Don't Be Afraid of the Dark dusts off vintage TV terrors

Guillermo del Toro's latest is moody but shallow

The eeriest scenes of the new creep show Don't Be Afraid of the Dark evoke the night terrors of childhood, back when creaky floorboards signaled the presence of monsters in the closet or under the bed. Director Troy Nixey and co-writer/producer Guillermo del Toro adapt an ABC movie-of-the-week from 1973, back when network television aired programs seemingly designed to scar the psyche of young viewers.

Young Sally (Bailee Madison) crosses the country to join her architect father (Guy Pearce) at the spooky mansion he's renovating in Rhode Island. Morose and medicated by her neglectful mother, Sally resists making friends with dad's girlfriend, interior designer Kim (Katie Holmes, playing a role named in honor of the original's Kim Darby). Madison portrays Sally as world-weary and old before her time. When the girl explores the building, she discovers a hidden basement and hears whispery voices that speak only to her.

Like Pandora, Sally succumbs to her curiosity and frees the enigmatic creatures, which scuttle through the shadows and air vents with hostile intentions. The girl faces scary moments involving a talking teddy bear and creepy-crawlies between her bedsheets, but her father doesn't believe her tales of unseen monsters. Fortunately, Sally refuses to be a passive victim and uses the creatures' aversion to light against them, while Kim increasingly becomes Sally's protector and surrogate mother.

Don't' Be Afraid of the Dark critiques grown-ups who use drugs as a substitute for attentive parenting, but otherwise lacks the richness of del Toro's original, self-directed films like Pan's Labyrinth. The film succeeds best as a spine-tingling mood piece, although the prologue, set a century earlier, sets a lurid, Gothic tone that doesn't really fit the remainder of the movie.

Nixey builds suspense by emulating Alfred Hitchcock, particularly when conveying the little villains' wicked cunning while keeping them just out of view. Characters will try to look through keyholes, unaware that a creature crouches on the other side of the door with a long needle at the ready. Between the entities' breathy lies and their jack-in-the-box attacks, I spent the film hoping to hear an exterminator tell Pearce: "I hate to tell you this, but your house has a bad case of Gollums."