Starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison. Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins. Based on the 1973 teleplay by Nigel McKeand. Directed by Troy Nixey. Rated R.
Sally (Madison) is a troubled girl. With a tendency towards despondency and a fiercely independent streak, she's not very happy about having been sent off to live with her father (Pearce) and his young new girlfriend Kim (Holmes) in the gothic old mansion they're in the process of renovating. Feeling unwanted and disposed of by her mother, Sally rebukes all of Kim's affectionate advances and would rather wander her new home's many mysterious passages alone. But when Sally discovers a hidden basement that was long ago cordoned off from the rest of the house with a wall meant to mask its very existence, she unwittingly unleashes an evil force: a horde of miniature creatures that want nothing more than to kill her and eat her teeth. But Sally isn't aware of their dental intentions just yet, and for some inexplicable reason she is quick to court their whispering advances ("Sally ... come play with us." "We're your friends ... come down to the basement ..."). I guess, even as intelligent as Sally appears to be, she's desperate enough for a playmate that she's up for a good old-fashioned hangout session with whatever's on the other end of the hissed whispers emanating from her floor vents. And with no one willing to believe her once she realizes these little goblins mean her harm, Sally has little to defend herself with but the light these monsters so vehemently abhor.
Written as an adaptation of a 1973 TV movie of the same name that terrified him as a kid, Guillermo del Toro gets the chance to exorcise some of the demons that so haunted his youth with this re-imagining of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. (And no, del Toro did not direct this film, but his fingerprints as a screenwriter and producer are every bit as pervasive here as Spielberg's were on 1982's Poltergeist — a somewhat similar film to this.) And should kids happen to take in this version I imagine they will be equally petrified by it; but for most adults — barring those of you who scare very easily — the experience here is more fun than it is frightening. There are certainly some jumps, some frightening scenes, and the film does keep a keen eye on mood and pacing, but as cool as the creepy critters may look, their incessant whispering is far more goofy than it is scary. And considering how much of the film is taken up by this device it proves detractingly distracting. Had they simply made animal-like noises, some sort of intriguing mewling perhaps, it would have been both easier to understand Sally's interest and it also would have stopped me from giggling as they sighed lines like: "That hurts us; yeah, turn out the light."
Some of the performances are a bit stiff, particularly those of the adults (Pearce and Holmes), and though Madison is a young actress able to tap into some convincingly mature emotions, there's something so polished about her onscreen presence that it removes some of the raw nature of the role. But you're not here for Oscar-caliber acting, are you? You're here to be scared out of your skin; to be made afraid of the dark despite what the contradictory title tells you. And there are indeed enough scares here (the climax is particularly effective) to justify a passing grade, even despite an omnipresent "been here, done this" feeling to the whole affair. — Kirk Vanderbeek