Tuesday, August 23, 2011

FROM THE ARCHIVE: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

This Friday, writer and producer Guillermo Del Toro's horror remake Don't Be Afraid of the Dark hits theaters nationwide.  The new film stars Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce, and is based on a great TV-movie from the disco decade.

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.  I saw it for the first time sometime later, in 1977 or 1978, perhaps, and it absolutely terrorized my young psyche.

The made-for-tv 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 soon discovers an oddity in the basement study: the fireplace is sealed-up. Not just sealed-up, in fact, but barricaded. The bricks are reinforced with iron bars.

"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 the hole with a flashlight, we can detect 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, escape from that abyss and 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.  They even 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 grand staircase.

But nobody, especially not the work-consumed Alex, believes Sally's fantastic tale that there are tiny monsters inhabiting the house; and worse - that they want to steal "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 for his curiosity. One night, his wife heard cries and screams from the downstairs study. And something horrible dragged her husband down into the fireplace shaft. 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 from Hell, 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 photograph, exposing them to the damaging light of the flash bulb for an instant...

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 (see also: Something Evil).

Sally's husband is mostly absent, and treats her as though she's a slow-witted 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 notion 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 too.

Specifically, 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." 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 cracks open the bricks 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 such as the ubiquitous 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 for 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 beautifully-composed shot of the depressed, terrified Sally sitting in a white-walled ante-room. She's bracketed by curtains, and outside them is pervasive 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 over-sized, Land of the Giant-sized mock-ups of the Farnum house. This technique actually works rather effectively: the gremlin shots and Sally shots match-up almost perfectly.

Another strength of this tele-film remains the creepy, subtly disturbing musical score composed and performed by Billy Goldenberg. The jolting, macabre music makes effective some scenes that, perhaps, would be staged differently in today's filmmaking milieu.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a retro 1970s horror treat. Made in the epoch 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 tele-films, including 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 audiences, including kids. Today, these productions seem more chilling (and filled with disturbing implications) than many theatrical horror flicks. Like I said, this one really terrorized me as a child.

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.  You leave it in abject terror, and you will, in fact, fear the darkness.

I wonder if the Del Toro/Troy Nixey picture will live up to the throat-tightening terror of this one.  We'll know more in a few days.  The previews certainly look encouraging.

11 comments:

  1. Hi JKM;

    I did see this on its original airing and dreaded going into my grandparent's basement for years afterward (their furnace resembled the movie's slightly). Actually, I live in that house now and I'm still not all that fond of late night trips downstairs (even though the house was moved and the furnace is entirely different). I'm sort of glad it's being remade because I'd love it to give a new generation nightmares (on a rewatch the original looks a little hokey, though maybe it would work on ten-year olds like I was). Del Toro's best stuff has a nightmarish quality, but for some reason I don't find his films all that compelling (the first Hellboy being the exception)... I mean, I like 'em, they're ok, but I never get dragged into 'em like, say, Kim Darby got dragged into a furnace...

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  2. I'm old enough to have seen this first run, but believe it or not, I've never seen it. I've wanted to, like I did with the other TV movie fright classics you've listed here, including A COLD NIGHT'S DEATH. Luckily, the Warner Archive has DbAofD available in their MOD program. I'm picking it as I write this, John. Many thanks for the fine review.

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  3. Boy, this sounds creepy! I think it's fascinating how many horror/thriller made-for-tv films there were in the 70s. (As well as in various tv shows--the first Bigfoot story on Six Million Dollar Man, and in numerous Fantasy Island episodes.)

    I saw Gargoyles once, when I was a teenager, and Duel a few times as a kid and teenager (loved Dennis Weaver!). The tension is high in Duel, and Gargoyles really creeped me out. I never saw or heard of this one, but I can well imagine being equally creeped out, especially since I liked Kim Darby as a kid (both from her Trek appearance as Miri and her role as Maddie in True Grit).

    I had enjoyed Jim Hutton in The Green Berets and vaguely recall watching him and the Duke in Hellfighters on tv once. Dunno if I saw him in anything else.

    I've enjoyed many of Felix Silla's and Patty Maloney's roles over the years.

