When it became obvious that his duties on The Hobbit were becoming all-consuming (and, as it turned out, ultimately wasted) Guillermo Del Toro was forced into passing his pet horror project, a remake of the classic made-for-television frightener, John Newland's Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (1973), to someone else to direct. He'd been impressed by the short-film, Latchkey's Lament, from Troy Nixey, and in the enthusiastic Canadian genre-buff he believed he had found a suitable heir to this tale of demonic gremlins and the haunted old mansion that they have been thriving in.
After a grisly, though slightly overlong prologue centred around some impromptu dentistry in the cobwebbed basement of Blackwood Manor in 1910, we meet young Sally (Bailee Madison), a little girl being packed off to live with her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and the new love of his life, Kim (Katie Holmes). Reluctant to leave her mother, Sally is over-awed by the impressive gothic mansion that is to be her new home … and defiantly determined not to get along with Kim. Whilst her father seems obsessed with renovating the old estate and making the cover of some illustrious periodical, Sally hears noises and hushed, whispering voices from somewhere below the hidden basement that her reclusive explorations uncover … and when she unwittingly encourages the little “things” that seem to be residing in the tunnels beneath a dusty old fire-grate, she puts herself and the other occupants of the place in dire peril. A devil-horde of scampering imps go on the rampage, taunting and tormenting Sally, but try as she might she cannot convince Kim or her father that she is not imagining things and that there really are demons on the loose.
Folks, I'd been really looking forward to this film, and I've now seen it twice. The first time was at a pre-release showing, but I was so stunned at how inept it seemed that I couldn't bring myself to write about it until after I'd seen it again just to make sure that I hadn't been incredibly mistaken first time around, or had, perhaps, fallen asleep and dreamed up a contorted collage of consummate cack-handedness. Well, I think I've suffered enough on your behalf because my initial impressions certainly weren't mistaken. Despite all the publicity and hype that surrounded Del Toro's new chiller, and the big name casting, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark is a massive letdown from such a creative luminary, and an incredibly poor movie by anyone's standards. It is riddled with clichés and smacked about the head with contrivances. That it doesn't simply fall into its own black plot-hole is down to some superb cinematography, courtesy of Oliver Stapleton, one neat performance and a decent, if ill-fitting level of violence. But a good horror film, this is not. Having dusted-off his original screenplay, shelved after his falling out with the Weinsteins over Mimic (see separate BD review), he was only able to return to it after Miramax slinked away from Disney. But, even then, the film ended-up slumbering in post-production, lack of effective distribution limbo for the best part of two years. It is hard to view the final result as being something that was worth waiting for, though.
The film recalls both Poltergeist and The Borrowers, but the tale that it mimics most of all is the Drew Barrymore segment of the anthology movie Cat's Eye, the one about a little girl being terrorised by a truly horrible little ogre residing in the skirting-board of her bedroom. But it is nowhere near as good as any of them, I'm afraid. Well, when I say “afraid” … I should more accurately say that I'm not afraid. Not afraid of the Dark that this disappointing movie seeks to chill us with, that is. Shadows prevail, sudden stingers abound, menacing fiends cause all manner of evil and, at the epicentre of it all, there is young girl left in increasing levels of jeopardy. All very formulaic, of course, but there's no reason why this shouldn't work. Yet fail it does.
Splitting Kim Darby's childless and paranoid heroine from the original movie into two distinct characters – both Sally and Kim - enables Del Toro to segue Nigel McKeand's more ruthless and cold-hearted screenplay from yesteryear into something much more within his own chosen parameters of a troubled child encountering the fantastic and, in so doing, learning to overcome some massive personal traumas. We've seen it in Cronos, Mimic, The Devil's Backbone and, most pertinently, in Pan's Labyrinth, and you could even argue that the theme of child/parent mismanagement has also flavoured both Blade II and Hellboy II, with Luke Goss assuming the role of aggrieved offspring with father issues in both. But where those examples were fresh and compelling, this is trite and hackneyed. A token gesture with a child psychiatrist is shoehorned-in and goes absolutely nowhere. The theme of acceptance, sacrifice and redemption is also tentatively brought up … but this peters-out the same way.
