October 14, 2008

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, my mom told me how she was a young mother at home one evening with two small children (I would have been just shy of 5, and my little brother was about 8 months). My father was the town’s high school wrestling coach, and he was on the road at an away match.

So after my mom put my brother and me to bed that night – October 10, 1973, if the IMDb is correct – she sat down and watched the TV movie Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. And to have her tell it, it terrified her to the bone.

Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton) inherit an old mansion from Sally’s grandmother. Sally is determined to know why the fireplace is sealed up and its ash door bolted shut. In fact, handyman Mr. Harris (William Demarest) seems to know more about the fireplace than he’s letting on. Turns out it’s inhabited by small demon-like creatures determined to make Sally one of their own.


Director John Newland does an effective job of making the tall, Victorian house as much of a character as the Furnhams and the creatures. (It even resembles a haunted house when shot from below or at night.) He also makes great use of the unseen, such as close-ups of bolts and doorknobs being turned from the other side, or shadows scurrying into corners.

The creatures are more odd-looking than scary; they resemble miniature gorillas with prunes for heads. But what they lack in visual scariness they make up for ten-fold with their voices. Their hissing, cackling, overlapping whispers will give you the shivers – especially when it’s their disembodied whispers playing over shots of darkened rooms in the house. Add the creepy, atmospheric score by Billy Goldenberg, and the audio of this movie packs just as much of a punch as the visual.

A few quibbles:
• Darby’s delivery of dialogue and her facial expressions are largely one-dimensional (ironically, she’s now an acting teacher)
• In scenes not involving the creatures, the film sometimes dips into melodrama, with overacting by everyone involved
• Sally’s good friend Joan (Barbara Anderson) is a little too quick to believe Sally’s story about little creatures living in the house

In the right atmosphere (nighttime, lights out, you’re alone) Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark definitely has the power to give you the creeps – and give you second thoughts about walking into a dark room before turning on the light.

Trivia (thx again, IMDb): The idea of the creatures coming out of the ash door came from the Spanish house that screenwriter Nigel McKeand was living in at the time. It had an old fireplace with a deep clean-out pit, bolted at the rear – and it was so deep, creepy, and dark, nobody ever wanted the job of cleaning it out.


Will your kids want to watch it?
I don’t know how much interest kids of any age would have in a 35-year-old TV movie. But if you can convince them to give Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark a chance, I think most younger fans of scary movies would be glad they checked it out. I would probably draw the line at pre-teens or older for this film; despite it being a TV movie, it does have moments of terror, creepiness, and violence that could affect little minds.

Will your FilmMother like it?
As with any horror film, it again depends on your FilmMother’s taste for the genre. She could be freaked out by the film (like my actual mother), she might think it’s dated and silly, or she could have no interest whatsoever. It’s a tough call, one you’ll have to make yourself.

Photo courtesy of Kindertrauma

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

* Director: John Newland
* Screenwriter: Nigel McKeand
* Stars: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, Barbara Anderson, William Demarest
* MPAA Rating: N/A


Gemma said...

Hoooo boy! You brought me right back to that night. I still shiver when I think of some of the scenes in that movie!! I will have to borrow your copy and see if it still scares me silly! Great review, FilmFather.

Gemma said...

Tonight we watched the copy you gave me. Still scary, but not so much w. Dad watching it with me, and not having a 5 yr.old and a 10 mo. old sleeping upstairs while I was home alone. I still say the scariest movies are what you DON'T see!!! XO

Julie said...

I remember this. My mom was away somewhere and my dad watched it WITH me and my little sister. We BOTH had nightmares FOREVER... to this day we do not want to watch that movie.


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