Written by: Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins (screenplay), Nigel McKeand (1973 teleplay)
Directed by: Troy Nixey
Starring: Katie Holmes, Bailee Madison, and Guy Pearce
Reviewed by: Brett G.
ďGet her out of the house.Ē
Last week, I talked about how Fright Night was a long time coming, so I guess thatís a good place to start with Donít Be Afraid of the Dark, whose trailer seemed to bow in theaters this time last year. A casualty of the Miramax sale, it got shuffled about and is finally receiving its wide release; rest assured, though, itís only taken so long for that reason and not because execs were tinkering with it. They probably wouldnít have been able to bully around producer/writer Guillermo Del Toro anyway. Iím not sure where he found the time to co-write this, seeing as how heís booked himself well into the 22nd century by attaching himself to so many projects (future generations will experience films from the cryogenically frozen mind of Del Toro), but heís done a pretty good job of updating the old cult teleflick.
Moving into the house of horrors this time are Alex (Guy Pearce), his daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Homes). Sally is a distant child whoís being bounced between her mom and dad, which leaves her time to wander the grounds. She eventually uncovers a hidden basement that houses some devious creatures who have a long history with the house, dating all the way back to its first owner, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances (does anyone ever disappear under normal circumstances?)
I think you can just look at the house itself in this film and draw a decent metaphor for what theyíve done to the original Donít Be Afraid of the Dark. Whereas that film was situated in a pretty nice and not so humble abode, the house here is a huge, labyrinthine mansion wrought with gothic features and intricate ornamentation. Such is the production as a whole, which takes the basic kernel of the original and polishes it into something more elaborate by filling in some narrative gaps and turning it into a big budget creepshow that mostly works. Acting as a macabre fairy tale that preys on exactly what its title suggests, itís a worthy redux of the Ď73 version. Del Toroís fingerprints can be seen throughout the fantastical imagery that dominates the production design, right down to the credits.
You can also feel Del Toroís pen here, particularly in the mixture of the grotesque with the whimsical. The story of a young girl interacting with gremlin-like creatures will immediately draw comparisons to Panís Labyrinth, and, for a while, it feels like that film by way of The Pit (only it's not nearly as nuts as that Canadian effort). Early sequences particularly capture a sense of awe and horror as Sally explores the house and its surrounding areas. When combined with the filmís interesting (and teeth-shattering) prologue, these sequences set up a nice little mystery and generate some genuine tension. Madison especially makes it work by giving a strong performance as Sally, a whip-smart 21st century kid whoís overmedicated and aware of her parentsí inability to understand her. She obviously doesnít take well to Kim, who may become her step-mother, and thereís a pretty strong (if not obvious) story established between the two.
The problem is that the movie sort of rushes through their conflict; I felt like the film could have explored more with Sally interacting with the creatures, who are insistent that her parents donít really care about her. Maybe sheís too smart to actually join them (which makes enough sense), but the film swiftly deteriorates into her being terrorized by the creatures at every turn while Kim tries to connect with her. At one point, Kim makes a glib reference to her own troubled childhood, which I expected to lead somewhere. It never did, and I donít think Donít Be Afraid of the Dark ever really draws its themes and parallels tightly enough to be anything more than a decent chair-jumper whose momentum scurries away around the hour mark.
Everything deflates once we learn about the nature of the beasts, though the explanation offered is adequate enough and is especially appreciated when compared to the undercooked original film. It essentially twists up the tooth fairy myth, and to much greater effect than when Darkness Falls attempted the same thing. One thing that is held over from the original is the poor male protagonist; like Jim Hutton before him, Pearce is reduced to the hard-line skeptic who comes off especially poor when he seems to put his career ahead of his daughter. For some reason the script seems to introduce him as ďthe good parentĒ compared to Sallyís anxious mom, but Iím not sure either is fit. All this stuff is ultimately background noise to accompany the filmís horror elements (when it should really be the other way around).
That said, Troy Nixey handles that stuff fairly well, particularly early on when he establishes some moody, atmospheric sets. He wisely (and appropriately) keeps things in the dark, relying on some slick camerawork, tight-framing, and unsettling sounds to create unease. The creaturesí persistent whispering (probably the most memorable aspect of the original) is as spooky as ever, especially when theyíre paired with the polished visuals here. Much like the story itself, however, it lost me a bit once the creatures were fully revealed; as you can imagine with Del Toro at the helm, the designs are fine and imaginative, but itís just a much more interesting film when itís low-key and bathed in shadows. Its climactic horror sequences arenít so much scary as they are loud and bombastic assaults on the senses; luckily, the epilogue ends on a more sullen note that refocuses the tone.
Fans of the original should enjoy whatís been done here, as itís basically a very refined version of it. Thereís plenty of nods and holdovers, such as the handyman (Jack Harris) who drops hints about staying out of the cellar. The aforementioned whispers sound like they could have been ripped straight from the original, especially since they retained the name Sally. Tonally speaking, this version actually manages to hew surprisingly close to the film that inspired it despite the R rating. Itís perhaps a bit more visceral, but it doesnít carry an overbearing, dreary menace; instead, itís sort of a pulpy mix of campfire story and fairy tale. Earlier this year, Film District scored a hit with Insidious; maybe theyíve cornered the market on haunted houses. If that one was a solid double, this is kind of a seeing-eye single. Rent it!
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