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Turn back the clock and re-consider the simple, very effective, scares of the original DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)...
One of the few good things to come out of this remake/re-imagine rut we’re currently sludging our way through, is the well deserved notoriety that long forgotten gems receive. I’m hoping modern efforts spark an interest in the new generation who’ll track down films from yesteryear and respect them for what they were: the product of emotion and magic utilizing few resources and nary a stroke of digital engineering. I want moviegoers to take a step back and examine the state of modern made-for-television films. I want them to compare the craft of THE NORLISS TAPES (1973), BAD RONALD (1974) and SHATTERED INNOCENCE (1988) to that of their inexcusably laughable Giant CGI Creature Vs. Giant CGI Creaturecontemporaries. Then, I want them to yearn for the days gone by when mom, pop and the little monsters could cozy up on the couch, a heaping bowl of popcorn in hand and eyes glued to the ABC Movie of the Week (not their cell phones). Wishful thinking? Yea, you’re right. But at least I have an excuse to tell you about the best one hour and thirteen minutes the ol’ boob tube ever gave me. Now turn your lights off and DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK.
The film opens with an extreme close-up of a black cat’s golden eyes and razor smile while Billy Goldenberg‘s penetratingly eerie soundtrack pipes through your speakers. The feline gives its heartiest hiss as the shot fades to leaves rustling in the crisp night wind. We pan up a broken street light, over a few malformed, lifeless tree limbs and along a dark driveway. We slowly zoom into our final destination: a large, foreboding mansion from which inhuman-like whispers are audible. They cackle as we transition to the same building in daylight, implying we’re safe under the sun, but reminded we’re still helpless to stop the night.
With the setting established, we’re introduced to our two main characters. Sally Farnham (flawlessly portrayed by Kim Darby) and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton), who recently inherited an old mansion from Sally's deceased grandmother. They’re discussing a bricked-up fireplace in the basement den with the estate's handyman, Mr. Harris (William Demarest). He tells them Sally's grandmother had him seal it up after her grandfather died and that it’s simply best to leave things as is. Later that day, Sally, alone in the room, tries to remove the bricks herself. Unable to budge them, she attempts to pry open a small metal door originally used to empty ashes. Successful, she soon discovers the interior to be not that of a fireplace at all, but a dark, deep sub-basement. Several whispering voices are heard from inside, calling her by name.
The remainder of the film is composed of set pieces in which Sally, like a child, constantly sees and hears things in dark corners while she‘s alone. Her husband, acting like any parent would, belittles her claims, not believing a single word of it…That is, until it’s too late.
As a youth, for me horror films were played out in an adult world dealing with adult situations. I understood what was at stake but couldn’t completely identify with any of the protagonists, causing my fears to dwell not on the situation, but solely on the horrifying antagonists. This film showcases the plight of a grownup going through situations not unlike my own at the time. And when you can relate to a horror film, the terror doesn’t end once the TV is switched off!
Directed by John Newland (director and host of every episode of both ONE STEP BEYOND and THE NEXT STEP BEYOND as well as episodes of numerous other anthology series), this film premiered on ABC on Wednesday October 10, 1973 and would be shown numerous times in syndication for many years to come. We first crossed paths during one of those re-airs and although my hand was firmly planted over my eyes for two-thirds of the film, I made sure every light switch was in the “on” position and remember many a sleepless night following, coupled with complete avoidance of the household fireplace. “Could they really be in there?” I’d think to myself. And “Why hadn’t they come out for all these years?” I was soon convinced they were waiting for me to see that damned film before they came and took me away. They were just toying with me, laughing with glee as I helplessly watched a premonition of my own demise. The cocky little bastards.
Now, as an adult, I can happily reminisce about the pure, chilling fear this film instilled in me. But I’m also astonished to recognize a new metaphor for Sally’s plight, one that brings the horrors back into the real world again.
An early example of feminist horror, our lead’s only claim to fame, like her peers, is being married to a man with a bright future. But the fact that only she interacts with the little creatures sets her apart from everyone else. Instead of acceptance and comfort she’s further isolated, put in her place and constantly degraded by her husband for being unique and getting in the way of his success. But the rejection doesn’t end there. Practically every male in the film simply tells her how crazy she is, while the few female characters try to understand and relate to her. The verbal and mental abuse sustained becomes quite unsettling.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is currently available on DVD through Warner's Archive Collection. As such, the film is transferred to an “official” DVD-R as opposed to a standard DVD. The full frame transfer is cleaned up nicely and I’m willing to bet looks clearer now than it did upon its original broadcast. Fans of the modern notion that bigger, faster, flashier, high-octane horror is always better should do themselves a favor and take a trip back in time with this little gem to a time when simple was scarier.
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