Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

A suspenseful yet markedly less insidious update of the 1973 horror telepic.

Kim Raphael - Katie Holmes
Alex Hurst - Guy Pearce
Sally Hurst - Bailee Madison
Harris - Jack Thompson

It’s been nearly 40 years since the shockingly scary TV movie “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” terrified a 9-year-old Guillermo del Toro, who would make a career recycling what thrilled him as a kid into classy highbrow horror pics. Pairing a sinister old house with the sort of creatures that haunt one’s dreams, the 1973 telepic inspired del Toro’s first outright remake  —  a suspenseful yet markedly less insidious update he penned with writing partner Matthew Robbins and handed off to comicbook vet Troy Nixey to direct. Del Toro’s name should entice more than just genre auds to this Miramax orphan, since adopted by FilmDistrict for an Aug. 26 release.

During the decades “Dark” spent festering in his imagination, del Toro had plenty of opportunity to embellish the pic’s meager plot, which centers on a woman named Sally who unseals a heavy grate in the basement fireplace, only to release a bunch of darkness-dwelling creatures. In del Toro’s version, Sally is a 9-year-old girl dragged into a supernatural situation beyond her grasp, not unlike the protagonists of “The Devil’s Backbone” or “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

After an unsettling prologue demonstrates that Blackwood Manor is not at all a safe place to raise children, “Dark” warily observes the arrival of young Sally (Bailee Madison, “Brothers”) to the creepy, run-down estate, where her architect father (an unusually dull Guy Pearce) and his much-younger girlfriend (Katie Holmes) have been doing extensive restoration. More than a century earlier, Emerson Blackwood and his son mysteriously disappeared inside the house, and though they’ve left the premises blessedly ghost-free, the monsters that snatched them are still lurking in the darkest recesses of the basement furnace.

From the beginning, the screenplay gives audiences an advantage over the characters, who are all oblivious to Blackwood’s dark history —  all except the groundskeeper, Mr. Harris (Jack Thompson), who has made some sort of secret pact with the creatures (one of several direct nods to the original that makes no sense in the story’s newly expanded context). Ominous cutaways reveal that Sally’s arrival has awakened the monsters in the basement, who won’t be satisfied until they’ve feasted on children’s teeth.

Working closely with del Toro, Nixey instinctively understands the tension will be greatest if he withholds the creatures at first, relying instead on the shadowy figures’ teasing whispers to establish their menacing intentions. Once it comes time to reveal the ugly buggers, Nixey prolongs the suspense by doing so in pieces, showing glistening eyes behind the basement grate, crab-like claws as they scuttle through the air ducts and, finally, the nightmarish alien faces dreamt up by horror-surrealist Chet Zar.

So why aren’t they frightening? Whereas the telepic wheedled its way into one’s subconscious by suggesting that malicious homunculi might be conspiring to kill people after the lights go out, del Toro’s creatures are complicated by a more robust mythology. Still, the guidelines are far from clear: If the rule is “one life must be taken,” then why don’t they take a life already, rather than wasting time harassing everybody? And what effect does light have on these photosensitive monsters exactly?

In perhaps the most curious divergence from the ruthlessly efficient, subplot-free original, del Toro and Robbins’ script tries to tie these urchins to the tooth-fairy tradition, which just feels silly. Far more effective is the addition of the uneasy dynamic between young Sally and her stepmother-to-be, with these two rivals becoming allies when confronted with the supernatural (strangely, Madison looks more genetically similar to Holmes than Pearce). The part of Sally calls for an exceptional young actress, and Madison — Drew Barrymore-cute, but nobody’s angel — not only aces the role’s emotional demands but also brings an unexpectedly dark undertone to the character.

No less important is the Australian house that serves as Blackwood Manor, carefully appointed to evoke the Victorian settings seen in classic horror movies while still supplying a wholly original location. Thanks primarily to a predictably sharp combination of lensing, editing and suspense music, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” succeeds in stinging the audience with a few shock scares, including a terrifying sequence in which one of the creatures manages to creep under Sally’s bedcovers. Still, rather than trying to frighten adults, this entire R-rated exercise feels engineered to emotionally scar any younger auds who should happen to see it —  much as the original did del Toro back in the day.

