Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Directed by: John Newland
Starring: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, Barbara Anderson, William Demarest, Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Lesley Woods, Robert Cleaves, Sterling Swanson
1/2 (out of 4)
Warning: Slight spoilers ahead.
When you are a kid, experiences from the era you grew up in imprint themselves into your brain. When you are older, you become nostalgic, even if it’s for things that look silly through the eyes of an adult. But that’s how it is with young, impressionable minds. I can only guess that something like this is going on with Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a TV horror movie from 1973 that has a 7/10 rating on IMDB. It must be all the grownups who got freaked out by it as kids and haven’t seen the film since. Watching it for the first time, I can’t see what the fuss is all about. Its monsters aren’t scary, they’re amusing; nothing of much interest happens during a running time that seems longer than it is; and the main characters are all idiots. Hmm, sounds like a typical TV movie.
Alex (Jim Hutton), successful and on the way up, is married to milquetoast Sally (Kim Darby), who has inherited a nice mansion from her grandparents, which also comes with their carpenter/handyman old Mr. Harris (William Demarest). Refusing to heed Harris’ warnings about the bolted up fireplace, Sally undoes the grate and releases little creatures with shriveled up faces and the bodies of ape costumes. They scare Sally at an important dinner for Alex’s business associates, they scare her in the bathroom, etc., but of course nobody believes her and Alex thinks she’s gone bonkers. Mr. Harris knows something – he’s even accosted by the little bastards down in the cellar – but refuses to offer any useful explanation, right up to the end. The creatures want Sally to be with them, for reasons that are never revealed except for the fact that she was the one who let them out in the first place. What they are, where they come from, or what connection they have to Sally’s family is never revealed either.
I suppose this wouldn’t matter much if there was some kind of subtext connecting the creatures to Sally’s marital problems (she feels neglected by her hubby who only cares about his career). But that angle is never developed (you’ll just have to wait for The Brood). There are other roads not taken – for example, you might expect a nod to Gulliver and Lilliput, but one never really comes, unless you count a scene where Sally’s feet are bound so she can be dragged around. There’s a sequence in the bathroom, where she comes out of the shower to find an abandoned razor on the floor. Would it have made more sense to question Sally’s state of mind if her husband walked in on her with a razor in her hand? Probably, but the film doesn’t make any use of that option either.
Then there’s the biggest problem – our cast of characters show no signs of intelligence or survival instincts. The critters turn off the bathroom light during a shower but Sally never even notices. She also never considers the idea that capturing one of these things might make her story more credible. The fireplace is more like a giant, unending pit, which seems to faze nobody, and not one person bothers to explore it for clues. (Well, OK, that’s probably for the best). Her friend Joan starts to believe her story, as does Alex, but they never consider removing a sedated Sally from the house, or even turning on the lights, for cryin out loud. When the power goes out, Joan leaves a defenseless Sally inside, and Alex even drives off to the handyman’s place to get some answers (he never gets them, anyway). The ending finds the mysterious creatures back where they started, waiting for somebody to release them again. But wait a minute – they’ve already been released. What are the writers trying to pull here?
The best thing to take away from Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is the spooky score by Billy Goldenberg, which strikes the right tone. There’s also a campy quality to it all, and some humor to be found in how old fashioned it is in its attitudes towards women. (Choice quotes: “I don’t care what woman’s lib tells me. The very mention of a mouse drives me crazy!”, “How does it feel to be married to a successful man?”, and “I’m the perfect woman. Stubborn and curious. Would you like some coffee?”) It still would have been better to give Kim Darby’s character a more fighting chance – why disable her with sleeping pills? She’s meek enough as it is! Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has recently been remade by Troy Nixey and Guillermo del Toro, and I, for one, have no problem with that whatsoever. If you’re looking for good TV horror, give Dark Night of the Scarecrow a try instead.
- Bill Gordon