Katie Holmes, left, and Bailee Madison in "Don't Be Afraid of… (Carolyn Johns / Associated…)
"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark," which puts Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes and young Bailee Madison in some serious stomach-churning, can't-bear-to-watch-it jeopardy, is really, truly, very scary …
At least until about 30 minutes in, when you start to be distracted by the lack of logic in the storytelling and the fact that the nasty little gremlins responsible for all the bumps in the night can be offed pretty easily. Possibly a good sturdy broom would have been enough to clean them out along with the cobwebs in the corners of the Gothic manse where the film is set.
The director is Troy Nixey, making his feature film debut, though you could be forgiven for thinking it is Guillermo del Toro of "Pan's Labyrinth" acclaim who is completely in charge, since his name is splashed all over the ads and the opening credits. He's the, ahem, cowriter here (with Matthew Robbins), adapting the script from Nigel McKeand's frighteningly original teleplay.
The start is properly terrifying due to Nixey's excellent sense of pacing. The story begins about a century or so ago, a time of gas lamps and horse-drawn carriages. The place is Blackwood Manor, lovely, in a foreboding, you-will-probably-die-here kind of way. Its owner is a naturalist whose research hints at unnatural forces lurking about. Children tend not to thrive under the estate's lofty gables.
Flash-forward to present day. Pearce plays Alex, a high-end architect desperate to reverse a career slide with a renovation of Blackwood. Holmes is Kim, an interior designer and his live-in girlfriend. Madison is Sally, Alex's perpetually mournful daughter. Mom's shipped her off to stay with her distracted dad, basically telling her to buck up any time the kid phones home.
It's a tense time, and not just because of the strained family relations or the disturbing talking teddy bear Kim gives to Sally. The house is still a major mess. There's a make-or-break dinner with Architectural Digest looming. What's more, they've just discovered a door to the creepy basement behind a fake wall, and someone keeps whispering through the heating vents: "Salll-yyyyy, Salll-yyyy." (Why a noted architect would not be interested in the very architecturally interesting basement is just one of many lingering questions here.)
Soon enough, things get worse, and not just for Alex, Kim and Sally but also for Pearce, Holmes and Madison. This is where the creaky narrative with all its missing pieces really gums things up. It's too bad, since Nixey rides some moments to electrifying extremes. Director of photography Oliver Stapleton ("The Cider House Rules") captures all the haunting beauty of Blackwood Manor, which production designer Roger Ford (Oscar nominated for his work on "Babe") has made so eerie.
If only the characters were as well drawn. Pearce, the man in the maze of "Memento," knows how to work a mind game when he's given one, but there's just not enough here for Alex to get lost in. Likewise, Madison ("Bridge to Terabithia") is graced with soulful eyes, but her Sally lacks the kind of real heart that might have helped us truly fear for her safety as she gets sucked into all the places where the wild things are.
Holmes is there for a little eye candy and a little stepmothering (the good, not the evil, kind), but frankly, she's usually more arresting in celebrity magazines than she is on-screen. And the critters — they are much better before we see them. Once you know what Alex, Sally and Kim are up against, the fear gives way to boredom, then frustration when they don't get the job done.
I do hope that "Don't" doesn't do Nixey in, as he has a real knack for staging high anxiety. For Del Toro, the question is, what happened? And I don't mean to Sally.