Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Welcome to my childhood nightmare.

Goblins behind books

I first saw this 1973 made-for-TV movie when I was 9, and it haunted me for years. I had nightmares related to it as late as 17, even after I’d seen the movie again and was old enough to realize that its special effects were on the cheap side.

Even now, as a grown-up who’s seen it multiple times, something of that childhood fear still lingers in the back of my mind, impossible to shake. Just last year, when I pulled open an access panel in the wall for one of my house utilities and gazed down into the black space between the walls, I couldn’t help thinking, “I hope there aren’t any little goblins living down in there.”

I’ve been considering on and off for years acquiring this movie on DVD and reviewing it; when I was purchasing Trilogy of Terror recently and Amazon thought I might like this too, I finally took the plunge. And here we are.

The movie starts with a hissing black cat, who has nothing to do with the story and will never be seen again. Over a shot of a large and handsome old Victorian house looking spooky in the night-time, we hear a number of creepy whispered voices having a conversation. The one who answers the others’ questions appears to be in charge:

“Will she come?”

“Do you think she’ll come?”

“She will. You know she will.”

“But when? When?”

“Very soon. It’s just a matter of time, of waiting for awhile. All we have to do is bide our time. Bide our time.”

“But it’s been so long. So many years. We wish she’d come and set us free. Set us free.”

“Patience, please. Patience. We’ve all the time in the world. All the time in the world.”

“In the world! All the time, to set us free in the world!”

Then they all laugh in a diabolical kind of way.

After the credits, we see the house again by daylight; another voiceover conversation, this time between two non-demonic people, accompanies  shots of the different rooms.

Alex and Sally Farnham (Jim Hutton and Kim Darby) have just inherited the house from her recently deceased grandmother. Victorian house Alex would rather live in a high-rise apartment, but Sally is enthusiastic about moving in. She thinks it’ll be fun to renovate the house and live there.

And, really, if it weren’t for the evil little creatures living in the fireplace, it’d be a terrific house. It’s a beautiful house with lots of big rooms, and it’s got a tower and a swimming pool. What more could you want?

Alex is older than Sally, a bit stuffy and ambitious in his profession (lawyer, I think, although it’s never made clear and doesn’t matter for the plot). Sally is something of a hippy, judging by her clothing choices, but not so “liberated” that she has a job of her own; her job is to be an asset to him and make a good impression with his bosses. They’re planning to host an important dinner party soon after they move in, and Alex is worried that the house won’t be presentable to be shown off to their guests in time.

The couple hires an interior decorator to help fix up the place. (Considering that he suggests Navy-blue carpet on the front stairs to go with lime green walls, and Sally thinks this is a great idea, I have to question their taste. But it was the ’70s.) They also hire Mr. Harris (William Demarest), the old carpenter who used to work as a handy man for Grandma.

Sally has found the key to a locked door among her grandmother’s effects, which leads to a basement study. The room has been shut up since her grandfather died. The windows’ shutters are nailed shut to let in no light, and the fireplace is bricked up, but Sally and her decorator discuss the possibilities of doing something with the room so Sally can use it as an office for herself. The first thing to do is to open up that fireplace. Why would anyone want to brick it over?

But when Sally brings it up with Harris, he warns her against it. The bricks blocking the fireplace are in layers, 4 deep, and reinforced with iron bars. Grandma had him do the work 20 years ago.

“Some things are better left as they are.”

Sally opens the ash door It’s Harris’s dire warnings and Alex being dismissive of what she wants–he thinks the study is a cold, damp, miserable room–that lead Sally into an act of defiance against them, which one would sympathize with if one didn’t know how stupid it is under the circumstances.

As soon as the men have gone, Sally goes into Harris’s toolbox for a hammer and bashes the bricks a couple of times. When this only chips off a few little fragments, she considers the ash door on the side of the chimney. Harris didn’t think to weld the ash door shut; it’s only bolted, and it’s the work of a minute for Sally to grab a monkey-wrench and undo them.

Once she has a look inside the chimney, Sally sees the bricks and iron bars from the inside and the deep chimney shaft that seems to go down endlessly into the darkness. She gives up the idea and goes to join Alex for dinner, leaving the ash door open. But that’s enough.

A green light appears within the chimney, and we hear those creepy whispered voices, now eager and excited:

“Free! Free! She set us free!”

Over dinner, the couple discuss their plans for the party. Alex is up for a big promotion at his firm which may lead to a partnership, so he’s anxious that everything goes well–and he’s worried that Sally doesn’t “want this for him.” He acknowledges that he’s been very busy lately, but he promises that his upcoming business trip to San Francisco will only be overnight and then he’ll be home with her again.

