Mexican maverick Guillermo Del Toro loves the '70s - particularly the influential ABC Movie of the Week and its wealth of untapped made for TV macabre. He worships at the altar of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (both the original films, the eventual series, and the rogue supernatural reporter himself) and adores such one-off masterworks as the Kim Darby/Jim Hutton mini-demon fest, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. As a matter of fact, it has always been Del Toro's dream to bring the popular installment of the seminal Me Decade show to the big screen. Finally, in 2011, he achieved his aims, turning the tale of a troubled young woman terrorized by tiny creatures into a sprawling quasi-epic involving childhood lost, motherhood found, and tooth fairies from Hell. While gorgeous to look at and well approached, there is an inherent problem with the Del Toro produced, Troy Nixey directed effort - it's not very frightening. In fact, this may be one of the first instances where style overcomes suspense and scares to turn terror into an indulgent trial.
Without her knowledge, little Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison) is being sent from California to live with her distant father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his interior designer girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes). The duo are restoring the Gothic manor of local legend Lord Blackwood. A famous naturalist and illustrator, his home is worth millions...and is surrounded by rumor. Seems the man's young son disappeared one day, followed by Lord Blackwood himself. It's turned the sprawling building into a bit of tomb. Uneasy in her move, Sally starts to hear voices calling her name. They seem to be coming from the heating ducts. Soon, she discovers the truth about Blackwood's residence - it is a hiding place for fairies - underworld folk who demand a life for each time they are disturbed...and they prefer little children as their sickening sacrifice. While Alex frets over finishing the renovation, Sally is mercilessly pursued. It will be up to Kim to stop the attacks...or die trying.
There are many things right, and a couple of big things wrong, with this update of the memorable '70s creepshow. The casting...yes, even Ms. Scientology, Katie Holmes...is very good. Pearce plays his part well, Mrs. Cruise starts out inert but becomes more maternal as the movie goes on, and little Miss Madison is so effective in her hurt and anger that she's almost uncomfortable to watch. Add in an odd turn from Australian actor Jack Thompson and some sensational CG critters and you've got the makings of something very, very good. Then there is the production design, which turns Blackwood into a kind of menacing, magical space. It's a bit too The Haunting, but it manages to distance itself from said disaster. Indeed, there are random gardens that seem to appear out of nowhere and nods to other Del Toro efforts (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone). As for Nixey, he's good at creating atmosphere, though the notion that NO ONE in this movie does anything in adequate light does make for some misguided mood. In fact, everything here is set for a solid night of horror. Sadly, it never arrives.
The first major flaw in the movie is the legitimate lack of follow-up. Every time something happens - a worker is attacked in the basement, Sally snaps several pictures (and even crushes one) of the evil imps, a weird mural is discovered on the wall - no one does anything about it. Sally opens up the heating grate, letting the creatures out, and no one thinks to lock it back up until days later. Similarly, our heroine swears she is not responsible for the mean mischief going on in the house, yet no one spends time with her to see if she is telling the truth. Granted, we are dealing with people here who are restoring a huge home, are on a tight budgetary timeline and are overworked and over stressed, and yet don't realize there is an entire basement area on the property until a child stumbles across it (the cover of Architectural Digest, indeed!). It's as if the script builds in inferences that the audience is supposed to make for it (Alex and Kim are too busy to notice...Sally is one of those classic 'unreliable narrator' types, etc).
The second major problem is the lack of a legitimate threat. Since we are dealing with a child in 2011, Del Toro and company reluctantly comply with the potential taboo. Sally is never in any real danger, just hampered by some unruly critter chaos. During the initial attack in her bedroom, she manages to outwit them, and a much more horrific ambush in the bathroom results in the dopey deus ex machina of a shower curtain as protection and the arrival of some beefy workers. When the movie or plot needs rescuing, something comes along and save it - literally. And since no one tries to follow-up and figure out what is happening, we feel more frustrated than frightened. In some ways, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark tries way too hard. It wants to be big and baroque and bad ass...and then forgets the most important thing: fear factors. The background mythos clearly comes from the mind of the man behind Hellboy (didn't we already have 'tooth' fairies in the sequel to his hit comic book film?) and is not as laughable as it seems. Still, for everything it does right, the film's failings cause concern...and eventually, criticism.
Be warned - this is a dark, dark movie. Not from a narrative standpoint, or a piss poor projectionist position, but from a lighting and location proposition. Nixey clearly believes that limited visibility means dread. What it doesn't translate to is a full blown high definition experience. Of sure, the 1080p, 1.85:1 image looks great, especially during the various exterior shots and moments of monster mayhem. But when all you can see of a space is a single beam of sun shining through an otherwise blank canvas, the details and contrasts get lost. Also, there seems to be a bit of softness to the close-ups, as if Nixey is trying to tone down Miss Madison's harsher qualities or Pearce's aging facade. Make no mistake, the transfer it terrific. It just comes from an aesthetic place which makes the Blu-ray seem sort of unnecessary.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a movie about sounds, about hissing voices calling your name in the middle of the night. Therefore, the sonic situation here has to be top notch and Sony delivers a stunning lossless Master Audio DTS-HD 5.1 mix. Sounds comes sneaking out of the back speakers while other ambient noise circle and swirl the image. The dialogue is always up front and easily understood, and the overall feel is claustrophobic and creepy. The score can be a bit overdone, but the work of composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders is otherwise solid. Indeed, the tech specs on both sides of the situation are quite good.
There is an interesting, if EPK oriented, documentary on this disc which highlights many of the issues Del Toro and company faced with bringing this movie to life. We deal with the story, the setting, and the scary monsters at the center of the shivers. It's engaging, but not intensely in-depth. Unfortunately, the only other big of added content is a gallery of conceptual art. No commentary. No picture within picture trivia track. Del Toro is a great talker and it would have been interesting to hear his thoughts on the way the film turned out. Sadly, the Blu-ray offers a near barebones package for this motion picture.
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is destined to be one of those titles that split horror geeks right down the middle. Many will see its menacing mood and wealth of wicked little things and champion its attempted terrors. Others will be bored, wondering when the Del Toro they know and love will come out to 'play'. In either case, this is still a very well made movie with many things to cheer about. Therefore, it deserves a Recommended rating. Some may bristle at such a low score, but fear is like humor - what makes one person flinch causes another to calmly yawn. Yours truly found the film creepy, just not convincing. Indeed, he can remember seeing the original film in his youth and taking to the schoolyard version of the water cooler to extol its horrific virtues. Today, it's just a piece of knowing nostalgia. The remake is barely better.