    I'm sure I'd get nicely creeped out here....Great review!

    Gordon Long
    Excellent review.

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  4. Hi everyone,

    Thank you for the comments on Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.

    DLR: I agree with you about the power of the film, and the terror it can generate in the young. This movie will definitely freak kids out about furnaces. I had much the same experience as you did as a kid, and to this day maintain a dislike of basements!

    Le0pard13: If you get the chance, definitely do see this one. But watch it at alone, at night, if you can, to get the full impact. The film works better on the "child" portion of the mind, if that makes sense. It's the place where irrational terror takes hold. In the cold light of day, the movie is, as DLR notes, not as effective today as it was in the 1970s. It's great and disturbing, but you need to work with it, if that makes sense! :)

    PDXWiz: I don't know what was in the water in the 1970s, but suddenly Hollywood gave us all of these eminently creepy made-for-tv movies. I mean, a lot of these films are still terrifying today, and even more so than contemporary theatrical releases. Don/t Be Afraid of the Dark is definitely "kindertrauma" material. I hope the new movie lives up to the legacy...

    best to all,
    JKM

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  5. SteveW10:57 AM

    A great chiller, and a formative scare-your-pants-off experience for many a kid (including me). It's kind of sad they don't make these anymore, since the "made-for-TV" label essentially tricked a lot of families into sitting down together and watching some pretty terrifying stuff (a good thing!). There are PG-13 rated horror films out there, but they're targeted at older teens (I was nine when "Dont' Be Afraid of the Dark" first aired)--and it's not the same as cozying up in your own home and watching this stuff.

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  6. DBAotD is clearly in my pantheon of scary movies (w/ The Exorcist, Rosemary's Baby, Halloween et. al.)for a seemingly inocouos made for TV movie, that says a lot. I saw this on its original broadcast (what were my parents thinking??? lol) as a nine year old and I don't think there have been too many days since when I haven't thought about this film in one way or another. Just a very, very creepy (the score and the "whispers" are truly haunting to this day)film on so many levels.
    I think if you randomly asked people aged 45-50 "what movies truly scared you?"...this would be high up on the list. Great look back John and hopefully the reboot won't disappoint.

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  7. Now this movie left scars. I saw this when I was about 7 years old, and if you notice the creatures are foreshadowed by a green glow. Why, oh why, did I have a green nightlight growing up?

    I haven't seen this (or Gargoyles, another favorite you mentioned) in many years but from memories the effects held up quite well. I'm looking forward to the remake's slightly different premise.

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  8. Anonymous4:22 PM

    Why do you keep calling it the "Disco Decade", man? Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, AC/DC, Deep Purple, these are some of the sounds from that decade that stood the test of time.. Grunge is as dead as disco, and I've never heard anyone call the 90s the "Grunge decade"! :)

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  9. Anonymous:

    Actually, I do occasionally call the 1990s the Grunge Decade, especially in my new book, Horror Films of the 1990s.

    Disco rose and fell in the 1970s. It's a phenomenon pretty much (with a few exceptions) that's an artifact of that of that decade. The rock bands you mention don't belong to one decade, but straddled many. Disco does belong to the 1970s, hence the phrase is a useful (not to mention catchy) shorthand. It's as simple as that.

    And hey, great comment. Next time let us know your name.

    best,
    John

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  10. John: I did in fact get to watch this one (over my October Halloween movie watching stint). Marvelously creepy fun. I watched it alone (though my daughter kept coming by to see what I was watching, only to quickly leave) and in a darkened room. Your review captured it perfectly, just like our poor doomed heroine.

    Anonymous: don't feel bad about that "Disco Decade" moniker. John is correct in that was a self-contained musical style and club scene. Something quite unique to the 70s decade. There is a reason I say I was born in the 50s, raised in the 60s, but I survived the 70s... and disco was something I was determined to outlive ;-).

    Thanks, guys.

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  11. Hi Michael:

    I'm glad you saw the original TV-movie. I know it has aged, but I still think it's effective: especially the way you watched it (in the dark, and alone). It's more unnerving and effective that way. A really nice horror piece, I think.

    Good (and funny) commentary on the disco decade too!

    best,
    John

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