Even though I'm the right age to have seen it when it first aired, I don't remember seeing the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. I saw plenty of made-for-tv horror movies when I was growing up and I remember them fondly. Those movies had an aura of weirdness all their own. They generally creeped rather than shocked, though that's not a universal--I mean, I'm still freaked out by that damned Zuni fetish doll from Trilogy of Terror, after all. These movies are a nice counter stream to the splatter films that were in the drive ins and grindhouses of the day, a refuge, as it were, for the Gothic as it retreated from movie screens. One of these days I should probably hunt down Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, because the remake (2011, directed by Troy Nixey) is interesting.
The story here finds 12 year old Sally moving in with her father and his girlfriend after her mother fobs her her off. Alex, the father, is an architect whose business is on the rocks. He's purchased Blackwood Manor, a sinister and dilapidated old mansion, on the cheap, planning to restore it and sell it at a profit. His girlfriend, Kim, is an interior designer who is working on the decor. Sally is a willful child and she goes exploring the grounds of the mansion out of sight of the adults. During her explorations, Sally discovers a basement that has been walled up. The groundskeeper, Harris, does his best to ward off Alex--he seems to know more than he's telling--but to no avail. In the basement, our heroes find the hidden studio of Edward Blackwood, a naturalist painter who vanished under mysterious circumstances. In the basement, there's a grate bolted over the remains of an ash pit. Sally hears voices coming from the pit. The voices promise her friendship, and Sally is desperate for a friend, so she unbolts the grating, unleashing the monstrous little creatures who live there. Soon, she realizes that the creatures mean her ill, but she can't convince any of the adults that they even exist, though Kim begins to take her seriously, seriously enough to investigate Blackwood and his disappearance. To her horror, she realizes that Sally is in grave danger, but it may already be too late...
This is an auteur's film. You can see producer/screenwriter Guillermo del Toro's fingerprints all over the visuals and themes of this movie regardless of the guy in the director's chair, whether it's the girl adjusting to a dysfunctional family or the various call-outs to labyrinths or the emphasis on fantastical renderings of nature. This is all of a piece with The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy, and The Orphanage. I'm not complaining about this, mind you. I like del Toro's brand of fairytale horror, and there's certainly an expectation of a certain level of craft when you see his name on a movie. You get that here. The production design is first rate. This movie's creepy old house ought to be haunted. I almost wish they'd burned it down at the end (possibly licensing Roger Corman's old burning barn footage), but the house is real and I doubt the owners would have stood for that. I like the creatures, too. I don't have a problem with CGI monsters per se, and the filmmakers use their CGI intelligently in this movie, usually placing it in dark spaces so the gloss of CGI is diminished. This is a classic technique that carries over from generations of dodgy special effects movies. The dark covers a lot of sins. When the critters are finally shown in close up, they mostly stand up to the scrutiny. Del Toro is mining a lot of childhood weirdness with these creatures by casting them in the role of tooth fairies (he did the same thing with malevolent little beasties in the second Hellboy movie; he doesn't throw anything way). This is a literary film, too, one that calls back to the great weird fiction of the early 20th Century and earlier. The movie name-checks Arthur Machen during the scenes where Kim plumbs the history of Blackwood Manor, while the name "Blackwood" itself is presumably derived from Algernon Blackwood. The scenario itself resembles Lovecraft's "The Rats in the Walls," though that resemblance is fairly distant.
Bailee Madison is pretty good as Sally. She has a broad range of emotions to play and she mostly nails it. The adults are a mixed bag. Guy Pearce is cold and distant as Sally's dad and the movie doesn't really give him the opportunity to shine. It glosses over whatever dark night of the soul he suffers when his dream of saving his business collapses in the end, and the end of the movie loses some punch when it depends on his character for its effects. Katie Holmes does better as Kim, in part because the movie is at pains to make her sympathetic to Sally from the get go. Jack Thompson has the thankless role of Harris, the handyman who apparently knows more than he lets on. He's not ominous enough for the movie, and his lines consist mainly of "it's dangerous for children." Harris is the center of the film's most egregious demand on the credulity of the audience when, after having been attacked by the film's critters, Sally's dad goes on as if nothing untoward had happened.
It's a shame that this movie was rated R in the United States--a factor, one assumes, in it's disappointing box office--because this is a horror movie that's designed specifically for children. The trope of the child who no adult will believe is a persistent one in the genre, mainly because it's effective. This movie gives ample reason for the adults to disbelieve her, though if truth be told, the indifference shown to her by the adults sometimes strains credibility. I mean, do you let a child who is depressed and medicated wander around the grounds unattended? Do you dress that child up and bring her to the most important dinner of your career? Adults can be pretty dense sometimes, but it's all necessary to the script. This is disappointing. It's also disappointing that the movie splits its protagonist between Sally and Kim. Kim is the antithesis of the wicked step-mother. She's the only one who takes Sally seriously, and at some point near the end, the movie ceases to be about Sally and moves Kim to the center of the screen. This is a flaw, because by the time this happens, the audience has everything invested in Sally and nothing invested in Kim. The end of the movie SHOULD be about Sally finding strength within herself, but the structure of the screenplay mitigates this by shifting its focus.
In spite of its structural flaws, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark still manages to get under the skin. It understands the power of images to trump logic, and it exploits this mercilessly. The childhood fears of monsters under the bed gets a good workout here, but it goes one further by putting a monster into the bed itself, under the covers, violating that safe refuge where children shelter from the terrors of the night. It also places dangers into other spaces where children of all ages might feel vulnerable. The bath scene is a droll riff on the shower scene in Psycho, for instance, and plays on the same fears. Some of its terrors are more universal. This film pricks feelings of abandonment and lovelessness and powerlessness. These undercurrents work regardless of how the story plays out on screen and if anything, they're more fraught with terror than fairytale monsters.