Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

A SplitScreen Discussion: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011)

In Film, Reviews on September 13, 2011 at 9:26 am

This month’s TheSplitScreen discussion focuses on the new release of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, the feature debut of director Troy Nixey from an adapted screenplay written by Matthew Robbins (Mimic) and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). The film is a loose remake of the 1973 made-for-television fright fest of the same name starring Jim Hutton (perhaps best known as TV’s Ellery Queen and the father of Timothy Hutton) and Kim Darby (True Grit). During the 1970s, this film was easily one of Eric’s favorite scary movies, and Matt has his own strange fascination with the original. Understandably, we both went into this latest version with very high expectations. As is customary, we have not discussed the film with one another before now, but be warned: There be spoilers ahead, aye.

In its current form, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark reworks the original story to focus on a new character, Sally Hirst (Bailee Madison), a young girl whose father Alex (Guy Pearce) is renovating a monstrously huge mansion in the Providence area with his interior designer and new girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes). Sally’s arrival at Blackwood Manor, the Gothic residence of the renowned artist and biologist Emerson Blackwood, is not without its stresses—Sally’s mother has fobbed her off permanently on her father, a man who cares little about anything besides getting his new toy on the cover of Architectural Digest. Sally is accordingly distrustful of anything she finds in the human beings at Blackwood Manor, whether it be the animatronic bear Kim graciously offers her or crotchety Mr. Harris, the house’s spooky groundskeeper who frequently warns her that the house is not safe. So, when Sally finds a walled-up basement and hears mysterious voices soothing and seducing her from inside an old ash bin down there, it seems perfectly reasonable that she finds the comfort in them that she can’t find from the real people around her. What follows is a great example of why you should always be wary of anything that answers the question, “What are you?” by saying, “Hungry. We are very, very hungry.”

ERIC: One of the startling elements of this new version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is actually a clever visual turn on the film’s title. I’m not sure whether this would be the province of director Nixey, or cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, or perhaps even del Toro himself (whose trademarks seem to be all over every aspect of production here), but this is a film that is decidedly unafraid of the dark. As its characters move through that labyrinthine house, the photography seems to linger in the shadows, relishing them, allowing what can’t be seen and therefore the thought of it to be far more terrifying than anything we actually do see. I admire this, deeply so. It takes a certain confidence in one’s ability to communicate terror to so boldly withhold visual information from the audience while doing so. This is especially true in some of the film’s action sequences, which can be so dark at times that we do not know visually what is occurring yet understand palpably but in an abstract sense what must be happening. All of this, of course, brings the requisite sense of foreboding to a story about a house that is alive with (mostly) unseen creatures who have been there, waiting, for a very, very long time. It’s a great device and a very effective set-up that has actually been improved on from the original.

All that said, though, I found the reworking of the storyline from the original—as well as the creation of a complex mythology for the house’s creatures—vastly frustrating. As I recall it, the version with Jim Hutton and Kim Darby (as Alex and Sally Farnham, a married couple who have inherited the house) relied heavily on the reputation of those actors for playing completely trustworthy, likable people; to see them terrorized by the house they were occupying was nerve-wracking, and half of the terror was knowing how Sally Farnham must feel to see everyone around her thinking that she was losing her mind over “creatures” for which she did not have a good explanation. By contrast, not only are both Alex and even Kim selfish and obtuse in the remake, but they seem to have little regard for little Sally’s safety even after Harris emerges from the basement with a thousand cuts on his body and half of a pinking shear sticking out of his shoulder. Do they take Sally to safety (as she demands) after this incident? Of course not. There’s a party to be held and a cover shoot to coordinate. Do they take Sally to safety when they discover that Blackwood’s son vanished and Blackwood himself made countless, well-publicized drawings of ghouls living inside a fireplace ash pit before he disappeared too? Of course not. Those party guests are expecting a dinner to remember.

With this in mind, Matt, why do you think these various plot changes were deemed necessary, and does it say something about today’s audiences that the filmmakers opted for a more action-driven and mindless fright flick over the introspective, psychological tensions of the original?

