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Sunday, April 5, 2009

Reliving Childhood Terror: Don't Be Afraid of the Dark

It was just some obscure TV movie that I had seen as a small child on afternoon syndicated TV. Yet it remained burned into my psyche well into adulthood. In fact, I would sometimes wonder if it had ever been a real movie at all, or just a half-remembered figment of my overactive childhood imagination.

In the pre-internet days, before IMDB, I would mention it now and then to others my age, to see if they had seen it, too. A creepy, quirky little flick about a woman haunted by demonic creatures in her furnace, desperate to drag her down to become one of them. To my astonishment, some folks also had half-recalled, vague memories of such a TV movie. Once the internet came into the picture, I still couldn't quite track it down, because I had no idea what the title was, or any of the actors in it. For some bizarre reason I thought Bonnie Franklin was in it. I have no idea why, but alas, I was wrong...

It took years before I was finally able to identify the movie as Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, a TV production originally aired on ABC in October 1973. I had seen it some years later, most likely on a lazy Sunday afternoon at my grandparents' house, where we would go every week, like a good Italian-American family. It scared the living daylights out of me, and I never forgot it.

One of the benefits of writing The Vault of Horror has been that I've been able to get in touch with and share ideas/memories with horror fans both near and far. In this case, one of the near ones, whom I happen to work with, not only was just as obsessed with the movie as myself, but actually had a Japanese DVD in her possession! And so, at long last, I was able to finally return to the movie that had haunted my dreams for some 30 years (Thanks, Tracy!).

Amazingly, so much of it was exactly as I had remembered it from that afternoon long ago. Kim Darby (of The Searchers and Star Trek's Miri episode) plays Sally, a poor young housewife neglected by her over-ambitious husband Alex (played by Jim Hutton, Timothy's dad). To her dismay, upon moving into the home bequeathed to her by her grandparents, Sally finds herself the target of menacing little monsters that she has unwittingly freed from their bricked-in prision within the old furnace in the basement. Over the course of the next hour, they taunt and torture her mercilessly, as she desperately tries to convince those around her that she's not imagining things. Until finally, they drag her kicking and screaming into the furnace. The end.

A large part of what scarred me as a kid was the uncompromising grimness--my Disney-trained brain couldn't conceive of such a tragic ending. And I'm glad to report that the movie remained just as foreboding to me now--although I have no way of really knowing if much of that had to with my memories of it, since my wife was certainly less than impressed.

I'll admit, we're not talking about fine cinema here. But Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is about as good as one can expect an early 1970s network TV movie made in three weeks to be. The acting leaves something to be desired, and unfortunately, the silly little costumes of the furnace creatures are decidedly less frightening now than they were to me then.

Nevertheless, I maintain that the movie still held much of its original power to get under my skin. The score, by prolific TV composer Billy Goldenberg, is genuinely eery and atmospheric. The persistent, whispering calls of the demons ("Saaalllyyyy.....We want you, Sally....") are just as spine-tingling as I remember, and have definitely held up much more than the costumes! What I also love is that you never learn what the creatures are, or how they got there. Creepy as hell.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one who was traumatized by Don't Be Afraid of the Dark as a kid. No sooner had I jumped on Facebook after watching the movie than I discovered a group entitled "U Saw Don't Be Afraid of the Dark in the 70s and Are STILL SCARED". Ha. Plus, there's the astonishing news that none other than Guillermo del Toro is prepping a theatrical remake to be released next year! Not bad for a supposedly obscure little TV movie. And you can bet your life that there is much room for improvement here--this is one remake I'm looking forward to with mucho excitement.

I'm not sure about the proprietary rights, but someone needs to put out a box set of TV horror movies from the '70s and early '80s--there's a fortune to be made. Throw in this one, Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Gargoyles, When Michael Calls, etc. There are a lot of us out there who have fond memories of these chillers!




I have to say that this film as well as the Kolchak movies and series were some of my favorite childhood stories/memeories.

By the way do you remember there was a very short lived horror anthology hosted by Sebastian Cabot? There was one epsiode of the series that sticks with me... it was about horror movie monsters coming to life.

Anonymous said...

Ive Got Gargoyles on DVD one of the 1st DVDs I ever bought I remembered seeing it in the 70s friends my age talk about it all the time!

B-Sol said...

I don't remember that one, Al, but it sounds like a good one! I'll have to look it up.

Anonymous said...

Gargoyles was a 1972 made for TV movie Special effects by Stan Winston! Bernie Casey as Head Gargoyle Richard Moll as Goliath EMMY AWARD WINNING HORROR CLASSIC!

Anonymous said...

Another Great TV Movie is 1972s FROGS Today The Pond Tomorrow The WORLD! Starring Ray Milland and Sam Elliot! Have Had Female Strangers come up to me and say Snapping Turtle Scene still gives them Nightmares!

Scott said...


I remember seeing parts of this one! Those little bastards were creepy, weren't they?

B-Sol said...

They really were, Scott--especially to a six-year-old! As for Gargoyles, yes, it was in fact, Stan Winston's special effects debut.

Anonymous said...

RayRay - I don't recall if I ever saw this, but maybe I did. Deep in the recesses of my mind this piece stirred up a little something, and I am going to investigate [thank you internet]. But if my suspicions are correct, this made for tv horror flick had some of the same qualities as Devil Dog: Hound of Hell, which I found so scary as a child.

Anonymous said...

Probably one of the top ten in my book. The plot/scenario is suggestive of a housewife's permanent entrenchment into a household (dragged down into the building's guts). It has a feminist quality- the sad, lonely woman who is practically locked up at home by her husband, where these horrible things manifest themselves. They are, in some ways, the worst nightmare associated with having children.

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