Don’t be afraid of these movies.
The Night Stalker, The Legend of Lizzie Borden and Trilogy of Terror. From 1969 to 1975, the ABC Movie of the Week was broadcast on Tuesday nights and premiered original productions of varying quality. While sometimes used as a forum to launch new series (The Rookies, The Six Million Dollar Man and Starsky & Hutch, among others), it was also known for some incredibly effective genre movies such as The Night Stalker, The Legend of Lizzie Borden and Trilogy of Terror. Perusing the list of these movies, I’m surprised how many I actually remember watching. As a pre-teen at the time, many of them were truly scary to me.
A young Guillermo del Toro also watched and remembers being terrified by a movie that first aired on October 10, 1973: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. So fond was he of this movie that he wrote and produced a remake that, after being postponed multiple times, has finally been released in theaters. It’s a loving tribute to a childhood memory, but I’m not sure how well he does with updating a story that is really not that scary 38 years later.
In both versions of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a young couple moves into an old mansion and begins the expensive process of rehabbing it. In 1973, it is an inheritance from Sally’s (Kim Darby’s) grandmother and in 2011, it is a means for designers Alex (Guy Pearce) and Kim (Katie Holmes) to advance their careers by featuring it on the cover of Architectural Digest. Also in both versions, an uncovered fireplace in the basement releases small, demon-like creatures.
That’s about all there is to the 1973 version. However, while it only hints at a backstory, it does make an effort to establish some fundamental problems in the marriage of Sally and Alex (Jim Hutton). But it mainly goes for atmosphere, and director John Newland, with a resume including Rod Serling’s Night Gallery and The Sixth Sense (TV series, 1972), knows how to provide it. Even though I wouldn’t call it “scary” by today’s standards, it is creepy and moody.
Del Toro (and Matthew Robbins) embellishes the story considerably for the remake. Sally (Bailee Madison) is now Alex’s young daughter, sent to live with him by his ex-wife. She meets her father’s girlfriend, Kim, for the first time, providing plenty of family drama on which to blame the events that occur. Following a terrific flashback opening, director Troy Nixey, in his first feature-length film, also does a good job with the atmosphere… until the movie’s fatal flaw is exposed.
The movies are called “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”. The DARK. Arguably, what you cannot see is scarier than what you can see. The 1973 version remembers that, providing only quick glimpses of its creatures. (Of course, that may be inadvertently due to its budget; its creatures are little more than men wrapped in fur, never visible in the same shot as a “real” person.) But in 2011, we have CGI, and, apparently, no imagination. Therefore, we have to see the creatures… and lots of ‘em.
They’re good creatures: little, hunch-backed things with very frightening faces. And they do some pretty grusome things with whatever they find lying around the house. But once we get a good look at them running around the house, the movie ceases being scary; suspenseful, maybe, but scary, no. I think it’s been proven over and over again with horror movies that the less you see, the better.
Because its story is simpler, the 1973 version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is more solid; however, the 2011 version has some plot holes that are so glaring, I could not get past them. For example, how could anyone attribute the handyman’s attack in the basement to being merely “an accident”? The creatures stab, slice and dice him; he stumbles upstairs with broken scissors sticking out of his shoulder. What did they think happened, that he tripped over his toolbox? Likewise, when young Sally is able to smash one of the creatures between sliding bookcases, couldn’t they see its body to prove she’s not just “acting out”?
Both movies capitalize on the idea that the creatures do not like light. In 1973, the heroine and viewers were smart enough to figure that out on their own; but in 2011, the creatures have to spell it out to her and the audience. In 1973, Sally has enough forethought to buy candles and flashlights, strategically placing them around the house. In 2011, Alex and Kim give Sally a retro-Polaroid complete with flash bar to help her ward off what they think are imaginary friends. I can ignore the question of where they found such a camera in 2011, but I cannot ignore the fact that the flash has only five bulbs and yet she uses it enough times to go through at least twenty of them. And, as many pictures as she took, was there not one she could show the adults to prove the creatures really exist?
What are the creatures, anyway? In 1973, there is no explanation whatsoever. And I think that’s a good thing; it leaves it open to the imagination. In 2011, while we get an elaborate exlanation of their purpose, the closest the movie comes to explaining what they are is when someone asks Sally what she thinks they are. She replies, “Fairies or trolls.” That may only be the opinion of a child, but the seed is planted… and to me, fairies and trolls are not very scary, especially when you see so much of them. Actually, they remind me more of gremlins, and some of those guys were more terrifying than these.
The 2011 version reminds me of a movie called The Gate. When I worked in the video stores, I would always recommend The Gate to parents who wanted a “safe” horror movie for their kids. I recommended it because it had monsters, but was not really scary. That’s how I feel about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, although I probably woudn’t recommend it for children because it’s one of their own who is in peril.
For us adults, I have a hard time recommending either version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. For the time in which it was made, the 1973 version was indeed scary, but the 2011 version, except for two good jumps early in the movie, isn’t scary at all. Neither movie is bad, but I keep going back to their titles, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”… Watching either movie today, I have to ask, why would I be?