Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973): or, You Know What? Go Ahead and Be Afraid

There was a time—i.e., the 1970s—when making a TV movie was still in fact making a MOVIE. There was little competition for the big 3 networks—no cable, no 24-hour movie channels with original programming and subscription resources, no VCRs and certainly no DVDs. The networks were all-powerful, and they took their movie productions seriously. With their stables of TV stars and their mountains of advertising money (“Where else youse gonna do commercials, da noosepapah? Don’t make me laff. Radio? Hokay, now I’m laffin’.”), they were able to make films that in some cases were only slightly less polished than their theatrical counterparts. And ABC was arguably the king of the movie-a-week studios.

This power and prestige is visible in every frame of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a film which, though it probably benefits more than it should from its obscurity and the tender ages of its most rabid fans when it first aired (how hard was it to scare a tv-addicted 8-year-old in the 70s, honestly?), still manages to deliver an entertaining 75 minutes and do enough right to make fans of Tales from the Crypt sit up and say "Hey."

TV star Kim Darby plays Sally Farnham, a young-but-frumpy housewife whose husband Alex is a lawyer on the fast track to success and overwork. Before the first commercial break Sally and Alex have inherited Sally’s grandmother’s estate, a spacious and forbidding manor house that needs a lot of TLC to get livable—but hey, free house! They move in and quickly discover a mysterious locked room in the basement, which the crusty old carpenter Mr. Harris (William Demarest of TV’s My Three Sons fame) encourages them to leave as it is.

Before you can say “Button your pie-hole, old man!” Sally has scared up a key and entered the forbidden room. Inside she finds the windows nailed shut and painted black, but most intriguingly the stone fireplace in the center of the room has been bricked up and its ash compartment locked down with steel bolts! She asks Mr. Harris what it would take to make the fireplace usable again, but the old man betrays an intimate knowledge of how impossible it is (“That fireplace is bricked and mortared 4 blocks deep, and reinforced with steel bars!”), and refuses, again encouraging Sally to leave things as they are.

"Leave it to, Beaver! Don't you know Father Knows Best?"

Not to be dissuaded, Sally gets a wrench and opens the ash door to have a look. Sure enough, she can see that the fireplace is bricked up but good—but strangely, she also sees a very deep shaft going down into the earth, though the room they’re in is at the bottom floor of the house. Still, convinced that the carpenter is right and the expense would be prohibitive to reconfigure the fireplace, she shuts the ash door and leaves, without bothering to bolt it back.

Why do they never re-bolt the forbidden doorways, huh? WHY WHY WHY?

Before you can say “Sorry old bean, you were quite in the right about that whole locked-room thing,” Sally is hearing whispering voices and seeing shadows out of the corners of her eyes. Her husband is singularly unsupportive, sure she’s “imagining things” or worse, trying to sabotage his career! ("You just hate that I'm making loads of money for you, don't you? DON'T YOU?") It comes to a head at a dinner for his law partners when Sally sees a deformed face peering back at her from under the table and starts screaming (like you do), ruining the party and making a very bad impression.

Alex has had enough--they’ll sell the house and move out...but only after he gets back from an overnight trip to San Francisco, leaving the distraught and possibly insane Sally alone in the house for a night. Timing! Timing!

Awww, who's a wittle winkly waisin man, huh?

Well, no prizes for guessing that Sally’s not crazy, and the little shrivel-faced demons who live in the fireplace are now running free about the house, trying to get her alone so they can murder her in her sleep! (Sally overhears them whispering their plans--secrecy is not a demonic strong point, apparently.) Even worse, whoever freed them from their prison must surrender his or her soul and become one of them, whatever they are, and join them in the pit beneath the house, whatever THAT is. Left alone for the night and thought crazy by everyone but the curmudgeonly Mr. Harris, can Sally survive a night alone in the house with her tiny tormentors?

Like I said earlier, this is a TV movie that eats like a real movie. The set is very nice, established in the first scene by many shots of the interior of the deserted, cavernous mansion while Alex and Sally argue in voice-over about whether to move in or not. At first I took this as clumsy exposition, but soon I came to appreciate the technique as setting the mood in quick, broad brushstrokes—by showing us the empty house and its many rooms, we get a sense of how isolated Sally is once she’s there alone.

Kim Darby does a great job as Sally, looking very vulnerable and frumpy compared to her handsome, confident husband. The script is good too, with the tension between Sally and her husband well drawn and believable. I even think there’s some sexual subtext about Sally being unhappy with the physical side of the relationship (she tells her husband that perhaps after he gets his promotion, he’ll be able to devote more time to her, and that he’ll “have more energy when [he’s] at home”--nudge nudge, wink wink, SAY NO MOOAH!). Of course her frumpy, un-made-up looks and sack-like nightgowns seem to underscore this problem in the relationship, if my theory is correct.

I also find it significant that late in the movie, when a half-conscious (thanks to sleeping pills) Sally is being dragged down to the forbidden room by the little men via a cord tied around her ankles, her short robe (first time we’ve seen anything on her less than mid-calf length) rides up over her thighs and she moans very suggestively with each tug of the cord, twisting her head back and forth and knitting her brow. Ooer missus! Add to that the locked room, the shaft of the fireplace (which manages to be simultaneously phallic AND vaginal), which when opened lets out horrifying, animalistic urges, and I’m paging Dr. Freud. Sometimes a banana is just a banana, but sometimes it's a giant throbbing cock.

