Thursday, January 22, 2009

Film Review: Alone In The Dark

Okay kids, it's November 1982, and you're lining up to see Friday the 13th part 3 for the seventh time when you notice the new poster. "Holy shit", you exclaim, "another slasher arrives on Friday!". There's a faceless lone axeman approaching a house surrounded by woods under a full moon, an awesome tagline, and it's got frickin' Doctor Loomis from "Halloween"! This has GOT to be an instant classic, right? Well it is, but not the way you thought it would be. Writer/Director Jack Sholder's "Alone in the Dark" was a slasher, I guess, but it broke a hell of a lot of the usual rules; both heroes and villains were very well developed characters with (dare I say) their own personalities and quirks, there is only one teenagers in peril scene (but it's a doozy), and there's no masked villain with childhood trauma (there's actually no axe and no woods either, despite the great poster). Instead you get 4, count 'em, 4 psychopaths, each with their own brand of insanity. And for the icing on the cake, the parallels to one of the greatest movies of all time, S.F. Brownrigg's 1973 shocker "Don't Look in the Basement", are blatantly obvious and hopefully intentional.

Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence, even more deranged and spaced out than in the "Halloween" movies) oversees "The Haven", a mental institution with a seriously laidback attitude towards potentially dangerous situations. For instance, the good doctor lets a delusional woman act as receptionist (shades of the great Annabelle Weenick in DLITB), he gives matches to an unstable pyromaniac, who immediately starts a bonfire (just as Dr. Stephens unwisely gives Judge Gene Ross an axe in DLITB), and to top it all off, Dr. Bain stuffs his fancy pipe with what he calls "Turkish Sensimilla" (I used to be a major connoisseur, but I've never heard of that one). The patients cannot be called "patients" or "inmates"; they are termed "voyagers". And off we go on their trip...

The only locked ward is the third floor, which houses just 4 voyagers. Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance, still a good 9 years away from his mainstream return in "City Slickers") is an ex-POW powderkeg who stares out the window looking demonically intense (a la soldier Hugh Feagin in DLITB). Ronald "Fatty" Elster (the late Erland Van Lidth, the opera singing baddie in "The Running Man") is a 6'6'' 300 pound pedophile with a slightly retarded expression and the demeanor of a child (parallels of "final boy" Sam in DLITB). Then there's Skaggs (aka "The Bleeder"), a rapo who gets nosebleeds every time he strangles a victim; he hides his face against the wall and we never see it. To save the best for last, there's Byron "Preacher" Sutcliff (Martin Landau, in possibly his greatest performance EVER), a religious zealot and also the aforementioned pyro. The film's opening scene, a dream sequence where Landau imagines himself in a fiery diner being split from crotch to craw by a grinning Pleasence (dressed hilariously as a short-order fry cook with a huge cleaver) is priceless.

As in "Don't Look in the Basement", the story starts when a new employee begins at the sanitarium. Instead of a cute nurse, it's bleeding heart liberal Dr. Dan Potter (then unknown Dwight Schultz, who would go on to fame in 1983 as "Howling Mad" Murdock on "The A Team"), who has moved into town with his equally liberal wife Nell (stage actress Deborah Hedwall), his smart aleck 10 year old daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward, who actually won a Best Actress award for this role at the "Catalonian International Film Festival" and would go on to play the Tracey Gold role in the pilot for "Growing Pains"; who says I don't give out awesome trivia?), and his punk rockin' younger sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allen), who is recovering from some sort of mental breakdown. Unfortunately things are not great at work: the paranoid Sgt Hawkes has decided that Dr. Potter has killed off his predecessor Dr. Merton, and he's convinced the other 3 psychos that it's true. Potter shrugs it off despite the warnings of the 3rd floor attendant, who has heard the freaks planning to murder their new doc.

The action begins in an embarrassing scene where Toni drags Dr. and Mrs. Potter off to a punk rock club to see The Sic F*cks (an actual band from NYC, who were really more Rocky Horror Picture Show than true punk rock). With the faux-slamdancing, wacky punkers, and the band singing "Chop Up Your Mother", it's very reminiscent of those goofy episodes of "CHIPS" and "Quincy" from the same year which warned against the dangers of the punk subculture. I guess Sholder was trying to show how the crazies are everywhere, not just in the loony bin, but the whole thing comes off as forced and goofy, like watching my Dad air guitar to Ted Nugent.
Anyway, while they're at the club a citywide blackout occurs, which results in not only massive looting and riots, but also the deactivation of The Haven's electric 3rd floor doors. The 4 Voyagers take off, killing their attendant and carjacking a doctor just arriving for the night shift (as in "Halloween"). They head into town and go to a looted sporting goods store for new duds and weapons. In a scene hotly debated by horror mavens, The Bleeder emerges wearing a hockey mask, rips out a guy's heart with a spear, and promptly vanishes into the night, never to be seen again (or so we think). Who came first, The Bleeder or Jason? "Friday part 3" was released in August of 82 and "Alone in the Dark" in November, but I'd have to call it a total coincidence, as they were probably written and filmed around the same time and for different studios. Unless there was corporate spying going on between New Line (AITD) and Paramount (F13), which I doubt, it's gotta be synchronicity.

