From the possessed doll in the classic episode of Rod Serling’s seventies TV series Night Gallery to the clown under the bed in Poltergeist to the serial-killer doll Chucky, there’s always been a special place in the horror genre for little, scary things.
And horror icon Guillermo del Toro ( Cronos, Pan’s Labyrinth) decided to celebrate the sheer terror such little fry can evoke by reaching back to a little-known 1973 made-for-TV movie with a cult following, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Shot on a shoestring, that film featured a couple who are horrified to learn the house they’ve moved into is haunted by tiny murderous beings, unleashed when a long-abandoned fireplace is unsealed. The catch was, the woman was the only one who could see the critters, while they never revealed themselves to the husband until it was too late.
It may seem an odd source for a lavish feature film with grade-A production values, but del Toro’s long fight to bring the new Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to the big screen has paid off. He and co-screenwriter Matthew Robbins have altered the family dynamic, adding a troubled child Sally (Bailee Madison) to the mix. It is Sally who first hears the little ones hissing through the air vents, insisting they want to be friends. After discovering a basement they thought didn’t exist, and a fireplace that’s been sealed in a manner that suggests, ‘Don’t open this!’ they do just that, and then all hell breaks loose.
This would all fall apart if you didn’t have such a convincing cast. Sally is blamed after the critters shred some clothes with a knife – a bad sign if ever there was one – and all of the family woes are soon attributed to the pop-psychology theory that Sally’s parents’ divorce and her alienation from dad’s girlfriend (Katie Holmes) are causing her to act out. Holmes turns in a strong performance as the one who begins to wonder if Sally isn’t actually telling the truth.
The filmmakers have neatly rolled several movies into one: there’s a family melodrama (while Guy Pearce’s soulless yuppie character is a bit overplayed, he’s still effective), a great big Victorian haunted house, a kiddie in peril and another foray into the creepy-critter horror sub-genre.
Perhaps one of the biggest differences between the new Don’t Be Afraid and the original would be the use of CGI in the remake. This is both a blessing and a curse. When we do actually get to see the critters, they are indeed nasty – hairy, fanged, beady-eyed. And director Troy Nixey made the choice to try to hold off on showing them to us until well into the film. But as we know from films like Jaws and Pontypool, often what’s most scary is what we can’t see, that which is left to our imagination. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a seriously entertaining horror movie, one that will please newcomers as well as fans of the original oddity. But by the end of the film, I was wishing the filmmakers had left us wondering about precisely who and what these critters were just a little bit longer. Ultimately, there’s nothing scarier than not knowing what lurks in the dark.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
- Directed by Troy Nixey
- Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
- Starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison