Are You Afraid of the Dark? Review: A Reboot That Captures and Reimagines the Heart of the Original

When faced with the challenge of how to recreate a series that was comprised of dozens of disparate tales, Nickelodeon's new Are You Afraid of the Dark? cracked the code and found their answer: don't do that. What the new series does instead is find a way to tap into the heart and soul of what made the original '90s series so compelling to burgeoning horror fans, reimagine and remix those elements, and deliver an all-new experience whose inspirations are evident without merely following a proven formula. The premiere episode of the series is frightening, emotional, and speaks to the fans not only of its predecessor, but paves the way for a new generation of viewers.

Life isn't easy for Rachel Carpenter (Lyliana Wray), not only because she's the new kid in Argento, Oregon but also because she has recurring nightmares of the bizarre Mr. Tophat (Rafael Casal). When some of her fellow students notice how Rachel creatively channels her fear to conquer these visions, the outcast is presented with the chance of a lifetime to join The Midnight Society, who turn their biggest fears into their most powerful weapons.

The original series debuted in the wake of series like Tales from the Crypt, The Twilight Zone, and Tales from the Darkside, requiring very little in the realm of exposition to explain why a group of teens would gather in the woods every week to tell one another stories, or even requiring an overall narrative thread for these storytellers over the course of the series. With it being nearly three decades later, the minds behind this new endeavor knew how easy it would be to merely replicate that formula, with writer BenDavid Grabinski and director Dean Israelite not settling for putting in the bare minimum of effort and, instead, tapped into what enamored audiences all those years ago.

Throughout the '80s, the rise of VHS and cable networks offered young children glimpses of R-rated horror tales, often only being teased with these macabre stories while their ratings prevented young viewers from fully embracing things that were deemed "too scary" for them. Given the mature and sometimes disturbing subject matter, a young kid showing interest in monsters, murderers, and mayhem might be cause for alarm for some parents, resulting in those curious children being sheltered from confronting their fears or pursuing their interests, making them feel like weirdos for being more interested in Michael Myers than Mickey Mouse.

Are You Afraid of the DarK? not only offered these young fans a somewhat tamer experience, but also depicted how it's that interest in all things creepy that can be exactly what builds powerful friendships, as The Midnight Society convened each week to confess these terrifying tales to one another, forging their friendships in the flames of a campfire.

Grabinski and Israelite know the importance of these messages down to their bones, with every element of this new series capturing that. The Midnight Society doesn't necessarily portray these kids as outcasts, but instead communicates that these kids feel like outcasts, regardless of how others treat them. While one member internalizes those feelings of being bullied, another channels that creativity into making horror films, fully confident in their interests and reflecting how horror fans of all ages take pride in their passions, even if we regularly consume stories with demons and decapitations.

Far less than a recreation of the original series, this new approach feels more like "The Midnight Society: Origins," exploring the history of why kids would come together in the middle of the night to scare one another instead of going out to party. If the content of the series wasn't enough, it's evident that the lifeblood of the source material runs through the series, as Rachel's discovery of the opportunity to become such a storyteller is paired with the subtle ominous notes of the series' opening theme, which will surely send nostalgic chills down your spine. Additionally, the series isn't a complete departure from the source, as we do still get terrifying tales within the show's narrative.

The creative approach to the story allows Mr. Tophat to transcend multiple planes of existence in the show, becoming a larger-than-life character, thanks to the glee Casal is taking in bringing him to life. Mr. Tophat feels like the best thematic representation of the original series, in which villains had less than 20 minutes to convey how horrible they were, resulting in the character feeling like he was lifted straight out of a forgotten episode and dropped into this new series. The nature of being a ringmaster allows him to lean into his cartoonish nefariousness without ever feeling like he doesn't belong in this world. The young performers hold their own alongside Casal, all of which manage to be endearing without ever being annoying.

One realm in which the series surpasses the original is the horror DNA running throughout it. While much of the original series might be somewhat eerie, this new series delves into a frightening realm and rarely feels like a show meant only for kids. Adding to that, as if the locale of the series paying homage to Suspiria director Dario Argento wasn't enough, Rachel's last name pays tribute to Halloween director John Carpenter, while other horror icons like David Cronenberg, H.P. Lovecraft, and David Lynch all earn nods. The effectiveness of the storytelling already makes it quite evident that Grabinski knows his horror, yet it doesn't so much feel like these references were ways to wink at the audience, but they instead add another layer of enjoyment to the experience, with any adult viewer feeling like they're walking through a funhouse of their favorite films. If you're watching with a younger viewer, these moments allow you the opportunity to introduce them to some of the best names in the genre, bridging that generational gap.

With this new series consisting only of three hour-long episodes, it would have been a squandered opportunity to merely offer audiences a handful of spooky stories. Good news for viewers is we do get those signature tales, but so much more. Far from just an opportunity to cash in on the name, the new Are You Afraid of the Dark? respects and loves its audience, as they used to be that audience and know what a show like this means to them. No matter who the viewer might be, this series isn't so much a remake of the source material as much as it is an opportunity to remind viewers that, no matter what their familiarity might be with the original, being obsessed with horror does make you a little bit of a weirdo but, better yet, the world is full of plenty of us weirdos who are meant to stick together, pushing each other to confront our biggest fears and come out the other side that much stronger.

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Rating: 5 out of 5

Are You Afraid of the Dark? premieres on Nickelodeon on Friday, October 11th.