I watched it again this morning for the first time in about thirty years, I would guess, and to my delight, it's just as disturbing and hair-raising as I recalled.
A perennial in syndication throughout the 1970s, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - directed by the late, great John Newland (the talent who hosted and directed 96 episodes of the classic paranormal anthology, One Step Beyond) - first aired near Halloween in 1973.
The film depicts the chilling tale of Sally Farnum (Kim Darby), a bored housewife. Along with her work-obsessed husband, Alex (Jim Hutton) - who is devoted to becoming a partner in his law firm - she moves into her grandmother's grand old country estate. There, she discovers an oddity in the basement study: the fireplace is sealed up. Not just sealed up, in fact, but blocked! The bricks are reinforced with iron bars, and go back four deep.
"Some things are better left as they are," warns Mr. Harris, the groundskeeper and repairman, "especially that fireplace..."
But Sally wants the fireplace operable, and so unbolts the ash-door on the side of the mantel. As she peers inside with a flashlight, we see that the chimney shaft seems to stretch down and down, into blackest darkness. Perhaps all the way down to Hell itself...
Before long, a cadre of hairy, shriveled creatures, "ferocious little animals," as Sally describes them, are loosed upon the house. They thrive in darkness, and terrorize Sally. They knock an ashtray from her night stand in the middle of the night; they tug at her skirt and won't let go; they turn off the lights in the bathroom while she's showering - and go at her with a straight razor. And then things really escalate. The monstrous gremloids murder the interior decorator, tripping him up on the house's ornate and grant staircase. And then, finally, they come for Sally.
But nobody, especially not the work-consumed Alex, believes Sally's fantastic story that there are tiny monsters inhabiting the house; and worse - that they want to take "her spirit."
Then, one night, a skeptical Alex finally gets the full-story from old Mr. Harris. Turns out that Sally's grandfather opened up that fireplace once before -- for the first time since the house was constructed in the 1880s, in fact. And he paid the price. One night, his wife heard cries and screams from the downstairs study. And something horrible dragged her husband down into the fireplace shaft, and he was never seen again.
"To this day, I think he's still down there..." warns Mr. Harris.
In the conclusion of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark - in a twisted, malevolent variation of imagery straight out of Gulliver's Travels - the gnomes lasso the sedated Sally, and drag her down the stairs, towards that fireplace, and the long, dark chasm within. She awakens in time to see the rope tying her ankles together, and she clutches the nearby furniture for dear life as her diminutive nemeses tug and tug. She grabs a flash camera and snaps their picture, exposing them to the damaging light of the flash bulb for an instant. But the battle is a losing one, and down, down Sally goes...
Arising from the same period in horror film history that gave us the brilliant, and equally chilling Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1973), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is essentially the tale of a woman trapped in an unhappy and lonely marriage...and slowly but surely losing her grasp on reality. Sally's husband is mostly absent,and treats as though she's a child. All Alex cares about is that she's the "perfect hostess" for a dinner party, and the film functions literally as a metaphor of an unhappy marital relationship. Little things - literally, little monsters - keep getting in the way of the relationship, driving a wedge between the couple.
The terrifying idea at the heart of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is the opening of a Pandora's Box, the fear of breaking down a wall and releasing something that can't be put back in its place. Again, without putting too fine a point on it, there's a psychological equivalent to this Pandora's Box (the fireplace...) in the film.
To wit, Sally deals with her fears about being just an "adjunct" to the successful, career-obsessed Alex, but her friend, Joan (Barbara Anderson) warns her that she's building "emotional mountains out of imaginary mole hills." But quite the contrary, by probing and questioning the way things are in her marriage, Sally is chipping away at the brick and mortar foundation of unquestioned, traditional male/female roles in such relationships. Just as she takes a hammer and - silly woman - cracks open the brick in that fireplace, releasing anarchy, chaos and terror, she won't take for granted the status quo in her personal life either. Not unexpectedly, Alex is incapable of doing the same; and in the end, he fails his wife miserably. He loses her to the "darkness."
For a made-for-TV production, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark boasts a fascinating retro film style, a form that enhances its unsettling content. Though the picture is replete with '70s era techniques like the "zoom" (which corrupts the frame to a large extent...), director Newland also clearly understood the value of suspense and effective imagery. On the former front, the creepy little trolls in the basement aren't revealed before the camera (and then only in half-light) until after the thirty minute point (of a 74 minute production). On the latter front, I would point to a beautiful shot of the depressed, terrified Sally sitting in a white-walled ante-room. She's bracketed by curtains, and outside them (but all around Sally; yet still in the frame - is darkness; the domain of the little devils). It's clear from this deliberate "bracketing" that Sally's space - even in a large house - is becoming increasingly constricted and small. Much how she feels about her own role in he marriage to Alex.
The gremlins themselves are played by little people (Felix Silla and Patty Maloney, among them...) acting on oversized, Land of the Giant-sized mock-ups of the Farnum house. This technique actually works rather well, since it becomes unnecessary to include mattes or expensive optical superimposition to feature the creatures. Instead - in various shades of blue and black darkness - the gremlin shots and Sally shots match-up almost perfectly. Another strength of this telefilm is the creepy, subtly disturbing musical score composed and performed by Billy Goldenberg....which makes effective some scenes that, perhaps, would be staged differently today.
In toto, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a retro 1970s horror treat. It comes from the era of such made-for-TV classics as Gargoyles (1972), Duel (1971), Fear No Evil (1969) and yes, Satan's School for Girls (1972). All of these telefilms, but especially this John Newland entry, featured a cinematic flair and a deep, palpable sense of dread. Hard to believe they were made for TV, and played to mass audience. Today, these things seem more chilling (and filled with disturbing implications) than many PG-13 horror flicks.
Because, as you may have guessed, there are no happy endings in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. And that's another reason the film is so chilling, so fear-provoking, to this day.