Review in a Hurry: Katie Holmes must protect a young girl from hordes of dead-eyed weirdos who insist they both join them in eternal darkness. The story's based on a 1973 TV movie that made an indelible impression on youngsters of the time, including producer Guillermo Del Toro. While not as instantly white-knuckle scary as one might hope, director Troy Nixey's monsters deliver a creepiness that lingers in the mind.
The Bigger Picture: The original TV movie, with True Grit's Kim Darby as a haunted housewife harassed by strange little people with furry bodies and wrinkled heads, begged the age-old Eddie Murphy question about why white people don't simply leave the house when there's a ghost (or other scary creature) in it. The new version strengthens this soft spot by making the terror target a 10 year-old girl named Sally (impressive youngster Bailee Madison) foisted off on her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Holmes).
For Sally, having the typical cinematic dad character (i.e. perfect, except for the fact that he's a clueless workaholic) is a tad more perilous than normal, especially when she opens up a sealed basement fireplace in a secret room of their brand new creepy mansion. A prologue scene set in years past already showed us the previous occupant's penchant for amateur dentistry in the service of mysterious voices; back in the present, those same voices ask Sally to come play. They even sweeten the deal by behaving like benevolent tooth fairies, leaving an antique coin under her pillow. But when they actually turn out to look like demonic rat-people, well...appearances don't lie in this case.
The reconceived creatures (called "homunculi" in the press notes but not the film itself) are genuinely unsettling and plausibly threatening despite their size limitations, but del Toro and Matthew Robbins' script seems more designed to show them off than focus on the human story. We don't really need the prologue scene except for an extra gross-out, and the stakes of the daddy-daughter relationship don't seem as high as they should be. Also, early on it's shown that Sally is on medication, but it's never suggested she could in fact be hallucinating the whole thing, a possibility that would make Alex seem less of a jerk.
And while there is some antagonism between Sally and Kim, by the time the creatures are actively sabotaging Kim's possessions, it's more or less over, Kim having zero doubts whatsoever that Sally is innocent. On paper, the real story ought to be an allegory for a child's loss of trust in separated parents; in practice, that's simply a disposable premise on which to graft li'l beasties.
Nonetheless, those things can stick in one's thoughts days later, making random noises at night seem more terrifying than they ought to be. Regardless of any other weaknesses, that is the movie doing what it set out to do.
The 180–A Second Opinion: It's a conceit you kinda just have to go with, but what kid that you know would go down into a strange and scary basement unattended to do what some creepy, disembodied voices request?