Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Newcomer Troy Nixey has received some talented support in his attempt to direct the remake of 1973 TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Written and produced by creative genius Guillermo del Toro, with the additional writing aid of Matthew Robbins, I expected to be sleeping with a night-light on for many moons to come. Alas, that particular Disney-themed creation will have to remain in my man drawer.
The film centres around Sally (Madison), a lonely little girl who has been sent by her mother to live with her father Alex the architect (Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) in their newly renovated mansion. Childish curiosity along with whispered encouragements from mysterious voices leads Sally to reveal a hidden basement within the house (conveniently missed by an expert architect?!). Further investigation exposes the area as the workroom of a famous artist, Blackwood, who once resided in the house before vanishing without a trace. Sally is immediately drawn to an ash chute in the centre of the darkened room, from which untrustworthy utterances plead her to come and play with them. And she complies. Man, kids can be dumb.
The film contains all the classic Del Toro ingredients of a potentially terrifying film; a young victim, a twisted fairytale, a small cast, complete with imaginatively creepy monsters. Unfortunately the elements just didn’t mix well together, and everything ends up getting burnt in the oven (metaphor speak for ‘the film was too damn long’). Whilst the creatures seem rather sinister at first, they are exposed far too early, stripping away the powerful fear of the unknown. However, I can appreciate the chilling history behind their existence, and their menacing motives, but after all the over exposure they seemed more of a nuisance than a threat.
The beginning is promisingly eerie, gifting the audience with a snippet of background through a scene in which Blackwood offers a dish of teeth to the ominous voices in the ash chute before being sucked in himself. The set-up for the rest of the film is pretty predictable; new family move into the house, weird stuff starts happening.
The main problem rests with Sally – try as I might, I just couldn’t bring myself to like her. Which in turn, makes it difficult to care for her safety, and consequently the fear you should feel for her diminishes. The young character Ofelia in Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth managed to do some rather silly things, but her courage invoked empathy, and let’s face it – shit was going down in her world. In comparison, Sally’s world just doesn’t seem bleak enough to warrant her desire to unleash hellish creations into her home. Nixey blames this act on naive childish innocence or curiosity, which doesn’t seem very believable considering her normal behaviour. For example, she appears to possess sharp intellectual insight into her mother’s true intentions, stating “She gave me to dad”; implying Sally realised that her mother objectified her. This knowledge makes her moment of weakness seem recklessly foolish rather than forgivable.
The other characters are also missing that crucial likeability factor. Pearce is puzzlingly blasé as the workaholic father; even if all this nastiness is in Sally’s mind, surely this would cause reason for concern? This establishes a weak relationship between the pair. In fact, the most emotional connection is between Sally and Kim, which begins quite badly (due to the little madam’s attitude) but develops into something closer like mother and daughter. This dramatic change occurs thanks to Kim’s willingness to trust, and the hints that she endured a traumatic childhood, allowing her to sympathise with Sally on a level that Alex cannot comprehend.
The writers rely on this relationship to be the pinnacle of the film – without a strong bond between the two, the tragic finale loses all its impact. Sadly, this happened to be the case. I think a bit more back-story of Kim’s character, and more screen time of her bonding with Sally would have created a deeply moving climax. All these issues culminated in a rather flat effect. If, like me, you are a Del Toro fan, then expect to be grimly disappointed by his latest creation. It’s not a bad attempt of horror, and it’s more imaginative than your standard haunted house flick, but Del Toro’s standards are usually set so much higher.