The "old dark house" horror film seems to be something of a lost art form, though it still seems that every few years a filmmaker takes us on a walk across those creaky old floorboards and permits us a terrifying glimpse into the shadows cast across those crumbling old walls. In 2007, producer Guillermo del Toro and director Juan Antonio Bayona did just that with The Orphanage, a tragic, gorgeously shot horror film with the power to rend hearts. Flash forward to 2011, and del Toro has teamed with yet another first-time feature filmmaker to deliver Don't Be Afraid of the Dark -- a remake of a 1973 made-for-television horror movie that kept unsuspecting television viewers comfortably paralyzed with fear on their La-Z-Boys.
Introverted Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) has just moved in with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), when she realizes that their sprawling country manor holds its fair share of secrets. Descending into the depths of the house, Sally discovers a secret lower level that has lain undisturbed since the original builder and his young son vanished without a trace nearly a century ago. When Sally accidentally opens the gateway that has kept the creatures locked up tight, she realizes that in order to prevent them from dragging her family down into the darkness, she must convince her skeptical father that monsters really exist.
Imbued with the seductive gothic atmosphere that's a hallmark of this particular horror subgenre, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark displays a chilling air of ageless malevolence that grows more suffocating and foreboding with each passing scene. In his previous films, del Toro displayed a masterful talent for tapping into childhood fears and bringing them to life with an artistry that's powerful enough to affect even those who are decades removed from that magical period when anything seems possible. There's a point in the life of every child when fear has yet to become tangible -- that elusive, naïve age when we haven't yet learned just how horrible things can truly get for ourselves and our loved ones, and when anomalies such as strange whispering voices calling out our name are still simple points of curiosity, rather than harbingers of pure terror. Together with co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer, Mimic), the acclaimed Spanish filmmaker guides us into the world of a sad little girl whose insatiable curiosity and unstable family life compel her to answer the voices that would make others flee in fear. As viewers, we know that the things beckoning to Sally from the darkened corners of her home have horrible intentions, and as we watch Sally's inquisitiveness plunge her family into peril, del Toro and Robbins methodically coil the tension while offering tantalizing glimpses of the things that skitter just outside our field of vision and our perception of reality.
Director Troy Nixey, meanwhile, displays a remarkable sense of assurance as a first-time feature filmmaker. Not only for the way he works with veteran cinematographer Oliver Stapleton to give Don't Be Afraid of the Dark a richly atmospheric, almost timeless look, but also for his skill in coaxing a genuinely convincing performance from young lead Bailee Madison, who manages the commendable feat of balancing preadolescent cynicism and vulnerability in a way that doesn't come off as completely contrived. Working with a mix of strings and horns that recall the classic horror scores of decades past, composers Marco Beltrami (The Eye, The Hurt Locker) and Buck Sanders (Hellboy, Blade II) find the perfect notes to accentuate the eerie proceedings unfolding onscreen.
In the end, the only thing that keeps Don't Be Afraid of the Dark from soaring to the enchanting heights of del Toro's most affecting films as a director (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth) and producer (The Orphanage) is the distinctive lack of genuine heart in the screenplay. His best movies have succeeded not just in their ability to tap into our most basic and archaic nightmares, but our emotions of love and loss as well. Sometimes all we're looking for in a horror film is a few good scares, though, and if that's what you seek from Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, odds are you'll get your fair share of goose bumps.