If you're one of those people who caught Don't Be Afraid of the Dark when it first aired, then one thing is certain: you're old. Old, old, old. Old as the hills. Older than dirt. Older than... wait. That wasn't what I wanted to say. Even if it happens to be true.
Let me start again: if you were one of the people, and by people I mean "kids", who tuned into the ABC Movie of the Week on October 10, 1973 and saw Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, I'll bet you remember the experience. This was the first time the movie had ever aired, so other than the fact that it was a made-for-TV horror movie, nobody really knew what to expect. What they got was one of the best, creepiest TV horror flicks ever made. For those original viewers, the movie's title became a cruel taunt, as they lay in bed at night... wondering if monstrous little creatures lurked, whispering, in the shadows of their rooms.
I was not one of those viewers. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark premiered just before my seventh birthday, and at that age I had little control over my family's Prime Time viewing habits. By the following year the situation had changed a little, allowing me occasional glimpses of, say, Night Stalker episodes and the odd movie like The Strange and Deadly Occurrence. But I missed Don't Be Afraid of the Dark.
I found out about what I'd missed pretty quickly, from the playground chatter over the following week. And I continued to hear about it: since affordable home video was at least a decade away, the long gaps between showings only made the movie seem even better and scarier in hindsight... so the movie's reputation just grew and grew. It was several years before I had a chance to see it in repeat, and by that time I had been led to expect something truly, pants-wettingly, even life-changingly spooky.
And, of course, it wasn't. There aren't very many made-for-TV movies that could live up to the reputation this one got for itself. By the time I finally caught up with Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, it seemed to me to be a good, entertaining movie — no more, no less. But even if it wasn't as terrifying as I'd hoped it would be — as I'd been promised it would be by my schoolmates — I still have a healthy respect for it as one of the best TV movies of its era, even outside its genre. I mean that as high praise, too, considering that "its era" is commonly regarded as the Golden Age of Television Movies.
The trouble is, it's not easy to convince today's audiences to give a movie like this one a chance. The Golden Age of TV Movies was also the Harvest Golden Age, with avocado green trim. The very seventies-ness of movies of this vintage can put off viewers today: not only do they have a much different idea of what is scary (and a much less interesting one, in my opinion), but they're also likely to be put off by the colors, the fashions, and especially the cultural attitudes on display in movies of the period.
Now, by cultural attitudes, I don't just mean the unthinking sexism and racism that crept so often into even the best-intentioned shows of the time. I'm thinking of the positive attitudes as well. For instance, a number of non-horror Movies of the Week tried — very sincerely — to tackle serious subjects, ranging from teen pregnancy to racial integration to homosexuality. The public conversation on many of these issues had barely begun when the TV movies were made, so it's no wonder some of these movies seem naïve (to the point of being offensive) to audiences today. The horror movies have generally aged better by comparison.
But then, thinking of aging, there's the wrinkliness factor. The heroes of so many of these TV movies were — ahem — mature: think of Darren McGavin, or Tony Franciosa, or Hope Lange, or Vera Miles, or Olivia de Haviland, all of whom were in their forties or fifties when they starred (yes, starred) in TV thrillers. You will search these movies in vain for prettified teens stealing the show. Though the scary movies of the time were generally considered appropriate for children, they were aimed at adults — and not only did they star adults, but the best of them treated their viewers like adults, too. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is no exception, as I intend to show later on. But this approach is so out-of-tune with much of today's horror, on or off the TV, that some of the earlier films' subtleties are lost on audiences who are used to looking no further than the surface gloss.
(I can say this sort of thing because I am old. Old, old, old. Old as the hills. Older than dirt. Older than this movie, by seven years. If you don't like it, I must ask you to get the hell off my lawn.)
The movie begins with a tight close-up of an angry black cat. There is no cat in the story of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, so this is just a gratuitous throwaway shot: black cats are supposed to be scary, so why not open with a black cat? These days, though, I can't help but wonder what they did to the poor cat to get him so annoyed. Anyway: leaving the cat behind for good, the camera tracks along the leaf-strewn autumn ground, moving slowly up a wrought-iron lamppost to give us our first view of... The House.
