“We Want to Be Friends….”

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the stuff childhood nightmares are made of. It’s not a movie you should watch with your grown up glasses on. It’s a movie you should go to with the wonder, naivete, and bravery of a child. If you do this, you won’t be disappointed.

Young Sally comes to New England to stay with her father and his considerably younger girlfriend. Feeling like no one wants her and that Dad’s girlfriend is, as per usual, proof that the family won’t be reunited, Sally sulks around and begs to be sent back to sunny (and if you ask me–icky) Los Angeles. But as she investigates the house, much to the chagrin of the gruff, and always available in these types of films, handyman Mr. Harris, she finds that some things are living in the flue of the chimney in the once hidden basement.

Sally, being the curious and resourceful little girl that she is, opens up the ash gate and sets those somethings free, thinking–however wrongly–that they are telling the truth when they say they want to be her friends. What’s a lonely little unwanted girl to do? She certainly can’t turn down friends. But as Sally soon learns (and her soon-to-be stepmonster soon after), the somethings in the basement aren’t nearly as benign as they led her to believe.

All you could hope for in a haunted house movie is present–even though this isn’t a haunted house movie in the strictest sense. You won’t find ghosts, but you will find an overwhelming malevolent presence in each little nook and cranny. The shadows are dark, and the tension is stretched so tight it’s almost painful to watch poor Sally struggle in telling her own personal (and completely accurate) truth to those expectedly lunkheaded adults who just can’t seem to take her word for it.

This is a message from me to you, kiddos: If a child tells you a place is haunted or that there are monsters in her closet, make absolutely sure she’s not telling you the truth.

Much is owed in this film to producer/writer Guillermo Del Toro. Though, he’s not given a directing credit (that’s left to the increasingly impressive Troy Nixey), you can feel his sense of style in every single frame. This is a Del Toro movie, and there’s no doubt about it. It’s utter completeness is a hallmark of Del Toro films. From the set design to the music, this couldn’t reek more of his mastery.

Much has been said of Katie Holmes in this film, and I can’t disagree. She plays the conflicted would-be stepmother quite well. She’s grown up to be something worth seeing, which is surprising when you consider that Michelle Williams is the real talent from that disaster of a teen show I must admit to watching.

But this movie belongs to Bailee Madison. She’s a wise little girl, and her performance bears that through. What fun is to be had when the child in question simply shivers and screams? Bailee’s Sally is smart and honest and, most importantly, very brave. Without her courage and remarkable clarity in the face of serious danger, the film would have had to end with something no American audience can seem to handle in a horror movie–the violent death of a child.

The script, written by Del Toro and Matthew Robbins, is based on a teleplay by Nigel McKeand from 1973. It was a stellar little made-for-TV horror movie that apparently scared little Del Toro out of his footie pajamas and convinced him to make horror films. Damned if I am not extremely glad he saw this movie. The nods to the original in Del Toro’s script are respectful but not completely stolen. Katie Holmes’s character is named Kim–presumably after Kim Darby who played the original, adult Sally. The bathroom scene is a wonderful take on McKeand’s original.

Perhaps the most significant change, though, that Del Toro and Robbins have made is the introduction of the child. As I sat in the theater tonight, I heard many voices laughing at scenes I found frightening. They were sitting in the theater acting like Grups. This is a child’s nightmare. And to approach it as anything other than the child inside you is to do the truly wonderful film a disservice. Del Toro knew this, and as such, he allowed a child to carry us through the adventure.

This frightened but brave child perspective is something Del Toro does well. He’s proven it over and over again (see Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone). How he managed to keep himself so aware of the mind of child is something I think we may never know, but we should all be that much more grateful. He understands a child’s sense of wonder, and without it, we’d all really be missing out.

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~ by acaseofyou12581 on September 3, 2011.

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