This time out I thought I might take a break from those exotic films from foreign locales to review the new horror remake of an old cult TV classic, Guillermo Del Toro’s new version of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” recently released on Region 1 DVD.
Ever wonder if on occasion your obsession with a favorite Hobby might just be… well… perhaps a wee bit much for those who love you to really put up with as a steady thing? Your favorite Catgirl is a foreign horror movie nut. You regulars here at the Litterbox have most certainly figured that out by now… but my sweetheart Carolyn most definitely isn’t as thrilled by them. Nope… not by a long shot. She’s a really good sport about it, but I can tell there are definitely evenings when she’s less than thrilled to see the couple of DVD’s I’ve picked out to watch sitting next to the couch with their labels covered with some strange foreign language text and unfamiliar looking actors and actresses. The other night was one of those times….
“Miyu… C’mon… don’t you have any American movies we can watch? It would be really nice to hear somebody speaking English for a change instead of having to read subtitles. Please… for me?” Sigh… now how could I not give her a break?
Luckily for me… I had just the thing in the “To Watch” pile. “Mmmm… OK… but there can be monsters in it… right?” I gave her that sly yet innocently mischievous lil’ sideways look that I know just melts her heart and I just knew I had her…. Love. It’s all about compromises. 😉
I’d been wanting to watch this one for a while as I loved the original 1973 TV movie version, so with all that settled, it was time to pop the popcorn, snuggle in to spoon on the couch and see if this new version was as scary as I remember that old original film being. Want to hear if it might just be “Movie Date Nite” material for you as well? Then by all means, Gentle Visitors… let’s “Read On” shall we?
The original film for this one is a surprisingly scary cult classic. Back in 1973, it starred Kim Darby and Jim Hutton as a young couple who inherit a spooky old Victorian house which turns out to be infested with evil little gremlins released by the re-opening of an old fireplace during the restoration of the house. Done on a shoestring budget and filmed in under two weeks because of a writer’s strike that happened at the time, it was a surprising hit that went on to attain a peculiar “cult” status over the years. Not surprisingly, a young Guillermo Del Toro was one of those who saw it back then and later became fascinated with the idea of doing a remake. This wee Catgirl was able to see it on TV too, but it was much later… when I was about 8 or so and it was re-run sometime in the early 80’s. (I also seem to remember seeing a British version of this one on TV too….. but for the life of me haven’t been able to confirm if my recollections are accurate or just my own wild imaginings.) I liked it then, although it scared wee Miyuki silly…. and it captured perfectly the creepy feelings of a child that despite what all the adults tell you to the contrary… there really are evil little things lurking under your bed and in all those dark nooks and crannies just out of your sight. Oh, yes… and they’ll get you too… if you aren’t very, very careful…
Apparently that vibe resounded strongly with Mister Del Toro too… and in his “re-imagined” script, he’s shifted the focus away from a story about a young wife trying desperately to convince her husband she’s not crazy when she tells him unbelievable stories about being in danger to a tale about those childhood fears made real as a little girl tries to convince the adults in her life that they are threatened by an evil only a child would ever believe could be real.
Sally (played by Bailee Madison) is that little girl and you know right away there’s that something.. different.. about her. She’s quiet, moody… and more than a little upset about having been dumped by her mother into the life of her architect father Alex (played by Guy Pierce) and his new girlfriend Kim (played by Katie Holmes of “Dawson’s Creek” fame) as they work at the restoration of an old Gothic mansion in Rhode Island. But that’s not all. She just “feels” things…. the way some children just do. Within the first few minute you see her drawing odd spirals…. although it’s not mentioned in any overt way, this lil’ Catgirl just knew she was somehow in touch with those “invisible things” most people are just blind to as they make their way through life. A pity not all of those “things” are friendly….
We find that out right from the start, as a flashback sequence in the film’s beginning shows us the pitiful end of the mansion’s builder, famous wildlife painter Emerson Blackwood (played by Garry McDonald) as he commits the gruesome murder of his housemaid in the cellar of the mansion in an effort to appease the vicious little fey folk that live in the ash pit beneath the house. They’ve stolen away his son you see… dragged away into the deep darkness of that pit and he’s somehow gotten the idea that he can bribe these ancient “tooth fairies” to give him back. How you ask? By giving them his own teeth and the teeth of his maid to sate their grisly hungers for human teeth. Let’s just say it didn’t go well….
Why? Well apparently these terribly evil things need something other than teeth to survive. Ancient and immortal, they can only reproduce by somehow taking away a human now and again and somehow transforming them into one of their own kind. How they get sealed away after the Blackwood tragedy is never clearly explained, but once little Sally… special, sensitive, curious little Sally… arrives at the mansion, it’s only a matter of time before she’s hearing the whispers from those things trapped away in the hidden basement begging her to free them. Given her lonely and hurt feelings, it’s not long before she’s drawn to do just that. Something she quickly comes to regret.
