Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark (1973) DVD Review: Hard to Improve Upon Made-For-TV Gold

Warner Archive has released the original made-for-TV film Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. With the Guillermo Del Toro remake taking such a beating in the press, I thought it was a good time to refresh our collective memories to the quality product he was trying to improve upon.

This review really starts over 30 years ago. On a cold, wet Friday night in the mid-’70s, ABC reaired their 1973 made-for-TV horror film Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark. Little Shawn had yet to see Jaws, and he was years away from The Exorcist. Little Shawn had only been exposed to the Universal Horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein on his parent’s newly acquired cable television. This movie telecast freaked out little Shawn to no end — he would have his grandparents change the channel each commercial break, vowing never to watch it again. But before each set of ads were done, he’d be back on the channel until its terrifying conclusion.

I’ve blamed lots of sources for my continued interest in horror films and literature. Certainly my completely random and default purchase of two Stephen King paperbacks The Shining and The Stand at the Little Professor Bookshop in Southland Mall on an expiring gift certificate were partially to blame. So too was the continuous airing of Universal Horror films on Ch. 41 out of Battle Creek every Friday night. But this particular film also stands tall.

For years, I never forgot the film and I scoured video shelves to prove that it wasn’t part of my imagination — this film was truly scary. The longer I couldn’t find it, the more obsessed I became with it. The movie became kind of a Holy Grail of my video searches. I knew it was out there and in the days before eBay, Amazon and BitTorrents, I would find a listing for a 16mm version of the film or an elusive European VHS release. It wasn’t until the late ’90s that I obtained a tape of one of the TV airings complete with commercials. At that time, it was amazing how clear my memory of the movie was 20 years after its release.

Now, thanks to the wonderful folks at Warner Archive, the movie is available to order online only. I knew this day was not too far away when I first read word of a remake being produced by Guillermo del Toro and starring Katie Holmes. And timing it to be available to a whole new couple of generations in time for Halloween is just good business.

Seeing the film for the first time in almost a decade, and finally seeing it in pristine shape, I wondered how critically I could view the film or if I’d still be a seven-year-old in my grandfather’s chair watching the show. I’m happy to say that the film holds up pretty well.

The pedigree of the film isn’t promising but respectable. The film is directed by longtime TV episodic director John Newland and stars Kim Darby as Sally. Darby is best known for her debut role in John Wayne’s True Grit and my generation may best remember her as John Cusack’s mother from Better Off Dead. Sally’s husband is played by Jim Hutton who’s probably best known as Timothy Hutton’s father. The only other main character in the film is William Demarest as Mr. Harris, the fix-it man. Demarest is best known to the world as Uncle Charley from My Three Sons.

The film succeeds because it understands how to tell a good horror story on a budget and it doesn’t try to become something it isn’t. The plot is simple – young couple moves into old family house after wife’s grandmother passes away. While redecorating the house, Sally insists on opening a bricked-off fireplace against Mr. Harris’ warnings. Eventually she starts hearing voices and seeing figures in the dark. Sally is slowly driven to a nervous breakdown by these figures while husband Alex doubts her stories. By the time Alex finds the real reason why the fireplace was bricked up, it might be too late.

The film brought to mind a couple of influences. The first is Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story The Yellow Wallpaper. This 1892 story about a woman descending into madness is also read as a woman’s struggle against an oppressive marriage. The relationship between Sally and her husband, Alex, is strained at best. He’s an up-and-coming professional and spends more and more time away from the house. He continues through the film to deny her stories and blame them on external causes or her mental state. This frustration of hers really helps ratchet up the tension as she continues to breakdown. That same scenario of a young woman unsure of her surroundings and unable to convince the people around her that something is wrong is a major theme of Rosemary’s Baby from 1967.

The low budget did not stop the director and crew from putting together a great package that suits the film. A majority of the film takes place in the dark. There are very few daylight or well-lit scenes. When they are lit, the film stock looks like old pictures I have in photo albums from 1973. But in the dark, a lot is left for the viewer to just hear. The sound design is wonderful. The score is worthy of a much larger film and the design of the whispers that Sally hears in the dark is about the creepiest thing about the film. The little monsters are always hidden in shadow or only viewed in very short glimpses as they run away from light. It’s a very effective technique that keeps the viewer guessing and making a much scarier monster in their head than is on screen.

The made-for-television format isn’t kind to films. As a director, you either make a 75-minute film that feels like it loses momentum every 15 minutes or you cater your story to the end of an emotional beat every 15 minutes. In particular, one of the most effective made-for-television films of all-time is Steven Spielberg’s Duel because he understands how to use the breaks to his advantage. Instead of having to fill a few minutes with dialog to build suspense, he uses the advertisements to let little seven-year-olds twist the dial and eventually come back for more. This DVD version of the film is only lacking in that you don’t have to wait for the commercials between scenes.

Does it hold up? Yeah, for the most part. It’s a fun exercise in how you tell a scary story on a small budget. We’re jaded consumers now and expect bigger bangs and explosions. This film tells its story in brevity and with imagination. The story is simple but has some much larger undertones when viewed through the modern eye. I’m glad that the people at Warner Archive brought this back for me to share with my friends. Because the minute the lights go off in the house during the stormy night, I know it’s coming, but for a split second I’m seven all over again and very few movies can claim to do that.

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Shawn Bourdo

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