The next day, Potter and Bain seem unconcerned about the escape, which of course is not a good thing. It's not explained how they got his address, but after randomly running down a bike messenger (in an unfortunately bloodless scene saved by Palance's contorted expressions behind the wheel), the trio show up at the Potters'. In another showstopping moment by Landau, he rings the doorbell posing as a mailman (uniform and all) with a telegraph for the doctor. Grinning insanely and twitching all over, he ogles the wife and sister while questioning them about the doctor's whereabouts. As this is a slasher flick (sorta), they don't even ask him where the telegram is, or question why he disappears into an ominous black van. Despite the ongoing blackout, Toni once again drags off her sister-in-law, this time to a Nuclear Disarmament rally (more total early 80s action), where they are promptly jailed. Back home, little Lyla arrives home from school to find an empty house, except for the drooling "Fatty" Elster, who stammers out that he's her new babysitter. She accepts this, but rebukes him when he awkwardly tries to hold her hand. This tense scene is especially excellent, and both actors do a great job; you honestly don't know what's going to happen when the director cuts away to Dr. Potter at work.

Potter has heard from his wife and sister at the jailhouse, and he calls the real babysitter, the oddly monickered Bunky (smokin' blonde Carol Levy, who would go on to star in Radley Metzger's "The Princess and the Call Girl" and "Les Fantasmes de Miss Jones"), to see if she can watch Lyla. Here's where the REAL stereotypical slasher scene comes in. Bunky finds Lyla alone and asleep so she calls her boyfriend Billy to come over. When he arrives she is naturally in a state of undress and they start going at it, with some ace topless work from Levy. I won't spoil it (for once), but major slashage ensues.

The ladies are bailed out from jail and arrive home with Tom Smith, a guy Toni hooked up with in jail (he gave them his space in line for the phone so they invited him for dinner, despite the fact that they know 4 psychos with a vendetta against the head of their household are on the loose). Doc Potter comes home, Lyla wakes up, a Detective Burnett arrives (who they also invite for dinner!), and it's SIEGE TIME! Arrows fly through windows and into chests, dead bodies come flying out of nowhere in typical slasher fashion, fires get lit, doors get barricaded; total "Night of the Living Dead" action. Dr. Bain shows up in his Cooper and tries to calm the voyagers down, but it's too late. When he tells Preacher "Thou Shalt Not Kill", Landau counters with "Vengeance is Mine!". And of course "The Bleeder" shows up and finally reveals his face in a plot twist you could see a mile away. All in all, some good ultraviolence, decent gore, and a great freakout scene by the already unstable Toni. In the film's greatest moment, when Nell gives Toni a valium in the midst of the chaos (as in medicating a mental patient), little Lyla the wiseacre says, "Mom, I think I could use a valium!". Her father's expression at that little outburst is also worth the price of admission. Tom Savini picked up a paycheck as well, not for the gore, but for creating a monster which Toni hallucinates before getting the lifesaving benzo.

"Alone in the Dark" is a great little movie. ALL of the actors are superb, which you can't say for most 80s American-made horror films. The humor and social commentary is simple, subtle, and very much of the time, but due to the histrionics of Pleasence, Palance, and Landau it's still an enjoyable ride today. The first time I remember being REALLY scared by a movie was in 1973, when as a 7 year old I saw Palance in the TV Movie "Dracula"; watching "Alone in the Dark" the other night brought that right back when Frank Hawkes started giving Doc Potter the evil eye in the day room.

As one final note, all this S.F. Brownrigg talk leads me to some shameless promotion. Fellow Blood Farmer David Szulkin, author of the seminal "Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left: The Making of a Cult Classic", is at work on a new book on Brownrigg and his films ("Don't Look in the Basement" aka "The Forgotten", "Scum of the Earth" aka "Poor White Trash 2", "Don't Open the Door!", and "Keep My Grave Open" aka "The House where Hell Froze Over"). Let's hope it comes out soon, as his first book (FAB Press) is a masterpiece of horror journalism.


Anonymous said...

Awesome! I love Brownrigg.

Joe Stillo said...

Martin Landau deserved an Oscar for the mailman scene.

David Szulkin said...

Great review of an underrated flick. Thanks for plugging the Brownrigg project and for the kind praise of my "Last House" book!


Soiled Sinema said...

I really like this film's poster.

John said...

You need to write some new entries bro. I also agree with Soiled Sinema about the poster. I'd really like to see the movie that poster really reflected. It's damn awesome. Do you know who did the art and what else they may have done?

Anonymous said...

I loved your blog. Thank you.