*Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
The haunted-house thriller sometimes feels like a lost art, especially with advances in visual effects making it easy for filmmakers to conjure spirits out of nowhere. But like Insidious earlier this year, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a triumph of mood and tone that dutifully holds us in suspense until the very end.
Eager to renovate and sell their old Gothic Rhode Island mansion for a profit, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) are fastidious about trying to keep their affairs in order. Alex's daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) coming to live with them throws the plans for a loop, but Kim tries to make the most of it by considering it a good opportunity to bond.
Then mysterious voices are heard in a fireplace. First they're friendly and innocent, then not so nice. And Sally gets blamed for cutting Kim's clothes. Sally also starts wandering the expansive grounds, becomes curious about places she's specifically told to stay away from. Being a kid, of course, she pursues the forbidden.
We know from the chilling prologue that there are small, Darth Sidious-looking creatures living below the house, and we quickly sense that this family is about to find out the same. It's all very creepy and ominous, and as long as you're in the mood for a good scare, a lot of fun.
Troy Nixey, a first-time feature film director who cut his teeth as a comic book artist, works under the watchful eye of stylist extraordinaire Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) to cast the film in almost constant shadow and darkness. The creatures become even more haunting after we find out they're afraid of light. Even scenes set during the day are overcast, all of which correctly establishes a gloomy atmosphere that's disturbingly foreboding. The creatures may be small, but this family is in for a damn tough fight.
Now, having a child at the center of a good old-fashioned horror movie can be dicey, so it's a compliment to say Madison is never annoying in the film's true lead role. And fortunately, because the film isn't over-laden with visual effects, the actors are allowed to have a real presence and all hold up their end of the bargain.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is deservedly rated R, though it's not excessively violent nor particularly gory. Yes, there is some shocking violence and blood, but there is only enough to make you squeamish, not enough to make you lose yesterday's lunch.
This is the kind of low-budget ($12.5 million) film that tends to find its most solid following on home video. And considering that the end of the summer is a terrible time for any new release — burnout following the last four months, kids going back to school, football season back in play — it's unlikely Don't Be Afraid of the Dark will surpass $20 million in its opening weekend.
But if you do make it out of the house to see Nixey's debut, perhaps to end your summer at the movies, you'll be treating yourself to a satisfyingly chilling experience.