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1991’s French-British Film ‘Afraid of the Dark’ is a Genre Blind Spot Worth Seeing [Horrors Elsewhere]

Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not always be universal, but one thing is for sure  a scream is understood, always and everywhere.

While other children’s fears are innocuous and fleeting, the worries of 11-year-old Lucas (Ben Keyworth) are more profound in Afraid of the Dark. Mark Peploe’s 1991 psychological thriller positions itself as a deep study of its imaginative protagonist, but viewers can’t always trust everything they see through the eyes of young Lucas.

Peploe’s directorial debut is an unsung achievement in adolescent horror. When communicating Lucas’ childhood anxieties, Afraid of the Dark thoroughly shows more than tells. The slow realization of how dangerous the world truly is, has an insidious effect on the main character’s mental state and actions. The story unfolds in a cheerless section of London beset by vicious attacks on blind women in broad daylight. Lucas hears of each new assault firsthand seeing as his father Frank (James Fox) is a police officer directly working on the unsolved case. Along with everyone else in the neighborhood, Lucas is restless as he waits for the culprit to strike again.

Lucas feels the touch of death closing in on him each and every day. From waking up to the sight of a cemetery outside his bedroom window, to witnessing the slasher’s wanton crimes up close and personal, Lucas is routinely reminded of his own mortality. He wanders from place to place alone on most days, taking in the sights as if they were his last. As of late, though, his mother Miriam (Fanny Ardant) has brought him to a center for blind people like herself. At her request, Lucas escorts the recently engaged Rose (Clare Holman) around town. He notices the lascivious way various men stare at her, but with her being blind, Rose is unaware. It’s her innocence that strikes a chord with Lucas; he himself doesn’t ever want to be that susceptible.

Lucas’ desire to not be vulnerable to society’s ills and dangers eventually causes the movie to flip its entire script. Permitting massive spoilers from here on out, Afraid of the Dark undoes its first half following a climactic scene; Rose has gone to a photoshoot where the sketchy photographer Tony (Scott McGann) has convinced his model to pose topless. Just as Tony goes from snapping shots of his subject to slicing into her thighs with a blade, Lucas charges in and stabs the de-facto slasher’s eye with a knitting needle. Suddenly, the movie resets with the same scene from the opening; Lucas repeatedly taps his thick lenses with the red needle seen all throughout the film. However, reality has set in, and audiences learn everything up until this point has been all part of the protagonist’s vivid imagination.

The part of Lucas’ body he can no longer trust to always function is now the audience’s window into his uneasy mind. In this narrative reboot, Miriam, Rose, and the others from the center are in fact not blind; Rose is also Lucas’ older sister who is engaged to Tony, and there is no slasher running about. It’s on Rose’s wedding day she and her father discuss how Lucas requires a major eye operation. This revelation helps explain the boy’s pathological fear of blindness and the inordinate scenarios he’s conceived in his head to deal with that upsetting news.

While Lucas’ family walks on eggshells regarding the operation — they whisper among themselves how he’ll lose whatever he has left of his sight if the procedure fails — he quietly grapples with his predicament. His cognizance is indicated in his behavior and conversations. For example, in Lucas’ exchange with Tony about why he no longer likes Spider-Man, the child dismally explains the superhero “never wins” because evil always returns in one form or another. It’s a perfect display of how a child Lucas’ age would view his problem in terms he would comprehend. At last, Lucas’ most powerful strategy when working out his emotions would be his collection of intense fantasies. It’s through these wild daydreams Lucas catches a glimpse of what the future may have in store for him. This coping mechanism is empowering because he can fight something that is neither perceptible nor tangible from his standpoint. Lucas recoups his agency just as others simply expect the worst for him.

Tony may not actually be a ripper, but Lucas’ dread remains fully intact. Maybe the most upsetting manifestation of the boy’s fears is when he mistakes the neighbor’s dog and his best friend Toby for a rabid beast. Then there is Miriam, who is pregnant with her third child, going into labor at the wedding. In everyone’s haste to bring new life into the world, they trample Lucas’ glasses without nary a concern. Add on the attention Isabel receives upon her birth, it only makes sense the son might feel like he’s being replaced. Finally, his severe reaction to such paranoia is the stuff of nightmares.

Peploe and co-writer Frederick Seidel put to paper a child’s struggle with understanding his own ailment. Ben Keyworth’s handling of the material is also crucial to the overall story; he conveys despondency and regret with a kind of precision beyond his years. Children in other genre movies are frequently written to behave like adults in young bodies, but Lucas is the opposite. Whether it be dreaming up an enemy he can defeat, or viewing the world in strictly black and white with no grays, Lucas is unequivocally a child rather than childlike. It’s a performance that should not be overlooked.

Afraid of the Dark is a unique dissection of youthful fear influenced by classic giallo movies. Its risks are big and bold, but they may not gel with everyone; expectations can’t be metered ahead of time without giving away the midway twist. Even so, there’s more to this challenging and layered thriller than meets the eye.