Happy to see his daughter at the airport, Alex (Guy Pearce) tries to make up for the many months it’s been with a joke. But when he pretends to forget how old she is, Sally (Bailee Madison) won’t play. “Dad,” she says with a nine-year-old’s brimming impatience, “You know how old I am.”
He probably does, but her dad’s intractable, willful, only sometimes pretended ignorance becomes the bane of little Sally’s existence, and indeed, nearly ends it. Certainly, it’s not unusual that a child in a horror movie is at the mercy of silly, distracted, or otherwise difficult adults. But in the case of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, that adult clamps down on his misapprehension like a dog with a bone. He won’t see what’s in front of him, he won’t listen to Sally, and he won’t even try to justify his increasingly ridiculous decisions to his beautiful new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes).
His display of self-confidence, of course, stems from lack of same. Alex is an architect, currently fixing up a decrepit mansion in Rhode Island to impress the editors at Architectural Digest, who have apparently suggested he’ll get cover if his work impresses enough. This sets him on an arbitrary tight schedule, which makes him rather like all those bungling dads in recent “family” movies, well-intentioned fellows who are so driven to make money and define themselves by their careers that they lose track of What’s Really Important. Such errors in judgment usually lead to fart jokes and irritated neighbors. Here they lead to an invasion by miniature monsters.
Alex looks slightly better when compared to his unseen ex, who is even more brutally insensitive than he is: when the poor child calls home to L.A. to report how miserable she is, mom blows her off for a party you can hear in the background. Sally, feeling abandoned and rejected, rejects in turn, complaining to dad and telling Kim she’ll never be her mom. Kim’s not thrilled about any of this, being a decorator with a certain sense of order and style, but for no known reason she’s in love with Alex, and so she does what she can to win over Sally.
Neither Sally nor Kim can know this at first, but their needs will soon be mutual and desperate, as the danger around them escalates. This takes the form of little goblinish creatures, trapped beneath the mansion for decades just waiting for the next idiot human to come along and let them out. A prelude of sorts introduces them as shadowy and quick, pestering a Victorian artist willing to sacrifice himself in order to save his young son, who has been taken by the creatures. They have sharp teeth and an ability to speak English when they want to (when horrifying whispers are helpful: “We’re very hungry!”), but are more often inclined to gasp and pant and growl like the feral beasts they are. They seduce Sally with promises they’ll be her new friends (“They don’t want you, but we do!”), but once they’re loose to skitter about the house, they show a definite affection for knives and razors and scissors, all the better to slash and penetrate their victims.
That’s not to say this remake of a 1973 TV movie is a slasher movie per se, though it’s fond of red-squibby effects. But even if it begins as a haunted house movie, and early scenes effectively set poor Sally against shadowy threats, by the end the haunted are made so preposterously abject by the haunters that that premise has turned more annoying than scary. Facing obvious signs of trouble — uncannily animated stuffed animals, horrific assaults (the far too easily vanquished groundskeeper, played by Jack Thompson), these white middle class humans (cf: Eddie Murphy) remain stubbornly in place. It’s hard to feel sorry or even very concerned for any of them.
That’s not to say Sally’s victimization lacks context or meaning. As a resourceful little girl in a world ordained by distracted adults, she’s both classic and current (and recalls, not to this movie’s credit, Ofelia in writer-producer Guillermo del Toro’s superb Pan’s Labyrinth). Visibly distressed and incidentally medicated (Adderall), she’s hard-pressed to get her parents to believe her, or even to pay much attention to he. When Kim does take her seriously, the two form a bit of a bond, but one rendered ineffectual by Alex’s complete dimness. As his daughter is repeatedly beset by the creatures — incidents that leave her alternately frantic and despondent — he can only focus on getting his submission in at the magazine. It’s never clear how or when he became such a bad dad, but he compares rather badly with the father in the prelude.
It’s the girls who sort out that the monsters are fond of the dark, and that light repels them, and Kim who arms Sally with a multi-flashbulb camera as a rudimentary defense. As she begins to flash away against her blade-wielding assailants, Sally might remind you of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, the scene all cut up into harrowing fragments and lights, all about her panicky determination to get a photo of a monster to prove her case to Alex. That she’s left in such a dire situation has an odd emotional effect, as you’re less worried about her safety and sanity than annoyed at her father.