Thirty years of horror: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Tom: I have such a soft spot for this goofy little made-for-ABC-TV movie for a few reason. Partly because I remember being freaked out by these made-for-ABC-TV movies as a kid. There was one about killer ants, where the survivors have to hole up in the attic while ants work their way up from the ground floor. There was another one about the crew of a Coast Guard helicopter who finds a bunch of dead bodies on sailboat adrift in the Bermuda Triangle. Of course, there was Trilogy of Terror, with Karen Black and the Zuni doll. But this is the one I remember most.

After the jump, don’t be afraid of the things you were afraid of when you were a kid?

Chris: I really enjoyed this too, but oddly enough I don’t remember seeing it on TV at the time. I’m not sure that’s totally necessary to be captivated by the nostalgia of it all. The acting, directing, and dialogue are inseparably married to that time period. Take out the subject matter and shorten it a bit and nothing here would feel out of place in a show like Fantasy Island. I think that’s actually something that works in the movie’s favor, too. Nothing in horror works as well for me as presenting me with the mundane and familiar setting, and then subverting it for scary effect. I think that explains why some of the movies we watched that were set in the 18th century kind of missed for me, too. Here it isn’t just the setting and characters that are familiar and “normal”. It’s everything that makes this feel like we’re watching a regular, good old TV movie about a suburban couple trying to work through marital struggles.

Tom: I don’t know how much I’m reading into the subtext, but this strikes me as a battle of the sexes movie. Poor Sally, played to pitiable pitch perfection by Kim Darby, is done in just as much by the patronizing attitude of menfolk as by little demons. It’s Sally and her headstrong friend against the husbands and cranky handymen of the world. Sally comes from an era of “don’t get hysterical, little lady, now go get the house tidied up for the party so your husband can get his promotion, and wear this godawful dress since it’s the latest fashion”. Could being drugged, bound, and slowly dragged into hell be a metaphor?

Chris: I have no idea how long it has been since I heard the unironic use of the phrase “women’s lib”, but hearing it in this movie made me smile. While you could argue that the obvious struggle between the sexes here maybe dates the movie, with the passage of so much time I feel like it fixes the film in its setting and era (not an ERA) when these were real and important issues. The ending could indeed be that metaphor, I hadn’t even thought of it. Watching them come after Sally there at the end actually made me think it was a loving callback to the end of Tod Browning’s infamous movie Freaks. All that was missing was the “one of us…” chant.

Tom: I love the idea of malicious little creatures lurking in the shadows. I like that Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark isn’t shy about showing them, and they’re genuinely freaky looking considering they’re so obviously people in masks. The tricks with oversized sets are so endearing. And I love how much is unexplained. These guys are malicious little demons. Just go with it. If you want something fluffier with more specific rules, Gremlins will be along in a few more years.

Chris: I don’t disagree too much, but I could have maybe used a touch more exposition here. I mean…are they gremlins? Demons? How’d they get there? How the heck did Uncle Charlie get them trapped in the ash pit long enough to brick up that fireplace? I will say this: when Sally gets a full-on look at one of the creatures in the face at the party…yowza. That made me jump here and now. I can’t imagine how much of a freakout that must’ve been in 1973!

Tom: That shock is completely missing in the recent remake, which is utterly terrible for a number of reasons (here is the Qt3 Movie Podcast for both the original and the remake). The obligatory CG creatures are the least of its problems. In fact, they’re actually somewhat cute and cat-like with how they scamper around, compared the weird shambling ape-ness of the original movie’s creatures. My biggest issue with the remake is that is loses so much by changing the protagonist to a little girl, forcing some sort of weird tooth fairy mythology onto the creatures, and changing the setting to an exotic manor instead of a familiar household, which deprives it of that mundanity you mentioned earlier. Once again, a remake that misses the point of the movie that inspired it.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)