Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2011): Del Toro’s Horror Film

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was released by FilmDistrict August 26, 2011

A Child’s Nightmare

From Cronos through The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has repeatedly explored the emotional landscapes and imaginative flights of childhood fantasy. “Guillermo has a habit of relating everything back to his boyhood,” observes his writing partner Matthew Robbins.

Thus, the origins of this project date back to a childhood screening of the made-for-TV movie upon which it is based. “For my generation it was the scariest TV movie we ever saw,” del Toro says. “It creeped out my whole family and it stayed on my mind.” With a mixture of playfulness and sadism that anticipates the themes of his future films, del Toro and his siblings used to terrify each other by whispering lines from Don’t Be Afraid at inopportune moments: “Saaaallllllyyyy.” Memories of this childhood enthusiasm dovetailed in del Toro’s mind with the macabre fascination he’s always had with the tooth fairy. “I’ve been obsessed with the tooth fairies since I was a kid. I wondered: Why do they want the teeth? Do they eat them; do they make little murals with them? What do they do with the teeth they have? I never got a satisfactory answer…” Here as in other screenplays, del Toro’s exploration of childhood feels less like a “theme” and more like a lived extension of his own childhood. This remake of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has, in a sense, been decades in the making.

When del Toro first arrived in America as the young director who’d helmed the masterful, mythopoetic Cronos, he immediately began searching for the rights to Dark, a process that took over four years. After getting the green-light, he co-wrote a screenplay with Robbins, heightening the macabre elements while refining the characterizations. Del Toro was particularly concerned with the main character in the original, Sally. “In the telemovie, Sally is an adult, played by Kim Darby. It’s a movie that very much deals with adult female characters in a retro, sort of pre-women’s lib way, so she was a mousy, mentally battered woman.  I didn’t like that, and I thought it would be nicer if Sally was a child.”

Seeing is Believing

But the script got lost in limbo, stuck in the pipeline of Miramax Films who held the rights to it for many years. With the post-Weinstein restructuring in 2005, del Toro decided to find out what had happened to it. “I was really hoping and praying that that screenplay would be left behind so I could take a stab at it. When it was apparent it had stayed at Disney and Miramax, I went immediately to Keri Putnam and Daniel Hassid [Miramax executives at the time] and asked them if they’d like to do it with me as a producer, and that we’d find a young director to helm it.”

Prior to making films, Troy Nixey was primarily a comic book artist, illustrating many significant and acclaimed works, including Batman titles with Mike Mignola, Neil Gaiman’s Only the End of the World Again, Matt Wagner’s Grendel: Black, White & Red and the critically acclaimed comic Trout. Del Toro, a comic book fan who has adapted graphic fiction and drawn on the medium’s visual idiom for his films, was a fan of Nixey’s work. “I loved the comic book he made with Mike Mignola, so I was following his steps on that.” Ditto Don’t be Afraid producer Mark Johnson, who had also seen Nixey’s short debut film, Latchkey’s Lament, at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. When Johnson sent a copy of Nixey’s film to del Toro, he instantly fell in love with it. Meeting with Nixey to discuss the project, del Toro was even more impressed. “I felt he understood the universe of the child quite, quite well, and he had a great knack for keeping things not the usual way.”

It was not only Nixey’s intuitive feel for childhood and engrained resistance to cliché that appealed to del Toro. Through Nixey’s years of working as an illustrator he had also honed an unmistakable visual flair. “He’s a wonderful visualist,” notes Johnson, “I think it’s partly just how his brain works and partly something he picked up in the comics game; that’s a visual medium, like film, or like how film is supposed to be.”


Home is Where the Horror Is

Nixey’s visual ingenuity confronted two challenges in Don’t Be Afraid. In the first part of the film, the terror resides mainly in what we don’t see: the creatures behind the whispering voices. Nixey focused on lighting and color, landscape and architecture to conjure a certain mood of dread where nothing in the frame could overtly be pinpointed as creepy. “We deliberately made the colors of the Blackwood mansion warm and inviting,” says Nixey, “lots of soft oranges and rich browns. We didn’t want it to feel like you had stepped into a creaky old haunted house the second you arrived. The idea of this is that outside is actually the safe place, but it’s a little cold, austere. We shot with gray skies, so it kind of forced the audience to make them want to go inside to this warm and inviting house, where of course you have the evils that happen there.”

Cinematographer Oliver Stapleton was on the same wavelength: “It just felt like the perfect way to shoot, because it is a horror film in a certain way, but it’s really a psychological drama.” He worked closely with Nixey to realize the concept of bluish or gray-scaled exterior and warm interiors, as well as the visual impact of light beaming through glass windows into the house and basement. The film was also shot to look dark, with nighttime scenes running grey to black instead of the brightly saturated blues that are often seen in the genre.

The little details that accumulate start to unsettle: the stuffed and mounted animal heads, the carved wooden doors, the cavernousness of the interiors which makes you feel smaller and more vulnerable. Many elements of the house were designed at a scale larger than normal, an old trick that dates back to classic Expressionist horror films. By using outsize scales and forced perspectives, Sally is made to look and feel even smaller as she walks down a long hallway or sits perched atop a giant bed.

The house itself was found on location about one hour north of the city of Melbourne.  However, production designer Roger Ford and his design team transformed the existing building from a 1930s mock Tudor residence to a Victorian mansion built in the late 1800s. “It’s a big house outside the town with lots of grounds around it,” says production designer Roger Ford. “We didn’t want to make it too creepy; we didn’t want the traditional haunted treatment, gothic house.” A few gothic touches used to authenticate the house include stained glass windows, gargoyle figures, and an unusual front door supposedly designed by the original owner Emerson Blackwood, played in the film by Garry McDonald. Ford continues: “This man, Emerson Blackwood, was a naturalist and an artist. He painted wildlife, studied nature, and he’d become quite a famous painter before his demise, so the front doors we had a bit of fun with. In fact ‘he’ has designed them with a tree motif and the stained glass goes into all the autumn leaf colors, in this case mostly maple.”

Despite the charms of the lusciously furnished mansion and the beautiful estate grounds, Troy Nixey’s favorite room was “definitely the basement. These old creepy brick places, like dungeons and cellars, I just adore. It’s a deep space that you have to descend to. We raised the stairs so you really feel like you’re coming down into something. You catch glimpses of things, like dark corners where creatures hide, but this giant ash pit fireplace right smack in the wall is the main feature. This thing is obviously much more ancient than the home, so there’s idea that Blackwood built this house around this ancient place, that he was almost unconsciously drawn to it. And this is reflected in the design of it, it’s almost like an open mouth if you look at it closely, there are ruins and carvings in the bricks, and cobwebs hanging off everything.”

These concerns dominated the first half of the film, setting the viewer up for a major transition in the second.  Del Toro was adamant that the homunculi, who at first are disembodied voices and fleeting suggestions, be substantially revealed.