Review Date: August 26, 2009
Released by: Warner Brothers
Release date: 8/18/2009
Region 1, NTSC
Full screen 1.37:1
Thereís a sub-genre of horror films that is all but extinct today: Housewife Horror. With womenís lib in the late sixties and early seventies, it seemed like women truly would get a fair shake in society. Yet, old customs, preconceptions and prejudices have made the journey to absolute equality a much longer battle. To address those cases of progressive minds stuck in homemaker houses was the genre practically birthed by Polanski with Rosemaryís Baby
. Others would soon follow, like Letís Scare Jessica to Death
, Season of the Witch
, and The Stepford Wives
all in the early seventies. Television certainly wasnít off limits either, with two notable entries fusing female frustrations with tiny tormenters. Many remember the second, Trilogy of Terror
, for the segment where Karen Black is tormented by a possessed Zuni fetish doll but before that there was an entire telefilm devoted to that same concept. Donít Be Afraid of the Dark
has long been a TV movie favorite and now finally, like favorite Bad Ronald
before it, itís finally coming to DVD via the Warner Archives
. Is it worth dusting off, or should this sleeper stay bricked in the fireplace?
When youíre dealing with a 74-minute runtime, you have to be economical, and Director John Newland gets Donít Be Afraid of the Dark
started in a hurry. We get a lightning strike, an old creepy house and some cat eyes to set the mood, and then an ominous harmony of voices shriek on the soundtrack:
ďItís been so loooonnnng, when will she come to set us free, set us freeeee, set us freeeeeeeee!Ē
Clearly thereís something wrong with the Farnham house. How did married couple Sally (Kim Darby
, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers
) and Alex (Jim Hutton
, Psychic Killer
) acquire this house from hell? Well, the again economical story tells us in quick voice over from the Farnhams that it was inherited through Sallyís side, all the while showing us stills from each room just so weíre acquainted with the surroundings. There we go, not even two minutes in and already we have the setup, the villain and the location. Not bad!
Sally does what any good housewife would do and starts to redecorate, but one thing strikes as peculiar. One of the rooms is locked. The old family handyman provides some ominous premonitions, but Sally opens the door anyway. Inside, she sees yet another obstacle to overcome Ė the fireplace has been bricked in. Since every Victorian house needs a working fireplace, Sally goes against the handymanís wishes and hammers it out. Doing so reveals more than just a few old cob webs and soot Ė it unearths age old little creatures hell bent on punishing her for being a bored, curious homemaker!
Sally starts to experience some peculiar things, from faces behind her plants to small tugs on her lap napkin. She has a freak out during dinner, swearing she saw a mini-monster, but when the dinner party find nothing all signs point to cuckoo. Her husband Alex is a busy business executive stuck doing long hours, and he thinks this is just some way for his wife to get back at him for neglecting her needs. He goes away for a business trip and the little trolls decide to use it to their advantage. Sheís alone and afraid of the dark, and tonight the trolls will have their way with her.
The story for Donít Be Afraid of the Dark
is rather pedestrian. The telefilm doesnít take the time to develop any of the characters above their basic service to the plot. We trust that Sally has a level head because one of her friends in the story says so, not because we actually know one way or the other. Alex is busy at work not so the story can comment on the lonely housewife trope it is exploiting, but so it can get him out of the house and get Sally alone. Bad Ronald
played things simple, too, but even that had some subtext. The only thing below the surface here are the creatures.
The creatures, though, are naturally the raison díetre for this little flick, and they more than live up to their legacy. Their whispered voices set them up well, but itís all the shadowed shots of their faces or the calculated glimpses of their movements that really leave their mark. The actual effects arenít all that special, especially compared to Catís Eye
or even Trilogy of Terror
. The creatures are always seen on their own and never with anybody else in frame, making it easy to create oversized props for the actors in costume to dwarf behind. What does make them effective, though, is how the story never really gives us a complete look at them. Itís always in glimpses, and more often than not itís in shadow. The shadows are usually so thick and dark that itís a challenge to make anything out at all. That works, though, using the cinema of the mind to create a far scarier tapestry than the cheap 1973 effects.
There is ambiguity not only in the creatures but also their story, since the film never does establish any backstory other than that these creatures have struck before. Sometimes simple is best, and in keeping the critters ill-defined, it denies them the closure of story. Instead, they can lurk on, and have lurked on, in the minds of all the impressionable who have watched this little number. While nothing crazy or even really all that violent happens, Donít Be Afraid of the Dark
manages to unsettle both from its deliberate use of the titular dark and in the way it wraps things up. There are no happy endings here, and for 1973, hell, even today, it leaves on a pretty shocking little note. It never tries to be deep, but in its simple, inconclusive premise, it leaves us some creatures that definitely dig into the subconscious.
ďSet us free, set us freeee, set us freeeeeee!Ē
Improving on the interlaced origins of Bad Ronald
, this second August Warner Archive horror offering serves up a solid 1.37:1 progressive scan transfer. Colors are well saturated which is nice considering the film utilizes some pretty moody Bava-esque colors during some of the late night scenes. While thereís definitely been some detail degradation over the years, this transfer is still on the sharper side and acquits itself quite nicely. Itís not all good, though. The print is pretty tattered, with plenty of debris burn ins and other obstructions throughout. The darkness is no doubt a central and effective theme for the story, but this transfer is many times too dark, making it very tough to make out anything at all during some of the creature attacks. While this probably helps the film in the long run, it can be a distraction. Overall, a fine picture for a film thatís celebrating 36 years!
This mono mix is flat and hollow, but voices and music do come in clear. There is a light hiss to the entire film, but overall it is about on par with what youíd expect for something of this vintage.
This is a direct to order DVD, so there are no extras to speak of. Basically, itís the film slapped onto a generic ďPlay MovieĒ menu. There is a short Warner Archive preview when you insert the disc. Considering the filmís legacy, and the fact that itís being remade, the lack of extras is a big missed opportunity.
Donít Be Afraid of the Dark
is a modest little shocker, very workmanlike in plot, character and construction. The little creatures certainly make the film, though, and credit must be given to the director for not only keeping things dark, but in having the brass to not only keep the monsters a narrative mystery, but to also end the film with a vicious ambiguity. It may not seem like much, but this creeper lingers. The video transfer is quite good given the circumstances and a step up from past Warner Archive releases. The sound is more of the same thin mono, and the extras as still MIA. It might be worth holding off to see if Warner actually does release a special edition to coincide with the Katie Holmes remake in 2011. With Ms. Cruise in the role maybe housewife horror will thrive once more?
To buy the DVD you must head over to the Warner Archives at www.warnerarchive.com
. Donít be afraidÖthey always keep the lights on.
Film - B
Image Quality - B+
Sound - C+
Supplements - F
- Running time - 1 hour 13 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono