When hearing of this Are You Afraid of the Dark? reboot, I had my reservations. Especially after the apparent “development hell” it had been through. But I knew, being a fan of the original Nickelodeon series, that I would undoubtedly give the three-part miniseries a chance anyway. I’m like that with reboots–even the poor ones.
However, after finishing the first part, this was no longer just a reboot. It was canon. Unlike other reboots driven entirely by nostalgia, I didn’t keep watching merely out of obligation (like I did with Girl Meets World). No. I was hooked.
With nods to even the most obscure horror references it could make Joe Dante blush (the town where it takes place is named Argento, Oregon), this series pays homage by giving its young characters a passion for the genre.
The story–split into three acts–follows Rachel (Lyliana Wray), a new girl in town who keeps having this recurring nightmare where a man in a top hat is kidnapping kids under a traveling circus tent. It’s pretty creepy. Right away we know we’re in for something unhinged.
Rachel doesn’t have trouble finding friends at school, which makes sense. New kid adversity is so 1996. She meets Graham, played by Jeremy Ray Taylor (Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween), an oddball kid who never seems phased by the opinions of him from his peers. Graham is a horror-nut, and quickly realizes that Rachel shares his obsession too. He sneaks a peek at one of her drawings of “Mr. Tophat”, and digs it out of the trash to show to the popular cheerleader, Louise (Tamara Smart), and the artsy filmmaker, Akiko (Miya Cech).
Soon Rachel receives mysterious notes in her locker, quizzing her about different aspects of horror (e.g. What’s scarier: a vampire or a werewolf?). After replying to a series of questions from her anonymous source, she’s given strict instructions which lead her into the forest at midnight where a small circle of masked teenagers–Graham, Louise, Akiko, and Rachel’s neighbor-crush Gavin (Sam Ashe Arnold)–force her to tell a scary story in order to be granted access into their exclusive club: the Midnight Society.
She tells the story of Mr. Tophat and his circus that kidnaps children, erasing the memories of everyone in attendance. The club is impressed and has no choice to let Rachel in, but they soon realize that Mr. Tophat (Rafael Casal) and his circus may not just be a story after all. But if it’s real, why would Rachel know so much about it?
If you’re a fan of the original series, it’s likely the first act will be your favorite part, as it shows more behind the scenes of the Midnight Society. Much like the episode, The Tale of the Silver Sight, from the original series, this miniseries expands the world within the show beyond just the tale itself. And it brings the tale to the club in a very real way.
The 2nd and 3rd acts give an adequate follow up, story wise. The original series contained some truly dark and creepy moments, and this reboot is no different. Mr. Tophat abducts children and the reason behind his powers is the darkest of them all. Director Dean Israelite (Power Rangers) knows how to present the scenarios in ways that will frighten the viewer–especially any youngsters who may be watching as well.
Obviously, being a show aimed at kids, this new Are You Afraid of the Dark? isn’t without its issues.
Some of the dialogue, at least the during the more grounded moments and the “love story” aspects, is unrealistic. Certain lines have us thinking that no one talks like that. It’s made worse by the mostly-marginal child actors who aren’t great at handling the casual back-and-forth banter, giving us that quick-talking delivery that plagues many young performances these days.
Perhaps the biggest flaws in this series come within the 3rd act. The puzzle pieces aren’t all necessarily put back together (we never really figure out why Mr. Tophat is abducting children in the first place), and too much exposition at once makes the ending feel rushed and lazy, opening up some holes in the process. Though if the final act isn’t rushed, then you risk unraveling the mostly-airtight pacing of the entire story. The hastiness may be a necessary evil. The plot holes, however, are not.
But what makes me love this Are You Afraid of the Dark? reboot is how it gives hope to a hopeless nostalgic, like myself, that these reboots can actually be done right. It provides a template of sorts for future creatives to go by when trying to revamp something else from our childhood. This one works. Sure, it features some surprisingly great production value for a kids TV show, but the execution is good too. The Easter Eggs aren’t cheap and and the references to the original series don’t overwhelmingly get in the way of the task at hand. Reboots don’t just have to be directed at a new audience with merely pandering nods to the old. It can be aimed at both young and old(er), bridging that gap where something that’s entertaining can be just that. It’s what worked so well with our shows back then. So why not now?