A semi-legendary telemovie reputedly slapped together in two weeks in trying to beat a writer’s strike, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a curious little work in the vein of decades’ worth of short horror fiction from the likes of Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, although it’s actually built around an original screenplay by Nigel McKeand. Kim Darby and Jim Hutton play a young couple, Sally and Alex Farnham, who move into the big old house that belonged to Sally’s grandfather after intensive renovations. When Sally wants to turn a basement room into a study, and pressures the elderly handyman, Harris (William Demarest) who used to work for Sally’s grandmother into opening a sealed-up fireplace in that chamber, he protests, uttering cryptic pronouncements about how some things are better left alone. Sally opens up the fireplace’s bolted-on access door herself, and seems to find nothing beyond but a cavernous trap. But soon after her violation, strange phenomena begin to make her life in the house a paranoid nightmare.
Sally’s domestic routines and plush dinner parties are uniformly laid waste, as she begins to realise that a race of diminutive gnome-like creatures inhabits an underworld beneath the house, and have made it their mission to “claim” Sally, as they once apparently claimed her grandfather. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, like some other early TV-made exercises in minimalist ghoulishness, makes virtues out of the limitations of television’s budgets and visual scope by paring back the evil to be as suggestive as possible. Those limitations are readily observable in the cheap look and hasty lighting, full of interior shots so dark it’s a wonder the actors could tell where the camera was. Director John Newland worked almost exclusively in television between the mid-’50s and ‘80s, and his hoary but effective work here relies on the simplest effects to unnerve: whispery voices, swiftly glimpsed monsters, creepy green lights welling from stygian depths and nocturnal winds blowing autumnal leaves in the moonlight outside the old dark house. He offers a neat expositional trick early in the film, Alex and conversations about the building they’ll be taking over essayed as voice-over as Newland’s camera explores the house, suggesting already the latent menace that’s waiting there for their oblivious upward mobility.
McKeand’s interesting, defiantly cryptic script takes care to evoke (then) highly contemporaneous anxieties: conversations between Sally and her older friend Joan Kahn (Barbara Anderson), wife of one of Alex’s business colleagues, elucidate the curious position of these women who have consciously, but not entirely comfortably, settled for marrying Men in Grey Flannel Suits in the liberated age, and as Alex dedicates himself to climbing the corporate ladder, Sally’s isolation and lack of direction is exacerbated. “I don’t care what Women’s Lib tells me,” Joan exclaims at one point, referring to her dislike of mice but subtly infusing the story with a suggestive dimension of housewifely angst. Sally, taunted by the creatures with their shrill little voices, bobbing up from unexpected hiding places like flower pots and from under the dinner table when she’s hosting a gathering for her husband’s cronies, or seeing them crawling in and out of secret doors in her bathroom, comes to resemble someone going through a full-blown schizoid meltdown.
And yes, the film works very well as a metaphoric Diary of a Mad Housewife, with Alex’s stiff-necked masculine logic befuddled and increasingly outraged by Sally’s inadequacy, only mollified when she admits vulnerability to him, and bulldozing through problems and people with righteous cluelessness. Casting Hutton, who spent most of the ‘60s kicking about with Sam Peckinpah and John Wayne, in the role as a man who becomes all the more impotent the more macho he acts, was a great idea. As the creatures’ efforts become more insidious – terrorising Harris into fleeing the house, leaving razorblades lying about to taunt her, killing Sally’s interior decorator (Pedro Armendáriz Jr) by using a tripwire to send him plunging down the stairs – the tingly, obsessive mood intensifies keenly as the story races towards a dark conclusion. Sally’s defiant insistence on opening up the fireplace seems motivated by urges half-conscious in uncovering a family secret, one that places her under siege by lurking evils in that family legacy that latch on and don’t let go. It is, then, a film that portrays the fear and surrender to congenital insanity with great cleverness, melding of tropes out of cautionary campfire tales – the warnings and rules that are heedlessly broken and insidiously punished – and modern, suburban normality infused with emotional desperation and everyday angst.
There’s little apparent logic to the story, with only the most faintly described causes and motivations for the supernatural evil, but that’s part of its intrigue. The creatures, at the beginning, and again at the end, look forward to being set free by whoever their next chosen one is. The fireplace is bolted up tightly again each time, and yet, sooner or later, the evil will find another vessel, each time with a new voice added to their sepulchral chorus, in a cycle of consuming fear. Darby’s blowsy performance unfortunately dampens down the hysteria, but there’s a deeply phobic quality to the images of the little hobgoblins that infest the house like malevolent, anthropomorphic rodents, emerging from their private little doors and lurking in secret but total control of the house, which explains why the film seems to have lodged very deeply in the memory of people who saw this as children – what kid isn’t afraid of the toe-gnawing little beast under the bed, and what adult isn’t faintly uneasy at the fragility of sanity? It’s a pity then that the monsters are shown at all, because they were always going to be difficult to animate, and especially on a low budget: their actual appearance damages the credulity for anyone over five, and sends the film spinning towards pantomime. Still, the weird climactic vision of the full-sized Darby being dragged to hell by these miniature devils, trying to use a flash camera to debilitate them but, being doped to the gills, unable to fight, has a psychological and erotic kick that’s fascinatingly evanescent. Sally, mentally and physical, plunges down the rabbit hole and out of the sane world that didn’t pay enough attention.