Sunday, 8 January 2012

VHS Quest #14. Alone In The Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)

Jack Sholder's Alone In The Dark (1982), released by Rank Video...

Combustible parakeets aside, Jack Sholder has long been one of horror cinema's most underrated auteurs, a fact most recently underlined by the B-classic Arachnid (2001), a brilliant mutant-spider-runs-wild flick from Yuzna's Fantastic Factory. His cult alien thriller The Hidden (1987) has been growing in stature for years now, and recently I've experienced a lot of love for this, his debut feature. Not to be confused with Uwe Boll's godawful namesake, Alone In The Dark was falsely advertised as a Halloween (Carpenter, 1978) style slasher upon its release, probably in the hope that it would secure a hit for New Line Cinema (this was the distributor's first production credit). Now resigned to the VHS dungeon, Alone In The Dark is a film I've been desperate to see since I picked up the Rank Video release, and not least for its stunning cast (Martin Landau, Jack Palance, Donald Pleasance). So, how'd it do?

Regardless of whether or not it's true, there's a funny story surrounding Alone In The Dark which bears repeating here. During one scene in the film our protagonists drop by a punk club headlining a band called The Sick Fucks, who are basically there to remind us that it's the early 80's. Years later one of the band members ran into Palance on the streets of New York, introducing himself to the actor as one of the Sick Fucks. "We were all sick fucks in that movie", was his alleged reply. The problem with Sholder's film - which actually builds to an effective climax - is that we never actually feel any sickness or danger, or get the impression that the inmates on Haven's Third Floor (oooh, ominous!) could do any more than gurn you to death. The lineup includes a pyromanic bible-basher (Landau), paranoid ex-solider (Palance), "400-pound child molester" (Erlan Van Lidth) and a homicidal nut nicknamed The Bleeder, who refuses to expose his face to anyone. The inmates fail to create a sense of genuine unease, largely due to the actor's hammy performances - Landau, among my favorite screen actors, is particularly ineffective here, delivering a rubber-faced performance to match Jim Carrey's famed Pet Detective. The film also insults the audience's intelligence by asking us to believe that these inmates would be kept together in one room, unsupervised, with a single (unarmed) guard patrolling the hallways. Who's running this place?!

Did I also mention that this high security quarter is entirely dependent on electricity to lockdown? Of course, the power plant conks out and our lunatics are allowed to run wild on the streets, convinced that their new psychiatrist Dr. Potter (Dwight "Howling Mad Murdock" Schultz) has offed the old one, Dr. Merton (Larry Pine). I guess nobody had the foresight to build more rooms, or install a backup system should there ever be a blackout.

For the first hour Alone In The Dark amounts to no more than a checklist of various horror clich├ęs, ignoring its best ideas (Potter's sister, played by Lee Taylor-Allan, has recently been discharged from an asylum for undisclosed reasons) for yet another cheap jump-scare, employing shadows and creaky soundscapes to unnerve the audience. Things really get interesting after Fatty breaks into the Potter's home and tries to knife a frisky babysitter through the mattress (I'm sure this is replicated on a rubber dinghy in Amsterdamned, 1988) - a scenario which quickly segues into a full-on house siege.

The cinema of John Carpenter once again becomes a footnote, as the final third of Alone In The Dark is essentially Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) relocated to the suburbs. The Bleeder finally reveals his identity here, and Potter's sister begins to slip back into her psychotic state, resulting in the film's best scare (credit here to the brilliant effects artist Tom Savini). Sholder tightens his grip around the plot's central thread, darkening the palette and focusing his camera on the beads of sweat pouring down the actor's faces. Perspective shots are well employed here, and the film actually perks up into an effectively claustrophobic thriller. I'll leave you to discover the rest, as VHS Quest doesn't concern itself with spoilers, but I will make a note about the ending. All I'll say is that it ends in a club, on a whisper and the distortion of punk music. Sholder's camera closes in on two faces and then cuts to black. It's one of the most fascinating non sequiturs in horror history; gloomy, enigmatic and deeply confusing. Suffice to say, I rewound the tape and watched it again. You ask why I love Jack Sholder? It's for moments like that, which no other filmmaker would even think of. Utterly bizarre, and I promise you that it won't be the last time I rewind that tape...

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