Silver Screen: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark **
Horror rarely works well on TV, for a variety of reasons. There's the obvious problem of TV's standards and practices department, which insists on minimizing the blood and gore on network and, until recently, even basic cable. But that's actually a minor impediment compared to two other factors. Scary movies work best when they can overwhelm viewers on a full-size movie screen, and the inevitable commercial breaks further diffuse the mounting tension. TV provides too many opportunities for viewers to escape the suspense.
And yet, every now and then a TV horror movie makes an indelible impression: Steven Spielberg’s Duel, Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot, the miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's It, the first half hour of When a Stranger Calls, the grim prognostications of the nuclear-holocaust thriller The Day After. These movies have inspired many a sleepless night, in part because they're all quite good to varying degrees, but they contain a definite gloss of nostalgia. The real power many of these movies possessed is, paradoxically, that they were on TV. Diligent parents might not let their young children go see an R-rated outing of Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, but sometimes the kids get a pass when it comes to primetime network broadcasts. And so when one of these rare, effective TV horror movies sneaks under the radar, is piped directly into the safety of your home, it resonates.
One of those fondly and fearfully remembered TV movies is Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a nifty hybrid of creature feature and haunted-house movie that debuted in 1973. It's as good as any candidate, I suppose, for a remake during the Year of No Original Movies.
The movie's emphasis on spooky atmosphere and the child protagonist perfectly suit Guillermo Del Toro, who produced the film, and whose sensibilities are stamped all over it (despite it being directed by newcomer Troy Nixey). Bailee Madison, who got her start in acting at the grizzled age of six, stars as ten-year-old Sally, a morose little girl who has been having unspecified problems with her self-involved mother. The solution to her childhood woes: Send her to live in a giant, terrifying house away from all human contact other than her distractible dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and young cutie stepmom Kim (Katie Holmes). The couple have purchased the cartoonishly scary old mansion with the intent to fix it up and flip it-- the biggest scream in the movie should come when they learn about the state of the housing market-- all in the hope of making their reputation as a tag-team home refurbishing/decorating team.
Unbeknownst to them, the basement of the old place is home to an ancient clan of miniature proto-human creatures, monstrous little fairy people who live in the darkness and sustain themselves by eating the teeth of children. (This we learn an a staggeringly overwrought prologue.) As soon as Sally moves in, the wicked little things begin whispering to her through the house's ventilation system. Rather than scared by the obviously terrifying whispers coming from the bowels of a clearly haunted house, Sally is first intrigued by the mysterious critters, at least until they get loose and start causing trouble at the house-- and start looking to get those teeth.
Nixey may be the director, but this is a Del Toro movie through and through, much in the same way Poltergeist is ostensibly Tobe Hooper's but clearly a Spielberg flick. It's heavy on atmosphere-- almost too heavy, actually-- not unlike the similarly Del Toro-produced The Orphanage. But aside from the creepy whispers and dark corners of the house, not much about it is scary, certainly not the little creatures, which play like slightly subtler riffs on the eponymous gremlins in Joe Dante's films (speaking of Spielberg...). It's half a movie, at best, and not half of a particularly good one, lacking the allegorical richness of Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth or the crazy escalation of Splice, the last monster movie he produced. It's the kind of movie that would probably freak you out if you caught it on the tube late on a school night when you were seven, but to adult eyes, on a big screen, it's competent but inert.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.