Directed by: Jack Sholder
Written by: Jack Sholder, Robert Shaye, and Michael Harrpster
Produced by: Robert Shaye
Reviewed by: Brett G.
Back before New Line Cinema became ďThe House that Freddy Built,Ē they were fledgling independent studio who needed a hit. They hoped that debuting writer and director Jack Sholder (of Nightmare on Elm Street 2 and The Hidden fame) would deliver that hit in the form of this low budget slasher flick. While this didnít quite come true for whatever reason, Alone in the Dark is quite a gem that deserved a better fate at the box office. Seeing as how it came out in the early 80s when the slasher craze was just beginning to build with the release of the first few Friday the 13th films, itís hard to believe Alone in the Dark got lost in the shuffle.
Itís possible that this happened because at its core, Alone in the Dark is hardly a slasher film at all. We arenít introduced to a group of vapid teens that serve as fodder for the filmís psychopath (or in this case, psychopaths). Instead, our main character is a psychiatrist, Dan Potter, who has just arrived to work at a mental institution run by Dr. Leo Bain, who is delightfully played by Donald Pleasence. As it turns out, Potter is charged with the task of working with ďthe men on the third floor,Ē a group of deranged patients headed by Frank Hawkes, a paranoid schizophrenic. The rest of the group consists of the pyromaniac Preacher, a 400 pound child molester named ďFattyĒ Elster, and finally, Bleeder, whose nose tends to bleed when his psychotic urges kick in.
When Potter shows up and replaces the groupís former doctor, the group surmises that he has killed his predecessor and decide to return the favor. Conveniently for our group of madmen, the power in Springwood (not to be confused with Freddyís stomping grounds) happens to go out, which eliminates the only barrier in their way: the electronically rigged doors and windows. What follows is a suspenseful assault on Potterís house, which endangers not only himself, but his wife, sister, and daughter.
From the description above, it becomes even more obvious that Alone in the Dark does not follow the standard slasher formula. It borrows less from Friday the 13th or Halloween and more from Straw Dogs or Assault on Precinct 13. Even though we do see the hallmarks of a slasher flick at some points (like horny, half naked teens meeting their demise), Alone in the Dark plays out more like a thriller. Whereas most slasher flicks usually employ violence as a centerpiece, this film rarely relies on it. While it does feature a few good gore shots, it never feels gratuitous; instead, it simply feels natural, for lack of a better term.
A lack of gore shouldnít deter you from checking this one out, though, because it does feature a good, tense atmosphere that carries most of the film. Furthermore, there are some genuinely creepy scenes in the film, most notably the one featuring Potterís daughter and Fatty. While such a scene could easily come across as sleazy or exploitative, Earland Van Lidth comes across as a vulnerable child himself, which forces you to see him as more than a simply psychopath. This is generally true of each of the principle madmen, as Sholder actually goes at great lengths to develop them as much as Potter and his family. Not surprisingly, this is easily accomplished with stalwarts like Jack Palance and Martin Landau playing Hawkes and Preacher, respectively. Preacher particularly comes across perfectly deranged, while Hawkes is probably one of the most humane psychopaths in horror history. His final scenes especially challenge the general pattern of horror flicks by revealing Hawkes as a man whose deranged perception of reality is completely destroyed. Iím not completely sure what to make of the final scene in the film, as it seems that Sholder is implying that everyone is a little crazy, a notion thatís implied throughout the film and explicitly stated by Dr. Bain.
Speaking of Bain, Pleasenceís performance is among his best. While his take on the character seems to be almost a parody of his Loomis character from Halloween, he still comes across as a good-natured (if not slightly deranged) doctor. If I had to sum up Leo Bain, Iíd say heís delightfully off-kilter. Heís about as crazy as his patients, and his idea of treatment involves giving a pyromaniac a set of matches, if that tells you anything. Indeed, it seems as if Bain is the head inmate who is running the asylum, a phrase that sums up the entire movie. I wonít get into the satirical subtext running throughout the film, as I feel Adam Rockoffís liner notes explain this perfectly. Ultimately, it does seem that Sholder is questioning the definition of sanity, as it seems like everyone in this flick is a little off, from Bain to Potterís sister Toni. If there are any criticisms to level towards this film, itís the scriptís tendency towards convenient plot twists. The first of these would be the blackout that drives the rest of the filmís events. There are a few more twists and turns here and there involving one of the four psychopaths which further lead us to question how we perceive the ďcrazyĒ people in our society. Finally, our characters are ultimately saved by what can only be defined as a dues ex machina. I will say this, however: this turn in the plot allows for one of the more bizarre endings to a horror flick as I've ever seen.
Those criticisms aside, Iíd say that Alone in the Dark is well worth a look if youíre out to check out something a little different. It isnít a very gory film, but it does feature some nice, visceral death scenes and mutilations. Furthermore, there are quite a few jump scares that will startle you from time to time. Renato Serioís score isnít particularly groundbreaking, but it does manage to establish a mood befitting a horror flick. Itís also interesting to see Bleeder wearing a hockey mask in the film; while Friday the 13th Part 3 was released a couple of weeks earlier than Alone in the Dark, Sholderís film was actually completed first. Iíd also have to say that this film features one of the more bizarre openings in horror history, as it involves a giant fish, a frog, and Donald Pleasence playing a chef. If that doesnít get you interested, nothing will. I should also mention that this flick was produced by Robert Shaye, and when has he ever steered you wrong in the past?
If youíre looking to buy this, you should be able to track down Image Entertainmentís DVD for a decent price online. Surprisingly, the film features a DTS 5.1 soundtrack even though it was probably theatrically presented in stereo. All the surround mix seems to accomplish is a bit of spatial direction in the left and right speakers, as the surrounds barely get a workout. My subwoofer kicked in every now and then during the filmís soundtrack, but donít expect to startle the neighbors with this one. On the video side of things, the transfer is adequate. Itís got a lot of scratches and debris, and the black levels arenít as solid as Iíd like them to be, but I guess you canít expect much from a low budget horror flick thatís over 25 years old. The DVD release also features the aforementioned liner notes that feature a very good commentary on the film and its historical context. Iíd like to see more of those, but it seems like studios have been cutting corners ever since DVD became a mainstream format. Iíve also seen Alone in the Dark packaged with Afraid of the Dark and the third and fourth Relentless films. Iíve never seen any of the latter three flicks, but the four pack costs about as much as Alone in the Dark does on its own these days. Either way, Iíd suggest that any horror fan run out, find a copy of this, and Buy it!
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