Unlike the earlier 1973 film, the modern wizardry of computer effects lets our filmmakers lavish lots of CGI goodness on our creatures, and soon the bulk of our story is filled with them scurrying about, dodging the painful glare of bright lights, like a twisted cross between rats and spider-monkeys, all trying to catch little Sally unawares and drag her away to the Netherworld beyond the grim iron grates in the cellar. Here I’d say, the film is at it’s best, although I think I’d have enjoyed a bit more build-up to the climax by having our evil little monsters playing those deadly “tricks” on our adult cast that such wicked creatures are always reputed to enjoy. Only one guy seems to know what’s up…. the handyman/ caretaker of the house Mr. Harris (played by Jack Thompson). He knows why the basement is sealed and hidden… he knows that Sally should never have been brought anywhere near the place.. but he doesn’t do anything to stop the horror from happening, until it’s far too late, of course.
But then again, nobody does. The old idea that children are impressionable, foolish, and just plain prone to lying is at work to keep either her father or Kim from believing that she’s not just acting out her anger and frustrations at having been abandoned by her birth mother and given over to the care of a father who has his own life with a new woman who could never replace her as a mother. It’s this last relationship… so reminiscent of the one I saw in “El Libro de Piedra”… in which a stepmother and daughter struggle to find connection while resentment and fear cloud the way, that could have been the big factor in this story. Unfortunately it’s sadly an underdeveloped theme here. There is some mention of Kim having had her own troubled childhood… something that has affected her deeply and given her difficulties in wanting to be a parent herself, but just exactly what those problems were are never addressed. Sally is being medicated, has previously been under psychiatric therapy…. and there are hints that she’s maladjusted herself, but again, that idea never blossoms into anything.
If there’s any major problem in this story, it’s that very feeling that much has been left out in order to cram in more screen time for our little monsters. Not that they aren’t truly chilling and creepy mind you…. but their sense of menace is certainly diluted by the sheer amount of time we actually get to see them. In a movie with this plot… made even 20 years earlier… we would have had less of that and probably had just as much suspense whenever we didn’t see the little things…. maybe only just heard them scrabbling in the walls, scuttling in darkened corners, or had things knocked over mysteriously at the edge of our vision. The old mainstay rule of horror still applies… “Less is always more”.
A few nagging plot flaws exist too. Our handyman Mr. Harris is nearly killed by the creatures in a nasty ‘blitz attack” in the basement… yet despite looking like he’s been attacked by an entire gang of vicious muggers, they immediately accept his story that he just kinda had “an accident. Yeah… like only if his toolbox fell into a woodchipper he was stupidly standing in front of. There’s no real investigation… and the prime suspect Sally, who Alex and Kim already believe stole her father’s straight razor to go slash happy on Kim’s wardrobe, is never even considered to be to blame. While we’re on that subject… it’s never too clear why Sally isn’t just hauled away to an asylum once it’s “obvious” to her father that she’s very much a “danger to herself or others”. Nope… none of that makes too much sense at all. A shame really.
So.. does all this mean I didn’t enjoy the film? No… by no means. It is a well made and well filmed little horror movie, just not one destined to be a quirky lil’ classic like the original, well remembered even decades from now. I enjoyed young Bailee Madison’s character and felt she carried the whole “troubled child in dire danger” vibe very well…. and I can honestly say the folklore of the creatures themselves is intriguing and fresh feeling, at least for me. It does have lots of good elements to it, but ultimately I’d have to admit it gets sunk by the few nagging problems with plot and character motivation. It has many of the qualities I’ve always liked about DelToro’s films, but is definitely not the equal of his earlier movies. Much of that might be the result of his participation being limited to writing and producing this time out but that’s in no way a swipe at director Troy Nixey’s efforts behind the camera. There’s still a very entertaining little film here, definitely worth a look by horror film fans as long as you don’t expect a masterpiece.
In wrap-up, I can still feel good about giving “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” a solid 3 “Meows” out of 5 with quite an appreciative purr or two for the effective melding of the legends of the tooth fairies with the almost primal childhood fears of the boogyman and just what really makes things go bump in the dark. While perhaps not a “home run” I’d hoped it would be, it was still a nice evening’s entertainment and certainly got this wee Catgirl some appreciation from my sweet Carolyn for being just that light, creepy, easy to watch, English speaking movie she’s been wanting for us for a while if nothing else. Now all I need is to find that touching love story “chick flick” I just know she’s aching for us to watch together…. (There just has to be one out there with ghosts, kung-fu, zombies, or aliens in it….. I just know there is!!) 😉
Trailer? Yep… of course I got you a Trailer, and here it goes!!