By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
That creaking sound during Don't Be Afraid of the Dark isn't a door opening ghostly; it's the groaning cliche of a haunted house and stupid people who don't know when to leave.
Based on a 1973 made-for-TV movie, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark holds a death grip on horror conventions from that tamer era and restrictions from the network television format. There is no reason this remake is rated R except to get the gorehounds' hopes up. After a fairly graphic prologue involving sinister dental practices, director Troy Nixey mostly keeps the blood tap turned off.
Nixey sustains a creepy feel throughout, aided by insinuating camera angles and a peek-and-boo musical score. But the movie seems dated compared with Insidious earlier this year, which blended old-school shocks and modern scares in presenting a similar theme of a child pursued by demons. You either buy into the pedestrian dread or you don't. I didn't.
Co-writer Guillermo del Toro added the kid endangerment angle. In the original the target was a housewife played by Kim Darby (who is enjoying a remake comeback of sorts recently with this and True Grit). Placing curious children in danger is del Toro's signature move after his magnificent Pan's Labyrinth, the same way black suits and skinny ties signal a Quentin Tarantino flick.
Naturally the child has parental issues driving her toward the unknown. Sally (Bailee Madison) has been sent to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), in a Rhode Island mansion they're redecorating to flip. Sally discovers a basement that's familiar to viewers from the prologue, containing a furnace with weird whispers coming out of it.
Don't be afraid of the dark. Don't go in the basement. Don't you wish there had been a '70s movie titled Don't Listen to the Furnace to complete the list of don'ts?
Of course Sally does all three, unleashing an infestation of tiny gremlins shrieking through pointy teeth, swarming like Willard's rats. Nobody believes Sally, who is already on meds for behavioral issues. Alex and Kim believe she's acting out by vandalizing the house and shredding personal belongings. It will be too late for someone before they learn better.
Curled up at home with the lights off and DVD player running, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark might be passable fun. Spread over a movie screen, the film's modest ambition gets dwarfed by expectations, especially after paying for a ticket. A couple of jump scares and a session of cringe dentistry aren't worth the price.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.