Sally did lock the study door when she left, but under the closed door we see that green light again and the shadow of something moving on other side. Whatever’s in there uses the old trick of sliding a piece of paper under the door and knocking the key out of the lock to get out.

Sally hears scuttling sounds in the kitchen while washing up the dishes, and thinks it’s mice. She goes to bed and is about to fall asleep, when she hears someone whispering her name; the ashtray is suddenly shoved off the nightstand.

Alex thinks she knocked it off herself accidentally. He also doesn’t believe she heard scuttling sounds, since they fumigated the house to get rid of mice. It must be her imagination.

Sally hears the whispers again during the night. An exterior shot of the house shows us that the shutters on the study window are open and there’s a green light within the room. We’ll see this shot repeated often during the movie; Sally and Alex never see it from within the house, though. I wonder if any of the neighbors do.

Joan and Sally

The next morning while out shopping for the party, Sally tells her best friend Joan Khan (Barbara Anderson, whom I know best from Ironside; Kim Darby had a small part in the Ironside pilot movie, as the teenaged girlfriend of the boy suspected of shooting Robert T. Ironside and putting him in a wheelchair.)

Joan thinks it’s all Sally’s imagination too, perhaps an attention-getting behavior because Sally’s feeling neglected by Alex, since all he thinks about these days is his job and career ambitions. Joan commiserates, and refers to her own ambitious husband, George “Genghis” Khan.

Harris is back at the house and sees that Sally’s opened the ash door. He bolts it shut again and, when she gets home, tells her that she really shouldn’t have done it. He asks if anything’s happened, but in spite of the ash tray incident, Sally says No.

Apparently, it’s not just a matter of bolts keeping the evil little guys in: Sally had to be the one to set them free. Now that it’s been done, they can undo the bolts from the inside for themselves. Which they do once Sally and Harris are out of the room.

A little later, one of them hides behind the drapes, grabs Sally’s skirt, and tells her, “We want you. We want you.”

This would send most people running screaming out of the house–but Sally only phones her husband (he’s not in). I suppose after what Alex and Joan have said, she’s telling herself that this is more of her overactive imagination. When she hears whispers of her name, she looks into the study and sees that the ash door is wide open. The voices are coming from inside the chimney.

Alex rebolts the door when he gets home.  Sally tries to tell him what happened, but he won’t hear it. He tells her to stop this. It must be a “crude practical joke” by Mr Harris, and she’s over-reacting. The key to the study door is missing.

He angrily phones Harris, who says he didn’t unbolt the ash door and didn’t take the key.  And they can get themselves a new carpenter.

It’s the evening of the big dinner party, and things are going well. The guests are having a pleasant time. Hired waiters serve hors d’oeuvres and there’s a buffet table with beverages and hot food. “Genghis” Khan is taking photos with his brand new flash camera. For those who don’t remember, the little cubes had 4 flashes before they burned out; Genghis takes two photos with the flash before his wife takes the camera away from him and sets it down on a small side-table.

Creature peeks out of the flowersWhile she’s getting herself something to drink, Sally glimpses a tiny, horrid, wrinkle-faced creature peeking out a her from a vase of flowers on the buffet. It’s only there for an instant, and she’s not sure what she saw.

When she sits down to dinner and is chatting with the man seated next to her, something under the table pulls her napkin off her lap. She picks it up and puts it back on her knee. It’s pulled off again.

This time, Sally looks down and, for the first time, gets a good look at what’s running around her house. Much worse than mice! She jumps up from the table and, not unnaturally, is in hysterics. This puts an abrupt end to the party.

Alex thinks she did it to sabotage his promotion, and because she’s decided she doesn’t like the house after all but just can’t say so after all the work they’ve put into it.

While the couple is arguing up in their bedroom after the guests and catering help have gone, three of the little goblins climb up the stairs. Although it’s suggested by voices and shadows that there are many of them, these three little guys are the only one’s we’ll see throughout the movie. They’re about a foot tall and have furry bodies like teddy bears, which would be kind of cute if it weren’t for the prune faces and their being all evil and bent on getting Sally.

Lights outOnce upstairs, they must have access to hidden passages behind the walls, since they come in via the towel cabinet in the hideously red bathroom while Sally is taking a shower. One shuts off the lights using a wire hanger.

One of the creatures wants to hurt Sally with a straight razor, but another one holds him back and insists, “Not yet.” Their leader just looks on and doesn’t say anything.

The two with the razor agree to scare her. When Sally gets out of shower to turn the light back on, she sees the razor lying on the floor. The creatures have gone into hiding.

By way of experiment, Sally turns off the light, then on to catch them as they come out. It’s not just that they don’t like the light; it appears to weaken them. One has to drag another back into the safety of the dark.

