Every now and then I'll review an old horror movie that people caught on TV when they were younger, and they'll get a bit miffed (or even downright belligerent) that I wasn't as petrified by the film as they were, as if the idea of something that terrified a 6 or 7 year old might not be as successful at scaring a 31 year old who watches these things on a daily basis. Curiously, many such titles originally aired as TV movies - Tobe Hooper's 1979 "Movie of the Week" version of Salem's Lot in particular seems to have struck a nerve with impressionable viewers (I found it rather dull, though I wasn't a huge fan of the book either).
But what doesn't always come across is that these childhood nightmare-inducing movies differ for everyone. Yours might be Salem's Lot, or it might be something far less prestigious. I'm sure there's a kid somewhere who is scarred forever by a "Boo!" scene in Wes Craven's silly 1984 TV film Invitation To Hell (which is about an evil spa, for the record). I assume it's the access; it's probably much easier to convince your parents to let you watch something airing on regular TV (and for free) than it would be to have them take you to see The Thing or whatever. And that many of these films focused on children probably helped - put Kurt Russell in danger, and a kid might not care much. Put someone his age in the same situation - that kid's sheets might need to be checked in the AM.
For me, that movie is Don't Go To Sleep, which aired on ABC in 1982 and stars television stalwarts Dennis Weaver (already a "horror on TV" icon thanks to Duel) and Valerie Harper, then regularly starring in TV films after the end of her Rhoda series. As a bonus, Robbie Freeling himself, Oliver Robins, played their son, lending the film a bit of that Poltergeist charm. Indeed, the family unit is very much like Poltergeist's; everyone is around the same age, there are two daughters (plus a grandmother, like the future Poltergeist II!), and most of the horror elements of the story focus on the younger daughter, albeit in a very different, far more sinister manner.
Basically, the plot is this: our family moves into a new house after the death of their older daughter Jennifer, and is trying to put their life back together. Not long after that, the still living daughter, Mary, starts acting weird. And by weird I mean she's talking to Jennifer's ghost, who no one can see but her. Then a bunch of accidents start happening around the house... I won't spoil the specifics, but suffice to say the movie does NOT have a happy ending by any means. If you thought Orphan had some balls when it nearly killed the little brother, your mind will be blown by the outcome here.
And I'm pretty sure that's what makes the movie work, and why so many people replied to my Horror Movie A Day review with similar sentiment about how much it freaked them out when they were younger (or older; screenwriter Simon Barrett offered his praise and he saw it for the first time only a few years before). So many horror films focused around a family unit didn't have the cojones to kill any of them off, even in theatrical releases. Poltergeist, Amityville, etc - all these films kept the core unit intact, heading off to safety at their film's end. But not Don't Go To Sleep!
Plus the scares still work. The one that struck the biggest nerve for me was the pizza cutter. Our possessed (or just crazy) child grabs one at a certain point and slowly runs it up and down the banister and walls as she makes her way toward a potential victim, something that not only scared me while watching the film, but continues to give me pause to this day. I'm not even joking, when I open a utensil drawer and see one, I flinch a bit (I also only use knives to cut my pizza if the take out place didn't do it for me). And she never even actually uses it! It's just the creepy-ass "taunting" that she does with it that upset me so much as a little kid (I can't remember when I saw the movie first - I believe I was 6 or 7).
The final scare is the sort of thing that people would probably send to friends sans context; whether it works on its own or if you need the rather grim and disturbing chain of events that lead up to it is debatable. But if you DO watch the whole film and that final bit doesn't give you at least SOME sort of jolt, you might be dead inside. Also, the movie might make you think twice about owning an iguana, and I wouldn't be surprised if my unusually sleep-deprived junior year in college was due to my roommate having one as a pet in the room.
One thing that didn't hold up as well when I took a look at it recently was the film's pacing. Since the ghost's "revenge" is limited to the family, not a hell of a lot happens for a while, and there's a lot of repetition and padding to boot (there's something like 50 cutaways to the house's exterior). In the 70s, TV movies aired in 90 minute blocks and thus would run about 74-75 minutes without commercials - I can't help but wonder if the film had come out then if it would be even better, as there wouldn't be any need to pad things out to 93 minutes. Not that slow burn movies are bad, but they cram a LOT of stuff in the final 10 minutes or so, including (at long last) the full explanation of how Jennifer died, something that probably should have been revealed in bits and pieces throughout the film.
Maybe a remake can fix that. Perhaps it was just the most original way of obtaining a copy ever, but someone claiming to be the film's writer (Ned Wynn) posted on the IMDb a while back asking if anyone could provide him a copy of this long out of print film, as he was hoping to mount a remake. Apparently he had lost his script (hey, it was 1982 - they didn't have Gmail attachments and PDF files), and like all of us, didn't want to pay over a hundred bucks for a VHS copy on Amazon. Assuming he's not full of shit, Wynn DID get a copy at one point, and was keeping the board updated as he met with various producers, however those posts were in 2004 and 2005, and he hasn't posted anything about ANYTHING since 2006, so I am guessing any remake progress has stalled.
The failure of Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark probably didn't help much, either. Had the film been a hit, the geniuses in Hollywood would have considered TV horror remakes to be the next surefire thing, and hey, this one has "Don't" in the title too! I'm not too broken up about it, however a remake WOULD most likely get the ball rolling on finally releasing the film on DVD. Warner Bros is listed as one of the film's production companies, so perhaps they could at least offer it through their Warner Archive program (which has also given us a DVD release of another TV movie about a disturbed child: Bad Ronald). Instead, all we have are low-grade streams that are broken up into 10 parts; it used to show up on sites like the Internet Archive, but it's vanished from there too. It seems like the film is, if anything, DISAPPEARING as time goes on, instead of finding more and more fans as it should. Hell, my own review is the 5th or 6th match when you Google the film's title - this should not be!
So if you haven't seen it yet, seek it out (I won't provide links - it's technically a bootleg, but for a 30 year old/out of print movie that aired for free on TV I wouldn't look down on you for watching it online, either). And if you are Mr. Wynn or someone who knows for sure, let us know who to write to in order to get this movie re-released on some form of new media. Do we all have to mail pizza cutters to ABC, or what?