A polish on a fondly remembered 1973 TV movie, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark has been promoted as “Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark,” which by the evidence here is both unmistakable and deceptive. Del Toro co-wrote the script (with Matthew Robbins) and served as a producer, and there are distinct echoes of past work like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone in its child’s-eye-view of a scary, fantastical universe. Yet strong direction tends to be the make-or-break element of haunted-house movies like this one. Really, it’s the atmosphere that changes; the stories are more or less the same. Here those duties fall to Troy Nixey, a comics illustrator making his feature debut. And though Nixey carries it across with some style, some intensity, and some graphic imagination, the whole isn’t quite the sum of its somes.
After a nasty little prologue promises a more sinister take on the genre, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark settles into a relatively straightforward haunted-house scenario, with flashes of Spielbergian whimsy. Bailee Madison plays the child in peril, a 9-year-old daughter of divorce who’s sent to live with her father Guy Pearce and his new girlfriend Katie Holmes. Pearce and Holmes have invested their savings and lives in restoring a creepy old manor to its former glory, but an ancient evil threatens to keep it off the pages of Architectural Digest. After discovering a walled-up basement, Madison begins hearing voices beckoning her from the furnace, but the cute little monsters behind the grate turn out to be less friendly once they’re unleashed.
The beasties in Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark have the horror-comic malleability of the creatures in Gremlins: Adorable and funny on one beat, nasty the next. (They’re as temperamental as a mogwai, too, with an extreme sensitivity to light and a specific appetite for human teeth.) Nixey pulls off one terrifically frightening sequence, when Madison hides under a bed sheet that keeps peeling back into darkness, but he mostly leads the film through the expected paces. Absent any qualities beyond the surface, like the history and politics that trouble Del Toro’s best films, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is little better than a half-decent scare machine.