Sunday, January 22, 2012

Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (2010)

Because of the girl's obvious psychological troubles, her mother sends Sally (Bailee Madison) to live with her ex-husband Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes, surprisingly decent here) in the Victorian mansion they are restoring to sell on.

As if that weren't enough trouble for a little girl, Sally is soon enough beset by the rat-like fairies living in the house's ash pit. At first, the creatures are pretending to make friends with the little girl, but it doesn't take long until they show their nastier side. While Alex - excellent dad that he is - doesn't seem to take Sally's problems as much more than a nuisance, Kim begins to believe Sally's stories about the monsters sharing their house once the occurrences become too strange to take them for expressions of a troubled child.

I have never been as big an admirer of the original TV movie Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark as many of my horror film loving peers, so I have to admit that this Guillermo Del Toror-written and produced remake directed by Troy Nixey is not pushing my sacrilege buttons at all. In fact, if I had to decide between the two films, I'd clearly take the cinema version over the TV movie.
For my tastes, Don't Be Afraid is a remake done right, taking elements of the original, but giving them its own spin and direction, turning the very white upper middle class (as all TV movies of that period invariably were not just by "virtue" of the characters, but also in feel and ideology) original with its TV-induced bland production design into a modern gothic of the visual style that's pretty typical of del Toro projects. The character's are now even more upper middle class than they were in the original, but curiously enough, the film itself doesn't feel that way anymore. 

I like the film's re-interpretation of its monsters a lot: turning them into fairies (with the proper shout-outs to Arthur Machen, thanks to at least one scriptwriter who actually reads books in form of del Toro), and an appropriately creepy version of the tooth fairy to boot, gives the monsters' existence and threat a proper weight the somewhat characterless creatures of the original didn't have for me. Thanks to this (and the inclusion of various of the frequent themes of del Toro's work), the new Don't Be becomes more of a dark fairy tale, trading the innate American middle class-ness of the TV movie for the mood of one of our dark European fairy tales, frequently cleverly broken and mirrored by modern psychological concepts and a playful sense of what you can change about the traditional tropes of fairy tales. So, fortunately, step mothers aren't inherently evil, and even rather ineffectual and superficial fathers can rise to the occasion, though only when it is much too late for a happy ending.

As befits a fairy tale in this key, Don't Be Afraid has an ending that is surprisingly consequent and absolutely keeping with the tone of what came before, even though it's not as complete a downer ending as a film from the 70s would have had. In this film's world, it's one of the characters who at least "deserves" it, who dies; it's as if virtue is not necessarily something that will be rewarded, and contact with the supernatural has its price even if it's not fair to the person who has to pay that price at all.

While there are a lot of interesting things happening on more than one subtextual level, and its visual side is as sumptuous and detailed as you could hope for, Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark may be a bit too conventional on a dramatic level to satisfy some. It's a film that frequently makes fascinating and fruitful decisions about what it can and will do inside of the frame of a very traditional horror movie but it never tries to completely break out of the structures of a film of this type, featuring suspense scenes that look and feel exactly as you'd expect them too, following each other in exactly the expected way. On one hand, this formal conservatism is a bit of a disappointment, but on the other, it is also a reminder that you can work inside of traditional structures without having to act dumb.


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