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Friday, Jan. 20, 2012

'Don't Be Afraid of the Dark'

If only the grownups could see dead people too

What a bummer. Last week it was Katie Holmes in "Jack and Jill" — this week it's Mrs. Cruise again, in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." The former is a comedy and the latter a remake of a horror film (actually a TV movie) from 1973. But whatever the emotional situation or physical location, Holmes remains herself: a slim little mass of nihilistic joylessness somehow mindful of a ¥100-shop home-decor product.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (Japan title: "Dark Fairy") Rating: (2 out of 5)
★ ★
Suffer the children: A 10-year-old girl (Bailee Madison) encounters ghouls, invisible to her guardians, in the dysfunctional-family horror flick "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" © 2010 Miramax Film Corp. All Rights Reserved.

Director: Troy Nixey
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: English
Opens Jan. 21, 2012
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Arguably, her discount aura could mean that she's tailor-made for B-grade scare movies, but her charms fall short of the kind of charisma needed for a vehicle such as "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark." Almost all the action takes place inside a run-down rural estate, there are only three central characters and the plot relies heavily on dialogue and ambience.

Can Holmes pull it off? Unfortunately not, and the story is carried on the small shoulders of Bailee Madison, who was 10 years old when the film was shot in 2009.

Having said so, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" has its silver lining: Guy Pearce fills out the cast's threesome, and the package itself was written and produced by Guillermo del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth," "Blade II," "Hellboy"). And if you can get past having to wait nearly 30 minutes to see the creepy-crawlies that come slithering out of closets to scare the daylights out of Madison's character, Sally, there are some eye-candy rewards to be reaped from the excellently atmospheric production design.

The story begins with an introduction to Sally, who is packed off to live with her estranged dad, Alex (Pearce), and his new interior-decorator girlfriend, Kim (Holmes). Dad isn't too thrilled with his daughter's arrival. He and Kim are about to restore an old country mansion and he's clearly uncomfortable with the presence of his child, who may ruin an otherwise perfect romantic/business relationship.

Alex is especially anxious and nervy — he's an inch away from bankruptcy and needs this restoration gig to get back on his feet. Consequently he's standoffish with Sally, acting like her existence is a major imposition on his precious world.

Kim has mentally prepared herself to take on some family responsibilities, and tries to win Sally over by sweet-talking her or leaving little gifts around the house for the girl to find.

Sally's not impressed: She resents the whole setup and lets her father know it. At the same time she's freaked by weird sounds and things that go bump in the night. As per most haunted-house stories, she's the only one who can sense the abnormalities and ghostlike creatures, while Alex is mightily annoyed. He's fearful that Sally may blurt out the wrong thing to potential buyers who come to view the place.

At this point, Alex's treatment of Sally is one step short of abuse — in another era, he would have locked the girl in the attic without dinner and pocketed the key with a stern face. Kim comes to Sally's rescue, but there's a certain restraint and a tinge of step-mom reluctance in her manner which doesn't help the story. One of the gaping wounds in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is that you just don't feel like rooting for anybody or wish for their happiness. According to Tolstoy, this is one of the traits of a family relationship gone bad: No one wants to help them out.

Some of the dysfunctional-family moments are interesting. Madison has never played the standard "adorable little girl" and nor does she here. As Sally she exhibits an inherently unlovable streak, which triggers some unexpected emotions in the two adults.

Dysfunction, however, isn't the point. The thingies coming out of the drainpipe is the point, and director Troy Nixey takes his sweet time getting there. Once the film finally gets around to full-frontal depictions of its goblins, you may feel too wearied by their hide-and-seek tactics, played out to Sally's tantrums, to muster a scream or two.

It's too bad, since the creatures bear del Toro's signature in bold: They're visual masterpieces that take Gothic horror aesthetics to new heights. Compared with them, the human trio seem hopelessly mediocre and just plain silly. There they are, taking a shower just as horrific critters are crawling out of the bathtub, or deciding to cook a meal when the sink is full of beasties. Why they don't just up and get a room at a Holiday Inn remains one big question mark.

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