John Horn, who writes about film and the film industry for the Los Angeles Times, got to sit down in the dark for a very early screening of Guillermo del Toro’s latest project. Here’s his snap judgment about “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which reaches theaters early next year…
It’s not “The Haunted Mansion.” And yet it really is.
Guillermo del Toro has been hired by Disney to develop a new movie version of the company’s spooky theme-park ride, but that film is years away. In the meantime, del Toro (as a producer and co-writer) and Troy Nixey (as a first-time feature-film director) have just completed another haunted house remake in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” an intensely scary exploration of the diminutive demons the inhabit the dark corners of a Rhode Island estate.
Shot in Australia for Disney’s Miramax label and starring Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes, the film was teased and met with acclaim at July’s Comic-Con International in San Diego. But we’ve seen the finished film (it’s not due out until Jan. 21), and the Hall H footage only hinted at some of the real frights — and some of the especially stylish filmmaking — to come. Pearce and Holmes play Alex and Kim, a couple in the midst of a make-or-break renovation of an estate with a basement best kept locked up. Ten-year-old Bailee Madison is cast as Alex’s unhappy daughter Sally, sent by her divorced mother to get some rest and relaxation with her uptight dad. But she quickly is targeted by the devilish gremlins who skitter through the heating ducts and under the beds, who not only work to turn the grown-ups against her but also stop at nothing — including the local handyman (veteran character actor Jack Thompson) — to get to their young victim.
Just as Del Toro served as a creative mentor to Juan Antonio Bayona with “The Orphanage,” the “Pan’s Labyrinth” visionary has helped to separate Nixey’s debut feature from the horror pack. While there are plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat moments, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is distinguished by its restraint and creative use of sound. We’ve all seen countless fright flicks where creaking floors create suspense, but how many have used whispers — “Come down to the basement and play with us” — to equal effect?
The creatures themselves certainly carry Del Toro’s trademark touches — a little bit furry, a whole lot nasty. Originally designed to be PG-13, the remake of the 1973 television movie will come out as an R. But “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s” scares are as much psychological as they are physical. In other words, 100% Del Toro.
— John Horn
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