Katie Holmes stars in the remake of the classic horror flick Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
Based on an oft-rerun 1973 ABC Movie of the Week that traumatized an entire generation, this week’s horror remake is something of a passion project for writer-producer Guillermo Del Toro, the prodigiously gifted monster maven who, infuriatingly enough, has not directed a picture since 2008’s disappointing Hellboy II: The Golden Army. After wasting his considerable talents on a years-long dalliance with The Hobbit, and assorted other projects that never panned out, Del Toro was at least able to godfather production on this abandoned script that he penned with his Mimic co-writer Matthew Robbins back in 1999. Originally slated for a January release, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is only now finally slinking its way into cinemas during the end-of-summer graveyard.
Famously dashed together within a span of two weeks, writer Nigel McKeand’s original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was the kind of obscure genre treat that used to be circulated on bootleg VHS tapes and was often mis-remembered with a shiver by kids who were probably too young to be watching it in the first place. The original True Grit’s Mattie Ross (Kim Darby) inherited a country house only to find herself tormented by mole-like homunculi that crept out of a wood stove in the basement. The central gimmick was that these creatures were averse to light, which conveniently allowed them to remain off-screen most of the time. Factor in the single setting, and you’ve got the stuff of low-budget legend.
But as with most Hollywood remakes, money is no longer an object. So the new Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark winds up straddled uncomfortably between its modest premise and reckless CGI abandon. It tries admirably to stay contained within a lone set, which is now a massive Rhode Island manor that belonged to a famous painter who met a mysterious end 100 years ago. The film stars Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes as real-estate developers attempting to re-vamp the dilapidated abode. With all of their savings leveraged into this project, they’re counting on a cover story from Architectural Digest to help them flip the place. (Forget about mole-folk haunting the basement, I’d bet a much more frightening movie could be made about the current real-estate market.)
McKeand’s teleplay has been thoroughly Del Toro-ized, with the focus shifting to Pearce’s precocious daughter Sally, played by sad-eyed Bailee Madison. Still reeling from her parents’ divorce and unsure what to make of Holmes’ age-inappropriate would-be step mother, why wouldn’t the poor kid be delighted by the catcalls of new furry friends in the cellar, despite the stern warnings of Jack Thompson’s gruff groundskeeper? Right away we can tell that Thompson knows more than he’s letting on, when a clutzy camera move ominously pushes in on him, triggering the first of several bad laughs.
Those creatures from the furnace are now nimble little computer-generated rodents, prone to all sorts of mischief while scampering about the frame. They don’t stay friendly with Sally for very long, quickly moving on to all sorts of creepy-crawly shenanigans with sharp household objects.
The biggest structural problem with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the filmmakers’ attempt to prolong a situation that in any sane world would have a swift and rational solution: “Honey, there are a bunch of talking fucking rats in this house who feed on children’s teeth. Perhaps we should sleep somewhere else tonight?”
The screenplay would have us believe that these preoccupied parental units consider the mayhem a figment of Sally’s hyperactive imagination. But Director Troy Nixey (a comic book artist making his feature debut) errs on the scale of the attacks. It’s hard to imagine a sullen 10-year-old is even capable of causing the kind of elaborate property damage wrought by these infernal creatures, and even harder to believe that her folks wouldn’t right away figure out that something’s amiss. The groundskeeper turns up brutalized with a razor and kitchen scissors, and these morons seriously think it was an accident? What kind of accident exactly?
I hate to sound like such a logic Nazi when discussing a horror movie, and if Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark moved a little faster it would be easier to overlook the massive credibility gaps. Very late in the game, a helpful librarian shows up to dump a truckload of exposition, as apparently nobody involved in restoring this historic mansion had any idea that the previous owner and his child disappeared under mysterious circumstances? He was kind of a famous painter, wasn’t he?
Nixey knows how to stage a decent jolt, and the film’s final set-piece goes to some admirably nasty places. But it’s just too damn impossible to buy anybody’s behavior under these circumstances. Less would have been a lot more.
Director: Troy Nixey
Starring: Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce and Bailee Madison