Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores the oddball horror weirdo known as Mark Peploe’s ‘Afraid of the Dark.’
It’s October, so as is mandated by the universally accepted movie blog charter this month’s Essentials are going to focus on the horror genre. This week’s entry is a little-seen psychological thriller from the UK that has haunted me for years.
The most successful movies, horror or otherwise, appeal to a broad audience by telling universal stories. One of the reasons great films can sometimes fly under the radar is because they don’t follow that same path and instead narrow their focus in ways the masses don’t quite appreciate. That’s not to imply niche films are inherently – nose in the air – better films, but sometimes great movies aim for too small a target in their themes and end up dying a quick and quiet death.
I say that to say this – I’m legally blind. It’s a technical term as I can see without corrective lenses, but everything beyond the first couple feet is an increasing blur to me. Hearing this description as a kid terrified me, and as someone who always liked to play rough and tumble outdoors my eyesight slowly forced me inward. (On the bright side, it introduced me to a love of reading.) It only took a couple instances of my glasses falling off while in a tree or in the water to make me feel utterly helpless in a world I could no longer see. Contact lenses eventually gave me a renewed urge for exploration and rambunctious play, but for a short while I was living in my own world.
My memories of that feeling are one of the reasons I’m a sucker for thrillers with blind protagonists like Wait Until Dark, Julia’s Eyes, and the Korean film Blind. It’s a specific fear, and it’s one I understand.
Which brings me – I know, finally! – to this week’s movie, 1992’s Afraid of the Dark.
Lucas (Ben Keyworth) is a young boy watching a nightmare unfold around him. Someone in his town is slashing the faces of blind women, and it’s a terror that hits close to home as his own mother (Fanny Ardent) is a potential victim. He accompanies her daily to the local Center for the Blind and sees others like her – including the very attractive Rose (Clare Holman) – who feign a strength that crumbles at the thought of the ongoing attacks. His father (James Fox) is a policeman scrambling to catch the psycho, but it’s Lucas who thinks he has an eye on the man responsible.
It could be the window cleaner who leers at Rose and whistles “Three Blind Mice.” Or the shopkeeper who ogles her. Or the photographer who suggests she should model nude. Or the handyman played by David Thewlis.
People are afraid, the police are helpless, and only Lucas seems to be looking with open eyes. He’s a kid exploring his surroundings, often with a neighbor’s dog Toby by his side, and he sees everything from the victims to the possible attacker as he wanders the streets, alleys, and cemetery behind his house, telescope in hand, watching. That desire to take it all in sees him peeking in the occasional window too, and it pays off as he spies on Rose’s topless photo session with the photographer, Tony (Paul McGann). Lucas watches as the man pulls out a razor and begins to taunt an exposed and vulnerable Rose, and with little concern for his own safety the boy rushes into the studio, grabs a nearby knitting needle, and stabs it into Tony’s eye.
The movie’s only half over.
These column entries aren’t movie reviews, so I don’t feel restrained by concerns over spoilers, but if you’re thinking about giving the film a watch – it’s currently available to rent on Amazon – then stop reading here, bookmark it, and come back after you’ve seen the movie. If you’re not going to seek it out please continue reading to see what turns the film from a conventional effort to a harrowing exploration of one boy’s fears.
Co-writer/director Mark Peploe’s film has, to this point, been a somewhat traditional thriller, but Lucas’ heroic triumph fades to black to reveal the boy sitting in his room, thick glasses enlarging his eyes to an unnatural degree, as he taps the lenses with one of his mother’s knitting needles. It’s the same image that opens the film, but only now does its implication begin to come clear.
His mother and florist father are expecting another child, and his sister Rose is getting married to Tony. None of them are blind, there is no slasher, and it’s only young Lucas whose eyesight is failing him. He’s nearly blind as it is, and an impending operation promises to either fix his eyes or damage them beyond repair. And he is terrified.
Life is moving fast around him, and his fear of being left behind by family members with new things to focus on – a baby, a husband – is compounded by his literal inability to focus on much at all. The adventurous wanderer of the film’s first half has become a boy more secure in his bedroom. He’s losing everything of value in his life, and his fearful imagination is fueling a panic that’s pushing him towards tragedy.
The transition between the halves feels jarring at first, but small details – as well as the same cast obviously – tie the two together. We see toys and objects in the real world that informed his imaginary one, and even an earlier sequence that saw him silently taunting a blind woman by following without identifying himself is revealed as role play in light of his own fear of the things and people he can’t see.
Peploe’s film is a methodical thriller in many ways, but there’s a heavy emotional weight here that’s uncommon for the genre. Lucas’ fear is shutting him down, and if Keyworth’s performance seems muted at times it’s in direct response to his character’s perception of those around him. He feels isolated from the experiences and joys of others, and that loneliness is shaping his behavior.
Two heartbreaking scenes drive home the devastating separation he feels from the rest of the world. First, his father comes home to a dark house to find Lucas curled up in his parents’ bed with all of the light bulbs piled gently in the boy’s soon-to-be baby sister’s crib – is he sharing what he sees, or is he trying to give the light he lacks to the newborn? And then he accidentally kills Toby. The dog comes playfully at him, but without his glasses a fearful Lucas sees what amounts to Cujo and stabs the creature in the eye. Later, we watch as he cries uncontrollably while resting his head on his best friend’s cold fur.
And then, knitting needle in hand, he abducts his infant sister.
You’ll need to watch Mark Peploe’s Afraid of the Dark to see how it ends, but Peploe maintains the power and terror of a lonely imagination left unchecked leaving viewers unsure just what Lucas will do. There are more thrills as the boy is chased by the characters created by his fear and the realization that he can’t trust his own eyes, and by the time it fades to black once more we’re left realizing just how much faith we have in our own.
I don’t know how the film plays for viewers who’ve never feared for their own impending darkness, but for me it succeeds at capturing a harrowing possibility.
Related Topics: The Essentials