We live in the age of the Disney fairy tale. In these stories, the heroes and heroines are invariably young and beautiful. A lot of times, they are a bit naïve in the ways of the world and much of the suffering that they do is emotional. At the end of the day, their struggle is resolved with very little mess and they end up living in a castle or some similarly idyllic life.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Long before the “civilized” and sanitized now, fairy tales were not meant for children. They were filled with adults doing adult things learning lessons that usually involved the spilling of blood – much like the Troy Nixey-helmed and Guillermo Del Toro-penned “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”.
A remake and somewhat of a reimagining of a 1973 Made-For-TV movie, “Dark” follows a young girl, Sally (Bailee Madison) sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes) in the big creepy house they are renovating. Obviously unhappy there, little Sally takes to wandering the grounds and finds a basement that was previously undiscovered. As they delve into it, Sally’s imagination is caught by a bolted furnace door; behind it, she hears voices and they want to be her friend. Of course, voices coming from behind bolted furnace doors in creepy basements are rarely a good thing and such is the case here as the creatures dwelling there in the dark come out to wreak havoc.
While Del Toro only produced and wrote the screenplay (along with his writing partner for “Mimic”, Matthew Robbins), his fingerprints are all over the film. Visually, the film harkens a bit to “Pan’s Labyrinth” and thematically, it treads the well-worn fairy tale paths that Del Toro loves so much. But at the end of the day, this is Nixey’s baby and he should be a proud poppa. He gives us a darkly atmospheric fairy tale with just a dash of gothic horror; precisely what fairy tales would be if they had not been ceded over as children’s stories all those years ago. More remarkable though is that that he gives us something very rare: an R-rated movie, not because of violence or nudity, but because it is scary. In early interviews, Del Toro called it their “badge of honor” from the MPAA. I’d be inclined to agree with him. It’s not the cheap kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat; it’s the classic kind of scary that grinds slowly in the pit of your stomach.
Immediately, that brings to mind that there are some people who will groan that this method is either new or original. To me, it’s kind of like faulting a Lamborghini for having four wheels and an engine because “it’s been done before.” Yes, what we have here has been done before – for centuries even – but it has been done well, which is more than could be said for many of its genre siblings. You have a smart and solid script from Del Toro and Robbins that, much like Goldilocks’ porridge, is neither too hot or too cold but just right. The cast is equally spot on. Both Pearce and Holmes are more than equal to their roles and I think what I liked best about them is that while both play obviously very successful people, they are not glamorous. Despite the opulent setting, they both seem very plain in comparison and to me that is a welcome change from the usual parade of chiseled abs and cosmetically altered figures. Madison, as Sally, is a little treasure. Much like Isabelle Furman’s wonderful turn in 2009’s “Orphan”, Madison proves herself to be a very capable young actress.
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is an exceptional update of an age-old tale about blood and things that go bump in the night; the moral of it is that you don’t want to miss it.