"Oh my God, Vicar! It's HUGE!"

The real star is the cinematography and visual direction, though—lots of great use of shadows, center-lit set-pieces edged in darkness (the dinner scene is an especially good example of this), and for the first half hour, the shadowy motions of the unseen creatures, disappearing after just a glimpse. These things build up the feelings of dread and suspense very effectively, and make the movie tick.

Unfortunately once the creatures come out into the light, they’re a little silly looking—a cross between a low-rent Outer Limits alien and the California Raisins. The shots of the heavily made-up actors interacting with giant props don’t do the movie any favors, either. I have to say—if any movie could benefit from a well-done remake (and new creature design, or at least directorial decision to leave the creatures in shadow), this is definitely one. Still, once you swallow their b-movie looks, the drama and mystery is all there and pumping. The plot leaves the creatures’ origins and motivations largely unexplained (I call them demons, but there’s nothing in the flick to suggest they come from hell necessarily--they could be L. Frank Baumian subterranean Nomes for all we know), but it still manages to chill here and there, and the come-back-round-to-the-beginning ending ties it up in a nice Tales from the Crypt-ish package.

Overall I’m not sure whether Don't Be Afraid of the Dark deserves its legendary cult status on its own merits, but coupled with nostalgia it’s hard to argue with its effectiveness, and you can totally see how a young kid would be terrorized by visions of the little men living behind the walls, in the shadows, just waiting for you to go to sleep. For tapping into such a great area of childhood fear, and for its production values and performances, I give the flick 2.25 thumbs. Well worth checking out.

Bonus—the opening scene, in which we hear the creatures whispering and laughing about the new owners about to arrive (voice-over on the darkened exterior of the house) is so dead-on EXACTLY like the audio opening of rocker King Diamond’s horror concept album "Them," I’d be absolutely SHOCKED if King is not a fan of this movie and was referencing it specifically with that audio scene. King’s album is probably scarier than this movie, but still, if it inspired "Them," then the flick is all the more worthy of praise.


kindertrauma said...

"Sometimes a banana is just a banana, but sometimes it's a giant throbbing cock."

That really is the Best.Sentence.EVER!

I always suspected there was some hanky-panky going on in that fireplace with Sally and those California Raisin monsters... after all, she does bring a camera.

-- aunt john

Karswell said...

> sack-like nightgowns

Ha ha, that sent soda shooting out my nose! I always thought the creatures were inspired by Prune Face from the Dick Tracy comics but yeah, this movie was one often talked about in grade school recess... I remember one girl in particular who actually threw all her dolls away after seeing this. I was 6 when it originally aired and saw it many more times repeated on the late late show through to the 80's, and it always seemed to scare the hell out of everyone nicely. For a made for TV movie it's no definitely Salem's Lot, Spectre, or A Cold Night's Death, but it's snug as a bug in a rug there in my memories (next to Horror At 37,000 Feet, The Bermuda Depths, and The Dead Don't Die) and still quite special to many of us.

The Vicar of VHS said...

>>I always thought the creatures were inspired by Prune Face from the Dick Tracy comics

Only YOU, Karswell! Oh, and maybe Pappy...

I don't see why ABC don't toss all these made-for-TV horrors on DVD, a cool box set or singles, even barebones. The interest is there, and they'd make a mint. I mean hell, they put out a collection of "After School Specials" (in cool Trapper Keeper packaging!) and WAY more people want this and some of those others you name.

The one I'm still looking for is "This House Possessed," which traumatized my younger brother so badly he would stand crying outside the bathroom anytime one of the rest of the family was taking a shower, terrified that the water would turn to blood and the mirror explode on us.

I want to give it to him for Christmas. :)

Vince Liaguno said...

This brings back memories. Terrific little film considering the time period and production values - and the fact that it aired on TV. Right up there for me with Gargoyles in the fuzzy realm of childhood nostalgia.

Your comments about the sexual subtext of the film (yeah, the banana comment ranks right up there with the best...) are actually rather interesting and add a whole new layer to any analysis of the film. Consider the time period this was shot during...coming off the sexual revolution of the hippie movement in the 60's and morphing into the sexual liberation and women's movements of the 70's (Kindly leave your car keys in the fishbowl, good swinging neighbors!)...and the film definitely seems to carry some serious sexual and cultural undertones.

"Sally...we're coming for you, Sally." Goosebumps every time!

Anonymous said...

Great little horror film . I only wish there had been more seedy goings on as the demons got Sally to come and join their cult . Instead of dragging her down to the cavern couldn't they have got her dress and knickers down first for some hot demon initiation in the cellar.

Kathy Kark

Pearl said...

I watched this with my mother when I was twelve; along with "Trilogy of Terror" this was one of the best TV horror films of the seventies.

darla said...

i havnt seen or thought about this movie in years, but then today i came across the entity on my netflix and watched it and started thinking of other old horror movies i loved then it hit me dont be afraid of the dark i just loved this movie i was 11 12 when i saw it and would love to see it again so i foun d a site where i can buy it on dvd will be here in 4 to 6 weeks can not wait to experience this great film again and am looking forward to the remake coming out next year

Disney Dork said...

I don't know if you know this, but a remake of this film is being released soon...its being produced by Guillermo del looks like a good remake...if anyone could make this movie better its del Toro!

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