Director Jack Sholder's sneakily good little slasher is one of the more underrated and intelligent entries into the subgenre. Released during those oh-so-infamous and fertile years for the slasher subgenre, 1981 – 1984, Alone in the Dark was initially dismissed as 'just another slasher' movie; however, the film has gained quite a reputation among horror buffs for its innovative casting (Jack Palance and Martin Landau as psycho killers!) and intelligent take on the slasher film (not to mention the curiosity factor of it being the first film ever produced by the soon-to-be major horror purveyor, New Line Cinema). Alone in the Dark is a helluva a good time, an extremely entertaining and satisfying horror film (thanks to some hilariously oddball performances, specifically Jack Palance), and is now rightfully somewhat of a cult hit – considered to be one of true gems amid the over-satiated years of the slasher boom.
The film opens with a surreal dream sequence as we see a man walking towards a diner as an eerie red haze hangs in the air. Once inside the diner we see Donald Pleasance wielding a big ass machete with a crazed look in his eye, a look that only this King of B-actors can give. It was at this moment, a mere five minutes in, that I knew this movie was going to great. It just felt different. And what follows is one of the oddest slashers I've ever seen: mixing the macabre with the classic slasher tropes, hilariously dark comedy, and moments that hint that the filmmakers were trying to sneak in some social commentary. It's quite the mix.
The film employs a slow-burn mentality (it feels very British that way) to its horror as the story takes a while to kick into high gear. After the dream sequence we're introduced to Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasance!) and his state-of-the-art psychiatric ward. He's showing a new doctor, Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, Murdock from "The A-Team"!) around the hospital and explaining the hospital's policies and philosophies, especially in regards to the patients on the third floor – a floor designed without bars on the windows, that is electrically monitored, and harbors the worst patients. It's on this floor that's where Frank Hawkes (Palance), "Preacher" (Landau), and Fatty (Erland van Lidth, in a really creepy performance) dwell. One night while Dr. Potter is out with his wife and daughter at a punk concert (the band they see is called "The Sic Fucks"…great name; and a funny sidebar: apparently a member of the band ran across Jack Palance years later in New York and introduced themselves stating that they worked on the same film, and that she was a member of the band The Sic Fucks...apparently Palance just looked are her and replied: "honey, we were all sick fucks working on that movie." ) the power goes out across the city, leaving the electric censors useless on the third floor of the psychiatric hospital, thus, the crazies escape and carry out their plan to kill Dr. Potter, the man they feel is responsible for the apparent death of their beloved former psychiatrist.
This set-up leads to what is essentially a slasher film (escaped psychos on the loose, armed with various weapons, looking for revenge), and even employs a lot of the slasher tropes found in more popular fare where a killer (or killers in this case) stalks the patrons of a specific location (I'm thinking of stuff like Friday the 13th, My Bloody Valentine, and Black Christmas) as the action crescendos at Potter's house where there are numerous people inside who are in peril; however, there is really nothing banal about the film, in spite of how ordinary the film seems. Alone in the Dark is a riot, the kind of horror film that has you smiling more than it does groaning, and it's no wonder why its popularity has continued to grow over the years. What's even more impressive is that it's clear that the filmmakers had a theme in mind, and not just any kind of horror theme, but one that seems to have no place in a horror film I just describes as a "riot".
Once the patients – "Voyagers" as Dr. Bain calls them – get out of the hospital there seems to be an epidemic spreading, causing others to go crazy too, no doubt caused somehow by the power outage. What the filmmakers wisely do at this point is keep the killing to a minimum (there's an initial killing spree, but after that it's mostly implied terror), get the established actors who are acting insanely and killing people off screen (which is impressive considering that must have been one of the novelties of the film, not to mention a selling point, in having these somewhat established actors in this kind of horror movie), and move all of the primary characters in peril into one location – causing the tension to build in a subtle way. However, despite the film's success in aesthetically creating a non-banal slasher film, there's something deeper and more intelligent thematically going on here: this movie is essentially about PTSD – a term they didn't quite have yet post-Vietnam – and how these people who are relegated to being called "crazy" get to see what it is they fought for on the outside. This theme is punctuated with an ending that is pretty abnormal for a horror film as Hawkes – a paranoid POW – wanders into the same Punk Rock club that Potter and his family went to the night before. As he beats up the bouncer and takes his money, he wonders into the club and meets a woman who claims to have seen him before. She laughs at him and seems a little off herself, until Hawkes pulls a gun and sticks it in her stomach. She merely laughs, and directs the gun for him from her stomach and into her mouth. Cut to black.
