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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Because it’s not that scary

Katie Holmes is a little scared in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

When a small, somber girl arrives at a creepy Rhode Island house, all hell breaks loose. Well, annoying basement monsters break loose, but you get the idea.
    The film follows young Sally (Baliee Madison: Just Go with It), who is sent by her mother to live with her father (Guy Pearce: The King’s Speech) and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes: The Romantics). Dad and Kim don’t have much time to soothe little Sally, for they’re busy redoing the sinister Blackwood Mansion in hopes of winning an Architectural Digest cover.
    All alone, Sally hears little voices trapped behind a grate in the basement. In a fit of curiosity, or perhaps stupidity, she decides to free these creepy-voiced creatures and make a crew of new friends.
    Too bad for Sally they aren’t interested in friendship; their interest is feeding on the teeth of children. Now, she must convince Kim and Dad that the strange events ruining their chances at a magazine cover are the fault of tiny fairy-gnomes bent on feeding.
    Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a lesson in ruining good atmosphere with silly special effects. This gothic film could have been a wonderful haunted-house movie, relying on creepy sets and unseen threats. But in this age of CGI madness, audiences have to see what goes bump in the night. Unfortunately for this film, the big baddies are ridiculous looking itty-bitty gnome-fairy hybrids.
    It’s not that small things can’t be scary. Gremlins were intimidating. Chucky the doll made me think twice when I entered a toy store. But these critters look like be-toothed dryer lint or squirrels after an unfortunate run-in with a blowtorch.
    Also, they are all talk, well, all screech. At least three times in the film’s duration, they manage to corner Sally. Each time, they shrill and swipe at her. Geez, she’s only 10, swarm her and you’ll take her out! I found myself thinking. I’m pretty sure that’s not what first-time director Troy Nixey was going for.
    That’s not to say that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t have some tense scenes. It’s just that none of them involves the silly creatures. The house itself is a more effective villain. Straight from the mind of producer Guillermo del Torro (Pan’s Labyrinth), the house and surrounding garden contain enough dark corners, twisting tendrils and looming objects to haunt three or four movies.
    The opening sequence is a brilliant piece of gothic horror involving a terrified maid, a crazed father and a chisel. After such a taut opening, it’s disappointing to watch the critters skitter across the floor toward a screaming child for the next hour.
    Still, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t a total loss. The film features a strong performance from Holmes, who is the only adult willing to give young Sally the time of day. It’s little wonder, however, that no one wants to hang out with Sally. She’s as sullen as a teen and as shrill as a child, a combination that makes you root for the critters more often than not.
    Nixey isn’t del Torro, but he shows promise as a visual storyteller. Rid Blackwood of its silly critter infestation, and he’ll have a terrifying haunted mansion.

Fair Horror • R • 99 mins.