'Don't Be Afraid' of This Remake
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Produced and co-written by Guillermo del Toro -- who seems to be able to get other people's movies made more easily than his own, as of late -- "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" sees first-time director Troy Nixey remake a 1973 teleplay for the 2011 big screen. This isn't as dicey a proposition as you might think. On a specific level, the original, while primitive, has a real sense of creep and chill to it. Also, horror is, more often than not, a genre that benefits from remakes -- or, rather, can benefit from advances in special effects under the guidance of strong storytelling stewards. (I will put the remakes of "The Thing," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" '78 and "The Fly" above their original versions in a frightened, horror-sick heartbeat.)
Del Toro's additions to the script -- written alongside collaborator Matthew Robbins -- make the new iteration of the film more in line with his cinematic universe of dark fantasy, where creepy homes are explored by little kids wrapped up shroud-tight in the tenuous membrane between daylight reality and dimly lit nightmare. They also make it better. Couple Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) are renovating the old Blackwood estate -- which, as the pre-credits sequence of madness and monsters and murder makes clear, has problems beyond blocked eaves or bad insulation in the attic -- with Alex's estranged daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) shunted to stay with Alex and Kim by Sally's selfish, shallow mom. Left to explore the grounds by busy guardians, Sally starts hearing little voices -- tiny voices, thin and sharp -- asking her to be their friend.
As in so many other horror tales, including del Toro's own "Pan's Labyrinth," a child leads this story -- in part because children are closer to wonder than grown-ups and thus, by extrapolation, closer to wonder's shadow-side, horror, but also because children's innocence and confused place in an already scary world makes it hard to scream, 'Just get out of the goddamn house!" at them like you would at an adult. Nixey is a perfectly agreeable visual talent -- it's easy to imagine the bad hypothetical version of this film in 3-D, and let us give thanks that didn't happen -- and his cast works well within the expected confines of the genre (with extra credit to Jack Thompson as the secret-keeping groundskeeper, Harris).
The scares do work, thankfully, and Nixey mostly plays his monster hand slowly and carefully, gradually revealing who Sally's new pals are and what they want, with both being fairly unsettling. (It should also be said that between this film and "Hellboy II," you can easily figure out one of del Toro's major childhood obsessions.) "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" is, mysteriously, rated R. I've seen worse moments, in both senses of the word, in all too many brutal and bumbling PG-13 horror films as of late.
I can't imagine any kid over 14 being too discomfited by the film -- or, rather, discomfited beyond the jolts and jumps in the theater -- and indeed, think that a mid-to-late-teen audience would get the most out of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"; if it leads them to del Toro's own films, all the better. Much like the film's characters, the moviemakers are refurbishing an older, shabbier piece of workmanship -- and it's a welcome enough place to stay for a few hours, in the shining and terrible darkness of the theater.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.