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Monday, September 14, 2009

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK -- DVD review by porfle

Here's another one of those "ABC Movie of the Week" made-for-TV horror gems that still lingers in the minds of those who saw it back in the 70s. I missed DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973) then, but if I had seen this modest but effective fright flick in my younger days I'm pretty sure it would've made an indelible impression on me, too.

Kim Darby and Jim Hutton play Sally and Alex Farnham, a young couple who have just moved into a big old mansion left to them by her late grandmother. It's a fixer-upper, so they've hired Mr. Harris (William Demarest), an old handyman who's worked around the place for years, to do some repairs. When Sally opens up a dark, creepy basement room with a bricked-up fireplace, Mr. Harris sternly warns her to leave it alone.

Curious, Sally unbolts the fireplace's side door and peers inside with a flashlight at what appears to be a deep pit. Unwittingly, she's just unleashed a malevolent force into the house. She begins to glimpse hideous troll-like creatures lurking around, and hears them chattering about killing her. Alex doesn't believe her, of course, and calls a doctor, thinking that stress has driven her off the deep end. Sally is sedated, rendering her helpless on the very night that the creatures have chosen to make their move.

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK starts out like it's going to be a ghost story a la THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, but the first sight of one of those vile little trolls peering out at Sally through a potted plant during a dinner party heads the whole thing up a different alley altogether. I was actually in the mood for a ghost story, so I was a little disappointed at first. Then, the idea of these evil, revolting things skittering around behind the walls and popping out of secret panels kind of grew on me. The scene with Sally taking a shower as they creep up on her with a straight razor is especially unnerving.

Four years past her portrayal of the spunky Mattie Ross in TRUE GRIT, Kim Darby does a good job going through all the various states of uncertainty, fear, and finally stark terror that are required of her as Sally Farnham, despite some really bad hair. The late, lamented Jim Hutton (WHERE THE BOYS ARE, THE GREEN BERETS) brings his familiar lanky persona to the role of Alex, who's initially a bit of an insensitive jerk but finally comes around when the sinister goings-on in his new house can no longer be denied.

Sally's best friend Joan is played by the pretty Barbara Anderson of TV's "Ironside", and in a refreshing change from the usual cliche', Joan isn't having an affair with Alex and they aren't trying to drive Sally crazy. (That seems to be a popular "twist" in movies like this, and the fact that it doesn't happen is the real surprise.) Hollywood veteran William Demarest, needless to say, is reliably solid as the old handyman. Pedro Armendariz, Jr. appears as Sally's emotional interior decorator.

John Newland of TV's "One Step Beyond" directs the film with his usual taste and restraint. He manages to create a very eerie atmosphere inside that big, dimly-lit house. The creatures are pretty effective as well, portrayed by actors running around in oversized sets and wearing some of the ugliest monster masks I've ever seen. There's none of the violence and gore that audiences so often require in order to "scare" them these days--after all, this was 70s network TV--but the film evokes a feeling of dread and unease that gradually builds toward a suspenseful climax that's surprisingly downbeat.

As part of Warner Brothers' Archive Collection, the DVD is totally no-frills and the film itself is transferred from available materials with no remastering or restoration. As such, it looks as it might if you caught it during a late viewing on a local TV station. While more discerning videophiles may cringe, for me this only adds to the nostalgia factor and these burn-on-demand DVDs of titles from the Warner vault are a great idea.

Despite the title, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK actually wants us to be afraid of the dark. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if I'd seen it when it first aired, it would've scared the crap outta me. Watching it now, though, I'm merely entertained. And that weird sensation of little furry creatures brushing past my legs during the movie is just my imagination, heh heh.

Buy it at the WB Shop


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