There I was, minding my own business, contemplating which movie to use for Friday Flix. I skimmed my Netflix instant queue when Wait Until Dark came skulking in out of the blue, brandishing a knife. Granted, it was just a plastic knife, but it inspired me to give it the FF treatment all the same.
Wait Until Dark stars Audrey Hepburn and some other people I hadn’t heard of, one of them being Alan Arkin. But can a film that’s 46 years old still be as frightening today as it was then? My answer is yes, yes it can.
The description from IMBD.com:
A recently blinded woman is terrorized by a trio of thugs while they search for a heroin stuffed doll they believe is in her apartment.
Yeah, the description doesn’t do it any kind of justice, but the premise is pretty fascinating. How would you deal with a bunch of criminals on your own in your home and BLIND? Gah!
Cue creepy music, and the film begins with some random girl in an apartment nagging an old man to hurry up and get the drugs sewed up in a dolly. This girl really is a ham. At the airport she’s oozing with nefariousness, but security waves her on, which makes me think if she had to deal with the TSA their ineptitude still would have waved her on, but I digress.
WHY IT STILL WORKS
The reason I think this movie still works, even 46 years later is clever writing. Granted a lot of the elements they used for suspense are better in visuals than prose, but I think if we can understand why those textures worked perhaps we can think of how and what to add to our stories to give them that extra power.
The important thing with a horror/suspense movie is that we know things the main character doesn’t know, like if a man is waiting with an axe behind the door, or if someone who purports to be helping the MC is actually working against them—things like that.
That’s one thing I love about this movie, is seeing how much we take from the world by what we see (or what we miss if we’re blind). But at the same time there are things that those sighted completely miss that a blind person picks up on naturally. I love that conflict right away. I think that may have been a view at the time too, that lacking a sense made you somehow stupid, when in fact clever is clever no matter the situation.
LOTS OF GOOD SETUPS
This movie is chocked full of great setups, most of them very subtle. First let’s start with the big bad villain, Mr. Rote—whose name we realize isn’t even Mr. Rote later on, but the point is you’ve given him great leverage for fear because we don’t know anything about who he really is. To take that one step further, he’s usually wearing sunglasses. You can’t see his eyes, which takes away his humanity. Plus he’s wearing a leather jacket. Isn’t that the universal symbol for rebel? 😉
Next we have Audrey Hepburn being blind. Believe you me, this accounts for a lot of the tension in the film. There are plenty of scenes where the bad guys are lurking within reach like tigers waiting to pounce, hidden because of her blindness. She’s our MC constantly in the dark about a lot of things—quite literally. In the beginning of the film there seems to be a lot of pointless business of her and her husband being around the house, but this does several things for us, one of which is seeing that she knows her way around the house pretty well.
The other is to understand that even though she’s had an accident, her husband was determined not to do any sort of coddling. He’s trained her to be as independent as possible. “World’s Champion Blind Lady” is his standard. Granted, I think he’s a little too harsh for my tastes, but we see later that all that harshness probably worked to save her life.
Something nice too that we see about their relationship is a little fight. This is what I mean about good writing. It’s as though the writers sensed we might view her husband, Sam, as too harsh, so they let that tension explode. Sam apologizes, offering to do the thing he rarely does, let her be weak for a little while. We see that Sam loves her, and she sees it too and sends him on his way to work.
To make Mr. Rote even more devious we have the one thug, Mike, who’s the bad guy with a conscious. He’s the guy that would rob and likely murder the casino owner, but couldn’t bring himself to even slug a nun. That sort of guy. The more he gets to know Suzie (Audrey’s character) the more he realizes how strong and pure he is, something he doesn’t want to tarnish. It’s as though the writers are saying to us, hey, even criminals have standards, unless they’re pure evil like Mr. Rote. This can work well to make your arch villain darker for the contrast of his underlings.
Mike also provides a knight in shining armor role to our damsel in distress. We know those men are dangerous, but we feel like things are going to be okay because Mike is around. Sure he’s a bad guy, but he won’t really hurt her. Right?
MAKE IT EVEN WORSE
I’m sure you’ve read in books on how to write novels the important thing is to make it progressively harder to for your MC to get what they want until they arrive at the climax where they’re forced into a situation where they have to do something that might seem impossible. Wait Until Dark does this wonderfully.
As Suzie comes to learn more and more about what’s happening to her, the way to resolve her problem constantly shifts. First it’s simply finding a doll and dealing with the police. Then it’s finding the doll to possibly clear her husband’s name with Mike’s help. Then it’s keeping the doll hidden to keep herself alive. And then it’s surrendering the doll because she has no other choice. (I like too the foil of wanting nothing more to find and give up the doll shifting to hiding the doll at all costs. Great tension!)
We want someone to rescue her, but could anyone really rescue the “World’s Champion Blind Lady” if she is really to become that kind of person? Suzie must overcome all of these challenges solely on her own, whether she wants to or not. It takes her some time to come to that realization, and though she’s terrified to do so, she shows us in the face of impossibly horrific danger she’s stronger than we ever could have imagined. This is the penultimate payoff.
You must watch this movie. We’ve got to learn to write stories like this that stand the test of time, that despite their age still are wonderfully fantastic. And it makes for a great thriller. The first time I saw this film was in high school. We all watched with skeptical eyes wondering how a movie from the ’60s was going to be any kind of scary. Boy were we in for a surprise.
You can view it on Amazon instant video if you’re a prime member, but so far that’s the only easy access I know of. I’m sure Netflix has it via DVD as well.
Are there any older movies you love that stand the test of time? If you’ve seen the movie, what other story telling lessons did you learn from watching it? Let me know below.