There are many deeply creepy moments in DONT BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, a re-imaging of a 1973 television movie of the same name. There are also many terrifying interludes, but the image that may be the most unsettling is that of a doll that has had its teeth gnawed away. Innocence and violence in one tidy package in a tale that takes delight in exposing the grisly origins of the tooth fairy legend. Co-written by Guillermo del Toro, and bearing his trademark stamp of slowly seeping terror rooted in both the real world and that of fantasy, it is an elegant tale of horror with a scabrous danger festering beneath its refined façade.
Not unlike the case of the house where the story takes place. In the prelude, its all spooky gingerbread exterior, and an interior full of pernicious shadows that barely acknowledge the candlelight wanly attempting to keep them at bay. The doings are equally pernicious, as a kindly old man viciously attacks his winsome housekeeper while apologizing for the necessity of what he is doing. In the present, the house is still spooky, and the shadows are just as pernicious despite sunlight slicing through them, and the addition of electricity to keep the night at bay. It is here that a reluctant eight-year-old, Sally (Bailee Madison) discovers that her trip east from Los Angeles to Rhode Island isnt just a visit to her distant father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new live-in girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), who is well-meaning but clueless about children. Its permanent. And its also 24/7, as the house is being renovated by Alex and Kim before they sell at a profit. When Sally starts hearing voices that arent the adults in the house discussing what to do with her, its a welcome change, even if they are a raspy whisper. They offer friendship, and for an eight-year-old whose trust has been abused and whose absolute powerlessness in the adult world has just been revealed to her, a scuttling thing in the half-light seems like a viable option for companionship. Madison has a wondrous melancholy about her that is less about childish petulance and more about Sally having lost her bearings in the world. She also has an uncanny resemblance to Holmes, which add an interesting layer to their rocky relationship, particularly as Sallys mother is never seen. The adults of the piece follow the rules of acting out gothic horror without hamming it up, letting the story do its work without getting in the way and this is just as well. The lynchpin is Sally, discovering that the world is not what it has always seemed, and that the adults in her life are not equipped on any level, natural or supernatural, to deal with the resulting traumas.
That story wickedly plays on many real world fears, abandonment, daddys new girlfriend, daddy discovering that the daughter he hasnt seen in a while is a stranger and a stranger who may or may not be having a nervous breakdown, and the old standby that we never quite get over: something really awful lurking under the bed. It pushes the audiences emotional buttons in visceral ways that craftily heighten the supernatural embellishments. If the script is a little underdone, there is ample compensation in exquisite direction by Troy Nixey, and his uncanny talent for setting the right mood with no more and no less of an image or a sound than is absolutely required for the effect. A slow track towards a grate, bright eyes in an indistinct face that shouldnt be there and then a quick cut. By the time the creatures are revealed in full, there are no surprises about the elements of their physiques, but nonetheless it is an unexpected, visceral shock.
As always in a film where del Toro is involved, the soundscape is an integral part of the experience, and its the silence that builds the horror as much as the sound of cracking teeth. When the sound kicks in, sharp implements dont just cut, they make awful sounds as they do so, its a palpable relief that something has finally happened.
DONT BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a near-perfect fairy tale of the old school. Blood spills, death comes in ways that are too horrible to contemplate, and the fear generated is difficult, if not impossible, to shake off when the lights come up.