In his book-length essay On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King compares horror fiction to our childhood fear of the boogeyman. Scary things, he explains, derive all their power from the unknown. As soon as we turn on the light or open the closet door, we strip the monster of our morbid imaginings and expose it for what it really is: a trapped pet, a jacket falling off its hanger, or, in the case of movies, a detailed but ultimately underwhelming digital construct.
Given its title, you’d figure the minds behind this remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark would pay closer attention to the principle. The film opens with Lord Blackwood (Garry McDonald) murdering his maid (Edwina Ritchard) while mumbling panicked apologies. Every corner of the room is drowning in shadows, from which mysterious whispers call out, luring the toothless man toward the hearth. It’s fantastically creepy, but then we get a glimpse of the tiny creatures taunting Blackwood, and the movie loses its edge.
This is not to say suspense is lacking when the Hirsts take over the Blackwood estate a century later. Our lead, Sally (Bailee Madison), has yet to celebrate her eleventh birthday, so the idea of any entity, big or small, threatening her life is enough to get our hearts pounding. Consider the bit in which she delves beneath her covers, crawling toward the foot of her bed. I love how the scene taps into universal childhood memories, but the fact we’ve already seen what lurks at the other end of the tunnel does lessen the effect.
Mind you, I understand the creators wanting to show off their clever concept early on. Director Troy Nixey and producer Guillermo del Toro have taken a 1973 TV movie about pocket-sized demons and turned it into a twisted fairy tale in which all the roles are reversed: the absentee mother (Abbe Homes), symbol of the peaceful old order, has a shrivelled walnut for a heart; the intrusive stepmother (Katie Holmes) turns out the heroine’s only ally; and the magical fairies feed on children’s marrow.
This interpretation of fairies existed before, of course, as the model predates Tinker Bell and Jack from Will and Grace by a few centuries. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark draws from Celtic folklore and olden traditions in the creation of its diminutive villains. It also adds a few twists of its own such as the notion that the critters need “a sacrifice to replenish their ranks”. The ominous tidbit pays off in the final shot, though the lead fairy’s design already provides an important clue.
Now, some of you may question the threat posed by a bunch of photosensitive Smurfs when the Hirsts can, at any time, move out of the house or, you know, flick a switch. That’s indeed where the movie falters. Much of the plot relies on Sally’s father, Alex (Guy Pearce), neglecting his charge to an almost criminal level, refusing to acknowledge her increasing anguish (not to mention the mutilation of one of his employees) and deciding he’d rather medicate his kid into a stupor than let his girlfriend take her to a motel for a few days.
I find myself more forgiving of Kim, who, as the notional stepmother, can’t make decisions for Sally. The woman starts off awkward and distant. She hands Sally a stuffed animal without explaining it’s a gift and later tells Alex she wasn’t ready for a child. However, we soon learn the complaint stems from her taking the responsibility very seriously. Kim would die for Sally, and that terrifies her just a bit. Katie Holmes does a solid job conveying these conflicting emotions, though she never convinced me that anyone of right mind would leave a little girl alone after she repeatedly hurt herself struggling in the dark.
In fairness, the film goes out of its way to discredit Sally in the eyes of her family. The child is on psychiatric medication. She’s got a history of emotional issues and just cause for feeling abandoned. Besides, who among us would move out of a house just because our ten-year-old is throwing temper tantrums? Using Gothic imagery and a saturated palette, Nixey captures to a T the isolation that comes with prepubescent existence. I particularly like the dinner party scene, in which Sally chases a fairy under the table and the grown-ups don’t bat an eye. Kids will be kids, they all think, and can we blame them?
If Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark shows us anything about the real world, it’s that adults and children live in separate realms. I find the idea of malevolent spirits exploiting this divide terrifying, but the monsters themselves don’t haunt me as much. In his essay Why We Crave Horror Movies, Stephen King explains that we give our nightmares a name and shape in order to overcome the darkness within. Is it just me, or does that seem like the sort of thing one ought to save for the final act?