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Years ago, there was a golden age of horror films that people didnít have to leave the comfort of their homes to experience.  The 1970s was a decade that featured movies made for TV by like Dan Curtis and his Trilogy of Terror, the Stephen King adaptation of Salemís Lot, Wes Cravenís Stranger in Our House, and other titles like The Initiation of Sarah and the immortal Devil Dog: Hound of Hell.  One such small-screen thriller is still spoken of in some quarters in hushed and nervous tones; 1973ís Donít Be Afraid of the Dark, starring the then grown-up star of John Wayneís True Grit, Kim Darby, as a housewife with some undesirable roommates.

Nearly forty years later, we have a big-screen version of Donít Be Afraid of the Dark with a few changes.  The most notable of these is that the main character, Sally, the filmís heroine, is now a small child.  Dumped on her other custodial parent when her mother no longer feels like taking care of her, Sallyís father and girlfriend must find a way to welcome the unhappy youngster in the midst of a major renovation of a Gothic mansion they are overseeing.  Alex barely has time for his daughter as the project could make his name in the architecture world, leaving an uncomfortable gulf between Sally and new love, Kim.  Whatís a little girl to do with all this house and no one to play with?  As Sally goes wandering, she finds a previously undiscovered studio with a nice, securely bolted fireplace.  Childlike whispers from behind the bars coerce Sally into some redecoration of her own, and once she opens the grate, the voices inside begin to make their way through the house at night and proceed to show Sally a little something less than gratitude.

As in the original 1973 TV-movie, the thing that triggers Donít Be Afraid of the Darkís frights is the primal fear of what happens when the lights go out?  What is the thing that goes bump in the night?  Are you sure thereís no boogeyman under the bed?  Sally finds out the answers to these questions the hard way, setting forth a tiny, malevolent army of long-lived nocturnal critters with a taste for milk teeth.  Because of her age and her lack of closeness with her own father, Sally isnít believed when she tries to warn Alex and Kim about whatís living in their house.  The poor thing is totally isolated and alone:  Despite Sallyís desperate cries to fly home, her mother wonít take her back, wanting to relive her single years without her kid getting in the way.  Sallyís father, Alex is more concerned with trying to win kudos for the mansion renovation and navigating the waters of his new relationship with Kim.  The new couple wasnít exactly planning on this sulky, sad child who is growing more difficult in her nightmares and delusions to add pressure to the mix.  Sallyís delight in having anyone to talk to, in this case doll-sized critters that seem to actually want to be around her is understandable, as is her self-sufficiency when the creatures reveal their true intent. 

One of my favourite scenes shows Sally getting the hint early on about what the little monsters want to do to her and the girl slings her backpack and trudges off down the road before dad drags her back to the mansion.  Along the way, Sally begins to confide in Kim, who sees from the outset that the little girl is suffering from her slapdash upbringing by both parents and itís touching that this woman who may become Sallyís stepmother eventually becomes her champion.  Not so great at saving the day is Sallyís dad, who is completely caught up in his own affairs and clueless to see the danger happening literally right under his nose.  Once Sally understands the creatures donít exactly enjoy brightness, Kim arms her with an old One-Step Polaroid camera.  During a showdown with the critters in the mansionís library, this innocuous weapon comes in mighty handy as Sally tries her darndest to flashbulb them into oblivion.

Directed by comic book artist, Troy Nixey and produced by horror maestro, Guillermo Del Toro, itís surprising that Donít Be Afraid of the Dark is rated R as there are maybe three brief scenes of sparing, obviously CGI-blood and definite PG-13 restraint.  The chills are mostly psychological as we donít get to see the little monsters in full all that often.  In its use of ominous lighting and music, eerie sound effects and hints at things moving where they shouldnít, Donít Be Afraid of the Dark is under-the-skin-creepy.  The biggest key to selling the film is in its star, the amazing Bailee Madison, who was nine at the time of shooting.  Madison, who single-handedly stopped the show in Jim Sheridanís 2009 drama, Brothers, is perfect as Sally; all sulks and resentfulness at first and then quick on the uptake once the danger begins.  The relationship between Madisonís Sally and Katie Holmes as Kim, the not-at-all-evil potential stepmother, is a novel one in that they grow together and form a real family bond that exceeds the one Sally shares with her ďrealĒ parents.  Poor Guy Pearce hasnít a thing to work with in the thankless role of the hapless Alex, and as if to crown the characterís shame, they stick a toupee on him that looks as if itís been mouldering in a closet since 1973. 

Thereís a lot of Del Toroís Panís Labyrinth and even a bit of the Del Toro-produced El Orfanato in Donít Be Afraid of the Dark; mostly in subjecting a female character to a world that appears to be one thing, but is something they must escape at all costs.  Besides the fractured fairy tale premise, this film also shares the othersí rich visuals and moody production values.

While this version of Donít Be Afraid of the Dark might not make viewers forget the television original they grew up with, itís an entertaining thrill for those unfamiliar with that film or simply looking for a good fright at the movie theatre.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

Aug 26th, 2011

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  FilmDistrict)

 

 

 

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