Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) Review
Written by Zeus on 2011-10-31
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Guillermo del Toro's tooth fairy horror movie, is a decent remake that almost entirely misses the point of the original. Despite the involvement of del Toro, this film's greatest contribution to the genre is getting the 70s made-for-TV movie out on DVD.
Review Score: 3 out of 5
Unqualified Critical Analysis
The original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark was a made-for-TV horror film that traumatized an entire generation of children. The remake has CGI monsters and Tom Cruise's ex-wife. Instead of ranting about a budget wasted on impractical effects and big name actors, I'll focus on what made the original TV movie so memorable: its ability to permanently scar impressionable young minds, and how the del Toro remake bungled every opportunity to follow in its footsteps.
The mansion of the original was a bright, comparatively modern home. It looks like the sort of place a Hollywood producer might live. Even when they try to dress the exterior with flying leaves, you can see the palm trees in the background. The interior is even less scary, with rooms that, while hideous in a uniquely 70s way, were perfectly normal for their time. The kitchen, bedroom, dining room and bath could belong in any house in America. Because it could be any house, it could be your house. That's the kind of thing that festers in a kid's mind during long and sleepless nights. The remake is set in a mansion built from spare chunks of Pan's Labyrinth. As Kelly Wand put it in the Quarter to Three Movie Podcast, "The house in the 2010 one's so creepy, exotic, and humongous, frankly it'd be weirder if there weren't demons living in its chimney." Changing a whitewashed estate into an old dark house is like remaking Poltergeist and setting it in a gothic mansion. Why would anyone do that? I don't know. Ask Guillermo Del Toro.
On the left, a normal, sane person's living room. On the right, a candelabra. In the daytime. Yeah.
The more familiar a location, the more wrong it feels when tainted with evil. Alien's scariest scene isn't the misty, organic cavern where the man wearing a spacesuit has a facehugger latch onto his helmet, it's the dinner scene, set in the most ordinary room on the ship, where people dressed in civies are startled by arrival of an unexpected guest. Both scenes are basically jump scares, but the latter takes the a normal setting and twists it into something obscene. (Note that some movies cannot be saved, no matter how normal the setting.)
I'm not saying that movies set in old dark houses are less scary than movies set in the suburbs. What I'm saying is, much like you weren't really worried about Jaws until you set foot in the water, kids are likely to be more afraid when monsters are shown invading a house much like their own. Old dark houses both distance the audience with an unfamiliar environment and draw them in with creepy atmosphere. Knowing this, you set a movie in a gothic mansion for a reason: old houses have history. Whether its implied, like Shirley Jackson's The Haunting, or explained in agonizing detail, like Catherine Zeta-Jone's The Haunting, when spooky things happen in an old house, it's generally because something very bad happened there a long time ago. So what is Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's spooky backstory? Ridiculous. That's what.
In the original, the monsters' origin was mysterious, but their goal was clear: "It's your spirit we need. You set us free. You must become one of us." So it's bit like the Hellraiser puzzle box. In this movie, the monsters are Tooth Fairies. I wish I was making that up. They're Tooth Fairies who used to kidnap children and eat their bones. Then the Pope made a deal with the little devils, agreeing to give them a single human sacrifice every hundred years, because Catholics haven't taken enough crap from Hollywood lately.
There's no need for any of this nonsense, especially when the movie can't even stick to its own backstory. If the monsters can only take one life per century, then Katie Holmes' sacrifice at the end meant something: she died in place of Sally. But the little buggers repeatedly try to jam a ten inch spike through Guy Pearce's eye, which means they can kill as they please, and could have immediately gone after Sally and her father after taking Katie Holmes. But wait! They were allowed to leave. Which means once someone is dragged down the fireplace (like Blackwood's son), no one else can be taken (like Blackwood was)! This is what happens when you try to cram a new mythos into an existing story. I haven't seen a filmmaker ignore their own rules so much since Larry Buchanan told us sunlight killed the Eye Creatures and then shot every other scene in broad daylight.
More like EYE PIERCE, amirite?
And why do the monsters from the remake keep demanding "children's teeth"? Is it because the screenwriter read Simon Clark's Darkness Demands? Oh yeah, I forgot: they're Tooth Fairies! Let's try to ignore how silly turning childhood myths into horror movie villains has always been. Forget evil Easter Bunnies, sadistic Santas, and Frosty the Killer Snowman. Forget Leprechauns, be they in space or hood, because that's not what del Toro was trying for here. He wasn't trying for camp, this was an attempt at serious horror about the Tooth Fairy.
Problem is, it's all been done before.
