Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) is a lonely, withdrawn child who moves in with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in to the 19th-century mansion they are restoring. While exploring the sprawling estate, Sally discovers a hidden basement, undisturbed since the strange disappearance of the mansion’s builder a century ago. When Sally unwittingly lets loose a race of ancient, dark-dwelling creatures who conspire to drag her down in the mysterious house’s bottomless depths, she must convince Alex and Kim that it’s not a fantasy before the evil consumes them all.
The notion that clichés become clichés because they work every time is writ large in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a film that does everything right but nothing new. Fans of the 'haunted house’ genre will be divided as to whether producer Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of John Newland’s 1973 cult favourite is a rare, retro-themed treat or just a mid-range effort.
Debut director Troy Nixey adheres closely to the plotting and design of the original film but switches the lead character focus. In the ’73 version, a milquetoast housewife (played with wide-eyed wonder by Kim Darby) crumbled under the supernatural onslaught within her new home; in 2011 (or, more precisely 2009, when the film shot), helplessness resides in a little girl’s world view so the protoganist becomes a pre-teen.
When Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), she is sullen, withdrawn and altogether despondent with her new home, especially as she has to share it with Dad’s new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Despite warnings by custodian Harris (Jack Thompson) not to explore the vast grounds of the estate, Sally soon discovers a hidden basement, complete with a creepy furnace grate. (It’s inconceivable that Alex, an architectural designer restoring the centuries-old mansion, would not have come across floor plans that revealed the room, but one must cast aside such realities on several occasions to enjoy the film.)
From dark corners, voices begin to whisper Sally’s name and she’s drawn to what may become a mystical, fairytale-like adventure. But the inhabitants of the home, released from their entombment by Sally’s curiosity, are not the friendly kind. Instead, they’re hunchbacked, spindly-legged denizens of the night – the work of local post-house Iloura (with some Weta Digital input), the vivid creatures look like cat-size fleas – and soon their mischievous, murderous methods escalate, their intent soon apparent.
Adopting a child’s point of view may account for Del Toro’s interest in the project: it’s one of several motifs (including the dark origins of fairytales and strong female bonds) that feature in many of his past films, notably The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and the Juan Antonio Bayona-directed The Orphanage (2007). Here Del Toro co-scripts with veteran writer/director Matthew Robbins, who previously explored small, other-worldly but far more benevolent home invaders in *batteries not included (1987). Robbins also seems to have been influenced by mentor Steven Spielberg’s Gremlins, considering some obvious similarities, not least the use of a flashbulb camera to blind the creatures.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark tries hard to convolute several subplots that should have provided some depth to support the creepiness. Holmes and Madison share some nice scenes but the mother/daughter underpinnings are perfunctory. (Both are better served, though, than the underutilised Pearce.) And the bleak history of the mansion is revealed rather unconvincingly (given Kim is an expert on the past owner of the estate) and provides barely enough mysterious back-story.
Where the film triumphs is in its production design, the work of the highly-respected Roger Ford (Babe, 1995; Peter Pan, 2003), who realised exquisitely, a great haunted house setting. Built entirely at Melbourne’s Docklands Studios, it’s on par with creepy classics like Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963) and Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001) and reflects an overall world-class production standard for this locally-shot import.