Popular on Variety

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Production: A FilmDistrict release of a Miramax Films and Guillermo del Toro presentation in association with FilmDistrict of a Necropia/Gran Via production. Produced by del Toro, Mark Johnson. Executive producers, Stephen Jones, William Horberg, Tom Williams. Directed by Troy Nixey. Screenplay, Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins, based on the teleplay by Nigel McKeand.

Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Deluxe domestic prints, Technicolor international prints), Oliver Stapleton; editor, Jill Bilcock; music, Marco Beltrami, Buck Sanders; production designer, Roger Ford; art director, Lucinda Thomson; set designers, Nick Dare, Marko Anttonen; set decorator, Kerrie Brown; costume designer, Wendy Chuck; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), Gary Wilkins; sound designer, Rob Mackenzie; supervising sound editor, Glenn Newnham; re-recording mixers, Roger Savage, Mackenzie; special effects supervisor, Angelo Sahin; visual effects supervisor, Paul Glubb; visual effects, Iloura; creature designers, Chet Zar, Mike Elizalde, Keith Thompson; special makeup effects, KNB EFX Group; stunt coordinator, Chris Anderson; associate producer, Nick Nunziata; assistant director, Toby Pease; second unit director, Bruce Hunt; second unit camera, Ross Emery; casting, Mary Vernieu, Venus Kanani, Christine King. Reviewed at Los Angeles Film Festival (closer), June 26, 2011. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 99 MIN.

With: Kim Raphael - Katie Holmes
Alex Hurst - Guy Pearce
Sally Hurst - Bailee Madison
Harris - Jack ThompsonWith: Garry McDonald, Edwina Ritchard, Julia Blake, Nicholas Bell.

More Film

  • Sony Pictures: 'We Are Disappointed' by

    Sony 'Disappointed' by Disney's Divorce on 'Spider-Man' Projects

    Sony Pictures has gone public over its divorce with Disney on future “Spider-Man” projects. In a rare public rebuke to Disney, Sony announced Tuesday night that it was “disappointed” over the decision, highlighting Disney’s refusal to allow Marvel President Kevin Feige to continue as a producer on the projects. It also praised Feige, who teamed [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    ‘Good Boys’ Again Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Universal Pictures claims the top spot in spending for the second week in a row with “Good Boys.” Ads placed for the comedy had an estimated media value of $4.42 million through Sunday for [...]

  • Demi Lovato

    Demi Lovato Joins Netflix Comedy 'Eurovision'

    Demi Lovato has joined the upcoming Netflix comedy film “Eurovision.” Will Ferrell, who co-wrote the film with Andrew Steele, announced the news Tuesday with an Instagram post, in which he wished Lovato a happy birthday with a “homemade” cake. Following the announcement, Lovato can be seen blowing out candles on the cake next to a “Eurovision” [...]

  • Rob Schneider'The Week Of' film premiere,

    Film News Roundup: Rob Schneider Wins SAG-AFTRA National Board Seat

    In today’s film news roundup, Rob Schneider wins a SAG-AFTRA board seat; “Badland,” “Sorry We Missed You” and “Extracurricular” find homes; and “The Shawshank Redemption” gets a re-release.  SAG-AFTRA Rob Schneider has won a SAG-AFTRA national board seat as a member of presidential candidate Matthew Modine’s progressive Membership First slate. Schneider won a four-year term [...]

  • This photo shows actor David Oyelowo

    David Oyelowo Joins George Clooney in 'Good Morning, Midnight' Adaptation (EXCLUSIVE)

    David Oyelowo is in final negotiations to join George Clooney in Netflix’s untitled adaptation of Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel “Good Morning, Midnight,” sources tell Variety. Felicity Jones and Kyle Chandler are also on board, with Clooney set to helm the pic — his first feature film directing gig since 2017’s “Suburbicon.” “The Revenant” screenwriter Mark [...]

  • Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the

    Disney Delays 'Cruella,' 'Woman in the Window'

    Disney is shaking up its release calendar, delaying its live action “Cruella” until Memorial Day 2021 and pushing Fox 2000 drama “The Woman in the Window” to 2020. “Cruella,” starring Emma Stone, is based on the classic “101 Dalmatians” villain Cruella de Vil. The revisit to Disney’s animated classic was originally set to hit theaters [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content