Jack Palance - Frank Hawkes
Donald Pleasance - Dr. Leo Bain
Martin Landau - Byron 'Preacher' Sutcliff
Dwight Schultz - Dr. Dan Potter
Erland van Lidth - Ronald 'Fatty' Elster
Lee Taylor-Allan - Toni Potter
Phillip Clark - Tom Smith
Year - 1982
Score - 1.5 Howls Outta 4
Have you ever seen a poster or trailer to a film that looks so great and so interesting that it makes you want to watch this film? You have a great cast and a great premise to go along with the cool poster and trailer, making you believe that nothing can go wrong. So you pay your hard-earned cash to that ticket holder inside the movie theater, anticipating a fantastic film of its genre. Then after all the advertisements and people walking right in front of you to grab a late seat, the film comes on screen and you're excited about the film. But after 90 minutes of footage, you're left sitting in your seat wondering if you went to watch the film you meant to watch. The film you wanted to see looked fantastic. The film you just watched was derivative and disappointing, giving you nothing that the poster and trailer promised. Have you ever had that experience?
That's how I felt watching ALONE IN THE DARK. No, this isn't the Uwe Boll crapfest that actually cast Tara Reid as a rocket scientist [I'm still laughing about that one]. This is a splatter film from the early 1980s with a great cast and an awesome premise about mental patients escaping during a blackout, wanting revenge on a psychiatrist. So how come I rather be with friends in the light than be ALONE IN THE DARK? It's called false advertising, people. And boy...ain't it a doozy!
Psychologist Dan Potter (Dwight 'Murdoch' Schultz) just started his new job at Haven asylum for loons, where he's replacing former psychologist Dr. Murton. He meets Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasance), who is the director of the institute. Bain believes the patients aren't crazy, but "voyagers" who traveled into areas of the human psyche that most of us won't dare to go. Looks like someone's been smoking the ganja. Anyway, Bain takes Potter to meet the unstable patients: former POW Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), Bible preacher and arsonist Bryon "Preacher" Sutcliff (Martin Landau), 300-pound pedophile Ronald "Fatty" Elster (Erland van Lidth), and some nose-bleeder named [what else?] Bleeder who refuses to show his face to strangers.
Being the epitome of sanity, Hawkes believes that Dr. Potter murdered the more loved Dr. Murton, wanting revenge on Potter for that crime. Potter isn't worried. There's tight security at Haven and there's no way Hawkes and his lackeys are gonna get him. But as Potter and his annoying family settle into their new home near the asylum [smart move!], a blackout occurs throughout the entire town. With the electricity being the basis of Haven's security, Hawkes, Preacher, Fatty, and Bleeder escape the asylum, gathering the means to get revenge on Potter and his family.
What's promised to be this gory splatter film is nothing but a slow, generic, floundering thriller. ALONE IN THE DARK barely shows any gore or deaths. It does absolutely nothing with the bigger names in the cast but have them hide for half of the film and show up at a very non-climatic ending that will leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. What really pisses me off is that this film had every element available to create a really interesting and memorable slasher film. You have escaped mental patients who want nothing but revenge. You have a blackout. You have a family you actually WANT dead. And you have great actors at your disposal in Palance, Pleasance, and Landau. Yet what do I get? A wasted opportunity.
It's not a totally horrible film. The beginning of the film is pretty neat and sets up the film quite nicely. You also have Pleasance's character discussing the patients being "voyagers" while smoking herb publicly and allowing the inmates a lot of freedom for dangerous people. It makes us wonder who's more crazy, the patients or the people in charge of this asylum. And then when the blackout happens, there's some suspense and tension as the escapees loot a store and steal an array of weapons and kill an officer [which some nice SFX by Tom Savini]. And there's the mystery of Tom Smith (Phillip Clark), who just appears in the middle of the film and allows himself into the Potter home. While I found it easy to figure out who he was the moment I saw the guy, I enjoyed the attempt of intrigue in this disappointing film. But that's about all the positives I can give.
The film focused WAY too much on the Potter family, who annoyed me to no end. Dr. Potter is a tight-ass. His wife is annoying. His sister is a wanna-be punk girl with issues with the dark. And his daughter is a smart-ass little brat I would love to put up for adoption. I think this family actually hindered the film because these patients wouldn't really go after anyone but them or people that wanted to help them. For a "splatter" film, there was barely any motivation for any so-called "splattering". And we even have a babysitter element attached to the film, as if the film needed to steal something that worked in a previous horror film [*coughHALLOWEENcough*] that distracts more than adds to the film. And don't get me started on the cliches in this film. Cars that won't start. Noises in the closet. Killers that come back from the dead. The black people dying first in each half of the film. A convenient ending that solves everything [sigh...]. A babysitter named Bunky [no joke] and punk band named the Sick F*cks [again, no joke]. This film isn't scary, just a confusing mess that has no idea what genre it should fit in.
