After the hurricane split town it was finally safe for me to venture to the movie theater to see DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. Many, many people felt differently for I found myself to be the only person in the place. I pretended I was rich enough to buy out the entire showing to watch it by myself and sadly this made me feel like a big shot. Outrageously the trailer for THE WOMAN IN BLACK was withheld from me and I had to be satisfied with the trailer for THE THING instead. It’s too early to tell if that film will suck or not, but the music in the trailer contented me. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was about to start! I’m excited for this because it exists on account of the original T.V. movie happens to be GUILLERMO DEL TORO’s own personal kindertrauma! I’ve never to my knowledge seen a movie based on a kindertrauma before! Gummy bears are in my pocket. God, CONTAGION looks like crap. What is WINSLET thinking?
There are a few major changes from the original DBAOTD but they all make fine sense. Sally is no longer an infantilized adult but an actual child and it’s her dad (GUY PIERCE of RAVENOUS) rather than her husband whose careerism prevents him from properly engaging with her. Pop’s girlfriend (KATIE HOLMES) is named Kim (after DARBY) and she reveals with a bit of dialogue that her own childhood was such a wreck that she’s weary of the prospect of mothering by default. Sally’s biological mother is briskly painted as an apathetic goon who can’t be bothered even by a frantic phone call from the child she dumped like a load of laundry on her once husband. Naturally Sally is feeling so unwanted and so starved for connection that she starts chatting up the whispering demonic voices that come from the pit in the basement. They sound absolutely evil but they say exactly what Sally longs to hear, “We want you.”
I was a bit worried from DBAOTD’s trailer that the opulent mansion setting would be distractingly over the top and strain credibility but it’s explained that our characters find themselves in such an extravagant environment while working on a temporary renovation. The joint is called Blackwood Manor as it was once where artist/biologist Emerson Blackwood hung his hat at least before he was pulled through a chimney by trolls. The biggest addition to the framework provided by the 1973 T.V. move is the extended mythology of these creatures who forever now can be referred to as “Homunculi” rather than “walnut heads” or “prune goons.” The beasties are now linked to tooth fairy legend as their hobbies include trading children’s teeth (which they crave) for silver coins. Better still, the creatures (whose humanoid mugs on rodent-like bodies now favor LOVECRAFT’s Brown Jenkin character as much as the dudes from 1987’s THE GATE) are seemingly connected to the work of Welsh author ARTHUR MACHEN, particularly his tale “The White People” which also concerns a young girls relationship with extraordinary beings. Nice!
Not everything runs like clockwork though and sometimes the clichés outnumber the trolls. The goth cloaked SECRET GARDEN vibe is very inviting and the acting is fine considering the box office poison death wish cast but things do get vague and choppy (or MIRAMAX-y) towards the end of the film and it feels as if valuable pieces are left behind in an effort to rush toward the climax. Allow me to be an even bigger stickler for a moment and say that the film’s largest break from known reality involves not fairy monsters but a magical Polaroid camera that never runs out of film. I want one! Still, this is a dark fantasy; a fairy tale really so reality does need to shut its trap to an extent.
Which brings me to my ultimate question, why in the name of ROALD DAHL is this movie rated R? Are they trying to make sure that anybody who might relate to it can’t see it? There is no sex and little gore and what I like most about it is that it feels like one of those early eighties dark DISNEY flicks like WATCHER IN THE WOODS or SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES. Most adults don’t have the required imagination to make this work for themselves so why court wet blankets? I don’t get it but I suspect that this is a movie that will gain traction in the home market. Indeed, as much as I enjoyed it, I won’t try to sway you folks to run out to the theater to catch it. I think the preferred way to watch this is at home in the dark on the couch under a blanket late in the month of October with your critical brain drugged and gagged. It’s a fun spooky and mostly harmless “things that go bump in the night” flick with a couple lapses in logic but several decent, jolty scares and I think it will feel most at home exactly where it originated on the living room television set.
There is a sweet scene in DBAOTD where Kim realizes that young Sally needs some grounding guidance before she floats away for good. She takes her to see a pond within the grounds’ labyrinth garden that is home to some brightly colored Japanese fish. She explains that the fish’s markings attract badgers and that it is exactly what makes them special that makes them vulnerable and I’ll say that is true for this film as a whole too. It may be a bit too precious for its own good and it has no business hanging out at the mall after dark. As an R-rated horror film for adults it leaves something to be desired but as a PG-13 fantasy, I think it deserves a silver coin. Director TROY NIXEY apes producer co-writer GUILLERMO DEL TORO well and although this movie may not be on par with the best of DEL TORO’s work, I have a sinking suspicion I will be revisiting it more often. If it plays its cards right and freshens up with a smoother director’s cut on DVD, it may even find its way to my Halloween heavy-rotation pile.
I totally agree that the third act has some problems. I also wonder if the film garnered its R rating primarily from the opening scene, which (as much as I enjoyed it) does feel like it was cut out of a different film and edited into this one. I thoroughly enjoyed the art direction and the production design – including the many marvelous “Blackwood” illustrations. At last check, DBAOTD is not doing so well at the box office, but I think it’ll have a long life as a cult classic.
(Miramax-y is my new favorite adjective BTW)
I really think they should have just edited that opening scene a bit and gone for a PG-13 rating. If it was a slasher movie or something then I’d always say go for the hard R but I think this would have worded far better as a dark fantasy for kids. I agree the art direction was great and I really dug the Arthur Machen reference too.
Maybe my brain went out for a bit toward the end but I got confused about where the father was and how he got separated?? It gets a little messy.
Still, I don’t think people are approaching this movie in the right spirit. My pet theory is that if it was subtitled it would have been reviewed better!
I have to say I’m partial to this kind of horror film. I love the atmosphere and the fairy mythology and the sort of awe toward nature.
I wish they got somebody more soulful then Holmes but I think the adults were supposed to be cold and unreachable in a way.
It does look like it’s a certified flop at the box office but they did such a bad job selling it (and to the wrong audience) that they shouldn’t really be surprised.
I will be buying it on Blu-ray though. The atmosphere was enough for me and even though I’m not a big CGI fan I liked the way they did the creatures. I think they’ll look even better on the small screen.
Great review Unk! I agree with so much of this.
I mostly enjoyed the nods to the original and that a real effort was put into the film. And I also agree that rating it R was a bit of misstep, but even though it is pretty much considered a financial flop, I read the film only cost 12.5 million to produce, so it will definitely turn a profit.
It’s by no means perfect, but I found it to be a great combo with popcorn.
I wish you had seen that Woman in Black trailer on the big screen. Wowie wow wow. Beautiful.
Thanks for the link to the illustrated companion book. Just purchased it on Amazon…
I haven’t seen the new one yet, but I have to say that two things I love about the original are: 1) we know almost nothing about the creatures, only that they want Sally to join them, and 2) While the house was pretty much a mansion, it was still contemporary-looking so the interiors looked like they could be pretty much any suburban house. Both of these facets helped a lot in making it scary…How do you stop or even predict something that you have no basis of knowledge on to understand, and it could be happening right now *in your house*! Sleep tight.
Still, even knowing that changes have been made to these elements, the new one looks like something I could really enjoy…But with the gothic atmosphere my enjoyment may be closer to that of something like The Others than to the original DBAOTD.
I appreciated those nods to the original too, especially the creature in the flower vase at the dinner party!
That book look awesome. Make sure you tell me how it is!
The remake is not quite as relatable as the original but they didn’t overdo it too much. (Like say, The Haunting remake). I think if you dig The Others you’ll feel right at home with it!