“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” atmospheric haunted-house flick.

Katie Holmes begins to see her step-daughter's suspicions of their home in "DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK".

The creatures of Troy Nixey’s feature-film debut “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” can really be quite terrifying, but that’s not what makes this haunted-house remake particularly memorable. It’s the terrifying communication-breakdown that goes down in this flick that sticks with you. The protagonist is a chubby-cheek, teary-eyed little girl named Sally. Her casting was wise.

From frame one you feel instantly protective of her, an instinct that continues on for the duration of the film. She’s up against the things that go bump in the night in an old house her architect father Alex is staying in, while renovating it with his co-worker/lover Kim. Sally’s warnings of these creatures go unheeded. As the terror mounts in the household (and audience), a disconnect grows between father and daughter.

The premise is simple and the delivery unpretentious. But “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” knows when to deploy strong set-pieces to heighten the tension — one scene in which Sally slowly crawls under her bed-sheets, searching for her intruder, will stop your heart. Director Nixey spaces these out from one another well — long enough to keep us wanting more, but consistently satisfied.

Returning to quality cinema for the first time since 2006’s “Thank You For Smoking”, Katie Holmes plays Kim, with Guy Pearce joining her as Alex. They have pretty standard, cookie-cutter “workaholic, skeptical dad” and “caring girlfriend” roles, pulling them off about as convincingly as any other movie you’d imagine. I particularly appreciated the directions Katie Holmes’ character took — instead of cold-shouldering Sally, she actively attempts to understand the child. A simple twist from formula, but a welcome one.

It’s Bailee Madison that carries the picture, and I’m amazed such a young, vulnerable girl could carry a film so built on tension and edge. Madison looks ready to burst into tears at any given moment, but never veers into whiny or annoying territory.

Guillermo del Toro, filmmaking genius and creature-feature enthusiastic, personally championed “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” to the screen, with a co-writing and producing credit to boot. It’s a re-imagining of a ’73 TV movie that, he claims, was the inspiration for his long, impressive body of work. And although, with the strong female character and the creepy undertones, one can see traces of del Toro in this, it’s not nearly distinctive enough to be worthy of his moniker.

Thus far I’ve praised the film for its modest steps away from formula, but they are, indeed, merely modest ones. “Dark” isn’t so much its own entity as it is a fairly successful entry into a long-running, long-standing genre. That’s both the slight charm and equal frustration with this one. B


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