For fear of little men
There was a TV movie made in 1973, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, that is frequently cited by those who've seen it, as one of the best made-for-TV movies of that era, one of the two Golden Ages of made-for-TV movies (the other is the early '50s). I haven't seen nearly enough of the things to weigh in on that matter, but certainly, for a horror movie that aired on network television in as comparatively innocent a time as 1973, not to mention a movie that went from script to editing room in considerably less than a month & on a pittance of a budget, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is dumbfoundingly good. It's also not really very similar to the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark at all, except in a handful of incidental details where the nominal remake pays homage to the original by swiping an idea here or a line of dialogue there, but I couldn't pass up an opportunity to urge everyone reading this to see the original through whatever means are available: it's part of the Warner Archive Collection, and not worth the $20 that they charge for a burned DVD,* but I'm still duty-bound to point it out.
The new film is pretty okay, I should hasten to point out before I start ripping into. In its current form, written by Matthew Robbins & Guillermo del Toro, the story is about Sally (Bailee Madison), an 8-year-old girl being treated for an unstated emotional disorder (which does not mean, we should note, that she suffers from an emotional disorder) who is shipped from Los Angeles by her frustrated mother to a damp corner of Rhode Island, where her architect father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new interior designer girlfriend (though everything in the film itself led me to assume she was his wife), Kim (Katie Holmes), are busy restoring a sprawling mansion once owned by the renowned nature painter Lord Blackwood (Garry McDonald), who we've already seen in the pre-title sequence, when he attacked a maid (Edwina Ritchard) spouting nonsense about his missing child and "they", before getting sucked into a fireplace).
Presently enough, Alex and Kim's rehabbing leads them to break open the wall that had been sealing up Blackwood's downstairs studio - the same room where he met his demise - over the protestations of Harris (Jack Thompson, the caretaker and son of caretakers past, who clearly knows but can't say that Something Dark lies in the building's past. We learn what it is soon enough: Sally starts hearing voices just on the edge of sound, the kind that hiss and rush and sound altogether like beings you don't really want to encounter in a rattle old building, unless you are a precocious child with more creativity than sense, and a passel of adults on all sides who simply do not know what the hell to do with you. Sally thus befriends the beings, and even manages to spot them out of the corner of her eye: they are spindly humanoids with thick, bushy bodies, less than a foot high, and they are extremely reluctant to come into the light.
That's kind of it, as far as plot goes: the rest of the film is a bunch of variations on Alex blowing Sally off, while Kim tries everything in her power to make Sally like her, coming to believe along the way that the little creatures the girl is describing might not be the product of an over-worked imagination; Sally grows slowly but steadily convinced that her new friends do not have her best interests at heart. On and on it goes, with the single biggest change being that shortly after the halfway mark, we get our first nice long look at the creatures, and find that in the grand tradition of horror movie monsters, it was better when we could fill in the details ourselves.
All of this is del Toro through and through - the most substantive and far-reaching change to the material was to turn Sally into a child, and thereby make his version of Don't Be Afraid into an American-set Pan's Labyrinth without the socio-historical context. But it is important to note that del Toro did not follow through and direct the picture; he left that duty to Troy Nixey, a first-timer with only a single short under his belt, although he is something of a well-established comic book artist (at least it's a visual form of storytelling, even in the use of "shots"). How much of a hand del Toro had in the day-to-day work on set, I cannot say, nor anyone who was there, and it's at least not the case that Don't Be Afraid specifically calls to mind any particular del Toro project, visually speaking. What it does call to mind is the del Toro-produced horror picture The Orphanage, along with every other "big scary house" movie of the last several years. We shouldn't hold it against a newbie that he felt compelled to use the same clotted shadows and horrified low angles and suffocating hushes on the soundtrack - and the sound mix is, at least, a pretty fantastic piece of work - but you can't pretend it's not there.
The flipside is that, by dint of doing all the things that have always worked, Don't Be Afraid itself works, basically. It's not as rollicking as Insidious, and not as fucking scary as Paranormal Activity, but it acquits itself well enough for a haunted house-type picture in the 21st Century. The sound design, I mentioned, is pretty much aces, and the lighting is appropriately brooding. As with far too many horror films that come up with a semi-plausible explanation for what's going on - and it's a real doozy in this one, giving the childhood tooth fairy ritual a phenomenally ridiculous background in the realm of northern European folklore - it gets a lot less scary once we know what's happening, and the more we see of the beings (which are rather closer to the creatures the screenwriter of the TV movie had in mind than the ones that movie depicted), the more they look like CGI effects that aren't tremendously scary. I would go so far as to say that the scariest images in the film are what we see of Blackwood's paintings of the creatures, in fact, and not the creatures themselves, and for a reason I can't quite vocalise, this strikes me as a tremendous failing.
Still, it's as creepy as it needs to be, and not even remotely as creepy as its asinine R-rating would indicate, and it's pretty shallow beyond that: any attempts at child psychology along the lines of Pan's Labyrinth run aground at the simplistic characterisations in the script, and a couple of terrible performances - not Madison, though, who is remarkably good for a girl her age. Pearce and Holmes manage to do a far worse job than she does: Pearce by failing in any way to modulate his character's airy indifference to his child until the moment the script demands it, a moment that makes no sense given the actor's refusal to that point to suggest that Alex does, in fact, love his daughter; Holmes by being breathy and sugary and acting generally like she decided for some unspeakable reason that the best way to play the character was to constantly ask herself "What would Audrey Tatou do?" Holmes in particular comes awfully close to ruining the movie, or at least making it worse than it has to be. But it's honestly pretty actor-proof. This one is all about the atmosphere, and while Nixey is not at all comfortable in the storybook mode that his producer and mentor self-evidently wanted to enforce over the material, he at least manages to marshal that atmosphere in the right ways to end up with a movie that's effective, if predominately unmemorable.
6/10, and it might have just crawled up to a 7/10 if I didn't feel compelled to punish it for using Comic Sans in the end credits.