Legend has it that when an iddy-biddy Guillermo del Toro watched the 1973 Don’t Be Afraid… TV movie, it scared him so much, he was a convert for life.
Having shepherded debut director Troy Nixey’s remake to the screen, he’s clearly trying to inspire/infect a new generation. But how many times have you re-watched something that terrified you as a child, only to see the scares disappear in the cold light of day?
In a creepy, 1910-set prologue deep inside Blackwood Manor, Emerson Blackwood (named after legendary horror author Algernon Blackwood) is about to commit an unspeakable act of amateur dentistry because the voices emanating from the basement fireplace told him to.
Fast-forward and, despite the warnings of present-day resident, an architect (Guy Pearce), his new squeeze (Katie Holmes) and his estranged daughter (Bailee Madison) unbrick the fireplace, unleashing an army of vicious, shadow-dwelling goblins looking for a human sacrifice.
Pearce is a comically terrible parent, blaming the strange noises and Holmes’ ripped clothing on “smart rats”, then on his divorce-disturbed child. Poor Madison, meanwhile, gets attacked in bed and bath, the waning light her only weapon.
Despite some tense set-pieces and expert, swooping camerawork, there are gremlins afoot here. The CGI creatures are brilliantly realised, but too slickly animated to be properly frightening, and none of the leads inspire much beyond nominal empathy (although Neighbours fans will be heartened to see Pearce and fellow alumni Alan Dale briefly reunited).
As retro horrors go, it’s handsomely made, but the sense is of talented filmmakers grasping at childhood phantoms.
Del Toro’s pet project is a rather too well-oiled fright machine. There’s fun to be had, but it’s as grand and empty as a haunted house.