Does Tom Cruise get script-doctoring rights even on Katie Holmes’s films? That would explain why Troy Nixey’s inane Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, co-written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, at times suggests an anti-Rx PSA. Shipped by her mother to her father’s creaking Victorian fixer-upper in Rhode Island, young Sally (Bailee Madison) can’t get her father, Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce), and his interior-designer girlfriend, Kim (Holmes), to believe her when she says small, demon-like creatures are scurrying about. She’s on Adderall after all, and as such her credibility—like Brooke Shields’s film career, according to Cruise—is in the crapper.
Suggesting a choir of second-rate Gollum impersonators, the beady-eyed, sharp-toothed homunculi who live inside Blackwood Manor’s basement ash pit have an appetite for babes, specifically their teeth and bones, but they’ll settle for grown-up meat if younglings are hard to come by. These insatiable rat-like critters are freakishly rendered, and they put on a perverse scarefest—at one point, they seem to half-convince the impressionable Sally that her teddy bear, an unwanted gift from Kim, can move of its own volition—that is as creative as their kitschily synchronized rasping (think Michael Jackson impersonating The Shining twins). Pity that the mythology of their existence is also as arbitrary as the story’s lazy, asinine plotting.
So banal in its conventionally arty moodiness, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of an uneven, sometimes corny, but interesting 1973 TV movie of the same name. The original stars Kim Darby, the original Mattie Ross, as a suburban housewife terrorized by the homunculi squatting in her basement, and her crisis may be seen as symbolic of the women’s lib movement’s struggle toward legitimacy. The remake begins in a needlessly CGIed past in which Blackwood Manor’s terrible secret is first revealed before quickly hopscotching to our enlightened present, where the only reason for Pearce’s Daddy Warbucks not to listen to his daughter—then Kim, once she comes around to believing Sally—is that he lets prescription drugs do his parenting for him.
Not an uninteresting idea except that it’s one made with an almost frightening lack of conviction. Pearce, still in Mildred Pierce playboy mode, isn’t allowed to play Alex’s awakening to his daughter’s cause (like Sally’s mother, his enlightenment cowardly resides in the film’s off-screen space), only the character’s cartoonish unavailability. Holmes fares better: She gets an interesting scene where Kim justifies her selfish refusal to deal with Sally’s sour attitude because she outgrew that behavior herself, so her coming around to Sally’s cause is more than just her trying to ingratiate herself in the life of her boyfriend’s daughter, but a show of feminine solidarity. But not unlike Alex, Kim’s actions repeatedly strain for credibility. Why go to the trouble of giving Sally a Polaroid camera so she can record evidence of the creepy crawlies that terrorize her if you’re not going to actually look at the photos she takes?
Though the film bothers to compare Sally to the koi swimming in her father’s garden pond, the girl’s perseverance never thoughtfully or poignantly fulfills the metaphor—at which point you’re embarrassed that the director of the allegorically lush Pan’s Labyrinth would allow his name to be so misleadingly associated with material so half-assed. The film consistently and stupidly writes itself out of a premature ending, and in a manner that would be bearable, amusing even, if it behaved as a winking tribute to superior haunted-house films of yore like The Changeling: An attack by the homunculi in the manor’s study ends with one critter getting its arm cut off, but one gathers the evidence went missing given that the characters are still in the house come morning, and rather than tell Kim that Sally isn’t nutzoid, the hospital-ridden handyman that becomes the homunculi’s first present-day victim instead sends Kim to the town library to do research. Here’s a more sensible diversionary tactic: Skip Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and stay at home—read a book instead, or take an Aderrall. Your imagination will thank you.