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Movie Review

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Not being afraid is easy; not being bored isn’t

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 26, 2011

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‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’’ comes with a pedigree of sorts. It’s based on a 1973 made-for-TV movie that thoroughly freaked out a generation of teenage baby sitters and 10-year-old boys back in the shag-haircut era; now grown, they probably remember it more fondly than they should. The script for the remake is co-written by Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican horror-fantasy wunderkind who made “Pan’s Labyrinth’’ and the “Hellboy’’ movies; he produced as well.

Even if del Toro had directed, though, it’s doubtful he’d be able to save “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’’ from its own inherent limpness. As helmed by first-time director Troy Nixey, it’s an almost generic scare story about a family moving into a mansion with a tribe of boogedy-boo critters in the basement. While there are moments of eldritch atmosphere and a few pro forma jolts, nothing here justifies our attention, let alone the film’s inexplicable R rating.

Well, there is that dental nightmare of an opening scene, in which the mansion’s previous owner goes the extra mile in collecting the creatures’ favorite snack of human teeth. But once the story line proper kicks in and glowering little Sally (Bailee Madison) moves in with her dad Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), we wait in vain for the movie to lift off the launching pad.

Whatever’s hiding down in the ash pit, they like the company of little children, and their whispered plea to “come playyy with us, Sally’’ is the movie’s creepiest touch. Dad’s more interested in restoring the mansion - the production design (Roger Ford), art direction (Lucinda Thomson), and set decoration (Kerrie Brown) are all molderingly grand - and Sally initially snubs the well-intentioned Kim. The primary dramatic arc is watching the neglected tweener and sympathetic sister-figure find common ground.

Madison, 11, has been knocking around the movies for a few years now, surviving the last Adam Sandler farce and giving a tremendously affecting performance as Natalie Portman’s daughter in 2009’s “Brothers.’’ This is her first real lead and she rises to it; you just wish there were more to rise to. She conveys Sally’s misery and isolation and you understand why she’d follow those basement voices wherever they lead. Once the plot mechanics kick in, though, Sally has nothing to do but shriek and cower.

Nor do Pearce and Holmes bring much to the party, since he keeps appearing to look offscreen at the movie he’d rather be in and she never gets out of scared-rabbit mode. (Has there ever been a less forceful movie star?) “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’’ stalls for time as it shows more and more of its sharp-fanged little villains, but since the movie lacks anything in the way of genuine scares, the striptease quickly turns tedious.

When we finally do see them, they’re spindly, stop-motion gremlins, very much in the established del Toro style but minus the psycho-mythic impact. Perhaps they didn’t pass the auditions for “Pan’s Labyrinth’’ and this is their consolation? For the rest of us, it’s a booby prize.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter: @tyburr.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK Directed by: Troy Nixey

Written by: Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, based on a teleplay by Nigel McKeand

Starring: Bailee Madison, Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes, Jack Thompson

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 99 minutes

Rated: R (violence and terror)

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