Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a little creepy, a little goofy, and a lot like Gremlins—well, if the wee monsters had been rather skilled with sharp pointy things. Penned by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins and directed by first-timer Troy Nixey, this remake of a 1973 made-for-TV movie will disappoint fans of del Toro’s freakier, more fantastical work: Considering its R rating, it’s fairly light on scary, skin-scrawling moments. But its title at least speaks to its Paranormal Activity–esque conceit: Every time the lights go out, you know shit’s about to go down.
The story centers on Sally (Brothers’ remarkable Bailee Madison), a depressed little girl who’s sent to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his young girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Alex and Kim are renovators working on a palatial, scary-as-fuck old home they hope will get them on the cover of Architectural Digest. While Dad is focused on their work, Kim tries to bond with Sally, who’s having none of it.
At least until the crawlies make their appearance. When Sally discovers a basement, she also finds a grate behind which whispery voices call her name, saying they want to be friends. She’s game at first, trying to catch glimpses of the creatures when they eventually start scampering around her room. Then they get nasty—and sympathetic Kim suddenly doesn’t seem like such a ghoul after all.
Unfortunately, Nixey employs some cheap scares to gin up viewers’ jumpiness. Still, most of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark relies on atmospherics—of the house, of silent nights, of weird otherworldlies flitting beneath your feet and behind your back. It mostly works, but you might have the occasional giggle at exchanges like: “What do you want?” “We want you!” And after the climax, things end a little too conveniently, with danger lurking and then suddenly…not. If you like what you see, though, good news: Surprise, the sequel’s set up.