In this case, however, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark's reputation seems as driven by nostalgia as anything else. I remember being absolutely terrified by many of these TV-made horrors. After The Night Stalker was turned into a series I remember 10-year-old me frozen with horror by an episode called "Chopper," about a headless motorcycle rider. When I saw it again decades later, on DVD, well, it struck me as more silly than frightening.
Perhaps that also explains the cult following for Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. It has an interesting, somewhat unusual premise, but neither the teleplay nor its execution are very good.
Sally Farnum (Kim Darby) and her junior executive husband Alex (Jim Hutton) inherit a vast Queen Anne-style mansion from her grandmother, Sally excited to renovate the palatial estate. She's particularly keen to turn a basement room into a den, a personal space to get away from it all, but elderly handyman Mr. Harris (William Demarest) discourages her, especially when she instructs him to clear the bricked-off, bolted shut fireplace, a job he flat-out refuses to do.
Determined, Sally begins hacking away at the bricks herself, and with a monkey wrench removes the bolts blocking access to the flue. Immediately, a glowing green light appears from the bowels of the chimney, where a trio of foot-high goblins emerge, furry creatures with heads like walnuts.
Soon, the goblins begin appearing before Sally in the shadows, whispering her name and insisting they want her to join them. The trite scripting has Sally understandably terrified by this, but also reluctant to get the hell out of the house. Further, grouchy, even chauvinist Alex dismisses Sally growing unease. For nearly the entire film he's little more than irritated by her claims. Late in the story Sally finally convinces a friend, Joan (Barbara Anderson) that perhaps Sally's not mad after all but, by then, is it Too Late?
One of the interesting concepts of Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, while clumsily handled, likens the goblins to household vermin, smallish creatures that move through the house at night, rather like rats, Sally even mistaking her first sighting as a possible mouse in the kitchen. But once the creatures are shown, far too clearly and far too much, this potentially interesting approach goes out the window.
Somewhat similar in design to the gremlin from the classic Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," the creatures, apparently designed by Michael Hancock, are imaginative for early ‘70s TV, and the actors playing them are cleverly integrated into the film via oversized sets, the lighting and editing making them more convincing that most such effects, but the audience still sees them far too clearly and often.
Nigel McKeand's teleplay is a mess. Considering its length, just 74 minutes (originally airing in a 90-minute timeslot), Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is highly repetitive: the green glow appears somewhere in the house, the whispering goblins emerge, terrorize Sally for a couple of minutes, she recoils in horror, and immediately gets into an argument with irritated Alex who insists she's seeing things, which the TV audience knows isn't true.("Stop being so scared!" he bellows.) It would have helped the story move forward instead of spinning its wheels if Alex and/or Joan had seen the creatures themselves or at least believed Sally much earlier. Similarly, Mr. Harris's vague warnings serve no purpose, except to provide Alex with another source of irritation. (Normally eminently likeable Jim Hutton is really miscast.) When Harris finally explains the history of the house near the end, he really doesn't tell us anything we don't already know or could've guessed.
In one sense, the best thing about the show is the house itself, located in Piru, California and built in 1886. It's not clear what interiors are real interiors inside the mansion, and which are soundstage sets, but the look is unique, both incredibly attractive but also effectively creepy. Actor-director John Newland both hosted One Step Beyond and directed the majority of episodes, 74 in all. That show occasionally was very subtly eerie, but Newland's work her is little better than workmanlike.
Video & Audio
A Warner Archive release, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is presented in its original 1.37:1 format, the show shot in 35mm for Lorimar Productions. The image is generally pristine, but apparently in an attempt to make the creatures more visible, the transfer over-tweaks the creature scenes, most obviously around the 41:49 mark where the reds and greens give off an almost matte-like lines. The DTS-HD Master Audio (mono) is fine and optional English subtitles are provided.
Two (two?) audio commentaries are included, one carried over from a an earlier DVD release. The first, older track features Steve "Uncle Creepy" Barton, Jeffrey Reddick, and Sean Ably, while the new one is by Amanda Reyes.
Pretty average overall, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is not without interest, but lacks intrigue, compelling characters, and wears out its welcome long before it's over. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.