John Newland’s 1973 made-for-TV drama “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is widely considered a high water mark for feature-length broadcast productions. Produced as an ABC movie of the week, it belonged to a series that also included Steven Spielberg’s “Duel” and the early Michael Douglas vehicle “Shattered Silence,” among many others. Those with adolescent memories of watching Newland’s movie usually recall its genuine frights, an experience made particularly resonant by the capacity to watch it within the solitary environment of one’s own home.
[Editor’s Note: This review was originally published during indieWIRE’s coverage of the Los Angeles Film Festival, where “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” premiered. It opens wide this Friday, August 26 through FilmDistrict.]
Remade now by former comics illustrator Troy Nixey, and aided by a screenplay co-written by Guillermo Del Toro, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” loses that same fright factor when expanded to the big screen. The story hasn’t changed: A young girl moves into the creaky old mansion with her architect father and his girlfriend; ghoulish supernatural beings stalk her whenever the lights go out. By and large, however, the spookiness has gone soft, possibly because shock standards have shifted.
Nixey, whose enjoyable short film “Latchkey’s Lament” suggested Tim Burton by way of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and landed him this gig, explores the crevices of the house with a free-wheeling camera and plenty of heavy-handed dread. The scares are nicely framed within a gloomy atmosphere, but Nixey’s direction never finds its equilibrium. Is it a classical work of gothic horror or a quieter, subtler approach to studying the roots of childhood fear? Settling for both, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” falls short of fulfilling either potential.
Which isn’t to say Nixey doesn’t try. Improperly formulated in bland horror movie terms, his directorial debut occasionally explores the fine line between outright comedy and fear, with young Sally (Bailee Madison) launching a war against the freaky little people who taunt her at every turn. (The original starred a young Kim Darby, marking the second time in less than a year that one of her childhood roles has been revisited by a new actress, the first occasion being the Coen brothers’ remake of “True Grit.”)
Sally’s father (Guy Pearce) reacts to her constant outbursts with a stilted look of frustration, while his interior designer gal pal (Katie Holmes) almost instantly accepts her stories about the eerie things who taunt the girl at night. In this clean distinction between believers and non-believers, Nixey and Del Toro create an ode to the latter day elegance of horror movie yore.
Unfortunately, that also gives the entire story a rote, mundane quality easily describable in terms of superior predecessors, even though they came after the original version: Nixey’s troublemaking critters, with their dubious intentions and whispery pronouncements, look like mini-Gollums or “Gremlins” rejects who wandered onto the set “Poltergeist.” They beckon eerily to Sally from the shadows whenever she finds herself alone, an undeniably creepy device that eventually loses its impact once the elfin pests show face. Then they’re just plain silly–and even, dare I say it, oddly cute. But then the original had that problem as well.
Needless to say, some changes have been made: The new version ups the threat factor from three goblins to a dozen or so threatening tykes. The screenwriters include a perfunctory explanation about the connection between the beings’ otherworldly presence and the late animal illustrator who used to live in the house. A grisly prologue set in the late nineteenth century shows the elderly man knocking out his maid’s teeth as a vain sacrifice to the beastly inhabitants. These tacked-on bits are presumably as necessary as the use of CGI, in that they inject the movie with contemporary appeal in rather simplistic fashion–by making it meaner and more narratively complex.
Beyond these contrivances, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is largely a cut-and-paste affair, although useful for that very reason; it provides a glaring reminder that scary movies have evolved, both in terms of style and expectations, but the evolution isn’t worth the effort. A few years ago, Del Toro produced “The Orphanage,” a leaner, smarter throwback to scarier cinema that predominantly relied on the impact of unknown things lurking just outside the frame. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” lifts its spell whenever it turns on the lights.
criticWIRE grade: B-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? From a commercial perspective, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has the potential to become a real double-threat: It stands to get a nice publicity boost from Del Toro, and will be released by FilmDistrict, which already proved it has the chops to open a creepy haunted house movie with the success of “Insidious” earlier this year. Still, reviews are bound to be mixed, and none of the stars are major box office draws, so the movie’s strength beyond its opening weekend is a definite question mark.