4 out of 5
Created by: BenDavid Grabinski, Ned Kandel, D.J. MacHale
It’s been a very long time since I’ve watched the original Are You Afraid of the Dark?, so this statement might not hold up upon a re-viewing, but I do believe it was occasionally pretty damn scary. That fledgling spark of an interest in horror grew into an obsession in later years, and certainly had me catching some Tales from the Crypt on HBO, as well as venturing in to the horror anthologies of film later on. The nature of anthologies (or of shows that feature one-off tales per episode) is such that they’re hit or miss, but excepting some entries in the last decade or so that have taken advantage of flexibility with what can be shown on the screen – i.e. some compilation style viewings have gotten quite inventive with the gore – a lot of these shows / movies tend to follow the Crypt trend of sort of winking at the viewer. Not scary, in other words. And when the horror is geared towards kids, there’s a tendency to include, like, morals or something; the recent Creeped Out has some great ideas but is guilty of this.
But I don’t remember being pandered to too often on Are You Afraid of the Dark?, and also trying to laugh off the spooks when an episode ended and it was time to shut off the lights and go to bed. And the 2019 revival, presented as a 3-part mini-series, would seem to exist in that same vein; I’m a grown man now, so I can shut off the lights without hesitation, but I was happily surprised with how freaky they were willing to go both conceptually and with the visuals on this, and how the writers very much kept the focus on storytelling instead of moralizing.
AYAotD 2019 backs into the concept by having new kid Rachel stumble across some cryptic messages at school, which she follows to a clandestine, midnight meeting – with masked participants! – in which she’s tasked with returning the following night with her scariest story. She does so, and is inundated into The Midnight Society… and then finds her story coming true the next day. Insert some damn fine visuals (and an absence of CGI gloss!) and willingness to actually let some legit stakes drag people off screen, and this revival proves to be a proud follower in (my memory of) the AYAotD tradition. Our core troupe of Midnight Society-ers are all pretty awesome, written as modern young teens but without all the “cool” additions a lot of teen focused shows feel required to add onto them, and their back and forth banter and personalities come across as well realized and believable. We dig spending time with them, which makes getting caught up in events that much easier.
Extended over three 45-ish minute episodes, the series admittedly spins its wheels a little bit in the middle, and because we sort of hear the same tale multiple times – the story Rachel tells, then witnessing it for real multiple times – it’s perhaps a step removed from the direct punch of a classic AYAotD tale, but this was also a super smart way to reintroduce the setup and concept to a new era. I hope the era responds positively, ushering in more specials or a new series….