REVIEW: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark Is Nothing to Be Afraid Of
There are two types of middle-aged people in the world: Those who didn't see John Newland's 1973 made-for-TV movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark when it aired, and those who did see it and were marked for life.
Guillermo del Toro is in the latter group, having witnessed the spectacle of young housewife Kim Darby being seduced and terrified by hordes of miniature men who live in the bowels of the mansion she just moved into with her husband, Jim Hutton. Only she can see them, and we barely see them, even when they do things like peek out stealthily from flower arrangements or purloin various sharp household implements as part of their master plan for -- well, never mind that for now. For years del Toro has been hoping to see the movie remade. Now his dream -- or perhaps his own personal little nightmare -- has come to life with Troy Nixey's modernized version, which del Toro produced and co-wrote.
Except there's something missing in this Don't Be Afraid of the Dark -- or maybe there's too much extra something. In this update, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce play Kim and Alex, an unmarried couple temporarily camped in the spooky-looking Rhode Island mansion they're renovating; their plan is to restore it to its former glory and get it on the cover of Architectural Digest. Alex has invited his young daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), to come from L.A. to live with them. The overmedicated moppet has been "too sad" of late and seems to need a change of scenery.
We know what she's getting into: In the movie's preamble, we've already seen the house's original owner, circa early 19-something, hunkered in his basement, whimpering and simpering as he serves up a plate of bloody teeth to a group of whispering whats-its who lurk behind an iron grate. The man has gone mad -- a condition instigated by the creepy-crawlies' snatching of his young son -- and he's reached the end of his rope trying to appease them. Enter young Sally, some 100 years later -- she may as well be wearing a "Steal me!" sign on her back.
Del Toro loves his creatures. Maybe he loves them too much: He always wants us to get a good look at them, and that's one of the things that saps the spookiness from this Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. The underground mansion crew are hairy little beasties with sharp teeth and wild eyes; they could be mutant capuchin monkeys. With their quick, furtive gestures, they are technically impressive -- but their presence is also something of a miniature essay on the limits of technique. The creatures in Newland's version are far more lo-fi, to the point of being comical: They have oversize heads, like white shrunken prunes, and their bodies also appear to be covered in some kind of fur, the cheap kind. The difference is that you barely see them -- they're more often alluded to, appearing as shivery shadows darting in the corners of this already-dark house. More terrifying yet, we hear them whispering among themselves without really seeing them. I haven't seen the Newland version in nearly 40 years -- I'm just not sure I want to open up that nightmare box again -- but the line I remember distinctly is a hissed, "We'll get her while she's asleep!"
Del Toro and Nixey's version also features lots of whispering, but it's often too direct, too scripted, to be truly scary. When Sally tearfully asks her tormentors the inevitable question, "What do you want?" they answer inevitably, "We want YOU." As if they even needed to bother. This version is also hobbled by excess psychological padding: Del Toro seems to think it needs to be about the unspoken fears of childhood (a pet theme of his, and one that he has often handled beautifully, particularly in Pan's Labyrinth), but here it just feels like schtick. It doesn't help that Madison's Sally is a sullen, puddin' faced child, not exactly charmless but hardly engaging, either. Del Toro has also manufactured a supposedly complicated stepmom relationship between Holmes and Madison that never quite clicks; Pearce is stuck playing the clueless, insensitive parent.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark does feature a few understated, evocative moments, as when Sally burrows beneath the billowing sheets on her bed to see if she can catch one of the creatures who's scurried under there. Nixey has worked primarily as a comic-book illustrator -- this is his first feature -- and he does show some visual flair. But I can't imagine that this version of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark will be remembered, with a shudder, in 40 years. No one or nothing in it will steal into your sleep to get you, though God knows del Toro tried.