Horror master Guillermo Del Toro’s remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t give you many reasons to actually be afraid, but the film does manage to entertain with a jump or two.
Technically, Del Toro only co-wrote and produced the film, but his fingerprints are all over the movie thanks to its moody-feeling house (filled with odd carved stairs and doors) and dark fairy tale storyline (complete with a very nasty version of the tooth fairy).
Based on the 1973 television movie (written by Nigel McKeand), Del Toro’s updated version was co-written by Matthew Robbins (who co-wrote the screenplay for Mimic with Del Toro in 1997) and directed by Troy Nixey (who co-created the comic series ‘Jenny Finn’ with Hellboy creator Mike Mignola).
For the updated version, Del Toro and company change the Sally character from a housewife (played by Kim Darby in the original) to an eight-year-old girl (Bailee Madison) who comes to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) who are in the process of renovating Blackwood Manor in Providence County, Rhode Island. The huge manor was the home of the famous artist Lord Blackwood (Garry McDonald) – who vanished one evening with his young son.
Thanks to a disturbing opening (which probably helped earn the film its R rating), the audience instantly knows things aren’t right in the house, and there is something very evil living in the basement ash pit.
If the opening isn’t enough to let the audience know this house is just one step down from the home in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Blackwood Manor is filled with creepy tree carvings, big windows (that let in light but it is a sickly yellow), and a sealed basement that is discovered by Sally and practically screams “get out of the house there is something evil here!”
Alex, an architect, has sunk every penny he owns into restoring the manor to its former glory and Kim, an interior designer, sees the renovation as a way of researching a great artist’s legacy while making a name for herself with her designs. The couple unexpectedly inherit Alex’s daughter Sally after his ex-wife ships her to live with them in the manor.
Sally is a troubled little girl (pops pills for depression) and has even had issues with running away from home. Her mother, who only talks to Sally a couple of times on the phone, and her father are hopeful the change in location will help brighten the girl up. This thinking seems odd considering Sally’s room is very depressing with only one tiny window, dark yellow colors, and a night light that is guaranteed to make your child have nightmares.
Depressed and feeling a tad abandoned, Sally makes friends with the strange and creepy voices coming from the ash pit. She discovers the creatures aren’t very nice after she frees them from the bolted shut iron grate and they attack the grounds keeper. She also discovers the creatures (who look like a cross between a rat, spider and a monkey) don’t care for light, but love eating children’s teeth and other bones.
The movie makes maximum use of the film’s dark setting, and the fact that the creatures love to scurry out of dark corners or under the covers. It doesn’t take long before Kim is convinced that Sally is telling the truth about the creatures, and even discovers what happened to Blackwood and his son.
From there, the film ratchets up the excitement (not so much the scares) as Kim, Alex and Sally try to get out of the house and the creatures try to make a snack out of Sally.
Although I am familiar with original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I have honestly never seen the entire movie. I have caught bits and pieces here and there, but it never really interested me enough to keep watching.
Since I am a huge fan of Del Toro’s films, this updated version managed to keep my interest the entire movie, and I enjoyed it. The movie wasn’t nearly as scary as it should have been (or could have been) and there is absolutely no reason for it to carry an R rating (not that the rating promises scares).
It does manage to hook you with a great and disturbing opening, but never manages to really build on the intensity of the opening segment. Aside from just not really being scary, the biggest problem for the film is in the Sally character.
Bailee Madison (who looks like she could be Katie Holmes’ daughter even though she was supposed to be related to Pearce’s character) is very good in the movie, but the character doesn’t work as a child of eight.
This girl has to be one of the bravest children I have ever seen. Not only does she not get scared by the creepy things talking to her through the ash pit, she’s not even frightened when they get into her room the first time.
When her father doesn’t believe her, Sally decides it is time to pack up and leave. Alex makes some comment about how he and his ex-wife used to have trouble with Sally running away. When did that happen? When she was five?
I like the fact that the creatures want to snack on a child because it adds to the fear value and it helps the suspense when it is an innocent child in danger of these rat creatures. I just think adding these other character elements to Sally would have worked better if they had aged her to a teenager. This poor girl has way too much baggage for only being eight.
Luckily, Madison handles the character exceptionally well and makes the audience really feel sorry for all she is going through – including having crappy parents who pump her full of pills and send her to bed in a dark room with the world’s creepiest nightlight.
The film looks solid on Blu-ray and the format really brings all the lush production designs to life on the screen. The house is amazing to look at and the lighting helps sell the story with the sickly yellows of the interior supposed to make you feel somewhat at home while the blues outside reflecting the cold.
It also comes with decent special features that take you into the making of the film with a three-part documentary that features interviews with the cast and crew. The documentary also shows how involved Del Toro was in the film – even though he didn’t handle directing chores. The Blu-ray also includes an exclusive conceptual art gallery.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an entertaining film that manages a jump or two along the way. It isn’t nearly as scary as it could have been or maybe should have been given the opening sequence. The actors are all solid in their roles, and the film’s pace moves fast enough that you don’t have too much time to dwell on the film’s weaker moments.
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