Jack Sholder, who would direct A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET PART 2: FREDDY'S REVENGE and THE HIDDEN, directs his first film here. He's not really bad, but he's not really great either. The pacing is a bit weird, he cuts away from the murders so that we don't even see them happen, and he never builds enough tension and suspense to create any scary moments in the film. We have stalking sequences that are supposed to be scary, yet Sholder doesn't lead them anywhere significant, making these moments meaningless and pointless. And don't get me started on the ridiculous epilogue that, I guess, is supposed to compare punk music to insanity or something stupid like that. I was more confused than satisfied. And it just quickly ended and cut straight to the end credits. What the fuck!? I hate it when films do that to me! Just not a very good directorial job by Sholder really. Nothing seemed to meld together cohesively.
And I wish I could talk about the effects done by Tom Savini, but since either the director or the MPAA got a hold of this film before its release, we barely see any. The only time we do see blood is when the cop gets his neck skin scraped off [yummy], the black security guard get broken in half [spine-tingling], the black officer getting arrowed into a tree [cupid-licious], and Donald Pleasance getting Van-Goghed to death. And some stabbings too, but nothing that's gonna gross out or shock anyone who is in love with these films. SHOWGIRLS is more offensive than this film. ALONE IN THE DARK leaves Mr. Savini's talents in the dark. Shame...
The acting is okay, I guess. Jack Palance doesn't get much to do here since he's maybe in 20 minutes of the entire 90 minute film. But he does chew the scenery every chance he gets and acts all Palance-y. Maybe he should have done some one-armed push-ups or something, but at least he looked and "acted" nuts. Martin Landau had more to do in his role as Preacher, like spout scripture from the Bible or burn paper and stuff. He also laughed a lot, especially when he had Palance back their stolen van into telegram man on a bike. Thank God for ED WOOD years later because his career probably would have self-destructed after this film. Erland van Lidth as Fatty didn't do much either [gee, none of these villains did, did they?] but he had a memorable scene with Elizabeth Ward [who played the annoying daughter, Lyla], where he tried to molest the little girl but doesn't get his way. The villains were pretty much one-dimensional and not very well-written.
On the other side of the spectrum, Donald Pleasance was really good as Dr. Bain. A herb-smoking psychologist who acted just as crazy as his patients, it was a pleasure to watch Mr. Pleasance cut loose and actually be the comic relief of the film. It was the total opposite of the seriously obsessive Dr. Loomis from the HALLOWEEN films and I dug it. He seemed to be having fun too, which made his character fun to watch. Best actor awards goes to Donald Pleasance.
The actors who played the Potter family annoyed me to no end. The best was Dwight Schultz as Dan Potter. Better known as Murdoch from A-TEAM, Schultz plays the role very stiff and is pretty much a tight-ass who's not really likable or even given a reason to be likable. He does play the hero at the end, which Schultz doesn't do a bad job of, but by that time, it's just too late to care. Especially when he has idiots surrounding him. Like Deborah Hedwall, who plays his wife. All she cared about was getting a valium while her family's being attacked. I had hoped she did so she would take the entire bottle and leave me the hell alone. She wasn't a bad actress but she wasn't a great one either. Then there's Lee Taylor-Allan as wannabe punk girl Toni, Dan's sister. She was afraid of the dark for some reason that's implied [maybe she was molested or abused in darkness] but it's never developed. And then she just started whining and annoyed me too. But at least she was better than the little girl played by Elizabeth Ward. She's one of those child actors I can't stand - those who believe they're better than the script they're reading. Instead of acting scared in frightening situations, she has to be a smart-ass who thinks she knows everything. God I wanted Jack Palance to smack her around. Why this family were the protagonists of the film is beyond me?
THE FINAL HOWL
ALONE IN THE DARK is one of those films that fails to do what was advertised. What makes it worse is that a great cast is wasted because of it. Not scary. A great premise that looks great on paper but doesn't translate well on screen. Annoying heroes and more interesting villains that don't do much of anything. The only time to watch ALONE IN THE DARK is during a blackout. Let's hope that blackout lasts 90 minutes.