Fear Is Blind

Afraid of the Dark

Afraid of the Dark, Mark Peploe’s smart but minor psychological thriller, comprises two movies. In the first, a boy named Lucas is surrounded by blind women who are attacked one after another by a razor-blade-wielding man. In the second, Lucas is losing his sight, and beyond that trauma he is acutely anxious that his soon-to-be-born sibling will displace him in the family structure.

One of these stories represents reality, and one is fantasy, and it takes no genius to figure out which is which. Thankfully, the film doesn’t try to fool the audience.

Its opening shot shows the boy repeatedly tapping a knitting needle against his thick glasses, and it’s an elegant, loaded summation of the movie: the sound mimics the canes that the blind use, the needle carries the potential for violence, the glasses hint at deteriorating vision, and the boy’s face is intense but also slack — as if he were in a trance.

The film’s construction is similarly simple and ingenious. It would have been easy (and far more marketable) for director and co-writer Peploe to intertwine the two stories for maximum confusion, with a last-reel reveal. But Afraid of the Dark is balanced, split evenly into two parts, and the decision gives the material room to breathe, and offers the audience time to consider meaning and the filmmaker’s choices.

Why, for example, is the boy’s father a police officer in the first story and a florist in the second? Why does the fantasy, at its climax, eroticize a victim, nearly suggesting that she should draw pleasure from getting cut? And how does this spring from the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old boy?

Is the mass blindness of the first part of the film merely a projection, or does it represent the fact that Lucas is already nearly invisible to his family, preoccupied with a wedding and a birth? And is the boy a different person without the use of his eyes? In other words, how does fear transform a person, particularly someone so young?

Afraid of the Dark is by no measure high art, but it has held up remarkably well since its 1991 theatrical run and is worth seeking out. (It was just released on DVD this year.) Blindness is a potent symbol, used well and resonant in the context of shifting family dynamics.

Most importantly, the film has an acute understanding of both the mind of a boy and the ways that even close-knit families can fail their children. Afraid of the Dark has a core of emotional truth that doesn’t require structural trickery or some half-assed twist ending.

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