Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)
During the early 1970s, the three major television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) provided their viewing audiences with an abundance of well-made, low-budget fright flicks as a response to the then burgeoning drive-in market. One of the most well-remembered shows to air during this time was the ABC Movie of the Week. The series ran for a respectable six years (1969-1975), producing several key genre entries. John Newland's Don't Be Afraid of The Dark stood at the forefront of this small screen movement. Newland's film left an indelible mark on the terrified viewing audience that caught it on October 10, 1973. Now, almost forty years later, it still stands up as the kind of film that will make you want to sleep with your light on.
The story begins with Alex (Jim Hutton) and Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) taking up residence in an old mansion that they have inherited from Sally's grandmother. As the Farnham's begin to move in, a series of mysteries reveal themselves (a locked door, a bricked up fireplace) that will propel Sally into the depths of a waking nightmare.
Writer Nigel McKeand sets the story's supernatural tone by casting three hideous, gnome-like creatures as the film's antagonists. After being released into the Farnham's home when Sally unbolts the ash door to a bricked up chimney in her grandfather's study, these pint-sized terrors succeed at inducing chills as they wield what appears to be a massive straight razor (in comparison to their size), speak in whispered voices from the shadows, and work in tandem on a devious plot which will focus in on an already distraught Sally. Make-up artist Michael Hancock creates some of the most memorable monsters of the 1970s with this effort, and although his designs here are rather basic, they still manage to frighten.
McKeand juxtaposes the story's supernatural aspects with a sub-plot concerning the troubled Farnham marriage. As Alex vies for a promotion at work he becomes consumed with his job leaving Sally to feel isolated and unwanted except in a domestic capacity. McKeand conveys her feelings through dialogue as Sally makes statements such as "You only married me because I'm the perfect hostess." or when she confides to a friend that "Alex is in a stage in his life where all he thinks about is his job and getting ahead. What really scares me is that it may not be a stage." Alex is so overwhelmed with the prospects of career advancement that his wife's obvious emotional issues fail to register until Sally begins to make claims that she is under siege by miniature assailants. Alex's natural response to these bizarre accusations is to think that Sally needs to seek professional help.
The story moves along at a rather brisk pace that is somewhat dictated by the made-for-television format. When you takes into consideration that a portion of the film's ninety minute time slot is set aside for commercials, McKeand was left with seventy-four minutes to get his story across. This time restraint leads to a narrative that is filled with rapid, escalating events that heighten suspense, but also open the doors to some obvious plot holes. For example, although the film's nefarious creatures play an integral role in the story neither their origins, nor the reasoning behind their actions, are ever revealed. This is one of those instances where some could argue with a fair degree of success that a prequel or sequel is actually warranted. Overall, these time-induced plot deficiencies prove to be trivial as the continual flow of action overshadows any negative impact that they would otherwise have on the narrative.
Newland places the film's narrative in the hands of a small but talented cast which includes Jim Hutton, Kim Darby, and William Demarest in primary roles. Hutton is impressive as Sally's callous husband Alex, displaying the emotional vacancy of a career-obsessed spouse to perfection. Demarest shows a cantankerous side as the handyman (Mr. Harris) who knows more about the Farnham's new home than he lets on.
Although both Hutton and Demarest are convincing throughout, it's Darby that carries the film. Her performance as Sally comes across as believable due in large part to Darby's ability to draw out the sympathetic nature of her character. Her dramatic responses to a bevy of frightening situations emphasizes her timid fragility which is vital to the success of her role. From body language to delivery, Kim Darby gives one of the finest performances you are apt to find in a made for television fright film.
The fact that a vast majority of the film is shrouded in darkness affords veteran cinematographer Andrew Jackson with the perfect opportunity to showcase his exceptional talents for lighting. He excels in this capacity by piercing deep black backgrounds with pools of blue light which illuminate sequences of suspense, accentuating the creatures terrifying facial features with vibrant reds, and using open doorways to throw shadows across unlit rooms creating a constant sense of visual menace. Thanks to Jackson's abilities, Newland's feature looks and feels like a much larger production.
Composer Billy Goldenberg is another veteran of the medium who plies his trade on Newland's feature. Throughout his career Goldenberg would score several television fright films such as: Duel, Ritual of Evil, The Legend of Lizzie Borden, and Helter Skelter to name but a few. As this list of credits can attest, Goldenberg is adept at numerous musical styles, so it comes as no surprise that his work here is exemplary. For Don't Be Afraid of The Dark he relies on short precise compositions with a dark classical feel that are orchestrated for the sole purpose of creating tension. This is best evidenced prior to the film's required commercial fades as he builds musical crescendos that peak when the film heads into the break creating instant cliffhangers.
With a following that rivals many of it's big screen counterparts, director John Newland's Don't Be Afraid of The Dark may very well be the quintessential made for television horror film. Highlighted by a suspenseful story, strong acting, and a premise that succeeds in raising all the intended goosebumps, Newland's film is indicative of how frightening the small screen can truly be.