Hallowe’en is the time to revel in the scary stories of our childhood, and this year Guillermo del Toro is no different, producing a remake of a 1973 TV movie he described as “the most terrifying thing on Earth.” Join Geek Chocolate as we ponder whether we are brave enough to follow in his footsteps into the shadows.
While changes have been made to the storyline, the underlying structure is the same; an old house with a grim history, creatures locked in a fireplace in the basement, one of the residents driven to desperation both by the creatures that only she can see and the disbelief of those around her.
The key difference is the original Sally was an adult, Kim Darby, whereas here she is played by pre-teen starlet Bailee Madison, whose performance is by far the best thing in the film, convincing in her isolation as she confronts the lurking horror of Fallen Mill: the indifference of her parents.
Shipped off to Rhode Island by her absent mother, Sally is greeted at the airport by architect father Alex and his interior designer girlfriend Kim, Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes, who are engaged in the restoration of Blackwood Manor, something they are far more interested in than the child with whom they have been saddled. Sally protests about how cold she is in the house, and her assessment is correct, for the film is without any warmth between the characters.
When his already medicated daughter becomes disturbed, rather than spending time with her, taking her on a trip to the zoo, even buying her an Ipod of Britney Spears, Alex calls a psychiatrist. While Kim makes noises about her own troubled childhood, her initial refusal to help Sally just makes her more selfish rather than sympathetic. When Sally runs away to seek comfort in the gardens, much as Ofelia did in del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it is easy to understand why.
For the majority of the film, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce are unsympathetic leads, and the Hollywood obsession for high profile casting does not do the film any favours. Consider the early seasons of The X Files when the producers preferred to cast unknowns so the audience would relate to the character rather than the actor. How much effort creating an illusion is wasted when the principle reaction is that you’re watching Mrs Tom Cruise?
Technically, the film is excellent, with fluid camera work and impressive sets exquisitely lit, but the constant gloom is not believable; with a small child in a house that is undergoing major reconstruction, should there not be bright, efficient electrical illumination? Similarly, while the prologue is stunning and disturbing, candles and shadows in the library, a chisel scraping across white enamel, it is entirely unnecessary, giving too much of the story away before it has begun, pandering to those who want horror spoonfed in digestible chunks.
In many ways the film is Gremlins without the laughs, even down to Sally defending herself with a strangely incongruous Polaroid camera, and as the festive season approaches, it would be better to revisit that classic than spend time with this offering, which at less than one hundred minutes it is still too long to be spending in the dark of the cinema.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is currently on general release