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In recent years, Mexican writer/director Guillermo del Toro has kind of cornered the market on what might be called "Dark Magical" cinema. A lot of the projects he's associated with — including his two "Hellboy" films, "Pan's Labyrinth" and his low-budget vampire feature "Cronos" (it was on Netflix Instant last time we checked) — seem be about the Twilight Zonish idea that just below the surface of our rational and orderly world, there are mystic caverns full of monsters, fairies and demons, just waiting for all of us to take a wrong turn on the way to the bathroom and stumble into them.
So it is as well in the latest movie with Del Toro's fingerprints on it: "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," which he co-wrote. A remake of a 1973 television movie of the same name, seen by almost nobody outside of cult-film-buff circles, the new "Don't Be Afraid" benefits heavily from excellent set design, pretty good acting on the part of the cast, and the all-important CGI it took to bring its monsters to life. It's an old-timey kind of scary, mostly getting its juice from a generalized sense of dread. That said, the central premise is fun, but almost too corny to invest much time in.
In the film, Guy Pearce plays Alex, an architect in the process of restoring a rambling Victorian mansion designed by a historically-significant designer, with hopes of making a splash in "Architectural Digest" and eventually selling the joint at a profit. When the house is finally cleaned up enough to live in, Alex moves in with his fiance Kim (Katie Holmes) and his 8-year-old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison). Sally has recently been dumped on Alex and Kim by Alex's semi-flaky ex-wife, and doesn't like the idea of living in the old house.
While playing in the garden, the girl comes across a basement window where there shouldn't be one, leading to the discovery of a walled off room containing what looks suspiciously like a pagan altar. Hearing whispered voices from a bolted-down furnace grate, Sally gets curious, unbolts the metal straps holding the grate, and unwittingly releases a swarm of tiny, evil creatures that have been trapped there since they (literally) ate the last owner of the house and his young son. From there, you can probably guess how it goes: a series of dangerous mishaps and destructions that get blamed on Sally, which she denies, until a final showdown where the truth is finally, horribly revealed.
A few years back, I heard another critic say of "The Amityville Horror" that it's really a film about financial terror: A couple moves into a house, sinks their life savings into it, then finds out that it's got something wrong with it that's a lot more sinister than a cranky hot water heater and some termite damage in the attic. A lot of "haunted house" movies are like that ("Poltergeist" comes to mind), playing on the generalized fear that — as homeowners worried about our credit score — we're going to be faced with the choice of filing for bankruptcy or living in fear while the kids are being sucked into the TV set.
"Don't Be Afraid" is squarely in that category, with Alex even saying as much at least once: that he can't entertain his daughter's insistence that there might be little monsters in the walls because he's sunk a million bucks into restoring the joint. Will it ruin it for you if I tell you that one of the last scenes in the movie is of a "For Sale" sign in front of the house? I'd bet Alex didn't write "tiny, ancient, evil monsters living in the basement" anywhere on the disclosure forms for that sale.
While Pearce, Holmes and Madison do some solid work here, in the end "Don't Be Afraid" feels a lot like an overly-gory kid's movie, or an astronomically big-budget TV movie — which isn't surprising, given that's where it came from in the first place. While the CGI trolls are well done and surprisingly creepy to look at, seeing them skittering around stabbing people in the shin with screwdrivers really becomes more laughable than anything else after awhile. In short: "Don't Be Afraid" is worth a look for fans of the horror genre, but our advice is to wait for it on Netflix.