Okay, we’ll start with a short intro for the newcomers: As implied by the phrase, “made for tv movies” are films that were created to be shown exclusively on television as opposed to having a run in theaters. Though they started in the mid-60s and continued on well into the 2000s, they were at their height in the 70s and 80s, and that where this column will mostly focus. Of course, this type of movie lives on today as direct-to-video, direct-to-cable or streaming movies. For more background, be sure to check out this introductory post, but for now let’s move on, shall we?
Halloween is Thursday, so let’s start this rundown with something scary, shall we?
Kim Darby, who you may recognize as the young girl who convinces John Wayne to help her hunt down her father’s killer in the original True Grit, stars as Sally Farnham who inherits an old house from her grandmother who is recently deceased. She and her husband Alex (Jim Hutton, who would later play the detective Ellery Queen in a short-lived series that was unique in that just before the end, Queen would turn to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and asking the viewer if they had figured out the solution to the mystery) move into the house and begin renovation.
Sally quickly falls in love with one particular room (of course, it’s initially mysteriously locked) which she want to turn into a study. She finds the closed up fireplace in the room especially intriguing, and she begins to try to open it up, despite warnings from the handyman who came with the house (William Demarest, “Uncle Charley” from My Three Sons) that “some things are better left as they are,”
Sally manages to slightly unbolt the plate that has been put into place over one part of the fireplace, but she and Alex decide that it really is unfixable. Unfortunately, in removing the cover Sally has unwittingly released three small demon-like creatures who at first seem to want to kill her but eventually decide that they want to turnher into one of them.
Y’know, it’s really interesting watching a movie like this with 2019 eyes. In some ways, this movie could be taken as a banner for “me too” and “believe the woman”, because that’s exactly what no one (except, eventually, her best friend Joan, played by Barbara Anderson) will do. Her husband, her doctor, and everyone around her simply write off her troubles as hysteria. There’s even one point in the movie where Sally is walking along with her interior decorator (at this point she knows about the little demons and has convinced her husband that they need to sell the house) and when they are about to descend the stairs, the demons have strung a line across the top step which trips the decorator,causing him to fall to his death.
After the body has been removed and Sally has been checked out by the family physician, the doctor is talking to Joan and hes gives her some sedatives for Sally to take, saying “she does seem to have over-reacted”. Now let’s take a look at this. even without the tales of little creatures calling her name and telling her they want her (which Sally is actually keeping to herself), she has just seen a man fall to his death right in front of her. I don’t know about you, but I think I might find that just a bit traumatic.
Not that it’s just the men whose attitudes seem a bit askew when observed through modern eyes. Early in the movie, Sally and Joan are walking down the street and at this point Sally thinks the little critters in her house may be mice. When she shares this idea with Joan, her friend replies “I don’t care what women’s lib tells me, the very mention of a mouse drives me crazy!” Then just a few minutes later, when the women are commiserating about feeling abandoned by their husbands who seem more concerned about their jobs than them, Joan states “As two neglected wives of two overly ambitious husbands i suggest we go spend some of their money!” Well! Let the shopping commence!
As far as the effects go, they’re kind of a mixed bag, The creature design for the demons is pretty darned effective, and though if you look closely you’ll notice that their mouths don’t quite move properly when they’re talking, the mask/makeup effect gives them a very creepy look.
To give them their diminutive look, the filmmakers used a combination of forced-perspective shots and oversized props, and again, these shots are kind of hit and miss, but I’d definitely say they hit more often than not.
Overall, for a movie produced on a television budget, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is an effectively atmospheric little thriller that shows you don’t have to have a 100 million dollar budget or an incredibly long running time (it clocks in at a tight 74 minutes) to produce an effective horror story that has an impact and leaves an impression.