Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1974)

But do be afraid of revisiting cheesy TV movies that scared you when you were seven.
John Newland
Kim Darby, Jim Hutton
The Setup: 
Woman moves in to house that has veiny-headed people living in the basement.

This movie seemed to be almost constantly when I was around seven, and at the time I remember it being totally scary and engrossing. My sister remains freaked out about the little veiny-headed people to this day, so, being the evil little brother that I am, I hunted down a copy to give to her for Christmas, and watched it first.

The story is that the hideous Kim Darby, in a hairdo seemingly accomplished by swirlie, has inherited this gorgeous house from her grandmother. Her husband, Jim Hutton [Tim’s dad], sees all the beautiful windows and space and pool out back and all—and would rather live in an apartment in a high-rise. Throughout the movie, there is all this talk about how much work the house needs, saying at one point that a dinner party there will be like “eating in the subway,” when all of this is utterly belied by the house itself, which is spectacular. Sure, it’s decorated with a comprehensive cross-section of everything wrong with the 70s, but the house itself is a stunner. We later keep hearing about how the couple has “done so much work” on the house, thought we never see ANY evidence of this throughout the movie.

Anyway, Kim wants to make a study out of this, well, study in the basement, which features a big fireplace that has been bricked up and bolted closed [ominous!]. The handyman keeps telling her that she’d better not open it if she knows what’s good for her, but won’t explain why. Naturally, she opens it, and soon enough we’re hearing little voices saying “We’re free! We’re free! She set us free!”

One thing apparent from the start is that Kim’s husband is A MAJOR PRICK. This little time capsule comes from the period in which men thought nothing of telling their wives that they are psychotic rather than even making the slightest attempt to hear what they have to say. Jim is also a bitch to Kim throughout, throwing constant attitude at her and caring about nothing but his job and reputation. There is a little bit of “topicality” in that Kim feels like he’s going to only be worried about his job for the rest of their marriage, but it seems to me that their problems run far deeper than that.

So soon enough strange things start happening, caused, we soon find out, by this race of foot-high men in gorilla suits with strange veiny-headed masks on. For some reason they want Kim. Please don’t put too much stock in getting an explanation for this phenomena—ever—as one never comes. You’re like, is it witchcraft? Aliens? Ancient Indian burial ground? Ancient Chinese secret? And nothing ever comes. The little ape-men, always accompanied by an inexplicable and wholly ludicrous green light, creep out and cause havoc in the household at regular intervals.

After a few brushes with her furry friends, Kim is understandably freaked out and skittish [while her husband, with increasing annoyance, considers her a lunatic—who knew husbands were so eager to consider their wives plumb nuts?], which makes it surprising that she doesn’t seem phased in the least when, at the height of her nervousness, the lights in the bathroom go out while she’s taking a shower. Kim just showers away, taking no heed. I guess she just really, really had to get that crème rinse out.

The attacks increase, with a corresponding drop in viewer interest. But they do at least offer the meager fun of seeing guys cavort around sets made of giant books and stairways designed to make them look small. During all this time, Kim never thinks of just leaving the house. You know, they DO have hotels, Kim. She is supposedly going to spend the night at a friend’s house, though the friend never shows up and no one seems to think that’s strange. The fools also, though by now it’s obvious that the little men are afraid of the light, never turn on the lights. In addition to never considering just bolting up the chimney again during the day, while the little men are sleeping, which is the only method that obviously worked in the past. Fucking idiots.

So it all builds toward a fateful evening—after the bearded decorator is killed—in which Kim is drugged by the little beasties. Her friend, Geraldine Ferraro, finally believes her, but still has no problem leaving her alone [while drugged!] to make phone calls and creep around outside. Her husband, now starting to believe her a little bit, leaves her in the house to go have a chat with the handyman. No one considers just TAKING HER OUT OF THE HOUSE, which destroys any minor scares this thing may have generated on the weak-minded.

The one thing that I remembered from seeing this movie as a youth is the climax, which I suspect was thought of first, and the rest of the movie fixed around it. Kim is dragged by her feet by the little furrikins into the basement, armed only with an Instamatic. She can scare away the little men with the flash, but only for a second, and she only has a few flashes left. Things do not end well for her. The clearly GOLDEN opportunity to have a last shot of the grieving husband looking at the pictures of the ape men while realizing what a fool he was is not exploited. The end.

The whole thing has the air of the script being written way before the film was shot, and of no one caring enough to go back and adjust it. The biggest example of this is all the talk about the house being a wreck, when it’s clearly ready for Architectural Digest, and there are other little instances where someone will talk abut something that never happened or whatever. Nevertheless, little creepy guys skulking around in corners does manage to offer a few chills. Someone could remake this movie [for cable?] and have a B-feature on their hands. Too bad such little effort was put into this version.

Should you watch it: 

If it’s on TV, you could do worse things with your time [you could also do better], but I wouldn’t seek it out for any reason.