Supposedly losing-your-teeth dreams mean high anxiety, so it’s no surprise that I’ve had more than a few of them. Bloody gums, teeth falling through your fingers kind of dreams. Teeth turning into shards of glass dreams. Yes, those dreams. The most memorable of them, perhaps, being the one in which, against my will, I snipped off my front teeth with nail clippers. Maybe the only sorts of dreams that bother me more are the things-happening-to-your-eyes dreams. I’m explaining this because in the first few minutes of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a film written and produced by Guillermo del Toro, a twitchy old man with a hammer and spike knocks the teeth out of the mouth of a screaming woman pinned under his knees.
In other words, del Toro has my number. Again. First it was the eyeballs-in-the-palms creature loping after Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and now this, a film about sinister little beings in the walls, hungry for freshly pried-out teeth. Directed by Troy Nixey in his first feature film, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is based on the 1973 made-for-television movie of the same name, which del Toro claims was the scariest film he’d seen as a child. While it sticks to the basic premise of the original, a couple (played in the latest by Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes) renovating an old home and stirring up more than dust, del Toro adds a child protagonist (Bailee Madison). Thus, del Toro revisits his frequent theme of the misunderstood, mistreated child at the mercy of bigger conflicts, one a real-world problem occupying the adults and the other a frightening and fantastical struggle consuming the young protagonist in their absence.
In del Toro’s reimagining, an emotionally troubled, overmedicated girl, Sally, is shuffled off to live with her oblivious father Alex and his less-oblivious girlfriend Kim as the couple races to add the finishing touches to their big-stakes renovation on a historic mansion. In the mess, Sally finds a brooch belonging to Kim. “My mother gave me that,” Kim says. “My mother gave me to my dad,” Sally broods. And there you have the family dynamics. The more brushed-off Sally feels, the more she retreats to the darker recesses of the house where something worse than a perky Katie Holmes awaits.
Viewers, however, shouldn’t expect the well-drawn, nuanced characters, darkly beautiful filmmaking, and emotional gut-punch of Pan’s Labyrinth or The Devil’s Backbone. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark attempts the same in shorthand in favor of making it a textbook thriller. Gothic house with an eerie history, check. People assembled in said house, at least one of them unwillingly, check. Cars that don’t start right away, check. Lights that won’t blink on, characters who move too damn slow, things that go bump that turn out to be harmless right before things that go bump that aren’t, check, check, and check.
Given its kitschy ’73, small-screen beginnings with Kim Darby in the lead, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’s throwbacks make sense but at the same time undermine the creep factor of the gruesome teeth-snatching premise – not so unlike the way one good look at the creatures clambering out of the vents renders them less frightening. What really makes Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a fascinating film isn’t its content but its context. Think of it as a del Toro origin story in which we are privy to see what had shaped his sense of cinematic terror as a boy and hints of what he’s done with that influence since.
Among what he’s done with it, of course, is unnerve me like few other filmmakers have. In fact, after the old man with the hammer and the teeth, I’m beginning to think it’s personal. And if his next effort is a remake of Dark Night of the Scarecrow or anything that features someone’s wide eyes blinking in the roughly-cut holes of a feed sack, I’ll know it is.