By C. Michael Forsyth
I’ve been chafing at the bit for months to see the remake of the memorable 1973 TV movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.” The trailer was one of the most compelling I’ve seen for a horror movie in years and it’s the brainchild of Guillermo del Toro, who directed the visually stunning “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Hellboy.”
The premise is promising. A young, withdrawn girl is sent by her mother to live with her father and his new girlfriend in a 19th century Rhode Island mansion the two are restoring. The child is plagued by tiny, malevolent gremlins that emerge from the ash pit of a fireplace in the basement of the house – ancient creatures that prey on kids and drag them to their hellish underground kingdom.
The massive flaw that renders the movie almost unwatchable is that the entire family, especially surrogate mom Kim (Katie Holmes) are idiots. Look, I know that horror movie characters usually aren’t too swift and one of their traditional bonehead moves is staying in a house long after it’s become obvious that it’s haunted. But “Don’t be Afraid of the Dark” takes that to a ludicrous level.
It’s one thing to stay in a house after a troubled child in your care is traumatized by fear of creatures she claims to have seen in the basement. It’s another to stay after an old workman emerges from the basement with a tool in his neck following a savage attack and warns you from his deathbed to get the girl out of the house! Even after slow-on-the-uptake Kim learns from a librarian that the previous owner painted evil beings just like Sally described and vanished without a trace along with his son, she allows Sally to wander around the mansion on her own.
If there existed a child welfare agency devoted to the paranormal, they’d take the daughter away. (Hopefully in real life, Katie Holmes does a better job of mothering little Suri).
In the original version, Sally was an adult. One striking scene from the 1973 movie stands out in my memory. The imps are repelled by light and as they drag Sally across the basement floor toward the ash pit, she grabs a Polaroid camera and uses the flash to fend them off. It was a pretty cool move, I thought as a kid. In the remake, when Sally tells Kim about the creatures’ Achilles’ heel, Kim gets a bright idea, smiles, and gives the girl one of the old-fashioned cameras for protection – instead of a freaking flashlight like any normal person would!
Using a Poloroid flashbulb for light isn’t a plan. Using a Poloroid flashbulb for light is what you do what a plan fails, as Fred Ward’s character in “Tremors” would say.
Little Sally, who unleashes the menace when she sneaks into the basement and uses tools to unseal the ash pit, isn’t much brighter. She continues to think the critters might simply want to be her friends even after she’s seen their monstrous, hissing faces up close. More unbelievably, she doesn’t tell Kim or her dad about the pint-sized pests even after they’ve repeatedly terrorized her in her bedroom. Nor does she tell her real mom, whom she’s clearly close to, over the phone. Here’s some advice, kids: When a swarm of small creatures from the bowels of hell try to shred you with a straight razor, tell Mommy or Daddy.On top of not being very bright, our young heroine is far from adorable. Sally (Bailee Madison) is perpetually cold and sullen. When she meets Kim for the first time, she tells her, “My mother said he picked you because you’re young. But you’re not – you’re old!”
The biggest idiot, naturally, is dad Alex, who as is par for the course in horror flicks, pooh poohs his daughter’s fears long after any reasonable person would. Even after his child has run away out of terror, he refuses to leave until he’s held a big dinner party to show off the mansion he hopes to sell. Guy Pearce, as Alex, excels in playing uptight guys, most famously in “L.A. Confidential.” There he brought an intelligence and sincerity to the role that made you root for him. Here he’s just a jerk, like the pompous concierge he played in the comedy “Bedtime Stories.”
The scuttling, rat-like creatures look frightening. But, in the time-honored tradition of mediocre horror movies, we see way too much of them and they quickly cease to be scary. Heck, they’re almost as cute as the mischievous little devils in “Gremlins.” The CGI isn’t very convincing, further weakening their impact.
In an interesting deviation from the original, the creatures are described as fairies – nasty ones that collect children’s teeth. Guillermo del Toro, who wrote but did not direct the film, said in an interview that he got the idea from the books of Welsh writer Arthur Machen, whose works are mentioned in the movie.
“I love his idea that fairy lore comes from a dark place, that it’s derived from little, pre-human creatures who are really, really nasty vermin but are magical in a way, living as they do for hundreds of years,” del Toro said. “His books are what compelled me to do this.”
However, the case that the Tooth Fairy is actually evil was made with greater logic in the Darkness Falls (2003).
The takeaway for film buffs: A terrific trailer does not always mean a terrific movie. Also, if you’re stuck in a horror movie, never, ever go in the basement.