MATT: The transmutation of the original’s plot into a more modern haunted house movie is definitely an attempt to relate to modern generic expectations, though del Toro’s mythologizing of the creatures and the house itself provides an interesting and unexpected twist on just about every instance I can think of in the malevolent-entity-hidden-in-an-abandoned-house genre. Faeries are definitely mythological creatures that get short shrift in what we now consider the “cool” parts of our folkloric pasts. Yet no matter how much I liked some of the padded mythology del Toro brought to this re-imagining, the faeries were problematic because not only had they pretty much been done before, right down to their affinities for eating teeth and creeping around in dark old houses, but they had been done by Del Toro in Hellboy II: The Golden Army. While this doesn’t necessarily negate their creepiness, it nonetheless gives me an unwelcome sense of deja vu that occurs from time to time when I see a del Toro film. Creature designs are imaginative and innovative more often than not, but from time to time there’s just a bit too much overlap, giving the impression – and maybe this is what he’s going for – that all of his dark fantasy films take place in roughly approximate or perhaps adjacent universes, akin to something like Kevin Smith’s ViewAskewniverse or that complex mapping of characters and timelines that stretches out to infinity in Tarantino movies.

That point aside, and getting back to the question of audience and genre, I will say that it’s difficult to figure out what horror fans in particular will respond to. We’re a fickle bunch, modern or not, and one man’s crock of silliness is another man’s pot o’ gold. I actually think the shift toward an action-oriented approach is always a little riskier than going for genuine creepiness or brutalism, both of which rear their heads in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on occasion. Aside from how fresh it may or may not make the material seem versus the original’s somewhat more conventional atmospheric approach, what I think this refocusing achieves is streamlining the narrative into something that’s universally identifiable: the fear of the dark a child has, as well as the frustration of telling an adult the absolute truth and having them ignore you anyway. While the latter part of this classic childhood situation is played to ridiculous lengths toward the end of the film, making Sally the main character and her experiences alone, in the dark, with a swarm of the damned things all around her, is a pretty good move, I think.

I also didn’t find it took a big leap away from the psychological aspects of the original film, though it did tweak them in significant ways, not the least of them being that Sally is a child and has an odd relationship with the faeries before any of the real terror starts. That relationship is kind of the conduit that runs throughout the entire film, going from one of curiosity and trust-and potential friendship at one point-to outright fear and distrust and the very real likelihood of physical harm. In that regard, it’s the mirror image of Sally’s relationship with Kim, her father’s new girlfriend and business partner.

Speaking of Kim, the most memorable shock in the entire film comes in its closing confrontation with the creatures, when she is dragged downward into the deep by the faeries as their human sacrifice. I haven’t read del Toro’s companion book about the faerie kingdoms and Blackwood’s relationships with them, so I don’t know quite why this must happen other than to “replenish their ranks” as we learn at one point in the film. But it’s not a particularly pleasant experience according to what I could gather from this scene, where we also get the only real piece of shocking physical horror, her leg snapping backward at the knee as she’s pulled into the furnace’s maw by her captors, having just saved Sally. Aside from the earlier attack on the groundskeeper, which isn’t particularly devastating like Kim’s breaking leg, there just isn’t that much that made me feel jolted. Even the bathroom scene, which in the original film was one of the most terrifying and outright creepy reveals in any movie I saw when I was a child, feels a bit neutered here, and I don’t quite know why. Perhaps you have some thoughts on this? In addition, I really want to know what you made of the constant, whispering, very recognizable human-like voices emanating from the vents and crawlspaces, and how you thought this fed into the film’s final moments, either successfully or not.

ERIC: It has been some time since I saw the original, but my recollection is that it ended in a similar fashion–(old) Sally dragged into the ash pit while semi-conscious, then plotting with her captors in the dark as to how they will get their next victim, just as Kim does here to create the film’s final punchline. Alex’s pursuit of Sally in vain, only to see her disappear into the ash pit before he can save her, is one of the more terrifying things I remember from that old TV movie, probably because the full weight of his persistent denial of Sally’s truth comes crashing down on him then with a particular horror that is–as you say–neutered here. It’s the difference between a vengeful satisfaction for the audience in the new version (Kim gets what she sort of deserves for not believing sooner) that is muted by the knowledge that Alex still gets to keep his daughter, and the devastating psychological horror of knowing that Alex has to live forever with that guilt in the original version. I don’t know why, but the latter is far more horrifying to me than a shattered leg, no matter how nasty the break.

