Don’t be afraid, and try not to be stupid while you’re at it

A certain amount of stupidity is required for a horror movie to succeed. I mean, who walks around a darkened house, especially into a musty basement, without turning on the lights as you go?

Bailee Madison gives a good performance as Sally

Bailee Madison gives a good performance as Sally



Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

One 1/2 stars out of 4

Rated: 14A

A certain amount of stupidity is required for a horror movie to succeed.

I mean, who walks around a darkened house, especially into a musty basement, without turning on the lights as you go?

Even if you’re terribly brave, you risk stubbing your toe. But stumbling around dumbly in the darkness is required of most fright pics, since bogeymen in the daylight usually aren’t scary enough.

Still, there’s being stupid and there’s being an imbecile, and the Guillermo del Toro-produced remake of the 1973 TV pic Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has everyone acting the latter.

This artless film even approaches child abuse, in the way it crassly reconfigures the protagonist from the besieged adult woman of the original into a neglected and terrified tot.

Horrormeister del Toro, who updated the screenplay with co-writer Matthew Robbins, says he wanted a go at Don’t Be Afraid because it’s the scariest thing he saw on TV growing up.

But this version, unimaginatively directed by rookie Troy Nixey, also owes a big debt to del Toro’s earlier Pan’s Labyrinth and to Henry Selick’s Coraline.

As before, there are nasty homunculi — weird li’l goblins — living in the basement furnace of the old mansion newly occupied by renovating yuppies. The beasties have been given a CGI makeover from the mutant monkey puppets of the original into something resembling a scalded raccoon, or maybe the grandpappy of Harry Potter’s Dobby. They’re still more annoying than frightful.

They’ve also been given an idiotic back story about how they slumber for a century, waiting to dine on human teeth, as they did for the previous occupants, Emerson Blackwood and his son.

Enter the yuppies: architect Alex (Guy Pearce, coasting), his new interior-designer girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) and Alex’s young daughter Sally (Bailee Madison, a promising newcomer), the product of a recently dissolved marriage.

Sally has issues both emotional (she hates Kim) and mental (she’s on the attention-deficit drug Adderall).

She really shouldn’t be allowed to wander all over the darkened house and grounds, but her distracted dad and stepmother-to-be allow her to do just that.

The homunculi take advantage of the situation. “Sally, come down to play!” they whisper — and they become increasingly bold and violent.

Sally’s cries aren’t taken seriously by dad, because he figures she’s just having another of her episodes. Even when the homunculi run riot through the mansion, destroying a fancy dinner party, stunned Alex refuses to believe what’s happening before his very eyes.

Kim is slightly faster on the uptake and tries to assist Sally. But even as the movie becomes more frantic, it’s never really all that scary.

The Polaroid geek in me requires that I describe my biggest beef with this movie. Sally grabs an ancient Polaroid, loaded with film and a flash bar that are no longer made, and snaps photo after photo of the critters that Alex and Kim somehow neglect to look at.

No Polaroid film ever offered more than 10 shots per pack. Yet Sally bangs off about three dozen in succession without changing packs, an impossible thing.

It’s a trivial detail, perhaps, but indicative of the film’s sloppiness and disregard for any kind of logic.

You shouldn’t be afraid of the dark, but you shouldn’t be an idiot, either.

Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.

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