October Horrorshow: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

You don’t see this often, but Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a remake of a TV movie from 1973. I’ve never seen the original, but apparently it has a decent reputation in the horror world. Anyway, it has enough of a good reputation that Guillermo del Toro decided to write and produce the remake (Matthew Robbins shared screenwriting credits).

Del Toro has had a neat run as a horror producer. Mama, The Orphanage, this…none has been perfect, but they have all been highly realized efforts, far better than the dreck most horror audiences are forced to contend with. These films tend to be far more focused on atmosphere and storytelling rather than straight scares.

That doesn’t mean that they’re gothic plodders. No, no, no. There are plenty of chills. It just means that Del Toro and the filmmakers he chooses to work with prefer a different style of horror, that’s all. And it’s one that works.

Helming Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is Troy Nixey, a comic book artist. That may seem an odd choice with which to hand over a film, but comic book artists spend all day translating written scripts into a visual storytelling medium. They have to be storytellers themselves, in fact. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation that someone whose day job is essentially storyboarding scripts would be able to direct a movie.

Taking place in Rhode Island, the film follows Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison), a little girl sent to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and live-in girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes), in a stately Rhode Island mansion they are restoring. The house is a real museum piece, the kind of dark country home with carved wooden animals all over paneling and balustrades, and very, very poor sources of natural light. What is it with creepy old mansions and the lack of decent daytime illumination? Did people really used to live like that?

So, not only does poor Sally have to put up with being uprooted from her home, she has to sleep in a bedroom that looks like it’s been plucked out of a nineteenth century dollhouse. The horror.

It’s a beautiful place…for certain adults. But for kids…get ready to pay some psychiatrist bills.

As if the house wasn’t bad enough, there are monsters in the basement; little ghoulies that like to dine on the teeth of children. They had been locked away behind a wrought iron furnace grate in a sealed off basement (not partially sealed off; Alex and Kim had no idea the house had a basement until Sally accidentally discovered it), but Sally let them loose and now they’re terrorizing her. Apparently, the little beasties pop up aboveground every so often, and before they can be sent back away, they have to locate and acquire a child. Too bad for Sally.

Alex and Kim don’t buy Sally’s experiences for a second, but later on Kim hops on board while Alex remains skeptical. What a familiar situation. Supernatural beings are terrorizing a child, the mother figure in the film does what she can to help and/or save said child, and dad doesn’t believe a damn thing. In other films like this, most notably Poltergeist, some university folks and a psychic get involved, too. No such luck here. The experts, probably in order to save some running time, have been replaced by a trip to the local library. Thusly, the film follows a rather well worn path of storytelling, but instead of ghosts, we get monsters. It works.

The film is a little heavy on the CGI, which is a problem, but the rest of the production is absolutely gorgeous. The dusty mansion, overgrown gardens, secret basement, even the stately library, all make for compelling and beautiful locations. The movie just looks great.

Madison is clearly the star of this one. The other cast members are all in supporting roles. Madison holds her own with the material and delivers a believable performance. Kudos to her for carrying a movie.

It’s not the best horror film I’ve ever seen, but Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a pretty good movie.