Alert viewers will recognize the House from other TV productions, including Dan Curtis's Curse of the Black Widow. And no wonder: the House combines historic and contemporary architectural details, so that it can change its character simply by being shot from a different angle. Seen dead-on in full sunlight, its rounded windows and busy trim might seem almost cheerful. For this introduction, though, its creepy Victorian aspect has been brought out by shooting it from a distance, with a spotlight illuminating it from below. The camera zooms in slowly, as the whispering voices start:
will she come?
Dissolve, to the House by daylight. Did I say it might seem cheerful by day? Not when shot like this, from below:
Our heroine is Sally Farnham (Kim Darby), who has just inherited the house from her grandmother. She's about to move into the house with her lawyer husband Alex (Jim Hutton, a few years before "Ellery Queen"). We hear the couple in voice-over as they discuss their plans for the renovations. The camera takes us on a tour of the house as the couple talks, until we end up at a door that stays solidly shut. The key to the downstairs study is lost, and apparently nobody's been in the room for years.
As a character, Sally Farnham is likely to wear on the patience of today's viewers. It's all too easy to see her as a stereotypical 70's housewife: a mouse of a woman living in her husband's shadow (and it doesn't help that she's introduced to us as a voice-over, rather than in person). It's certainly true she's married to a very ambitious man, and a large part of her life is devoted to making him look good. It's true that her husband puts his career way ahead of his marriage, and sees nothing wrong with that. But relationships like this — loving, perhaps, but drastically out of balance — are far from extinct (though the gender roles may well be reversed). Still, if you look closely, you'll see that there are traces of rebellion in Sally. The house itself is evidence: Alex had wanted to move to an apartment in the city — something more in line with the image of a successful professional man. Sally had insisted on taking the house. It's clear that winning this particular battle has meant a lot to Sally. Restoring the house is a step toward restoring the balance in their marriage. That's one of the main reasons she finds herself reluctant to abandon the house later, even when it seems her life may depend on it.
At last we get to see Sally herself, as she walks into her new bedroom and examines the renovations. Oddly enough, the man who comes in with her is not her husband, as we expected from the voice-over in the introduction — instead, it's her designer, Francisco Perez. The two of them are trying to get as much done as possible before a housewarming party Sally is hosting, to which her husband's bosses and colleagues have been invited. Alex is in line for a partnership at his law firm, so it's crucial to him that Sally and the house make a spectacular impression.
(Alex has nothing to worry about: it will be spectacular, though not necessarily spectacularly good. Perez gives us our first moment of true horror, as he says: "I thought something navy-bluish would be a good contrast with the lime green of the living room..." Eurrgh! It's the seventies!!)
As Perez is on his way out, Sally pulls him aside to show him a surprise. She's found the key to the locked study, and is anxious to get his impression of the room. It's not a bad little space — though for some reason the windows have been nailed shut, and the fireplace as been bricked over. As Sally and Perez discuss their plans for the room, Mr. Harris the handyman (William Demarest of "My Three Sons") peers after them suspiciously. His wariness turns to alarm as he overhears them talk about opening the windows and unbricking the fireplace. Once Perez has left for the day, Harris goes down to the study to confront Sally, who is peering curiously at the bricked-up mantelpiece.
"It won't work," he bellows. The bricks in the chimney go four deep, and are reinforced with iron. Also, the ash trap has been bolted shut. Harris knows it's a solid job, because he was the one who did it 20 years ago — though he becomes curiously tongue-tied when Sally asks him why. "Some things are better left as they are," he says, "especially that fireplace."
Take a look for a moment at the way this scene is blocked and lit:
Note how Harris is foregrounded, but in deep shadow; while Sally, in the background, is clearly lit. The mysterious fireplace, which you'd think would be the focus of our attention, does appear to be at the center of the depth of field — but it's at the very right edge of the frame. It's a startlingly effective composition, as carefully worked-out and executed as if it were intended for a theatrical film rather than the small screen. What's even more startling about it is that its effect is totally lost on a black-and-white TV — even in 1973, roughly half of American television sets were still black-and-white (come to think of it, it probably didn't look nearly as effective on 70's-era color TVs, either... What a shame this movie had to wait thirty-six years to show up on DVD).
