Sunday, October 2, 2011
31 DAYS OF HORROR-Day 2: DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
There's a lot of nostalgia for many aspects of the 1970's, and one of those most discussed by those of us who were children during that era is the wave of made-for-TV movies that first exposed many of us to cheesy, sleazy horror and exploitation thrills that we were too young to get away with seeing in movie theaters or drive-ins (unless our parents were totally irresponsible and too cheap to spring for a sitter). The made-for-TV genre featured a number of showcases for such fare on all three networks — yes, you young whippersnappers, there used to be only three major television networks — and for my money the most proudly shameless purveyor of the glass teat's horror and exploitation offerings was THE ABC MOVIE OF THE WEEK (1969-1975). That weekly showcase brought us such classics as DUEL (1971), THE NIGHT STALKER (1972), KILLDOZER (1974), THE STRANGER WITHIN (1974), THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN (1975) and of course TRILOGY OF TERROR (1975), that last one being very often cited as a milestone in horror, despite only its last segment, "Prey," being actually scary (and it is scary as a motherfucker). But for many of us who were impressionable kiddies at the time (I was eight when it first aired), perhaps the quintessential made-for-TV flick of its era was DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK from 1973.
One of the classic childhood trauma movies — if not the film that defines the category — DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is in many ways the perfect film with which to introduce kids to scary stuff that's the next level up from the classic Universal monster cycle (a run of classics whose atmospheric quaintness is becoming more and more difficult to sell kids on in the 21st century). The tight little story follows Sally and Alex Farnham (Kim Darby of TRUE GRIT renown, and Jim Hutton, father of Timothy Hutton), a young married couple, as they move into a creepy old house left to Sally by her deceased grandmother. Upon moving in, Sally sets about re-decorating the place and comes across a mysterious locked room that houses a bricked-up and bolted-shut fireplace. The aged local handyman (William Demarest, best known as Uncle Charlie from the sitcom MY THREE SONS) advises Sally not to unseal the fireplace, and when asked why she shouldn't open it, the handyman ominously advises her that some things are best left alone. Of course Sally ignores his warning, and in no time a trio of tiny, hairy, light-sensitive, onion-headed little goblins are released from what is apparently a direct gateway to some corner of Hell.
The unnamed goblins (or whatever the hell they are): among the great monsters of '70's horror.
The goblins (or whatever the hell they are) lurk all over the house and are heard by Sally in whispers that proclaim their desire to claim her spirit and have her join them, and they immediately set about on a campaign that scares the living shit out of her and drives her to a state of what appears to be insanity to her husband and anyone else who encounters her once the creatures are free.
As the creep factor escalates — and hoo-boy, does it ever — so does Sally's husband's assholism and impatience, both of which are fueled by his focus on getting a promotion at his job, a focus that sees him neglect Sally, who has come to realize her husband likely only married her because she's the perfect hostess. So, basically, Sally's world is rapidly turning to shit in ways both mundane and supernatural — a common theme in early-1970's horror — and it's very clear that there will be no happy ending.
Seeing this film nearly forty years after it first aired reveals certain aspects that one would not necessarily have picked up on when experienced during childhood. The film's power lies in its very simplicity; there's really very little plot other than "goblins seek to get Sally," and no further explanation is really required. The monsters are never really explained, although the handyman does eventually provide some backstory that states they've been in the house since at least the mid-1800's, but even that story offers nothing more concrete other than that Sally's grandfather was presumed to be taken away by the goblins. But that narrative ambiguity totally works to make this story play like a spooky yarn either told around a campfire or read in a dodgy old horror comic. It appeals to a very primal, "kid-fear" place in the human psyche, and watching it now, even with the so-called sophistication that comes with being a grownup, I was instantly transported back to that realm of kid-fear by it. It's not flashy, displays its low budget with that aesthetic instantly recognizable as "made-for-TV," has no gore, and kinda feels like a missing installment from Rod Serling's NIGHT GALLERY (1970-1973), but it's that bare bones aspect that makes it register as a simple horror story that would be very effective on kids. Its 74 minutes gets right down to the fright and solidly delivers throughout, all the way to its ultra-creepy and hopeless downer of a climax. It leaves many questions unanswered but that's beside the point, and you really won't care.
It's a small gem in the '70's horror genre and has a number of similarities with the theatrical film LET'S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH (1971), but DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK has charms all its own and it should be foisted upon your kids immediately, provided they're about seven years old at a minimum. This is one of those flicks that if viewed by the very young will hold them riveted, but will also very likely result in them insisting on sleeping with you for a night or two, or until they get the indelible image and sound of the goblins out of their little heads. And if you get into discussing this film with those of us who saw it back in the days, just whisper "We're coming for you, Sally" and note the simultaneously delighted and creeped-out reaction you'll get. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
And despite its massive cult popularity, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK was never available on legitimate DVD until recently released, remastered as part of the Warner Archives made-to-order program, a program I have availed myself to on several occasions and never been dissatisfied by. It was first released with zero extras but now it's available with a lively and fun commentary track featuring DREAD CENTRAL's Steve "Uncle Creepy" Barton, screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick (FINAL DESTINATION, the 2008 DAY OF THE DEAD remake) and FANGORIA's Sean Abley, so that's the edition I recommend. You can order it here.