Right off the bat let me admit that I have never seen the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark from 1973. I had gotten an inkling of its reputation over the years from all you OLD people who remember it from when it aired, but I'm a fresh young daisy in pigtails and Osh Kosh jumpers too concerned with apple juice and Lunchables and Thomas the Tank Engine to have ever seen it. I made a decision when the remake was announced to wait and watch the Guillermo Del Toro sanctioned (not directed, but written and produced) take on the material first, since I had the feeling that nostalgia had tinted everyone's memories of that old TV movie rose-colored. So know I had no preconceived biases going in, other than what the new film's trailer told me.
And I liked it! I liked it a lot. I feel like it should be called Do Be Afraid of the Dark, but I'll let that one slide. There's a fine unaffected performance from Bailee Madison in the central role of Sally, the depressed little girl hearing whispers from the floor-boards confirming her worst fears, and Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce do good work as well. (I always forget that I tend to like Katie Holmes in fake things since I find her real-life pact-with-the-devil so distasteful.) The relationships all feel natural, and complicated in the right kinds of ways.
It's hard to tell where Del Toro's influence ends and where director Troy Nixey's starts, so it does come off as a slightly watered-down Pan's Labyrinth - it steps towards the abyss of strangeness but never quite leaps off. But I found the skittering rat-like creatures much more effective than I anticipated - I tend to lean towards less is more when it comes to all CG monsters, but these guys worked for me even as they became more and more prominently featured. They never stopped grossing me out, and the lead one had just enough sinister personality to him to make the jump.
The film does reach a certain point where you throw your hands in the air in frustration at some let's say unwise decisions by characters, though. But right around the time I was finding its spell waning the film itself seems to realize that and steps on the accelerator. I suppose I can guess why the MPAA were unrelenting in sticking the film with an R for a couple moments of brutality, but it's a shame - this is a movie you show to kids and they grow up wanting to be Guillermo Del Toro. Which is what they made it for. So, success!