There's no question that the casting is problematic, though probably not quite as catastrophic as some people have painted. Pearce is a terrific actor, although you would not have guessed it from the mundane, sleepy and by-the-numbers performance that he puts in here. Alex could, and should have been a stronger and more three-dimensional figure than the one-note caricature that Del Toro's scenario creates. Pearce just seems to mumble or shout his way through with little actual meat for the character to chew on. He nails the obsessive nature of the architect father in his detachment and abrupt mannerisms towards Sally all right but, saying this, he fails to convince that he is an architect. For a kick off, he isn't helped by a screenplay that has his own daughter discover the huge basement beneath the mansion that he, a confirmed specialist in the field of renovating old buildings, has never come across in a few months of extensive planning work and restoration on the place. I know that she finds it via a bizarre skylight hidden in the shrubbery, but this is a guy (or a Guy) who could have performed a full structural survey in his sleep and would, via his own professional savvy at least, have deduced the complete architectural layout of the place. I mean he and Kim, who just happens to be an interior decorator, herself, haven't just moved in, they've been there for ages. And when the entire premise is borne out of this illogicality, we are already on very shaky foundations.
I can't really accept how thoroughly lousy he is at being a parent either. Having gained his daughter from a woman who appears to have to no time for her, he then pays lip service to familial compassion – wow, he's got his little girl a fancy bedside lantern just like the one in Sleepy Hollow (hey, and look how that poor kid ended-up!) - and becomes an impatient troll of a father who goes out of his way to place his child in danger. Just to compound the difficulty with Pearce's portrayal, I think it is sort of relevant to also add that I've always thought that he had a weird face and that it is very definitely not complemented by the slap-down hairdo that he sports here. It makes him look eerily reminiscent of a Bo'Selecta Scott Glenn-head and, quite honestly, a little bit stupid. And Holmes is just as nondescript as ever. A cute, yet perennially bland presence in anything, she brings little to the table, which is a shame as the role of the “new” mother is one of the story's most important. She doesn't do anything specific that stands up and cries out “Bad Actress!”, though I think there are few people out there who believe she is anything other than a prime example of one. There is such little charm or personality invested that she just seems to blend into the set at times. When things get overwrought or sentimental, don't go looking to Katie for any shred of emotion, that's for sure … which plays merry hell with the final act.
Thank God, then, that we have little Bailee Madison to save the day. Well, almost save the day. It would take someone of enormous charisma to shine some real humanity into this slow-moving and often turgid affair.
The film, naturally, revolves around Sally and her plight, so someone we could immediately empathise with and feel concern for is absolutely essential. There are certainly moments when she will generate pangs of parental anxiety (the bathroom sequence and the climactic tug-of-war), and Madison even manages to convince us of her inherent curiosity in what are, quite glaringly, spooky goings-on that, in all honesty, no child would have any difficulty in convincing doubting-Thomas grownups of. And she's been down the imaginary-versus-reality road before in Bridge To Teribithia. One area of her performance that threw me, though, was her voice. Madison has a much more mature voice for her little body and her apparent age. This is a bitter irony when you consider that far too many child actors are actually given scripts that have them spouting such adult dialogue that you can't help but loathe them. Poor Madison just sounds older than she is … and this does play havoc with her climb-downs from tantrums or panic attacks. Suddenly she sounds far too calm and intelligent and in-control, and this does, inevitably, slacken the tension we've just had during a creature-attack. But, this said, I liked her portrayal and she is about the only person in the film – including Del Toro's cameo as a plane passenger sitting behind her near the start – who believes in their own character. Too bad, then, that she is forced to undergo situations as daft as the utterly ridiculous under-the-table creature pursuit that takes place during a dinner-party! And just why does the script have her snatch back the photographic evidence from some potentially independent witnesses? Honestly, there are times when the film is just plain embarrassing.
