DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK [1973] [HCF REWIND]

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HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word.  So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore.Our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection.  This week, with Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark soon to hit UK cinemas, Dr Lenera takes a look at the original TV movie that inspired it.

HCF REWIND NO.23:DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK [1973]

AVAILABLE ON DVD

RUNNING TIME:72 mins

REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

A neurotic housewife named Sally and her business exec. husband move into Sally’s family house, a spooky two story Victorian mansion.  When Sally starts the redecorating she comes across a locked room in the house.  After arguing with the handyman who insists she should leave the room locked, she finally gets the key.  She opens her father’s old study and has the bricks from the fireplace removed, but then strange things begin to happen.  Objects mysteriously move and Sally begins to see small, gnome-like creatures, but no one believes her.  Her husband dismisses her as neurotic and her friend thinks Sally may be losing her mind……..

Although not that well known generally, to the point that the recent Guillermo Del Toro-produced remake will probably be seen by more people who don’t realise it’s a remake than those who do, this TV movie does have a legendary status amongst horror circles, and is often put up there with other TV chillers that terrified many when they first saw them and are still considered to be very frightening indeed.  Things like Trilogy Of Terror and Ghostwatch.  Well, upon finally viewing it I can say that it isn’t any masterpiece, and there are certain things that the new movie can improve on, but is still pretty effective and I was enjoyably creeped out several times.  Whilst watching TV movies, you have to make certain allowances, such as fades to black every twenty minutes or so when adverts would originally have been shown, but I do reckon that watching it late at night with the lights off could still gives you the chills!  Perhaps partially due to a writer’s strike, it was made over just two weeks, making it one of the most quickly made TV movies ever.   The house it was filmed in was later used in House.  First shown on Wednesday October 10 on ABC, it got huge viewing figures and was often shown afterwards, though not so much in Europe, where it was less seen and sometimes retitled Nightmare.

After the opening, where, after the titles, we see a shot of the house at night and spooky whispering voices, the set up is done with great economy.  We hear certain bits of dialogue about the purchasing of the house over still shots of various parts of the building, which dispenses with at least five minutes!  We cut to Sally in the house alone, and things start to happen immediately.  Whispering voices call her name when the fireplace is opened, an ashtray is knocked to the floor and  something grabs her dress, in scenes which really get one on edge to the point where you think something might at any time come out of the shadows, or from under the bed, or from out of the cupboard etc.  The movie plays on primal fears, which is probably why it traumatised a great many kids when the saw the movie back in the 70s.  I could have done away with the brief shots on the creatures walking around in the dark, or at least some of them, but then you have a brilliant shock moment of a monster’s face popping out of a bush, which certainly made me jump.  It’s all so simple, but it works.  As the story progresses, it builds to a nicely tense climax with the power being switched off and even a murder.  Now I won’t spoil the ending, but remember the first time you saw The Wicker Man and were praying or shouting for Edward Woodward to escape or be rescued, but to no avail?  You may feel the same with the ending to this movie, which really surprised me the way it panned out.

The script refuses to explain much and asks more questions than it answers, but it just about gets away with it.  We don’t know why the monsters want Sally’s soul, we don’t even know exactly what they are, and there are background details to the history of the house which are very ambiguous.  At one point I thought the film was suggesting that Sally’s grandfather was a monster!  I would have liked it if the script went a bit more into the psychological aspect, perhaps letting us wander if it is all Sally’s imagination for the early reels.  It also seems to be hinting at elements of feminism without going properly into it, with Sally treated as the typical 70s ‘excitable wife’ who just needs calming down, and isn’t stupid how the two people who are supposed to be protecting her [even if they don’t believe her, they know something is wrong] end up leaving her alone.   Maybe they know things she doesn’t and were lying to her when they said they didn’t believe her?

Talking of the demons, they are not so scary when seen in full, even though they are nicely kept in darkness, and move a little clumsily, but their faces, o their wizened, creepy faces!  Michael Hancock and Bruce Jossen came up with a truly disturbing design here which is one of the best I’ve ever seen.  Although the remake will no doubt be better made in many respects, I doubt any of its CG will approach the horror of those demonic faces!  Director John Newland and cinematographer Andrew Jackson have a knack for positioning these faces in quick shots which can give you the willies, in particular one repeated shot of the three [you never see more than three, which was probably due to the low budget]  gnomes looking out from behind a row of books in a bookcase.  Their whispering is perhaps heard too often – I wonder if it would have been better if the demons had whispered in an unknown language?  Apart from the monsters, there are hardly any special effects in the film, which is actually quite low key and subtle.  Some modern horror fans might be disappointed at the lack of chasing around or shock moments of climactic struggle to the death, and even the one killing is shown as tastefully as you can imagine, as if this was a film from the 1940s.

Considering the very short shooting time, it’s amazing how good the film looks.  Of course you get your expected 70s designs and fashions, which some may find the scariest things in the film, but Newland effectively shoots the interiors of the house with little actual clarity, making of most of and even accentuating the dark corners and the shadows.   Kim Karby, who after her turn in True Grit became an underrated and underused actress always very good as portraying extreme psychological states [a ala The Grissom Gang] is excellent in portraying her character’s possible descent into madness, though Jim Hutton doesn’t really register as her husband – then again, he’s hardly in it and it’s Kim’s show.  I must also mention the often discordant score by Billy Goldenberg which really does help create the atmosphere.  It’s funny how a TV movie made so quickly actually looks like it has a great deal of good work and technical expertise put into it.  Don’t expect flashy graphics or blood or even much in the way of logic, but if you are a true horror fan you definitely owe it to yourself to check this little chiller out.  Now I know we are scared by different things; for example, The Blair Witch Project terrified a great many people but did nothing of the sort for me, while I was pretty frightened by Insidious but I know people on this very web site who weren’t affected by it at all.  One thing I am sure off though –  I can’t that that image of those bloody faces peering out from behind the bookcase out of my mind!

Rating: ★★★★★★★½☆☆

Dr Lenera
About Dr Lenera 1957 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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