Music Feature

Film Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

by Piers Marchant
A horror nostalgia trip.

Dir. Troy Nixey
Score: 5.8

Back in 1973, people were scared about a great many things: President Nixon had just been inaugurated for his second term in January (he resigned in disgrace in '74); the Yom Kippur War kept the Middle East teetering on chaos; the U.S. dollar was dropping like a stone, and a made-for-TV movie about a well-to-do couple who move into an old mansion and are terrorized by tiny creatures aired on ABC in early October. The film starred Kim Darby as a neurotic wife, beset by voices she hears shortly after excavating an old office fireplace, and soon discovers a race of little gnome-like devils who want to drag her down to the fire pit with them.

In Mexico, filmmaker Guillermo del Toro had just turned 9. Reportedly, the film frightened him to the core, so much so, that he saw fit to work on creating a remake. The end result, which del Toro co-wrote and produced, takes much of the original concept behind the film, but adds a few twists that avid fans of the director might well recognize. For one thing, the main character beset on by the little creatures isn't a neurotic, married woman; but a solemn 10-year-old girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), sent by her mother to live with her father, Alex (Guy Pearce), an architect bent on restoring an old, creepy mansion he's bought with his life savings, and his new interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). Sally is feeling unwanted and unloved from both parents, so when she first hears the voices of the creatures calling her from the basement fireplace, beckoning her to come and play, she opens up the bolted gate and sets them free, only realizing too late their real aim, which is to capture her and drag her down into the depths of their spooky caverns under the house.

Despite its updated storyline (a child of divorced parents shuttles back and forth from either coast to spend time with her selfish-minded folks) and greatly enhanced CGI effects, the film still yearns to capture the flavor of the original piece. Thus, there's a great deal of '70s-era throwback spooky tricks -- scuttling whispers, spooky basements, disbelieving adults, and cobwebs by the metric yard -- all of which add to the nostalgic effect. Unfortunately, nostalgia, almost by definition is the antithesis of horror, which works best when it operates in unexpected ways. What we end up with is a film whose atmosphere and timbre more closely resemble another big-deal scarefest, one that came about a decade after the original "Don't Be Afraid," the Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist, a film ultimately about as scary as its PG-13 rating might suggest. As anyone who has seen del Toro's brilliant and terrifying Pan's Labyrinth will attest, the man knows from horror, but perhaps this is one nostalgia trip that was best served residing in his memory banks.

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