Written by: John Newland
Directed by: Nigel McKeand
Starring: Kim Darby, Jim Hutton, and Barbara Anderson
Reviewed by: Brett G.
"But it's been so long. So many years. When will she come and set us free-set us free!Ē
Say what you want about remakes (yes, they are sometimes terrible), but they do conjure up interest in the original films. Iíve been meaning to get around to Donít Be Afraid of the Dark for a while, and a Guillermo del Toro-produced remake (thatíll finally be hitting theaters in August) sounds like a perfectly good excuse to dust off this made-for-TV horror flick. There were a lot of those in the 70s, but it seems like this one gets a lot more love than most.
Fidgety Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton) inherit a creepy old house (there are no houses that are either just creepy or old--itís a package deal) from her recently deceased grandmother. It comes with the usual creaks, groans, and a not so usual handyman who cryptically whispers about the houseís weird history. Heís not the only thing whispering, either--pretty soon, Sally hears strange voices that keep calling her name and insisting that they ďneedĒ her for something.
Iím not so sure I built up this one to unnaturally high expectations (it is a TV movie, after all), but I didnít find myself as enamored with it as I thought I might be. As a horror movie, itís your basic ďcouple buys a weird houseĒ flick--the wife is high-strung and possibly neurotic, so the husband writes it all off as her losing her mind. Hutton is kind of unusually pompous, though, and is actually quite a jerk; Darby (who has bad luck with horror houses--she moved into Michael Myersís abode 20 years later) is fine as a lead who has to go through the typical motions of seeing weird things and then being disbelieved. She generates enough sympathy, though I think living with Hutton might be the worst thing that sheís got going for her at times.
That probably isnít true because the things that are haunting her are pretty vicious littleÖthings. Though itís set up to be a haunted house tale, Donít Be Afraid of the Dark really isnít one; thereís no ghosts, and there might not even be a demonic presence. Instead, you get some troll-like creatures that may or may not be from hell, as they emanate from a boarded up fireplace (this is also where they want to take Sally, apparently). They donít perpetrate a whole lot of carnage, and they sort of anticipate the impish terrors of Childís Play, Puppet Master, and the like. The effects that bring them to life are pretty solid, though. The filmís title recalls that childhood fear of the dark, but I think the film itself preys on another universal fear: the monster in your closet or under your bed, which might be cool if it tied into that some more.
Instead, the narrative doesnít tie into much of anything at all; the whole thing feels like itís pushing towards some huge reveal--just what went on in this house that resulted in Sallyís grandparents also being terrorized decades earlier? No answer ever really emerges; the ending is certainly gutsy but is also without substance. Apparently, the movie was filmed really quick and on the heels of a writerís strike, so that might explain why it feels so undercooked. I think you can connect enough dots to figure out just what was going on, but it might leave a little too much to the imagination. It makes up for this a bit with some nice atmosphere--some of the establishing shots of the house are especially moody. Also, this one proves that sometimes you only need a cellar door slamming in a howling wind to evoke spookiness.
Iím actually looking forward to what the redux does with this concept. The original is fine--I think it does just about exactly what it should in terms of being a silly little amalgamation of a creature feature and a haunted house movie that was tossed onto prime time. Maybe a second pass at the material will result in a more polished gem; this one is more akin to a scuffed up piece of quartz that occasionally sparkles. For a while, you really had to dig to find it too, but the Warner Archive program finally gave it a DVD release about a year ago. Iím going to go on a bit of tangent for a moment, but movies like Donít Be Afraid of the Dark are a shining reason for Warner to license out their Archive titles to rental services. Itís by no means a terrible film, but I think a lot of peopleís curiosity would be satiated by the ability to quickly stream it. 20 bucks is a bit of a steep gamble unless youíre already familiar with the film and are seeking nostalgia. Rent it!
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