Horror Movie A Day: AFRAID OF THE DARK (1991) Spider-Man never wins. The bad man comes back.
Published at: Oct. 4, 2009, 1:03 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first 2009 Horror Movie A Day.
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day.]
Today we radically shift gears from the camp of the last few films to a very well-done, cerebral mind-fuck of a movie called AFRAID OF THE DARK.
From the opening shot of a young boy tapping the pointed edge of a knitting needle rhythmically against his thick, coke-bottle glasses while blankly staring off into the distance the tone is set.
There’s something unsettling about the whole movie and it becomes doubly so when halfway through this film writer/director Mark Peploe (who won an Oscar for writing THE LAST EMPEROR) turns everything inside out and suddenly you’re in a completely different movie. It’s an almost Lynchian shift in structure that manages to confuse us without making us feel like we’re lost if you know what I’m saying.
The first half of the movie plays like a good giallo, something Dario Argento would have made in his heyday. Our young lead (Ben Keyworth) lives with his sightless mother in a blind community somewhere in London. He’s a quiet kid, an introvert, an observer. He doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of the blind adult friends and colleagues of his mother.
There’s a rash of slashings in the neighborhood, some sicko is going around with a straight-razor and slicing the faces of the blind women. It’s an Argento blood-bath, nobody is getting murdered, just cut up and terrorized.
Young Keyworth seems to be interested in this and sees every stranger as the possible slasher, be it the window-washer that always whistles a creepy tune or the unassuming locksmith (an early role for David Thewlis). But he’s not exactly playing junior detective. He’s fascinated by this and he finds himself taking the role of voyeur, following some of the blind women home and even going so far as to scare them with his footsteps.
If the movie were only 45 minutes long it’d be a complete gaillo story with a beginning, middle and end that takes the boy on a sort of hero’s journey where he gets to save the damsel in distress. But the movie doesn’t end there and that’s what really sets this film apart.
I’m going to be getting into some spoilers which will ruin the twist, if you can call a plot turn in the middle of a film a “twist.” I suppose you can as I’d certainly call the genre switch in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN a twist. At any rate, I’m going to post the trailer and then discuss the movie in a little more detail. The trailer itself tells you this secret, so from here on out it’s spoiler territory.
The selling point of the trailer was you can experience this film as a story where reality and child’s fantasy can’t be distinguished.
After Keyworth saves his hot, young and naked blind friend from the slasher by jamming a knitting needle through the sick bastard’s eye we’re suddenly brought back to the shot that opened the film.
Nowhere in the opening half of the movie is the boy wearing those thick eyeglasses and as we pull out from a close-up of him tapping his glasses with the tip of knitting needle I was reminded of that fact.
The implication is that everything we just watched was a daydream in this boy’s mind. His mom has perfect vision and the boy is the one going blind, bit by bit. The hot blind girl he rescued is in reality his sister. Much like WIZARD OF OZ everybody who played a part in the first act, from the creepy window-washer to Thewlis’ character, shows up in the real world.
In this reality Keyworth is far creepier, almost a budding serial killer. His failing vision and the isolation he feels is drawing him deeper and deeper within himself.
It’s when the world of the first part of the movie starts spilling over into what’s supposed to be our solid reality that the mindfuck really does swing into full effect.
I wouldn’t quite say the movie’s exciting enough to become a new favorite, but it’s very successful at what it sets out to do namely setting a constant elusively disturbing tone. You don’t ever really know what’s going to happen next or just how far the film is willing to go.
Ben Keyworth carries the movie very well, giving a damn good, understated child performance. It’s interesting that David Thewlis is in the movie because young Keyworth’s performance reminds me a lot of a Thewlis’ acting style. I wouldn’t have surprised me to find out Keyworth and Thewlis were related.
Final Thoughts: AFRAID OF THE DARK is an odd movie that works really hard to get under your skin, not trying to make you jump out of it. It might be a little too slow and bloodless for gorehounds, but for a good moody reality shifting underseen movie it was a great little surprise.
For my recommendation I decided to go with a movie close to my heart, something a grew up with that shares a similar tone with AFRAID OF THE DARK.
THE LADY IN WHITE is a ghost story that can be described as a mystery, possibly a thriller, but it doesn’t feel very much like horror to me, even though it did scare the bejesus out of me as a kid.
This is a great Halloween movie, actually. Maybe I should have saved this recommendation for the October 31st HMAD, but Released in 1988 and starring the young Lukas Haas just a few years off of WITNESS. Set on Halloween in the early ‘60s the movie unfolds like a story Stephen King never wrote. The elements are there… well written kid characters in peril, ghosts and all from the mind of a famous horror author who is returning to his small town home to remember it all for our viewing pleasure.
THE LADY IN WHITE is a real deal movie, beautifully shot and emotionally true. It’s obviously a very personal film for writer/director Frank LaLoggia that I’m sure is more than a little autobiographical.
LaLoggia lovingly captures this time with the help of the great cinematographer Russell Carpenter (TITANIC, TRUE LIES and… yikes, CAMERON’S CLOSET? We’ll let that one slide, Russ…). LaLoggia also captures a sweet and loving family unit headed by Alex Rocco who usually plays Italian tough guys in films like THE GODFATHER or FREEBIE AND THE BEAN. I particularly like the grandparents, first generation Italians who are always arguing half in English, half in Italian.
That’s the King feeling I get off this. The movie’s a supernatural mystery with a real, deadly threat, but the world feels real if not slightly rose-tinted through the glass of loving nostalgia. The characters are alive.
The basic set-up is that a young boy is locked in a coat room at school by a pair of bullies (one of them is played by the kid that was Tom Hanks’ best friend in Big, by the way) on Halloween night. While alone in the room he witnesses the ghost of a young girl who is trapped in a cycle, repeating the night of her murder over and over again.
Haas watches on in horror as this transparent girl is strangled by an invisible force and then carried out of the room, through the locked door. As most ghost stories will tell you, the dead are not to be feared. It’s the living you gotta watch out for.
The murderer returns to the scene that night, face obscured, and tries to pry open a grate. He sees Haas who tries to hide behind his Halloween mask and tries to strangle him to death too.
He’s not successful and as Haas recovers it becomes a whodunit as he tries to let the poor girl’s spirit rest.
Bing Crosby’s Did You Ever See A Dream Walking serves as this film’s theme song and to this day that melody creeps me out. It’s become haunting instead of cheery.
Also keep an eye out for Katherine Helmond in a supremely creepy role.
THE LADY IN WHITE is just a flat out awesome movie that I’m quite surprised isn’t more well known. All the performances are great, the writing’s great, direction’s great, photography is great… it’s all great! It’s movie like this that I hope to see out of Guillermo del Toro and Disney’s DOUBLE DARE YOU label of family-oriented horror films. Seek it out if you’ve never seen it.
Here are the next week’s worth of HMAD titles:
Monday, October 5th: THE PIT (1981)
Tuesday, October 6th: BRAIN DAMAGE (1988)
Wednesday, October 7th: BRAIN DEAD (1990)
Thursday, October 8th: VISITING HOURS (1982)
Friday, October 9th: MACABRE (1980)
Saturday, October 10th: PRIVATE PARTS (1972)
Sunday, October 11th: ROAD GAMES (1981)
One more kid-in-horror flick to get out of the way before moving on. Tomorrow we dig in to 1981’s THE PIT! See you then!
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