In 1995, Halloween 6 screenwriter Dan Farrands and Carolyn Davis wrote a script for a then-unproduced horror film called The Tooth Fairy. Years later, Revolution studios announced a film with a strikingly similar premise: Darkness Falls. Working title: The Tooth Fairy. In their defense, Revolution claimed the the idea was based on Tooth Fairy (2001), a short film by Joe Harris. Coincidentally, Mr. Harris worked as a script reader, back when his company received the original Farrands & Davis Tooth Fairy script. Doh! The case was settled out of court, the Darkness Falls sequel was quietly scrapped, and in 2006 we finally got to see an (authorized) adaptation of The Tooth Fairy. Two years later, Guillermo del Toro directed Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which also featured tiny carnivorous Tooth Fairies who devour human bones, especially teeth.
For those of you keeping track, that's three movies and one short film featuring evil Tooth Fairies in the last ten years. Not only is the new Don't Be Afraid of the Dark backstory silly, it's unoriginal. I'm all for restoring fairy tales to their gritty, pre-Victorian days, but Tooth Fairies were never evil to begin with. This is a current trend, one that needs to die before someone dreams up Tooth Fairy in the Hood.
H.P. Lovecraft was major proponent of the fear of the unknown. Considering everyone seems to agree that the guy couldn't write, but we're still talking about his stories, he might have been onto something. John Carpenter's The Thing (1982) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) are considered two of the best horror remakes out there. Coincidentally, they're careful not to bludgeon the audience with fatal exposition. Black Christmas (2006) and Rob Zombie's Halloween (2007) are considered two of the worst, and both feature extensive, all new backstories designed to "explain" the killers. The more we know, the less we fear. And that goes double for Tooth Fairies.
One of the remake's greatest strengths, as well as its ultimate weakness, is changing Sally from a neglected housewife to a neglected little girl. This ensures the film isn't a Lifetime melodrama where a tearful woman's sanity is doubted by her Skeptic Husband. Also, children make great horror protagonists. No one believes them, they're weak and powerless. If an adult flees a haunted house, the neighbors might gossip. If a child flees a haunted house, the police show up and drag their asses back to Amityville. Showing a child in real jeopardy is a great way to permanently scar impressionable young minds. Jurassic Park isn't a horror film, but it wound up topping more than a few "Scariest films" lists, simply because it didn't pull any punches during the T-Rex attack. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) is almost a return to the glory days when children were allowed to star in actual factual horror movies (Phantasm, etc.) Problem is, at the end of the film, they wuss out and shift focus back to the adults.
Until the end, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark doesn't pull any punches. Whether Sally is being attacked in the shower, library, or in bed, it's pretty damn freaky. In many ways, more brutal than the original. The original monsters toyed with the adult Sally, picking their time to attack. These monsters are kind of dumb, and just freely torment her throughout the picture. It makes less sense, but that doesn't make it less scary.
Poor Sally. Not only does she look like a Dwarven Selma Blair, her parents' divorce has left her deeply disturbed. So, Mom sends her to a creepy old house undergoing renovation to meet Dad's hot new girlfriend. Great parenting!
Then, in the last act, Katie Holmes takes over. Allow me a brief 320-word digression: I actually liked her character (when she wasn't uncovering the atrocious backstory), but she's rock-stupid. When Sally tells her the monsters are afraid of light, Katie Holmes says she knows what to do -- and hands the kid a Polaroid camera. Giving a nyctophobic child a Polaroid camera for light is second worst thing to do, next to handing them one of those Dynamo flashlights that plunge them into 30 seconds of crank-grinding darkness every minute. (The adult Sally also had a camera, but she randomly grabbed it while being dragged to her death. It was a last ditch effort. Here, it's pre-meditated.) Remember how I said children make great protagonists, because no one believes them? This movie takes it way too far. When Sally has the expected Rear Window fight against the monsters, fending them off with Polaroid flashes, a dinner party of adults hear her screams and rush to save her. But despite Sally standing knee-high in monster snapshots, no one believes her. Even with a crushed monster on the floor, its severed arm in plain view. What if instead of all that bullshit, a dinner guest said, "What the hell?" and picked up one of the Polaroids. What if one by one, people grab photos of the nasty things, exchange frightened glances: what have we walked in on? Realizing the jig is up, the monsters could have chewed through the power cords and attack the party. It would have been a slaughter, it would be unexpected, and it wouldn't require Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes to be blithering idiots who'd drug a little girl and abandon her on the top floor of a home they suspect is no longer safe. The way this plot plays out, they come off about as likable and supportive as your average Nightmare on Elm Street parents.
