Reading the blurb for this show (which is set, with self-conscious irony, in a Hollywood B-movie studio famed for lurid horror pics) I was pleasantly reminded of mildly creepy dramas such as The Twilight Zone, Tales of the Unexpected, and even Agatha Christie’s murder mystery The Mousetrap. If you love those shows, prefer your thrills atmospheric and your gore minimal, and don’t mind a bit of 1950s cheese, you’ll surely get a kick out of Afraid of the Dark.
We open with a prologue of sorts: a young “Master of Terror” Dr. Henry Charlier (Peter Clements) is performing his stage act, which involves a sinister camera and a haunted photograph. At the climax of the act he gives a young boy in the audience a sealed envelope, which will (naturally) come back to haunt the narrative.
Cut to thirty-odd years later, and the cheap monster-flick production company run by Julius Bernstein (biggest hit: Hitler’s Heart) is in dire straits. The McCarthy Communist witch-hunts are at their height, crippling the studios as swathes of writers, directors and actors are blacklisted. Bernstein (John Guerrasio) tells producer Roger, writer Herschell (Mark Rice-Oxley) and secretary/accountant Sandra (Rebecca Blackstone) that they have 24 hours to come up with a solid-gold shocker for half the usual budget – or they’re all out of a job.
Naturally, this is where sinister stranger Dr. Henry Charlier (now played by Julian Forsyth) – who is strangely familiar to Roger (Charlie Anson) – steps in. Apropos of not very much, he offers each of the players a familiar blue envelope with their worst nightmare, whether from the past or future, written inside. Will they dare to break the seal – and if so, what will they find?
So far, so Twilight Zone – but does the live theatrical experience of this show offer any more visceral thrills than watching a black-and-white DVD of said series? Are the dire warnings for children under 12, those of a nervous disposition and people with heart conditions which litter the website justified?
Well, to an extent. To director Ian Talbot’s credit, there are a couple of good squeal moments, one of which cleverly references the discussion onstage of how to entice audiences with more than just sound and vision – and Darren Lang’s illusions work well in Taylor and actor Forsyth’s capable hands.
However, as Anonymous’s unavoidably camp script proves, it’s hard for a show to reference so many clichés and hackneyed horror scenarios without becoming a little cheesy itself, and I would also take issue with the order in which the nightmare scenarios play out, with the scariest moment coming first. In a show which even eschews an interval, presumably to build tension and fear, it seems odd to blow the best effect halfway through.
However, the cast do their best with the material, and make 90 minutes fly by in entertaining, if not especially terrifying fashion; Julian Forsyth is suitably sinister as Charlier, and Mark Rice-Oxley as the weedy writer from Brooklyn channels Woody Allen to good effect. Poor Rebecca Blackstone and Charlie Anson, whose respective roles might best be described as Bimbo and Cad, have less to work with; but then again, Tales of the Unexpected was rarely noted for its well-developed three-dimensional characters.
At the end of the day, the main question is this: did it creep me out, and how much? The answer is yes, a little – but I’m pretty sure the under-12s, the nervous and those with dodgy tickers are a lot safer seeing this show than, say The Woman in Black. Afraid of the Dark is camp fun with a few mild chills, but its bark is definitely worse than its bite.