I'm spending the bank holiday weekend at The Empire Leicester Square for Frightfest. If all goes to plan, I'll be filing on each of the films that I get to see across the entire schedule, and unlike so many of the other press pass holders I'm not going to be popping in just for the big studio films and much-hyped buzz pictures.
A really great thing about festivals like this is that they afford a chance to see films on the big screen you may only otherwise get to see on the small. And if I've learned anything from my years at Frightfest and other festivals of this kind, it's that some of the best movies will be hiding where the spotlights aren't shining.
We'll start by talking about a big picture though, simply because it was the first film on the first night of the festival – Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
It's almost as though films produced by Guillermo Del Toro are forming some kind of sub genre. Consider The Orphanage, Julia's Eyes and now Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. I suppose it shows that Del Toro has taste, and definable taste at that.
Each of these films is by a director early in their career; each revolves around old horror tropes, even classical ones; each is a kind of spook show depending on shadows, hidden secrets and sudden jumps.
And each one is, at least, pretty well-made.
Dark is a remake of a TV movie from the early 70s. Del Toro optioned it for a remake in the 90s, and co-wrote, with Matthew Robbins, the first draft of the script some thirteen years ago.
The director finally chosen to realise the screenplay was Troy Nixey, hereine making his feature debut. His work here shows confidence and intelligence, and a wealth of promise. Del Toro has again given a leg up to a deserving talent.
Unlike The Orphanage and Julia's Eyes, this Del Toro production is in the English language. It also comes with Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes, stars that will be well known to audiences in America, if not to most of the world's cinemagoers. It stands a real chance of being a break out hit.
While they're the names, Pearce and Holmes are just supporting players, however, and the protagonist is young Sally, as played by the quite remarkable Bailee Madison.
And amongst the remarks she'd warrant would be some on how… unusual she is. It's hard to put my finger on quite how and why I find her so odd, but some of it, at least, is in her ability to clench up and become quite a fierce little fist. She's got a baby face, but it seems haunted by emotions beyond her years.
The basic shape of the story is pretty familiar. This is one of those tales in which a child is encountering supernatural danger – in this case, evil fairies – but it's presented in a way that echoes and underscores their real life anxieties and works as a metaphor for the stress and strain that they're undergoing – as well as working, straight up, as some spooky stuff that you wouldn't wish on any kid. I suppose Del Toro's own Pan's Labyrinth is one of those films, as is The Exorcist.
Dark is a good example of the type, however, and the "real life" anxieties of the young girl are dramatically compelling and well drafted.
Troy Nixey appears to feel a real imperative to keep the camera moving, but mainly with good purpose rather than just sending it on the prowl for novelty, and the numerous pieces of tracking coverage are cut together very well. There is, however, an inclination to darkened lighting set-ups that seems to place this entire story in a parallel universe one F stop below ours.
Even when characters turn on powerful lights, their effect is limited and the shadows remain wide and deep. Give the things-that-go-bump set up, this stylistic choice was an obvious one, but it's always problematic, and it can sometimes look horribly forced.
The particular type of evil fairy that Del Toro and Matthew Robbins have created here is going to be more familiar to folk from Del Toro's own Hellboy 2 than the original Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. I can't say I'd blame him for reusing the idea, however, as it is a good one.
For much of the film the fairies are hidden – either in darkness or off camera. We do get to see them, however, and even in close up. They are full CG creations and aren't too ugly or ridiculous, but they tend to be a more convincing threat when not seen.
An exception to this comes near the end of the film when one character is seen being dragged along by a group of the fairies. It's a wonderfully staged, unsettled sequence.
We're looking at real genre piece here, firmly set in a specific subgenre. As such, I think the Frightfest crowd, who celebrate the conventions of horror more readily (and, frankly, better) than any other group I've ever been in, were the perfect audience for the film.
Those who will embrace the film's position in the pantheon could adore it; at the same time, it will seem fresh, and frightening, to the wider audience, less schooled in the horror norms. I don't think anybody is going to be left quaking under their bed covers, but a good, safe jump or two and some engrossing character drama seem like a better result to me anyhow.