By Jonathan Stryker

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Source: Jonathan Stryker

Oct 10, 2011, 9:0 AM

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973) is the quintessential made-for-TV thriller that, for lack of a better saying, they just don't make anymore.  Directed by John Newland, a prolific television director for over forty years, the film originally aired on the ABC-TV network on October 10, 1973 (thirty-eight years ago today, actually). 

I was only five at the time and far too young to see it, so I caught up with it years later during the early 1980's.  My friend Dave, who lived on Staten Island back then, and I used to see some crazy movies during those years and I vividly remember this one playing on TV in New York on a Saturday afternoon.  His younger friend, Vinny, was really scared by this movie.  The best part of seeing movies like this when we're young is not only having the opportunity to see them from a children's perspective, but also to have the beejezus scared out of us in a wonderfully innocent and ultimately memorable way.  Years later, we can recount where we were, how old we were, and what we were doing when we saw such scary movies because fear evokes such a strong emotional response in us. 

Kim Darby and Jim Hutton star as Sally and Alex Farnham respectively (they sound like a barrel of fun), a couple who move into a house that Sally has inherited (I love this house - does anyone know where it is in California?).   The house is enormous, sporting an ornate lamppost at the foot of the driveway and really neat architecture.  Jim is the typical work-a-holic and is anxious to become a partner at the firm he works for.  He comes off as stern and loud, and never seems to have enough time for Sally, who is meek and tries her best to please him.  The house is far too large for just the two of them, and the handyman (William Demarest) does his best to keep the place in order. 

Sally is bored and inspects the bottom of the fireplace and notices that the opening has been sealed closed.  When questioning the handyman about it, he evasively responds that it was necessary...and offers no more than that.  This is the part where a red flag goes up as Sally now begins to see multiple pint-size, prune-faced creatures scurrying about her house as she tries to sleep, host a party for her husband's boss, and take a shower (as children, we're all afraid of things that go bump in the night, and this film preys on that fear).  The handyman knows all about the creatures and is complicit in trying to keep their existence secret, while simultaneously hinting to the owners to be careful. 

Alex, the understanding husband that he is, jumps to the conclusion that the large house is somehow responsible for his wife's condition and suggests that she see a doctor (read that as: crazy).  She's the only one who happens to see the creatures and therefore is labeled half nuts.  By the end of the film, Sally is a mess and is practically incapacitated due to her mental state.  The creatures begin to drag her across the floor and she plays James Stewart to their Raymond Burr, using a flash camera to momentarily blind them.  The creatures, however, overpower Sally and pull her away into the depths of the inside of the fireplace which, to a young child must have been frightening, but to an adult's eyes seems illogical and silly. 

The film benefits from moody and atmospheric cinematography and a terrific musical theme from Billy Goldenberg who provided the bone-chilling minimalist score to Steven Spielberg's DUEL two years earlier.  Nigel McKeand also lends his vocal talents to the creatures, providing some truly creepy voices for them.  This is a terrifically spooky film, just in time for Halloween. 

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was one of those early VHS releases in the over-sized cardboard boxes released by USA Home Video in the mid-1980's and ran on syndication on television for years. 

Plenty of neighborhood video stores sported films like this from the 1970's, and it was always a treat discovering some new hidden gem sitting on the shelf.  For years, people have been requesting a DVD of it and now the Warner Archive, as part of their burn-on-demand DVD-R series, has re-released the film in a remastered version with a commentary track from horror fans and pros Jeffrey Riddick, Steve Barton ("Uncle Creepy") and Sean Ably.  They are a congenial group and they make watching the film again a lot of fun.  The image is a significant improvement over the previous DVD-R release.  The colors do look richer and the overall image is brighter. 

Part of the creepiness of this film is attributed to the filmmaker's refusal to explain what these creatures are, where they are from, how they got there, and what their purpose is.  Like Billy and Agnes in Bob Clark's BLACK CHRISTMAS, and Michael Myers in John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN, they are never explained. 

We'll have a review of Guillermo del Toro's remake when it hits DVD.  


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