It seems like it’s been forever since we’ve gotten a new film from Guillermo del Toro. Looking back at his filmography confirms that his last directorial turn was just about three years ago, when he brought us Hellboy II. Of course, if you’ve been following the man’s career during the time after that film, then you likely know that a good part of the reason he’s been out of the Director’s chair for so long is that he was working on bringing The Hobbit to the big screen; until that particular project fell apart and Peter Jackson rescued it.
To be honest, it seems like a lot of Del Toro’s projects as of late have suffered that same fate. At one time, he was all set to bring us a big-budget adaptation of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness. Unfortunately for us, after a fairly long pre-production, Hollywood ultimately decided that it was too risky to throw the million of dollars at that film that Del Toro needed, and that film got scrapped too. At the time of this writing, his new project, Pacific Rim, is still on the slate for 2013, which will mark about 5 years since we have gotten a film from the visionary director.
That may seem like a very long time away, but fans of Del Toro have been able to take comfort in the fact that, even though he may not necessarily be behind the camera, he’s still been producing. Some of his credits as a Producer make sense (Splice, for example), while some might surprise you (Puss In Boots, anyone?), and others – like 2007’s The Orphanage – unquestionably bear his mark to the point where you might almost be able to convince yourself that he directed the film. Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, which opened this past Friday, falls into the latter of these categories.
Based on the teleplay for the 1973 film of the same name, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark tells the story of Sally (Bailee Madison), a young girl who is sent to live with her estranged father (played by Guy Pearce) and his live-in girlfriend (Katie Holmes) while they fix up an historic old mansion for re-sale. At first, Sally’s biggest problem is that she doesn’t particularly like her new family life. However, she soon finds herself facing a much worse predicament when she discovers that the mansion is also inhabited by a race of small, evil creatures who live in an ash pit in the basement and will stop at nothing to take her for their own.
Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark may have been formally directed by newcomer Troy Nixey, but Del Toro – who is a self-admitted fan of the original movie – co-wrote the screenplay (with Matthew Robbins) and produced the film, and the entire thing is just dripping with his trademark touches. For one, the film’s focus is on a child who finds herself in peril. Secondly, the entire film carries with it a dark fairy-tale atmosphere. And, lastly, the visual components match very well with Del Toro’s unique style and flair. Everything from the look of the house and the land around it down to the design of the creatures themselves screams of Del Toro’s involvement.
Now, this doesn’t mean that Nixey shouldn’t get credit for the film. If his name is on the marquee, then I don’t doubt that he was the one running the show. However, as we’ve seen with other films like Poltergeist, a very hands-on Producer can bring a lot of themselves to the screen; especially when the material is personal to them and they wrote (or co-wrote, in this case) the screenplay.
Now, that being said, if you are a fan of Del Toro’s work, I think that you will find a lot to like here. While Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark may not be anything groundbreaking or awe-inspiring, it is certainly a well-made, competant film with some fun chills along the way. Clocking in at 99 minutes, the film goes by quickly and doesn’t waste any time getting to the point. We get just the right amount of character exposition to give us a feel for the relationships that drive the film. Don’t get me wrong, this is a Creature Feature, but the backbone of the film is really the strained Father-Daughter relationship. Ultimately, the two aspects work very well together, and I didn’t find myself wanting any more from either of them.
A part of this is due to the film’s performances. Madison, who was only about eleven at the time of filming, does an excellent job playing Sally. While her performance isn’t perfect, and she may be a bit too brooding at times, her character is the central focus of the piece, and she carries the movie, holding her own alongside her more accomplished, much older cast-mates. Katie Holmes also does a wonderful job playing Kim, Sally’s Father’s new (and unwanted) girlfriend; and the only one who ultimately believes Sally’s claims that she is in danger. In fact, the scenes between Holmes and Madison are some of the best in the film. Pearce is also good here, though not nearly as likable as Holmes. However, that is more in keeping with his character than anything else. After all, this is Sally’s story, and she is not the biggest fan of her Father when she comes to live with him.
Of course, being horror fans, we may enjoy the family drama, but what we are really here for is the creatures. Though they really don’t get much screen time until the second third of the movie, they are very well utilized when they do show up in force, and quite honestly, they are ugly and mean-spirited as hell. Their only intent is to take Sally for their own, and it is clear that they don’t mind brutalizing anyone who gets in their way during the process. CGI is often a dirty word here in the horror community, but in this case, I feel that it was very well done, and given the dark look of the film, it blends in rather nicely. In fact, I didn’t find myself picking out any instances of poorly done animation. I get the feeling that practical effects were used as much as possible, but given the size and nature of the creatures, CGI was really the best option to bring them to the screen.
Another huge strength of the film is its visual look and feel. Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography is quite beautiful to look at, and it helps give the film a haunting dreamlike atmosphere. As mentioned earlier, the film takes place mostly in the dark (what else would you expect, judging from the title?), but the darkness never overpowers the Gothic set-pieces or overall picture. In fact, I really loved the contrast between the light and dark that was used in the film. Shadows are present throughout and used to great effect, and Del Toro’s unique imagery fits very well with the film’s look and color schemes. The whole thing really feels like a fairy-tale for adults; though, of course, not the happy kind.
At the end of the day, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark delivered exactly what I was looking for. It may not be as flashy or loud as the rest of this summer’s films have been, but I feel like it’s quiet horror, solid performances, and great atmosphere make it one of the better offerings we’ve gotten. Unfortunately, though, I think this film would have been better released in September or October; not necessarily because it’s a horror film, but more-so because it’s look and feel would have gone perfectly with the Fall atmosphere. Hopefully, it won’t come and go quietly from the box office, but given that it is the end of the summer, and this was not the highest-profile of films, I have a feeling that it won’t really find it’s audience until it is released on DVD and Blu-ray. In any case, I feel very confident in recommending it. Again, it’s nothing groundbreaking, and certainly nothing new (it is, after all, a remake), but it is well executed, very entertaining, and it offers some decent chills. Well done, Nixey and Del Toro.