaks and rustlings and whisperings in the dead of night. An architect (Guy Pearce) brings his young daughter (Bailee Madison) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) to stay in a Gothic mansion he’s spiffing up to be sold. The little girl, Sally, is ill at ease even before the family arrives at the mansion’s ornate door: she feels passed around between her mother, who doesn’t seem to have time for her, and her father, who is busy flipping the house. The place, which we already know is bad news from an ominous prologue, intensifies Sally’s bad vibes. Soon she and we see why. Little creatures live behind the grates, in the boarded-up basement. They want Sally; they want to play with her, and they come and find her in the darkness.
Patiently directed by Troy Nixey, from a script by Mexican horror maestro Guillermo del Toro and erstwhile Spielberg/Lucas collaborator Matthew Robbins (the pair also worked together on del Toro’s Mimic), the movie seems to aim for psychological ambiguity: the creatures may or may not be activated by Sally’s repressed rage. (She’s on meds, she’s seen shrinks, and she’s often seen drawing Vertigo-style spirals in her sketchbook.) But later on they’re explained as malefic faeries — relentless, vicious things gentled down over the centuries into the benign parental invention the tooth fairy. (You can appease them only by leaving them human teeth, which they acknowledge by leaving an old coin.)
The creatures have a certain creep factor. They scuttle like rats over the dusty banisters; they lurch, hunched over, on wiry arms and legs, looking a little like the monsters drawn by Berni Wrightson in the horror-comic classic “Nightfall.” There’s a fine, spooky moment when several pairs of hellishly glowing eyes appear under Sally’s bed, confirming everyone’s childhood fear: yes, kid, you’re right, they’re down there, and they know how to use knives. Brought to life by computers, the creatures are convincing, but there’s still that Stephen King theory about the monster behind the door: eventually you have to open the door, and more often than not the audience is relieved to see what the thing looks like, whereas before you could horrify them by working on their imagination. It doesn’t help that the trailer gave it away, either.
The muted photography, which already looks as if it’s been blown up for a drive-in screen, joins together with the loud bass-violin score to produce something amusingly retro. Sally and her father use cell phones; other than that, the movie seems consciously timeless, and most of the movie is a three-character play. This old-fashioned old-dark-house flick, rated R for “violence and terror,” is perhaps an audible unseen knife-slash or two away from a PG-13; nothing in it is as scary (the clown doll) or as gruesome (the paranormal assistant hallucinating peeling his face off in bloody chunks) as the PG-rated Poltergeist. The parents are distracted but loving; the little girl is kind of refreshingly uningratiating — if she smiles once in the film, I must’ve blinked and missed it. She’s plausibly haunted by inner as well as outer demons. The movie never quite draws a connection between the two, though; the subtext is there if you want to insist on it, but the script throws in too many details, forcing the creatures out of the shadows in more ways than one. It’s a decent spook show, and parents who’ve just moved to a new house should keep their small children the hell away from it; also, it’s not in 3D, which is fast becoming a big plus.