Sally (Madison) is a nine year-old girl who has been sent to live in the countryside with her father (Pierce) and his new girlfriend (Holmes) in a country manor, Blackwood, which they are renovating. But all is not as it seems at Blackwood and Sally uncovers an ancient artists studio entombed beneath the house. Sally inadvertently unleashes a pack of evil little creatures, who will not rest until they have feasted on the teeth of a small child. Sally struggles to come to terms with being an unwanted presence in the house, whilst trying to evade the evil little gnomes.
Remaking a classic telemovie from his own childhood, Guillermo del Toro’s signature brand of dark fantasy is paired with a light-hearted and totally unpretentious campness. Troy Nixey’s background in comic book illustration definitely impacts his feature debut here. Similar to his work with Neil Gaiman, Nixey can carry off macabre and horrific imagery in a colourful and almost light-hearted way. Roger Ford’s production design subtly harks back to the expressionist horror films of old, with forced perspectives and gothic attention to detail, whilst modernising and maintaining a level of continuity with the del Toro brand.
In classic del Toro style, the anthropomorphic quality of the film’s computer generated Homunculi is perfectly weighted between believable characterization and otherworldly originality. It is believable that these creatures might once even have been human, and collect their victims to join their ranks. Again, with the humans, this genre piece is solidly anchored by some very strong characterization. The typically clichéd story is carried off as a Universal coming of age story and the emotional crux actually comes down to Katie Holmes’ character trying to win the affection of her new step-child.
Though it has appeal to all age groups, the impact of the horror does not tend to lie in the sense of dread or the atmosphere. The frights tend to be jumpers, effective but slightly cheap. Then again, this is a remake of a camp classic so it comes out feeling quite satisfying. Many aspects stay incredibly faithful to the 1973 original, such as the groundskeeper (Jack Thompson) watching on with concern, as the resting place of the homunculi is disturbed and a scene in which the monsters take a cut throat razor to a shower curtain. This conjures an image of development hell as the faithfully kitsch filmmakers relent to studio executives, insistent that CGI must replace puppets and stop-frame animation. At least they managed to keep it from being in 3D.
The main change from the original film was to make Sally, originally a vulnerable grown woman, into a ballsy but troubled child. No prizes for guessing whose idea that was. The lead performances are good all round, the character of Sally is slightly annoying, but that is very often the way of a strong child protagonist. This could be seen as a film for children of all ages or a film too scary for kids and too childish for adults. Personally, I’ll go for the former.