|FILM DISTRICT, CAROLYN JOHNS|
Bailee Madison is shown in a scene from "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark."
In this hyperactive digital age, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is almost antiquated in its approach to horror.
And that is its greatest strength.
Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, the filmmaker responsible for "Pan's Labyrinth" and the two "Hellboy" movies, and directed by rookie Troy Nixey, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" stays away from the blood and guts that dominate so much of modern horror in favor of building suspense and creating scares through whispers in the dark, the production design of its creepy old mansion and placing the audience in the shoes of its protagonist, a young girl sent away from her mother in California to live with her dad in Rhode Island.
Guy Pearce is Alex, the father, an architect living in the dilapidated Blackwood Manor while he restores it with his new, younger girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). He's lost when it comes to dealing with Sally (Bailee Madison), a sullen little girl who desperately wants to return to her mother.
Sally's only joy comes in exploring the old house and its grounds—to the dismay of Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), the groundskeeper who clearly knows more of the place's history than he lets on. When she uncovers a hidden basement, which has an ash pit that's been bolted shut, Alex orders her to stay away.
The whispers come to her at night, promising friendship, telling her about other children.
Sally opens the ash pit and quickly learns the owners of the whispers don't exactly have friendship in mind. The mischief caused by the troll-like little buggers she unleashes, who have a hankering for the teeth of young children, grows more violent by the day. But of course, no one believes she is suffering from anything other than nightmares and a need for attention.
There is solid, spooky work done here across the board. The real stars are production designer Roger Ford, art director Lucinda Thomson and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, who bring Blackwood Manor to an unsettling, dark, moody life.
The monsters have an intense aversion to light of any kind, so they spend the first half of the movie mostly lurking in the shadows, just out of sight, whispering and scurrying about. They eventually are revealed in full, and while the movie remains creepy, it cannot retain the tension and suspense built to that point.
Though there is nothing wrong with the actors' performances, the characters are thinly drawn and plot is almost nonexistent. Those are not the movie's chief concerns, however.
As a horror movie, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is a refreshing, old-fashioned piece of filmmaking—a nice change of pace as summer nears its end.
Greg's Grade: B
(Rated R for violence and terror. 99 minutes.)