This remake of a 1973 TV movie has all the classic haunted house qualities. Gothic location. Creaking doors. Dark halls. Secret rooms. Ominous help. Benevolent creatures living aside a family. By putting the youngest of the family at the center of the story, the film develops an inherent tension. The issue is how long can you buy this little girl in peril?
Sally (Bailee Madison, BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA) has been dumped onto her father Alex (Guy Pearce, MEMENTO) by her mother. He is in the process of refurbishing the grand manor of nature artist Emerson Blackwood. He has a new girlfriend named Kim (Katie Holmes, BATMAN BEGINS), who tries to be nice, but Sally doesn't want to be nice back. The situation is bad for everyone. On a walk around the grounds, Sally discovers the house has a basement, which the gruff old caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson, STAR WARS: ATTACK OF THE CLONES) seems very fearful of.
From the film's prologue, we already know the dreadful things that occurred in the basement. When Blackwood (Garry McDonald, MOULIN ROUGE!) was still alive, his son was kidnapped by the nasty little creatures that live in the ash pit. They live off teeth and something in their mythology demands them to take a life every time they emerge. So when Sally goes down in the basement, which is more like a dungeon/evil scientist's lab, we know that things are going to get scary.
As is the case when kids in movies say they are seeing something supernatural, the parents don't believe them. Sally's father is frustrated with it all because his mind is completely focused on all the money he's sunk into this house. Kim is a little more open minded, responding to the legitimate fear that Sally displays. The little girl is curious about the creatures at first, but soon learns that they aren't really trying to be her friends.
The film is quite scary up to a point. It starts to peter out toward the end when the audience has seen just too many scenes of Sally stuck in a room with bicuspid-hungry gremlins. She's a smart and brave kid, but when you know your enemies are afraid of the dark, you'd think that the first things you'd do is flip on the light switch. The story mines too many of the same scares and they loose their effect as the film goes along. I lost count of how many times someone peered into a hole and the creatures try to poke out their eyes. By the time the climax comes, the house and the things that have occurred make certain motivations seem unbelievable. Sometimes it just comes down to wrong staging.
Also, director Troy Nixey drops a right decision toward the end. The creatures are not nearly as scary when we see them. With their whisper-like grumblings, they can actually become comical. I was far more frightened of them when they were just glowing eyes under the bed and scurrying fuzzballs along the floorboards. Nixey creates great atmosphere, but sometimes undermines the drama with fancy camerawork. One particular zoom really stood out and creates laughs instead of dread.
Supernatural master Guillermo del Toro wrote the script with Matthew Robbins (DRAGONSLAYER), based on Nigel McKeand's original teleplay. Del Toro was inspired by the original as a kid. This R-rated film would scare the bejeezus out of a kid now. It was a good move to cast a kid in the lead role instead of an adult like the original. I can't deny that for almost 2/3rds of the film, it had me. It's like when you were a kid and you dared yourself to go down into the basement without turning the lights on. At first it's scary as hell, but once your eyes got accustomed to the dark, the furnace just looked like a furnace.