Young Sally (Bailee Madison) unwillingly stays with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new partner Kim (Katie Holmes) at Blackwood Mansion, which Alex is restoring. Discovering a secret basement, Sally becomes aware that malign little creatures live under the house. They start whispering to her.
Most remakes of 1970s/’80s horror movies are greenlit through laziness. A focus group recognises a title like The Amityville Horror, Black Christmas or Fright Night, and someone who needs a by-the-numbers hit on their CV turns in a professional job. In the case of this rethink of a 1973 TV movie, the motive is at least more admirable — love. Producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro was (like a generation of TV watchers) spooked by John Newland’s creepy little film and has been influenced by it in his own work. Indeed, his script fuses the old material at a DNA level with elements from Pan’s Labyrinth and stirs in personal enthusiasms like the works of H. P. Lovecraft and the nasty origins of the myth of the tooth fairy.
Of course, the new film benefits from effects advances. The 1973 version offered three midgets in lumpy masks on oversize sets, but this runs to a CGI horde of human-faced, rat-bodied, sharp-toothed little imps. They’re busier, faster and more versatile than the originals, but perhaps less likely to stick in the memory — if only because photo-realistic monsters are almost commonplace now — than the lumpier, somehow crueller creatures of old. The heroine of the first version (Kim Darby, of the 1969 True Grit) was a childless woman with a husband who didn’t believe her; this splits the role between a del Toro-esque little-girl protagonist (Bailee Madison) and a stepmom-to-be (Katie Holmes). That change complicates things enough to fill 100 minutes rather than 73, but makes for a less concentrated, less ruthless horror ride. There are things you could do on TV in 1973 that you can’t get away with in the cinema in 2011 — the old film was about doom; this includes redemption.
It’s a well-crafted old dark-house chiller, with a gorgeously designed main set and eerie fairy-tale leftovers littered around, and it fondly orchestrates its clichés (the dour handyman who knows more than he’s saying). The weight of the film falls on young Madison, somewhat sidelining the grown-up stars in the roles of Adults Who Don’t Listen. Director Troy Nixey brings more to the table than most remake hired hands, coordinating sustained terror-by-critter sequences and hinting darkly at the origins and intentions of the monsters under the house.
A satisfying, well-crafted supernatural horror movie, refreshingly retro in its Gothic trappings. It wont traumatise a generation, but it certainly delivers the shivers.