Similarly, the problems you mention with the house and the bathroom scene point at a general flaw in how Hollywood is tackling these remakes, at its fascination with the grandiose and its–yes–disrespect for subtlety in storytelling. Think, for example, of The Haunting, Jan de Bont’s 1999 remake of Robert Wise’s outstanding and truly terrifying 1963 film based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House. I’ve been in the house on which that story was based (the old Jennings Mansion at Bennington College), and I can affirm for you that it’s one of the creepiest places I’ve ever been. But it’s also just an old house, exactly as Wise’s film portrayed it with terrifying simplicity, and not the ornate, ridiculously outfitted monstrosity that shows up in de Bont’s version. In that 1999 film, the house and its traps become more important than its ghost or its story, and the result is an utter castration of the horror of the original. Atmosphere–lighting (or lack of it), sound design, score, even film stock, but not decor–is what makes a cinematic haunted house frightening for me, and while this new version gets some of it right, its fascination with the minutiae of interior design kills the rest of it. Likewise, that bathroom scene works so well in the original because we see Sally as someone fending for herself, completing the reveal through her ingenuity rather than as a helpless person flailing about in a shower curtain at the hands of her tormentors. In the remake, Sally is always a victim, even with her Polaroid in hand, and never someone who challenges the creatures in a meaningful way, so it becomes more and more difficult to regard her encounters with them as truly frightening.

As for all that whispering…I do remember that the original allowed us to hear the creatures conspiring with one another in the dark, plotting in the presence of Sally as she slept (or listened in!), and they did call to her at times in the original, but the insistent whispering found here is reminiscent of the inner mind madness of another great horror film of the era, 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. Was something really saying Jessica’s name over and over again, or was it merely mental illness, as her husband and friend insisted? Del Toro may not know that film, but there’s certainly a similar undercurrent at work here (and in Pan’s Labyrinth) in which the fantastical world is, at least for a time, presented in bifurcation–both seemingly real and also a product of the imagination. That’s an essential component of any good psychological horror film, the fear that we will not be believed, but as we’ve discussed, this film’s story arc obliterates the effectiveness of that device. By the end, that insistent whispering came off as an annoying trait of whatever fantastical species they are, rather than something they strategically used to induce both fascination and horror in their victims. The result is that the real creatures we finally see do not live up to the Gothic horror of Blackwood’s drawings or his fears as viscerally displayed for us in the film’s first five minutes. So what happened? Did the creatures just go soft in the intervening century? Or is this just the old problem of it being too difficult for most filmmakers to sustain the terror once the reveal occurs?

MATT: The issue of the creatures is an interesting one, mostly because I feel like there are more than a few things the filmmakers get right with them: they hold off on the reveal for a fairly long time for a modern horror film, the increased swarming effect as the creatures get more desperate to take their victim, the physical designs of pretty much everything involving them – including that massive mural in the basement that finally turns Kim to a believer (more on that shortly). As for whether or not they went soft, it’s hard to say. We do only see Blackwood’s predicament in its final moments, and it certainly looks similar to the horrors endured in the film’s final reel with Sally’s attack in the library and then the subsequent finale that sees Kim very brutally taken in lieu of Sally. I do think it would have been interesting (and mirrored the original a bit more) if Sally had actually been taken, and Kim and Alex had been left with the knowledge that they had failed to keep her safe by the simple adult act of ignoring the protestations of a child.

If there’s a saving grace for Kim, it’s that she does actually believe Sally very soon after she first hears about the voices, the creatures and the connection to Blackwood. In fact, after the groundskeeper tells her the truth, she accepts it and seeks out documentation in the town’s archives that seems to confirm everything he told her. And then there’s the mural. This piece of gothic art provides the most maddening plot development for me because it just furthers how totally unlikable Alex is and how unconcerned he seems to be as a father for Sally’s safety.

