Don’t Be Afraid of Dark ✮✮✮

Night Games

by Glenn Lovell

The old Emerson Blackwood place is a classic fixer-upper. But buyer beware: The gloomy estate is parked over the netherworld, which periodically spits up spindly gnomes who like to snack on the pearly white teeth of children.

Madison: Under cover cop

Once upon a time the Hollywood Production Code decreed that filmmakers could not place children in mortal jeopardy.

Were that rule still in effect, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” wouldn’t have gotten beyond the drawing board. In the tradition of every other Grimm fairy tale, Sally (Bailee Madison), the film’s 8-year-old heroine, is taunted and chased by gremlins. And if this isn’t enough, debuting director Tony Nixey places the girl in the bathtub equivalent of Janet Leigh’s shower scene.

But don’t fret. Sally is one tenacious kid. Indeed, her healthy curiosity ‒ and lack of playmates ‒ causes her to seek out the demons, who scamper under her bed, whispering, “Sally, turn out the light. We want to be friends.”

If this stylish new horror entry sometimes reminds you of Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” both about abandoned children whose fantasies run to the dark side, there’s good reason. Del Toro, who somewhat resembles a gnome,  produced and co-wrote “Don’t Be Afraid …” And, unlike the folks behind both “The Exorcist” and this summer’s  “Insidious,” he doesn’t see children as born victims or afterthoughts. In his hands, they’re resourceful and intuitive and, unlike grown-ups who have been taught to fear what they don’t understand, they have a psychic connection to the spirit world.

It’s not surprising that Sally should seek out whatever’s hiding behind the basement furnace grate. She’s been abandoned by her L.A. mother and sent to stay with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), who’s preoccupied with his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), and restoring Fallen Mill, formerly owned by a wild-life painter who went bonkers after the disappearance of his son.

The clueless Alex refers to his daughter as “kiddo” and has all the parenting skills of Rumpelstiltskin. He, of course, will become an unwitting accomplice to whatever wants to get at his daughter. Kim is more empathetic and eventually comes to believe Sally’s stories … not, however, before a shrink arrives on the scene.

But you’re not interested in Freudian analysis. You don’t care about contrivances (why does the family use an old Polaroid camera?) or lapses in logic (is this house scream-proof?), or tin-ear adult conversation. All you want to know: Is it scary? Answer: Yes, especially when Sally ducks under the sheets and comes nose-to-nose with the gnome leader. Think “Sixth Sense.” It’s that unnerving. Nixey and del Toro wisely keep their creatures under wraps for about half the film, introducing them by degrees. First blurred figures, a boney digit, eyes glowing under the bed. And then, in a wonderful library encounter, they seems to be everywhere. Someone, call the Ghostbusters or, better yet, Terminix!

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” loosely based on a 1973 TV movie and co-scripted by del Toro and New Hollywood vet Matthew Robbins (“Sugarland Express”), is supposed to be set in Rhode Island, which explains the baroque H.P. Lovecraft vibe. The film, in fact, was shot in Australia. Which explains the heavy concentration of Aussie talent behind and in front of the camera. Besides Pearce, veteran character actor Jack Thompson puts in an appearance as the crusty caretaker who, per the Gothic formula, knows more than he’s telling.

Never mind. Sally, like all del Toro heroes, has things well in hand. She and the skittering CG creatures make this the most memorable exploitation film of the year thus far.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK ✮✮✮ With Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson. Directed by Tom Nixey; scripted by Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins. 99 mins. R (for shock moments and stabbing violence)

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