For those of you who astutely follow the latest film news, you are probably aware that director Guillermo del Toro has been hired to helm Disney’s THE HAUNTED MANSION (after Eddie Murphy botched it, the studio decided to have another go at it). If you want to see what del Toro’s likely vision for THE HAUNTED MANSION will be, then it might be worth your while to check out DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. Although del Toro did not direct this time around (it was directed by some unknown named Troy Nixey), he co-wrote the script with his HAUNTED MANSION partner, Matthew Robbins. Even though others helped del Toro bring this film to the screen, its pretty obvious in watching it that DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is essentially all del Toro. That may be music to some ears, but to others like myself, it brings up memories of unsatisfying past efforts by a director who ranks among the most overrated filmmakers in Hollywood. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is not a bad film and it does a wonderful job in creating a dark and heavy atmosphere. However, for all its visual beauty (and a great acting job by young Bailee Madison), it doesn’t leave a memorable impression once it is over and, most surprisingly, its nowhere near being a scary movie (del Toro claims that the original 70s teleplay version is the most frightening film he’s ever seen). This film is a shallow and depthless version of the far superior THE OTHERS, a 2001 ghost story starring Nicole Kidman.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is less horror film and more like a Grimms Bros. fairytale. The film is about a man (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) who purchase a very old, run-down Victorian mansion in Rhode Island with the intent of restoring it to its former glory so that they can grace the cover of Architectural Digest and sell the house for a ton of money. We are also introduced to Bailee Madison’s character, who plays Guy Pearce’s daughter. She has been sent to live with her dad and his girlfriend and its not an arrangement that she is altogether thrilled by. Unhappy with her new living arrangements and the fact that her father has replaced her mother with a new woman, Madison resorts to spending her time wandering around the mansion. One day she discovers a hidden basement, which she brings to her father’s attention. In the basement is a sealed metal grill and to her surprise, Madison hears voices coming from it and asking her to let them out. Obeying their orders, Madison opens the grill and we soon learn the horrible errors of her decision.

I actually enjoyed the premise of the story. As I said, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK doesn’t strike me as a horror story. The elements of the story are far more akin to the dark nature of the Grimms Brothers’ fairy tales. The story is about a little girl who, against her better judgment, unleashes fantastical (fairy) creatures who wreak havoc and bring death to others. These are the sort of things you see in a (non-Disney) fairy tale and I wish the film had been marketed as such. I wonder if the studio felt that by selling the movie as a horror film (unless, of course, it really did see it as being a horror film), it would attract a bigger audience than if it sold it as a gothic fantasy.

Regardless, the premise of the story is an interesting one, but it fails to be executed properly due to weak characterizations (that is partly hindered by poor casting) and a screenplay that cannot connect with its audience. First, casting Guy Pearce to play the girl’s father was a misguided decision. There is no doubt that Pearce is one of the finest actors working today, but he shines in playing tough, serious roles (L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, MEMENTO), not caring daddy roles. For most of the movie, Pearce comes off as a self-centered asshole who doesn’t give his daughter any attention and even acts like he never really wanted her to live with him. (SPOILER ALERT) When he finally believes his daughter is telling the truth about the fairy creatures, his sudden transformation from disbelieving dad to hero father who must get his family out is disingenuous and implausible. The story contains no build-up to even suggest Pearce is beginning to believe his daughter. It suddenly becomes decided that his daughter is telling the truth and he must now get his family out. Because of this, its difficult to accept Pearce’s change of heart. For an example of a film that successfully shows a similar transformation of a father’s pessimism to belief, see Craig T. Nelson’s performance in POLTERGEIST. It also doesn’t help Pearce’s performance that he simply doesn’t have a very caring-looking face. It was hard for me to even buy him as a father.

The easiest target for any naysayer of DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is probably Katie Holmes. I along with most critics regard her as an actress who should have remained in obscurity along with the rest of her DAWSON’S CREEK colleagues. Unfortunately for us, her marriage to Tom Cruise has given her the opportunity to prolong her lifeless career. Although I obviously don’t hold Holmes in high esteem, I do give credit where it is due and I have to admit that Holmes does an adequate job in this movie as Pearce’s girlfriend. Holmes is put in the difficult situation of having to connect with a girl who views her as her mother’s replacement. Perhaps channeling her real-life maternal role to her children, Holmes convincingly portrays a caring woman who takes a genuine interest in the welfare of the child and believes in the child’s claims of fairies being real. I’m not saying that Holmes’ performance is noteworthy or amazing, but compared with her past efforts, this is a decidedly big improvement.

The real star of this movie, and a deserving one at that, is Bailee Madison. Without her stellar performance, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK would have ended up being a far more stale effort than it already is. Its amazing to think that this little girl is only 11 years old when she can turn out such a convincing and natural performance. At times, even I began to wonder whether Madison, the actress, truly believed that these fairies existed and were out to get her or if she was really just playing a frightened character. This film has already ended up being a box office failure, but I hope that its showing at the box office doesn’t cause studio executives to overlook the quality of this girl’s performance.

DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK has serious issues and one of its biggest is in the execution of its screenplay. I’ve never seen the 1973 television film that the movie is based on so I don’t know whether or not the father and girlfriend in the original are trying to restore the house so that they can make the cover of Architectural Digest and sell it for a lot of money. However, this idea is simply not something that most audiences can connect with. To me, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are just a rich couple that likes to buy fancy, expensive homes and flip it for a few more bucks. How can you expect the audience to sympathize or understand something like that? Thankfully, the film’s main focus is on the little girl, who we can sympathize with. The story also relies far too much on creating a gothic physical atmosphere than giving us an engaging story that builds up to an explosive climax. It certainly succeeds in creating that atmosphere, but not without sacrificing the plot and how it’s told. It becomes obvious early on that the filmmakers were more concerned with creating this atmosphere with sights and sounds instead of telling a story. As a result, the story is lazily told. An example of this lazy storytelling is a scene where Katie Holmes goes to the library to research the backstory and legend of the mansion. There she meets a remarkably knowledgeable librarian who sits her down and runs through the mansion’s entire history with the fairy creatures. Let’s not even discuss how the librarian knows so much about the house. What’s worse is how the filmmakers simply decided to conveniently craft a scene where one person explains to another what should have instead been gradually revealed to our characters through self-discovery. We instead get a scene that’s full of boring exposition.

Another major issue with this film is how the fairy creatures completely fail to elicit any fear in you. Based on a recent conversation I had with a friend who has seen the original, a big reason why anyone would become scared of the creatures was due to the low-tech method used to create the fairies. Here, they are computer-generated and that right there renders the creatures less scary. In fact, I found the fairies to be annoying rather than frightening. What’s more, their backstory about how they sleep for 100 years before craving human teeth is simply lame. Why sleep for 100 years? Why not just constantly crave teeth? Finally, the biggest blunder the filmmakers commit with these creatures is showing them in full instead of allowing the audience’s imagination to fill in what’s not shown. This way, the movie would have actually been frightening.

If anyone is going to be frightened by this film, it will be children. Adults, on the other hand, may even find this film laughable at worst and a brief and forgettable time killer at best. Once again, I have been disappointed by Guillermo del Toro’s output and I think the failure of this film has vindicated my feelings about the director’s talents (or lack thereof).