Considering the reputation of 1973’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark as a TV movie that forever scarred some impressionably young viewers, it’s surprising that the movie got dismissive reviews when it was current. The LA Times reviewer said the film was unintentionally funny and pointless, and a paper from Massachusetts claimed actress Kim Darby was “miscast” in the lead role of a housewife who finds herself confronted with tiny, demonic homunculi inside the spooky house she and her husband have just inherited.
Darby plays Sally Farnham, whose task of redecorating the old mansion turns dire when she unwisely removes a bolted barrier covering the ash pit of a bricked-up fireplace. Ignoring the warnings of the elderly handyman of the house (played by William Demarest), Sally soon discovers she has unleashed three tiny, misshapen monsters who lurk in the shadows of the old house. The goblins are driven off by light, so many of the film’s horror episodes involve the creatures tampering with the lights and hunting Sally when it’s dark, with the intention to either kill her or make her one of them–or maybe those two things are the same.
The strange, whispering imps were enough to give many viewers nightmares, especially those of the young and impressionable type. The film avoids any back story on the creatures, other than to suggest that at least one of them is a family member of Sally’s who was transformed, which could mean that each of the monsters was once a human being. It’s this sense of uncertainty that, hopefully, inspires the viewer to imagine their own explanation of the weird things we see happening. The director, John Newland, creates the illusion of miniature demons by filming diminutive actors in monster costumes on oversized sets. Some of the shots are convincing, others are not, but the film relies just as much on atmospheric touches to communicate a sense of dread. The creepy house used in the film is none other than the Piru Mansion in Piru, California, and it’s appeared in numerous films and TV shows, including Curse of the Black Widow, The Folks At Red Wolf Inn, Pets and Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo.
It was still common in the 1970s for a scary movie to be slowly paced and easy on the horror, and yet it could still be effective if the filmmakers were focused on suspense and atmosphere. Since it was a made-for-tv movie, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is forced to be restrained in the way it depicts onscreen death and peril. There’s only a single death in the movie, when one of the characters falls down the stairs. It’s worth noting that it isn’t death that the heroine of the film has to fear, since the implication is that the homunculi are former residents of the house who are damned to forever inhabit the strange void that seems to be accessed by the ash pit behind that fireplace. What they really want is to make her one of them, alive forever, and presumably trapped in the house.
The plot is made much more suspenseful because of the inability of the characters to communicate effectively. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? would have been over right away if Blanche had simply gone to her window and started screaming “HELP, MY SISTER IS TRYING TO KILL ME!”, and there are several moments where Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark would have over if Demarest’s character would have stopped speaking in riddles. Additionally, Sally’s husband (played by Jim Hutton) shows an unbelievable disregard for everything his wife says, despite the fact that she seems to be a sentient adult to whom he is married. Even at the film’s conclusion, when Hutton finally becomes a believer and rushes off to question Demarest one final time about what threat could be lurking in their house, he still chooses to leave Sally alone *in the house*, instead of taking her away and ending the entire ordeal.
Let’s not quibble over logic, though—it’s a horror movie we’re talking about. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark has a grim conclusion, something that was becoming more common as the 1970s progressed, and the downbeat ending delivers the goods without offering any kind of explanation about everything that came before it. Of course, this fear of the unknown seems lost on modern audiences, and the 2010 remake of Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark offered us detailed information about the creatures–something that was utterly pointless, because it brought nothing new to the story arc itself, and the details just became diversions to pad out the run time. The remake also overexposed the creatures and rendered them powerless in doing so, and if the miniatures in the 1973 original are unconvincing, at least this seems to have inspired the director to show them as little as possible, giving them a greater sense of mystery.