DON'T BE AFRAID of seeing DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK
Originally broadcast in 1973 Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark ranks as one of the scariest made for TV movies ever, right up there with Trilogy of Terror (1975), Dark Night of the Scarecrow 1981) and The Woman in Black (1989). The news that it was being remade was met with the usual derision among fans until it was announced that Guillermo del Toro would be producing. Unlike other directors who have lent their name to half-baked projects, del Toro had a reputation for taking great care with anything he became involved with, having produced such outstanding genre films in recent years as The Orphanage (2007), While She Was Out (2008) and Splice (2009). Well the good news is that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) works just fine. It's a very fun, hugely atmospheric and, occasionally, very scary, monster movie with a screenplay by del Toro and Matthew Robbins that effectively expands on the potential of the original reworking it as a dark fairy tale. In fact the first ten or fifteen minutes of this film are as scary as any opening of any horror film I've seen this year.
A young family moves into an old mansion they are in the process of restoring but they're in need of some restoring too. As divorced dad Alex (Guy Pierce) tries to get his daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) to accept his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) into the family it becomes apparent they are haunted by a variety of inner demons. The discovery of a hidden room in the basement with a fireplace that's been bolted shut is a metaphor for all sorts of the things but the literal demonic fairy creatures who live in it start a process of wooing lonely little Sally into helping them escape. What they they are truly up to is ghastly enough to satisfy the motives of the original film.
The creature design is marvelous. In the original film the monsters had furry little teddy bear bodies and shriveled over sized walnut faces. The costumes were worn by children and the effect was unsettling. Those creatures have a lot of fans folks. they were truly innovative at the time and schoolyards all over America rang with the praise of kids who knew they had seen something special. In this version the faces are largely the same but the creature effects seemed almost entirely CGI. That could have been disastrous. But besides the increased mobility that CGI allows here the process also creeps the look up even further. These hunchbacked, rat monkey things skitter in and out of the frame like nasty little spiders in a series of dynamic set pieces.
Performances are generally fine. Bailee Madison in particular is great. Any discussion of the weaknesses of the film should rest on the things that keep it from being great and they are almost all to be found in the screenplay. From the opening titles it's clear that first time feature director Troy Nixey isn't afraid to take a few pages out of what has made del Toro one of this centuries most important fantasists. But as the film progresses the characters tend to play to type and the leaps in logic become palpable. An early attack by the creatures does end with the police investigating but despite the strangeness of the injuries involved the incident is passed off as an accident. And like most haunted house movies viewers will question why the family just didn't get out sooner.
But within those confines the film emerges as a stylistic triumph in the vein of, not only the original, but other seventies horror cinema like Burnt Offerings (1976), and The Sentinel (1977). In other words the same slightly lowered expectations will yield high returns for fans who are open to some old school horror done up del Toro style.