Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark, or Why I Love Warner Archive

After Bad Ronald last year, Warner Archives has struck another critical blow for classic, made-for-TV horror.  This time they've revitalized 1973's Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark, one of the few television terrors that can stand alongside Hollywood's big budget productions.  This isn't their first time releasing this title, but it is the film's HD debut, restored in 4k from the original camera negatives.  So, taking this as a pattern... prediction for Halloween 2020: a 4k restoration of 1977's The Possessed?
Anyway, Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark plays like a typical haunted house film in a lot of ways.  A couple moves into a new, somewhat ominous looking home.  Even after they crack open a mysteriously sealed metal fireplace hidden in the dark recesses of their basement, everything seems fine to the husband.  But the stay-at-home housewife keeps noticing unsettling little things.  Moved possessions, what sounds like whispering.  There's a lot of the ol' "I'm telling you, I'm not going out of my mind!" business.  But this time, instead of a vague, malevolent spirit floating about, there's a race of little "mini-demons" (as the back of the box describes them) conspiring against her, and there's nothing ethereal about the threat they pose.  I'd describe them more like goblins than demonic, though, with little prune-like heads and bearish fur suits.  It's colorfully composed, dark yet fun in an surprisingly endearing way that lame ass 2010 remake could never understand.
It's not that the remake was so terrible; there was even one scene I quite liked and thought would've been great in the original.  But it changes so much, making the story about a little girl in a gothic castle haunted by hairless CGI rats who eat human teeth.  And not to be that guy relentlessly banging the "practical effects > CGI" in 2019, but in the original, the creatures were a handful of tiny little people running around, using massively oversized tools with quirky personality.  Now they're a generic little horde of emaciated demon critters animated all over the frame.  It retains none of the charm of the original.  Instead of a remake nobody asked for, Del Toro should've just made his own thing full stop, which would've at least freed him up to really pursue his imaginative and develop his own ideas.  Instead, it's completely untrue to the original in spirit, but tied to the same rails so that when somebody like the handyman character is introduced, you say to yourself, well, he's the version of the guy from the original, so I know what's going to happen with him."  In other words, it misses the heart of the story, and sacrifices its power to surprise at the same time.  Not to mention, Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce had the combined chemistry and dynamism of a spilt bag of wheat germ.
After one or two budget, foreign releases, Warner Bros finally gave Don't Be Afraid Of the Dark a proper DVD release in 2009.  Well, proper apart from the fact that it was an MOD DVD-R, like everything in their Warner Archives series was at the time.  Still, it was a bit of a break-out success for them, so they reissued it in 2011 as a special edition.  Still a DVD-R, it at least had a remastered transfer and a brand new audio commentary.  But now, just in time for Halloween, Warner went back to the original negatives one last time to restore the film in 4k for their brand new HD blu-ray edition.  And yes, this time it's a properly pressed disc.
2011 DVR top; 2019 BD bottom.
Now, being their second pass on it, Warner's 2011 DVD wasn't too bad.  (By the way, if you're as curious as I was to how the 2009 DVD looks compared to the 2011 Special Edition, check out this excellent DVDTalk review.)  It's not interlaced, the colors were corrected, overly dark scenes were elucidated and fine detail was nice and clear for SD.  Of course, the boost to HD spruces it up even more, and cleans up that softening around the edges inherent to SD.  And as much as the colors were improved last time, they've really been given a shot in the arm this time around.  This is a film that always made great use of color in their production design, but we can appreciate it like never before on Warner's new blu.  If this film wasn't fullscreen (1.33 on both discs), you'd never guess this was shot for television.  Grain is still a bit light, which makes me wonder if Warners got nervous about fans reacting to a "grainy picture" and watered it down just a tad.  But it's there, and this film looks so clean and vibrant, it looks like it could've been shot yesterday.

In the audio dept., the original mono track's been bumped up to DTS-HD for the blu, which also adds optional English SDH subtitles (and yes, they include the little monster movies, too).
Besides a remaster, what made the 2011 DVD a special edition was the inclusion of a new, but rather disappointing, audio commentary by a writer from Dread Central, a writer from Fangoria and screenwriter Jeffrey Riddick.  Before you get too excited about that last credit, though, I have to point out while Riddick is a screenwriter for horror titles like Final Destination and Steve Miner's Day Of the Dead remake, he didn't have anything to do with this film.  It's a lively discussion, but a bit obnoxious with them cracking easy, unappreciative jokes at the film's expense (hey, look, they're wearing 70s clothes because this was shot in the 70s!).  While they do have some professional insight, and do have complimentary things to say as well; this plays a lot more of a casual fan commentary than a thoughtful, professional one.  Well, the new blu keeps that commentary, but it also adds a new one by TV movie historian Amanda Reyes.  While still fairly light-hearted, this is a far more satisfying, informative talk.  I'd still happily throw it all away for one, five minute interview clip with Kim Darby or anyone else who was actually a part of the production, but Warners has definitely added some more value to their package this second time around.
So horror fans, delight!  This film's a little treasure, and Warners going back to the original negative doesn't just make it look as good as it did on its first day.  Thanks to this being well shot and carefully preserved on 35mm film, it now looks far superior to how it ever could've appeared when it was originally broadcast.  How's that for a Halloween treat?

2 comments:

  1. An old favorite... with a subtext the remake completely ignored.
    I'll have to track down this disc.

    Hey, what's that banner image of the lady and the frozen plants from?

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    1. It's from Eric Rohmer's Perceval, an adaptation of an unfinished 12th century romance from the 70s. Quite a singular experience if you have the patience for blatantly artsy stuff. =)

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