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About The Production

A horse-drawn carriage rolls down an unlit road, hurrying past a wrought-iron gate that bears the name "Blackwood.” Inside, a nervous-

The maid descends from the burnished interiors of the main building to the dank and dungeon-like basement into which Blackwood has of late disappeared. She treads tentatively down the stone steps as Blackwood beckons—a little too reassuringly—from the shadows. She may be wondering about the strange way he speaks when her foot catches the metal tripwire. Her body flies through the air then lands with a sickening THUD: an unconscious pile of bones splayed out at the foot of the stairs

As Blackwood emerges from the dark into the flickering light of an oil lamp, we see that he has recently extracted all of his own teeth! "Precious teef, bee-yoo-tee-ful teef,” he mutters while smacking his bloody gums. There's a desperate glint in his eye as he hovers over the maid's limp body, manically reassuring himself, "If I want to see my child again, I must comply.” He positions a rusty chisel into the maid's open mouth and raises a hammer above his head. CRUNCH.

Blackwood drops the maid's teeth onto a metal dish. They make a musical clinging sound as they fall. He then scampers over to the stone-and-iron ash pit and places the dish on the inside lip, as if it were a strange meal or a sacrificial offering in an obscure religious rite.

Scratchy, angry voices start clawing out of the darkness, unsatisfied with the fruits of Blackwood's violent labor. The voices want more teeth. They want children's teeth. Blackwood protests. He begs to speak with his son so he knows the boy is alright. The voices have now lost their patience. Myriads of tiny creatures run out of the dark wrapping themselves around Blackwood's limbs. They drag him, kicking and screaming, into the inky underground depths from which he will never return.

In the Beginning

Seemingly simple, built out of images and ideas that at first glance look familiar, this brief opening sequence has a creepy effectiveness that's hard to place. It burrows into the back of your mind and puts down roots, branching out into your consciousness long after the credits roll—which is to say, it does exactly what audience have come to expect from a picture written by Guillermo del Toro.

Set a hundred-plus years before the main storyline begins, the opening scene stands on its own as a perfectly calibrated horror sequence. The trappings are elegantly executed, from the lovingly selected period details in the Gothic mansion to the stately, gliding camerawork that follows the maid's descent into the proverbial don't-go-in-there deathtrap. The assured tempo, atmosphere and ambience sink their hooks into our most primal human drives and draw us, irresistibly, down the basement steps of our own fears.

The characterization of Blackwood is fluent with the iconic figures of horror: the mad scientist in need of dead bodies; the sadistic aristocrat torturing his servants; the pitiably deranged madman lurking in the corners of his cell, prophesying an obscure and terrible truth in his ramblings. The character details are evocatively specific—it's hard, for instance, to forget the sound of his toothless line delivery—and pleasurably subvert the expectations that the audience brings to the role. We begin the scene aligned with the maid, fully identifying with her, yet we quickly come to sympathize with the "villain” of this scene, who unexpectedly—and quite seamlessly—becomes its tragic antihero.

Unfolding like a dark children's fable or a campfire horror story, the effortless simplicity of this opening sequence is an effect of its seamless craft and ruthless economy. It not only provides backstory for the present-day narrative and sets up the central space of the basement. It also expertly establishes the film's style (a burnished classicism that climaxes with a payoff of special effects); its tone (elegantly mannered, with moments of whimsy and an undercurrent of melancholy); its pacing (fiendishly measured doses of dread spiked with occasional shock effects); and its themes (the lost child, the workaholic father who loves the child but somehow lets him slip away, the dark emptiness at the heart of a home that threatens to swallow people up). It delivers eerie atmospherics and steadily escalating, unexpectedly jolting suspense. And it uses the Horror genre to express emotions beyond mere fright. There's a mournfulness to Blackwood's situation that lingers on long after the screams of terror have turned to nervous laughter and petered out. There's an ever so subtle suggestion of something darker and more desolate, a fear that goes beyond a mere jump scare--one that leaves the adults in the theater as unsettled as the children.

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 del Toro's writing partner Matthew Robbins.

So it's no surprise that 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 upwards of 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.”


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