Blackwood Manor, a gothic mansion in Rhode Island, has lain empty for decades… but that does not mean it's uninhabited.
One hundred years ago, naturalist and artist Emerson Blackwood (Garry McDonald) did the bidding of the evil souls who craved human baby-teeth, bones, and blood, procuring their nourishment. Ridding himself of the basement-dwelling demons using the final exit, Blackwood leaves them alone… and now the monsters are positively ravenous. By the time restoration architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) and his adolescent daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) step through the front door, appetites are beyond whet.
Recently all but abandoned by her mother and finding that her father is only slightly more interested in the trials of childhood, Sally finds imaginary friends who turn out to be not so imaginary after all. While oblivious Alex loses himself in marble, moldings, mirrors and other various flourishes and gilding, his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) tries to befriend Sally but the little girl will have none of it.
At first, the tiny terrors tone themselves down, using only their beckoning voices to lure and entice Sally into the their dark crypt. In a revealing moment, a quite effective one using a cuddly teddy bear, we see them… and there is the vague notion they see us, too. Glimpses of beady eyes, sharp claws, mangy fur and grotesquely twisted limbs are all we get, but it's enough to set the scene for danger.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark wants you to do just that, with its scary old house and its creepy little creatures. Atmospheric to the nth degree, this supernatural thriller is directed by Troy Nixey but carries the look and feel of its producer, Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth). Moments of dread, unease, suspense, trepidation and fear are well played by the small cast and nicely portrayed by the special effects crew. (The CGI is not exactly indiscernible, but it's less egregious than most. As little armies in attack mode and as naughty trolls working in unison, they're most effective… the effect is less-so when only one or two are seen onscreen.)
While the setting and execution is essential, it's the actors and characterizations which make Don't Be a must-see. Madison is a child actor with a slightly unsettling maturity (not unlike Jodelle Ferland from Silent Hill, or Isabelle Fuhman from Orphan), but her assuredness is tempered with a likeability and an innocence. Pearce is almost always unstated and quietly great, and while his style isn't shaken here, he's even more subtle. Holmes' Kim is similarly nuanced with quiet between the screams, but her portrayal is just clichéd enough to be comfy in familiarity with the thankless surrogate-mom role we've all seen a hundred times before in a hundred other horror movies. She's note-perfect as she glides seamlessly from Sally's bane to Sally's confidant and then becomes something else entirely.
The warm cinematography, using sweeping low angles coupled with crane shots juxtaposed over a sinister score rife with wicked whispers is just icing on this eerie old-fashioned cake. As the monsters feed, horror fans should be similarly sated with the jump-scares, payoffs and quite horrifying rated-r death scenes.
= = = Reviewed by Staci Layne Wilson
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is out in theaters on August 26, 2011