Size shouldn’t matter when it comes to scary creatures. After all, plenty of people are terrified of rats and spiders.
Yet savage and ugly as the tiny monsters are in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” they’re not as frightening as the filmmakers would have you believe. These wee beasties are not all that interesting, either, and frankly, neither is the movie.
Producer and co-writer Guillermo del Toro and director Troy Nixey manage a lot of creepy atmosphere in their story of a couple (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) and a young girl menaced by nasty little things that swarm up from beneath the mansion they’re restoring.
With the girl at the heart of the tale and del Toro’s name the big selling point, the filmmakers want you thinking of the movie as a cousin to his masterful “Pan’s Labyrinth,” another story of a girl caught up in a world of fantastical terror.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is an awfully tame cousin, though, the creatures uninvolving and their antics more irritating than petrifying.
Based on a 1973 television movie that starred Kim Darby and Jim Hutton, del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins’ update has architect Alex Hurst (Pearce) and girlfriend and collaborator Kim (Holmes) in the home stretch of their restoration of Blackwood Manor.
A promising prologue lays out terrible doings that beset the manor’s old master, who discovered that small, ravenous creatures with an appetite for children’s teeth were living below his home.
What perfect timing that the arrival of Alex’s moody daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), leads to the discovery of a secret basement sealed decades ago to imprison the creatures, known as the homunculi. Now the monsters have just what they want: freedom to roam the house through the air ducts and a child with a mouth full of tasty calcium.
Speaking in whispery voices, the homunculi are obnoxious taunters more than predators for much of the movie, causing “Gremlins”-style havoc, only without the gags. Naturally, Alex and Kim don’t believe Sally’s wild tales of monsters stalking her, assuming instead that the girl is just acting out over the neglectful mom who packed her off to Blackwood Manor, her inattentive dad and his interloper girlfriend.
The thinly developed characters move in narrow emotional ranges. Humans wander around with perpetually furrowed brows, homunculi scoot about like the hissy, conniving little creeps they are.
The tension del Toro and Nixey create promises much more than it delivers. When the homunculi finally step up the action, their confrontations with the humans seem more silly than scary.
That’s partly because of the unsatisfying mythology the filmmakers offer to explain the creatures. We’re told how vile and black-hearted the homunculi are, yet what we get on screen is a brood of pests somewhat more adept at house-wrecking than rodents.
These are petty, stunted monsters that certainly are worth being afraid of if you were locked in with them in a dark basement. Watching them in a dark theater, though, there isn’t that much to fear.