There is a viable argument I've heard that we don't even need to have a little girl in the central role. That Del Toro structuring the plot around “another child” is just pandering to his oft-used thematic strategy. Well, it should be remembered that the original movie was a slave to the era in which it was made – thus, disenfranchised women seeking acceptance and confidence and a level of legitimacy within a relationship and the home structure was a cogent and, indeed, prevalent issue within genre films (to wit, Repulsion, Rosemary's Baby and many more). Nowadays, and for quite a long time it seems, it has been more affecting to place a child within similar existential, supernatural or otherwise psychologically revealing environments. And, indeed, Del Toro has made something of a career out of such devices, so that argument does, in all honesty, hold a fair amount of water. But, thematically speaking, it works well here so I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. Certainly, you can imagine the money-men insisting on such a conceit for the sheer marketing value that it enables. A woman on the brink of madness is great … combine that with a kid teetering above the same abyss and you've possibly doubled your audience.
But the film has too many idiotic plot holes and inconsistencies. The genre is frequently dependant on such lapses of logic and narrative forgetfulness, but when someone of Del Toro's pedigree is behind them – and he wrote the screenplay alongside regular collaborator Matthew Robbins so we cannot blame the fledgling Nixey for the silliness shown here – this is simply inexcusable. Upon hearing noises, unearthly voices and having the grate in the cellar unscrew itself and clatter to the floor when her father is only just up the stairs, little Sally would swiftly be able to call his attention to such phenomena. Whereas a child's innocent acceptance of “things from elsewhere”, as we saw so acutely and eloquently in Pan's Labyrinth, is a well-known plot device, it just doesn't wash that Sally would fall so easily and swiftly under the bogus enchantment of these devilish imps. The damn evidence of these crafty little blighters being around is also much too easy to find for us to buy into the adults' complete dismissal of the girl's claims. She squishes one between the mobile shelves of a bookcase and could very simply show its severed arm to pop and all the other party guests (including Pearce's old Neighbours co-star, Alan Dale) ... but no, never thought of that, did Del Toro, Robbins or Nixey, because then everybody would know and something practical could have been done to end the horror right there and then. But the big error – the really big error that will leap out and slap you in the face – is when a certain character, whose all-too apparent knowledge of what weird old Blackwood was really getting up to in that wacky prologue should really have alerted everyone else to the fact that things were amiss right from the start, gets imped and carved-up pretty bad. After staggering around the place with an assortment of toolbox goodies sticking out of his anatomy until he resembles a human Swiss Army Knife, Sally, who witnessed the whole attack, is told that the guy simply had “an accident”!!!!! What? You're kidding me! The cops who arrived to clean up the mess were happy with this assessment then? Jeez, only Lt. Frank Drebin of Police Squad could be that unlucky in “an accident”. And does this event get addressed further on when the authorities actually stop and think about how this guy became a walking dartboard? Erm … nope, not really. He gets a visit in hospital from Kim who only asks him about what he thinks Sally has seen in the basement … not what actually happened to him!!! This is unforgivable stupidity, folks. Case closed.
I'm afraid it is things like this that wrench what sporadically cultivated atmosphere away from the film and leave it as a prime example of the Emperor's New Clothes. Even the juvenile tat of modern Doctor Who wouldn't just brush something like this under the carpet so glibly.
And the film has even more irresponsible elements. We have lame-brained photographic shenanigans with a camera given to Sally with which to capture these things she's been babbling on about. Worse again, an entire amateur sleuthing routine that Kim goes on in a public library with seemingly all the answers spread out right in front of her. In a lazy, generic slasher-flick you expect such foolishness and narrative shorthand, and probably even applaud it. But from a talent like Del Toro, this is just insulting.
The creatures themselves are like a cross between those brilliant little demons from the fun 80's monster-fest, The Gate, and Del Toro's own tooth-fairies from Hellboy II. They have hunched-back rat bodies and Nosferatu faces. Sinister and devoutly malevolent they may be, but they are also patently unscary. The rubber-headed mini-monsters back in 1973 had infinitely more impact than these over-exposed critters. It matters not how sharp-toothed and agile they are, nor how adept they are with scissors, Stanley-knives and screwdrivers when we know that we could merely swat them into oblivion or stomp them underfoot with relative, and even quite happily sadistic ease. The dark little plasticine buggers from The Gate were wonderful creations that were palm-sweatingly scary and yet utterly fascinating and fun to watch. Del Toro's tooth-fairies were a brilliant subversion of folklore and tradition, and these are clearly an evolutionary and thematic modification. They are visually interesting, as lots of close-up expressions and antics make clear, but hugely devoid of blood-chilling credentials – which is another fundamental flaw. The fact that they speak does not make them any creepier either … even if Del Toro, himself, lends his tonsils to their scheming. In fact, it lessens their otherness.
