When a young girl is sent to live with her father and his girlfriend in their centuries-old Gothic mansion, she tries to tries to befriend a group of unseen beings living in the basement only to discover those evil little creatures are decidedly unfriendly. And hungry.
That’s the bare-bones premise of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a new horror-fantasy from the disturbed mind of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy). Co-written and produced by del Toro and helmed by first-time director Troy Nixey, the film stars Guy Pearce, Katie Holmes and up-and-coming child star Bailee Madison.
Ironically, it was del Toro’s own childhood fears stemming from a 1973 TV movie of the same name that led to his remake decades later. “It had a cult status through the years,” he explains, “and it was one of the scariest TV movies ever made. It left such an impression on me that I sought and got the rights in the nineties and wrote this movie with Matthew Robbins 13 years ago. It has some of the same plot devices, but an entirely new story.”
In the new version, Madison stars as Sally, who is unceremoniously dumped with her father Alex Hurst (Pierce) who’s more interested in his current girlfriend Kim (Holmes) and turning Blackwood Manor into an architectural showpiece to worry about a daughter hanging around. Left to her own devices, Sally soon discovers an ancient race of creatures living in the blocked-up cellar but when the true nature of the evil homunculi is revealed, Sally finds first herself being hunted and terrorized by the tiny beasts.
Although del Toro’s remake quickly found its way to Miramax, the script went through more than a decade of development hell before getting green-lit. “It went through a number of permutations,” he recalls. “They had the creatures flying, they kidnapped women and impregnated them, they were six feet tall, they were vampires; they went in some completely different directions before we went back to the original draft that I wanted to do from the start.”
Although the script was originally written for del Toro to direct, he ultimately decided to produce it instead, offering the job to former comic book artist-turned-filmmaker Troy Nixey. “He instilled a confidence in me right from the beginning,” claims Nixey whose short film Latchkey’s Lament had impressed del Toro enough to hand over the project. “You really need that confidence to be able to say, ‘Okay, I need to feel that he has my back!’ Guillermo always said, ‘I’ll be there when you need me and I won’t when you don’t,’ but of course he’s Guillermo del Toro with this massive imagination; of course I’m going to pick his brain.
“With the creature design for example, I was working with Chet Zar and Keith Thompson, but Guillermo was always there saying, ‘What do you guys think about this?’ instead of ‘This is what I want you guys to do!’ It was such an amazing opportunity to have someone who you admire as much as I do, to give you the thumbs-up on a piece of material that meant so much to him, and to be able to go off and make the movie that he once to make himself.”
Nixey was able to assemble a top-notch cast for the 12-week shoot in Melbourne Australia, starting with Guy Pearce, who found the script intriguing on a number of levels. “For one thing, I don’t have any children of my own,” Pearce relates, “but here I was playing this character who suddenly has a child, so that in itself was not easy.
“One of the other issues for the character is it’s a difficult time in his life where’s he trying to restore this house in order to save his job and progress as an architect. It’s a precarious time for him, coupled with the fact that this kid is suggesting all sort of things that are hard to believe. I suppose I would be sceptical if somebody told me there were little creatures in the house that I was supposed to be fearful of.
“Even though my character doesn’t see the little creatures and Sally can, in reality they were installed later via the magic of CGI and visual effects. So as I was concerned, in playing that character, I was really just playing a reluctant father who thought maybe his daughter was so troubled that she’s just making this stuff up. That was as much as my character was prepared to give leeway to, because of all the things I just mentioned, like having a tough time, etc. So it was an interesting experience.”
The role of Kim went to Katie Holmes, who had seen Nixey’s Latchkey’s Lament and responded to the script for ‘Dark.’ “I love the relationship between Kim and the bonding that occurs,” declares the actress. “It’s really about two human beings who recognize something of themselves in each other and that shared relationship that turns into something very special and powerful and Kim has to learn not only to listen but to bring this little girl into her life and make her feel safe and then do the ultimate act of generosity.”
Rounding out the cast was 10 year-old Bailee Madison as Sally. By the time Madison came in to audition, Nixey had already seen hundreds of young actresses, but quickly realized that he had just found his Sally. “It was definitely a new experience for me,” says Madison, whose CV already lists more than two dozen credits. “I was just jumping into a scary film genre, so when I found that they were all going to be CGI, I really had to focus on what the characters would look like and ask the questions. I needed to ask Troy or Guillermo, ‘What are you guys thinking about for the character? Is it hairy? Does it have teeth?’ so I could get an image in my mind. It was important for me to be Sally and really portray her as we all see her.”
And after many long months of waiting for Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to make its way to the big screen, movie-goers will finally be able to see Sally her too. “It was a very rocky road,” concedes del Toro, “and an even more difficult movie to get to release. Miramax literally changed hands to three different owners before the movie could be released, but I still feel we achieved what we wanted with it.”
“I’ve been pretty open about what it meant during that long period during the upheaval of Miramax,” adds Nixey, “but when the new regime came in, they really loved the movie and they’ve teamed up with Film District, who has been just incredible.” The director is pleased by the critical reception of the film, despite the issues behind the scenes. “There’s a lot of positive buzz, so I’m very happy about that.”