Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Starring Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, William Demarest & Barbara Anderson, Written by Nigel McKeand, Directed by John Newland, Lorimar Productions, 1973
I must have been around nine when I saw this made for TV movie, and it scared the crap out of me. Originally released in October of 1973 just in time for Halloween, this short little shocker is legendary among those who’ve seen it. Go to Amazon and read the reviews. Nothing less than three stars.
For a long time I thought I was the only person who saw this movie and was terrified by it (to the point of needing the hall light on outside my bedroom for about the next two years), then I mentioned it to an older coworker who remembered it vividly. He could recall snippets of dialogue, the names of the two lead actors, their character names, the works. A short trip through online vendors revealed the film could be had for no less than twenty five bucks; library searches turned up a book from the Bear in the Big Blue House series. Other avenues – ahem, ahem – proved more productive.
From the opening title sequence, it is clear you are in 1970s territory with the funky typography, the generally orangey color saturation, and the maxed out soundtrack levels for the score. The story goes like this: Sally and Alex Farnham (Darby& Hutton) inherit Sally’s aunt’s rambling old mansion which turns out to be infested with creepy little creatures who live under the house. They want Sally from even before she arrives. Sensitive to light, they can only come out in the dark or under some kind of cover. Needless to say, no one else ever sees them.
The house itself is magnificent with a hallway that leads to a hallway that leads to an enormous master staircase down to the foyer. A full size in-ground pool lounges amidst a macked out patio area the size of most public pool areas. The master bedroom not only has a full-sized bath off of it, but a small sitting area within it, curtained off as its own separate room. The main sitting area downstairs is replete with sculptures and statues in glass cases. For only two residents, there is more than enough house, enough that anyone would be unsettled rattling around in such a space.
Intimations of the lurking evil are provided to Sally by the old caretaker of the place Mr. Harris (Demarest, My Three Sons’ Uncle Charlie) who explains that the fireplace in the locked study was bricked up by him on Sally’s aunt’s orders and likewise he bolted shut the ash door on the side. When pressed as to why, he will only reply that “Some things are better left as they are.” Admittedly, this is the kind of thing that wouldn’t satisfy anyone and only leads to more curiosity.
Taking a wrench out of Harris’ toolbox, Sally opens the ash door, shines a flashlight down into it, sees nothing, then closes it up. She locks the study again, but in a nice creepy touch, we later hear the creatures’ whispering, a piece of cardboard is shoved under the door, the key is pushed out of the old fashioned lock from the inside, landing down on the cardboard which is hauled back into the study. From there the terror starts as the little creatures begin whispering in the dark as Sally sleeps, knocking things to the floor, and tugging at her dress on the stairs. Later the little monsters pull Sally’s napkin off her lap to give her a scare at the big dinner party she and Alex host for his boss, causing her to stand and shriek. This scene is a little overwrought with the kind of goofy acting of terror popular at the time, just a sort of open mouthed howling, and we get out first glimpse of the monsters which proves less than frightening considering how film makeup and special effects have improved.
The second most terrifying scene, one that I remembered all too well, happens after the party. While Sally is taking her shower, a cabinet door opens and a small arm eases out, holding a wire coat hanger, and turns off the lights. Oddly, Sally doesn’t appear to react to this, then the monsters sneak out, one holding an open straight razor which they leave on the floor to scare her. At first one of the creatures wanted to cut her, but was overruled by the others.
Despite all of this, Sally’s husband Alex, and up-and-coming lawyer looking to make partner, refuses to believe anything is wrong with the house. Even though he didn’t want to move there in the first place and would have been far happier in a high rise apartment, he seems unwilling to leave the house, chalking everything up to Sally’s nerves. After the monsters trip Sally’s interior decorator on the stairs, sending him sprawling to his death, she grabs the cord they used and they jerk it through her hands, leaving a red weal along each palm. The sight of these wounds is enough to convince Sally’s friend Joan that something is going on, but it’s not enough to convince Alex.
After Sally takes some sleeping pills, Joan convinces Alex to go talk to Mr. Harris and learn the true story of the house. Eventually, he comes to believe that there is something malevolent about the property, but he doesn’t return in time to save Sally, who is bundled with cord and dragged down into the creatures’ lair. The final scene of Sally, her legs tied, her arms flailing in a drug induced stupor, her only weapon a flashbulb camera whose periodic bursts of light serve to momentarily startle the creatures, remained the most enduring of my nightmare images from the film.
Watched again as an adult, the movie fails to scare even my inner child quite the way it did back then. Certainly director Newland manages some unsettling atmosphere and a few moments of genuine creepiness, though the scenes where we actually glimpse the monsters prove less unsettling than the scenes where we merely hear their distorted voices and glimpse shadows moving through the film’s frequently dark cinematography. This is par for the course for most horror movies – that our imagined terrors are far more frightening than anything they can quite conjure up on the screen. For its time, however, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was truly a horrifying little flick whose influence lasted for years.
To be totally fair too, originally watched downstairs in a friend’s basement after eleven pm, the movie has to lose something when it’s watched on a portable DVD player on a train at 8am. With horror movies, the atmosphere surrounding the viewer lends itself remarkably well to augmenting the general vibe. On that score, I can say I didn’t give the film its due. One wishes often enough that other fears instilled from childhood could be as easily dismissed.