REMOTE OUTPOST. DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (1973)
By Mark Onspaugh
“..Free, free, set them free…”.
I told you last time there was something out there, buried in the ice… Something strange, possibly dangerous… And I was right.
This is the movie that scared the crap out of Guillermo del Toro when he was nine years old. It may not be solely responsible for THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE (2001), PAN’S LABYRINTH (2006), MIMIC (1997) and THE ORPHANAGE (2007), but it did inspire him to produce a remake.
Yes, it’s the original DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, a 1973 made-for-TV movie starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton. Darby first grabbed attention with the original TRUE GRIT in 1969. She played John Cusack’s mother (hilariously) in BETTER OFF DEAD (1985) and later played one of the Strodes in HALLOWEEN: THE CURSE OF MICHAEL MYERS (1995). Jim Hutton was a prolific actor who, besides playing detective ELLERY QUEEN on TV (1975-1976) was in the movie THE GREEN BERETS (1968) and 60’s romantic/sex comedies with great titles like THE HONEYMOON MACHINE (1961) and THE HORIZONTAL LIEUTENANT (1962)). Hutton also starred in PSYCHIC KILLER (1975), a mash-up of voodoo and science fiction with some wonderfully lurid poster art.
I missed the movie when it debuted in 1973, and both VHS and DVD copies are now hard to come by since Warner Archives stopped burning them. Luckily, this one was out there in the ABC Movie of the Week graveyard.
A black cat we will never see again yowls, grabbing our attention as we see a house shrouded in darkness. Nothing scary so far… Then the whispering starts. Small, malevolent voices – their questions ooze with malice and greed:
“Will she come? Do you think she will come?
“She will… You know she will.”
“But when, when?”
“Very soon… It’s just a matter of time… Of waiting for a while.”
“All we have to do is bide our time.”
“Bide our time.”
(Creepy laughter from Mr. Patience)
“But it’s been so long! So many years!”
“When will she come and set us free?”
“Patience, patience! We have all the time in the world!”
(More creepy laughter from Mr. Patience)
“We have all the time in the world!”
“In the world, in the world!”
“To set us free!”
“To set us free… in the world!”
(All of them laugh maniacally)
(Dialogue from the original teleplay by Nigel McKeand)
Now, if you’re nine in 1973, then that is a pretty scary set-up… Who’s whispering? What are they going to do when they’re free? Are they under my bed? Behind the couch?
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is an “old dark house” movie with tiny, demonic creatures rather than ghosts or a serial killer. The house is a large Victorian one, complete with a stone turret. It’s not ramshackle or cobwebbed, and looks freshly painted when we first get a good look at it. Aside from its unusual architecture, nothing really cries out, “Stay away!”
Sally (Darby) and Alex Farnham (Hutton), a nice middle-class couple, are moving in. Alex would have been happier with an apartment in the city, but the house belonged to Sally’s grandmother and she loves it. A famous and patronizing decorator is overseeing a makeover of the house. Alex is concerned about a big dinner party impressing his boss, but Sally assures him it will be wonderful.
The only problem with the house is a locked door no one can get into. Of course, Sally finds the key. A flight of stairs leads down into an old office, dominated by a huge brick fireplace. Curiously, the fireplace has been bricked in and the metal door to the ash pit has been bolted shut. Sally questions Mr. Harris the handyman about this, since he also worked for her grandparents. Mr. Harris, is played by veteran character William Demarest, who was in about a billion movies and played Uncle Charlie on MY THREE SONS (1960-1972). He tells her the room was her grandfather’s office. After he died, Harris bricked up the fireplace and bolted the door shut. She wants to know why, and he tells her it was her grandmother’s wishes. Sally wants to know why she would do such a strange thing, and he tells her that “some things are better left as they are.”
