Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark uses classic ingredients of suspense, peril and some terrific shocks to create an old-school horror movie that’s frightfully fun even with a few plot problems. There are no gallons-of-gore butcherings, no nude scenes and no sexual violence whatsoever. Even the movie’s most disturbing moment, which occurs within the first five minutes and involves dentistry by chisel, cuts away before the moment of impact.
Resentful eight-year-old Sally (Bailee Madison) has been sent by her couldn’t-care-less California mother to live with her architect dad Alex (Guy Pearce). He and his decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are renovating a Rhode Island mansion they hope to sell. What they don’t know is that the manor’s long-ago original owner lost his young son, and later his own life, to nasty, rat-sized humanoid creatures living under the house.
Sensing the creatures calling to her. Sally discovers a glass-paned dome in an overgrown garden. This turns out to be the roof of a hidden underground room that is one of the movie’s many eerily evocative sets. The monsters that Sally calls “the little things” live in a bolted-shut ash pit that blocks a hole leading to what may as well be hell. The creepy creatures can’t tolerate light, they have nasty claws and they are smart enough to set traps. Yikes!
What’s impressive is that the movie in engrossing and interesting enough to work even though it’s easy to see exactly where things are going nearly every step of the way. Sally is deceived by the monsters into setting them free. When she realizes they are evil and alerts the adults, no one believes her. And a certain contractor who seems to know more than he’s telling is sure to run into trouble when he finally tries doing the right thing.
Director Troy Nixon keeps things tastefully moody, darkly shadowed and respectfully straightforward. Nothing is intentionally tongue-in-cheek, and there is no comic relief to spoil the tension. Also, Nixon plays fair with the material instead of resorting to visual cheats. The biggest scream-out-loud moment in the movie, for example, is one that works even though we know exactly what’s coming. Sally sees movement under the covers of her bed. Armed with a flashlight, she begins turning back the sheets. Even though the payoff is completely predictable, you’re still guaranteed to jump.
Guillermo del Toro (writer/director of the brilliant Pan’s Labyrinth) and Matthew Robbins based their screenplay on a 1973 made-for-TV movie written by Nigel McKeand, in which Sally was a married woman and no children were involved. Making her an eight-year-old here may have been a change for the better, giving the adults more reason to attribute Sally’s stories to nothing more than a child’s active imagination.
One frustrating aspect of the script is that the terms of the creatures’ devilish bargain with humans, dating back to Pope Sylvester II in the 10th century, are confusing and inconsistent. In the spookily gothic olden-times opening, a grieving father apologizes for offering the creatures teeth from an adult instead of a child in hopes of getting his captured son returned. Later, the deal involves an exchange of silver coins for teeth, and the creatures need to take “a life for a life.” Maybe the little demons are simply liars and cheats, which certainly wouldn’t be out of character.
It also takes the adults an agonizingly long time to realize the obvious. But all is redeemed with a killer ending that’s exactly outrageousness enough to be equally scary-movie satisfying and bad-dream disturbing.