The “ABC Movie of the Week” Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) is a touchstone for horror fans of an impressionable age. One of those was a nine-year-old Mexican lad, Guillermo del Toro, who grew up to make audiences afraid of the dark with a string of horror and fantasy hits that began with 1993’s Cronos and include Hellboy (2004) and its 2008 sequel The Golden Army. His most resounding success, finding an audience beyond its genre while staying true to its roots, was Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which, like his earlier ghost story The Devil’s Backbone (2001), finds monstrousness of several varieties amidst the Spanish Civil War. A best foreign film nominee at the Academy Awards, Pan’s Labyrinth won three Oscars and earned del Toro a best original screenplay nomination.
Del Toro has also produced several genre films, including The Orphanage (2007) and Splice (2010). He co-produced and, with Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer), co-wrote Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which marks the feature film directorial debut of comic book artist Troy Nixey. It builds a new structure over the bones of the fondly remembered TV movie, which is available from the Warner Archive. There Sally (ingénue Kim Darby), having inherited an old mansion, is menaced by a trio of small, whispery demons, who attempt to draw her into their shadowy world beneath the fireplace. Here Sally (played by 11-year-old Bailee Madison), unsettled by her parents’ divorce, is brought to Rhode Island to visit her father and his girlfriend, Kim (Katie Holmes), who are restoring a Victorian mansion in a make-or-break commission. The distraction of the work allows Sally to explore the forbidding edifice on her own, where she discovers a hidden basement that was once the private studio of the mansion’s builder, a nature illustrator who mysteriously disappeared. Sally soon discovers the cause of the disappearance: the homunculi, a race of pint-sized menaces, many in number. The little beasts cajole Sally, who is not so fragile as she first appears. She finds an ally in Kim, who comes to believe the stories her dad dismisses.
Playing Alex, Sally’s stressed-out father, is Guy Pearce, the Australian actor best known for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), L.A. Confidential (1997), and Memento (2000), and an Emmy nominee this year for Todd Haynes’s HBO miniseries of Mildred Pierce. The film marks a return to leading man status for the actor, following, among other roles, supporting turns in the successive Oscar-winning Best Pictures The Hurt Locker (2009) and The King’s Speech (2010). That the three leads in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark aren’t overwhelmed by their scene-stealing costars is a measure of the film’s effectiveness, which improves upon the jolts of its source, adds a few of its own, and is embroidered with a Gothic strangeness that too few horror movies tap into.
Del Toro (whose abortive American debut, 1997’s Mimic, is getting a director’s cut release on Blu-ray in September) spoke to Cineaste from the Los Angeles Film Festival in June, where the film was shown. Pearce was reached at his home in Melbourne.
Dark is based on a 1973 TV production
Cineaste: Why remake the TV movie?
Del Toro: If you know the original it’s a completely different take on the same anecdote. I really wanted to emphasize the fairy tale-gone-wrong aspects and play off a dysfunctional family dynamic. While I’m not saying that our film is in its league, I love the way Hitchcock’s The Birds uses the birds to manifest unhealthy aspects of the mother, played by Jessica Tandy, and how they eventually go out of control, attacking everyone, including her. I liked starting the film with the girl in an ambiguous place—is it make-believe, is it real?—and little by little the anger and resentment in the family lash out. But, changing the situation from The Birds, she and the woman find a bond. Katie Holmes found a great partnership with Bailee Madison, who was very good at the fundamental element of acting, which is playing make-believe.
Pearce: I never saw the original movie. I saw some of it, but Troy told me that this was going to be darker and in a totally different style and I didn’t want to fall into the trap of thinking about it every time we did a take. Sometimes it’s good to look back at the original; it was for Mildred Pierce, which was so much older and so vastly removed from what we were doing that I could separate myself.
What drew me to the film was Guillermo and Troy’s involvement. This genre is not an avenue I’ve ventured down too often, and it’s one of those cases where it’s less about the role and more about the film.
But, funnily enough, I just completed a five-year renovation of our home, so the pitfalls of being an architect were present in my mind. I was very hands-on in the design, so I felt I had something to bring to the part.
Cineaste: It’s a tricky role, in that the character isn’t very hands-on about his daughter’s fears.
