Katie Holmes is encouraging Guillermo Del Toro to eat a cupcake. Which is causing the Mexican horror master to recoil in . . . horror.
"They're delicious," she coos.
"I know," says the oversized filmmaker. "But look at me. I'm a 'Be Afraid of the Cupcake' kind of guy."
Their mutual movie -- "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" -- opens Aug. 26 and should be providing a veritable bakery's worth of chills as it brings together one of the screen's odder couples: Holmes, a member of Hollywood royalty by virtue of her efforts on-screen, and her off-screen marriage to Tom Cruise; and Del Toro, pre-eminent purveyor of intelligent dread ("Pan's Labyrinth"), and horror fans' favorite fabricator of otherworldly creatures and places.
Making a few critical diversions from the 1973 TV movie on which it's based, "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is a pretty basic equation: Three people, and a haunted house. Architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce), hoping to make his career with the renovation of a spectacular but decaying gothic mansion, moves into it with his new girlfriend, an interior designer named Kim (Holmes). Upsetting their plans is the arrival of Alex's daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), who is being unhappily shuttled between her neglectful parents but soon finds a diversion: small, scuttling, rat-like creatures who live in the abandoned basement of the house, and who tell Sally they want to be her "friends." Sally soon finds out different.
Time for a change
The movie is a change of pace for the ubiquitous young Madison ("Wizards of Waverly Place," "Conviction," "Brother") and for Holmes, too. Conversely, it's right in Del Toro's wheelhouse. But neither he nor his star thought it was odd they should end up working on the same movie, even an old-fashioned thriller like "Don't Be Afraid."
"We knew each other socially," Del Toro said, "and I said, 'I'm going to send you a screenplay, and I hope you read it carefully and like it.' "
Holmes nodded. "I talked to Guillermo on the phone when I found out about it and was thrilled to be a part of it, and was thrilled to work with him. I loved his passion. It was exciting."
"It's the accent," he quipped.
Del Toro did not direct "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" -- he was getting ready to make "The Hobbit" in New Zealand before dropping out -- but as he has with such films as "The Orphanage" (2007), he positioned himself as the guiding force behind its production, as well as its aesthetic.
"I try to present only movies that I fully believe in," said the director of such films as "Cronos," "The Devil's Backbone" and "Hellboy." "And I try to present them when it's a first-time filmmaker or someone not thoroughly well known." The director of "Don't Be Afraid" is neophyte Troy Nixey, a comic-book artist whose short film "Latchkey's Lament" grabbed Del Toro's attention -- and apparently his high regard, given how long Del Toro has wanted to make this movie.
"I saw it when I was 10 years old and thought it was the scariest movie ever," Del Toro said of the original, a TV film starring Kim Darby (the 1969 version of "True Grit"). "As soon as I became an adult, I started tracking the rights. The original was made by Lorimar, which went under, and then everybody thought Universal had them, but they'd lapsed, and finally, the rights went back to the original short story holder."
He wrote the screenplay with Matthew Robbins "with the idea of directing it] myself 13 years ago. It was supposed to be with Dimension, but I had done 'Mimic' with them and had a very bad experience," he said, referring to the old Miramax genre division. "So I left the screenplay exactly at the place where I thought it was ready. It took 10 more years to restart it, so I've been pursuing the movie for 16 years, at the least. If you date it back to when I first saw the original, it's been more than 30 years."
Different from the original
Asked about the original, Holmes was diplomatic. "I really liked it. I like our movie much better." One of the reasons: Its creepiness is not totally reliant on effects but rather, as per Del Toro's mandate, on "relatable characters."
"Absolutely," Holmes said. "What was fun for us were the family dynamics of the story: Kim goes on this journey where she really has to confront her life, her fears about really being in Sally's life, the bonding with Sally, recognizing herself in Sally and listening to her and confronting Alex, and really doing the right thing for this girl. I love that it's two strong women who fight these creatures, and it's not mother-daughter stuff. It's two people really becoming friends and helping each other."
For the hardworking, 10-year-old Madison ("She's a 50-year-old with a glandular disorder," Del Toro said), making the movie had its creepy aspect. "I think the only scary part is when you really become your character, you kind of get spooked yourself. But that's OK because when I got home every night, I had a hot fudge sundae."
Which is something that would horrify Del Toro, probably ("Oh, he's around the corner eating a cupcake somewhere," Madison said, laughing). He said he only got upset once. "There was a great scene at the end when everything is about to go to hell, Bailee was screaming, and I really felt horrible, as a father: 'My God, what are we doing?' And when it was done, she turned to me and said, 'Are you OK?'
"Making horror movies is actually a very convivial thing," he added. "It's like the girl in 'Pan's Labyrinth' said, 'It was fun to make and scary to watch.' "
Grading Holmes' work
BY JOHN ANDERSON, Special to Newsday
Like it or not, Katie Holmes may be more famous for being the wife of Tom Cruise than for her acting, which is probably unfair: Her career has spanned TV teen soaps, superhero movies and low-budget indies, occasionally to great effect. The following are the key points in a career that has been largely eclipsed by celebrity.
DAWSON'S CREEK (1998-2003) -- As Joey Potter, Holmes managed to combine tomboy and sex bomb in this WB series, which kick-started the careers of such young stars as Michelle Williams, Joshua Jackson and James Van Der Beek.
THE GIFT (2000) -- Already trying to shake off her goody-goody image a la "Dawson's Creek," Holmes played the slutty rich girl in this Southern Gothic melodrama about a psychic (Cate Blanchett) and a murder. Holmes had a rather celebrated nude scene, about which she commented at the time, "I hope there aren't a lot of pauses on DVD players." One can always hope.
PIECES OF APRIL (2003) -- The movie was stolen by Patricia Clarkson, as the title character's cancer-stricken mother, but Holmes gave what is probably her best performance in this low-budget indie directed by Peter Hedges (who wrote "What's Eating Gilbert Grape?") in which April's dysfunctional family arrives for a dysfunctional Thanksgiving Day dinner. Holmes did not dwell in Indie-ville very long, but she made an impact with this film.
BATMAN BEGINS (2005) -- Holmes played Bruce Wayne's childhood sweetheart and Gotham City assistant district attorney Rachel Dawes in Christopher Nolan's first Caped Crusader movie ("The Dark Knight" followed). Holmes got a Golden Raspberry nomination for "worst supporting actress," and was replaced in the next Batman film by Maggie Gyllenhaal.
THE KENNEDYS (2011) -- In what seemed like a stroke of casting brilliance, Holmes was given the plum role of Jackie Kennedy in this U.S.-Canada co-production directed by Jon Cassar ("24"), and co-starring Greg Kinnear, Tom Wilkinson and Barry Pepper. Unfortunately for everyone, the series, which earned Emmy nominations for its male leads, was dumped by History Channel under a barrage of criticism and played instead on ReelzChannel. Holmes' outfits seemed to get more press attention than her performance, which was underappreciated.