What you're probably going to notice here is a similarity to the review of The Dead; we came into the Guillermo Del Toro produced (and co-written) remake of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark with knowledge that it had been critically praised but was generally overlooked by the movie-going public. I thought it might be a creepy way to push Horror Fest into the late hours, and for a time the film does a very good job of ratcheting up the "don't go in there" factor with its sound design and shudder-inducing monsters. But it has two fatal flaws, and at the expense of making a cheap joke, Katie Holmes isn't one of them.
In the prologue, we see Blackwood (Garry McDonald) trick his housekeeper (Edwina Ritchard) into coming down to the spooky basement. He insists that creatures have taken his son and they want teeth or Blackwood will never see him again. He removes his own teeth, then his housekeeper's, and offers them on a plate to the creatures in a hole beneath the ash pit. They take him instead.
While not directed by Del Toro, many of his favorite narrative flourishes are on display in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - the child left alone to wander, the hidden surprise they discover, a world hidden within our own, one of fairies and creatures both fascinating and terrifying. The tree imagery can, at times, be overwhelming for the film - the front door and basement entrance are both elaborate carvings of trees, one with a bird that eagle-eyed viewers will be able to reference as the reason for the very last scene.
The early moments in the film where the creatures are calling to Sally to let them free are, in fact, quite eerie, and as they slowly begin to creep around in the house there are certainly hair-raising moments for audiences. Director Troy Nixey milks the suspense for all it is worth, giving the audience monster's-eye-view shots of where they are in relation to the protagonists, and what they plan to do that Alex, Sally, and Kim are blissfully unaware of. We're already ahead of Alex and Kim, who refuse to believe Sally that monsters are giving her nightmares, and based on a few conveniently placed items, it's understandable why they would. Still, it takes Kim most of the movie to start believing Sally and Alex has an eleventh-hour change of heart that I'm not sure I really buy.
It's later in the film, though, when they become a visible menace and start attacking in swarms that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark loses its potency. I can buy Kim and Alex not really paying attention to a certain point, and am even fine with the first time you really see the creatures attack Harris (Jack Thompson), the grandson of the worker who closed the basement. They surround him and give him a carpenter's equivalent of the "death of a thousand cuts," and it's still creepy. Unfortunately, it's only the beginning for how much more we're going to see of the little buggers, who are somewhere between rats and tiny primates with spindly arms.
The more you see of them, the less disturbing they are, and the more difficult it is to believe that only Sally seems to notice them everywhere. It comes to a head during Alex's big dinner presentation to Chalres Jacoby (Alan Dale) of a major architectural magazine. He's hoping to impress Jacoby enough to land the cover, but Sally keeps snapping photos with her Polaroid camera and makes a fool of herself at the dinner table. At this point, the stakes are supposed to be pretty high, but it plays out like a straight-faced version of the "dinner" scene from Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. That it's followed by a visual effects heavy assault on Sally in the library only increases how much it stands out in the film.
I don't necessarily mind the ending (and by this, I mean the very ending, after we understand who the creatures really want), although the film gives such scant indicators as to why it happens that I'm sure most audiences had no idea what was going on. Without saying too much more, it develops Katie Holmes' Kim a little further but relies heavily that you remember one particular detail from the beginning of the film. Like The Orphanage (another Del Toro production), it takes the horror and places it within the realm of fairy tales, but only in a way that makes sense if you pay attention to a minute detail of an underdeveloped character.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark isn't a failure per se but I wish the monsters had a much smaller visual presence in the film. Without a doubt that would result in a more effectively creepy film, one that already knows how to work the spine-tingling moments early on. It's worth checking out, but I can't help but feel like it could have been more.