In the early ‘70s—before cable, before streaming, before home video—young horror movie geeks were forced to rely on late shows and weekend afternoon creature features to get their monster fix. In between, however, right there on primetime, were the occasional made-for-TV horror films. Fortunately for us, in those terms the early ‘70s were a golden age. Killdozer, The Night Stalker, The Night Strangler, Trilogy of Terror, The Norliss Tapes, The Devil’s Triangle, Bad Ronald, The Bermuda Depths – it seemed every few weeks there was a new one to look forward to. Every kid back then had a personal favorite for one reason or another (I was and remain a staunch Kolchak man myself), but it was almost universally agreed that 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Darkwas the most genuinely terrifying of the lot. Guillermo Del Toro’s 2010 remake was fine, but despite all the advanced special effects and stylistic flourishes it still can’t touch the low-rent original in terms of simple, lasting, low-rent scares.
Thing is, there was nothing in the film’s background that would indicate it could even come close to becoming what it was, Neither director John Newland nor screenwriter Nigel McKeand had any background in horror (McKeand went on to write for The Waltons, for godsakes!). And in the hopes of ducking an impending writer’s strike, the picture was greenlighted, cast, shot and edited in a record-setting two weeks. You’d never know to look at it today that it was an insane rush job. There’s nothing sloppy, slapdash, or half-baked about it. It was a simple but incredibly effective horror movie, and images from that picture have stayed with me for forty years.
The film opens in classic, well-trod style, with dissonant music, a close-up of a screaming black cat, the sound of wind in the trees, and a crane shot of a spooky old house. From around the edges of the soundtrack come overlapping, whispering demonic voices asking “When will she come to set us free?”
Well, we get our answer to that one in the very next scene, with the arrival of baby-faced made-for-TV weirdie regular Kim Darby (The People, etc.) and her self-centered asshole lawyer husband (Jim Hutton). As per tradition an old woman dies and leaves her creepy old house to her granddaughter Sally (Darby), who decides to move right in. The place needs an awful lot of work, but fortunately the creepy old house comes complete with a creepy old handyman (eternal character actor William Demarest, better known for his work in comedies). Also as per tradition, Sally almost immediately lets herself into a mysterious locked room and discovers a mysteriously bricked up fireplace. The old handyman warns her (as old handymen must, by contract) that some things are better left undisturbed, that she should just forget about the fireplace and forget about the room, but Sally is suddenly quite obsessed with restoring the fireplace to working order. A good thing, too, otherwise it would have been a very short film, and not terribly scary. The minute the handyman leaves she opens it up, which is a big damn mistake. It sure makes those little demons happy though, as the camera tracks their invisible giggles out of the fireplace and into the house.
Up to this point we’ve been dealing with a fairly standard boilerplate haunted house movie, and everything was moving along as it should. The whispers were a nice touch, the disconcerting music was working well, and Newland had created a foreboding atmosphere. Apart from that there was little about it we hadn’t seen a dozen times before.
But once those happy little demons learn Sally’s name, the film starts earning its reputation. While most haunted house pictures are content to “show” us the dark forces at work via a few lighting and camera tricks together with a few invisible strings, Newland gives us actual little monsters moving in and out of the shadows—tiny, hairy creatures with walnut-shaped heads, black eyes, tight, severe mouths, and wicked senses of humor. By combining a few trick shots with some excellent sound effects and the power of suggestion, he created a kind of corporeal haunting that was quite unique at the time, and he was able to pull it off on a TV movie budget.
Back to the standard issue material, Sally’s jerk of a husband is consumed by his job and spends a lot of time traveling. And Sally herself, to be honest, is kind of a frail, whiny shrew, so it’s easy for him to dismiss her concerns as merely a desperate, neurotic ploy to keep him home (you know, “There are little demon creatures with walnut heads who come out of the shadows and call my name whenever you’re not home”). That kind of relationship is also to be expected in a movie of this nature—the frustrated and misunderstood voice in the wilderness and his or her patronizing and frustrated spouse.
For all the things we’ve seen before, there are so many startling images—a tiny arm reaching through the bathroom door to flick off the light, another demon opening a straight razor, Sally in a tug of war with creatures we haven’t yet seen—that the film as a whole becomes surprising and new. Part of the film’s effectiveness may lie with the number of unanswered questions it never bothers trying to answer. We don’t know who or what these little creatures really are, how they got locked up in the fireplace originally, why they’ve chosen Sally specifically, or what, exactly, their intentions are. We can guess, but like the handyman warned her, sometimes it’s best to leave alone. It’s just happening is all, and to ask why would somehow diminish it.
It was the film’s climax, however, that elevated Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark from being merely a cool made-for-TV horror film into a classic of the genre. It’s so unexpected, so disturbing, and ends on such a downbeat note that when it first aired those images immediately seared their way into a million impressionable brains. We’d never seen anything like that on network TV before. Which, I guess, is why a few of us are still thinking about it.