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 BackboneDon’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.

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TNB Arts and Culture Editor CYNTHIA HAWKINS teaches creative writing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Most of what she thinks she knows comes from movies, including how to tango, how to take someone down with a ballpoint pen, how to curse in French, and how to catch a moving train. Her work, on movies and otherwise, has appeared in literary journals and magazines such as ESPN the Magazine, Parent:Wise Magazine, The Good Men Project, New World Writing, Strange Horizons, and numerous alternative weeklies and anthologies. You can find Cynthia on Twitter and at cynthiahawkins.net.

26 responses to “Guillermo del Toro Has It In For Me”

  1. Becky Palapala says:

    I’m not one for the scary movies.

    I like scary-looking movies, so I love Guillermo del Toro (and Tim Burton and you get the idea with the dark-but-not-evil), but the trailers for this one all quietly whispered to me to stay far, far away. That this was not the Guillermo del Toro I was looking for.

  2. Jane says:

    ooh I remember that TV movie. Kim Darby kind of muffled its scariness factor for me, but the teeth, oh the teeth! I can’t wait to see this!

  3. You don’t need to see this movie. *waves fingers* This isn’t the del Toro you are looking for.

    Okay, I couldn’t help but squeeze a bad Star Wars joke in there. Sorry. But, yeah. You’ll be disappointed. Unless maybe you weren’t disappointed by Mimic.

  4. Gloria says:

    Your whole first paragraph made me drool and taste aluminum in my mouth. Is that normal? Ack!

    Okay, answer this: Katie Holmes in this move – is she good?

  5. Becky Palapala says:

    Okay. A bad Star Wars joke I can handle, but your trying to take credit for it, I cannot!

    Totally what I meant to do.

  6. Jane, researching this a little led me to peruse Darby’s film credits (beyond True Grit, which I loved her in as a kid), and I discovered that she’d been in a dozen other things I’d seen and didn’t even recognize her in at the time. Like Better Off Dead. She was in that. And Teen Wolf Too.

    Thanks for reading!

  7. Okay, these comments are not nesting. Gloria! This one’s for you! First question, well, I don’t think so, but then again I might not know what constitutes “normal.” 😉 Second question, she’s fine. Yeah. She’s okay. The adult roles weren’t exactly meaty. But I didn’t crinkle my nose and say, “blech, Katie Holmes,” the way I usually do. And unfairly, I’m sure. Something about being married to Tom Cruise ….

  8. Matt says:

    I’m thinking about seeing this this weekend. It’s a toss-up between this, John Sayles’ new one (Amigo) and the Fright Night remake.

    I really enjoy Del Toro’s filmmaking (yes, even Blade 2 and Mimic); there’s an essay on the male/female brother/sister relationship of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth sitting in my head waiting to get out.

    Even the stuff he produces without directing tends to be good. Did you see the Spanish ghost film The Orphanage which came out a couple of years ago?

  9. Becky, ha! You did? It was so subtly done, I think you Jedi mind-tricked ME. Okay, I concede.

  10. Matt: oh I love Sayles. I walked right by him once in Austin and didn’t have the nerve to say hello. Fright Night, yeah, too much Colin Farrel for my taste. I’m thinking you’ll like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Go see it and report back.

    I think it was you, or maybe Irene, who told me to see The Orphanage. I’ll get to it! Last I looked it was on streaming, but Netflix has this horrible way of yanking things off of streaming right before I can get to them.

    Oh yeah, and write that essay.

  11. Seth Pollins says:

    Did you read the New Yorker article on del Toro? It spoke about his youth as well as his present obsession with horror and monsters. His house today sounds like a plushly weird phantasmagoria of famous and frightening movie props.

    To me, the teeth thing is also just downright frightening. I grind my teeth at night and often wake intensely feeling my teeth–a very unpleasant way to start the day. I’m horrified that I will lose my teeth, somehow–that despite my copious flossing and vegetable-eating, my anxiety will ruin me!

  12. Seth, if del Toro has the thing with the eyeballs in its palms sitting at his dining table I don’t think I’d ever visit. I mean, not that I’d ever be invited. But … you know.

