There's a lot to like about Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, particularly because director Troy Nixey isn't afraid to keep you in suspense, wondering just what it is we're dealing with in this movie.
That's the point of any horror film: to crank up the dread for as long as possible before revealing just what it is that the audience is afraid of. Tension is exquisite; so is mystery. The menace you can see is never as frightening as the one you imagine.
Yet, to Nixey's advantage, even when he reveals the tiny monsters at the center of this film, he resists showing us just how malevolent and destructive they can be. So when they finally unleash their full power, it's like watching that footage of the tsunami in Japan: The wave just keeps coming, building in intensity and danger beyond what you thought was possible.
At the center of Dark is Alex (Guy Pearce), a divorced architect who, with his fiancé/partner Kim (Katie Holmes), is in the midst of restoring a fabulous old mansion in Rhode Island. But, as we've seen in a prologue, the house itself has a dark history that seems to be vaguely occultish.
Not that Alex cares. His only concern is completing the renovations so that the house will land on the cover of Architectural Digest -- and then bring him tons of new work. But even as he and Kim are trying to put the finishing touches on the place, he also must contend with his unhappy daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), of whom he has custody for a few weeks.
Sally is a pouty little brat who hates the East Coast winter and is unhappy to be stuck in a giant house with no one to play with. When she discovers a boarded-up door to a hidden basement, she makes that her secret playground -- partly because it's hidden away, partly because she's hearing voices enticing her to play there.
The voices tell her to take the cover off a vent that leads, seemingly, to the bowels of hell. When she does, she unleashes a swarm of vicious little fairy-like creatures who want to lure her back down that vent for their own unholy reasons.
Charmed at first, she ultimately figures out that these pixies - who look like a cross between sewer rats and spider monkeys -- want to do her harm. But she can't catch them -- or convince her father or Kim that she's in danger. Eventually, however, Kim not only begins to believe Sally but finds historical documents explaining the whole supernatural business.
Forewarned may be forearmed -- but not in this case. And that's Nixey's and writer/producer Guillermo del Toro's particular skill here -- that they take a ridiculous notion (rat-monkeys living in the vents) and turn it into an unnerving threat, capable of serious mayhem.
Quibbles? Of course. For starters, Madison is a petulant and unlikable young actress; by film's end, I was hoping the rat-monkeys would eat her alive on camera. Pearce, always a solid actor, is stuck playing a guy who seems implausibly preoccupied. Holmes, however, finds the realism of a woman who fears for her life but still summons the courage of an embattled mother fighting for her child (though Sally is not her daughter).
Based on a 1973 TV movie of the same name, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a horror movie that rarely insults your intelligence. Indeed, it seduces you into thinking you can outsmart the film -- and then zaps you when you least expect it. Now that's fun.
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