Friday, September 30, 2011

DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK - SPECIAL EDITION

I've mentioned before that the Seventies and Eighties were the Golden Age of the "Made For Television" movie. Each major network had one or two nights of the week set aside for both theatrical films and TV movies. Every genre was exploited - from mystery to romance to sci-fi and action - but it's the scary ones that seemed to stick in people's memories.

One of these, director John Newland's DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, originally aired on October 10th, 1973 on ABC and, apparently, haunted the memories of many of those who saw it at the time, eventually leading to its recent, big-budget, theatrical remake. Now, to-tie-in with that aforementioned remake, Warner Archive has re-issued the telefilm as a made-to-order "Special Edition" DVD.

Lawyer Alex Farnham (Jim Hutton, NIGHTMARE AT 43 HILLCREST) and his wife Susan (Kim Darby, TRUE GRIT, BETTER OFF DEAD) move into her family's old Victorian mansion upon her mother's death. The house needs lots of renovation, and in the process of fixing the place up, she comes across a locked study with a bricked-up fireplace. Although her mother's crusty old handyman, Harris (film and TV character actor William Demerest) advises her to leave the room and chimney alone, her curiosity gets the better of her, and she soon inadvertently releases a trio of tiny, whispering goblins from their prison, three creatures with their own diabolical plans for the young, nervous housewife...

Reportedly produced at an accelerated schedule of just about two weeks, DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is a handsomely-mounted, low-budget chiller capably directed by Newland, who was best known as the on-screen host of the late-50s paranormal anthology series ONE STEP BEYOND, before turning his attentions to TV directing in the 60s and 70s. The special effects are generally pretty good, combining small actors in furry suits with eerie, gourd-like, full-head masks with over-sized props and scaled-up sets, although there are several instances where props and/or lighting don't quite match up with the master footage. And while the creatures aren't terribly convincing once you've seen them, Newland does manage to put across the inherent creepiness of diminutive, malevolent monsters who can run around a house unseen and underfoot, causing all sorts of nasty little - and lethal - surprises. The director also manages - with writer Nigel McKeand - to pull of a terrific ending.

It helps that Darby is very effective in her role of a mousey wife dominated by an overbearing, career-obsessed husband, terrified by the beings she's unleashed but unable to convince anyone of their existence. It's a very good performance and carries the film. Hutton is also good as her dickish spouse, and Demerest is reliably cranky as the handyman who knows more than he's willing to tell.

The title was among Warner Archive's early MOD release, in a bare-bones, no-frills edition. Now, as a tie-in with the new film, WA has discontinued that  disc and re-issued it as a "Special Edition." This version sports a decent, if unspectacular, 1.33:1 "full-frame" transfer culled from a somewhat timeworn print. There's a fair amount of speckling throughout, a few scratches, and, it appears that a few frames are missing in one scene, causing an abrupt "jump." Audio is a satisfactory Dolby Digital 2.0 mono.

To justify its "Special Edition" label, WA has provided an audio commentary by three "fans" of the film: Steve "Uncle Creepy" Barton of the website, Dread Central, screenwriter Jeffrey Reddick (FINAL DESTINATION) and Sean Abley of Fangoria. The track isn't particularly well-organized or informative; the participants basically ramble on, commenting on what's on screen, spouting random bits of trivia and making snarky comments. I know the movie is dated, and certainly not scary to modern horror audiences raised on the high-tech special effects and gushing gore of more recent fright films, but a track like this adds nothing to the experience of the movie. I'm not sure any of these guys are old enough to have actually seen it when it aired, and they definitely had nothing to do with the making of it. So the track ultimately provides little in the way of actual information about the movie, and certainly no context.

The 1973 version of DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK isn't likely to frighten anyone but young children these days, and with it's 70s TV pacing (complete with regular fade-outs for commercials) and comparatively low production values, it's not likely to impress even them. But for fans and students of the genre who can place the material in its proper context, and enjoy the talent and craftsmanship that went into making it - as well as the cast's able performances - it is definitely worth seeing. It also might be worth picking up for those who are old enough to have been spooked by it when they were kids, either in its original airing or subsequent syndication showings. The story is still a good one, and still has - if you let it - the ability to creep its way into the paranoid portions of the brain....

Recommended.

BUYDon't Be Afraid of the Dark (Remastered, Special Edition)