Kindertrauma Classics:: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (’73)

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.

Kindertrauma Classics:: Trilogy of Terror (1975)

Trilogy of Terror is an anthology horror film created for television that premiered on the night of March 4th, 1975 on the ABC network. The telefilm contains three distinct tales based on short stories written by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, Hell House), features multiple performances by award winning actress Karen Black (Burnt Offerings, House of 1,000 Corpses) and is directed by the legendary Dan Curtis (Dark Shadows, The Night Strangler). At this point in his career Curtis had produced the highest rated original television film of all time, The Night Stalker (1972).

Trilogy of Terror’s first story entitled “Julie” concerns an introverted English teacher named Julie Eldridge who finds herself the focus of her student Chad’s sexual fantasies. Against her better judgment she agrees to a date with him to a drive-in movie. Unbeknownst to her, Chad spikes her root beer with narcotics that render her unconscious and takes her to a local motel where he photographs and takes advantage of her. Afterwards Chad utilizes the photos of a compromised Julie to begin a sadistic campaign of blackmail and humiliation against her. Unfortunately (yet karmatically appropriate) for Chad, Julie is not quite the vulnerable pushover she seems.

“Millicent and Therese” features two sisters at a crossroads in their relationship (both played by Black). Millicent is a dowdy spinster while Therese is a flashy blonde troublemaker who enjoys seduction, Satanism, witchcraft and (to both of their future detriment) voodoo. The two could not be more different but we come to find, are more alike than either realizes.

The final yarn “Amelia” is easily the most vividly remembered. Amelia is a young woman who has recently secured an apartment in order to gain independence from a smothering mother. She’s even found a boyfriend, an Anthropology teacher who is sure to appreciate the gift she has purchased him, an 8-inch Zuni fetish doll. The hideous figurine comes complete with a sharp spear, teeth a piranha would envy and a scroll chained to it declaring it “He Who kills”. The scroll also warns that removal of the chain would set the spirit of the Zuni warrior trapped within free. What could possibly go wrong?

The first two segments are wonderfully crafted capsules of suspense and intrigue but it is undoubtedly the third “Amelia” that has spurred many a check under the bed and many a sleepless night. The somber dread and Twilight Zone-flavored twists of the first two installments should never be undervalued though, as they brilliantly work as a covert springboard to propel the third act into the chaotic heights of frenzied terror it achieves. The Zuni doll is a horror icon and is so because of incredibly creative camera work, intuitive puppetry and the massively pervasive musical prompting of long long-time Curtis cohort Bob Cobert. When the little Zuni devil is inevitably released from its binding, shadow play, disturbing sound effects, POV camera angles and everything but the kitchen sink (including the oven) collaborates to make this impossible imp ferociously alive.

On the other hand, no special effect or camera trick is as instrumental or persuasive as actress Karen Black. She skillfully inhabits several roles in this production but as Amelia, the authentic terror she emotes is infectious and impossible to deny. By her account, Black also contributed heartily to the segment’s impossible to forget final image.

Why is the Zuni doll so effectively scary? Maybe the anxiety of repercussions for not respecting another culture’s beliefs is involved. Perhaps it’s an intuitive primal panic of the herculean damage diminutive wild beasts can cause. Or is it the trepidation every child has felt looking at a beloved toy after dark and sensing it might somehow come to life? Whatever it is, Trilogy of Terror taps a worry and it taps it well and good.

Trilogy of Terror was an instant hit with both critics and television viewers. Its impact was immediate and profound and it inspires spoofs and winking references to this day. According to actress Karen Black, the TV movie’s impact was enough to forever alter the course of her career. Ongoing interest was strong enough to inspire a sequel decades later that was again helmed by Curtis entitled Trilogy of Terror II (1996). This incarnation featured a trio of performances by actress Lysette Anthony rather than Karen Black but again the cinematic triptych’s highest point boasted the infamous Zuni menace. The popular Child’s Play/Chucky franchise and ongoing Puppet Master series owes much gratitude as would perhaps any horror movie that involves pint-sized threats. The reach of “He Who Kills” is far, wide and ever growing.  

Trilogy of Terror is a class “A” traumatizer of legendary proportions. The jewel in its crown, the Zuni fetish doll, is a gift that keeps on giving and a TV-born monster for the ages.