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Note: This story contains adult language.
A little girl did a military-style crawl under her bed sheets with a flashlight clutched to her chest.
Everyone in Hall H at Comic-Con International in San Diego knew something was about to happen. It didn’t matter, though: The second a creature burst into the camera, the audience jumped.
“What the fuck was that? I shit my pants!” Guillermo del Toro, producer/co-writer of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” joked as nervous laughter filled the room.
“I was a very young kid when I saw the original movie,” del Toro told the still slightly stunned crowd. “This was the golden age of TV horror – this movie came out of left field. For many years it was the scariest movie I ever saw. My brothers and I used to taunt each other by saying ‘Sal-lllly …’”
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is the tale of a little girl (Bailee Madison) who is sent to live with her father (Guy Pearce) and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes) in the old mansion they are renovating, only to unleash malevolent creatures that want to destroy them.
Del Toro said he tried to find the original 1973 made-for-TV movie but couldn’t track it down anywhere. After years of looking, he found it and obtained the rights. He wrote the script between 1997 and 1998, calling the experience “a long journey.”
“We wanted to make it with a classy production, but to have freedom,” del Toro said. “We didn’t want the studio to be able to tell us to change it. It took us a long time to find all that.
“I wanted to make it more contemporary, but don’t touch what worked. What worked is it is a hard-hitting, scary fucking movie — the ending hits you like a motherfucker!” del Toro proudly proclaimed. “By the way, if there are the kids in here, you’re too late, you should leave. The ‘Sesame Street’ word of the day is motherfucker!”
Del Toro was joined on stage by director Troy Nixey, whose name may be familiar from his work as a comic book artist. Nixey told how he got hooked up with del Toro – a veritable fairy tale itself.
“I feel like the luckiest guy in the room, starting in comics in 1990, loving telling stories, and just working on that, but always having the desire to make movies,” Nixey said. “It wasn’t until 2000 that I had the opportunity [with] ‘Latchkey’s Lament.’ Guillermo saw it. It’s your dream for him to see it, to give you a call and ask you to make a film with him. He’s one of my favorite directors.”
It was at this time that del Toro encouraged anyone in the crowd with a short film or artwork to share it with him.
“Let me tell you this: I’ll be on the floor a couple days, I cannot read screenplays, but if you have a short, or some art, fucking give it to me,” he said, evoking applause. “Seriously, if you see me on the floor, accost me with that, I beg you.” He then told audience members they could also email samples to him at Abe_Sapien@hotmail.com.
Del Toro said that their goal with “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” was to honor the original.
“We’re not fucking chickening out, we’re doing it all the way,” he said. “Originally we thought we could make it PG-13 without taking away the scares; no sex, no swearing. The MPAA came back and gave us what I consider an honor, they gave us an R for ‘pervasive scariness.’ We said, ‘Is there anything that can be done?’ and they said, ‘Why ruin a perfectly scary movie?’
“So the studio backed us up. It’s like a pirate-fucking-ship, the more ‘Arrr!’ the better,” del Toro joked. “Horror movies need to have balls. And they need to be scary and wrinkled.”
Not wanting the crowd to get too comfortable in their seats, del Toro asked for another scene to be shown.
“This is the first thing I wrote, and I really think you’re going to like it,” del Toro said. “So let’s fucking show it!”
The clip was introduced as the prologue to the film. It takes place in 1910, and focuses on an old manor, a young maid and the owner. The maid hears strange noises, and walks down a steep staircase to the basement with only a candle lighting the way. She is intentionally tripped and seriously injures herself. The creepy old owner of the manor then excitedly lurks over her. He takes a small tool, inserts it into the maid’s mouth, and apologizes for what he is about to do. He then begins smashing her teeth out as the camera looks away. As he does this, he opens his own mouth, revealing that all his teeth have been recently pulled.
He takes a handful of teeth to the ash pit – or an incinerator or fireplace – and calls out that he has young teeth, and wants his children back in exchange. Unseen creatures respond that the teeth are too old, and as the camera looks away, the old man is ravaged by the creatures.
Once again, the temperature of Hall H was just a bit hotter than it was only a few minutes earlier.
“The thing that we did was we prepared the movie very well,” del Toro said. “Troy is an artist so he knows how to combine colors, textures and shadows. … Troy added some humor, more than I would, but the movie is serious as a fucking case of gonorrhea.”
The panel was then opened up to questions from the audience. One fan asked if del Toro thought horror on television could make a comeback.
“Any material that can be done on TV that takes horror and does it respectfully? There’s nothing like that,” del Toro said.
“I’m really excited to see how ‘The Walking Dead’ does,” Nixey added. “If that’s successful – and it looks like it will be – they’ll want more horror on TV.”
Nixey was asked if he saw any of his comics being turned into animated films. Nixey said that “Scary Mary” was moving that way now.
“I was the kid who got up early with a bowl of cereal to watch Bugs Bunny,” Nixey said. “I would love to take the image you’re talking about and translate it to animation, absolutely.”
Del Toro was asked whether it was difficult for him to make a movie that had already been made.
“I think remaking, if it comes from a place that is creative, some of the best horror films are remakes – ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ is a remake if you look at it like that,” del Toro said. “If the remake comes from a marketing decision, that’s fucked up. [But] it can be Batman by Christopher Nolan, then God bless him.”
Del Toro concluded the panel mentioning he was also working on a stop-motion animation Pinocchio film, as well as another horror film that he’ll begin shooting in May 2011.
“For me, what I love is to create a horror film that feeds the imagination, and to let you not have as much dreams but nightmares,” he said. “I hope to give you a shiver or a good scare.”
“Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” opens on Jan. 21, 2011.