Against her will, a young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison), moves in with her estranged father Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in an enormous old house called Blackwood Mansion. Alex is an architect restoring the house with the help of Kim, an interior decorator. The previous owner was a painter who disappeared under strange circumstances. Small mean creatures soon start whispering to Sally and she pursues them down to the basement of the house where they seem to live.
This is a remake of John Newlands made-for-television film from 1973 and, as such, one of many remakes of classic horror movies from the 1970s and 80s that have seen the light of day recently; The Last House on the Left (1972/2009), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974/2003), Black Christmas (1974/2006), The Hills Have Eyes (1977/2006), Toolbox Murders (1978/2004), Dawn of the Dead (1978/2004), Halloween (1978/2007), The Thing (1982/2011), Fright Night (1985/2011) and several more. Such remakes can easily be said to constitute a contemporary trend.
One of the main reasons for this seems to be that filmmakers aren’t restrained by technological possibilities in the same way anymore. They can now do almost exactly what they want, thanks to computer technology like CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery). Simultaneously there is a trend to polish away the often edgy social critique and deeper meanings of the originals. The main focus is now often on the monsters and how they are designed.
In the 1973 version the monsters are three lumpy masked midgets. In the 2010 versionthere are many more of them and they are small human-faced sharp-toothed little creatures with rat-like bodies moving fast and nervously around their victims. I can’t help to think of the vicious small flying creatures of Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), particularly as del Toro has co-written and produced the film. More isn’t always merrier and even though they are both elegant and mean, they are neither as suggestive nor as cruel as the ones in John Newlands version.
Don´t Be Afraid of the Dark is filled with classic horror elements, like the big house with its enormous staircase connecting the floors and a basement where the evil dwells, seemingly remembering the past of the house. The little girl hears the creatures’ voices in the house and traces them through the plumbing to their source in the basement. The monsters seem to be connected with the house, they disappear into the house to be one with the building. This is a classic horror convention seen in films like The Amityville Horror (1979), The Shining (1980) and Hellraiser (1987). The line between clever references to classic horror conventions and producing undigested clichés is a fine one and director Troy Nixey seems to me to be dealing in clichés more than anything else.
Another cliché is the idea of the young girl being more intuitively connected with the supernatural and evil than the adults, and especially the men, like her father. She picks up on things they can’t see and they just see her as an obnoxious child, instead of listening to her. The little girl escaping into an eerie fantasy world is a classic theme found in everything from Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice´s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) to Guillermo del Toro’s film Pans Labyrinth (El laberinto del fauno, 2006).
Don´t Be Afraid of the Dark is reminiscent of del Toros films, both in its aesthetics and its contents. The stepmother, Kim, makes an effort to make the child feel welcome in the new house, whilst also trying to make Alex connect with his daughter. He is more concerned with renovating the house, which is very important for him since this will be his showcase as an architect. He is so focused on his work that he has no time to listen to anyone, and certainly not a little girl, even though it is his own daughter, who needs his love and care, separated as she is from her mother. She is also trying to tell him something important, the monsters are coming! Kim is trying to nurture her and in doing this she also listens to her, slowly starting to believe what she has to say.
This very unsympathetic portrait of the man/father that is only interested in what he perceives as realistic, scientifically provable, we recognize from another del Toro film, The Orphanage (El orfanato, 2007). As in this earlier film, the women and children are open and intuitive, predicting the evil to come, and trying to solve the threatening situation, while the men are generally stubborn, conventional and only listen to “reason.” In this case, however, it’s not only the women and children who are open to the scientifically inexplicable, but also the former owner of the house, the painter who did portraits of the little beasts. Children, women and artists connecting with the supernatural while the careerist man is reactionary and blind is another cliché fully made use of in this film. This is especially interesting since this is a new addition to the story in the remake. In the original version Sally is, in fact, an adult woman (played by Kim Darby) and neither she nor her husband has any children. The uncertainty as to whether she is actually mad hearing these voices, or if they really exist is one of the real assets of the 1973 version. This uncertainty is something that has been removed in this later version.
Even given its shortcomings, this film remains rather amusing to watch. You understand from the start that it is more of a fairy tale than a horror movie and as such it is quite beautiful and delivers as much shivers as you can expect, although it is also very predictable. Bailee Madison is plays her role well, even though her parents are rather dull characters played without nuances and passion. Don´t Be Afraid of the Dark 2010 is a polished film, the set is beautiful and the monsters creepy, though I would have liked to see more of them. More could also have been made of the (in this context) unusual tooth fairy theme that the film refers to. I would have loved to see a toothless Katie Holmes, though even unseen that image will linger in my imagination for a long time.
Anna Arnman is a former editor-in-chief of Film International. She wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Clive Barker’s Hellraiser.