Pearce: What was important was finding a justified reason as to why this guy couldn’t give his daughter the attention he should have. I didn’t want him to be coldhearted, or a nice guy who was just too busy at work. It was about finding the balance, and we played with a couple of ideas. We made the stakes high, so that his panic would seem completely rational to him, while for Katie and Bailee’s characters it’s clear that he’s not a great father at this point in time. We needed to have that as an underpinning so that Bailee really felt lost and lonely in this home.
Bailee was quite a force to be reckoned with, which I mean in a positive way. She’s just a smart little kid. So much of acting comes down to being childlike and allowing your imagination to be free and to be open to whatever kind of emotions might come up at any time. That’s tricky even for an adult to do. But kids are more honest about that stuff; they’re not trying to protect anything and haven’t had years of learning to be polite and all that.
Bailee Madison as Pearce's daughter
Cineaste: How did you develop the backstory for the creatures?
Del Toro: I love the Welsh author Arthur Machen and his idea that fairy lore comes from a dark place, that it’s derived from little, pre-human creatures who are really, really nasty vermin but are magical in a way, living as they do for hundreds of years. His books are what compelled me to do this.
And I’ve always been creeped out by the tooth fairy. I always wondered, “What does she want with the teeth?” Fairies have always disturbed me; you can see that in Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, too.
Cineaste: The Pope is involved, too.
Del Toro: When you read books on occultism and the paranormal you find that the church was actively involved in these matters, almost like traffic cops for evil forces. You can read that the Bishop of Bologna exorcised fifty vampires found in a cemetery—it was part and parcel of daily life in and around the Dark Ages. And popes took it upon themselves to help with vampiric plagues, werewolves, and demonic possession. We thought that would make a great backdrop.
One of the creatures
Cineaste: How did you develop the look of the creatures?
Del Toro: I put the design squarely on Troy. All I was adamant about was respecting the design from the original movie, where the creatures have hairy backs and faces wrinkled like prunes. But I didn’t want to do them as man-in-suit characters; I like the deformed, elongated limbs, which were better suited to digital.
Pearce: What was clear to us as actors about the creatures was that we were supposed to be spooked, that these weren’t cute little gremlins running about. Guillermo, who was just delightful to work with, said, “I want this film to be terrifying.” I wasn’t sure what to picture in my mind. But once we started rehearsing we saw the art department’s drawings of the house, then drawings of the creatures, and we said, “Oh, OK.”
Cineaste: Some filmmakers shy away from showing the monster in their films, but you tend to be upfront about it. The creatures get a lot of face time here.
Del Toro: They do in the original, too. I think it depends on the movie. In a movie like The Orphanage, you try not to show anything. But this movie becomes a battlefield—at some point you have to see the enemy soldiers.
Cineaste: That said, visually it’s one of the darkest films I’ve seen recently.
Del Toro: That comes from the title, of course. All of the films that I’ve produced or directed are based on a strong layer of black. They’re that way shamelessly, so things can emerge from them.
Del Toro: I’ve heard that, but I must say that it was conceived entirely to Troy’s specifications. It all comes down to a similar creepy esthetic.
Troy is an incredible graphic artist, and his short film, Latchkey’s Lament (2007) is so powerful. [See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5qivpYWj28] He knows Machen, Lovecraft, and all the horror literature, so I thought he would be a good choice to direct.
Cineaste: Though it takes place in the U.S. the film was shot in Australia. Was it difficult maintaining an American accent?
Pearce: It was a hurdle that I didn’t realize existed. I’d been in the States for some time before I started making the film, and had a few weeks in Melbourne for costume fittings and the like. Talking to the production crew it suddenly dawned on me that this American accent that I was going to do was going to be this lone little figure hanging out there without a lot of support, whereas when I’m in Connecticut or Austin, TX, I’m surrounded by it. I swim in the musicality of those accents. I almost needed to say to the crew, “Do me a favor and try not to talk to me too much in between takes.” But once we started filming on set I found myself in this bubble with Bailee and Katie and Troy, who’s Canadian but whose accent has a general cadence and shape that’s more American than Australian. Accents are such tenuous things.
Pearce and Katie Holmes as Alex and Kim
Cineaste: Besides Ravenous (1998) there aren’t, as you mentioned, a lot of these types of films on your resume. Do you like horror movies?
Pearce: When I was younger the Halloween and Evil Dead and Freddy films really drew me into their worlds. I’m just not as interested now, so it was a bit of a surprise to me that I chose to do this film. But I liked the domestic story within this one as well. So horror films aren’t really my genre, but whenever friends are watching one and I’m there I still find myself engaged and taken in.