So, my best friend Matt and I were texting back and forth the other night discussing the films we love – which is something we do on a regular basis. We were talking about the creature films of the 80’s and reminiscing about titles like Critters, Munchies and the beloved Ghoulies. As we talked about them he mentioned to me how fond he was of those films and I happened to mention to him how much I loved Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. And just to be on the safe side, I made it a point to make it clear that I was talking about the 1973 film that was released on ABC. He completely blew me away when the text that followed read: There’s an original?
I immediately began to tell him the story of how I came to see the film for the first time when I was about 10 years old. Just after the traumatic experience I had with the original Friday the 13th, I stayed away from even the notion of sitting in front of a horror film for a while and actually had the plans of never doing it again. Just with what happened, it scarred me and I have my father to blame for that. As a small kid in rural California, my mother had purchased a small portable black and white television set to have around the house. She would use it in the kitchen mostly but at times we kids were allowed to use it in case there was something we wanted to watch when my father was occupying the color set in the living room. One night, I took the small set to my room as I wanted to watch something that was on prime time that evening (I’m thinking something along the lines of The Dukes of Hazzard, which I was really into at the time) and the set stayed with me in my bedroom as I went to bed. I ended up waking up later on that night to use the bathroom and as everyone was asleep, I decided to turn the television set on and see what was on, just remembering to keep the volume down so I wouldn’t get into trouble.
When I turned to KFSN-TV Channel 30, I was immediately creeped out by the stations logo ID at the top of the hour and the announcer’s spooky deep voice asking It’s 11o’clock. Do you know where your children are? (Something that still runs chills down my spine to date). Then, to my own horror – no pun intended – the Late Late Creature Feature program comes on. Now, this was something I’d never done. It was something completely new. And was I terrified? You bet it was. But something kept me glued to the set as the opening of the film commenced. That was something I never forgot. The soft chilling whispers over a shot of a large house at night with the moon hovering over it made my heart race as I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But there I was, stuck to it and ready for what was coming.
If you haven’t seen this film (in its original form), you must find it someway, somehow and sit in front of it at least once. As Matt and I were talking about it, I dug up the DVD I own and popped it into my laptop. Honestly, I haven’t seen it in a matter of years so it was nice to be able to revisit it. Every die-hard horror fan my age knows the premise of the film: Sally Farnham and her husband Alex inherit her recently deceased grandmother’s home. As the couple move in, Sally finds a bricked up fireplace in the basement that she wants to use as her study. As she becomes curious about having the fireplace re-opened, she is given a warning by the caretaker, Mr. Harris, to leave the fireplace the way it is as that’s how Sally’s grandfather wanted it. Of course, she doesn’t heed his words and she manages to opens the side door where ashes could be removed and there, the film begins. I don’t want to give much of the plot away, as I sometimes do in these posts, because every horror fan should see this at least once. There is an atmosphere presented in the film right from the beginning that grips you and takes you into Sally’s mind, as slowly, but surely she begins to lose it. Granted, it isn’t presented on the level of let’s say, Repulsion, but once Sally herself (brilliantly played by Kim Darby, whom all of us 80’s know as Mrs. Myer from Better Off Dead) begins to hear voices calling her name, she is convinced that not only is something in the house with her, but it’s after her.
There are some very effective scenes in the film that even know as an adult will cause a chill to run down your spine. And for having been a made-for-television movie, there are hordes of horror fans like myself who hold it in high regard. For one, it plays well on the psychological level as we slowly see Sally herself descend into madness as not only is she hearing voices calling her name, but she sees things that nobody else does. She sees little people. Little people who invade her daily space. Little people who are out to make her one of them. Her husband (the very handsome Jim Hutton) begins to lose patience with her, as he feels everything she sees is a figment of her overactive imagination. Is it the house itself causing her to become delusional? Or is just Sally losing her grip with reality? Her friend Joan (Barbara Anderson) comes into the picture and slowly begins to realize that there is really something wrong with Sally and comes to stay with her while Alex is away in San Francisco on a business trip. It is here where the film becomes positively frightening. The goblins are determined to get Sally. They have managed to lure Joan outside as they take poor Sally, who’s been giving sleeping pills by her doctor, is now unable to defend herself as she is taken hostage and slowly dragged downstairs into the basement before anyone can reach her. But the most terrifying part is the film’s close, where the voices that were present during the opening of the film, return. This time they are not alone. They whisper back and forth will Sally now a part of them, patiently now awaiting their next victim to move into the house. She is now one of them.
All I can remember as a kid is lying motionless in my bed, the covers over me, and the sound of the music playing over the credits as the film ended, terrified for having watched it. I could head the goblin’s whispers in my mind as I turned the television off and I could see them there with me in my bedroom. I was startled with every single noise, turning restlessly in my bed with the fear of one of the goblins coming out of the closet or under my bed to grab me as punishment for watching it. I remember staying up most of the night, even afraid to turn the television back on to keep my company, and prayed to have the night pass quickly. My first encounter with a horror film was my father’s doing. This one was something I would have to take complete responsibility for.
I didn’t come across this film again until just a few years ago when I met a trader online who sent it to me. The funny thing is when it came in the mail, I waited until that night to sit in front of it again. And I watched it just as I did that very first time back in the early eighties: all the lights off and wrapped in a blanket. It was nice to relive that night all over again. But watching it the other night, I had completely forgotten the simplicity of the plot and how effective the atmosphere was. For its time, and for having it been shown on network television, many (as myself) consider it a part of horror history. There are those key scenes that still make me jump and put my hands over my mouth. And until the other night, I guess I hadn’t realized how much of an emotional attachment I have to this little film.
Which is why I was furious with Benicio del Toro’s remake! I went to watch it and was immediately put off with how the main character is not a grown woman, but a little girl. It just wasn’t the same for me. Possibly because I have this peeve of remakes having the plots of its predecessors re-tooled or tinkered with (as I experienced with The Last House on the Left, Evil Dead and so on...). I don’t even want to get into that as there are many fans that I’ve spoken to who consider the remake to be brilliant. I will only agree on some level because Del Toro’s name is attached to it as I consider him a horror visionary and I’ve read that he is as fond of the original film as I am. It’s a travesty that the very hard to find readily available on home media be it on original VHS form or in DVD. Aside from it being available made-to-order from the Warner Archive website, you cannot get your hands on this at any local store. It’s too bad that this film isn’t readily available for the long time die-hard fan of the film much less a new budding horror fan to get his hands on and experience it first-hand. It really is a shame as this one deserves to have its place in every horror fan’s collection. Maybe one day one of the current popular media distributors can grab hold of the rights (even temporary) just to get this one out to a larger market. It honestly should be more popular and more respected than just being a cult film among us older fans. But, maybe that’s best as those of us who hold it near and dear to our hearts will treasure it for many more years to come and pass it on to the younger up and comers who have the desire to be exposed to the classics…and only the classics.