It’s been nearly 40 years since the shockingly scary TV movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” terrified a 9-year-old Guillermo del Toro, who would make a career recycling what thrilled him as a kid into classy highbrow horror pics. Pairing a sinister old house with the sort of creatures that haunt one’s dreams, the 1973 telepic inspired del Toro’s first outright remake — a suspenseful yet markedly less insidious update he penned with writing partner Matthew Robbins and handed off to comicbook vet Troy Nixey to direct. Del Toro’s name should entice more than just genre auds to this Miramax orphan, since adopted by FilmDistrict for an Aug. 26 release.
During the decades “Dark” spent festering in his imagination, del Toro had plenty of opportunity to embellish the pic’s meager plot, which centers on a woman named Sally who unseals a heavy grate in the basement fireplace, only to release a bunch of darkness-dwelling creatures. In del Toro’s version, Sally is a 9-year-old girl dragged into a supernatural situation beyond her grasp, not unlike the protagonists of “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth.”
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After an unsettling prologue demonstrates that Blackwood Manor is not at all a safe place to raise children, “Dark” warily observes the arrival of young Sally (Bailee Madison, “Brothers”) to the creepy, run-down estate, where her architect father (an unusually dull Guy Pearce) and his much-younger girlfriend (Katie Holmes) have been doing extensive restoration. More than a century earlier, Emerson Blackwood and his son mysteriously disappeared inside the house, and though they’ve left the premises blessedly ghost-free, the monsters that snatched them are still lurking in the darkest recesses of the basement furnace.
From the beginning, the screenplay gives audiences an advantage over the characters, who are all oblivious to Blackwood’s dark history — all except the groundskeeper, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), who has made some sort of secret pact with the creatures (one of several direct nods to the original that makes no sense in the story’s newly expanded context). Ominous cutaways reveal that Sally’s arrival has awakened the monsters in the basement, who won’t be satisfied until they’ve feasted on children’s teeth.
Working closely with del Toro, Nixey instinctively understands the tension will be greatest if he withholds the creatures at first, relying instead on the shadowy figures’ teasing whispers to establish their menacing intentions. Once it comes time to reveal the ugly buggers, Nixey prolongs the suspense by doing so in pieces, showing glistening eyes behind the basement grate, crab-like claws as they scuttle through the air ducts and, finally, the nightmarish alien faces dreamt up by horror-surrealist Chet Zar.
So why aren’t they frightening? Whereas the telepic wheedled its way into one’s subconscious by suggesting that malicious homunculi might be conspiring to kill people after the lights go out, del Toro’s creatures are complicated by a more robust mythology. Still, the guidelines are far from clear: If the rule is “one life must be taken,” then why don’t they take a life already, rather than wasting time harassing everybody? And what effect does light have on these photosensitive monsters exactly?
In perhaps the most curious divergence from the ruthlessly efficient, subplot-free original, del Toro and Robbins’ script tries to tie these urchins to the tooth-fairy tradition, which just feels silly. Far more effective is the addition of the uneasy dynamic between young Sally and her stepmother-to-be, with these two rivals becoming allies when confronted with the supernatural (strangely, Madison looks more genetically similar to Holmes than Pearce). The part of Sally calls for an exceptional young actress, and Madison — Drew Barrymore-cute, but nobody’s angel — not only aces the role’s emotional demands but also brings an unexpectedly dark undertone to the character.
No less important is the Australian house that serves as Blackwood Manor, carefully appointed to evoke the Victorian settings seen in classic horror movies while still supplying a wholly original location. Thanks primarily to a predictably sharp combination of lensing, editing and suspense music, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” succeeds in stinging the audience with a few shock scares, including a terrifying sequence in which one of the creatures manages to creep under Sally’s bedcovers. Still, rather than trying to frighten adults, this entire R-rated exercise feels engineered to emotionally scar any younger auds who should happen to see it — much as the original did del Toro back in the day.