As Guillermo del Toro recalls his childhood movie-theatre experiences, he insists that while he did get some scares in the cinema, some of the creepiest moments he had to endure happened at home, in front of the television. As he lists off some of the most terrifying films he can recall, they're a mix of big-screen entries ( The Innocents, The Haunting, Alien, Jaws) alongside TV series and movies ( The Night Stalker, Trilogy of Terror, Duel, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark). "There was a moment there where the made-for-TV horror movie was as good as it gets," del Toro argues.
Sitting in a posh downtown Toronto hotel, the Mexican filmmaker behind such memorable entries as Cronos (1993), The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006) is explaining the inspiration for his latest project (opening Friday), the eponymous remake of the 1973 made-for-TV movie Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a cult oddity about a house haunted by deranged little critters who can't stand the light.
Del Toro, who co-produced and co-wrote the new film, has taken the low-budget original and given it a lavish budget, a solid cast (Guy Pearce and Katie Holmes are the leads) and an ensemble of computer-generated monsters. Trouble begins when Pearce, who plays a soulless yuppie architect, moves into a sinister old mansion with his new girlfriend Holmes. His daughter (Bailee Madison) from a broken marriage moves in, only to find that some mysterious creatures are calling to her from beneath the fireplace, eager, it initially seems, to be her new friends.
Del Toro says the new film is about scaring the living daylights out of a new generation of children and the inner children of adult horror fans. He recalls that the smaller the monsters of his own childhood viewing were, the scarier they seemed. "I literally peed my pants watching an episode of [Rod Serling's TV series] Night Gallery, The Doll. It was about a possessed doll that came to haunt a family. I was afraid of little things. The doll in Trilogy of Terror that violently attacks Karen Black was also extremely frightening. In Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I was afraid of how little, but also how smart, the little [creatures] were."
Del Toro was 9 when he first caught Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, and it left an indelible mark. "In those days, you didn't have videos, so I spent years telling my friends about the movie, acting it out." But after getting his hands on a VHS bootleg copy a decade later, del Toro found that, "a lot of the stuff I'd remember I'd actually come up with in my mind. A lot of the stuff that I kept retelling my friends had been my own embellishments. In effect, I'd already started the process of adaptation."
After the early success of Cronos, del Toro arrived in America and worked to secure the remake rights to his obscure childhood favourite. And that led to what del Toro describes as the "extremely tortured process" of bringing the Don't Be Afraid reboot to the big screen. The project went through three different incarnations, and del Toro himself dropped out of the evolution for a while, washing his hands of it. He says producers wanted the ending to be less dark and to show more of the evil little creatures, moves he said would have effectively ruined the remake altogether.
Horror, he argues, is "one of the hardest genres to develop in Hollywood. … The biggest danger in any Hollywood production right now is when you get the note from the producer saying, 'I want to know the rules.' They don't understand that 90 per cent of the horror is the rules just being hinted at, but not explained. That was a big battle with this film. We got notes saying, "We don't know the rules. What can and can't the creatures do?" I said that the minute you start explaining that, you're killing them, you're making the ride too safe. You need to keep the horror unexplained."
Del Toro, who passed the directing duties on to newcomer Troy Nixey, says this remake required an especially delicate balancing act. He wanted to be true to the spirit of the original, but also knew most contemporary audiences see it as little more than dated and cheesy. "When I show the original movie to students now, they laugh. They find the monsters silly. I wanted to retell it, and with CGI, that can be done, very effectively. But we didn't design the monsters beyond recognition – the hairy bodies, the wrinkled faces, are still there. I'm still creeped out by the originals."
Del Toro notes with some bitterness that Don't Be Afraid of the Dark has been given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America, meaning fewer children will be able to attend, a demographic he was hoping to reach. (The MPAA's R rating admits children under 17 only if accompanied by a parent or adult guardian.)
"I think we live in very conservative times, where trash and popular entertainment have been delineated in a way that's not conducive to freedom. People accept the absolute vulgarity of reality TV, but you cannot recreate the most vulgar aspects of daily life in a genre film.
"That's a double standard, without a doubt."
Special to The Globe and Mail