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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Three Stars)
U.S.: Troy Nixey, 2011

What’s that noise over there? What’s that knocking in the walls? Those ashes stirring in the fireplace? Ah, it’s nothing, it’s nothing. Don’t worry. Even though you’re all alone and I know you’re anxious…that there may be something…wrong. Or something unreal. Or something dangerous. But no, it’s just your imagination, running away with you. Maybe you’ve been watching too many horror movies.
Lesson Number One: A really effective horror cineaste is usually one who not only scares others, but is highly susceptible to a good fright themselves.
At the age of nine, Guillermo Del Toro — the chubby Mexican chill-maestro who, as an adult, made the horror masterpiece Pan‘s Labyrinth, as well as the good grisly shockers Cronos, The Devil‘s Backbone and Hellboy I & II — was scared silly by a 1973 made-for-TV horror movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
That frightening event took place when he was a little boy under the highly Catholic influence of his grandmother, a woman he describes as being a lot like Piper Laurie, when she played Sissy Spacek’s religious fanatic mother in Carrie. Apparently that fear-jolt stayed with him, and Del Toro has spent years trying to get on screen a new version of the 1973 original — a Gothic, fear-drenched story of a family bedeviled by evil little creatures who live in the walls and fireplace of their creepy Victorian mansion. Here it is.
It’s a good, old-fashioned scary show — old-fashioned, as I keep saying, in a good way.
The old TV version starred Kim Darby of the 1969 True Grit, as Sally, a wife seemingly losing her mind over those creatures, who were actually real, actually in the fireplace, though only she could see them. Jim Hutton, later TV’s “Ellery Queen,” played her more literal-minded husband — and the show was directed by John Newland, best known as the director of the ‘50s Loretta Young Show, and the director/host of the paranormal series (a contemporary of The Twilight Zone), One Step Beyond. I’ve never seen the TV Afraid , though it’s available on Warner Archive — but other people swear it scared the hell out of them too.
Hear them? Skittering? Knocking? Just ignore it…
The new version — which didn’t scare me all that much but which I enjoyed — stars Guy Pearce as an ambitious divorced architect Alex Hurst, who is pursuing fame and architecture magazines by restoring a genteelly dark and spooky old mansion, once owned by a celebrated creepy fantasy writer named Blackwood (Barry McDonald). Alex moves in there with his new mistress, Kim (Katie Holmes) and his little daughter Sally (Bailee Madison), and, in the Del Toro version, it’s little Sally who sees the creatures, and is disbelieved by almost everybody, except the crusty old caretaker Harris (Jack Thompson), a part or type played in the first version by William Demarest.
Someone is screaming! What happened?
Bailee Madison is an unusually empathetic child actress, and she convinces us that Sally is seeing something. But she doesn’t have to. The creatures are on the screen, gray-colored special effects jobs, and they have that maniacally amused, cute-and-creepy, fiendish, mad-goblin look of the creatures in the Spielberg-Dante 1984 Gremlins, and it might have been better not to show them so much, because they’re kind of funny.
As the story proceeds, as more and more gory things keep happening, and as Alex keeps ignoring or rationalizing them, you get more and more irritated with him — though Pearce can be such a narcissistic-looking actor, it’s easy to accept his obtuseness as something more than a plot device. Katie Holmes’ Kim isn’t a very good role, a nicey-nice older sis type, but she makes something out of it. Jack Thompson touches us. Madison’s Sally on the other hand, helps scare us, because she seems, in a way, more adult than her father, and less vulnerable to fantasies — and therefore we believe her more.
It’s obviously a Del Toro touch to make a child the center of this movie, rather than an adult who seems to be going crazy — and I’m not sure it’s the right choice. Del Toro’s youngster/protagonists, in Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth as well as here seem to live so firmly in the fantasy worlds that appear around them, that we never doubt that those worlds are actually there. And maybe, for the sake of the shivers, we sometimes should.
There’s something in the walls! I can hear them! I can see them! But I’m not mad! I‘m not…
Well, it’s a good horror movie, but not a great one — although it’s certainly a cut or bludgeon above most of the empty-headed slasher/basher horror stuff that keeps screaming out at us these days, especially in cutthroat blood-drenched series like the Final Destination and Saw franchises. I get tired of a lot of these new gory, sadistic movies, precisely because they don’t work enough on our imaginations, on our sense of what may lie beyond the real. Del Toro always does, and that’s why he’s a master horror moviemaker, rather than just another blood-and-guts-spiller.
Del Toro produced and co-wrote the new Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (with co-writer Matthew Robbins), and I wish he’d directed it too. But Del Toro’s choice as director, comic artist Troy Nixey (making his feature directing debut), has lots of visual style, gifted collaborators (production designer Roger Ford and cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, of The Grifters) and a fair scene of pace.

The movie begins with a grisly scene, ends with some more. The opener shows us Blackwood’s submission to the little monsters, and the scene looks like a fusion of Roman Polanski and Tim Burton’s supernatural styles with the old Hammer Horror Terence Fisher creepy mansion stuff — and maybe Del Toro should have included more scenes like that, more sequences where Little Sally goes down into that world, communes with those creatures, as little Ivana Baquero did in Pan’s Labyrinth. But at least he managed to do what many of us don’t: He realized his obsession.

      Do you still hear the noises? There, behind you? Well, I’ve got news for you. You’re right to be scared. Life is scary — sometimes in a good way. Sometimes not. Your name is Guillermo. You’re nine years old again. You’re calling for Sally. And your Catholic grandmother is holding out the shoes in which she‘s put crushed glass to mortify your flesh…Don’t be afraid of the dark though. It’s only a movie review.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon