Back in my golden days of being a video store clerk, I saw this movie in the horror isle everyday, looking back at me. I knew nothing about it, who was in it, who directed it, anything. I always passed it up to take something else home for the night. What a fool I was. This movie is an 80’s classic, and comes off a little more professional than many of my favorites from that era. It undoubtedly has been paid reverence to by many films along the years (The Attic Expeditions and William Butler’s Madhouse) that reside within the slasher and insane psychopath territory of horror. This one gets right to the punch, never taking itself too seriously, yet never going quite over the top. How the hell did I miss this gem?
The story is very simple; Doctor Dan (Dwight Schultz) relocates with his family and arrives at his new job at a mental institution and meets headmaster, Doctor Bain (Donald Pleasence-Halloween, Escape From New York), a liberal of sorts whom has peculiar methods of handling the patients. There are no locks to keep these patients (or Voyagers, so called in the film) from breaking out. Confinement is advanced, with the use of electronic doors and windows. Let us strongly hope this town never has a blackout.
Later on, Dan’s sister arrives (looking like she just stepped off the set of a B-52s video) to stay a bit and spend time with the family. One thing leads to another, and she is ends up going with Dan and his wife to see new wave band, The Sick Fucks. Oh yeah, remember that blackout everyone should be hoping to never happen??? D’oh! Slasher madness ensues.
As if the blackout and the breakout of four mental patients from the hospital is not enough, a town riot eventualizes and births theft, beating and even murder. And God forbid the four escapee’s have a motive. They are looking for Doctor Dan, whom they think has murdered their past doctor that he replaced; and they will go to excessive lengths to exact some payback.
The performances of the patients are made very enjoyable from wonderful actors. Byron (Martin Landau-Ed Wood) and Ronald (Erland van Lidth) work like a wrestling tag team using a two-on-one ass kicking method against their opponents. Byron sets up the victim with vicious and demented religious rambling, while Ronald pulls out a finishing movie (such as a back breaker, in one scene) to ensure final annihilation. This tag team expertise is used more than once in the film, and it really gets more entertaining with each victim.
Landau is the one to watch here, in all honesty. His appearance is truly frightening, and the wild things he screams out sets the fear in stone. Erland van Lidth also gives a great performance, especially in consideration how uncomfortable his character is. The movie only hints at his pedophiliac desires, rightfully so; the hints are enough to induce a creepy feeling running down the viewer’s spine.
Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance- Jess Franco’s Marquis De Sade’s Justine) is the more refined leader of the pack. His appetite is still wet for blood, however, being a war torn veteran convinced by himself that crazy patients aren’t crazy; they’re just on vacation.
There has always been something about Donald Pleasance that makes even the worst of his characters charming. As Doctor Bain, captivation is apprehended by just how unbalanced he is, perhaps just as much as his patients/Voyagers are. Nearly every scene he is viewed with either his peace pipe dangling from his lips, or in his hand waiting to be packed and smoked up for real world escape. This performance is highly intriguing from a late and great genre favorite.
The movie is slightly hindered by a twist that could have been more involving, had it not been executed so bluntly. It centers on a forth mental patient that escapes and goes Unseen for a large half of the film (until the story drops in an element of Dan’s sister being arrested at a nuclear plant protest). First off, when this character is introduced, his face is hardly shown, but it is obvious he is favoring an injury on his forehead. When he reappears after the protest, he suggests that a cop had hit him. This whole subplot is just excessively conclusive; but it could have been largely affected with a more delicate approach.
Another thing to look out for is Renato Serio’s score, which bares strong resemblance to past slashers, as well as some apparent respect to Goblin; though, on a more generic level in both instances. Even that being the case, the music builds tension for energetic moments, and the opening theme is a keeper!
There is not really a gore element, as the film works more off efficiency with its jolt and jump scares. A lot of the fear comes out of nowhere, or from somewhere other than you expect it to (recalling the moment in a bedroom with a baby-sitter and her boyfriend). This should not deter you away, though; I am still in bewilderment as to why I never watched this in the past.
Ultimately, Alone in the Dark is an underrated 80’s classic. Any strong fan of the Horror genre as a whole should give it at least one viewing. I found it to be a pleasant surprise that came quite a bit before many films I enjoy that have an illusive similarity to it. Director, Jack Sholder went on to direct many works, including another underrated favorite of mine, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. However, this is definitely a different kind of film altogether.
-Eric King (RobocopsSadSide)
To buy: Alone in the Dark