Donít Be Afraid of the Dark Review
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I love haunted house movies, but Iíve never seen the 1973 made-for-TV film Donít Be Afraid of the Dark. Thatís fine with me, since I was able to enjoy director Troy Nixey and producer Guillermo Del Toroís remake without preconceptions. Horror is one of those genres that rely on the anxiety of not quite being sure whatís coming next, and hereís an excellent example of how to get that elusive tone just right.

The house in question is a Victorian mansion, an opulent maze of rooms and shadows. In the basement, an old man is arguing with whispering voices coming from an old fireplace, begging for the return of his son and offering recently harvested human teeth in exchange. Itís a creepy opening and a grim riff on the notion of the tooth fairy, a favorite of Del Toroís.

A century later, a little girl named Sally (Bailey Madison) arrives at the mansion, which her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), is renovating, along with his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Sallyís resentful about having been sent away from her mother, Alex is so caught up in his work that he barely notices, and Kimís just trying to make it all work. Mostly left to her herself, Sally stumbles upon the now-hidden basement, including the bolted-shut fireplace. Soon enough, sheís hearing whispers calling her to come down and play.

  
 
Feeling lonely and abandoned, Sally unseals the fireplace and inadvertently releases a small army of nasty little half-foot-tall humanoid critters. It doesnít take Sally long to realize that these creatures have malicious intentions and that they really, really donít like light. The little girl is soon faced with two seemingly insurmountable problems common to kids in these movies: fighting off the monsters and convincing the adults that itís all real.

The tension in an effective haunted house movie comes from two main sources: our connection to the imperiled residents and the pervasive creepiness of the threat. If Donít Be Afraid of the Dark falters a bit with the former, it makes up for it with the latter. Itís tough to warm up to Sally at first, while Alex has the thankless role of being That Guy: the one who dismisses everything past the point that any rational being would. While Sallyís vulnerability goes a long way to making her more likable as the movie goes on, itís Katie Holmesís performance as Kim that gives the film some real heart. Her willingness to face the eerie occurrences in the house head-on and her fervent desire to make a real connection with Sally bring the audience into this dysfunctional family.

Of course, the real test for movies like this lies in creating dread, something that Nixey accomplishes quite well. Thereís a reason why you seldom see haunted bungalows or studio apartments in movies. The grand Victorian mansion, with its intricate details and vast empty spaces, provides the perfect hunting ground for these miniature beasties, who scurry about just out of frame in the shadows. These are villains of the almost-there variety, and when you do see them, itís just enough to remind you that, yes, theyíre real, and, yes, they are absolutely something to be afraid of.

When it gets down to it, Donít Be Afraid of the Dark is the kind of horror movie that I prefer: short on gore and restrained with startling shocks, long on atmosphere and generous with building dread. It stumbles just a bit in the final moments, but it manages to gracefully exit with just the right creepy aftermath. If you enjoy the old-school haunted house story as much as I do, itís well worth braving a few hours in a dimly-lit theater to check this one out.

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