Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark


Like something Stephen King might have inspired in the mid-1980s, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is a genuinely spooky haunted house flick with a knowing, advantageous sense of humor, at once inducing shivers, chuckles and creepy-crawlies. 

Its pint-sized villains are ghastly subterranean gnomes who out-crazy The Smurfs and whose “come and play with us” incantations are menacingly absurd. It all works to surprisingly strong effect in this long-delayed Guillermo del Toro production, and what’s most appreciated is that the uglies maintain their frightfulness well after they’ve been revealed in all their prickly CG glory, a true rarity in creature horror.

They live beneath a sprawling old gothic mansion (where else?), and are set loose when young Sally (Bailee Madison) moves in with her home-renovating father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his interior-decorating girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Handed off to Dad by her birth mother, Sally is a misunderstood, over-medicated introvert, whose appointed issues make for easy scapegoats once she starts complaining about terroristic vermin. Flatly dismissive of his daughter, Alex is an underwritten deadbeat, as lazily villainized as he is later redeemed. Kim, meanwhile, is a somewhat inaccessible woman-child whose maternal ambitions soon trump her professional ones.

The film ultimately suggests that being a decent parent requires active sacrifice, and the moral is delivered in a manner not unlike director Troy Nixey’s aesthetic: both deliberate and opaque. Nixey shows a knack for toying with light and shadow, and his camera has an unbounded, nook-and-cranny curiosity a la David Fincher’s “Panic Room,” but there’s an overall artlessness that’s disappointing given the filmmaker’s comic book background, and one can’t help but wish del Toro had just directed the movie himself.

But a nimble flow of frequent chills is well-achieved nonetheless, and a pair of scenes involving a bathtub and a bedsheet are particularly tense. It surely helps that the girl we have to follow is 11-year-old Madison, a gripping standout in last year’s “Brothers.” Easily one of the best kid actors in the biz, she’s scary good.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark


Two-and-a-half reels out of four 

Opens Friday in area theaters 

Recommended Rental

In a Better World


Now available 

The 2010 Academy Award-winner for Best Foreign Language Film, Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World” is a broadly preachy, yet compelling, Danish drama about the dangerous circumstances that unite two families and the ways in which humans respond to violence. 

Bier – who, incidentally, directed the original version of “Brothers” — inspires her international actors to give their very best, and she captures her locales with plainspoken beauty. SPR 

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