Stars: 4.6 of 5.
Running Time: 74 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Kim Darby (TRUE GRIT, TEEN WOLF TOO, BETTER OFF DEAD), Jim Hutton (MAJOR DUNDEE, THE GREEN BERETS), Barbara Anderson (IRONSIDE, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN), William Demarest (THE LADY EVE, SULLIVAN'S TRAVELS, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON). Written by Nigel McKeand (THE WALTONS, FAMILY). Directed by John Newland (ONE STEP BEYOND, THE NEXT STEP BEYOND).
Tag-line: "Can you see them, Sally ... hiding in the shadows. They're alive, Sally. They want you to be one of them when the lights go out."
Best one-liner: " You know how a husband can tell you've lost your mind? When you stop spending their money! So let's go spend some more of our husbands' money right away."
Notable for having scarred a generation of movie-of-the-week-watching children, the 1973 made-for-television horror film DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK has established a reputation for 'holding up' all these years later, a difficult feat for the low-budget, turbo-produced TV movies of yore, long before the era of 'respectability' was ushered in by the likes of HBO and Showtime. Having just watched it for the first time, I have to say that it's a top-notch scare-flick, and one of the finest that the dark n' gritty 1970's had to offer.
When reviewing a film as subtly atmospheric, as shadowy, as eerie, and as minimalist as DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, I feel as if it's the reviewer's responsibility to reveal as little as possible about the scares, the specifics, and the monsters themselves (or the lack thereof). Suffice it to say that the film begins by adhering to the 'young couple moving into possibly haunted old house' template and proceeds to -quite rapidly- outperform the cliché with a combination of skillful realism and morbid, childlike dream-logic. So, without blurting out the plot, I'll briefly explain how the acting, direction, and writing conspire with one another to create a superior film.
First, it's directed by John Newland, the creator and host of the 'TWILIGHT ZONE meets UNSOLVED MYSTERIES'-style program, ONE STEP BEYOND. More interested in quotidian frights than social commentary, ONE STEP BEYOND was host to some genuinely unsettling moments. The scares were not gory, nor reliant on the mechanisms of 'Boo!'; they were rooted in situation, in realism, in a slow but believable progression of events. A woman's scream is perhaps the most worn-out aural utensil in horror's tired toolbox, yet in one memorable episode of ONE STEP BEYOND, I found myself oddly and singularly agitated by it. A premise had been built, our character screamed, and then it went on a little too long, felt a little too true. And that was Newland's gift- even within the constraints of television, with its myriad rules and regulations and advisory committees and standards and practices knuckleheads, he was able to (like the best of M.R. James) approach the very essence of horror: dread, panic, human unease. So we combine Newland's direction with the writing of Nigel McKeand, whose obsessions with domestic life in THE WALTONS and FAMILY gathered Emmy nominations and many ratings successes. As far as I can tell, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is McKeand's only foray into horror, but his 'homey' attention to detail lends the film a real sense of verisimilitude. The dynamics of marriage, the motif of the forgotten housewife, the attention paid to gender and overmedication, and the irresistibility of the unknown are tackled evenly by McKeand, and it's all sort of tempered by a sense of Lovecraftian, ancestral doom. I'm fairly certain they didn't explore that shit on THE WALTONS. Finally, the acting: Kim Darby, with a shaggy, kinda KLUTE-ish 'do, stars in a role that calls for equal parts Tippi Hedren in THE BIRDS and Jimmy Stewart in REAR WINDOW (the latter of which receives a loving stroke of homage). Alienated, terrorized, and accused of mental instability, she still brings the scrappy likability to the table that the role requires. She's our anchor, and her journey is ours.
The film was recommended by a friend who was trying to convince me of the hidden gems that 1970's TV movies had to offer the horror connoisseur. Despite being a devotee of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, NIGHT GALLERY, ONE STEP BEYOND, and the like I was initially nevertheless incredulous, but now, after seeing DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, I'm 100% on board. In lieu of seeing the forthcoming Katie Holmes remake, I'm going to try and hunt down BAD RONALD, KILLDOZER, and Richard Matheson's DYING ROOM ONLY, all of which sound pretty damned fantastic.