Sunday, May 18, 2014

Census Bloodbath: Reel Life

Year: 1980
Director: Vernon Zimmerman
Cast: Dennis Christopher, Tim Thomerson, Gwynne Gilford
Run Time: 1 hour 42 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

That poster though! I swear, I am just so jealous of what movie theater walls must have looked like in the 80's. They got display after display of these inspired poster designs and we get a row of poorly photoshopped Jennifer Lawrences. It's just not fair. Although, perhaps I'd be more bothered by it if the movie was any good.

Fade to Black was one of the late 1980 proto-slashers made in that bitter spot right between the time where knowledge of the slasher rules would hit its high water mark and the decades-long run of Psycho riffs was just winding down. As a result, FtB is the best of neither world - it is a lackluster psychological thriller and a goreless slog of a slasher.

Although admittedly, it has some thrillingly weird costume choices.

Fade to Black tells the story of Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), a motivationless young man who is obsessed with movies and movie trivia. Despite the best efforts of his shrill, wheelchair-bound Aunt Stella (Eve Brent) and his testy boss with a heart condition (Norman Burton), he doesn't want to do anything but sit in the dark with his film projector. That is, until he meets an Australian wannabe actress who looks just like Marilyn Monroe (Linda Kerridge).

This triggers something in him that causes his mind to slowly fracture until he is convinced his life is a movie, causing him to act out against the people who caused him trouble like his aunt, his boss, his nasty coworker Richie (Mickey Rourke. I know, right?), a movie executive who stole his idea (Morgan Paull), and some random hooker (Anita Converse).

He goes around killing these nuisances in his life by imitating films like Dracula, The Mummy, Hopalong Cassidy, and Kiss of Death. All the while, a young policewoman named Officer Anne (Gwynne Gilford, of the abysmal Beware! The Blob) and a psychiatrist named Dr. Moriarty (Tim Thomerson) have plots that are mostly unrelated to Eric for some reason.

When instead the whole film should really just be Eric doing quick changes.

The concept is stellar - Norman Bates Goes to the Movies. But the film itself is a dull parade of underlit scenes barely linked by the thinnest gossamer wisp of a plot. The attempt to marry a "descent into madness" psychological horror film with the nascent Body Count genre results in an overheated mess. The kill scenes are too numerous to allow for much exploration of Binford's character and they're too goreless to provoke the splatter hounds. 'Tis the struggle of being a slasher in the first year of the genre's existence.

It obviously can't be blamed for not following the rules of the genre well enough. But that doesn't change the fact that it's not a particularly good example of whatever genre it might want to be. It's just too cheap. The night scenes are too dark, the quiet scenes are lousy with white noise, and the acting is uninspired.

Although the makeup department was on the ball.

Perhaps the worst performer is Linda Kerridge as Marilyn O'Connor. The actress only appeared in 9 movies in her entire career and its easy to see why. She's a so-so Marilyn impersonator, but when she's called upon to do anything else, she stiffens like an old man's knee before a storm. Though to give her the benefit of the doubt, I suppose it doesn't help that her character isn't even a person, but rather a collection of dead brain cells molded into the shape of a woman.

That is the only explanation for any of her actions, which would make even the stupidest of Dumb Horror Movie Characters cringe. First off, she finds it charming when Eric stares at her intensely  across the diner, scoots across nine stools to be near her, and roughly quizzes her on Marilyn trivia while doing an impersonation of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Somehow this leads her to ask him for a ride to work, even though her friend, the equally dumb but more acerbically witty Stacy (Marcie Barkin) is sitting right across the booth from her.

She thinks a secret admirer card reading "You'll Always Be Mine" is sweet, she shows up to a mysterious modeling gig at an abandoned building in the middle of the night, and even willingly takes a pill that Eric hands to her! I swear, for being Australian, this chick has the survival instinct of a walnut. Sharni Vinson could teach her a thing or two.

It's a miracle she doesn't die, although it's not for lack of trying.

Binford and his eventual nemesis Dr. Moriarty are both given similarly forgettable performances, again fueled by a script with a looser grip on the field of psychology than the horoscope in the back of US Weekly. In fact, the shrink attempts to cure Binford of his psychosis by yelling "YOU'RE OUT OF YOUR F*CKING MIND!" Surprisingly enough, this doesn't work.

The only performance of any merit in the entire film is Mickey Rourke as Richie, imbuing the character with a kind of rough-and-tumble teenage charisma that is the only explanation for this vaguely erotic fan art I found on the internet.

He looks a little like Louis Tomlinson from One Direction and I'm not sure how I feel about that.

All in all, Fade to Black was dumb enough to be a vapidly entertaining slasher flick, but it doesn't bring enough to the table to be any good at all and it's too dull to deserve a rewatch despite several memorable "so bad it's good" moments.

Killer: Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher)
Final Girl: Marilyn O'Connor (Linda Kerridge), although she certainly isn't an active agent of her own survival.
Best Kill: Eric kills a hooker in full black and white Bela Lugosi makeup.
Sign of the Times: When asked movie trivia questions, people can't just Google the answers.
Scariest Moment: The lurking fear that anybody in the world could be as unfathomably dumb as Marilyn O'Connor.
Weirdest Moment: Moriarty's impromptu harmonica solo in his office - which immediately cuts to a hot and sweaty sex scene with Officer Anne.
Champion Dialogue: "I'm trying to hitch a ride on my back."
Body Count: 6; including the killer.
  1. Aunt Stella is pushed down a flight of stairs like in Kiss of Death.
  2. Snobby Hooker's neck is impaled on a fence post and her blood is sucked like in Dracula.
  3. Richie is shot in a standoff like in Hopalong Cassidy.
  4. Mr. Berger suffers a heart attack because Eric scares him while dressed as The Mummy
  5. Gary is shot in a barber shop like in White Heat.
  6. Eric is shot to death on the roof of Grauman's Chinese Theater, reenacting a scene from White Heat
TL;DR: Fade to Black has a killer concept but a lackluster atmosphere.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1160

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