Though it was the worst job I ever had, I consider myself lucky for having worked at a Blockbuster before the great DVD upgrade.
Blockbuster was a treasure chest of ancient and obscure horror films that had been released on VHS twenty years prior and taken out of print around then; and there was always “that tape” hanging around. The one with the beat-up, crumbling display box and an actual tape so heavy it felt like it was carved out of lead, with the title sticker torn off eons ago and picture quality that’d make the Millennial generation wet their beds. In the case of the Blockbuster I worked at, “that tape” was a copy of an obscure little made-for-TV gem called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Sally (Kim Darby) and Alex Farnam (Jim Hutton) have just moved into a sprawling, dilapidated, ancient manor full of cobwebbed corridors, dark rooms and eerie noises. Because shut up, that’s why. Sally begins redecorating the abode and, despite the warnings of her superstitious carpenter, Mr. Harris (William Demarest), she unbolts a decades-locked fireplace in a mysterious, windowless room at the center of the house. What Sally has unwittingly done is release a horde of small, whispering, sinister creatures that lurk about in the darkness. The creatures want to drag Sally kicking and screaming back into the pit they crawled out of, and though Sally pleads for help, her husband refuses to believe her. Sally’s worst fears come to pass when Alex goes away on a business trip, leaving her all alone in the big, dark house. All alone with… the monsters.
I worked at Blockbuster in 2001, which was the year of the big DVD upgrade. We were basically told that if there were any old movies on VHS we ever wanted to watch, we should rent them now, because in a couple months all the tapes would be meeting a hammer and a dumpster (that was a lot of fun, by the way). So I used my five free rentals a week to essentially raid the horror section and watch everything I figured I’d never get the opportunity to see again. Bear in mind that this was 2001 and the amount of old horror films on DVD wasn’t even close to what it is, now. The reason Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark lingers so strongly in my memories is not just because it was one of the oldest tapes on the shelf, but because it was the first one I rented when I got my job there.
And I’m glad I rented it when I had the chance, too, because the thing didn’t see a DVD release until August of 2009, and even then, only through Warner Bros online made-to-order “Warner Archive Collection” (a fancy name for $16 DVD-R rips of VHS tapes with no picture/audio restoration, bonus features or even menus). Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was an interesting little horror film… and I do mean “little”. At just over 70 minutes-long, it’s a breeze to sit through and ends almost as soon as it begins to gear up. The scant runtime is both a blessing and a curse, as it gives the picture a greater re-watch value (when I need to kill some time I tend to reach for shorter movies in my collection as opposed to, I dunno, Lord of the Rings). On the downside, well, it’s just as I said; as soon as the shit gets rolling BAM! We’re done.
Directed by John Newland, a veteran of the anthology horror and suspense television scene from the ‘60s through the ‘70s, Newland takes a heavy atmospheric approach to the execution of the film. And considering the budget of the average ‘70s-era made-for-TV horror movie, that was probably the best thing he could have done. Newland uses his considerable skills to give the audience the illusion of being alone in a pitch dark room, hearing voices and sounds and seeing strange movements and shadows out of the corner of their eye.
Photo courtesy of Basement Rejects
The monsters (which should be ridiculous as they are, what with their being little people in rubber masks running around sets designed to make them appear only inches-tall) manage to overcome the shortcomings of their special effects budget, as Newland cloaks them in the shadows with their whispering, unsettling voices doing most of the threatening for them. When you see them, the glimpses are quick and they’re bathed in so much surreal green and red lighting that they look far more unearthly than the rubber masks would otherwise have let on.
Nigel McKeand’s script is of the variety that they just don’t make anymore. The film is utterly unconcerned with delivering answers to its numerous supernatural mysteries (What are those monsters? Where did they come from? Why do they want Sally, specifically? What’s their connection to Mr. Harris and Sally’s grandmother?). Instead, its game plan is to just creep the hell out of the audience and let them draw their own conclusions. And quite honestly, you really don’t need to know where the creatures came from and what their deal is; the fact that they’re there tormenting Sally for 70-odd minutes is enough. But then, I’m of the mind that the more you know about the unknown, the less frightening it becomes.
Made-for-TV horror films just aren’t made like this, these days. The modern market, seemingly dominated by Syfy and its unquenchable thirst for movies about giant CG animals, has really given the medium a black eye it didn’t have twenty, thirty years ago. Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is all about atmosphere, and though it’s tragically short, it completely delivers. The final scenes are a breath of fresh air in this cinematic world dominated by “happy endings” and, you know what? I’m almost glad that Warner Archives doesn’t do any picture restoration for their films, as this thing just looks and feels so much spookier with VHS-quality. Or maybe I’m just being too nostalgic.