First of all, what’s with the name of this movie? The story is about a little girl moved into an old mansion by her dad and his new girlfriend, who is then terrorized by a pack of vicious, murderous little creatures that live under the house and can ONLY come out in the dark. The dark is EXACTLY what she should be afraid of. It would be like renaming Friday the 13th to “Come to the Lake for a Summer of Sex and Drugs, Everything Will Be Just Fine.”

But, of course, I realize the title is a holdover from the original 1973 TV movie on which this is based – a movie that, in the spirit of full disclosure, I admit I’ve never seen. Most reviews I’ve read say this remake is an improvement on the original, and since I didn’t even really like this new one that much, I doubt I’ll be in any hurry to track the old one down.

The sad thing is, the remake is a film I wanted to like a lot more than I did. It’s an expectation thing – the involvement of Guillermo Del Toro (who produced and co-wrote this version) creates such a high level of anticipation that an average film can’t help but be looked at as disappointing. Maybe that’s unfair, but that’s what Del Toro gets for usually being so amazing.

To be fair, the remake starts off very good, with an effectively shocking flashback prologue showing the mansion’s original owner offering up a very brutal sacrifice to the creatures. This is by far the film’s best sequence, and it unfortunately never quite lives up to it. But still, the rest of the first act is pretty good, as the family moves in and the little girl starts to hear strange whispers calling her name and asking for her to be their friend. The tension and creepiness of these scenes is palpable, and I thought I was in for one heck of a scary movie.

Where the film starts to fall apart for me is once the creatures are fully revealed – and it’s not that they’re not cool-looking, or an impressive use of CGI (they’re both). The problem is that once the film has shown us the creatures (too early, I think), it falls in love with them and can’t stop showing us them. Even though they are now robbed of that initial mystery and creepiness, the movie proceeds to give them almost as much screen-time as the lead actors, playing everything deadly straight as if it’s not aware of how goofy the little buggers can at times seem (this is a film that could have benefited from a Gremlins-esque streak of dark humor). At this point, the film’s entire middle act turns into scene after scene of the heroine ending up in a dark room, being attacked by the creatures, and then having to deal with the disbelief of the adults who finally come in and save her. Quite frankly, it feels just a little tedious – I think my opinion would be greatly improved if this section of the movie had been tightened, and if they had wisely kept the creatures more in the dark and away from the audience’s eyes.

Things pick up a bit in the film’s climax, and I give it credit for its decidedly downbeat finale, but there was still little that ever really grabbed me and took hold. Sometimes, an otherwise average film can be elevated to just the right side of entertaining by a single element, like one particularly awesome performance (as in Colin Farrell and the new Fright Night), but there is really nothing like that here. The performances are all good enough, but none of the actors are given anything that interesting to do. The build-up to the scares are handled well, but the pay-offs are rarely that frightening (the film’s best scare, in fact, is regrettably spoiled in the trailer – shame on whoever made that decision). And some of the more potentially interesting elements are left ignored, not out of incompetence but out of the sheer limitations of the film’s size and scope (for instance, an intriguing notion tying the creatures to the myth of the tooth fairy is raised, but unfortunately can’t really be developed on since the movie isn’t keen to explore just how far-reaching the grasp of these creatures might be). So while there’s nothing here that I would call “terrible” or even “bad,” there’s nothing all that impressive or memorable, either.

Del Toro apparently intended for this to be a “gateway” horror film, one that could entrance younger viewers and perhaps foster a budding interest in the genre – a notion somewhat spoiled by the inexplicable R-rating the MPAA decided to hand the film (I’ve seen more violent, scary AND downbeat horror films skate by with PG-13’s…Drag Me to Hell, anyone?). But I admit, Del Toro might have a point, and it probably does work better when looked at through that lens. I think I probably would have liked it a lot more if I saw it at a much younger age, armed with less knowledge of the usual haunted house clichés that this movie plays on (but sadly never subverts or improves on). So I don’t want to come down too hard on the movie – I’m all for a movie that might create the next generation of horror fans. But that doesn’t change the fact the movie didn’t really do much for me. It’s well-crafted and admirably atmospheric, but it just never delivers anything all that original or exciting. It feels like Guillermo Del Toro-lite…which might be enough for some, but c’mon, we all know the guy is capable of so much more.



This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on August 27th, 2011.