What makes a movie scary is a very subjective thing. For instance, when I first saw The Exorcist, the scene that scared me the most (and the whole thing scared me profoundly) involved a character walking into a kitchen and the lights in the room were blinking inexplicably. For some reason I found the unnaturally blinking lights more terrifying than the adolescent Linda Blair spewing pea soup on the priest. In most cases I find more explicit, violence-based frights - blood-soaked exercises in graphic shock - to be less effective than being slowly seduced into fear through a series of incongruities or subtle shifts in mood. The factor that made the original Alien so scary, and all the sequels so NOT scary, was the simple technique of building suspense by not showing the audience the monster until the last possible moment. Each encounter uncovered another small glimpse into the horror to come because the imagination is so much scarier than any reality could ever be. In many ways Wait Until Dark uses this exact technique to brilliant effect, by slowly uncovering the depths of evil the antagonist of the film (Alan Arkin) is capable of while simultaneously building our appreciation of the protagonist (an almost irresistible Audrey Hepburn) as a woman of almost genius ingenuity.
The plot of Wait Until Dark is labyrinthine and almost irrelevant. It also unfolds in such a way that giving any but the most rudimentary details could spoil the movie. Suffice to say that Audrey Hepburn plays a blind woman who finds herself in the possession of a doll that is stuffed with heroin and Alan Arkin is a criminal who wants - and is going to get - that doll. He employs the help of two hapless low level crooks (Richard Crenna and Jack Weston: both great) to enact an elaborate subterfuge to get into the blind woman’s confidence and thus retrieve the heroin. Arkin offers up what has to be one of the most menacing performances in film history, morphing from a slimy hipster to mad-dog killer in the blink of an eye. His transformation is so sudden and violent that he becomes the stuff of nightmares. Hepburn, on the other hand, is gorgeous and innocent, yet totally believable as a woman driven to the edges of her own sanity; forced to test the limits of her own strength and courage in the face of unthinkable terror. The movie develops in a way that slowly builds tension as we gradually understand how much danger Hepburn is in, how utterly despicable Arkin is, and how he will stop at nothing to achieve his goal. Not only is Hepburn’s life in danger, but her virtue as well.
Everything boils down to the last fifteen gripping minutes, as Hepburn fights for her life in a white-knuckle ride that takes us inside the mind and emotions of a blind person struggling to level the playing field in a world of darkness. This ultimately is the hook, if you will, that makes Wait Until Dark an unforgettable classic. The shift in perspective is remarkably effective as the darkness starts (as the veil it is to all sighted people) and actually becomes illumination as the situation changes. Filmed in a composed, Hitchcock-esque style, with a masterful, hair-raising score by Henry Mancini, this is a classy, old school thriller that terrifies the audience as much by what it sees as by what is left hidden.
- Paul Epstein