'Dark' remake an all-too-familiar creature feature

Updated 8/25/2011 6:12 AM
  • In "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," Sally (Bailee Madison) takes a bath as ancient creatures assault her.

    In "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," Sally (Bailee Madison) takes a bath as ancient creatures assault her.

Weirdly enough, the scariest made-for-TV movies ever created come from the 1970s:

1. "The Night Stalker" (1972), with Darren McGavin as a sartorially challenged reporter on the trail of a serial killer he starts to think could be a vampire. It inspired an uninspired sequel ("The Night Strangler") and a Chicago-based TV series, a precursor of "The X-Files."

2. "Trilogy of Terror" (1975), a failed TV series pilot starring Karen Black as four characters in three short stories from genre genius Richard Matheson. Forget the first two segments. The last one, "Amelia," is the classic in which Black's apartment dweller struggles to survive an attack from a warrior doll.

3. "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," a 1973 thriller that "Pan's Labyrinth" director Guillermo del Toro thought was so scary when was 9 years old that he grew up to rewrite it and produce it as a theatrical feature starring Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes.

And here it is, director Troy Nixey's "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" starring Bailee Madison as a little girl who moves into in an old dark house with something evil in the basement.

It's standard-issue, potboiler plotting, all about Sally (the appealingly realistic Madison), who has no idea there are worse things in the world than having terrible, self-absorbed parents.

Her unseen mom has shipped the poor girl off to live with divorced Daddy Alex (Pearce), a workaholic desperately trying to get Architectural Digest to notice his impressive refurbishment of an old gothic mansion in Rhode Island.

Alex hardly pays attention to Sally. Worse, he has brought along his new live-in girlfriend Kim (Holmes), an awkward, non-mom struggling to connect with Sally.

At this point in the story, we already know what these new occupants don't -- that many years earlier, owner Emerson Blackwood, an artist, had apparently been feeding children's teeth to spooky, whispering entities inside the basement fireplace.

Fresh out of kiddie bicuspids, he tried offering the removed teeth of his housemaid, but the entities were none too thrilled.

Shrieking and violent death followed.

Flash-forward to the present.

With Alex and Kim preoccupied, Sally falls under the spell of the voices that come from the basement, voices that softly say, "We're your friends" and "Come play with us."

Only the mansion's caretaker, Harris (Australian character actor Jack Thompson), seems to know what's really going on, since he is, after all, the son of earlier caretakers who has seen it all.

"Don't Be Afraid" might be truly frightening for children, especially since one of their own gets attacked by the creatures while she's in bed and in the bathtub, two extremely vulnerable places.

For everyone else, "Don't Be Afraid" feels too familiar and only moderately creepy, with most of the suspense generated by Marco Beltrami's trilling, dissonant strings, and by Oliver Stapleton's shadowy compositions.

We see too much of the CGI gremlins far too early, and that strips away most of their mystery. Plus, we see exactly what they look like in commercials and trailers. (Thanks a lot, Weinstein marketing geniuses.)

Little Sally somehow owns the last Polaroid Land Camera in the world and possesses an inexhaustible supply of flash bulbs for fighting the photo-sensitive creatures.

It doesn't help that Harris the caretaker emerges from a basement confrontation stabbed with a screwdriver and slashed to pieces with a utility knife.

What does he tell the cops?

"It was an accident!" he says.

And the cops believe him.

Sometimes, the TV movies that scared you as a child might just be too ridiculous and silly to be taken seriously as an R-rated feature film.