Sunday, October 26, 2014

#1,532. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)

Directed By: Troy Nixey

Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, Bailee Madison

Trivia: Co-writer Guillermo Del Toro makes a cameo appearance in this film, playing a passenger on board an airplane

Say the word “remake” to a film fan, and odds are they’ll break out in a cold sweat, especially if the one being remade is a time-honored classic. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call the 1973 television movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a “classic” of the horror genre, it definitely has its supporters, the most famous of which is Guillermo Del Toro. A fan of the film ever since he was a kid, Del Toro once told USA Today that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was “Something close to my heart for a very long time”. With that in mind, I went into 2010’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark not with trepidation, but extreme curiosity. Produced by Del Toro from a script he co-wrote with Matthew Robbins, I was anxious to see how the filmmaker would update the story. As it turns out, the material couldn’t have been in better hands; Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a terrifically entertaining movie.

Ten-Year-Old Sally (Bailee Madison) is sent to live with her father Alex (Guy Pearce), an architect who, along with his new girlfriend, interior designer Kim (Katie Holmes), is renovating an old mansion that once belonged to a reclusive artist. One day, while in the basement with her father, young Sally notices an ash pit that’s been bolted shut, and after hearing mysterious voices emanating from the other side she grabs a wrench and opens it up. In doing so, she inadvertently releases a number of tiny creatures, which had been locked up by the previous owner many years earlier. Once free, the creatures (which have an aversion to light) spend a great deal of time in the shadows, following Sally around. Before long, the frightened little girl realizes her new “visitors” aren’t as friendly as they first appeared, and that her life, and everyone else’s, is suddenly in the greatest of danger.

One of the best updates Del Toro made to the story was changing its overall focus from a housewife (like in the original) to a little girl who, because of the situation she’s in (shuttled from one parent to the other), feels abandoned and unloved, making her the perfect target for the deceitful monsters’ manipulating lies (playing on Sally’s insecurity, they tell her she’s unwanted, and promise to play with her if she frees them from their basement prison). Bailee Madison gives a phenomenal performance as Sally, perfectly capturing her character’s heartbreak and, eventually, the intense fear she experiences when the monsters’ true motives are revealed. The scene where Sally first catches a glimpse of one of the creatures is a very effective jump scare, and a later sequence in which she’s in the bathtub is positively nerve-racking. Yet it’s what the young actress does with the story’s more dramatic elements that’s truly impressive (at one point, she sobs uncontrollably when accused of ruining one of Kim’s dresses, mostly because she realizes it was the work of the creatures she herself released). Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are also strong, but in the end it’s Bailee Madison who steals the show.

Then we have the monsters themselves, which scamper along the ground as if they were dozens of nervous mice, tormenting Sally every chance they get. At first, their hijinks are innocent enough; after breaking into her room, two of the creatures hide behind Sally’s talking teddy bear, playfully manipulating it as if it were a puppet. It isn’t long, however, before the monster’s tricks become much more sinister (when Alex peers through a keyhole, several creatures on the other side of the door insert a large needle into it, in an attempt to puncture his eyeball). Though small in stature, these monsters are plenty dangerous when they work together. In one very intense scene, they seriously injure Harris (Jack Thompson), who, because his grandfather had worked on the estate years earlier, knew of their existence (grabbing any sharp object they could get their hands on, the creatures descend upon Harris, slicing up his entire body). Brought to life with near-flawless CGI, the monsters look damn creepy, but it’s their actions that make Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark such an intensely disturbing motion picture.

Forget all the negative connotations you normally associate with the word “remake”: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is one “update” that actually improves upon the original.

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