Blu-ray Review: DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK – Del Toro’s Stylish Horror Lacks Real Scares

With gothic horror back in vogue at the moment, it comes as no surprise that writer and producer Guillermo Del…

Chris Wright

Contributor

With gothic horror back in vogue at the moment, it comes as no surprise that writer and producer Guillermo Del Toro, always with one eye on the zeitgeist, has chosen to remake the 1973 TV movie Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, about a newly renovated house with a bad case of the gremlins. With the film, directed by comic book artist Troy Nixey making his debut feature released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, here is our review.

Sally Hurst (Bailee Madison), a young girl, moves to Rhode Island to live with her distant father, Alex (Guy Pearce) and his new girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes) in the 19th century gothic mansion they are restoring. While exploring the house, Sally starts to hear voices coming from creatures in the basement whose hidden agenda is to claim her as one of their own.

Opening in suitably shocking fashion with a short prelude to the main plot that offers a brief insight into the history of the house with a scene that sets a tone more akin to recent torture porn offerings than the more cerebral thrills that the film aspires to offer. Beginning the film in this way certainly grabs the attention but is something of a false start to the kind of chills that are to follow. From this point on the emphasis is more on building the tension rather than visceral gore.

A combination of the excellent production design and cinematography create an immediately eerie atmosphere in the gothic architecture of the house. The use of colour is well thought out with a stark contrast between warm colours on the interior of the house and a colder palette for the exterior scenes which adds to the unsettling goings on within the walls of the house.

Holding the film together is a superb central performance from Madison. She convinces as a deeply troubled child whose reactions to events are more believable than some of the adults in the film and with the story mostly shown from her perspective, the only real change to the original screenplay, it is all the more effective as a result. Holmes is also very good in a role that over time develops to become a key part of the story, however Pearce is given less chance to shine as his role largely requires him to play the antagonist and unbeliever as events spiral around his family.

The creatures are afforded a decent build-up with small hints at their existence through whispers from behind the walls and the light catching their eyes as they peak through ventilation grates, however they are fully revealed a little too early on taking away some of the mystique and breaking the tension slightly. Their design clearly show Del Toro’s influence, the hunchback critters with a penchant for children’s’ teeth are capable of walking on both, two or four legs, have an aversion to light and work in a co-ordinated group to cause chaos much like Joe Dante’s Gremlins. Brought to life by some near flawless CGI and imaginative sound effects they are convincingly rendered and steal the film from their human counterparts.

Sadly after all the imagination that the film shows in the design and delivery of the story it still ends up wasting most of its potential by following a fairly predictable route into all the usual horror clichés. After the shocking opening, there are a few decent scares further enhanced by Marco Beltrami and Buck Sander’s effective score, but once the creatures have been fully revealed it loses its edge. The biggest problem with the film is it does not focus on a target audience. Initially intended to be rated PG-13, the ratings board insisted on an R rating meaning that horror aficionados may find it too tame for their tastes.

Thankfully Nixey keeps everything moving at a brisk pace to keep you engaged over the 99 minute running time and despite its obvious flaws, it remains a pretty solid retelling of a lesser known horror property with enough style and detail that it lingers in the mind after the credits roll.

Quality

For a film that spends a considerable time in dark, dimly lit scenes the 1080p transfer copes extremely well. The colour range is excellent with the blackest blacks to deepest reds bringing out the most intricate details of the gothic mansion. Skin tones are naturalistic and the creatures are enhanced by realistic tones and lighting.

The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is also very good, highlighting the score and making full use of the surround speakers with scuttling and whispering sounds from the creatures coming from all sides. With the sound playing such an important role in the film the audio presentation is all encapsulating, providing the requisite number of jumps and scares as well as building the overall unsettling atmosphere.

Extras

While at first glance it would seem that there are a decent number of extras on the disc, on closer inspection each special feature runs for no more than 3 minutes with a collective running time of around 15 minutes. The features are split into four separate parts with each taking a look at a different aspect of the film.

The Story focuses on the reasons behind the remake featuring interviews with Del Toro and Nixey discussing their memories of the original and the changes they made for this version. Blackwood’s Mansion offers a brief look at the production design and how an Australian country mansion was transformed to feature the gothic look required for the film. The Creatures reveals the thoughts behind their design and also includes b-roll footage from the set showing how the CG elements were represented for the actors’ reactions. Three more short features interview the three lead actors giving further insight into the making of the film. A collection of trailers completes the selection of extras.

Despite their short running time, the features are surprisingly good and pack in a lot of information about the background of the film. However there would definitely be room for more in-depth features such as a Del Toro commentary track or an interactive mode with pop-up featurettes and in-picture commentaries during the film to make this a more complete package.

Film – 3 out of 5

Good performances and nicely rendered CGI creatures bring the film to life however with the creatures revealed far too early the scares are few and far between.

Visuals – 4 out of 5

The gothic architecture and production design look fantastic with this great transfer featuring real range and depth.

Audio – 4 out of 5

An all encapsulating soundtrack creates a suitable creepy atmosphere with creatures coming from all sides.

Extras – 3 out of 5

Surprisingly in-depth short featurettes but there is definitely room for more.

Presentation – 4 out of 5

The original cinema poster artwork is used for the box art and menus which are simple to navigate and in-keeping with the overall style of the film.

Overall – 3 out of 5

Del Toro’s influence can be seen throughout this gothic horror remake with style and attention to detail faithfully presented on this Blu-ray, however die-hard horror fans may be slightly disappointed by the watered down thrills on offer.

Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.