It’s rare that a remake should be timely, but “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has the unusual distinction of mixing some old-fashioned spine-tingling scares in with a decidedly new spine to be tingled.
This might not seem like such an odd fate, given the chronologically-disorienting world of director Troy Nixey’s debut where Polaroid cameras of yesteryear are in equal vogue to koi ponds on the palatial estate where a young girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) insists to her father Alex (Guy Pearce) there are nefarious creatures living alongside them besides her father’s new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).
However, what makes the film’s relevance surprising is that this version has been produced over 15 years after Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins sat down to write it and more than 35 years since it was originally produced from Nigel McKeand’s teleplay. During that time, we've been through the woman-in-paranormal-peril era of “The Others” and “The Ring,” which “Dark” dabbles in to some degree, and Del Toro even stripmined the film’s ostensible villain, the diminutive tooth-feasting foot soldiers, for one of his own films in "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."
Those little bastards are back, albeit in slightly different form here to fulfill a curse brought about from the house’s owner centuries earlier. But true to Del Toro’s romantic notion of humans living on the borrowed land of monsters, it’s actually the current tenants responsible for their woes as Alex turns a deaf ear to his daughter’s concerns in the hope that the gothic manor will land the cover of Architectural Digest.
In an era of financial recession when the grip on property and prestige may be firmer than the hold on loved ones, it’s a premise that yields multiple dividends on a practical level, explaining away why this fractured family lets itself slide deeper into isolation and danger in rural Rhode Island without an escape plan and allows for Nixey to luxuriate in the visuals of an immaculate mansion so clearly deigned for disaster.
Yet even with finances never discussed in the bedtime patter between Alex and Kim that so bothers the distraught Sally down the hall, it’s the modernity of the family’s problems – the time split between divorced parents that brings Sally to a new home in the first place and the couple’s intertwining personal and professional lives – that makes the infestation of these bone-biting creatures so foreign and frightening. The jump scares are tad more jittery and the skittish violins sound slightly more screechy.
Whether it’s simply a case of missing Spanish bravado or constraints of the script, the Canadian Nixey doesn’t push the envelope here as Del Toro disciples J.A. Bayona (“The Orphanage”) or Guillem Morales (“Julia’s Eyes”) have in the past, settling for a more routine approach to the film’s chills. Still, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is nonetheless effective in being contrary to its title and a refreshingly elegant entry into the horror genre as Nixey and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton demonstrate an even more painterly eye than Pearce’s put upon architect.
Sadly, Pearce has problems beyond blueprints as Alex, a distant father who isn’t developed much besides serving as a wall of disbelief for Sally to contend with, though Madison is poised enough to carry the film and her tenuous relationship to her potential stepmother Kim is well-played. It was mildly odd that Holmes and Madison, who both share the same eyes, hair color and dark rings under their eyes in the film, weren’t positioned as relatives already, but by film’s end, they’re related by fear. Just like everyone else.