Man, what an ending for a slasher movie, and what I think Sholder and his crew are going for here is essentially the theme that these people are diagnosed as crazy, but that we're all messed up. Especially the culture in the early 80's when postmodernism and irreverence (and an overall apathy for things) was sweeping the nation, I'm sure it looked weird to those who left for Vietnam in the 60's, came home later in the 70's, and were trying to get acclimated to a culture that cared little for what happened to them and why they did what they did. It's not as if taking the Vietnam War and using it as thematic template for a horror film theme is groundbreaking, though. Two years earlier Antonio Marghereti's Italian horror movie Cannibal Apocalypse (with John Saxon, no less) explicated the same themes of the effects of the Vietnam War – specifically the POW experience – on those who had to not just return home, but come back and try and return to a way of life that now seemed wholly alien to them.
I know I'm probably reading way too much into things here, but Sholder and co-writer Robert Shaye (who also produced the soon-to-be genre bending A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as producing/taking over writing duties for Wes Craven, hiring Sholder to direct, on the follow-up A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge - another film that pushes the slasher envelope, thematically speaking) clearly seemed to be going for something "more" here, and whether they succeed or merely grasp at straws depends on whether you are willing to believe that a horror film could not only strive for something that deep, but pull it off. Sholder would later be called a hack (unfairly I might add), a director-for-hire after the critical and financial debacle that was his follow-up Freddy's Revenge. But I think that has to do more with Shaye's script changes and his reluctance to work with Craven said script. Alone in the Dark clearly shows a director who is more than willing to try new things with an-already-tired subgenre, and I think when people call Sholder a hack they're doing in hindsight (but more on that later).
The film's acting is better than most slashers, which shouldn't be a surprise when you look at the cast. Even though Pleasance gets a lot of crap for his selection of roles, he's pretty good here as the doctor who so badly wants to believe he can fix these people (there's a great scene near the end where Potter and his family are yelling at him from within the house as they watch Bain try to reason with the maniacs from the window), and you know…you can never go wrong with Jack Palance. Landau brings some seriousness to his role as the deeply disturbed "preacher", a man who invokes God and quotes the Bible as he slashes people, and as I mentioned earlier, van Lidth is really creepy and effective as the obese child molester "fatty" (there's a creepy-as-hell scene where we see him try and lure a little girl into her upstairs room).
The music by Italian composer Renaldo Serio is very Goblin-esque (no surprise as he worked often with Joe D'Amato who always had a penchant for ripping off elements that were better than what he could afford) and pretty decent, and the cinematography by Joseph Mangine (a low-grade porn DP most of the time) is really nice in evoking that Assault on Precinct 13 type aesthetic where a certain group of people are trapped in a confined space, and you have to shoot it in a way that doesn't make it too boring with its minimal sets, or conversely, too claustrophobic by trying to cram all of the action and characters into the frame at once.
But let's get back to first time director Jack Sholder for a moment: There's real tension here, and it's no wonder that New Line pegged him to be their man to follow-up Wes Craven's hugely successful A Nightmare on Elm Street. As I mentioned before, Sholder (who edited the famous slasher The Burning before getting this gig) gets a bad rap for A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, but that film actually has an interesting homosexual subtext, and was content with keeping Freddy somewhat in the shadows and scary. Freddy's Revenge showed that Sholder was interested in playing with the genre and exploring varying themes that some may have considered taboo (homosexuality, PTSD) at the time, and themes that you certainly didn't see - or ever expect to see - in a horror movie. Sholder seemed to understand this, and with Alone in the Dark has created a great slasher film that oozes atmosphere and tension in the film's final 30 minutes (there are some great scenes once all of the characters get confined to the house, especially near the end where Potter's daughter feels something lurking outside her window in what is one of the film's most famous scenes - mostly due to the jolt provided by the effects of Tom Savini), a final 30 minutes that really showcased the director's talents. However, one look at the man's oeuvre on IMDB and you can see that the unfair panning of Freddy's Revenge really hurt the man's career (he was relegated to directing crap like The Hidden and Renegades, so no wonder people think he's a hack).
But in 1982 Sholder made what is one of the finest slasher films produced in that ever-so-prolific era – a tension-filled doozy of a thriller with all of the tropes that appease die hard slasher fans, done with panache and style to spare, and a deeper thematic subtext about the horrors of returning home from Vietnam when home no longer looks the way it did when you left. Sholder was a somewhat brave director for the genre, as you can imagine that the ordinary horror fan who is buying a ticket for the latest slasher movie or latest Freddy Kreuger movie doesn't want to see a film about PTSD or oppressed homosexuality. That's why I give Sholder a lot of credit here for creating a really fun and campy slasher movie on the surface while willing to slide in a much deeper and cerebral subtext. I think what did Sholder in as a director was lack of subtlety, the over nature of the homosexual themes in Freddy's Revenge, and that may have cost him what looked to be a promising career as a horror director. Nevertheless, in 1982, Sholder and his incredible cast created one of the best and most memorable slasher films to come out of the "era of the slasher".