An eerie estate, ornately decorated stain-glass doors, spooky gothic murals and manuscripts, an overgrown and mysterious garden, a curious little girl and a host of magical fairies with a sweet tooth with children's teeth; dem's the stuff Guillermo del Toro's dreams are made of, and its no surprise to see them all appear in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, his latest effort as co-writer and producer. Yet despite all these Del Toro signatures, it is first time feature director Troy Nixey who should be lauded , both for so effectively coalescing these elements into a slick and scary film, and also for admirably managing to do so with a unique cinematic voice of his own. Though it'll take a sophomore effort to be sure, the film is definitely no Del Toro clone.
A remake of a 1973 teleplay that has since endured as a cult favorite, Nixey doesn't reinvent the wheel with this adaptation, so the film unfurls fairly predictably. A maladjusted family unit moves into a creepy abode whose terrible secrets (in this case: killer tooth fairies!) are uncovered and awakened by the curiosity of a child. The child is terrorized, the adults move from ignorance to skepticism to collective acceptance and terror, and the danger escalates to a breaking point. Even so, the formula remains compelling in Troy's confident hands, not necessarily due to new ideas coming to the table, but simple tried and true horror filmmaking craft. Its a spook-house story and it when it spooks, it spooks pretty damn well.
Purists may be preemptively prejudice to the CG approach applied to the villainous fairies, but apart from the odd exaggerated snarl to the camera, these digital denizens fit quite seamlessly into the film's gorgeous palate of blues, browns and ambers. If a peg should be knocked in this department, it is that Nixey should have taken a cue from Joe Dante's Gremlins and attempted to invest a bit more character into these creatures. There is an attempt to establish a leader fairy, but they all pretty much blur together. That they frequently sound like a choir of Andy Serkis out-takes from LOTR doesn't help differentiate them either, though it is admittedly pretty creepy.
In fact all the characters could have stood to have received some beefier characterization. Young Bailee Madison is terrific in selling both her familial frustrations and the terror of her fantastic circumstance, and I got nothing bad to say about Katie Holmes (though the casting agent might have missed the memo that mentioned that these characters aren't supposed to be related), but neither performance is in the service of anything too memorable character-wise. They're not terrible, just cliche to the genre. Guy Pearce is saddled with the worst of them, and his inherent charisma can't really bring you to find the guy as dickish as the movie want you to find him. (His character does however have an uncanny ability for hilarious near-misses.)
Nonetheless, this film is a perfect gateway film for the young horror fan. A collection of generic, but iconic tropes, confidently executed with a great sense of fun and an even greater sense of fright. Guillermo del Toro mentioned in a video introduction at the its World Premiere in the Fantasia Film Festival that this was a film intended for a younger audience of horror fans, and there is absolutely no question that this film will have that audience shrieking throughout.
Now unfortunately, despite aiming to be a PG-13 entry into the pantheon of horror cinema, the film was actually slapped with an R by the MPAA for "pervasive scariness" but on the other hand that's probably the best review the film could ever ask for. It is a pity that the demographic this film is engineered to scare will have to stay at home, but to be honest Don't Be Afraid of the Dark will probably be best experienced by this demographic on TV, past-bedtime and between trembling fingers.