When Sally opens the cabinet where the creatures retreated, she finds it empty apart from the towels.

Does she run straight out of the house in her bathrobe after this terrifying incident? No. She goes into the bedroom and tells Alex that he was right about the house. It’s a depressing place and they should give it up. He’s pleased that she’s admitted this, and says they’ll talk about it after he gets back from San Francisco. Goblins on the stairs

While Alex sleeps, Sally spends the night on an armchair in the reading nook off the bedroom with the light on.

“Just a few more days and I’ll be safe,” she tells herself.

The evil little guys go back down the stairs. “We’ll get her tomorrow,” they agree.

By the way, their mouths don’t move when they talk.

Before he leaves for San Francisco in the morning, Alex meets Harris, who has returned for his toolbox. The two men have a chat and a cup of coffee seated by the fabulous pool that no one goes swimming in.

Alex apologizes for what he said on the phone, since he now believes that his wife’s seeing things. He asks Harris to resume work, but Harris won’t. It’s the house, Harris says. Superstition, Alex replies dismissively.

Alex: “I don’t happen to believe in all that stuff.”

It would be better if you did, Alex.

Alex and Mr. Harris

It turns out that Harris does know all about the goblins. When he goes into the study to get his toolbox, they’re waiting for him. They’ve been eavesdropping on the above conversation from the study window, and accuse him of telling. They talk like 1930s gangsters: “You know what happens to people who tell,” and one of them stabs his hand with a screwdriver to emphasize the point. But they aren’t interested in dragging him into the chimney.

When I saw this again as a teenager, this is the scene in which I most noticed the dubious special effects. Harris is supposed to be surrounded by the little creatures in the darkened study, but what we see are the shadows of cardboard cut-outs moving around. Not so scary.

After Alex leaves, Joan phones and offers to have Sally come and stay with her while her husband is out of town. Sally is glad to accept.

But she doesn’t get a chance to leave as planned. The interior designer comes over that afternoon. He’s not happy to hear that the Farnhams aren’t keeping the house after all and don’t need him to continue his work on it.

As he storms down the stairs to exit, just ahead of Sally, he trips on a cord which the goblin-guys have strung across one step. He tumbles all the way down and presumably breaks his neck.

Does Sally scream and run down the stairs to see if he’s alive? No. She grabs hold of the cord as the little guys are pulling it away, and has a conversation with them:

Sally: “Who are you? What do you want?”

Creatures: “We want you, Sally. It was a mistake. It’s your spirit we need,  your spirit we want… Become one of us. Live with us.”

At least, her second question was answered–and truthfully too–although perhaps Sally would rather not have heard what they’re planning for her. They yank the cord out of her hands and leave her with burn marks across her palms.

The police come. They must have been told it was an accident and accepted this, since they’re just taking the decorator’s body away on a stretcher. Joan has come over and seems to have taken charge of her distressed friend. A doctor has seen Sally and, before he goes, gives Joan sleeping pills for Sally to take to help her rest after this traumatic incident.

But Sally doesn’t want to rest. Finally, she’s packing a suitcase and is ready to leave right now. Joan suggests they wait until Alex returns; he’s hurried home from San Francisco and should be there shortly.

Marked handsSally doesn’t want the sleeping pills, so Joan leaves them on the nightstand along with a mug of coffee she brought upstairs for her friend.

When Joan notices the marks on Sally’s hands, she begins to believe  her about what happened on the stairs. But she doesn’t get Sally out of the house. They wait for Alex.

We don’t see the goblins dope the coffee, or even the shimmer of their signature green glow from the nightstand, but they must have done so.  After drinking the coffee, Sally falls into a stupor. The evil trio watch her from behind the books on a shelf.

When Alex gets in, he and Joan find Sally sprawled on the bed. She drowsily asks him to please take her out of there so she can be safe. He sees the open box of pills and thinks that she took two of them. But Joan thinks that someone else gave them to her.

Alex continues not to believe that something supernatural is going on until he too sees the marks on Sally’s hands. Now, he wants Joan to tell him everything.

Do they take Sally out of the house then? No. Alex drives over to Harris’s home to hear how Sally’s grandfather opened up the fireplace; it was sealed when Grandpa and Grandma moved in. It hasn’t been used since the house was built in the 1880s. I suppose it was a bad idea to build it with a chimney shaft that goes down to Hell in the first place.

According to Harris, everyone in the house heard Grandpa scream one day and, when they broke down the locked study door, found the room in a mess and Grandpa gone. It was as if something had grabbed him and pulled him down into the fireplace. Harris doesn’t mention the little monsters who threatened him that same morning–maybe he’s afraid of them even at this distance.

