Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Movie Information

The Story: Mysterious creatures -- with evil intentions -- coerce a lonely child into releasing them from the pit in which they've been imprisoned since the late 1800s. The Lowdown: A methodical horror film that relies on tension and mood to generate a disturbing atmosphere that may not be appreciated by audiences wanting shocks and gore, but which may find favor with those who prefer subtle chills.
Genre: Haunted House Horror
Director: Troy Nixey
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison, Julia Blake, Jack Thompson
Rated: R

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.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

10 thoughts on “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

  1. brebro

    I’m one of those people who vividly remember the original 1973 TV movie. One scene that has always stayed with me was those creepy little monsters hiding in the cabinets and reaching a coat hanger out to turn the light switch off so they can come out and do horrible things. Being nine years old at the time, I was for a long period afterwards deathly afraid to enter any room in our house at night without turning the lights on first.

    SInce then, I often wondered if seeing the film again as an adult would have the same impact and when I saw Warner Archive offering it amongst their burn-to-order DVD-R titles, I immediately bought one and watched it with my daughter to whom I had described it many times. It was, of course, rather silly now, but even she thought those creepy scenes still held up and the whole concept of whispering, evil little people living in a furnace in a dark basement of a house was a haunting one.

    That said, I was not sure what to expect with this remake, and I only wound up seeing it in the theater because my wife wanted to see the Fright NIght remake and when I ordered tickets on Fandango I got the two mixed up somehow (or was it an unconscious need, making me do it?) and we ended up going to see this instead.

    I thought they did a good job with it, and hearing that Del Toro’s motive for the remake was because he had a similar childhood reaction to it, assures me he wanted to be true to the spirit of the original movie, which I think he did.

    Of course, I got an email from Warner Archive telling me that NOW they have a “remastered” version of the TV movie, now with commentar (instead of the poor quality, bare-bones one they sold me for $15 plus shipping, plus tax) that they will sell to me again for only an additional $5, plus shipping, plus tax. It would have been nice if they cared this much about the movie BEFORE it had a big budget remake and did not use it as an excuse to get even more money out of former customers, but I guess creepy little things in furnaces are not the only evil out there.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I was 19 when the TV movie was first broadcast, and having paid actual money to see Norwood — with not merely Kim Darby, but Glen Campbell, Joe Namath, and a chicken — when I was in high school, I was still holding a grudge against Darby, Campbell and Namath (the chicken not so much). So I avoided it. A friend of mine is insisting on sending me a copy, so I reckon I’ll finally see it.

    I’m curious as to who this commentary on the new disc is by. I mean the director’s been dead for some time, and Jim Hutton and William Demarest for even longer. That pretty much leaves you with Darby or a film historian, and I’m not sure the latter seems likely. I can’t really fault them for upgrading (though I have doubts that the originall elements are likely to be improved much by “remastering”) or doing a bare-bones release originally, since I doubt they thought there was much market for it. That’s the idea behind the “Archive” DVD-R copies. Hell, Universal put Dracula out twice — in “pressed” versions — before they got it right on the third try. And, yeah, I’ve got all three. But then if we count VHS, lasers, CED, DVD, and Blu-ray, I’ve bought Tommy eight times — not counting a bootleg 16mm print.

  3. brebro

    Still, once they add shipping and tax, it ends up being aroudn $25 which is way too much for a bare bones DVD-R, I balk at paying that much for a BLU-ray these days.

    According to the email Warner Archive sent me:

    “It’s back! We are pleased to be bring(ing) the beloved 1973 TV Movie Horror classic back in a new edition-remasted from the original production elements and featuring a commentary track by horror pros putting the whole production into a hysterical historical context.”

    Not sure who these “horror pros” are, but I’m pretty sure anyone of note would have been named more specifically.

  4. Ken Hanke

    Not sure who these “horror pros” are, but I’m pretty sure anyone of note would have been named more specifically.

    I think you can bet on that.

  5. [b]I mean the director’s been dead for some time, and Jim Hutton and William Demarest for even longer[/b]

    I like Jim Hutton, but I had no interest in seeing the original until you mentioned the magic words “William Demarest.” Although I’m assuming he doesn’t say anything along the lines of “If it weren’t for goblins hiding in closets, you’d get a very low type of person in these houses. Jellyfish!”

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