Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Troy Nixey‘s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is, reportedly, a remake of a 1973 TV movie, beloved by Nixey, and this remake’s screenwriter, cult filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro. I haven’t seen the original, but I can intuit from what I saw in this new film, that we probably saw a lot less of the monsters last time. It’s been said of horror that hiding the monsters can make them a lot scarier; our imaginations can put a frightening face to the squeaky door much better than any well-designed CGI goblin. In 1942, Val Lewton conceived of “Cat People,” wherein we never saw the monsters (supposedly because the proposed cat costumes looked too silly). The film lives as a horror classic to this day because of it. In “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” the monsters stay obscured for much of the film, but we eventually are treated to an army of ankle-biting imps, who wield tripwire, scissors and nails with monkey-like dexterity. The monsters are neat-looking, but I think, by seeing them, we lost a lot of their impact.
I liked the lead girl in this film. Little Sally (Bailee Madison) is a sour, ill-behaved little kid who resents being shipped off by her mom to stay with her dad (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). The two of them are interior designers who have moved into Blackwood Manor in order to spruce it up and sell it. That seems optimistic in this housing market, especially when you’re selling a house called Blackwood Manor, whose very name guarantees that it’s going to be haunted. The addition of a grizzled old groundskeeper who says ominous things like “You better be stayin’ away from there!” doesn’t help matters. We also learn the horrifying end of Emerson Blackwood and his young son years before, and it had something to do with the bowl of disembodied teeth left in the furnace. The only people who should be going into a house like this are Catholic priests.
Sally, like Coraline before her, finds a secret passageway in the house, and soon begins hearing mysterious whispers coming from the walls. They entreat her to play. Sally tries to tell dad and Kim, but they don’t believe her. Well, dad is so preoccupied, he only ignores her, and it’s Kim who begins to feel for the girl. Not before, though, the little ankle-biting imps begin to appear. Up to this point, Nixey’s film is atmospheric and creepy, and has all the right notes of a good ol’ haunted house picture. There are long shadows, creepy twisted tree branches, wet weather, and cavernous indoor passages that makes for squeaks and echoes that could just be the wood settling… or maybe not.
The imps are never really explained. There is a wise librarian in the film (my favorite character), who was a helpful and dashing, well-read nerd, who knows all about Emerson Blackwood, and the legend of the tooth-eating gremlins who emerge every x-number of years to take a single life in order to be sated. Ordinarily, they are content to feed on teeth. I had heard beforehand that the imps were tooth-eating monsters, and I desperately hoped for a scene in the film where an imp would scramble up someone’s body, shove their little imp head into the person’s mouth, and munch away at their teeth while they scream in horror. Sadly, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” did not deliver on this. We never learn what the imps are, where they came from, or how they’ve been sustaining themselves for the past few decades, locked up in tunnels under the house.
There is also the unfortunate re-occurance of horror movie dumb behavior. It’s established early on that the imps hate bright lights, and they refuse to appear in any room with so much as a lamp on. They are clever in that they known how to turn lights off, but when Sally finds herself in a darkened room, surrounded by the creatures, she doesn’t think to turns the lights back on. This happens several times throughout the film. We know they hate light. Just flick a switch and watch them scatter. Also, the imps are intelligent beings, so it’s a wonder why they didn’t think to turn off the electricity in the house until late in the film.
But whatever. This is a monster flick more interested in those delightfully primal little-kid scares than actual adult fears. In the former arena, there are plenty of moments to keep the mayhem-hungry somewhat satisfied. It’s fun to be scared, and this film is kinda fun.