GRANDSON OF MADE FOR TV MOVIE WEEK: Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973)

Originally airing on Wednesday, October 10, 1973 — and also known as Nightmare in Europe — 45 years have done nothing to hide to hide the weirdness and ability to frighten that this TV movie possesses.

Sally Farnum (Kim Darby, who started her career in True Grit and has appeared in memorable roles in Better Off Dead and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers) and  her husband Alex (Jim Hutton, Psychic Killer) have just inherited an old mansion from Sally’s grandmother.

There’s this great fireplace that’s all bricked in and Sally wants to do something with it. However, the handyman, Mr. Harris (William Demarest, Uncle Charley from TV’s My Three Sons) refuses as Sally’s grandmother had him seal it after her grandfather died. It’s just better to leave things the way they are. Sally doesn’t listen and uses the tools the old man leaves behind to pry open a small side door. This isn’t a fireplace at all — it’s gigantic basement. Sally leaves without hearing the voices calling her name, happy that she has set them free.

Of course, those voices can only get louder. Soon, they are constantly whispering her name and all manner of things are being broken in the house. At a dinner party for her always way too busy husband, she sees a small creature under the dining room table. Then, three of them try to attack her in the shower with razors!

The creatures are played by Tamara De Treaux, who was one of three actors who played E.T.; Felix Silla, who was Cousin Itt on TV’s The Addams Family and Twika on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; and Patty Maloney, Lumpy from the Star Wars Holiday Special. They are uniformly unsettling in apperance. Go ahead. Just take a look.

Alex goes away on business again and tells Sally to stay with her friend Joan (Barbara Anderson, Eve from TV’s Ironside). But before she can go, the creatures trip  Sally down the stairs and kill her interior decorator! That’s when our heroine confronts them and asks what they want. The answer? They want her soul as payment for freeing them.

Sally’s doctor prescribes sleeping pills while Joan stays with her, slowly believing her tales. Alex, however, is a grump and unconvinced untol he speaks with the handyman. Sally is lured into slumber as the creatures have spiked her coffee and they cut the power (“What do you mean they cut the power? How could they cut the power, man? They’re animals!”).

The creatures drag Sally into the basement before she can be saved and the next time we hear her voice, she is one of them, waiting for the next people to move into the house.

A horror force no less than director Guillermo del Toro loves this film, going as far to produce and co-write the film’s remake. He claims that he and his brothers would follow one another around the house mimicking the creatures.

Directed by John Newland, who created and hosted TV’s One Step Beyond anthology and written by Nigel McKeand, who worked on TV’s Family and The Waltons, this movie still influences and frightens. Why? Maybe because Sally is stuck between the pre and post worlds of feminism and this movie was at the right time and place to comment on that. She wants to belong, whether to marriage or as someone who makes something, but in the end, these roles feel empty and shallow. The only thing she ends up belonging to is the house that causes her doom.

Regardless, the real testament here is that the film was created — including script approval by Lorimar, casting, special effects, voice-over and exterior shots — in two weeks, thanks to a looming writers’ strike.

I searched and searched for a copy of this movie and am happy to have it in my collection. You should do the same.

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