Of course, this “because I say so” explanation is never satisfying to anyone, and Sally promptly unbolts the metal door. She looks in, but sees nothing but darkness. After she leaves, we see an odd green light from the bin and hear more creepy whispering. Sally learns that the fireplace has been sealed three bricks thick with rebar, and it would be an long and expensive process to make it workable. Sally thinks she hears mice moving around in the dark, but Alex assures her the place has been fumigated – it’s probably (say it with me) “just your imagination.”
The creatures whisper Sally’s name and play little pranks, like breaking an ashtray by flinging it off a side table, We don’t see them yet, and her husband and best friend Joan think she is imagining things. Joan’s solution is to go shopping. Mr. Harris, ticked off that she has been thinking for herself, rebolts the door… But we know it is too late. Later, the bolts turn as something behind the plate loosens them.
While shopping, Joan says that she is afraid of mice, no matter what Women’s Lib tells her. This explains a lot about Sally and Alex. Sally tries to make her own decisions, follow her own path, but her husband is not comfortable with this. He likes her to be the perfect wife and hostess. As a witness to anything strange or paranormal, she is (to him and others) hysterical and unreliable. Because women have achieved greater equality since 1973, I suspect this is why del Toro added a child to the remake – a child can still be portrayed as both vulnerable and unreliable, without being politically incorrect.
We get glimpses of the creatures roaming the house. They are about eighteen inches high with taloned hands, their bodies covered in fur.
The demons/gremlins/goblins step up their game. They grab Sally’s hem and tell her, “We want you, Sally, we want you!” Sally pulls away from this unseen menace and runs.
Hysterical, Sally calls her husband. Rather than being concerned, he becomes furious with her, certain this is a practical joke on the part of the handyman. Alex wants Sally to get a grip so his big dinner party will be a success and he’ll be promoted.
At the party, Joan’s husband is snapping lots of pictures, to the annoyance of many. I thought this might lead to proof of the goblins, but these photos never pay off. Sally gets her first glimpse of a creature in a flower arrangement, it’s face wizened like a raisin with deeply hollowed eyes and a pointy head. Sally shakes this off, but then one grabs her napkin at dinner and lets her drink in its ugliness. Sally stands up, screaming her head off. Alex gets furious with Sally and brings up the idea of a psychiatrist. While he is shouting at her, the gremlins climb up the stairs. One whispers that he is impatient to kill Sally, the other advises patience – they need her alive.
In one of my favorite sequences, Sally takes a shower (maybe I should rephrase that). While Sally is taking a shower, one of the creatures reaches out with a coat hanger to turn off the light. The sight of a wire hanger emerging from the cabinet and flipping the switch is both scary and hilarious. The three creatures get a straight razor, which is about the size of a machete in their wee paws. But Sally sees them and they run away, leaving the razor on the floor. When Sally turns on the light, one straggler gremlin shrieks and his friends drag him to safety.
Realizing she has no credibility, Sally comes into the bedroom and tells Alex the house is depressing and they should sell. Alex, who never liked the house in the first place, is only too happy to oblige. They’ll discuss it when he returns from his business trip to San Francisco.
Before he goes, Alex has an encounter with that sage of sages, the handyman. He asks Mr. Harris to stay on, but Mr. Harris will not. Alex tells him he doesn’t believe “all that superstitious nonsense”, and Harris replies “It might be better for you and your wife if you did.” Then comes a bizarre little moment —Harris goes to collect his tools and the creatures whisper, “You told!” and “You know what happens to people who tell!” Harris denies it but gets a minor slash. He hurries out, telling Alex he had an accident.
Before leaving, Alex calmly tells Sally to “Stop being so scared.” Sally doesn’t want to stay in the house alone, so she asks Joan if she can stay with her, and Joan agrees.
Unfortunately, the decorator returns, intent on remaking the upstairs. When Sally tells him they are selling the house, he throws a fit. As he is charging down the stairs, the creatures string a rope across the stairway in classic HOME ALONE (1990) fashion. The decorator plummets to a messy, color-coordinated death. Sally grabs the rope and has a brief tug-of-war with the creatures, demanding to know what they want. They tell her it’s her they meant to kill, the decorator was an error. They yank the rope from Sally, giving her nasty rope burns on both palms. Later, one cop is apparently all that’s needed to rule the death unworthy of further investigation, and the doctor tells Joan she should try and get Sally to take some sleeping pills. Neither the cop nor the doctor notice Sally’s injured hands.