For the most part I found that the level of suspense was fairly flat through much of the movie. While there are a few instances, like the opening sequence, the scene with the groundskeeper and the finale (surprisingly enough), where I felt that there was a genuine interest in creating an atmosphere of dread. It’s interesting you should bring up the Jan de Bont remake of The Haunting, because I kept having thoughts creep into my head concerning just that characterless film and the ways I felt it kept popping up in the somewhat confusing and detail-oriented design of the Blackwood mansion. For all the atmosphere infused by the darkness, the slick cinematography that bathes the whole film in shades of blues and grays and blacks, the ornate structure of the house and the constant blathering on about this type of wood and the problems with supply houses, it just focuses so much attention on the space of the house – the physically reconstructed nature of it as a prop for the action – that it saps the weirdness right out of it.

Though I liked some things in the film, I found it problematic, and unlike the original, not particularly memorable. Immediately after watching it I found that it took some time to remember the details of its plotting even, which should not have been a problem (I haven’t seen the original in years and still remember it like it was yesterday). I will say, however, that, now my expectations being not quite as high, I think it would be worthwhile to take on this film again at some point in the futrue, simply to see what I may have missed or not thought about the first go-round. I’m sure that there are small things here and there that might crop up, and who knows, maybe there is some nuance lurking in one of the film’s many dark corners. Just curious, in wrapping things up, if you think you will be revisiting this iteration at any point and what virtues do you think that experience might hold for you?

ERIC: Maybe it’s a function of getting older and realizing just how limited my remaining time on Planet Earth is, but I have found that I rarely revisit a film that didn’t knock my socks off, unless I happen to stumble upon it late at night on TV when I can’t sleep. Setting that tendency aside, however, my only real draw to a second viewing might be to look at Blackwood’s drawings again, which really were fantastic and compelling, and would have made a fabulous tease throughout the film if they had been introduced earlier and functioned as a puzzle to solve rather than exclusively as the reveal.

Blackwood is a rather intriguing dude, and it seems a shame they didn’t do more with him or the mythology regarding the house and its symbology. I would have enjoyed seeing a whole lot more mystery and earnest decoding of that (without devolving into the “house as story” problem we’ve both mentioned) and a whole lot less quibbling over the cut of the mahogany trim. And maybe that’s all that a re-viewing experience would have in store for me–a chance to see what went wrong and how it might have been fixed. Otherwise, for me, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is just another remake gone wrong, and yet another example of our current crop of filmmakers not understanding how to do a sustained, building scare anymore. Jane Eyre creeped me out more this year than this did, and that’s a really, really bad sign.

MATT: I think the saddest part of my ambivalence to the film at this point is that Del Toro’s guidance in the past has ushered along one of the finest haunting movies of the past decade, The Orphanage. In that film, we also have a character slowly being driven crazy by things no one else sees, and then being faced with the horrific realization that there is no way she will make it out of the situation alive. Maybe that’s a partial explanation for why Sally is a child and Kim is a new character acting as another parental figure – it’s been done before by someone closely associated with him, and it was a simple need of not going over the same ground again. But those grievances aside, I lay a lot of the blame squarely at the feet of director Troy Nixey, whose direction is serviceable, but does not step up to the plate to offer a dynamic experience. The story is even passable, but there have to be flourishes of innovation if so much of the dialogue (and this is a Del Toro problem frequently) is going to be about so much of the film’s design work (not just the house here, but also the creatures, the framework of the story and parallels within that framework, etc.)

So, is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a bad movie overall in my estimation? I can’t rightly say. It’s certainly not a great movie. It may not even be a particularly good one. It isn’t, however, an exercise in overwhelming mediocrity that makes me hate it with such a passion that I put it on the same level as my much-loathed experience watching Whiteout in 2009. That amazingly awful rendition of a pretty good graphic novel by hack director Dominic Sena also has the misfortune of featuring one of the best post-fame Kate Beckinsale performances (unfortunate because no one will recognize it), which I only bring up because I felt a bit like that toward the girl playing Sally. Sorry, dear, this isn’t going to propel you upward no matter how good you are. All that aside, I can’t say I actually recommend going to see this theatrically. Definitely wait for it to hit your favorite VOD or streaming service.

Matt & Eric give the film 2/5 stars. Seriously, don’t be afraid of the dark.

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