As a general rule, I’m not fond of seeing children terrorized in movies (or in real life, for that matter), but I make an exception for something like “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” where the intense scares are balanced by a feeling of fairy-tale enchantment. The Grimm brothers’ stories are notoriously cruel to children, after all, but their fantastical settings somehow soften the blow. The same effect holds true here.
Written and produced by modern fabulist Guillermo del Toro, who adapted the 1973 TV movie, this is the story of Sally (Bailee Madison), a solemn, cherub-faced little girl who has come to Rhode Island to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) while they renovate a decaying mansion. An artist used to live here; it is possible that certain other things still do. A hidden basement is discovered. Sally, lonely and curious, starts to hear whispers. Scary stuff happens.
The movie, directed by first-timer Troy Nixey, spins its wheels a bit in the middle section, with an already-scared Sally putting up with far more additional provocation than is believable. Not many details about the house and its inhabitants are ever provided, and most of what is revealed doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. But Nixey does an admirable job maintaining an ominous tone, and young Bailee Madison gives a natural, unaffected central performance. Any kid who sees this movie will be sleeping with the lights on for months, and the same probably goes for a lot of adults.
B (1 hr., 40 min.; )
A few words on the R rating: Though the film doesn't have any of the things normally associated with that rating -- no profanity, sex, nudity, or graphic violence -- it is very intense, and it depicts a little girl in peril. I think this is the rare instance of the MPAA using its head and giving a movie the sensible rating even though it doesn't fit the usual description. Little children should NOT see this. Ages 10 and up are probably OK, though.