But I doubt any of this nit-picking would ruin it for a kid. Stupidity aside, the remake's real crime is changing a story about a woman who unwittingly frees an ancient evil and winds up paying a shocking price, to a story about a girl who's menaced by monsters and gets saved at the end by her dad's hot new girlfriend. The weird thing is, Guillermo del Toro never had any qualms about killing kids in the past. It's something I respect, because he doesn't murder his children with sadistic glee, he simply treats them like any other (adult) character trapped in a horrible situation. In The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth, even American films like Mimic, no child is safe simply because they don't have to shave. Maybe del Toro thought it'd be more shocking not to kill a kid this time, but this was the worst possible movie to have a change of heart. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2011) even ends with this heartwarming scene where Guy Pearce, who transformed from a neglectful to a loving father over the past half hour, returns with his chubby little cherub to the murder house (WHY?) to leave a drawing in memory of Katie Holmes. The message is clear: At least we saved the little girl -- the real star of the movie -- not to mention saved her relationship with her father. Hey, maybe now he'll get back together with her real mom? Oh, happy days all around.
Of all the remake's blunders, the R-rating was its biggest mistake. Even if the monsters were Tooth Fairies and Sally wound up getting saved at the end, it might have scared some kids. That is, if any kids managed to watch it. See, the original was a Trojan horse, sneaking into American living rooms on prime time network television. Just some wholesome family entertainment! And then the nightmares began. The remake is rated R. Meaning the only kids who see it will be older, or at least used to R-rated horror films, seriously lessening the lasting effect.
As much as I hate it when R-rated films are censored to PG-13 for ticket sales, it is possible to design a great horror from the ground up that that keeps the violence off screen in the audience's imagination. The Haunting (1963), The Others (2001), Sixth Sense (1999). I consider The Gate up there with Evil Dead 1 & 2 in terms of pure childhood trauma, and The Gate is only rated PG-13. The American remakes of The Ring and The Grudge easily top my scariest films of the decade list, and neither have much in the way of CGI blood-geysers. Their kills (or attacks) were handled off-screen. You basically saw a character come face to face with the ghosts, end scene, cut to their bloodless corpse later. It's the kind of horror you can sneak right past a censor and beam into the mind of an unsuspecting child. And, it should be noted, both films were remakes of TV movies.
Guillermo del Toro was quoted as saying that he didn't intend Don't Be Afraid of the Dark to get an R-rating. If the 70s movie was aired today, it'd probably get a TV-PG rating. But the remake? All that violence, all those teeth. The original opened with spooky whispering. The new one opens with an insane old man who lures his maid into the basement, trips her down the stairs, mounts her semi-unconscious body, grinds a chisel against her teeth, hammers the damned thing through the back of her skull, then scuttles around his basement abattoir, scooping up the bloody teeth that flew from her head. Yeah, that's how you get a PG-13 rating. And compare the monsters' attack on the handyman: in the original, his forearm was cut to scare him into silence. In the remake, they straight up try to murder that guy. We have a nice closeup of scissors jammed into his shoulder, as he pulls them out, a little fountain of CGI blood squirts the camera like some sleazy 3D gore-fest. You didn't see the 70s adult Sally dragged to her death. You just heard this awful, echoing scream. It's so disorienting. You expect her to be saved, but her useless husband got there too late. Roll credits. What the hell, man? In the remake, Katie Holmes's femur bone is cracked, they close in on her screaming face, etc., etc. It's all very brutal, but disturbing? Not so much. The movie is rated R! Its audience is going to be comprised of jaded adults who've seen Saw, Hostel and Sex And The City 2.
There's no way responsible parents would let their kids watch this. If you ask me, del Toro should have done the exact opposite. He should have done everything in his power to whittle this down to a TV-PG rating. Then he should have debuted it on the ABC Family Channel.
That's how you permanently scar a new generation of children.
While writing this, I kept thinking of the Stephen King anthology Cat's Eye. The last segment is also about scary little monsters who lurk in air vents and wait for dark to sneak into a girl's bed to steal a part of her. But Cat's Eye did it so much better. The little goblin has history you can tell just by looking at him. The little sword and jesters cap say it all, no need for an old man to give a ten minute history lesson. I also dig how its based on an old wives tale. In Cat's Eye, a mother warns her girl (jokingly) that cats steal children's breath. That night, the goblin sneaks in, pinches the girl's nose and does just that. Obviously, the old wives tale is grounded in reality, this goblin inspired the tale, and, being an old wives tale, it has been attacking children for a very long time. All that is obvious without an old guy droning on about ancient history. The Tooth Fairy exposition is so poorly shoehorned into the remake it's hard to watch, but you can totally see some normal suburban housewife saying, "Don't let that cat sleep on your chest!" Did I say normal suburban home? Yep. It's a room just like yours, little girls, so check those air vents before going to bed.