‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is more skillful than scary

GUILLERMO DEL Toro has vowed his "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" will cause folks to poop in their pants, but if you go, don't bother donning Depends.

"Dark" is a well-crafted old-school haunted house movie (based on a 1973 TV movie), one that favors atmospherics over gore, but it's the sort of movie that leaves you more impressed with artistry than moved to poop by the proceedings.

Del Toro has described the '73 original as the scariest movie he's ever seen, and you can see why it appeals to him - creepy old house, inhabited by an evil presence that can be appeased by an offering of children's teeth.

Children's teeth!

And if those teeth happen to come with children attached, well . . . 

This is right up the alley of del Toro ("Cronos," "Pan's Labyrinth"), so skilled at investing objects with portent and meaning. Here, Del Toro (producer and writer) off-loads that task to director (comics artist) Troy Nixey, making his debut.

The story opens with an architect (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) welcoming the man's estranged daughter (Bailee Madison) to the old mansion he's working to restore.

The little girl, essentially abandoned by her mother, is obstinately unhappy about her new living arrangement, and spends much time exploring the spooky house alone - exposed, of course, to the supernatural danger that lurks there, the basis for the movie's suspense.

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is a welcome return to the pre-gore tradition of classic horror craft, but it's also an indication of why Hollywood prefers the modern tradition of simple, graphic slaughter. It's easier.

Building a mood, creating an accumulating sense of dread - that's hard work, difficult to achieve. And "Dark," despite its ambitions and its artistry, is only partially successful. Evil eventually takes physical form, and when it does, the air goes out a bit.

A better example of old-school scares is "Insidious," made by the "Saw" guys earlier this year.

Produced by Guillermo del Toro and Mark Johnson, directed by Troy Nixey, written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, music by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, distributed by Film District.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Directed by Troy Nixey. With Garry McDonald, Eliza Taylor-Cotter, Katie Holmes, Julia Blake, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson, Dylan Young, Guy Pearce, Alan Dale, Emelia Burns. Distributed by Miramax Films.

Running time: 1 hours, 40 minutes.

Parent's guide: R (for violence and terror).