It’s probably the most overused cliche in the horror genre. At the end, the hero or heroine supposedly kills the villain, but then they suddenly rise up from the dead for one last scare before they are killed off for good. It goes without saying that this trope is so common in horror movies that it’s pretty much become a parody of itself. These days, it’s almost more shocking when a horror villain is killed off and DOESN’T return from the dead! But I can’t help but wonder… what must it have been like to be in the audience the first time a scene like this ever happened? Well, to answer that, we’ll have to travel all the way back to 1967 when a thriller called Wait Until Dark was released into theaters. While I’m not 100 % sure if it featured the very first instance of this aforementioned cliche being used in a movie, it certainly helped popularize it. The film was based on a stage play by Frederick Knott, which became such a hit on Broadway that it was adapted for the screen almost immediately. One can only imagine the experience of seeing this movie in a theater on its initial release. For screenings, theaters would dim the lights down to their legal limit. The lights would gradually be turned off one-by-one until the theater was left in complete darkness for the ultra-suspenseful climax. Hilariously enough, ads for the film stated: “If there are sections where smoking is permitted, those patrons are respectfully requested not to jar the effect by lighting up during this sequence”. Yep, it sounds like smoking was the 1960s equivalent of cell phones in theaters. Anyway, while the climax of Wait Until Dark is still talked about today, the film itself is somewhat underrated. In spite of its limited setting, this is one hell of a scary and well-constructed thriller which still manages to pack quite a punch over 45 years later.
The film opens with a young woman named Lisa (Samantha Jones) smuggling heroin inside a doll as she travels from Montreal to New York City. When she arrives at the airport, Lisa notices one of her associates watching her, so she hands the doll over to a photographer named Sam Hendrix (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.), asking him to hold onto it for her until she can pick it up later. We then cut to Sam’s basement apartment, where two professional con men, Mike Tallman (Richard Crenna) and Carlino (Jack Weston) arrive for a meeting with a creepy psychopath named Harry Roat, Jr. (Alan Arkin), who also happens to be Lisa’s associate from the airport. We learn that Lisa attempted to retrieve the doll from Sam, but he claimed that he couldn’t find it, so Roat suspects that Sam is hiding it somewhere. In order to get the doll back, Roat hires Mike and Carlino to stage an elaborate con game involving Sam’s wife, Susy (Audrey Hepburn), who has recently gone blind. While Sam is out of town, Mike will pose as one of his friends in order to gain entry to the apartment while Suzy is alone. Carlino will pretend to be a police officer and Roat will disguise himself as two separate characters, as the three con men concoct a fabricated story about Sam being involved in murder. They hope to coerce Suzy into finding the missing doll and handing it over to them. Of course, since Susy is blind, she has no idea she’s being conned. However, she eventually becomes suspicious that something is not right and attempts to outsmart her antagonists. For the movie’s big climax, Susy removes all the light bulbs in her apartment. Since she is used to operating in complete darkness, this actually gives her a tactical advantage.
Aside from a brief prologue, Wait Until Dark takes place almost entirely in and around Susy’s small apartment building. While this type of story is ideal for the stage, adapting for the screen could potentially be problematic. The first half hour of Wait Until Dark contains a lot of exposition, a fairly contrived set-up, and the heroine does not even make her first appearance until over 20 minutes into the film. However, after the somewhat stagy first act, this story unfolds marvelously. Frederick Knott’s play, Dial M for Murder, had previously been adapted by Sir Alfred Hitchcock into a successful thriller. Wait Until Dark seems to be a tailor-made Hitchcock project, but the director here is Terence Young, best known for helming the James Bond films, Dr. No, From Russia With Love and Thunderball. However, Young’s work here is on par with some of the best stuff Hitchcock has ever done. I can think of very few films which have done a more effective job at building suspense than Wait Until Dark, which starts slowly, but gradually ratchets up the tension until it reaches its crescendo in a dynamite climax where Susy is trapped alone in her dark apartment with the psychotic Roat. Quite simply, the finale of Wait Until Dark is one of the most terrifying sequences ever captured on film. I didn’t see this movie until my late teens and by that point, I’d already seen tons of horror movies and knew all their tricks and cliches. Yet the climax here still managed to keep me on the edge of my seat and even the aforementioned cliche gave me a jolt when it happened. The sequence holds up remarkably well considering that it’s over 45 years old and even jaded horror fans will probably be surprised by how genuinely scary it is. I’d advise watching the film first, but here’s an analysis of the finale.
While making the heroine of this story a blind woman might seem manipulative, it’s actually a brilliant dramatic device. Under normal circumstances, it would be easy to scoff at the heroine for naively falling for the villains’ ridiculous con game. However, Wait Until Dark actually subverts this by allowing Susy to use her resourcefulness to figure out something’s wrong and she eventually reaches the point where she’s one step ahead of the bad guys. Of course, Audrey Hepburn’s performance here is vital since she’s such a naturally sympathetic figure and she does a great job at expressing both the character’s vulnerability and her strength. When Susy finally realizes she’s being conned, Hepburn’s horrified reactions make the whole thing pretty frightening. However, when Susy uses her blindness to outsmart Roat during the climax, it’s immensely satisfying. Hepburn would receive an Academy Award nomination for this performance, though surprisingly, she would not act in another film for nine years, so she could devote more time to her family. It might be hard to picture Alan Arkin in the role of a sadistic villain, but he’s also terrific here, taking a rather cartoonish character and making him genuinely terrifying. And while Henry Mancini is not a composer you’d normally associate with horror movies, his creepy music score greatly enhances the proceedings. Wait Until Dark still gets performed on stage today and in 1998, there was even a Broadway revival which featured Quentin Tarantino as Roat! Given how jaded and desensitized audiences have become today, it’s easy for them to watch renowned horror films from the past and not find them scary at all. However, Wait Until Dark is that rare example of a film which is just as tense and frightening today as it when it was originally released. Yes, the movie is still pretty well-regarded, but when you consider just how well it holds up after all these years, it’s also criminally underrated.