‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ triggers unintentional laughs as well as scares

Things that scare us silly when we’re kids often strike us as silly when we’re old enough to know better.

Too bad Guillermo del Toro didn’t think of that while co-writing "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark."

Director del Toro has created some genuinely unsettling movies — notably his Oscar-winning "Pan’s Labyrinth."

But whatever scared the bejabbers out of him when he watched the TV movie "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark" at age 9 definitely hasn’t survived the transition to the big screen.

At least not with comics artist Troy Nixey , making his directorial debut, calling the shots.

More’s the pity, because "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark" shares a key thematic link with such del Toro triumphs as "Pan’s Labyrinth" and "The Devil’s Backbone."

All focus on embattled children stranded in eerie — and potentially deadly — situations.

In the original TV movie version of "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark," the neurotic protagonist Sally (played by Kim Darby), a young wife in a creaky old house, unwittingly unleashes a swarm of basement beasties when she unseals a heavy fireplace grate.

The basement, the beasties — and the fireplace grate — all return in this big-screen version.

But Sally has metamorphosed into a 9-year-old girl (played by "Brothers’ " Bailee Madison), whose divorced mother has dispatched her from California to New England, where her ambitious architect father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his interior designer girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are remodeling Blackwood Manor, a noted Victorian artist’s crumbling Gothic-style estate.

Alex hopes the renovation will make the cover of Architectural Digest, thereby reviving his flagging career. Kim hopes the renovation will cement her personal, as well as professional, partnership with Alex.

And little Sally hopes someone, anyone, will pay attention to her.

Even if it’s only the diminutive demons in the basement, who — as those of us in the audience know, thanks to the movie’s nightmarish prologue — love children. Or, more precisely, children’s teeth, which seem to be a vital component of their continuing existence.

Blackwood Manor’s old-time caretaker Mr. Harris (a grizzled Jack Thompson) knows, and understands, what Sally’s up against. He’s heard the stories and he knows what the creepy creatures crave.

If only Sally’s father weren’t so preoccupied with his own concerns — and so convinced that Sally’s wild tales of monsters under the bed are all in her head.

And if only "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark" remembered that what we don’t see is always far scarier than what we do.

At first, the script (credited to del Toro and Matthew Robbins, working from Nigel McKeand’s teleplay) follows that time-honored principle, setting up the conflicts as Sally — acting as the audience’s eyes and ears — explores the ominous confines of Blackwood Manor.

As she does, Nixey’s slowly roving camera plays peekaboo with the evil creatures, triggering intermittent shivers.

That is, until the nasty gnomes show their beady eyes and bare their fangs, triggering at least as many unintentional laughs as genuine scares. As "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark" turns into yet another computer-effects workout, the movie’s potential menace disappears, buried beneath obvious been-there-screamed-that situations and obligatory horror gore.

It doesn’t help that the movie’s characters are so annoying.

Not even Sally elicits much sympathy as she enthusiastically plunges into close encounters with the killer imps; it’s almost as if Bailee Madison knows those of us in the audience need something, anything, to distract them. (Sorry, sweetie, but you’re not it — and neither are your little playmates.)

It’s also disheartening to see the lack of connection between the usually reliable Pearce (a good actor, but not good enough to overcome this movie’s misguided script) and the doggedly earnest Holmes. The movie may insist they’re a couple, but seeing’s believing — and they’re not believable in the least.

Indeed, the most convincing character in "Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark" turns out to be Blackwood Manor itself.

Thanks to production designer Roger Ford’s vivid imagination, Blackwood Manor boasts an eye-popping array of intriguingly macabre details, providing a worthy setting for creaks and shrieks and other spooky-old-house essentials.

It’s an alluring package, all right — but, as it turns out, it’s an essentially empty one.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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