The new version of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is entirely too literal, but it manages to be a hair-raising piece of modern-style old-school Gothic horror.
The involvement of writer-producer Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) meant that no effort was going to be spared to "show" us everything — every little beastie that whispers entreaties and threats, every little gnome that goes bump in the night. But this remake of the 1973 TV movie of the same name manages the basics quite well.
Because there's nothing scarier than a big, old, dark and spooky house, where a little girl has only a flashlight to protect her.
The girl is Sally, played by the normally bubbly and apple-cheeked Bailee Madison (Just Go With It). Sally is a California tween sent to live with her dad (Guy Pearce), who restores houses. And Dad's new girlfriend, interior decorator Kim (Katie Holmes), is there to try to make the transition smooth. Which it isn't.
"I feel like the evil stepmother," she complains.
The couple are fixing up a 19th-century Rhode Island mansion with the help of an old man (Jack Thompson) who knows its history but isn't sharing. Sally has been sent to Dad because she's depressed, on medication and in and out of therapy. She hates Dad's new lady friend. And the creatures who inhabit the house pick up on that.
"We want to be friends," they hiss. "They don't want you, but we do."
Sally isn't the only one who hears them. We do, too. So there's never any doubt that this curious kid still has her sanity, even though she's poking around in the dark corners of the estate, discovering where evil lies.
If you've ever seen a horror movie, you know where this is going. There's Dad saying, "Kim, have you seen my razor?" Things begin to go wrong, and the adults don't believe the fraidy-cat kid who is telling them these tales. Eventually, somebody has to take her seriously, right?
The first misstep here is the film's prologue, which gives us the bloody 19th-century back story of the haunted house. The second is letting us see the creatures tormenting Sally. The terror we don't see is always scarier than critters who look like digital pixies from the Harry Potter movies.
But those blunders aside, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark works up a fine head of steam as the "accidents" mount and the almost-helpless Sally tries to figure out a survival strategy. The finale is perfectly chilling, although the filmmakers (Troy Nixey is the director, but you can see Del Toro's hand in it) duplicate their prologue mistake by tacking on an epilogue that we don't need.
We don't need to be told to be afraid of the dark. They should have trusted our instincts. After all, the scariest thing about "the dark" is what might be there, not what we see.