Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
Release Date: October 10th, 1973 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: John Newland Actors: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, Barbara Anderson, William Demarest, Pedro Armendariz Jr., Lesley Woods
on’t Be Afraid of the Dark” has been obscure on video and DVD for decades and has only recently gained modest recognition with the release of Guillermo del Toro’s theatrical remake. Since the plot has promise, the gore is at a minimum, and the goblins are rather stiff and leathery, this ABC/Lorimar Productions television movie is actually a prime candidate for an update, especially considering its reputation as one of the best made-for-TV horror movies of all time. And indeed, it’s use of singular villains and atmospheric frights lend to a highly entertaining event.
A curious voiceover intro describes a family moving into a large house – odd because the conversing couple is present, just not in frame. It’s preceded by harsh, inhuman, hoarse voices pondering if someone will eventually return to the mansion. Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton) have just moved into the creepy old house left by her grandmother, and now prepare for a party at their new residence. Upon touring the interior, Sally comments on the quiet basement, a lightless room with shuttered windows and cemented, iron bars surrounding a bricked up fireplace that was closed off some 20 years prior. The crotchety handyman Mr. Harris (William Demarest) won’t open it up and strongly advises against doing so; he knows something about it, something dangerous, but won’t divulge any details. Stricken with curiosity, Sally pries the grill away from the fireplace and unwittingly releases a horde of tiny, vengeful creatures, intent on taking her away with them into a hellish, otherworldly nightmare.
The majority of the movie is dark and ill lit, including the dinner party scene, cleverly explained as Mr. Farnham trying to prevent his guests from spying unfinished sections of the house. Disquieting things begin to occur in the abundant shadows, including a smashed ashtray that can’t be blamed on mice and mysterious, shrouded, heavily wrinkled little monsters taunting Sally from behind walls, curtains, and in cupboards. One of the most terrifying scenes involves the dropping of a steely straight razor, destined to be snatched up by a critter for later use. Alex’s understandable disbelief provides a strong source of realism, as he continuously doubts Sally’s wild accusations. Is her imagination working overtime, is she quickly going insane, is she being tormented by miniature bloodthirsty demons, or is she just upset that her husband is more concerned with an upcoming promotion than her happiness? Even if her good friend Joan (Barbara Anderson) believers her story of things that go bump in the night, will anyone else?
“We’ve got to get out of here. We’ve got to get out of here,” Sally drunkenly slurs, drugged by the mischievous, furry ne’er-do-wells. The dialogue is suggestive of genuinely eerie horror, and the screeching violin music is perfectly unnerving, adding to the frightening idea of evil gremlins trying to drag Sally’s spirit to the underworld. The scene transitions are tailored for television, the special effects and creature designs are noticeably outdated, and the acting is only mediocre. But the atmosphere is sharply crafted and the gravelly-voiced whispers are inspiringly chilling as they alternate between hypnotic beckoning and horrendous jeers. The imps are also unafraid to come out during the day, which creates endless possibilities for scares. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” is an impressive little thriller, full of uniquely unnerving notions, and a surefire bit of amusement for those flustered by monsters under the bed.
– Mike Massie