Written and Directed by: Vernon Zimmerman
Starring: Dennis Christopher, Tim Thomerson, and Gwynne Gilford
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You spend all your time daydreaming and watching those silly movies on the TV and on your projector..."
When Kevin Williamson hatched Scream, he supposed that nobody would make for better slasher targets than a generation of teen weaned on slasher movies and hip to the genre’s tropes and clichés. It was a clever little wrinkle that gave the slasher a new lease on life, giving long-time fanatics a movie that was essentially made for them. However, it was hardly the first such effort, as Vernon Zimmerman barked up a similar tree 15 years earlier when he figured the best slasher villain would be a film nut that’s spent most of his life with the hum of a projector at his back. The result was Fade to Black, one of the most entertaining and legitimately compelling dispatches from the early slasher era. A far cry from most of the films that would soon clog theaters and video shelves, it weaves one of the genre’s signature psychosexual portraits through a wild, self-reflexive Hollywood slashing spree that deserves the biggest tub of popcorn at your disposal.
Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) is addicted to movies. When he’s not spending his days cooped up in his room watching 16mm copies of his favorite movies (surrounded by heaps of posters and memorabilia, naturally), he’s working at a film distribution warehouse (surrounded by even more heaps of stuff memorabilia and film canisters). It’s fair to say movies are his life, so much so that he’s not a well-adjusted twentysomething, especially having lived under the thumb of domineering, wheelchair-bound Aunt Stella (Eve Brent Ashe). Terminally awkward in his obsession, he struggles to get along with co-workers and is even more hopeless girls. When he stumbles onto a Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Linda Kerridge), he somehow manages to charm her into meeting him for an evening show in Westwood. Unfortunately, events conspire to delay her from their rendezvous, leaving Eric absolutely crushed and in no mood to deal with his aunt’s shit, especially when she wrecks his projector mid-movie. Now fully enraged and unhinged, he shoves her down a flight of stairs, killing her instantly. Noting the scene’s similarity to a movie, he snaps completely and embarks on a murder spree that paints Hollywood red.
Arriving just on the cusp of the great slasher deluge, Fade to Black is one of those interesting early efforts that doesn’t hew to the typical formula, mostly because it hadn’t really been established just yet. Where a majority of the slasher output during the first half of the decade involved an unseen maniac preying on a group of largely disposable teenagers, this one is couched from the point-of-view of a killer looking to exact revenge on anyone who’s ever slighted him, be it his co-workers (hello, young Mickey Rourke!), his boss, or even a local producer. It’s more of a character piece than most of the films associated with this genre, as Eric is depicted in sympathetic terms, his brain having been broken by years of a lonely, stifled existence, with only the movies there to keep him company.
Even the cop assigned to his case isn’t really a cop; rather, he’s a psychologist (Tim Thomerson) who specializes in troubled youths working alongside the force (specifically, Gwynne Gilford’s officer Oshenbull, whom he swiftly beds, incredulously noting that he’s “never fucked a cop before”). He doesn’t see Eric as a suspect but rather a victim, lobbying in vain to the police captain to treat him as such, a subplot that softens the viewer’s own position towards this deranged kid. Obviously, Fade to Black unfolds in a much different manner from similar portraits of damaged brains, with stuff like Maniac and Nightmare proving to be sleazy, scummy trips into fractured psyches and disturbing oedipal complexes. Zimmerman has a lighter touch here, as he’s not trawling Eric’s psyche for profound or disturbing insights about violence, and even the psychologist’s thesis that the boy’s unhealthy movie obsession has played some role is all but laughed off.
No, Eric stands as evidence of that immortal statement at the end of Scream: “movies don’t create psychos—movies make psychos more creative.” That, essentially, is the killer hook to Fade to Black—Eric doesn’t just stalk, slash, and shoot his victims, but does so in the guise of famous film characters. He’s such a big James Cagney fan that he changes his name to Cody Jarrett and is prone to assuming the famous actor’s signature vocal style. However, that doesn’t preclude him from dressing up as other characters,--like Lugosi’s Dracula or even The Mummy—when exacting his revenge. It’s one of the more irresistible hooks and one of the best examples of a filmmaker completely understanding the appeal of splatter movies. Later slashers would play up this angle, inviting audiences to revel in the rollicking violence, but few did it as well as Fade to Black, a film that basically treats each murder sequence as short films spanning different genres, from westerns to gangster movies and plenty of monstrosities in between.
There’s an infectious energy to it that sweeps audiences away into Eric’s enthusiasm, and Zimmerman certainly isn’t here to judge. He's made a movie for folks like Eric (but hopefully not just like him), those obsessives who can spit trivia and recall scenes from memory. Fade to Black doubles as a screwy tribute to this particular kind of enthusiasm, as audiences watch Eric take in a midnight show of Night of the Living Dead while surrounded by his fellow freaks and geeks. His room and makeshift office look like any fervent devotee (I might even say his resemblance to my own media room is unsettling), cluttered as they are with faces of famous stars and iconic poster art. Los Angeles—the mecca for movie-lovers—is also preserved on-screen in all its glory since Eric prowls through Venice, Westwood, Beverly Hills, and, naturally right down Hollywood Boulevard, where the film stages its memorable climax in and around Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Fittingly, the City of Angels retains its entire luster, even as the star-struck Eric confronts what must be a tragic fate.
Zimmerman doesn’t lose sight of Eric amongst all his carnage, going so far as to impossibly create a wild homage to White Heat to highlight the sad, lonely life of a young man so absorbed by his obsession that his death becomes a triumph. Dennis Christopher delivers a terrific performance as Eric, who ranks among horror’s most unsung characters. He’s a loveable weirdo in that he’s “one of us,” and he’s not so disturbing that you can’t reserve a little bit of sympathy for him. A glimmer of pitiful desperation seeps through every scene, even those where Christopher throws himself headlong into campy take-offs and over-the-top impersonations. You sense that this what Eric perceives to be his best self, yet, deep down, he knows he’ll always be that sad dude furiously masturbating at a Marilyn Monroe poster taped to his ceiling.
I must admit that particular scene feels like a touch too much in what is otherwise one of the era’s more purely entertaining slashers. With grisliness, atmosphere, and personality to spare, Fade to Black is never dull, as Zimmerman exploits its premise to its fullest potential. Obviously, it doesn’t carry the same reputation as Scream, but I love it for many of the same reasons. Chief among them is both films’ willingness to acknowledge the twisted appeal of the slasher genre and fully indulge it. Scream did so with an eye trained toward the past, with a heightened awareness guiding its mimicry; Fade to Black, on the other hand, feels almost prophetic in the way it could sense the geek culture growing around this new wave of splatter movies. If Scream was like the genre’s high school reunion, then this was something like a graduation party officially celebrating its newfound place in the horror world.
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