  13. Oh my god. Do you believe me when I say that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was one of the three movies that almost destroyed me as a child, the other two being The Birds and Horror Hotel? Seriously, I cannot believe anyone else knows about that movie but me and my babysitter, let alone that it has been re-made.

  14. In my worst moments, I see a perky Katie Holmes coming for my teeth.

    After reading this review, I went to watch the trailer and got sufficiently agitated, needing to turn on a few more lights, until the thing we’re waiting to jump out finally did. Like you say, one good look at the creature renders it less frightening. This is a constant problem with fantastical horror, when they build the suspense too long you’ve created your own little demon in your head and the one in the film doesn’t match up once revealed. I’d rather just get a full view of the monsters from the get-go, a la Pan’s Labyrinth, because no one does monsters better for my money. Hopefully, del Toro will leave enough of his mark on The Hobbit.

  15. Joe Daly says:

    Phew. No way I’m not having a toothless dream tonight- this little number freaked me the hell out.

    Which is great, because I love scary movies. Well, as much as one can enjoy having the shit scared out of them.

    That hammer scene sounds brutal. Like Sean, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was a young mind warper for me. You know what else scarred my shit? It Happened at Lakewood Manor. The site of Suzanne Somers being ravaged by killer ants really freaked me out.

    Anyway, GDT is indeed a maestro and as always, I dig the way you celebrate a film while educating cats like me along the way.

    Rock on!

  16. Sean, I’d very nearly given this review a “movies that terrified me as a child” element, but Tawni beat me to it with her wonderful “books that terrified her as a child” piece.

    I was such a little nerd I refused to let my babysitter watch what I wasn’t allowed to watch. I’d sit there and scream with my hands over my eyes until she changed the channel. I have no idea what was wrong with me ….

  17. Nathaniel (these comments still aren’t nesting, and I don’t think people are even getting email notifications anymore, are they?): I agree. No one does monsters better. I think that’s what makes Hellboy II, in particular, worth watching. I’m really, really curious to see what he does with The Hobbit!

  18. JD! I’ve been trying to comment on your Going Off the Rails interview for DAYS, but the comment section on it doesn’t show up for me at all.

    I’m completely surprised I haven’t seen the Lakewood Manor flick. I thought I’d seen all of those insect movies, especially on T.V. I’m reminded of Empire of the Ants. And Squirm is the real reason I have a bathtub-drain phobia to this day.

    Rock on, JD!

  19. jmblaine says:

    Fever teeth dreams.
    This post was scary enough for me.

    I never was a scary movie fan
    but seeing this on HBO
    as a young child may
    have tipped me away


  20. Shiza, JM, those are crazy-eyes in the holes of a sack! Noooo!

  21. Zara Potts says:

    Did you say teeth dreams?
    Did you then say teeth being pulled out in a nasty way??
    EEeeeeeeeee. I read this with my hands over my eyes. I am constantly dreaming teeth dreams. Guillermo -get out of my head.

  22. You too, Zara Potts!? Amazingly enough, I haven’t had a single teeth dream since writing this review. Maybe it’s some kind of talisman. In which case I hope it works for you too. Take that, Guillermo!

  23. I can’t handle anything that has to do with teeth, not movies about harming them, not air blowing on them, and not even a cleaning by a gentle hygienist. I have a chipped front tooth with a fake composite chunk that is wearing off slowly as I get older. I need to get it fixed, but I am full of teeth fear and keep putting it off. I also have the teeth crumbling dreams you mention. Your nail clippers teeth dream description has me shuddering. That sounds awful. Why do our brains do this to us?

    I am too scared to see this movie. I don’t usually let myself watch scary movies because it pretty much guarantees a nightmare that night, but I will stay exceptionally far away from this one. Thanks for the warning, Cynthia. (:


  24. Stay away! Stay far away, Tawni! Suffice it to say, I haven’t been to a dentist in years.

  25. Ugh – teeth dreams. SOOO unnerving! I have these dreams quite frequently – mostly, the teeth just fall out or crumble in my hands . Oddly enough, the teeth scene you describe in the movie doesn’t seem to bother me as much as the aforementioned teeth dreams. I think I’ll check this one out…maybe…

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