An overlooked early 80′s horror gem
Sometimes films will charm you right off the bat. Sometimes you’ll enjoy them only to later wonder what the hell you were thinking. And sometimes they appeal more to you the more you see them. This is the case for me with writer/director Jack Sholder‘s 1982 film Alone in the Dark. (By the way, confusing it with the 2005 video game adaptation would be doing it a real disservice).
It marked Sholder‘s film-making debut, as well as the first in-house production for Robert Shaye‘s New Line Cinema, which had previously been in the business of distribution. Sholder‘s initial concept was of the escape of lunatics from an asylum who would then terrorize Little Italy and be rounded up by the Mafia. He was told that this script would be too expensive for the studio’s liking and he set about re-writing it to create the story that we now have.
Sholder basically uses his screenplay to espouse old ideas of what constitutes sanity and what constitutes insanity. It may give in to slasher conventions (such as the perky, sexy blonde babysitter who pays the price for attempting to have sex with her boyfriend, and for the fact that its two black characters are treated as expendable), but Sholder‘s film is not about coming up with creative deaths or racking up a body count. It’s considerably more adult, with very few identifiable characters for young viewers. It certainly gets off to a very wild start with a nasty Freudian nightmare for one of its characters. Suffice it to say, it should get your attention.
Dwight Schultz, later to earn his fame as “Howling” Mad Murdock on The A-Team, plays Dan Potter, the new shrink at “The Haven”, an insane asylum run by carefree, touchy-feely, pot-smoking bloke Leo Bain (a hilarious Donald Pleasence). Sholder bases this latter character on R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who had come up with the idea that those who were “insane” had merely adjusted to a world that had gone crazy, and were therefore more “sane” than the rest of us. On the top floor of “The Haven” are the most dangerous residents: former prisoner of war Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), preacher turned pyromaniac Byron Sutcliff (Martin Landau), overweight child molester Ronald Elster (the late Erland Van Lidth), and secretive psychopath Skagg, who doesn’t like to show his face and gets nosebleeds while in the act of killing. The security used to keep them contained is run by electricity, and when a power failure occurs later, the maniacs are free to do as they please. With Hawkes more or less calling the shots, they eventually lay siege to Potter’s residence à la Straw Dogs.
Sholder has some great touches and shots up his sleeve as this amusing shocker plays out. Chief among them is having Skagg don a hockey mask (although Friday the 13th Part 3 beat Alone in the Dark to theaters, this film was actually shot first). But what many viewers will undoubtedly remember is the scene of Bunky the babysitter quivering with terror atop of a bed while one of the maniacs thrusts a knife up through it and jabs it between her legs at one point. Adding to the overall crazed air of the proceedings is the appearance of an unsung punk rock act who actually called themselves “The Sic F*cks”, who dress in outlandish garb and belt out ditties such as “Chop Up Your Mother”.
The actors give it their all in this modest production; Landau in particular is thoroughly unrestrained as he chews up scenery and spits it out as the flamboyant Byron. Pleasence is a hysterical delight; watching him as he lights up a marijuana pipe is simply priceless. And those familiar with Schultz from The A-Team will find it especially amusing to see him playing the ultimate straight man here.
Sholder‘s dialog has its share of quotable lines (“There are no crazy people here, doctor. We’re all just on vacation.”), displaying a strong wit, and an argument for how rationality can often be the saving grace in pressure situations; his film even ends on an impressively existential note. His suspense scenes are competently done (Renato Serio‘s music is a good accompaniment) and he comes up with good shocks and a memorable twist involving Skagg that would later be re-visited (or should one say ripped off?) by the 2001 retro-slasher Valentine. One very welcome jolt (key to its success is that it works every time) involves the contribution of Tom Savini, who came on the project to do Sholder a favor (both had worked on the previous year’s slasher The Burning) after the film’s official makeup effects man proved to be unreliable.
The film kind of got lost in the shuffle of the slasher film boom, but has earned its fair share of fans in the years since. It’s worth a look for any horror fan looking for something a little different for the genre from this era. Highly recommended.