When fantasy filmmaker Guillermo del Toro says he considers the 1973 made-for- TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark the scariest thing ever made for the medium, he’s not really talking about the teleplay itself.
He’s remembering, fondly, his own preteen susceptibility — what it was like to be a freaked-out kid watching a moderately well-made, cleverly suggestive haunted-house thriller (with goblins!).
I felt the same way the year before when The Night Stalker aired, or watching another made-for- TV scare picture from ’72, Gargoyles with Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt and Bernie Casey as the chief gargoyle. Memories — especially boomer memories — of what frightened us on TV as kids, and what might be worth a remake, are no less or more reliable than anyone else’s.
Del Toro may have misjudged the source material in remaking Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for a theatrical release, a new century, an R rating and a realigned narrative. There’s a good horror film to be gotten, again, out of that material. But this one’s fairly good at best.
Filmed in and around Melbourne, Australia (standing in for somewhere in the eastern U.S.), we’re back in the mansion containing nasty little homunculi in the sub-basement region, though they’re bold enough to venture upstairs now and then. Guy Pearce plays a preoccupied architect renovating the house; Katie Holmes is his girlfriend. A key character has been added for the remake, the architect’s daughter, played by Bailee Madison. This unhappy girl, adjusting to her divorced parents’ new lives, hears the whispered, hissing invitations of the monsters when no one else can. As in del Toro’s widely admired Pan’s Labyrinth, the young girl must navigate her way to safety, while convincing her elders that she’s not vindictive, a liar or losing her mind.
Directed dutifully by first-time feature filmmaker Troy Nixey, the script adaptation by del Toro and Matthew Robbins develops a mythology about why the goblins are grabbing humans and their teeth through the centuries. The atmosphere of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark never rests for a second, straddling both the ’73 film and a modern update. Some details remain old-school (a Polaroid camera plays a key role), others are new. To my taste there’s too much of everything. The soundtrack never shuts up with the wind, the murmurings, the shudderings. And while director Nixey has talent, his indiscriminately roving camera tends to diffuse the tension, not heighten it.
Also, the human element goes wanting. Pearce in particular is not helped by his role as one of the more clueless dolts in the history of parenthood. All in all, in a different key, I prefer the remake of Fright Night.
—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond:firstname.lastname@example.org