Television movies were a far different beast in the 1970s than they are now. In fact, you don’t see the major networks wasting their time with them much anymore. But some 30 years ago, that was quite different. There were larger spaces to fill, not as many shows created, and the medium of the television movie was relatively new. So, filmmakers and producers were creating low budget fare–many times they were either human interest dramas or thrillers–for the t.v. screen.
Even Steven Spielberg got his start helming a few of these chillers, most notably Duel with Dennis Weaver. Tune in on a Sunday night on ABC and you could find Cornel Wilde fighting Gargoyles, Kim Novak delivering a nasty shock at the end of The Devil’s Triangle, and in a particularly off-beat moment, Carl Weathers and Burl Ives battling a giant sea turtle in Bermuda Depths. All of this brings us to 1973′s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark featuring Kim Darby as a spooked housewife that realizes there are little monsters calling to her behind the fireplace in the basement.
As a child, I didn’t even need a movie like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark to help me along in irrational and disconcerting fear. But, when I did see it–in the mid 80′s on a saturday afternoon– it disturbed me. Returning to it now, I can see the seams better, understand the limitations that a rushed production brought about (this was being filmed and produced at the beginning of the last big writer’s strike) and recognize just how low-rent and cheap the goblin effects are.
However, I am still ready to admit that this movie brings the creepy. It’s all in the central concept, in Darby’s performance and in the way the picture is shot. There’s nary a visually bright moment in the film, and amidst all that shadow-drenched darkness are small, grotesque faces peering out with ill intent.
Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex(Jim Hutton) have inherited an old Gothic pile that used to belong to her now deceased grandmother. While he’s out trying cases as an attorney, Sally attempts to overhaul and domesticate their new foreboding domicile. When the repairman (an effective William Demarest) helps Sally with some odds and ends he explains to her that he bricked up the fireplace in the basement upon her grandmother’s orders. In fact, removing the bricks would destroy the fireplace altogether, so Sally and Alex leave it be.
Well, that is until Sally undoes the ash cleanout on the side of the fireplace, freeing the little monsters that are living inside. Things get bad after that. Sally hears voices that call and beckon her. She thinks she sees things; small, misshappen shadows skirting across the floor, and dashing around corners. Sometimes forlorn, tiny eyes look out from the bookshelf and regard her with curiosity.
Sally starts to think she’s losing her mind, Alex fears he’s losing Sally, and Demarest might know more than he’s letting on. All the while, the creatures make plans to terrorize Sally in hopes that dislocating her from this world will make her willing to join theirs–a dark, nocturnal existence in the shadows of the furnace.
Darby is very good as Sally and she drives home the loneliness, isolation, and vulnerability of a woman who seems trapped within the confines of domesticity. This being a tv movie, there’s not a ton of subtext, but it’s still haunting to watch ths disposessed woman lured into a darker world because no one at home is paying attention or will listen.
Hutton as Alex is hitting the usual inattentive husband notes, but I should mention that the relationship he has with Darby is far more focused than in similar pictures. In alot of ways, Alex and Sally and their marriage are front and center here. The monsters are tearing at the fabric of it, but all Alex sees is drastic and unsettling changes in the woman he married.
The creatures are cheap but creepy. They are clearly men in suits and in a scene where they scrabble around the bathroom while Sally is in the tub it is painfully obvious that we are looking at oversize sets with furry little costumes. It doesn’t matter, though. It isn’t the realism that works anyway. Those torturous, gnarled faces– reminiscent of Native American totems or Eastern European statues– are what really set the creatures apart. In addition, we hear them speaking in slurry, stilted whispers that sound like water trying to force itself through a clogged drain. Worst of all, they don’t want to kill or eat Sally; they just want her, body and soul, to join them in whatever hell lies beyond the fireplace.
Revisiting Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I find that I still like the movie. It works as a shivery good time. Made modestly and quickly, it’s not striving for good art or even lasting entertainment and it hasn’t aged terribly well. Still, this is a concept with potential and theres a real charm to the simplicity of its irrational ideas.
There are no monsters hiding in the dark who want to claim us, but in a world where they might exist, it seems plausible that we might react as Darby does. The ending is a bleak and inevitable one. As a child, it was that finale, more than anything else, which cemented this into the landscape of my nightmares. I think it’s still effective today and if you haven’t seen it, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is perfect for the current season.