Back to the film: the last thing Sally needs is for yet another man to tell her what she must or mustn't do. So when Alex finally shows up and waylays Harris about some bookshelves, Sally grabs a wrench and starts attacking the bolts on the ash trap. It's only a few minutes work before she manages to get the heavy iron door to swing open... and what she finds inside is insane. There is no fireplace. Where there should be a stone slab, a grate, and maybe a couple of andirons, there is instead only a gaping hole. Sally's flashlight can't even reach to the bottom of it. Clearly — as Alex is quick to point out when he comes to find her, bearing a mid-afternoon cocktail (it is the seventies, after all) — the fireplace is a lost cause.
"See things my way?" says Alex.
"I guess I'll have to," sighs Sally, no doubt thinking to herself that it's Harris's way, too, and gritting her teeth. When Alex suggests some dinner, he's obviously not suggesting he's going to provide it himself; so off goes Sally to the kitchen, leaving the ash trap open behind her.
There's a moment of silence in the shadowy room, and then the voices start again: "Sally..." they whisper, over and over again, as though savoring each syllable of her name; then, with growing excitement, they chant, "Free! Free! She set us FREE!"
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark will return after this word from our sponsor...
(I wonder what advertiser had the misfortune to have their commercial play at this point on that October night in 1973. I doubt many viewers were paying attention.)
After dinner, Alex starts fretting about the housewarming party. With the renovations unfinished, Alex worries the partners at his new firm will be less than impressed. Sally assures him that everything will be fine: if the house isn't perfect, she will be. But there's something in the tone of her words that leaves Alex unconvinced. Naturally, he takes this as an affront: doesn't she want him to succeed? Of course she does, says Sally; it's just that his burgeoning career seems to be taking him further and further out of their life together.
Alex's face softens. If that's how it is, he'll be sure to make extra time for her, as soon as the party is over... and as soon as he returns from his trip to San Francisco.
There's a beat.
"San Francisco?" asks Sally, her face a blank mask.
No, Alex hasn't told her about San Francisco. Yes, he knows he hasn't told her; and we know, in spite of his denials, that he knows he hasn't told her. Immediately after the party, Alex has to leave to handle an important client. It's sort of a test of his worthiness to become a full partner. It's not that Alex doesn't genuinely love his wife: in fact, his failure to tell her about the trip shows that he does feel guilty about spending so much time on the job. Still, in his heart of hearts, Alex is a jerk: he filters everything in his life through its relative importance to him. So when Sally grumbles that he just married her for her hostessing skills, we get the feeling there's more truth in the statement than either of them would like to admit.
It's then, as Alex leaves her feeling alone and vulnerable in the kitchen, that Sally starts seeing shadows.
At first, she's convinced it must be mice. But that night, as Sally lies in bed half-asleep, she thinks she hears voices calling her name. All at once, a glass ashtray launches itself off her nightstand and shatters on the floor. Alex, coming in from the bathroom, tries to convince her she must have knocked it off herself; but Sally knows she was nowhere near it.
The next day, Sally tells her best friend Joan Kahn about the ashtray; but in the clear light of day, it seems to both women that Sally's imagination must have created the mystery. Joan knows how stressful it is to be married to a man whose career comes first — her husband George "Genghis" Kahn is the same way. Joan suggests a little retail therapy to drive away the ghosts.
When Sally gets home, Mr. Harris is busy re-fastening the bolts on the ash trap. He seems genuinely upset: "You shouldn't have opened it up, Mrs. Farnham," he says. When Sally tries to make light of it, saying his imagination is as bad as hers, Harris reads between the lines. "Has something happened?" he asks her.
"No!" lies Sally; "What would happen?"
What, indeed. Once Sally and Harris leave the study, we find out that some things, once released, can't be put back again as easily. Slowly the bolts begin to unthread themselves from the ash trap door...
Sally goes upstairs to the unfinished part of the house, where heavy dropcloths hang over the windows and the shadows lie deep. As she's passing through, something grasps the hem of her dress and refuses to let go.
"We want you, Sally," chant the soft little voices in unison; "We want you! We want you! We WANT you!" Terrified, Sally loses her balance and tries to steady herself on the window cloth. The cloth falls, and sunlight streams into the room — and Sally finds herself alone and unrestrained.
