Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Bailee Madison and Guillermo del Toro
Bailee Madison and Guillermo del Toro © 2011 Miramax

In 1973, writer/producer Guillermo del Toro saw a television movie called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which he believes to be the scariest TV production ever made. Almost 40 years later, he has produced an updated version of this horror classic starring Katie Holmes, Guy Pearce, and 11-year-old Bailee Madison.

Architect Alex Hurst (Pearce) and his girlfriend Kim (Holmes) have just moved into Blackwood Manor, a mansion filled with ancient evil creatures who have lain buried in the basement for over a hundred years. When Alex’s daughter Sally (Madison) comes to visit him, the lonely young girl hears the creatures calling to her, promising to be her friend. But when she finally confronts them, the little girl realizes the danger she and her family are in, but nobody believes her.

Guillermo, how much did you change and update the original, or is it exactly like the first movie, shot for shot?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
The house during the day © 2011 Miramax

No, we changed the original, some of the creatures are completely different, the family dynamics are completely different. The other one was a grown-up woman, Kim Darby, playing an adult married woman that was almost pathological and passive.

The creatures were not fairies or had a magical origin at all. There was no adoptive family or any of those dynamics. It’s very different. What we did is preserve the landmark moments I remembered as a kid, but tried to create a lot of new ones.

A lot of the best scares in the new movie are completely new.

Given the influence that the original telefilm had on you as a kid, what do you remember from it that really stood out? Do you find that because it was something from your youth that you tended to remember things differently?

When I saw the movie again more than a decade later, it was very different than I remembered. A lot of the moments I thought I liked were not in the movie, things that you go, “I remember this shot,’ and it was not there. I had made them up.

So those things that I remembered fondly that were not real are in this movie.

What was it about Troy [Nixey] that made you feel comfortable with him directing this?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
The house during the day © 2011 Miramax

I liked his short film a lot, Latchkey’s Lament. I thought it was visually very whimsical, and I thought he had the right baroque, twisted sensibility in his drawing, as an artist, and I admire him as a draftsman, and I thought that was a good match.

Stylistically, the film looks a little bit like your movie, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Yeah, in a strange way, like the garden and the house is awesome. The house is completely palatial and looks more like my library than my movies. But I made it a point to allow Troy to design with as little or no input from me.

They were described in the screenplay, but they were described more in the style of the Natural History Museum in London, and he went with a completely, more whimsical, more fairy tale take on it.

Was it challenging to hire Katie Holmes, who’s always being chased by paparazzi?

It was actually remarkably uneventful. I don’t know if we were too far in Australia or what. We had paparazzi now and then. There was a really funny thing, because there was one piece of news reported [that said] ‘Fiery Explosion in Old Set Car with Katie Holmes In It.’

It was a day she was not even on the set, and the car stopped and a little smoke came out of the muffler. That was it.

But we didn’t have any problems. She was really surprisingly easy to access, low maintenance, so I don’t have many of those anecdotes.

Bailee Madison is amazing. Where did you find her?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Bailee Madison
Sally (Bailee Madison) © 2011 Miramax

We were doing casting, with a lot of girls reading, and then suddenly Natalie Portman recommended Bailee. She said, ‘I just did a movie called Brothers with this girl that is a fantastic actor, you should check her out.’ So we tested her.

She’s a little girl with the spirit of Winston Churchill in her. She’s a great diplomat; she’s like a state emissary. She’s very regal and very serious and poised; very serious about her craft. She’s a self-guiding missile.

Did you use motion capture for the creatures?

No, it’s all frame animation, because I believe motion capture has a very limited use, unless you are creating something as incredibly large as Avatar.

I think motion capture tends to have a linear effect, because you’re capturing every point of the movement, whereas in frame animation you can quicken, compress, and make more expressive movements in a different way.

What was it like relating the creatures to the actors when they’re not there?

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - Guillermo del Toro and Guy Pearce
Guillermo del Toro and Guy Pearce © 2011 Miramax

The two adult characters only interact with the creatures way at the end. It’s Bailee that interacts with them the most, so when it was time for her to interact, it was after she falls down the steps and they’re coming, and she’s dragged [by them].

It was a segment that we had prepared already. You could see an animated movie of what was going to be, so to speak.

What do you think it is that we like as an audience about being scared so much?

I think it’s socially proven in the same way that we like to laugh and watch a comedy, or go to a comedy club. It’s part of our social function. We seek entertainment that gives us stuff that we don’t get in large doses in normal life.

It’s the same reason why car rage occurs in highways, or streets, because you need an outlet for certain basic impulses, and I think horror gives you that.

Sometimes when you make a film like this, creepy things happen. Did anything creepy happen on this set?

Miramax [who was producing the movie] got sold, that was pretty creepy! No, we didn’t have stories of any strange things happening. The strangest thing in the movie was the catering; some choices of pancakes that were very terrifying!


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.