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.
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!
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.
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.