Sally immediately rushes off to phone Alex at work, but Alex is already on his way home. As she stands by the phone, she seems to hear those whispery voices again, this time coming from the study... coming from the newly-unbolted ash trap in the study, which she saw Mr. Harris fasten only a few minutes earlier. "Sally..." the voices croak; "Sally...!"
Alex is not amused when he hears Sally's story. Voices? Small creatures grabbing at her dress in the dark? Unwilling to consider that his wife is having a nervous breakdown, he jumps to the conclusion that old Mr. Harris is having a practical joke at her expense. After sealing the ash trap again, Alex calls Harris to demand an explanation. Naturally, this makes Harris furious: he tells Alex he can find himself a new carpenter.
All this resolves nothing; but with Joan's help, Sally pulls herself together enough to prepare for the big party.
For a while, it seems as though the only strange shadows in the house are those of the guests in the candlelight — dim lighting helps disguise the extent of the renovations. The house is a hit; the food is a hit; the décor is a hit... true, George Kahn insists on blinding everyone with the flash-cube on his Pocket Instamatic — Joan makes him give up the camera, which is put aside and forgotten — but aside from this, everything's a stunning success. At least that's what Sally thinks, until she stops to get a glass of punch. That's when she sees one of the floral arrangements suddenly part from the inside...
...and a small, withered face peers out from it.
Remarkably, Sally manages to keep her nerves under control. After all, she couldn't possibly have seen what she thought she saw... could she? She invites the guests into the dining room for dinner, and even manages to keep up the small talk with Alex's boss... in spite of the fact that something keeps pulling the napkin off her lap. Sally tries her best not to look down, not to see what's specifically provoking her to look down; but eventually she can't resist any longer. And there, under the table, she sees...
A word about the monsters in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark: some people are disappointed by the costumes... including the movie's writer, who had envisioned something leaner and more demonic. I think the suits are extremely effective, in part because their appearance is so unexpected.
They're certainly very unlikely-looking ghosts, with their fur-covered bodies and prune-like bald heads. They look like they might be the spawn of Mull, the creature from Frankenstein vs. the Space Monster (and I mean that in a good way). They also remind me of the surprising forms taken by the ghosts in the stories of M.R. James. I'm thinking of two stories in particular: in one, a tomb disgorges a spectre covered in coarse hair; and in the other, a woman is shocked by the sudden appearance of a tiny, pink face — its eyes squeezed shut and its forehead glistening with sweat — between the flowers of her rose garden. There's something about the otherness of these things that makes their appearance very disconcerting.
But as much as their refreshingly different appearance, what makes the monsters in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark so memorable is the technical skill with which they've been brought to life. There are a number of ways to bring small menacing creatures to life in a movie: you could use puppets, for example; or you could use a travelling matte to paste your figures into a scene. But this movie used a different technique. Special enlarged sets were created to duplicate parts of the house: a bookcase, the stairwell, the bathroom cabinets... and then the stunt actors in their costumes moved through the props, as though they really were only about a foot and a half tall. On the surface, this seems simple enough; but there are three difficult problems that must be overcome if this technique is to succeed. First, the enlarged props have to look convincing. It's difficult to reproduce the textures of things properly when you blow them up many times beyond their normal sizes. Next, it's urgent to match the shots of the enlarged sets as closely as possible with the shots of the real house. If the continuity between shots is not seamless, the audience will become acutely aware of the trick, and that will ruin the suspense. And third, probably trickiest of all, there's the photography. The light must fall on the enlarged set and props (and the camera must be positioned to capture it) exactly as though the set was part of a much larger universe. If the camera angles and the intensities of light aren't judged carefully, the audience will feel that something is wrong — even if they don't realize consciously what the problem is.
The blown-up sets used in Don't Be Afraid of the Dark do not look fake. They are extremely well realized, are perfectly lit, and are edited so well into the main action of the film that you often have to remind yourself that special effects are being used.
So: after one hysterical, party-ending screaming fit, Sally knows exactly what's loose in her house. Even if she can't convince her husband, she knows. And she confirms it later that night, when she tricks the creatures — there are three of them — into showing themselves briefly. This is also where she discovers that light is very painful to them. So far, so horrific... but you may be wondering: why doesn't she get the hell out of the house? Especially when the — what? stalking? haunting? — whatever-it-is takes a sinister and dangerous turn?
