Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Director : Troy Nixey
Screenplay : Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins (based on the teleplay by Nigel McKeand)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Katie Holmes (Kim), Guy Pearce (Alex), Bailee Madison (Sally), Jack Thompson (Harris), Garry McDonald (Emerson Blackwood), Edwina Ritchard (Housekeeper), Julia Blake (Mrs. Underhill), Nicholas Bell (Psychiatrist), James Mackay (Librarian), Alan Dale (Charles Jacoby), Trudy Hellier (Evelyn Jacoby)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of cultishly beloved 1973 made-for-TV movie about a house that is not haunted nor possessed, but is rather overrun by diminutive demons who wreak havoc on a poor housewife’s already stressed-out sanity. The original’s appeal (and there are many horror fans who swear that their childhoods were forever altered by watching it) is its narrative economy, its relatively clever special effects that make what could have been simply cheesy quite unsettling, and its shock-downer of a climax, as well as its refusal to tie up loose ends and answer questions (we never, for example, learn exactly what the little demons are or what they want).
In updating the film and expanding its plot, producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro and his writing partner Matthew Robbins (with whom he first worked back in 1997 on Mimic) lose some of that appeal, if only because their canvas (and budget) is so much larger, which apparently tempted them to fill in all the blanks and make sure that no element of mystery was left unexplained. To be fair, the backstory they concoct is intriguing, if not exactly compelling, and it allows for del Toro to exercise his flair for mixing fantasy and horror (the epitome of which is still Pan’s Labyrinth , although we can see its roots in his first film, Cronos ).
While the telefilm, saddled as it was with a brief 74 minutes of running time, threw us right into the story, del Toro and Robbins indulge in some prehistory, opening the film in the late 1800s with a gruesomely effective prologue that finds the owner of a stately manor house so desperate to please the spirits that he believes are dwelling in the manor’s basement ash pit that he knocks out all the teeth from his maid’s mouth as a sacrifice (after having done the same to his own chompers). The story then leaps forward to the present day, where we are introduced to Sally (Bailee Madison), the film’s 9-year-old protagonist who is being sent from her home in Los Angeles to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce), an architect who happens to be renovating the manor house we saw in the prologue, and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), who works as an interior designer. Sally, a glum little girl who pops antidepressants in the backseat and generally avoids eye contact or exudes anything resembling happiness, is none too pleased about living with dad and his new girlfriend. Not that Alex is anybody’s idea of an ideal father: He demonstrates affection only in fits and starts and is generally too busy to be bothered with Sally and her problems, which is why it falls on Kim to try to bridge the gap, a role with which she is hardly comfortable.
Given Sally’s generally gloomy demeanor (which constantly threatens to put a damper on the movie and snuff it out entirely), it is not surprising that she become the film’s pint-sized Pandora, opening up the ash pit after discovering it in the manor’s basement, which has been long hidden behind a false wall. When rooms are boarded over in big, old manor houses, it’s usually best to leave them alone, but Sally can’t help but respond to the voices she hears emanating from behind the iron grill, even if they are in a decidedly unnerving sing-songy rasp (the surround sound is easily the film’s best special effect). The voices, however, promise her friendship, which is precisely what she doesn’t get once she opens the ash pit and the little beasties slip out under cover of darkness (they don’t like the light) and start making life miserable for everyone. At first they behave like gremlins, shredding Kim’s clothes and ensuring that Sally gets the blame, although their intentions become increasingly more malevolent, especially when Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), the foreman on the construction crew renovating the house, tries to bolt up their portal again.
First-time director Troy Nixey, who has clearly studied del Toro’s style of evocative horror filmmaking, especially its penchant for mixing the gothic and the modern, builds several nicely sustained sequences, although the film as a whole has a slightly lumbering quality. The central concept of tiny creatures coming up from the bowels of wherever runs the obvious risk of looking silly, especially since it is played so straight, but Nixey does a fine job of making sure that the beasties remain consistently unnerving. He does give in from time to time and show us a little too much, which draws our attention to the CGI seams; the more we see of them, the less frightening they are, although one shock close-up that takes place underneath the sheets of Sally’s bed is a great bit of goosey fright that almost anyone who has ever slept in a bed too big for them will immediately relate to. Overall the best scenes are those that rely entirely on suggestion, giving us the impression of presence without actually showing us anything, and they become unfortunately less and less frequent as the film moves along. Sometimes the human imagination is more powerful than anything that CGI can conjure.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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