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The moral of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is that what scares you as a child doesn’t necessarily have the same effect on a grown-up. The very talented fabulist filmmaker Guillermo del Toro has in many of his best films, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, explored the heightened emotions and fantasies of very young people. Who knows but maybe this can be traced back, at least in part, to what he describes as the scariest movie he ever saw on television, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, written by Nigel McKeand and broadcast by ABC in 1973?
Now he has remade that telefilm into a feature, which he co-wrote and co-produced while handing directing chores to comics artist Troy Nixey (creator of Trout), making a feature debut. The result is a scary movie that is genuinely scary in parts, although an adult can’t help noticing this is set in the very worn and tattered territory of the haunted-house genre. Then when you get a glimpse of the CGI critters causing all the mayhem, the scares completely vanish. You spend the rest of the movie wondering why someone doesn’t just call a fumigator and get rid of those damn creatures.
The movie may still scare 9-year-olds when it gets released August 26, but anyone much older may laugh rather than shriek. Del Toro is by now a brand name so interest from his extended fan base as well as those from the world of comics should allow Miramax and FilmDistrict to enjoy a modest box-office success before this movie joins its predecessor as a late-night video.
Del Toro showed interest in developing this film before his worldwide success with Pan’s Labyrinth so one can look upon Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as something of a trial run for some of the themes and imagery connected to that amazing film. A young girl under severe emotional distress enters an imaginary world hidden from adults that seems to be a refuge only to gradually take on macabre and treacherous aspects.
Every child believes a monster is lurking under the bed or in the dark. Only in the case of young Sally (Bailee Madison) something is there. Paying little heed to her fears — although after one frightening episode a shrink is called in — are her distracted father, an ambitious architect Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce), and his interior decorator girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes).
Sally has been sent — “discarded” might be a better term — by her mother to live with her father in a Gothic Rhode Island mansion he is restoring to sell and, he hopes, revive his flagging career. Left to her own devices, the lonely girl wanders through the labyrinthine grounds and spooky interiors of Blackwood Manor where she stumbles onto its secrets, despite the best efforts of its wary caretaker (veteran Jack Thompson) to cover these up.
Voices call to her to come down to the basement and play. Things happen to the adults, especially the shredding of Kim’s clothes, that are blamed on her but she knows she didn’t do. So far so good as the movie, written by del Toro with Matthew Robbins, nicely links events, whether real or imagined, with the distraught emotional state of a child.
Interestingly, the original teleplay has no child. A married couple moves into strange old mansion and it’s the neurotic wife who believes she’s losing her mind as she sees horrible little creatures. By putting a child at the center of the action, del Toro introduces his 9-year-old self, as it were, into the story: This is how he remembers the experience of seeing this movie.
If somehow the forces of evil had remained unseen and perhaps figments or externalizations of the little girl’s fragile emotions, this Dark might have retained its childhood power over all viewers. Alas, when little creatures climb out of a wall grate and scurry across floors and walls, baring fangs, snapping claws and staring with heartless beady eyes, you’ve gone from the world of Turn of the Screw to that of Gremlins.
The film also cheats a bit. You never quite understand the rules of the game: Where do the powers of these creatures come from that they’re able to turn electricity on and off or make sharp objects fly through the air?
Shooting entirely on a large set and a few exteriors in Melbourne, Australia, Nixey shows himself much more of a visual artist than a dramatic one at this stage of his film career. What the film does best is to build up an atmosphere, richly detailed and mysterious, where anything evil is possible. It also manages at least for a while to get you into the head of its young protagonist and see the house and its grounds from her point of view. But the adults are very old stock characters, exasperatingly so, and the pay-off is nil. The title then becomes all too prophetic: You don’t need to be afraid of this dark.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Fest (Miramax Films)
Production companies: Miramax and Guillermo del Toro present in association with FilmDistrict a Necropia/Gran Via production
Cast: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Jack Thompson
Director: Troy Nixey
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins
Based on the teleplay by: Nigel McKeand
Producers: Guillermo del Toro, Mark Johnson
Executive producers: Stephen Jones, William Horberg, Tom Williams
Director of photography: Oliver Stapleton
Production designer: Roger Ford
Music: Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Jill Bilcock
R rating, 100 minutes
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