Joan, meanwhile, has gone around the house and turned on all the lights. She’s sitting with Sally in the bedroom, when the little guys chop the power lines by fusebox.

For the most part, the film has done a great job with the scale sets, so the actors playing the creatures look like they’re in the same places as the regular-sized people. The bathroom cabinet and straight razor look like the ones Sally interacts with. The creatures look as if they’re going up and down the same staircase as she does. (The only set that looks a bit dubious to me is the books they hide behind on the shelf.) Cutting the powerBut the scene where they cut the power creates a continuity problem with their size. It’s an issue of scale.

In earlier scenes they’ve been tiny; they’d have to be to hide in a vase of flowers or behind books without being noticed. Here, they push a garbage bin up to the fusebox and one climbs up onto it. They’re as tall as the garbage bin. When Joan comes out to check the fusebox, we can see that the bin is about 2 and 1/2 feet tall. You’d definitely notice a furry-bodied, wrinkle-faced little monster that size if it was perched on your nightstand, even if it’s crouched behind the phone!

Well, Joan does go out with a flashlight and sees that the lines have been cut. But she can’t get back inside. They lock the kitchen door on her, then go around bolting the French doors on the patio before she can open them. Another continuity problem: It’s still a sunny afternoon where Joan is, but it’s night as Alex drives home from Harris’s house at the same time.

While I know that Kim Darby was in the original version of True Grit and that Star Trek episode where all the children came down with a horrible, fatal disease as soon as they hit puberty, I’m not familiar enough with her as an actor to have expectations about her character in this movie based on other things I’ve seen her in and know her well from. I can’t say the same about the two other principal actors here.

Sunny afternoon, and Joan's locked outI’m used to Jim Hutton being Ellery Queen, an intelligent man who can solve a puzzling mystery. Alex is pretty much clueless. He asks questions about the house, but disregards what he’s told, until it’s too late. And I’ve seen Barbara Anderson judo-flip a strangler and bust any number of San Francisco criminals while dressed in the most exquisite non-hippie fashions of the late ’60s. So I’m a bit disappointed that Joan doesn’t handle the little monsters better once she’s faced with them. Well she is, after all, a housewife, and not a kick-ass but girly police officer. She’s more mature than her friend Sally, but not more experienced in dealing with this kind of thing.

Sally hears Joan shouting to her from outside the house and gets out of bed. She makes it downstairs in the dark with more of the creatures following her and whispering. Instead of heading out the front door to safety, she wanders dazedly around the living room and they trip her. They get her.

Dragging Sally

Right here’s our Childhood Nightmare fuel: They tie a cord around her ankles and drag her slowly toward the study and the chimney.

She’s in a drugged stupor, but Sally does try to stop or delay them until help arrives. As a last defense, she grabs Genghis’s flash camera, which is still on the small table where Joan put it during the party. Remember, there are only 2 flashes left. This isn’t enough to save her, but perhaps she’s left a couple photos of the creatures that got her for Alex and Joan to find.

By the time they get into the house, they hear her scream. Alex shines his flashlight through the ash door into that bottomless black pit and calls out to her, but sees nothing.

In the end, we’re back to that green light in the study window and a reprise of that conversation from the opening, only this time it’s Sally’s voice that answers the questions:

Green light in the study window “Will anyone come? Do you think they’ll come? Will anyone come and set us free?”

“Of course, they will come. You know they will.”

“But when? When? When?”

“Soon. Very soon. We have lots of time. Lots of time. All the time in the world.”

“Time! Time! Time to set us free again!”

“All the time in the world.”

“To set us free! Set us free! Set us free in the world!”

Then they all have a jolly good laugh.

This ending makes me wonder if Sally’s grandfather was the one answering questions in the opening. It would explain how the other little creatures knew about her; she would have been a child at the time Grandpa joined them. Could he be one of the three little guys we see going around the house on stalking missions?

The DVD doesn’t have much in the way of extras. There’s a commentary by three modern horror-film writers. While they do have a few amusing things to say about the ’70s fashions and décor, and I agree with them that Sally does seems like a child, like a teen daughter of Alex and Joan, who are a more believable couple. But it irritates me that they have no clue who any of the actors are apart from “Uncle Charley” (William Demarest). One does identify Jim Hutton as Tim Hutton’s father. Did they never watch Ellery Queen or Ironside? These were staples of my TV viewing around the same time this movie aired, and I rewatch them even today.

Barbara AndersonWhen I started watching this movie to review it, I was worried that it would end up kicking something in my subconscious awake again after so many years, and I’d have a bad dream related to it. But I was so irked about the ignorance in the commentary that instead I had a dream in which Officer Eve Whitfield and I were working on an investigation in a warehouse. No nasty little goblins involved.


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.