Some of the creepiest movies of the ’70s were actually made for TV, perhaps because the medium’s restrictions against gore forced filmmakers to concentrate on atmosphere and suspense. Additionally, the way TV movies came and went overnight lent a sort of mythological power to the best such pictures, with viewers wondering if they really saw what they thought they saw. Given these factors, it’s understandable why an otherwise unassuming flick like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark could gain minor cult-movie notoriety: While not a great film, the picture was creepy and strange enough to lodge itself in viewers’ collective memory. (Proving the picture’s enduring appeal, a big-screen remake was released in 2011, with Katie Holmes starring.)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is haunted-house picture notable for the bizarre-looking creatures that harass the story’s heroine. The critters are doll-sized, fur-covered humanoids with ugly little wrinkled faces, and they use simple tools like a rope strung across a stairway to cause lethal accidents. In shots where the creatures interact with normal-sized people, oversized props and careful editing are used to sell the illusion that these tiny tormenters are scuttling around underfoot, trying to drag the humans down to their mysterious realm, which can only be accessed through a basement fireplace. For unsuspecting viewers in 1973, discovering that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was a full-on creature feature must have been alarming, and even though the supernatural concepts of the movie are both ridiculous and unexplained, the idea of gremlins lurking in the shadows of one’s own home is an irrational fear many people share.
The story begins when a young couple inherits a musty mansion. The husband (Jim Hutton) is often away on business, so his wife (Kim Darby) is stuck at the house, bickering with a cantankerous handyman (William Demarest) and trying to figure out if the weird creatures she’s seeing are real or imagined. Neither Hutton nor Darby is an acting powerhouse, and Demarest gives a perfunctory turn, so it’s not the acting that gives Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark its mild spookiness; rather, the picture’s potency stems from the filmmakers’ wholehearted commitment to an outlandish narrative. The movie gets down to business immediately and escalates steadily, never pausing for distractions like character development, and there’s always something admirable about a no-frills fright machine. So, while Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark can’t match the nerve-jangling intensity of the best ’70s TV horror, like Duel or Trilogy of Terror, it’s a distracting trifle nonetheless. (Available at WarnerArchive.com)
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark: FUNKY