Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark opens with a brutally unsettling sequence: In a stately stone manor, a man traps a pretty housekeeper and smashes her teeth with a hammer (he’s already done the same thing to himself), all to offer up those teeth as a ritual sacrifice to the spirits who live there. (The spirits must sit around watching Saw sequels.) I can’t say that I totally enjoyed this sequence, but it did seem a harbinger of a sickly effective shocker; so did the fact that fantasy/horror maestro Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth) is the film’s producer and co-writer. But Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is neither colorfully brutal nor especially fun. It’s a plodding, derivative gothic potboiler: The Shining meets Coraline, with a touch of Gremlins played (boringly) straight.
Decades after that prelude, a young girl, very serious Sally (Bailee Madison), comes to the manor house to live with her father (Guy Pearce), an architect who is renovating the place, and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), who’s assisting him in attempting to land their dream of an Architectural Digest cover. Pearce and Holmes, often fine performers, here stoop to the kind of Amityville Horror acting in which every line gets highlighted and overstated. (And why is Pearce wearing a scruffy dark brush cut that looks like a wig?) Of course, it’s the kind of cheesy acting you can forgive when a horror film delivers, but Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark grows less suspenseful as it goes on. The spirits, heralded by echoey whispers (”Sall-eee! Now you’ll see what it’s like down here!”), are a small, scurrying army of 10-inch-tall, humpbacked simian beasties who look like they came out of a CGI demo reel. There’s no mystery to them, which may be why there’s no fear. C?