- - Thursday, August 25, 2011

“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” the film’s title instructs viewers. It needn’t have bothered; there’s nothing to be scared of here — or much to be entertained by either.

“Dark” is a remake of an eponymous 1973 made-for-TV movie that producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has declared the scariest TV movie ever made, which is perhaps a low standard to begin with. A prologue that takes place in the 1800s sets the tone and reveals the basic elements: A stately Rhode Island mansion and a sinister force with a sibilant whisper and a taste for teeth. The house, intended to be menacing, has the flimsy look of an ancient theme-park ride. It’s silly, not scary, although a brief incident with a hammer might make your gums hurt.

The prologue at least manages to flirt with horror. By the time the movie flashes forward to the present, it appears to have transformed into a drippy after-school special about a dysfunctional family.

Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are in the midst of restoring the old mansion from the prologue to its former glory, when Sally (Bailee Madison), Alex’s daughter from a previous marriage, arrives to live with them.

From there, Alex and Kim spend a lot of time squabbling about the restoration work and various financial problems. Sally, a precocious but petulant youngster, doesn’t get along with Kim. The movie wastes precious minutes on these mundane conflicts, none of which turns out to matter a bit. Any terror here comes in the form of tedium.

The casting doesn’t help. Although Sally is Alex’s daughter, she looks far more like Kim. Mr. Pearce’s character shifts from trusting father to sullen jerk for no discernible reason. Miss Holmes makes a quick conversion that is equally unbelievable. This unhappy family may be unhappy in its own way, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting to watch. The only point these scenes seem to serve is to make the audience wish some harm on the cast of insipid half-wits.

It’s the one wish this movie manages to fulfill. Before long, Sally begins to hear the same seductive whisper that haunted the prologue. Despite plenty of worrying signals — including an old bowl of bloody teeth — she initially trusts the voice, going far out of her way to seek it out, eventually setting it free.

The “it,” however, is really a them — an army of hairy, hunchbacked vermin fairy folk. Given how unsympathetic the film’s humans are, it’s tempting to cheer for these bug-eyed, poorly animated monsters on their quest to put Alex, Kim and Sally out of their misery. However, the little monsters prove incompetent in their own right by wasting time on various inconsequential household attacks.

Not only does “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” give viewers nothing to fear, it offers no one to root for. It’s a shame they can’t all lose.

TITLE: “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

CREDITS: Directed by Troy Nixey, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro

RATING: R for bloody, toothy terror

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes


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