Unless you were a kid in the '70s, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is probably a title you're unfamiliar with. And if you did happen to catch up with this 1973 TV movie along the way on VHS or DVD, chances are it didn't resonate with you the way it still does for many Gen-Xers. It's a cult film but hardly a classic. Even those who were given sleepless nights by it as children would be hard-pressed to say that it remains frightening today.
As one of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's original audience, producer Guillermo del Toro does a fine job of retooling this now-hokey childhood traumatizer into a film that ably works for an audience of 2011 while still retaining enough of the '73 version for fans to recognize. This being the first feature of director Troy Nixey, his contribution to Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is inevitably going to be somewhat overshadowed by the presence of del Toro on the project - especially as this film boasts so many trademark del Toro touches from its story elements to its production design (del Toro wrote the screenplay along with frequent writing partner Matthew Robbins). It will take further films from Nixey to really determine what kind of filmmaker he is but this is unarguably a finely directed film and based on its smooth execution, it seems that the producer/director relationship behind it was an artistically harmonious one.
A key change in this remake from the original is that, unlike the '73 Dark which featured a lonely and neglected housewife (Kim Darby) as the protagonist, here the heroine is a young girl named (after Darby's character) Sally (Bailee Madison). As the movie opens, Sally has just been figuratively dumped on her father's doorstep by her mother. In this case, her father's doorstep is Blackwood Manor, a gloomy piece of Rhode Island real estate that Sally's architect dad (Guy Pearce) is in the midst of restoring with the assist of his new interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).
Sally is miserable in her new surroundings and with her new semi-step mom figure. But then she discovers a long-shuttered basement to Blackwood Manor from which Sally can hear strange whispers, promising friendship. But viewers of the original - as well as anyone who takes in the grisly prologue to this film, for that matter - know that whatever is calling out to Sally only intends to bring her harm.
It was wise of del Toro and Robbins to switch to a child protagonist as Darby's Sally seems like a relic of another time, when (sadly) it wasn't so jarring to see a grown woman be so unable to help herself. To try and retell that character's story for today's audiences would've been disastrous. And while the idea of a kid protagonist can be cause for concern, with expectations of a cloying or obnoxiously precocious character, Madison thankfully doesn't play one of those typical movie kids who seems too advanced for their years. As for Pearce and Holmes, while neither is playing the most vivid of characters, they're both fine in their roles.
In changing the central characters of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark from a young married couple to an ill-fit family unit, del Toro and Robbins still left the basic bones of the original storyline intact and that means that this remains a very simple tale - perhaps too simple for some, given the pedigree behind it. Del Toro's name on a film automatically raises critical expectations and Don't Be Afraid of the Dark may be too modest of a production to please those who go in looking for something along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth. Staying true to the spirit of the original, this is meant as a straight-forward spine-tingler and for those who aren't necessarily genre fans, that might not be enough. For myself, I loved that this was just about crafting a small, solid genre piece. It's not out to rewrite the book or bust any conventions and it doesn't try to be an FX extravaganza.
From the previews, I was worried about the creature's look. I expected to be turned off by the CGI but unless I'm forgetting some other film (or films), this might be the first case in which wholly CGI monsters are pulled off effectively (as opposed to, say, Jurassic Park or Starship Troopers where CGI was combined with other methods).
If it's not the first, it's definitely the first in a while. After seeing so many contemporary monster movies, like Super 8, being let down by disappointingly designed, lazily rendered, instantly forgettable CGI creatures, I was thrilled to see how well the tiny homunculi were realized here. Nixey keeps them in the shadows for the most part but when they need to be revealed, there's as much detail to them as if they'd been sculpted by hand. And they're able to express real emotion as well, with some of their reactions being among the most memorable shots in the film.
There are a few points to quibble with - the relationship between the gruff handyman (Jack Thompson) and the creatures is only vaguely explained and even seemingly impossible, given the length of time the creatures have been sealed off for. And for such malicious creatures, it's curious that they refrain from killing at times where they have ample opportunity, conveniently leaving fallen characters a chance to recover.
I also must've missed out on why Holmes' character has a vintage Polaroid instant camera. At first I thought it was because the story was set in the '70s but cellphones abound so that explanation is out.
The easiest reasoning is that it's a nod to the original in which Darby's Sally used flashbulbs at one point to ward off the creatures (at least I seem to remember that she did) and, in the end, I like that del Toro and Nixey inject this anachronistic tech into their modern movie with no excuse given. In fact, no one even comments on it - although even a young kid in our digital age would remark on what a strange sight it is. The camera is there simply because del Toro and Nixey wanted it to be there. As fans, they understand that in a horror movie, anything to set the proper mood comes before logic.
Mood is something Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has in spades. The production design of Roger Ford is outstanding and even when nothing "big" is going on - which, honestly, is for most of the movie - it's a pleasure to soak in the marvelous sets and autumnal locations (this was filmed in Melbourne, Australia - which does a mostly good job of subbing for New England). For many, this will be an easy film to shrug off but I appreciated the skill behind this minor, but lovingly made, effort.
It's a lesson in the do's - and don't's - of horror filmmaking.