It's a fair question. In fact, it's the question that pops up in practically every Haunted House movie. The most obvious thing keeping Sally in the house is that it truly is her house. Not only did it belong to her family, but it's her counterweight to Alex's ambition. It's the platform she uses to establish her identity, even as her marriage starts to crumble around her. To lose the house means to lose a large part of her independent existence, and at this stage in her life and her marriage, that's something that she can't afford. In fact, Alex expects her to abandon the house. He thinks she's made up these ghost stories (or hallucinated them) in order to have an excuse to back out of her commitment.
But this alone isn't enough to convince a rational viewer that someone like Sally would stay in the house, even after she found it was infested with some sort of supernatural vermin. Surprise! The movie knows this too, which is why Sally does what few horror movie heroines have ever done in her situation: she decides to give up and get out. Before Alex leaves for San Francisco, Sally tells him he's right: she's reconsidered her decision to stay in this gloomy old house, and as soon as he gets back, they'll discuss moving back to an apartment in the city. Sally then goes to sleep... with all the lights on.
Then, in the morning, she calls Joan and asks if she could come stay at the house while Alex is away. Much to her relief, Joan offers to let Sally stay at her house instead. Sally then spends the rest of the day out of the house, and in general behaving like a perfectly reasonable woman (whose house is crawling with monsters).
When she does come back to the house, though, she finds that Perez the decorator has made an unexpected stop. She takes the opportunity to inform him that they're leaving the house, and that his services will no longer be needed.
And Perez is furious.
He's so upset about potentially losing all the additional work, and perhaps not even being paid for what he's done, that he goes charging out of the house. Wrapped up as he is in his indignation, he fails to notice the cord that's been stretched across the head of the stairs, which is pulled tight as soon as his shadow crosses the threshold. Perez trips, and plummets to the bottom of the stairs... breaking his neck.
Thinking quickly, Sally grabs the rope just as whatever's holding it in the shadows starts pulling it back. "Who are you?" she cries; "What do you want?"
"We want you, Sally," comes the reply; "It was a mistake! It's your spirit we want... It's your spirit we need!" The rope is yanked from her hands so ferociously that it leaves a burn across her palms. Sally is left standing between the things in the shadows and the corpse at the bottom of the stairs...
This little turn of events makes it complicated for Sally to leave the house. There's the ambulance and the police to deal with; and though Perez's death seems to be an accident, there are still questions to be answered and forms to be filled out. The doctor on the scene is also concerned about Sally going into shock, so — this is seventies logic here — he leaves some sleeping pills with Joan, in case she can get Sally to take them. Of course, Sally has no intention of taking any sleeping pills: she's waited all day to make her final exit from the house, and she's not letting Perez's death slow her down any more than it already has. Alex is even on his way back, having been notified in San Francisco of the emergency at home. So you see? Everybody's behaving in a surprisingly sensible fashion... for a horror movie.
But this is a horror movie, so you can guess that things aren't going to go as smoothly as Sally hopes.
Joan offers Sally coffee, then the sleeping pills; but Sally rejects them both. Joan can't quite understand why Sally is so anxious to leave; after all, Alex should be back in just a few hours. As Joan places the coffee and the sleeping pills on Sally's nightstand, Sally begins to tell her what's really going on... what really happened to Perez, and what will happen to her if she doesn't get out of the house. She shows Joan the rope burns on her hands as confirmation.
Now, remember what I said about movies of this vintage treating their audience like grown-ups? Let me give you an example. We all know that those sleeping pills are going to end up in Sally's coffee (and then in Sally) before this scene is over, right? Of course we do. And the movie knows we know this, or at any rate trusts us to figure it out. At no point does the camera zoom in to remind us the box of pills is there. At no point do we see a tiny furry hand reach out and grab the box. At no point does the movie draw any attention at all to the nightstand. And when, inevitably, Sally does decide to take a sip of coffee, we have to look carefully to realize the box of pills is lying open, just at the lower corner of the screen. It's only when Alex comes storming back home and finds her nearly unconscious that the focus returns to the sleeping pills, and we realize what must have happened.
