Legends have been told of the made-for-TV fright flicks that inspired many a pair of soiled undies, but I must’ve been tuned into the wrong stations. From my experience, the number of truly scary television terrors has been drastically overstated, with the majority of the pool consisting of over-indulgent miniseries and shorter features whose surplus of padding made them feel four hours long anyway. 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has always been mentioned among the cream of this subgenre’s crop, freaking out the likes of Pan’s Labyrinth creator Guillermo del Toro so much that he even spearheaded a big-screen remake in 2011. But while the film attempts turning its inability to show much graphic content into a strength rather than fall victim to it, the atmosphere ends up almost completely unraveled by the end. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark only lasts for an hour and change, but its lack of a constructive plot makes justifying even that brief of a running time a pretty tall order.
All that Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) wanted was a fresh start. Despite her husband Alex (Jim Hutton) wanting to remain in the city, she’s finally convinced him to move into the big old mansion she just inherited from her dearly departed granny. Sally is eager to fix up the place and make it look good as new…unaware that something sinister is keeping a close watch on her. Deep in the bowels of the basement, a fireplace has been sealed up with bricks, bolts, and steel, with the local handyman (William Demarest) refusing to say why. Sally’s curiosity gets the best of her, and she pries off an opening, only to regret her actions in the coming days. Futzing with the fireplace has freed a pack of small creatures, diabolical little devils who quickly go to work terrorizing Sally. Because the monsters can work their malicious magic and retreat from sight in a flash, Sally can’t get anyone to believe her, and with each attack chipping away at more of her will, it’s only a matter of time until the diminutive demons claim her for their own purposes.
Had I been of age when Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark first aired, there’s little doubt that I would’ve adopted at least a couple mental scars by the second commercial break. Its scares are low-key in a good way, using as their basis small-scale events that would give anyone the jitters when the lights are dimmed. Tiny whispers of voices echo in the night, items are knocked over by unseen forces, and some thing skitters about under cover of blackness. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark keeps its frights on a relatable level, and even as it introduces more elements of the fantastic as it continues, the threats benefit from being shrouded in mystery. Sure, the magic is ruined a bit once you get a good look at the creatures, whose inconsistent heights (which make them as large as a garbage bin but tiny enough to be dwarfed by books at the same time) do become the subject of some irritation. But as for what exactly these things are, where they come from, and why they’re so fixated on Sally is anyone’s guess. What’s important is how well director John Newland plays off of our childhood fears of boogeymen coming to get us, letting our brains fill in the blanks of what horrors could await our protagonists within their own home.
Unfortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark‘s knack for spinning its narrative wheels ensures that most of this creepy good will has vanished by film’s end. There’s just not much to this movie other than having Sally cower in fear of the creatures, and…that’s it. She’s not the most resourceful heroine in horror history, spending most of the running time shrieking, shivering, and taking whatever psychological punishment the monsters can dish out. Some have stated that this is part of an underlying commentary on anti-feminism, criticizing Sally for being oblivious to her own strengths and letting everyone else take care of her, but that seems like a stretch at best. In any case, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark ends up defining Sally almost entirely as a victim, and while we sympathize with her ordeal to a point, she simply doesn’t possess enough personality to care about her to the end. As a result, the flick’s later scare tactics end up falling flat, and because Sally commands so much of the focus, there’s not much room for supporting players to come in and shake things up (although Demarest pitches in a good performance as the film’s resident doomsayer).
For every Dark Night of the Scarecrow that takes viewers on a deliberately-paced journey into suspense, there are a dozen Don’t Be Afraid of the Darks that are stuck wandering in circles. I can’t say that there’s no tension here whatsoever, but thanks to a go-nowhere plot and an ineffectual heroine whom we pity more than we cheer on, much of it goes to waste. While it tries what it can with the few resources at its disposal, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has long since lost its ability to make people hurl their Swanson dinners in the air out of shock.
(Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is available to purchase through the Warner Archive Collection.)