Though the trailers would have us believe otherwise, Guillermo del Toro did not direct Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. He did, however, produce and cowrite the project, which explains why his macabre penmanship is all over it. Like a handsome Hollywood remake of Pan’s Labyrinth, this old-fashioned creature feature begins with the arrival of a precocious preadolescent (moody and expressive Bailee Madison) at a foreboding Gothic manor. Mom has shipped her off to live with her architect father (Guy Pearce), who’s preoccupied with both the baroque country estate he’s restoring and his pretty new girlfriend, played by a surprisingly sympathetic Katie Holmes. (As unwanted parental guardians go, she’s a big step up from the fascist stepfather of Pan’s.) What’s really got the kid down, though, are the spooky new digs. Deep in the bowels of this old dark house lives a whispering, ancient evil. It wants a new playmate - or maybe just a fresh meal.
At once hokey and effective, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is based on an obscure and unusually suspenseful British TV movie from the 70s. The revisions are minor but significant: our heroine has been made younger - del Toro never met an adorable tyke he didn’t want to put in mortal dange - and the supernatural menace has been multiplied. For a solid chunk of running time, first-time director Troy Nixey keeps the threat under cover (quite literally, in one shuddery-good moment). Like his producer, the filmmaker knows when to make us wait and when to deliver the ghoulish goods. If he gets a few more of these movies under his belt, it’s his name they’ll be slapping above the titles of schlocky, late-summer horror hopefuls.