With Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, starring Kate Holmes and Guy Pierce, opening in major theaters this weekend, I can’t help but recall seeing the original version, made in 1973, on television when I was eight years old.
It was a Saturday afternoon, sometime during the late ‘70s, and it was one of the first times I was allowed to stay home alone. We had a house in Coral Gables, nothing sprawling, just a one-story home with three bedrooms and … a chimney. My brother and I had been invited to a birthday party, but I really wanted to stay home to watch this movie. I was big on “Creature Features”, a movie show that ran on WCIX (Channel 6) after the morning cartoons. After some begging, my mom let me stay behind.
I settled in to watch the movie from behind the armrest of a sofa arranged perpendicular to our color Zenith. Written by Nigel McKeand, an unknown TV writer for “the Waltons”, and directed by John Newland, another TV regular who wrote for “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery”, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark combined two elements I loved most in horror movies: mansions and monsters. In this case, the monsters emerge from the mansion’s chimney after the woman who has just moved in, heedless of the warnings of the home’s groundskeeper (there’s always a groundskeeper), unseals the ash bin in the basement.
I was so creeped out by the tiny figures scuttling in the shadows of the big old house that I began hearing noises coming from my own kitchen, which was behind the living room wherein I was watching the big color TV which faced … our chimney. Still, I stayed with the movie until the (traumatic) ending, and then I did what the heroine living in that haunted mansion should have done all along: I ran outside. When my mom got home, she found me sitting under the only tree we had in our front lawn. I seem to remember her laughing when I explained why I was there.
A few decades later, I too am able to laugh at my reaction. But after watching a preview screening of the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remake, I have to say: Little critters scurrying in the dark hell bent on eating your teeth are damn scary. (I’m not alone in this. An adult Frenchman who also attended the screening kept screaming “Putain!” during the film’s scares.)
Director Troy Nixey’s first feature film, the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remake has producer Guillermo del Toro’s signature all over it. He adapted the script from the original 1973 film, adding Bailee Madison’s character, a sad and lonely girl so desperate for playmates that she unbolts the ash bin in the basement after hearing maniacal voices inside whispering “we want to play with you.” The set-up recalls del Toro’s 2006 Academy-Award-winning film Pan’s Labyrinth when Madison discovers a secret room in the house via a fairytale garden that serves as a sort of gateway to the mansion’s demonic pets.
But who cares about all the rationalization that goes into the storyline? Sure, the parental figures (Pearce and Holmes) are not as fleshed out as they should be, and the groundskeeper’s warning is not nearly as ominous as that in the original. Still, the remake earns its scares and even delivers on the original version’s (traumatic) ending. In other words, see this movie if you’re in the mood to be frightened.
Just make sure there’s a tree you can sit under nearby.
Hans Morgenstern maintains a blog on independent film and music called The Independent Ethos. He has freelanced for several music publications, taught cinema studies, and worked in programming at local film festivals.