When I came out of the first show of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at The Carolina on Friday morning, someone asked me how it was. I responded, “I liked it, but it’s too classy to be popular, I suspect.” Co-written and produced by fantasy specialist Guillermo del Toro, directed by newcomer Troy Nixey, and based on a strangely revered 1973 TV movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is that rarest of things: A horror movie that insists on being in the classic horror form where style and atmosphere count for more than shocks. This is a film that’s more interested in creeping you out than it is in making you jump or wince (assuming, of course, Katie Holmes doesn’t have that effect on you). There are four scenes in the movie that go for outright thrills—and you should know this going in, so you don’t think you’re getting into something you’re not.
Though its horrors are definitely more literal-minded, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (a frankly ridiculous title, since the film works overtime to tell you the opposite) reminded me a good deal of Peter Medak’s haunted house movie The Changeling (1980)—a movie that was underrated when it first appeared, and one which also may have suffered from an undeserved R rating that caused audiences to expect something more gruesome than they got. (Apparently, the MPAA tends to get itself into a lather and apply different standards when children are imperiled on screen.)
The original TV film—which I have not seen—involved a young woman (Kim Darby) being terrorized by mysterious little demonic creatures in the old, dark house she and her husband (Jim Hutton) inherit. The new film has been what we might call del Toro-ed in that the focus has changed to a young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), tying it together with other del Toro works dating back to Cronos (1993). The screenplay also adds a layer of complexity in that Sally is—to put it mildly—a neglected child. Sally is shunted from her never-seen and apparently nut-job mother in L.A. to her distracted, self-absorbed architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce), and his interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Holmes), who are in the process of restoring an old mansion—and Dad’s apparently failing career—in Rhode Island. Sally is the perfect target for the demons, who whisper their desire to be her friend—something she’s clearly in the market for. The problem, of course, is that they aren’t friendly in the least and have evil designs.
That’s really all there is to the plot, which proceeds in a relatively straightforward haunted-house format where Sally can’t convince the adults that there’s anything unusual going on for a good deal of the film’s running time. Indeed, things done by the creatures—like shredding Kim’s clothes with Alex’s missing straight razor—are blamed on her. Naturally, it becomes a matter of urgency if Sally is going to escape the creatures’ intentions. It can be argued that nothing exactly surprising happens, but what does happen is finely crafted. It’s also surprisingly literate—when was the last time you heard a film invoke the name of Welsh horror/fantasy writer Arthur Machen?—and its mythology is believably creepy. Of course, all this requires the basic haunted-house suspension of disbelief over why the characters just don’t get out of the damned place, but that goes with the territory.
It isn’t perfect, no. It’s just possible that it’s a little too restrained for its own good, but it’s certainly a lot better than you may have heard from people who are simply against the idea of remaking a “classic” from their childhood, and those who damn CGI effects out of hand regardless of how good they are (and here they are good). If, like me, you’re a sucker for creepy old houses with secret rooms that ooze menace (sometimes with unstressed details like the runic symbols over the ash pit that houses the demons) and with horror movies that intelligently evoke earlier films (you’ll find imagery from Psycho (1960), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Night of the Demon (1957) here) then you’re apt to find Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a pleasantly unsettling bit of moviemaking. It’s also a movie that I suspect will find its reputation increasing over the years, but that remains to be seen. Rated R for violence and terror.