Once Sally shows Joan her rope burns, Joan believes her. And Alex is rushing home from San Francisco, as the killing of the decorator is enough to make him forget his quarterly reports for the moment. Sally does not want sleeping pills, she wants coffee. Apparently in a cut scene the critters drug her coffee, as she becomes dopey and disoriented. Sally cries to be taken out of the house, and, in a very creepy scene, the three main creatures watch her silently from a bookcase.
Alex returns, but still believes Sally is hysterical and overreacting. Joan convinces him to call the handyman, because something is going on. The handyman will talk, but not over the phone. Alex leaves and Sally cries.
Instead of taking Sally out of the house, Joan decides they will stay put. When the critters cut the power, she goes out to check a fuse box, and they lock her outside. Now the demons are going after Sally, and no one is around to protect her.
(WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!)
At the handyman’s place, Mr. Harris tells Alex that their house was built in the 1880’s. When Sally’s grandparents moved in, the fireplace was already bricked up and bolted shut. One night, Sally’s grandfather went into his office to work, and his wife heard strange sounds and screams… The old man was never found. Alex refuses to believe that any of this relates to the supernatural. Sally tries to call him for help, and the phone is cut. Alex and the handyman hurry back to the house.
Joan tries unsuccessfully to get back in the house, and gets her hand slashed trying to break in. Meanwhile, the creatures call Sally by name, coaxing her out of bed. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
Sally takes a flashlight and manages to hurt them a little, but they trip her with a hat rack. The demons bind her ankles… I must tell you it was the neatest job of tying someone up I have ever seen—it looked like an illustration from a manual on knot-tying. The creatures drag Sally toward the dread room… She manages to grab the camera off a small table (Ah! It did pay off!) and delays them by using the flash. You really think Alex is going to get there in time, maybe see the creatures… But, no. He hears Sally scream as he gets in the house and he rushes to the fireplace. There is a great shot of him peering with a flashlight down into the Stygian darkness, but there is no sign of Sally.
The final scene is where we started, with the house and all the whispering… Only now Sally’s voice is the one telling the others to be calm, that someone will come and free them, that they have “all the time in the world.”
For all my carping, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is an effective thriller. All of the actors play it straight, and Darby manages a vulnerability and a real-ness that is compelling. We believe she is up against something totally evil, and we feel for her. Also, the fact that the ending is an unhappy one is both unexpected and frightening.
The creatures are sometimes puppets but mostly little people in suits. The main creature was played by Felix Silla, who was Cousin Itt on THE ADDAMS FAMILY (1964-1966). Use of over-sized props (stairs, books, straight razors) help sell the illusion that the creatures are really tiny. Their faces are the only problem, which feature full head masks without any mouth opening. Not only do we miss the opportunity to see some nasty teeth, you can see the masks inflate when an actor breathes. Still, their look is both scary and memorable.
DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK is also interesting in that many questions are left unanswered: Where do the creatures come from? What do they want? How were they trapped in the first place? They want to be free, why don’t they leave the house? Sally’s grandfather must have become one of them, is he now evil? Is she? Why didn’t anyone warn the Farnhams about what was going on down in the depths? Why did the handyman lie so much? What’s his history with the creatures?
Of course, it’s questions like these that young Guillermo del Toro may have tried to answer, and perhaps that helped set him on the path to film making. Whether or not his remake is better than the original, we shall have to wait and see…
Lorimar, the company that produced DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, also produced BAD RONALD (1974) a year later… I think I’ll hop in one of the crawlers and see if I can dig that out for another time. Remote Outpost… out.
© Copyright 2011 by Mark Onspaugh