On October 10, 1973, the ABC Movie of the Week featured a gaggle of gremlins maliciously terrorizing a young housewife. The made for television horror spectacle was entitled DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK. It was directed by John Newland (director/host of supernatural anthology series ONE STEP BEYOND) and showcased the well-established acting talents of Kim Darby, Jim Hutton and William Demarest. In a mere 74 minutes, viewers were drug from the most ordinary of domestic scenes to a surreal and uncanny conclusion.
Upwardly mobile married couple Sally (Darby) and Alex (Hutton) Farnham move into a stunning Victorian mansion that Sally has inherited from her recently departed grandmother. Alex would prefer a modern apartment in a luxury high-rise but bends to Sally’s wishes to redecorate the distinctive family home. One of Sally’s first desires is to open up a foreboding fireplace in her deceased grandfather’s dank, dark study, much to the disfavor of aged handyman Mr. Harris (Demarest) who has a long history with the estate. Self-described as “stubborn and curious,” Sally finds the vaguely verboten hearth impossible to resist and eventually is able to open its adjacent ash-door only to find what appears to be an impossibly deep abyss inside. Sally relents, realizing the fireplace renovation is beyond her abilities but the damage has been done; whispering voices rejoice, “She has set us free!”
Soon Sally is seeing miniature nightmarish imps out of the corner of her eye nearly everywhere. They brandish razors and stalk her while she’s showering; they pop out of flower vases during important dinner parties and Sally’s every insistence of their existence makes her look more and more insane. The little buggers even manage to trip and kill an interior decorator on the staircase and leave Sally with the less than reassuring whispered message that they meant that fate for her. Sally’s turmoil hits fever pitch when not exactly sympathetic hubby Alex is called out of town on prioritized business matters and our increasingly frantic protagonist is left alone with the miniature attackers who’ve sworn to claim her.
As much as I hate being the bearer of bad news, our gal Sally makes one too many underestimations of her tiny enemies who mischievously spike her coffee with sleeping pills. She cleverly uses a camera’s flashbulb to keep her light-fearing foes at bay but to no avail, as she is practically hog-tied and drug to her doom. The telefilm closes as it opens with hushed voices pleading for another victim to unknowing free them and creepily consoling themselves that they have, “All the time in the world” to wait. Devastatingly, now Sally’s voice has joined the sinister chorus.
It’s not hard to see why DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK kindles fears on an almost primal level. Our trepidation of “things that go bump in the night” is as old as time and understandably so. Although we’re not given much information on the creatures that torment Sally, their appearance rings as demonic in nature as if they’d sprung from an ancient illustration. Their oversized walnut grooved noggins are borderline amusing but once in a while, you catch a glimpse of their all too human eyes and the effect is still eerie all these years on. No one would believe such entities could exist but it wouldn’t hurt to look under the bed before you sleep anyway.
Stressing matters even further is the increasingly strained relationship of Sally and Alex. Initially much of their anguish is similar to any new homeowners in over their heads who might be dealing with a vermin infestation of sorts. Yet it’s hard not to notice how Sally’s feelings of ineffectualness and anger at not being heard are routinely exasperated by the supernatural happenings. In this household, only Alex’s aspirations seem to be taken seriously and Sally’s main role is as “the perfect hostess.” In many ways the tale is akin to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Sally is consistently crushed down by events and literally made so small by her diminished role in her own life that she finally becomes part of the woodwork and disappears passively pleading to be set free.
There’s no doubt that DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK made a massive impression on those who viewed it (at any age). Many who missed the initial broadcast had plenty of opportunities to catch re-airings of it on local late night TV for decades expanding its reach even further. Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro was so inspired by the dark fantasy that he went on to produce a theatrical remake in 2010. It’s possible modern audiences may have a hard time understanding the fuss about a flick that features dubious oversized props and fur-suited monsters rambling about in forced-perspective shots but the fears, themes and discomforts presented within this classic made for TV movie are undoubtedly eternal.