Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010/2011)

I’m not a big fan of remakes. There are acceptions. I prefer Farewell, My Lovely (1975), starring Robert Mitchum more so than Murder, My Sweet (1944). The Hammer films -particular Horror of Dracula (1958) are in some ways improvements over the earlier Universal films. I think Horror of Dracula to be the one Hammer film better than the original. Lugosi is terrific, but after the opening encounter at Dracula’s castle the film bogs down to it’s stagey roots at Carfax Abbey.

I like the revisionist Frankenstein monster film The Bride (1985), which really wasn’t a remake of the James Whale classic. I liked the off-beat casting (Sting), and the circus spin and the relationship between the monster and dwarf Rinaldo (David Rappaport), who befriends the monster. However, The Bride of Frankenstein is one of the greatest horror films ever made. There’s really no comparison.

I like some of the Larry Buchanan remakes of Roger Corman films —The Eye Creatures (1965), Zontar The Thing from Venus (1966), and In the Year 2889 (1967)(but the Corman films are still better). The original is almost always better. Take for an example The Most Dangerous Game (1932), which has been filmed too many times to mention and the result is an all too familiar plot. (Predators (2010) was a loose reworking of the story). I really appreciate Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), now, more so than when it first came out. Is it fair to call this film a remake?

Initially, I cringed when I learned that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973, TVM) was slated to be remade. However, I was intrigued that Guillermo del Toro (GTD) would have a hand in the production. I love his films -practically all of them. GTD weaves a mythos: fantastic creatures and legends from ancient worlds that have a natural history behind them. His films are populated with some of the most surrealist creations of all: The Pale Man and Fauno, Wink and the Angel of Death, tooth fairies, little Tomás, the Cronos Device, and ghosts, spirits and apparitions. To me, his visions capture what an H.P. Lovecraft story might adeptly look like on film. Too bad he dropped At the Mountains of Madness (now unwisely slated to star Tom Cruise). No wonder GTD dropped out.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is superior to the 1973 made-for-TV film starring Kim Darby. That film made my all-time scary list, and so does the remake. USA Today’s film critic Claudia Puig disliked the film, giving it a 2 out of 4. She noted “It seems as if del Toro mostly lent his name to this remake of a 1973 TV movie.” Puig is mistaken. The film oozes del Toro. He co-wrote the screenplay, based off Nigel McKeand’s script from 1973, but his greatest contribution is the look of the film. Everywhere are del Toro’s touches —stylized opening credits, massive doors with dendritic bas-relief sculptures in a mysterious Victorian mansion, magical Koi in a garden, dark tunnels leading to darker places, and evil gnomes that feed on human teeth. We’ve seen a variation on these entities as “tooth fairies” in Hellboy II (conceptual drawing as negative below). GTD even voiced the creature sounds.

tooth fairies_neg.jpg

The stars of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark are of course the toothy gnomes. I love the design of these creatures. They look like hunchbacked pin-headed monkeys. The CGI creatures are kept in shadows at first (they’re scary), and we gradually see them up close, brandishing household utensiles (a missing straight edge is always unnerving). Some of the most effective scenes involve keyholes. Don’t look through the keyholes! The CGI effects deliver. I think I spotted some stop-motion animation as well. Was that del Toro winking at creature film purests? Maybe it was CGI made to look old school.

“Dark” is not flawless. I didn’t like the party scene, which comes across as awkward and poorly executed slapstick. The Polaroid cameras figure prominently in the script, yet they really never deliver. Why isn’t an image shown? And why doesn’t Sally show everyone a freshly smashed gnome or even an arm? There’s one laying on the floor.

Some critics have noted the film ends with a plug for an obvious sequel. Probably, and this would be a mistake. However, the ending with chatter from the ash pit is identical to the ’73 film. We’ve all the time in the world.

2011 has been a terrific year for fantasy films and Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is near the top of my list.

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