AMAD-Horror Edition: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

9 Oct

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Oct 9th, 2009–

cinemagrade b-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. Regular weekly programming has become far more popular and with so much content, there doesn’t even seem to be room in the network landscape. But some 30 years ago, that was quite different. There were larger spaces to fill, not as many shows being 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 which has a place on the AMAD later this month. 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 fighting off 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.

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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. Like most movie husbands of the time, Alex is more concerned with his career than the wife he leaves at home–at least at first. While he’s out trying cases as an attorney, Sally is at home attempting to overhaul and domesticate their new foreboding home. 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. Instead of sounding murderous, they are filled with promises and enticing pleas. She thinks she sees things. Small, mishappen 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 starts to think 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 behind the fireplace.

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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 sequences like the one where they start terrorizing Sally while she is in the bath it is painfully obvious that we are looking at oversize sets with furry little costumes. It doesn’t matter, it’s not the realism that works anyway. Those torturous, gnarled faces–the design is 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.

I liked 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. But, that doesn’t matter so much. 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, more than anything else, it was that climax that cemented this one 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  perfect for the current season.

Earlier this year it was announced that Guillermo Del Toro is producing a remake of the film with Troy Nixey directing and Guy Pierce and Katie Holmes starring. With a script penned by Matthew Robbins and Del Toro, I think this is one remake that actually has a reason for existing. And in a move I already appreciate, the role of Sally has been modified to that of a young girl, to be played by Bailee Madison.

Best of all, Warners has finally realeased the film–well, sort of. It can be purchased HERE on DVD or on Watch It Now. There’s a clip showing the quality and for a film that was made in the 1970s for television, it looks pretty darn good.

Oct 9th–AMAD: Kwaidan & Infestation

Oct 10th- AMAD:  Night of the Demon & The Stepfather

Oct 11th-AMAD: In A Spiral State

Oct 12th: It Came From Beneath the Sea

Oct 13th: Doghouse

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4 Responses to “AMAD-Horror Edition: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”

  1. koutchboom October 9, 2009 at 11:52 am #

    Ugh remake? WHY? GDT you can come up with an original idea in just one dump sitting, we rehash stuff. Don’t become that guy.

  2. Jarv October 9, 2009 at 12:24 pm #

    Superb film- don’t remake it.

  3. Jarv October 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    Especially not with Katie fucking Holmes in it.

  4. Xiphos October 9, 2009 at 8:45 pm #

    Back in the day TV movies used to be pretty good but like regular movies the quality declined and the Networks just dropped them, to bad. Now the only network that shows movies any more is CBS and those are usally those cruddy looking Hallmark movies.

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