I've been singing the praises of composer Marco Beltrami for a long time. His collaborations with Del Toro have been stunning and his horror/fantasy work elsewhere has been never less than impressive. He is one of two incredible talents composing regularly today who have a supreme gift for the gothique and the resolutely creepy, the other being the great Christopher Young of Hellraiser and Drag Me To Hell fame. So I find it somewhat surprising and a touch disillusioning that Beltrami's score for Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark is so lacking in either originality or imagination, and descends into a composition that is purely generic and unmemorable. I'm sure he even stoops as low as to trot out a Bernard Herrmann Psycho riff as Sally pulls down the shower-curtain during the bathroom attack. Now I find myself wishing that Christopher Young had gotten the gig. I'm sure he would have brought more flair, style and atmosphere to the pot.
The saddest thing about this is the fact that Guillermo Del Toro's name is attached to it … and that we simply cannot sugar-coat things by claiming that he merely lent his moniker to help promote it. The movie has his look and style imprinted all the way through its fabric, from set-design to visual effects to the whole concept of a mythological world encroaching upon our own. We know that he likes to do his artistic personal project first and then do one for the money, alternating productions between the intensely poignant and original and the overblown, studio-produced biggies, but even though he claims that this was always a story that was close to his heart, and something that he had been trying to get off the ground for almost twenty years, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark feels exactly like a sanitised, suit-blighted affair that has been robbed of personality and distinction.
Ultimately, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark is probably entertaining enough for the multiplex crowd, but remains hugely flawed supernatural hokum of the most humdrum kind that is sure to infuriate more genre fans than it entices. And Del Toro devotees will feel cheated and stung by the self-plagiarism and overall sloppiness of the story. Yet, to be fair, it passes the time and provides a few little jolts along the way. The movie always looks ravishing and the photography and production design are straight out of the Del Toro home furnishings range, which is both welcome and reassuringly insidious. But despite a nice line of mean-spirited mayhem the film is eminently forgettable, and you could even justifiably cite those curiously savage instances as not sitting right with the overall tone – the molar-removing prologue and the toolbox assassination seem like they have been spliced-in from another movie altogether. Gaping plot holes abound too, making Troy Nixey's debut feature a prime exercise in head-scratching and eye-rolling, and even hurl-questions-at-the-screen frustration. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that this revamped and energised chiller will be regarded as being anywhere near as effective as the original film upon which it is based which was, at least, genuinely unique and very effectively scary.
The money is up there on the screen for sure … but Guillermo Del Toro's latest has no character, no invention and no shivers at all. The fact that I've seen this twice is the scariest thing about it.
Very poor indeed.
Considering all the advance buzz about the film, and especially how Del Toro, himself, had bigged-it-up regarding how terrifying it was going to be, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark is a crushing disappointment. Oh, it looks suitably grand and gothic and benefits from a pleasingly old school treatment, but it lacks proper scares, credible characters and pricks that disbelief suspension bubble far too early and much too emphatically. The plot deviation from the original is perfectly acceptable with regards to the creation of Sally and, on paper, the metamorphosis of the monsters from a clutch of creepy midgets to a horde of CG demons makes dramatic sense … but, when viewed in the context of the movie, the imps lose the essential spook-factor from almost the very instance that we first see them. Although gleefully nasty in places, one admittedly bravura set-piece is rendered schematically redundant by its subsequent glossing-over and, for me, the movie never recovers.
Performance-wise, the film is hampered by having two adult leads who are completely and utterly bereft of empathy or believability. Only the little one deserves any credit for what turns out to be nothing more than lavish dross. Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna were knocking this sort of thing out back in the 80's, and with much greater style, wit and atmosphere.
One thing is for sure, you Won't Be Afraid Of The Dark after watching this painful, low-rent effort.
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