Review: ‘Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark’ thrills and chills to close LA Film Fest

There are so many movies that I saw when I was young that I have not seen since that I almost wonder if it’s fair to say that I’ve seen them.  I remember what I remember about them, but I also saw them at an age where my memory can’t be completely trusted.  I have my versions of those films bouncing around somewhere inside me, and I’ve learned over the years that if I particularly treasure something I saw when very young, it might not be a good idea to revisit it.  There’s a disappointment that kicks in when you realize a film just isn’t what you remembered.  It’s happened to me many times, and the genre where it seems to be most true is horror.

What scared an eight-year-old me is not the same as what scares a forty-one-year-old me.  I’m scared now by the idea of something happening to my children or my marriage or my health, of something going catastrophically wrong, of lingering pain.  I’m scared of the basic things that keep many people up at night.  I’m not scared of monsters or mysterious beasties.  I remember that feeling, though, when I was young and afraid of things under my bed or in my closet, things with sharp teeth and rough hands.  And there were movies I saw at that age with monsters I could barely look at, monsters that grew in my post-movie imagination, only half-seen when on-screen.

I would imagine Guillermo Del Toro and Matthew Robbins have the same memories of the original “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark,” made for American television in the ’70, that I do.  It gave me nightmares for years after I saw it the first time, and the creatures in it were frequent visitors to my darkest dreams.  When Warner Archives released the film on DVD and set a copy over, I watched it eagerly, and my memory of the film collapsed like dust.  It’s a very good TV movie from the ’70s, no doubt about it, and it’s effectively made.  The creatures are low-budget ingenious, and not even the slightest bit scary.  And seeing it, I felt let down, like I described.

For that reason, I am grateful that the new version of “Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” exists, directed by Troy Nixey and written by Del Toro and Robbins, because this is the movie I remembered seeing.  Not exactly, of course, because there are new characters invented, some new rules to the beasties, but this movie plays rough and has some very freaky little things in it.  It is very scary at times without being gory, and it’s restrained in the way it builds tension and fear.  It may be a bit too traditional in places, characters leaving themselves in harm’s way longer than they would, but those occasional double-backs are a small price to pay for what is largely a confident, clever little horror ride.

It’s a surprisingly small-scale thriller, largely focusing on just three characters.  Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) are working together on a major restoration of an old family house once owned by renowned designer and artist Emerson Blackwood, and as they enter the home stretch, Alex’s ex-wife decides she can no longer raise their daughter Sally (Bailee Madison) and sends the little girl to be with dad for a while.  Sally is an unhappy little girl, already on regular medication, and she is upset to see her father with his new girlfriend.  For her part, Kim wants to be accepted by Alex’s daughter, but she’s also not sure about being anyone’s surrogate mom, especially not for this troubled little girl.

Not long after she arrives, Sally discovers an underground workshop that Kim and Alex somehow totally missed as they’ve been working on the house and they open it back up, much to the consternation of the house’s handyman Harris (Jack Thompson), whose grandfather was the one who sealed the workshop off in the first place.  Almost immediately, things start to get creepy in the house, and Sally finds herself the focus of some intense and largely unwanted attention.  To say much more than that would be unfair.  The pleasure of the film is the slow burn, the way the film keeps upping the stakes from scene to scene, revealing a little bit more of the house’s secrets in each new scene.  Sally knows what is going on, but no one believes her at first.  Gradually, she and Kim forge a bond over what’s going on, with Kim being the only one who believes that maybe this little girl is telling the truth about what she saw.

I like the way the creatures are handled in the film.  They’re nasty, but they’re not a non-stop assault.  There is a feral intelligence to the way they behave, and they are never explained in a way that robs them of their mystery.  I like that.  I would even argue this is one of the rare horror films where I would immediately welcome a sequel if it was designed to begin exploring those mysteries.  But in this story, told from Sally’s perspective?  It’s appropriate that we know almost nothing.  The film moves at a brisk pace, and Nixey’s handling of the material is very understated, almost elegant.  The slow burn is a dying art, and so often, filmmakers resort to cheap tactics to crank their movies up during the “slow” parts, and Nixey refuses to play that game.  There are some moments here, particularly as Sally explores the grounds of the house, that almost have a Miyazaki feel to them.  Those scenes almost reminded me of “My Neighbor Totoro” as the little girls explore their world.  The difference is, of course, that what Sally eventually uncovers is nowhere near as benign or loving as Totoro.  And while Nixey’s the director of the movie, you can still feel Del Toro’s interests and concerns crowding in at the edges of things, whether it’s the way teeth are fetishized in the film or the decidedly un-Hollywood way Sally is constantly in danger in the film or even the pace of things.  Del Toro’s DNA is in here, and fans of his work will feel like they’re getting what they want from the movie.  It’s a nice director/producer relationship, and the result is very strong.

Performances in the film are probably the weakest link, and Pearce in particular never quite clicks for me.  Holmes gets stronger as the film progresses, and by the time it ends, she’s become a very solid character.  Madison, the youngest cast member, has the most to do here, and she handles herself well.  Overall, the film is well-produced, the effects work is top-notch but never flashy, and while I don’t think this redefines the genre, it represents it well.  Aside from a horrifying opening scene, there is very little in the film that I would call graphic, and I think this is one of those horror films that could play to audiences that typically can’t handle the stronger elements in horror films.  It is all about the squirm, the build-up, the thing glimpsed from the corner of your eye, and it pays off in a way that I found very satisfying.  This is a genre exercise, and a damn good one, and it made for a lovely close to this year’s Los Angeles Film Festival.

“Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark” opens August 26, 2011.