Fantasia 2011: ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is a perfect gateway into the world of horror films
Directed by Troy Nixey
Written by Guillermo del Toro & Matthew Robbins
It’s been nearly 40 years since the 1973 ABC telepic Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark terrified youngsters across the globe – one of them being a 9-year-old Guillermo del Toro, who has since cited it as a major influence on his career. Now comes a remake/re-imagination of that film, penned by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, and directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey. The trio set out to make a G-rated supernatural thriller for a new generation and despite the absurd MPAA R-rating, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is just that: a perfect gateway into the world of horror films, a tantalizing spine-tingler and one that will hopefully inspire the next Guillermo del Toro.
The 2011 version opens with an unsettling prologue featuring an old man named Emerson Blackwood, his missing son, a chisel, some broken teeth and the sounds of the basement creatures coming from within the walls of the Blackwood Manor. The opening remains the pic’s strongest spectacle: dark, twisted, atmospheric, stylish, and spooky. More than a century later, Blackwood and his son no longer reside in the mansion, but the monsters that walk in the shadows and prey in the night are still lurking in the darkest corners of the basement furnace. The story than follows Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl who moves to Rhode Island to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the creepy, run-down 19th-century estate they are restoring. Much like most movies in which creatures dwell in the dark places of spooky homes, the plot becomes all too familiar, with Sally accidentally discovering the mansion’s hidden basement and beginning to hear voices calling out for her. It’s not long before those voices take a physical form, as Sally unwittingly unleashes something so terrible putting everyone’s life is in grave danger.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark by no means deserves its R rating, and although Del Toro is proud of it, it will work against the movie’s favour. Audience members flooded out of the Fantasia Film Festival furious with the pic’s lack of scares. But while hardcore genre fans won’t shriek, anyone under the age of thirteen will break a sweat and maybe shed a few tears. Dark is a solid creature feature reminiscent of the’80s puppet movies but without the humour. Director Troy Nixey succeeds in stringing the audience along with a few memorable moments, including a terrifying sequence in which the creatures manage to creep under Sally’s bedcovers. Nixey effectively keeps the little critters offscreen for a good portion of the running time, understanding the tension will be greatest if he withholds the creatures for as long as he can. Relying instead on the shadowy figures, we catch glimpses of their glowing eyes and sharp claws – their menacing presence is established more through their whispers and the old-fashioned score by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders. The cast conjures up moments of anxiety, dread, unease and doubt and Nixey does a fine job providing ominous overtones and creates a modern horror film with an old-fashioned touch, relying on suggestion and suspense to generate fear.
One should note two amusing updates in the film’s screenplay, which takes the generic plot of the original and gives it new life. The biggest change is in our protagonist, who is a child (still named Sally) instead of a neurotic housewife (played by Kim Darby in the original). It also becomes obvious early on that Robbins and del Toro’s grim script also has a connection to a childhood fairy tale. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is essentially a twisted vision of the Tooth Fairy, wherein a child’s life will be spared in exchange for human teeth.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark will work for those willing to except what its target audience is. The creature design is satisfactory, the Blackwood Manor plays as both a stunning backdrop and as an additional character, and the sweeping camera work by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton is ace.
In short, writer-director Troy Nixey has assembled a thriller that’s highly engrossing led by newcomer Bailee Madison, who delivers an intense, masterfully performance, drawing comparisons to a once young Drew Barrymore.