Guillermo del Toro has made it his duty to reintroduce the modern film audience to vintage horror. Like some twisted cheerleader, he’s promoted, produced and poured himself into a filmography of old school gothic thrills culled from deserted drive-ins. One can’t help but think that the adventuring children in his best films (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and even Hellboy) are the director’s attempt to recreate the creature-feature wonder he experienced in his own youth.
Throughout the years, del Toro’s collected a circle of like-minded monster mashers to help spread the word. First and foremost is Mike Mignola, the writer and artist behind Hellboy, a comic that excavates freaky myths and fables on an international scale. The newest addition to the club is Troy Nixey, a comic artist best known for his work with Mignola on the series Jenny Finn, a lovecraftian period piece about sailors with sea-monster STDs.
With Nixey directing and Del Toro writing/producing, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark drips with fiendish fun from creators who adore things that go bump in the night. Adapted from the 1973 made-for-TV movie, the script follows somber lass Sally (Bailee Madison) who moves into a renovated Victorian mansion with divorced dad Alex (a wooden Guy Pearce) and his new lady friend Kim (Katie Holmes). After hearing a chorus of scratchy whispers (del Toro’s lends his own pipes) from the bowels of her new cavernous home, Sally unscrews a hearth cover to unleash a swarm of pint-sized terrors. Requisite for all horror movies, only Sally can hear the omniscient boogeymen in between her walls and is often blamed for their acts of vandalism by her matter-of-fact guardians.
While it’s not for everyone, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is terrifically fun and suspenseful. The scares are vivid and the mood claustrophobic, leading to a series of unnerving fun-house scares. A kid haunted by a nasty that only he or she can hear is standard class, but the sight of a little girl taunted by goblins wielding shaving blades is all the more unnerving when parental protection is two rooms away. These frights are even more impressive considering that the CGI goblins look absurdly goofy. Landing somewhere between miniature shaved baboons and the LOTR’s Gollum, these gremlins are the product of an intended PG-13 rating. The expert editing, lighting and sound design are far more menacing.
Haunted-house delights aside, sociological commentary lurks underneath the floorboards along with the more visceral creepy crawlies. Sally is an Adderall-popping, Gluten-fearing bundle of neurotic malaise. Those looking for a bigger bad guy can view the mass of evil faeries as the adult world perverting the childhood innocence that tends to be the common victim in del Toro’s movies. The fact that the goblins are after Sally’s baby teeth only adds a jolt of irony to this nifty subtext.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark doesn’t innovate much on the old-timey thrills it seeks to reinvent, but its certainly one of the better horror films to come out this year, with a nice serving of thematic depth for those looking. Like the monsters in his latest movie, Del Toro lurks in the basement of antiquated horrors, calling us down to its grimey recesses. Hopefully he never stops.