Friday, January 20, 2012

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and The Gate: Tiny Terrors Times Two



Way back in August 2010, I posted some thoughts about Guillermo del Toro’s then-unreleased remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a TV movie from 1973 that’s become a cult classic among horror fans. I had an open mind about what the end product would be like based on del Toro’s previous work, although I had some reservations based on de Toro’s decisions to make the movie a “dark fairy tale” and changing the main character from an adult woman named Sally (Kim Darby) who is in a failing marriage to a little girl named Sally (Bailee Madison) who is visiting her divorced father and his new girlfriend. Unfortunately, my misgivings were right: I just saw del Toro’s remake, which he co-wrote and produced, and his changes to the original story only hindered its overall effectiveness as a horror movie. Even Troy Nixey’s capable direction couldn’t turn this remake into something that improves upon its low-budget predecessor.

Yet as I was thinking about how I’d review the Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark remake, I found myself remembering about another movie that pit kids against pint-sized monsters: The Gate, a film from 1986 that was directed by Tibor Takács. The Gate certified its place in movie trivia by outperforming Ishtar, one of the most notorious big-budget flops in American movie history, but it’s also a great example of how to tell a dark fairy tale that’s worth watching. Read on for my comparison, with some minor spoilers.

To be sure, the original version of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t one of the best horror films ever made. What made it memorable, though, is that it was made by talented people who understood the significant limitations with which they were faced--especially in terms of a meager production budget and the TV movie format--and successfully applied their skills within those limits. In doing so, the movie not only kept the appearance of the monsters to a minimum, but it also kept the details behind the monsters’ origin as vague as possible.

On the basis of what you see in the movie, you can piece together that the monsters were probably summoned from another hell-like dimension through some kind of dark magic and then couldn’t (or wouldn't) be sent away, although none of the characters say as much. You hear the monsters much more than you see them, and what they say amongst themselves indicate just how sadistic and obsessive they really are. By keeping the monsters vague--their origins, their capabilities, and their intentions--the movie maintains eerie mood of tense uncertainty. Adding to the tension is how the presence of the monsters accentuates the growing rift between Sally and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton), all the way to the film’s grim, creepy conclusion.


By changing the nature of the monsters and the age of the main character, del Toro winds up putting more limitations on his remake than the mandatory ones faced by his predecessors. In the remake, it is explained that the monsters are some kind of creatures from ancient folklore who may have some connection to the Tooth Fairy legend, but that explanation sets up many inconsistencies within the narrative that are more frustrating than scary. For example, these creatures are said to crave children’s teeth every hundred years, but the end of the movie suggests that they’re just as content to go another hundred years without any children’s teeth at all (?). While I can imagine del Toro thinking that strained relationship between the child Sally and her divorced father would have the same dramatic effect as the original’s adult Sally and her career-driven husband, that plot thread quickly diminishes into the cliché of parental characters who refuse to believe their children when they see ghosts, monsters, and other improbable frights.

To accommodate del Toro’s changes yet still justify keeping both the title Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and its PG-13 rating, the remake restrains itself frequently so that it doesn’t become as horrifying and vicious as it could be. In doing so, the characters--both human and inhuman--become dumber than their TV movie counterparts. The monsters appear to be as adept with tools as they were in the original, but they also announce their presence to Sally many times, they attack her in ways that don’t really hurt her, and they ignore the tactic of stealth enough so that even the clueless adults realize what’s happening by the film’s climax. Then again, adults aren’t that much smarter: Even after they accept the danger that Sally is facing, they still are willing to leave her alone in her room. Finally, I don’t care how bad the divorce of Sally’s parents was, she still shouldn’t be talking to strangers--especially strangers who are locked behind a tiny metal door in the basement of a long deserted mansion.

It should be noted that in an interview with Cineaste magazine about Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, del Toro stated, “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.” (Machen is even mentioned by name in one scene of the remake.) With such intentions in mind, I can only wonder: Why doesn’t del Toro make a completely new movie based on the works of Machen, instead of trying to insert a Machen-inspired story thread into a remake of a TV movie that gained its cult classic status without such a thread in the first place?


In contrast to del Toro’s remake is The Gate. The Gate is about a young boy named Glen (Stephen Dorff) who notices that the hole left behind by the tree that was removed from his backyard is starting to exhibit unusual features. While his parents are away and his is left in the care of his sister Al (Christa Denton), Glen and his friend Terry (Louis Tripp) discover that the hole is actually a gateway to a nightmarish dimension populated by Lovecraftian horrors that are determined to take back the world, and the gate is slowly opening....

Like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Gate is rated PG-13; unlike Dark, director Takács and his crew had a better understanding of how to tell a spooky, kid-centric story than del Toro and Nixey. In particular, The Gate is told from the perspective of its three adolescent leads, and the few of adult characters that are in the movie only appear for a few minutes. By approaching its horrors from a more innocent, wide-eyed perspective, the movie lets the vivid imaginations of its adolescent protagonists--not the overuse of expensive special effects--set the tone of unease. This works better in establishing a dark fairy tale setting, as opposed to literally placing monstrous folklore characters into a story that's largely populated by adults. Then again, The Gate uses its own kind of folklore: in particular, the 80s era belief of some that heavy metal music is a deliberate recruiting tool for Satan worship. The movie's running gag is how Glen and Terry regularly consult the liner notes from a Canadian heavy metal album for information about demons, magical incantations, and inter-dimensional portals. (Blame Canada, indeed!)

The Gate’s loose and relaxed rules about the monsters that emerge from the hole in Glen’s backyard appropriately match the story’s setting and characters. There seems to be no limit to what can emerge out of the hole: a rotting zombie, shape-shifters, forces of levitation, telephone-melting possessions, and even a gigantic, multi-limbed demon all come out of the hole. (In that aspect, this movie feels like what one of Lucio Fulci’s “Gates of Hell” movies would’ve been like if he decided to make one with kids as the main characters.) Yet what this film is most known for is its horde of pint-sized demonic minions that terrorize Glen, Terry and Al. What the minions lack in intellect they more than make up for number and determination, and the forced perspective effects techniques that were used to bring the foot-tall freaks to life are much more impressive than the CGI-created monsters in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.


When looking at The Gate and the remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I can only conclude that the imaginative application of low-budget practical effects to a simple yet solid script create a much more memorable film than the erroneous application of big-budget effects and sets to an overcomplicated and underwhelming script. Even though I admire del Toro’s other work and his understanding of the horror genre, his attempt to breathe new creative life into Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a frustrating failure that’s best left unseen. The original 1973 movie left plenty of room for improvement (if not direct continuation), but del Toro chose to impose his own ill-fitting vision on an original story instead of exploring and enriching the strengths that the story already had. I would recommend that horror fans either revisit the original Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark or see The Gate for great examples of how big scares that give kids big nightmares can come in very small, low-budget sizes.




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