Monday, 21 May 2012

Review: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark(1973)

Moving into a new house can sometimes be a little unnerving, even a little scary, but it generally isn't an exercise in flat-out terror.  Alex and Sally Farnham are settling into their new home; a Victorian pile that belonged to Sally's recently deceased grandmother.  While remodelling, Sally comes across a sealed up fireplace door in the basement den.  Against the advice of their handyman, Sally forces open the grating and now she's seeing things moving in the shadows and she's hearing voices–voices that are whispering her name.

In the 1970s, The American ABC network had considerable success with their series of teleplays marketed as the "Movie of the Week".  Most of these were fairly pedestrian affairs, but one result was a minor renaissance in science fiction and horror plays that showed remarkable imagination and innovation.  The reason for this is that the producers were forced to work on tiny budgets and, having at their disposal professionals who'd worked in film since the '40s, rather than fighting against these limitations, they exploited them to produce plays that relied on sparking the audience's imagination rather than saturating it with special effects.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a classic example.  It's an intimate, claustrophobic tale of terror about a young wife who moves away from New York to a place of relative isolation while her husband concentrates obsessively on his job back in the city.  As the strange happenings become more and more obvious, Sally goes from doubting her sanity to trying to convince her spouse and neighbours that there is something seriously wrong.  It doesn't help that the "something" is working overtime to prove to everyone that Sally is bonkers.

There's also a lot of credibility given to the sense of mounting dread.  It's established that the somethings that are after Sally aren't numerous, nor are they all-powerful, so they can't just "get" her; they must manipulate the situation in order to get Sally isolated and helpless.  Meanwhile, Sally can't just bolt out the front door because it's never as simple as all that.  Writer Nigel McKeand is especially clever in that he never reveals too much about the menace.  We never get a good look at them and we're only told enough about them to make them credible without making them understandable.  They remain that most frightening of childhood horrors; the monster under the bed that wants to "get" you.

Kim Darby gives a stong performance here from introduction to the final, chilling voiceover while William Demarest as the handyman's very ordinariness gives real force as he relates a tale that is in frightening contrast to his world of planks and paint.

But the real mystery of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is why anyone thought this needed remaking rather than just re-releasing.

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