CBS' "Children of the Dark" isn't the horror movie its title might suggest, but it does contain moments of horrifying behavior.
After preschool-aged daughters Jamie and Sheri are diagnosed as having a rare genetic disorder, the Harrison family is ostracized and persecuted by the denizens of their small Illinois town. It is wrongly believed that the Harrisons can infect others with xeroderma pigmentosum, a sometimes fatal disease where exposure to sunlight can cause skin cancer, blindness and mental retardation.
"Children of the Dark" intends to illustrate how ignorance can stir irrational fears and hatred. But the overwhelming majority of townspeople are so cruel or insensitive that you begin to wonder just how much this true story was exaggerated for the purpose of dramatic effect. Only a co-worker of husband Jim (Peter Horton) comes to the family's defense. Even after their home is defaced with graffiti and a Molotov cocktail is hurled through a window, the Harrisons still fail to garner sympathy. The film doesn't even allude to investigations, which should have followed in the wake of these criminal incidents.
The Harrisons are understandably rattled by the cold stares and hostile comments they receive in public. Yet they make no attempts to educate the community about the facts surrounding xeroderma pigmentosum. They seem resigned to living rather isolated lives. Eventually, the financially strapped family moves to Northern California in an attempt to rebuild their lives and to find the one medical expert who might help.
What gives "Children of the Dark" the little momentum it has is the frighteningly strange nature of the disease afflicting 5-year-old Jamie (Lindsey Haun) and 3-year-old Sheri (Analise Ashdown). Because extended exposure to normal, everyday light can cause excruciating pain and disastrous long-term effects, the girls find themselves prisoners in their own home.
It's unfortunate that director Michael Switzer and the film's three writers didn't choose to make the movie more from the perspective of Jamie and Sheri. What is it like for two young girls to be endlessly cooped up in a dark house without friends or outside stimulation? And how will the disease impact their ability to live fulfilling lives as they grow older? In an apparent attempt to avoid a dour conclusion, the makers of "Children of the Dark" opt to skirt these troubling questions. * "Children of the Dark" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).