“We Want You Sally….We Want You….Come to Us!”
For those who first saw Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark at a young impressionable age when it originally aired on ABC in 1973, those maniacal, whispering voices of the little demons have probably stayed with you and so has this creepy little made-for-TV movie that has one of the more memorable endings of any haunted house genre picture.
In the day, the made-for-TV movie was rarely given the same respect or critical attention of a theatrical feature and, since they were all solo ventures, they never had a chance to build an audience like a recurring TV series. Yet horror fans in particular remember some of the terrifically weird and imaginative efforts that emerged from this much maligned category, watching them obsessively in repeats, such as Crawlspace (1972) with Arthur Kennedy and Teresa Wright as an older couple with a strange intruder under their house, Bad Ronald (1974) starring Scott Jacoby as a psychotic teenage voyeur, Trilogy of Terror (1975) featuring Karen Black versus a ferocious Zuni fetish doll, and another personal favorite, The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), Paul Wendkos’ tantalizing dramatization of the famous murder case in which the title character (played by Elizabeth Montgomery) was accused of axing her father and stepmother to death in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.
I recently revisited Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Warner Archives released it on DVD in the fall of 2009) and the thing that struck me about the original telefeature the second time around is the modest, no-frills nature of the film. Despite countless testimonials and fond memories from fans on the internet touting the movie’s frightening impact, anyone coming to Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark for the first time will probably react with “What? This is supposed to be scary? Is this a joke?”
It’s true that the film has little violence or gore or anything comparable to a contemporary horror film. And it has the low-budget look of a made-for-TV movie from the seventies complete with the now dated fashions, bad hair, drab interiors and a dominant earth tone color palette. Everything is merely serviceable from the script to the performances to the cinematography to the special effects with the exception of the lighting which is intentionally dark and lacking clarity. Yet the movie still casts a spell with its bare bones premise (spoilers ahead).
The setup has a sense of deja vu about it. A young couple, Sally (Kim Darby) and Alex Farnham (Jim Hutton), buy an old, sprawling mansion that we already know is haunted from the opening credits. Without going into a detailed plot description, all you need to know is that Sally, in her determination to make some renovations to the house, unleashes some demonic creatures from the sealed-up fireplace in the study…demons that only she can see and hear. While there is something almost comical and endearing about these little imps from hell (they look like shriveled up, moldy variations of the Poppin’ Fresh Pillsbury doughboy or critters carved out of winter squash), the film retains some of its original mystique simply because so little is explained. Who are they and where do they come from? Why do they want Sally?
There is no backstory or mythology on the demons or much detail about Sally’s grandparents who previously lived in the mansion. And what happened to her grandfather? Don’t expect any of these questions to be answered or any of the subsequent ones you’ll have after the film draws to a macabre fadeout amid more ghostly whispering.
What once worked as a spine-tingler for pre-teens – and probably still would for impressionable 8 year olds – also works as a Grimm’s fairy tale for adults. On one level, it’s exactly what it appears to be – a haunted house tale. On another level you could view Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as the diary of a mad housewife. In this case, the mental and emotional breakdown of a woman trying to please her self-absorbed, career-focused husband. In their few scenes together, it’s obvious that the relationship between Sally and Alex is strained and in trouble, something she is barely able to even articulate with her friend, Joan (Barbara Anderson). As her self confidence gives way to paranoia, Sally begins to resemble the fragile heroines of The Haunting and Rosemary’s Baby. Her curiosity, however, makes her a modern day Pandora and she pays the price for her stubborn refusal to heed the warnings of her handyman (William Demarest).
Just as Hitchcock would taunt us with the cool beauty and perfection of Tippi Hedren in The Birds before torturing her, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark serves up a dutiful Yuppie wife for the sacrificial altar and some of the once frightening scenes work better now as black humor – the dinner party scene where Sally freaks out at the sight of a gnome under the table or the sequence where Sally witnesses the death of her interior decorator Francisco Perez (Pedro Armendariz Jr.) at the hands of the little monsters.
There was certainly nothing in the resume of screenwriter Nigel McKeand to suggest that he would be best remembered for a made-for-tv horror film. McKeand spent most of his career writing for television with a focus on family series like The Waltons, 7th Heaven and 12 O’Clock High. His only foray into fantasy appears to be one episode for the TV series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. Director John Newland, however, was an early pioneer in creating fantasy genre series for television beginning with One Step Beyond in 1959. Other career highlights include numerous episodes of Thriller (“Pigeons from Hell”, “Portrait Without a Face”), Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, The Sixth Sense, and the TV movie Crawlspace. He made a few feature films between his busy TV schedule such as the crime drama The Violaters (1957) and My Lover My Son (1970). Following Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Newland directed the rarely seen theatrical feature The Legend of Hillbilly John (1974), a mystical folk tale with supernatural elements starring Severn Darden and Susan Strasberg.
At the time Jim Hutton and Kim Darby were cast in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, both actors were experiencing a downward arc in their careers. Hutton was getting too old for the boyish romantic leads that made him famous (Where the Boys Are, The Horizontal Lieutenant) and, after supporting roles in two John Wayne features (The Green Berets and Hellfighters), he opted for television work when feature film roles became scarce. In Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark he departs from his usual cheerful persona and gives us an unsympathetic portrayal of male entitlement which alternates between condescension, irritation and disbelief. There is an undercurrent of seething anger in this character and one wonders if Hutton is channeling this from his dissatisfaction with his own career. Only at the climax of the movie, does Alex take action but not because of his wife’s insistence. It is only because her friend Joan convinces him that evil is afoot. While Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark may not showcase Hutton at this best, it does display a side of him that was rarely seen until the end of his career. Just three years later he would star in the 1975 trash masterpiece Psychic Killer, an exploitation horror/fantasy that is a long way away from the romantic comedy days of The Honeymoon Machine (1961) or Bachelor in Paradise (1961).
