I’m not going to fib, I was am a child of the 70s and back in 1973 a made for television movie debuted that has played into my subconscious ever since. It starred Kim Darby of the original ‘True Grit’ fame as a young housewife who has inherited a mansion from her grandmother. As fate would have it, when I was writing my review of the most recent version of ‘True Grit’ I looked up Darby on IMDB and one thing led to another and before you could say ‘boo’ I ended up ordering ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ not even knowing that a remake of it was to be released in a few months. Honestly, I can’t write a review of this Guillermo del Toro produced version without referring to its original incarnation.
Here’s the deal, I have been referencing this film for ages; even when the mere title of it was lost to me until the mid-90s. If interviews with del Toro is any indication, I wasn’t the only one who was left with a lasting impression. The film has been a cult classic for ages. Once I got my DVD in the mail I forced two friends to watch while I peppered them with stories about how I first viewed it hiding behind a my mother’s rocker and how during a critical plot point involving a tug of war she said, “It means together they are stronger that her.” But I might be getting ahead of myself.
Suffice to say certain elements held up well enough that my friends could understand how this film made an impression on a young child. However other things such as the acting and what passed for home décor in the seventies did not. Few things in life are as disturbing as the colors that were considered chic during the Me Decade. Yellows and greens mixed together without a fore thought of how vomit producing this combination is – not to mention surfaces with lace tablecloths topped with the latest plastic oversized gadget. It was almost as if through the decades the hideous set decoration had become a character in the storyline.
The acting style too is problematic for modern audiences. 1973 was a transitional time where old acting styles were becoming more…method I suppose. What was jarring was how the husband, played by Jim Hutton (father of Tim) went from zero to meltdown in seconds. It is one thing to be angry and thinking your spouse is imagining things it is quite another to scream at her as if she purposely made you break away from a very important meeting without regard for your massive ego career. It was every male chauvinist stereotype times a thousand. I almost felt I was suffering from whiplash between the time he accuses the handyman (William Demarest, Uncle Charley of ‘My Three Sons’ fame) of purposely frightening his wife to then serving a fanciful tea to the man by the pool in order to entice him back to employment.
Yet with all of those mock worthy elements, what did remain the same was how creepy the little creatures were. Wait, I haven’t mentioned them. Apparently Sally’s (Darby) grandfather mysteriously disappeared and her grandma ordered the handyman to brick up the fireplace and to close off her husband’s study. Of course when Sally discovers the room she is enchanted and wants the fireplace to be made functional for her own private hideaway much to the chagrin of the handyman/Uncle Charley who knows why everything should remain the way her grandmother had it. You see, there are three creatures who have been trapped in the fireplace waiting for someone (like Sally) to free them. The kicker though is that Sally is the only one who sees the goblins and although the handyman knows about them he can’t say anything about them because his own life might be in the balance. While Sally mopes around as a housewife with little to do besides shopping and planning her husband’s important dinner party, her complaints about the creatures is written off as anxiety. Everyone in her life thinks all she really needs is to let her prescription sleeping pills do what they are meant to do.
So flash forward to 2011 and the remake. Once again I was accompanied by the before mentioned friends and I’m happy to report that the newer ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ version is definitely worth seeing. I think it provides the background for a storyline more in tune with the needs of a modern audience. The film opens during the Victorian Era with a maid reluctantly bringing her employer’s dinner to his dank basement study. Later we learn that the employer was a famous nature illustrator. Flash to the present where Guy Pearce plays an architect (who has sunk a ton of money into the mansion) and his interior designing girlfriend are picking up his daughter from the airport. Kim (Katie Holmes) wants to bond with the child so she gives her a teddy bear that keeps repeating, “I love you.” Sally (Bailee Madison) is underwhelmed by the gesture. We learn on their car trip home that the girl is on several medications for anxiety and depression. Many critics have picked up that since Holmes is in the film, and married to you know who, this might be a nod to the Scientologist jihad over psychological prescription meds. However since pills were referenced in the originally film, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
It was brilliant to make Sally a child since so many children were haunted by the first movie. Further I think Katie Holmes is an interesting choice to play the new character of the ‘girlfriend’. I even wondered if her character name of ‘Kim’ was a nod to Kim Darby. Plus her real life marriage to Tom Cruise and the rumors of his control over her can also serve as an allegory to the action on the screen (granted I might be reading too much into this). I think she was fine in the role, but the thing I did notice was that her voice seemed flat in places, yet when it came to little critters that hide in the shadows dragging her to the bowels of the Earth her performance felt very realistic. Once again, I’m not trying to allude to Scientology and rumored practices…honest.
The creatures this time around weren’t limited to three, but like the original they were given voices and took perverse pleasure in chanting ‘Sally’ while they caused havoc. I think the critters were more frightening in the original, but I liked the mythology that the newer theatrical release produced. Plus there is an added element of the creatures wanting teeth as if they are the origin of the tooth fairies which put another layer of creep into the plot. I do wish the moviemakers had limited to some degree the amount of creatures. Although it is impressive that they resemble an infestation of rats it is the realism of a vermin infestation that distracts from their intelligence and overall ability to mind something (rhymes with truck) with their prey.
Overall see movie if you like horror films that don’t have a body count in double digits. I suppose the real question comes down to if I would enjoy ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ if I didn’t have such a history with it. I think I would, but probably less so. I believe that children seeing this film might suffer nightmares, but I don’t know if it will have the impact on them that the original had on me. I suppose time will tell.