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31 Days of Halloween: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

Published Tuesday, October 05, 2021 at 2:49pm

A surprising number of horror movies begin with a family moving into a spacious, old house. Often—not always—it's autumn in New England. There are secret rooms and elaborate chandeliers, and the kids are always bored and disinterested in the prospect of living in a beautiful, gothic mansion. Do other people find this annoying? Am I the only one? I understand not wanting to leave your old life with your old friends behind, but "you get the room with the cupola" strikes me as a reasonable concession.

10-year-old Sally in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has a bad attitude about her new life in such a house, but at least she has an excuse: after being told by her mother that she's simply going to "visit" her father, she finds that her life in California has been completely uprooted, and she has been transplanted to Rhode Island for a change of scenery. Sally has what we describe using the blanket euphemism "emotional issues." No ETA on her return, but nothing suggests that this will be a short stay.

And her dad (Alex, played by Guy Pierce) has a new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), which is <sarcasm>just great.</sarcasm>

So of course, Sally goes exploring. First she stumbles on a half-buried basement skylight which gets her manhandled by Harris, the estate's caretaker. This part of the estate is unsafe for children, he insists, but Alex isn't concerned. Anyway, they didn't know they had a basement, so they do some poking around, find and break down a boarded up door, and eventually Sally starts hearing whispery voices from behind the basement fireplace flue. They tell her that they want to play.

It's worth pointing out at this point that the estate is called Blackwood after Emerson Blackwood, a famous naturalist painter whose talent, we are told, rivaled that of Audubon. He disappeared, and in the prologue of the film we see him bargaining with whatever lives on the other side of that flue. They've taken his little boy and they will return the child in exchange for children's teeth. He tries to trick them, and is pulled by unseen things into the fireplace. Hence, Blackwood's disappearance.

With little else to occupy her, Sally takes some tools down to the basement and loosens the bolts holding the flue in place. Her father catches her in the basement and sends her upstairs, but whatever's down there gets out and starts causing trouble: things go missing, some of Kim's clothing is shredded, and Sally gets all the blame. Things come to a head; Harris is attacked in the basement in front of Sally by tiny, rodent-like beasts.

In the hospital, a recovering Harris tells Kim to ask the public library about Lot 1134 (which spells "hell" on an upside-down calculator, in case you never got as bored in 6th grade as I did), and this yields a trove of information on Emerson Blackwood. The librarian turns out to be an expert on Blackwood, and pulls out some of the artist's last drawings. These deviate from Blackwood's normal style, and depict monsters which look an awful lot like the ones Sally's been drawing recently. The librarian asks if Kim has ever heard of the author Arthur Machen, and explains that phrases from Machen's fiction appear all over Blackwood's unpublished final paintings. The creatures in the paintings are reminiscent of medieval depictions of malevolent tooth fairies, the librarian says.

Convinced that something real is happening, and that Sally is telling the truth and in danger, Kim returns home but is unable to convince Alex of the gravity of the situation; his career is at a make-or-break moment, and he's trying to schmooze Architectural Digest magazine.

I found Don't Be Afraid of the Dark to be extremely satisfying, especially in comparison with the original TV version from 1973, about which I wrote in 2011. I only saw it once, but I recall that the original presented a compelling idea without delivering much of a story. This one, written by Matthew Robbins and Guillermo del Toro, and directed by Troy Nixey, takes the same idea and fleshes it out with a complex and complete, high-stakes narrative. Nixey is primarily a comic book artist, and I was surprised to learn that this is only his second and most recent film; the first is a 17-minute CGI short. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is so good that I'm surprised he hasn't made another in the decade since.

Possibly Nixey was dabbling in film with no intention of making a career of it, or maybe the box office returns weren't enough to get him rehired. The R rating probably didn't help (PG-13 is where it's at if you're a Hollywood accountant). Don't Be Afraid of the Dark wasn't an enormous success, but I thought it very well-made, and much more interesting than its predecessor. Everything in the movie works (well, I found the monsters visually unimpressive, but I had the same problem with the original). Del Toro's fingerprints are all over it, and I especially appreciated the nods to early 20th-century horror writers Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, whom I used to confuse with each other. Machen would have enjoyed this story. It doesn't have the rustic tweeness of his own output, but it feels just like something he'd have written. Except without the sex.

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