Even now, though, Joan still wants to get Sally out of the house as quickly as she can. But Alex still isn't convinced that Sally's being anything other than hysterical. Joan does her best to convince him that his wife isn't merely having a breakdown; that there's something fearfully dangerous in the house, even if they don't quite understand what it is. But Alex — reasonably enough, to tell the truth — wants to know more before he makes up his mind. The natural place to start is with old Mr. Harris, who'd seemed to know so much while saying so little. So Alex leaves Sally in Joan's care — at the house — while he tracks down Harris. It's only for a few minutes... what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty. Like three little monsters... an axe to the power cable... and a knife to the phone line. Like a distraction to send Joan out of the house. Like Mr. Harris's story to Alex, which hints at terrible things and draws a harrowing connection between the creatures and Sally... yet doesn't really do anything for Alex, other than keep him away from the place he's needed most. All of which leaves a woman, drugged and barely able to stay conscious, fighting for her life with the only weapon remaining to her: the flash bulb of George Kahn's forgotten Instamatic...
One of the things that remains disturbing to me after all these years is the way the three little creatures seem to know all about Sally long before she ever arrives. It's true, they don't foresee everything: for example, they don't seem to have known her name before she arrived, which is why they chant it rapturously after they hear it for the first time. They are surprised by Perez, accidentally killing him. They're also surprised to find Mr. Harris speaking a little too freely to Alex about the house's hidden dangers; when they try to punish him for his loose lips, they injure him, but fail to finish him off. So the details don't seem clear to them, and they're not infallible. Nevertheless, they know far too much about the future. This is not only disquieting in its own right; it also lends the Haunting of Hill House-inspired circular ending added poignancy.
But if the creatures seem to see things too well, by the end of the movie we still have very little insight into them. The movie is steadfast in its refusal to go into detail about its monsters; but far from being unsatisfying, this proves to be one of the movie's greatest strengths. Much like the creatures, a good ghost story is sensitive to too much light: if the details are revealed too clearly, its mystery tends to evaporate.
All in all, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a solid production. Though the story stumbles a little in the beginning, with its extraneous cat, the voice-over introductions, and the delay in introducing Alex, it finds its feet very quickly and never loses its balance again (that initial stumbling may be a result of the shooting schedule: the whole production went from green-light to finished film in an astounding two weeks. If corners had to be cut anywhere, I'm glad they chose the exposition!). From a technical standpoint, the movie is first-rate, with an enormous amount of thought and care put into the lighting and editing. The cast is made up of seasoned professionals: Kim Darby's Sally may seem mousy on the surface, but she's one of the few horror heroines who at least tries to behave sensibly in the face of the unknown... while Jim Hutton invests his Alex with enough of his usual charm to give us flashes of the man Sally fell in love with — a jerk, yes, but a likeable jerk. I also need to mention Billy Goldenberg's eerie musical score, which is perfect for the film: its low-flute ostinato suggests a patiently-waiting evil. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's soundtrack has aged more gracefully than many of its contemporaries'.
Even if the movie is unlikely to give modern viewers any sleepless nights, it's well worth rediscovery. I suppose that's why it surprises me a little that I'm actually looking forward to the 2011 remake. I understand they've changed the story radically: now, instead of a troubled couple moving into an empty house, the movie will concern a little girl who comes to live with her father and stepmother. I was at first a little skeptical to hear that they'd shifted the focus onto a little girl, but then I remembered the remake was being produced by Guillermo del Toro. Not only do I have an enormous amount of respect for del Toro, but I also remembered that children are rarely singled out for special protection in his films. The original movie impressed the hell out of us kids in the seventies by entrusting us with a grown-up ending. I hope del Toro's version is equally mature, and equally bleak.
The Warner Archive DVD of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is oddly expensive. It's a little cheaper than some of their other TV and movie re-issues, but the price is still steep considering the bare-bones nature of the release (not to mention the fact the disk is duplicated on demand to DVD-Rs). In this case, I think it may be worth the price. The movie deserves to be watched — not because of the surprises in its plot, and not because it's likely to scare people today the way it did decades ago... rather, it should be appreciated as a good movie in its own right. Long after the current crop of would-be scary movies fades into obscurity, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark will still be here, waiting quietly, biding its time. Of course it will. You know it will. It's been so long, so many years... but it is patient. It has all the time in the world.