The summer movie season winds down with a shudder, courtesy of a superior remake, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. I don’t necessarily mean superior to its source, a 1973 “ABC Movie of the Week” that scared the footed pajamas off a generation of young horror buffs, including Guillermo del Toro, who grew up to co-write (with Dragonslayer‘s Matthew Robbins) and co-produce this savvy update (and along the way direct the Hellboys and Pan’s Labyrinth). I saw it, too, and it’s one of those spooky movies that lodged itself in my eight-year-old brain, along with The Blob. For deliciously sleepless nights I thought–I knew–that the blob was hiding under my bed, and that Dark‘s whispery demons were going to pop out from under the floorboards of my house and drag me to their hell.
You can never be scared in that eight-year-old way again, though this version’s reworkings of some of the TV movie’s memorable scenes will jolt newcomers (and anyone who half-remembers the original). What it adds to the tale is del Toro’s inimitable Gothic style, perfectly communicated by noted graphic artist and newcomer director Troy Nixey, whose atmospheric short film Latchkey’s Lament won him the assignment. The new Dark has you in its baroque vise and squeezes hard from the first scene, where an esteemed 19th century nature illustrator and his unfortunate housekeeper come to bad ends at the talons of something unspeakable living in the recesses of his studio in his Rhode Island mansion. Let’s just say that any hopes the filmmakers had of keeping their intended PG-13 rating flew out the window in the first five minutes, as the very specific violence pushes the movie into R-rated territory (not that the movie is heavy-handed or gratuitous in its shocks to our systems).
The embattled heroine of the 1973 version was played by child-woman Kim Darby, of the original True Grit. del Toro and Robbins have split the role in two, as the story moves into the present day and Alex Hurst (Guy Pearce) is feverishly restoring the house, a make-or-break career proposition that leaves him little time for his partner and girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) and his 11-year-old daughter Sally (Bailee Madison). Bored and resentful Sally rummages through the property, treating us to glimpses of some eye-fillingly forbidden production design executed by Roger Ford, an Oscar nominee for Babe. (True to its title the film, shot by veteran Oliver Stapleton, is very dark indeed.) She finds the hidden basement chamber–a discovery that excites the inhabitants of its bottomless ash pit, a race of creatures given a centuries-old backstory and delightfully bad habits that they plan to exercise once more on our kind. Not so gently they cultivate Sally as their vessel, but she finds an ally in Kim, who begins to take her tales of little monsters seriously.
And there are lots of little monsters to take seriously. While the TV movie made do with a trio of creepy man-in-suit beasts, digital effects send swarming armies of the dark at us, not, thankfully, in 3D. There’s no need for a third dimension with creatures as flawlessly rendered as these chatty, voracious hobgoblins. As importantly, however, the bond that forms between the two women is also tactile and credible, as a tangle of slights and miscommunication straightens out under siege in a reenvisioning done right. Strong protagonists both, Madison (from the fantasy Bridge to Terabithia) and Holmes don’t crumple under the weight of the movie’s Gothic pile. (The distracted dad isn’t as forceful a part but the resourceful Pearce manages to make something of it.) Fearful of seeing another lousy horror movie? Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.