In the 1970s, before the arrival of cable television and (affordable) home video, American families looking to recreate the cinema experience at home would gather around their television sets on weekends and watch the various networks’ “movies of the week”. Unlike their modern counterparts, the original films from the period were legitimate movies; shot on film, featuring popular actors (most of whom were, admittedly, television actors from the more venerable series of the era, usually playing against type in an effort to spread their dramatic wings), and created and helmed by celebrated writers and real directors.
While themes ran the gamut from whodunnits to post-apocalyptic sci-fi, a sizeable chunk of the films made for television during this period were of the horror/thriller variety, with many going on to become genre classics, including such notable fare as Trilogy of Terror (1975), The Night Stalker (1972), and 1973’s immensely creepy and much-beloved Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. This little creature-feature focused on a young couple’s inheritance of a glorious old manse; one that houses a terrible secret in the guise of a race of whispering beasties who live in a basement furnace.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was given the remake treatment in 2011 under the watchful eye of horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, who not only produced, but co-wrote the screenplay for newcomer, Troy Nixey (making his feature directorial debut). The resulting film is typical of Del Toro’s oeuvre; a grandiose dark fantasy/horror film, replete with a pre-adolescent protagonist and a collection of baddies that would make the Brothers Grimm proud. It’s all very extravagant, with exceptional CGI, gorgeous sets, a big name cast, and a richly developed new backstory. It’s a complete reinvention that expands upon the 1973’s unassuming little TV flick in every conceivable way.
But the real question is does it improve upon it?
In this reimagining, the couple residing in the house is now the restoration team of Kim (Katie Holmes) and Alex (Guy Pearce), who’ve sunken a sizeable amount of money into renovating the estate of legendary wildlife painter Edward Blackwood. Just as the couple is ready to unveil their latest restoration job to the historical and architectural community, Alex’s troubled young daughter, Sally (Bailee Madison), arrives for an extended visit. Despite their best efforts, Sally immediately takes a dislike to both her new surroundings and to Kate, showing her displeasure by spending her days either drawing alone in her bedroom or exploring the expansive grounds. While doing the latter, Sally finds herself drawn to a cluster of thick ivy and, beyond it, uncovers the window to a long-hidden basement.
Excited by Sally’s find, Alex and Kim tear down a false wall where they find the entrance to the cellar, much to the chagrin of caretaker, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), who practically begs Alex and Kim to forget about the basement. Once they venture downstairs, they discover a treasure trove of unfinished paintings and drawings, as well as a bolted-shut furnace from which Sally hears the whispering pleas of release from beings that want nothing more than to be her friends. Of course Sally is intrigued by this, and goes about unbolting the furnace, not realizing that, once the subterranean beasties have been set free, they won’t go away unless they take someone with them.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a film made very much in the mold of a traditional Del Toro film. It’s lavishly produced, with cutting edge special effects, and is as aesthetically pleasing as they come. The problem is, in an effort to make something bigger and better out of the comparatively quaint and simple concept of the original film, Del Toro and Nixey have sacrificed much of what made said film work so well in the first place, needlessly complicating matters by incorporating a detailed backstory for the film’s creatures (which, in my opinion, robs them of their mystique), and adding a child protagonist who is saddled with more baggage than a suitcase factory. The 1973 version was designed to do one thing, and that was to scare the bejesus out of people gathered around their television sets. It didn’t have time for such trivialities as a backstory or deep characterizations; the filmmakers had to cram in as many scares as they could into its scant 74 minute running time and still be able to accommodate commercial breaks. That resulted in a leaner, meaner film; one that didn’t suffer from the pacing issues that occasionally bog down this much more ambitious remake. Yes, the backstory gives Katie Holmes a chance to play detective, gives her character and Sally something to bond over, and certainly serves to up the child-in-danger quotient, but it also leads to some of the film’s more infuriating lapses in logic (why don’t they just LEAVE!?!).
The other problem lay with just how much we see of the creatures in this new film. In the original, when we saw the creatures, we were given only fleeting glimpses, oftentimes of just an eye peeking through a grate, or a gnarled hand reaching out from beneath the covers. Even when it finally came time to reward our perseverance with a full-on look at the beasties, it was done in shadow, with costumed actors climbing around on sets decorated with oversized furniture. The rest was left to our imaginations, and as any horror writer will tell you, nothing is remotely as terrifying as what humans are capable of concocting in their own twisted psyches. The remake starts in similar fashion, with a suspenseful build-up to the first reveal, but, once said reveal happens, the screen is suddenly littered with the things, scurrying across floors and ceilings, jumping out of bookcases, and popping up from flower pots. Yes, the effects are remarkable, and the creatures do look rather cool, especially when wielding their tiny little weapons (knives, screwdrivers, scissors, and other portable cutting implements), but the trade-off is that, by the final act of the film, they’re no longer remotely frightening.
I still had fun with this new version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I mean, hell; it’s a great looking movie, offers a few decent scares, and certainly held my attention over the course of its 99 minute running time. Of course, like many, I had much higher hopes for it than that, especially given Del Toro’s involvement. In the end there’s just not that much to be afraid of in this mildly disappointing remake.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Sony, and, as one would expect, the 1.85:1 transfer looks positively perfect. The image is crisp and vibrant, wonderfully saturated with the earthy hues of fall, and teeming with fine detail. It’s complimented by a smartly mixed 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track that’s as equally at home during quitter moments as it is rattling your breakables. Extras are all in HD and include a short, three-part documentary, conceptual arty gallery, and several previews for other Sony releases.