Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: Produced by Del Toro, Starring Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes

Though he is the producer and co-writer, but not the director, “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” bears the unmistakable signature, both thematic and visual, of the brilliant Guillermo del Toro.  I might add the younger del Toro, who made such well executed horror movies as “Cronos” (1992), before he himself got carried away with CGI effects (as evident in his “Hellboy” movies).

World-premiering as closing night of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Fest (in June), the film will be released by the entrepreneurial FilmDistrict on August 26.

The screenplay, by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is based on the 1973 teleplay by Nigel McKeand, which del Toro saw and was haunted by as a young boy.

Old-fashioned but highly effective, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” combines the traditions of the haunted house tales with those about young, curious girls who hear voices and whispers that no one else does.

Like several of del Toro’s movies, such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” (his best work to date), “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” revolves around a young (about 9), lonely girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), who’s forced to stay with her father.

The tale begins at the airport, when the reluctant Sally is greeted by her father-architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).  Together, they drive to the huge, beautiful, mysterious estate that Alex is restoring.

The girl is not particularly interested in staying with her dad, who’s ambitious and career-driven to a fault; all he talks about is getting the cover of Architecture Digest.  Initially, there is not much rapport between Kim and Sally, despite the former’s efforts.  Sally wants to go back home, and periodically she’s allowed to talk with her mother (who’s not seen but her voice is heard).

Left to her own devices, with plenty of time on her hands, Sally begins to explore the interiors and exteriors of the space.  Soon, she begins to hear at night the voices-rasping whispers, calling out to her from the basement.

They promise companionship and understanding, and Sally, vulnerable and bored, gives in to her curiosity, and opens a gateway, unaware of the underworld that exists there, one that’s populated by tiny creatures, beady-eyed, sharp-clawed monsters that move fast and attack even faster.

The manifestations of horror escalate, when Kim’s dresses are found torn in her closet, and naturally, Sally becomes the prime suspect for what is perceived to be an act of vengeance against her adult protectors.

Sally desperately tries to warn the whole house, but, following the conventions of this genre, no one believes her, least of all her father, who’s preoccupied with career.

Hints are planted along the way that Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), the groundskeeper, has privileged knowledge and might have made a pact with the creatures.  The characters remain oblivious to Blackwood’s dark history even after Mr. Harris himself is almost fatally attacked by the creatures.

Gradually, we get to know the site’s dark, macabre past through Kim’s explorations at the local library and in other ways.  A century ago, Emerson Blackwood and his son mysteriously disappeared in the house, and the monsters that grabbed them are still lurking in the basement furnace.

As written and acted, the two adult figures, Kim and Alex are pale and uninteresting; they are characters that serve the plot but lack distinct individualities. While Katie Holmes has a number of significant scenes with Sally, Guy Pearce plays a thankless, one-dimensional, unsympathetic role; he gives the impression of being unstimulated by it.

Though healthy tension prevails from the unsettling prologue all the way to the gory climax (actually, climaxes) and last frame, the main problem is that we the viewers are always ahead of the characters and the story.

Though this film is the feature directing debut of Troy Nixey, he already shows strong instincts for fluid storytelling, dynamic camera movements, and elegant framing (no doubt benefiting from del Toro’s sponsorship).   A comics artist, Nixey is the creator of the critically acclaimed Trout and a former illustrator for Neil Gaiman and Mike Mignola.   However, Nixey is not particularly good with his actors, and, as noted, the otherwise versatile and reliable Guy Pearce gives one of his palest performance here.

Even so, I highy recommend that you see this movie.  The telepicture was a scary B-level feature, but in the hands of del Toro and his superlative crew, the text becomes a supremely mounted, technically polished A-level movie, which offers many visual pleasures.

Spoiler Alert

Over a century ago, the only son of the renowned naturalist and artist Emerson Blackwood disappeared into their black basement ash pit. Blackwood discovered to his horror that his boy had been abducted by an ancient race of creatures that resided in the subterranean depths beneath his home. Shortly after, Emerson vanished himself, disappearing down a  dark hole from which he would never emerge.

Cast

Kim Raphael – Katie Holmes
Alex Hurst – Guy Pearce
Sally Hurst – Bailee Madison
Harris – Jack Thompson

 Credits

A FilmDistrict release of a Miramax Films and Guillermo del Toro presentation in association with FilmDistrict of a Necropia/Gran Via production. Produced by del Toro, Mark Johnson.

Executive producers, Stephen Jones, William Horberg, Tom Williams.

Directed by Troy Nixey.

Screenplay, Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, based on the teleplay by Nigel McKeand.