A high proportion of enquiries to ‘what was the film where …’ columns turn out to be about 1970s made-for-TV horror films: ‘the one where the fetish doll chases Karen Black’ (Trilogy of Terror), ‘the one with the vampire in Las Vegas’ (The Night Stalker), ‘the one with the possessed bulldozer’ (Killdozer!). Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), directed by John Newland from a teleplay by Nigel McKeand, is ‘the one with the whispering little creatures persecuting Kim Darby’. Before being siezed upon by producer/co-writer Guillermo del Toro, the film inspired at least one de facto unauthorised remake (Kelly Sandefur’s Inhabited, 2003). Though made under the strictures of network standards and practices, Newland’s film remains a thoroughly nasty piece of work. For all the much-improved special effects and moments of dental abuse, this remake doesn’t make its creatures as malicious as the lumpier monsters who wreck Darby’s home, marriage and sanity.
Del Toro, co-writing with Matthew Robbins (director of Dragonslayer and *batteries not included), reshapes McKeand’s material so that it dovetails with his own cinematic universe. Kim Darby’s protagonist/victim Sally was a young wife with no children, but Katie Holmes’s Kim is shunted into the background until the climax to make way for Bailee Madison’s Sally, a modern-day American avatar of the heroine of Pan’s Labyrinth: the child of a broken marriage, estranged from parents and step-parents, brought unwillingly to a new, magical environment and lured underground by exotic creatures who want her to join their number. Del Toro also picks up on the influence of H.P. Lovecraft, and draws on elements from ‘Pickman’s Model’ (especially as adapted on Night Gallery, a show contemporary with Newland’s film), ‘The Rats in the Walls’ and ‘The Lurking Fear’, all of which deal with subterranean ghouls and devolved human beings. In linking the monsters with the tooth fairy, he even picks up on a theme from Hellboy II The Golden Army.
Newcomer Troy Nixey stages well the segue between quaintly inviting – it’s hard to imagine an imaginative little girl not loving this house, with its sinister fairytale art direction – and outright horrific. A certain TV movie plodding remains, especially in the sub-plot about the handyman who issues ominous warnings and becomes an early casualty. The dividing of the functions of heroine between Sally and Kim (along with the traditional kid-centered horror movie practice of making adult characters dimwits) makes the ending feel less ruthless than the 1973 version (here, a secondary character suffers the terrible fate Newland and McKeown gave their protagonist) and forces Holmes and Guy Pearce to play stooge to Bailee Madison, the precocious kid from Just Go With It. It’s an enjoyable, old-fashioned creepy old house monster picture, but the simpler, crueller 1973 film remains unmatched.
Here’s a slightly different take on the film, written for Empire.