Kim Darby wasn’t having an easy time of it either after becoming an overnight star in True Grit in 1968 and feeling the pressure to accept leading roles in films she wasn’t always well suited for such as the youth protest drama The Strawberry Statement (1970) and the lurid crime thriller The Grissom Gang (1971). In an interview with Sam Tweedle on the Confessions of a Pop Culture Addict web site, she admitted that the Hollywood success machine made her feel self-conscious about her body: “I became an amphetamine addict. There was a lot of pressure on me from True Grit that no matter what I did next I was [supposed to be the] leading lady. I am not the leading lady. I don’t get the guy. I am a character actress and if they had left me alone, and if I had told them to leave me alone, I would not have been so conscious of my weight.”
She also acknowledged that parts like her kidnapped heiress in The Grissom Gang were miscalculations and recalled that director Robert Aldrich’s son “was seated next to him [during the auditions] and afterwards he said “Dad, I don’t think she’s right.” [Robert Aldrich] said “She may not be right, but she’ll play the hell out of it.” Now I would have changed so many things on the way I did them and what I chose. I don’t regret that at all, but they were looking at me and seeing what the outside wanted and they wanted me to be sexy and that was never my deal.” Aspects of Darby’s insecure and fragile heroine in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could be a reflection of the actress’s own reactions to her Hollywood experience. At any rate, Darby, like Hutton, retreated from the limelight to work in television in 1972 starting with The People, an intriguing tale about children with paranormal powers that co-starred William Shatner and Diane Varsi.
As for the evil little critters without whom Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark wouldn’t exist, they continue to exert a never-ending fascination among devotees of the film. I find the little dudes more comical than frightening – you never see more than three in the course of the film – and their voices are more appropriate for cartoon characters in a Disney feature. The overall effect might be creepier if you couldn’t actually hear what they are saying or couldn’t understand it. There is one moment in the film, however, where their malevolence is truly disturbing. It’s in the Psycho-inspired shower scene where one of the imps is creeping up on Sally with a straight razor. A brief discussion between two of the demons ensues:
Voice 1: Don’t hurt her. Not yet.
Voice 2: But I want to. I want to.
Voice 1: No, no.
Voice 2: Why?
Voice 1: Later…in the bedroom.
Voice 2: But I want to. I wanna get her.
Voice 1: No, wait until tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll get her.
Voice 2. Let me just scare her then. I’ll scare her.
As much as I am fond of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, I welcome a remake of it unlike so many other films I cherish in their original versions. And I couldn’t think of a better person to guide the remake than Guillermo del Toro who created such amazing supernatural fantasy worlds in The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). His 2010 remake, directed by comic illustrator Troy Nixey (“Batman: The Gasworks”, “Trout”), was initially conceived in 2008 for Miramax (which had been acquired by The Walt Disney Company in 1993) and completed in 2010. But its release was held up because Walt Disney sold Miramax to Filmyard Holdings in 2010 and didn’t want to release the film under the Disney banner.
For those who don’t know, in the remake Sally is no longer a housewife but the young daughter (Bailee Madison) of an ambitious architect named Alex (Guy Pierce). They have moved into a crumbling mansion along with the father’s girlfriend Kim (Katie Holmes) in the hope of restoring it and making the cover of Architectural Digest. From the official trailer, the film looked remarkably faithful – maybe too much so – to the original even down to the details of revealing the creatures’s aversion to light and Sally’s use of a flash camera to keep them at bay.
Unfortunately, a bigger budget didn’t improve on the original. Making a young child the heroine instead of an insecure housewife should have made the premise more disturbing but little Bailee Madison is such a smart, resilient character that you never really worry about her fate. The tone was also altered from a sunny contemporary setting in suburbia (which prefigured 1982’s Poltergeist) to a gothic mansion out of some dark fairy tale. Overall, it felt overproduced with too many special effects that ended up detracting from the storyline and performances; instead of three creatures, you get dozens of them and the more you see them, the less effective or frightening they are. The film quickly settles into a repetitious series of mechanical jump scares in the second half and the conclusion is a pale shadow of the haunting original ending.
The Guillermo del Toro-Troy Nixey remake was a box office disappointment and the reviews for the movie were mixed although Roger Ebert was one of its champions, writing “This is a very good haunted house film. It milks our frustration deliciously. The adults are forever saying and doing the wrong things, and making stupid decisions…and somewhere in the audience will be a kid who gets inspired to make his own horror films.” Perhaps in time the 2010 remake will prove to be a rediscovered cult gem but I still prefer the Kim Darby original with those disembodied whisperers in the dark…..”It’s all just a matter of time. Of waiting for a while. All we have to do is bide our time. Bide our time. But it’s been so long. So many years. When will she come and set us free?”
The Warner Archive Collection released Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark on DVD in 2009 (Lorimar Video had released it on VHS earlier) and then put out a remastered special DVD edition of it in August 2011 featuring a commentary track by Sean Abley (writer for Fangoria), screenwriter Jeff Reddick (Final Destination) and Steve Barton of Dread Central. The film has yet to be released on Blu-ray.
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