Schlocktoberfest #8: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
I’m watching this movie because Brian the Friendly Irish Giant said it scared the bejeezus out of him as a child, and I want to make fun of him. Back in the ’70s we had some good TV movies, and this was one of them. Made in a 2 week rush after a writer’s strike, it stars Kim Darby (the crazy mom from Better Off Dead) as a housewife tormented by little creatures living in the walls of her house. Of course, her husband doesn’t believe what she sees out of the corners of her eyes, but we know he’s full of shit when he tells her: don’t be afraid of the dark.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is also in the news because Guillermo del Toro wants to remake it. It’s a classic tale, and could use his creepy touch. For an old TV movie with horrible special effects, it is quite effective. When we meet the Farnhams they are moving in to a Spanish mansion, and are confused as to why the huge fireplace is bricked up. The handyman associated with the house- Mr. Harris (old hand William Demarest) tells them that it can’t be unbricked, that the previous owner- Mrs. Farnham’s grandmother- had him do it with steel rebars and so many layers of brick that you’d have to tear the house apart to do it. When she asks why, he adds ominously, “some things are better left as they are.”
Now of course, Sally can’t leave it alone. It niggles at the back of her mind, and she finds a way to pick at the cinder trap with a wrench to sate her ravenous curiosity. She peers inside the flue and sees nothing but a seemingly endless crawlspace going off into the depths of the house’s innards. Well, that was anticlimactic, right? But once that grate has been unlocked, strange things start happening. She hears little whispers in the dark. Scuttling footsteps in the corners, like little rat claws scrabbling at the walls. She starts seeing faces in the dark corners, most notably under the table at their housewarming party. She screams and no one else can see it, so her mental state comes into question.
Back in the ’70s, Women’s Lib be damned, it was still okay to portray women as hysterical creatures incapable of resisting the slightest abnormality. If they weren’t tripping on those high heels during ’50s monster flicks, their inherently fragile nature was shattering at the merest suggestion of terror in these ’70s and ’60s horror films. It’s hard to blame her when the lights go out as she showers, and she finds her husband’s straight razor on the floor! Soon we get hints of the house’s dark secret- little clawed hands are reaching out from cabinets to turn off light switches. Little misshapen heads huddle together and whisper “free, free!” and “I want to hurt her!”
Poor Sally manages to hold it together, and agrees with her husband to sell the house, despite it being a family estate. When they ask Mr. Harris to do some more work before sale, he refuses; he knows something, but he’s keeping his lip zipped. As he retrieves his toolbox from the dark and dusty basement, little voices threaten him: “You told! You know what happens to people who tell…” and he barely manages to escape the clutches of the unseen critters. Well, they’re not exactly unseen- we’ve seen little bits and pieces- a wizened face here, a hairy limb there. Just the kind of thing you don’t want squirming between the joists in your drywall, and poking its face out of a duct.
Their reign of terror begins as soon as hubbie leaves on a business trip. When the critters make their first attempt, they get the interior decorator instead. He takes a dive down the stairs, and they chatter “It’s your spirit we need, Sally! One of us! Live with us!” When the police come to get the body, she tells them he fell. Nobody suggests putting a fucking light on. This is the darkest house I’ve ever seen. A guy just fell to his death in your dark-ass house! The little demons must exert a form of suggestion, because everyone seems turned against her. The doctor is incredulous that she’s upset over someone dying in her home; her friend demands that she wait for her husband to get home when she wants to flee.
When hubby gets home, he listens to their story and goes to confront Mr. Harris, leaving the two women alone. The little creatures make their next move and cut the power, hacking at the lines in the walls, making the place even darker. This is where the story gets most effective, because the tiny beasts- which are just people in costumes, shot at angles to look small- are much creepier by candlelight. The little buggers want to tie Sally up and drag her down the chimney to their lair, where we learn that her grandfather was taken before her…
So is it worth watching? For its age, it is surprisingly effective. Somewhere between the camp of Trilogy of Terror and the psychological horror of 1963’s The Haunting, you have this bleak tale of a house whose secret is never fully explained. It was obviously influential- the ironic title comes about because the house’s little terrors can’t stand the light, and that may have been part of the inspiration for Gremlins, also about tiny malicious critters. It suffers only because its miniscule budget; the house itself is quite creepy, but the monster suits are pretty pathetic if you see them for more than a split second. They’re similar to the little demons from The Gate, but look even more dated. In a dark room on a quiet night, it will definitely give you the heebie-jeebies, and if your cat jumps on you at the wrong time, you may need a change of underwear. Recommended. If del Toro remakes it, I guarantee it will be amazing; it’s a good story that deserves a better telling.