'Precious teeth, beautiful teeth," murmurs the creepy geezer in the basement of his creepy mansion during the prologue of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - just before he takes a hammer to his maid's bicuspids and molars. She is, understandably, somewhat startled.
Dental professionals may be the only folks to get a kick out of this gothic horror number - a mostly unrewarding remake of a much revered 1973 TV movie. Directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark comes with a Guillermo del Toro stamp of facilitation - the Pan's Labyrinth Oscar-winner cowrote and coproduced this minor-key scare fare. And on paper, there are similarities to the extraordinary Pan's Labyrinth: Both films involve a traumatized girl thrown into a house where her parent has taken up with a new partner, and where menacing creatures pop up out of the floorboards, running amok.
But Pan's Labyrinth had depth and emotion, and Ivana Baquero as its young lead, atremble with wonder and dread. Don't Be Afraid has Bailee Madison, an 11-year-old Hollywood pro with 28 movie and television titles to her credit. She was compelling in Brothers (as Natalie Portman's shaken-up daughter), but here, mopey-eyed and quavery-lipped, she just oversells everything: Her unhappiness at being sent away by her mother to live with her dad (Guy Pearce); her resentment toward Dad's new girlfriend (Katie Holmes); her sense of isolation and fear in a cavernous old house where whispering voices seem to be coming out of the basement - a basement that her architect father didn't even know was there.
Joltingly graphic and atmospheric (Nixey and his crew at least know how to set up a few good shocks), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark fails to involve us in any meaningful way with its characters. Madison's Sally is a whiner. Pearce's Alex is, well, a whiner (his career hinges on a makeover of this rambling manse and getting it on the cover of Architectural Digest). And Holmes' Kim is there to make thankless offerings to her would-be stepdaughter: a teddy bear, a brooch, scones.