In the horror throwback Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark – a remake of John Newland’s 1973 made-for-TV classic – Bailee Madison plays Sally a young girl sent to live with her architect father Alex (Guy Pierce) and his live-in girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in the Rhode Island mansion they’re busy renovating. The mansion ominously dubbed Blackwood Manor is an exceedingly spooky place made all the spookier by director Troy Nixey’s exquisite production design. Neglected by her father and resistant to Kim’s bonding overtures Sally is free to wander the estate unsupervised and her curiosity eventually leads her to the basement where she hears strange whispers emanating from beneath the fireplace flue.
The whispers belong to the homonuculi a race of odd little creatures who have resided at Blackwood throughout its long macabre history. Diminutive as they are they have a gift for manipulation beckoning Sally by preying on her feelings of neglect and resentment toward her parents. They are simply hungry and longing to be free they say but their true intentions are far from innocent as Sally soon discovers. But when she tries to warn Alex and Kim of the danger posed by the house’s tiny tenants her fears are dismissed as the ramblings of an overactive imagination.
Nixey does a tremendous job of creating a overarching sense of foreboding and menace in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. The homonuculi at first only glimpsed in shadow are impressive CGI creations menacing trolls with beady eyes and claws – an achievement no doubt attributable in part to the influence of Guillermo del Toro who co-wrote and produced the film. But while the creatures themselves are frightening the film as a whole isn’t. It’s heavy on atmosphere but light on scares and as a result its pace feels sluggish. I applaud Nixey for trying to craft something classical and mannered; I just wish he’d given me a little more to fear.