Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)Synopsis: An old house. . .a mysterious locked room. . .a terrifying secret. Elements that make a horror movie memorably chilling get a taut, spooky reworking in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. Kim Darby (True Grit) and Jim Hutton (The Green Berets) star as Sally and Alex, young marrieds who inherit a crumbling mansion. Despite warnings to leave well enough alone in her new home, Sally unlocks the mysterious room, opens a bricked-up fireplace – and unleashes a horde of hideous, whispering, murdering mini-demons only she can see and hear. This is the original TV movie that inspired the theatrical film starring Katie Holmes and Guy Pearce.

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Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973) 6.75

eyelights: the atmosphere. the setting.
eyesores: the overall poor quality of the piece.

“Set us free. Set us free in the world. Free. Free. Free in the world. Set us free!”

As children, we have all been spooked by things that defy all logic as adults. For me, the “Miri” episode of ‘Star Trek’ creeped the heck out of me to the extent that I stopped watching the show for a while – in syndication, for some reason, I kept stumbling on it whenever I tuned in. I was also strangely disturbed by ‘Dr. Who’ during the Tom Baker years, putting me off the show altogether.

But I was never afraid of the dark.

‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is a 1973 made-for-television horror film. I knew nothing of this picture until a close friend of mine told me that this was the scariest film she’d ever seen, having seen it as a young child. Until then, I didn’t even know that the 2011 Guillermo Del Toro-produced silver screen adaptation was a remake (not that I was paying it any mind).

Curious to know what had made this film so scary, why it had had such an impact, but knowing full well that a 5-year-old’s impression is very different from a 40-year-old’s, I decided to track down a copy. I was further motivated because my friend expressed an interest in seeing it again, to revisit (and perhaps exorcise) the childhood fears it engendered.

And so it was that we watched it together, give or take 40 years after she had last seen it.

The basic plot is as follows: A couple move into an old house that they inherited from her grandmother. Despite being warned by the long-time caretaker to keep the basement chimney sealed, the new lady of the house opens its ash dump door and unknowingly releases a handful of goblin-like creatures into the house. Soon they are preying about and even killing visitors.

It’s nothing novel, but I was pleasantly surprised with it. Although ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ is ostensibly an “old dark house” movie, of which there are many, and a ’70s TV production, which says quite a lot about its quality, it had a tone to it that was nonetheless slightly chilling. I could easily imagine how this would have had an impact on an unsophisticated 5-year old mind.

But make no mistake: it’s low-budget, simple-minded stuff. The actors aren’t especially good, the dialogues are trite, the plot developments contrived, the staging is poor, and the special effects aren’t exactly stellar. However, one has to consider that it was a rush job, made in two weeks – then a record for a TV movie. It’s not surprising that this resulted in a subpar motion picture.

Still, ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ has the makings of a decent spookshow, and one can understand its cult appeal. Given a more creative script, half-decent actors and a surer hand, it could actually offer substantive chills. As it stands, however, it looks more like a blueprint, a demo if you will, of what could be. Beyond the mildly creepy creatures and the ending, it’s hardly unsettling.

I’m still not afraid of the dark.

Post scriptum: It sure does make me curious about the remake, though. Could it possibly fulfill the original’s promise? We soon shall see…

Story: 6.5
Acting: 6.0
Production: 6.0

Chills: 6.0
Gore: 0
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: August 15, 2014

4 responses to “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

    • Yeah, it’s pretty surprising how many of the recent horror films are remakes.

      I was talking about the movies I watched for the October slate (I’m almost done) with a friend who really likes horror and it was confusing because she kept thinking I was talking about the remakes, not knowing there were originals to these films. 🙂

      I look forward to seeing the remake of this one. What did you think of it?

      • I liked the premise and the relationship between the couple and the little girl, and it was quite creepy in places but… the creatures were a bit of a let down. I think it would’ve worked better if we’d seen less of them, and it had been left to the imagination.

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