‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ (2011) review: The dark isn’t as scary as it used to be

Remake doesn’t quite live up to original

UPDATED – Managing to create a truly tense atmosphere without ever truly being scary, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” a reimagining of the 1973 TV movie, layers on the chills early on, only to putter out midway through. A so-so horror flick during a summer soaked with so-so movies, “Dark” breaks a cardinal rule of the horror/thriller/suspense genre: the less you see, the scarier it is.

Set in a breathtaking, if typical, manor, with a koi pond and too-knowledgeable handyman to boot, this remake, directed by Troy Nixey and produced by Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) trails a lonely child, Sally (an intriguing Bailee Madison), her seemingly less-than-interested father (a bored Guy Pearce, “Memento”) and his younger girlfriend (a haggard Katie Holmes, “Batman Begins”). Father and girlfriend are working to restore the home of Blackwood (a Victorian author specializing in ancient fantasies), unaware of the dangers hiding in the darkness. Only young Sally can see and hear the tiny, fanged creatures who incessantly whisper behind the walls. Why they call for her is obvious from the film’s grotesque opening.

But here lies one of the film’s major faults: What makes those miniature demons so disturbing is that we can’t clearly see them at first. They skirt around the edges of darkness, flashing by faster than we can focus on them. Are they just beyond our vision, or are they the creation of a over-imaginative, sad little girl? But all too soon we see them for what they are, and all the suspense, all the horror that comes with not knowing what’s around the corner, vanishes faster than the creatures themselves. (It’s hard to be terrified of a creature you can boot across the room with ease.)

Even still, del Toro’s touches — emanating from the story of a terrified child in a terrifying house — are everywhere. (Fans will appreciate the Machen drop.) And terror, not gore, is emphasized at every opportunity.

The CGI, heavily focused on the skitish creatures themselves, isn’t stellar, but there’s plenty worse out there. (“Green Lantern,” anyone?) The house, though, was just as perfect a setting as you could get, and when you throw some thunderstorms into the mix, you couldn’t ask for more.

And though it’s still somewhat of a mystery, the casting helps the project. Holmes, with some seriously deep bags under her eyes, is believeable as the badgered girlfriend; Pearce, with a stoic look on his face the entire time, smartly captures the feel of a distant father. And Madison, a bit too friendly at first with the nightmare spawn, is convincingly terrified once their teeth come out.

A not-unpleasureable viewing experience, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” will leave you shying away from garden gnomes, but in the end, you’ll probably have no reason to fear the dark itself.

Three creepy stars out of five.

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Bailee Madison is shown in a scene from "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." (Photo credit: AP photo by Miramax Film Corp.)

Bailee Madison is shown in a scene from “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” (Photo credit: AP photo by Miramax Film Corp.)

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