One Dark Night (1983)
Studio: Code Red
Release date: July 4th, 2017
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
A title like One Dark Night evokes childhood memories of passing scary stories around a campfire, where friends and family would take turns trying to scare the shit out of other with macabre, often improvised tales about ghosts and goblins. More thrilling than it was actually scary, it was nonetheless a formative tradition that captured exactly what I continue to crave from the horror genre: pure, unabashed fun that allows you to revel in imaginative, gruesome carnage and mayhem. It follows, then, that Tom McLoughlin’s debut (and eventual video store staple) feels like the perfect movie for a preteen slumber party: it’s spooky, thrives on childhood thrills of forbidden, foreboding places (in this case, a mausoleum), and just gory enough without being a completely traumatic gross-out experience. While parts of it might send an uninitiated genre newbie fleeing under their covers, they’ll still be unable to resist having a peek at its gruesome wares. By the end of One Dark Night, that same kid might well be a horror-hound in the making, having been thoroughly converted by its infectious, raucous climax.
Granted, it doesn’t seem like it will be at first. An eerie, ominous tracking shot accompanied by an spooky soundtrack slowly dares the audience to take in a ghastly apartment building crime scene. Rubberneckers gawk outside as authorities pour into the place, stunned by the discovery of six murdered girls, their bodies butchered and piled up without any regard. They’re discovered in the apartment Karl Raymar, an enigmatic Russian occultist purported to wield psychic abilities. His body is also discovered among the carnage, though police are baffled to explain anything about this mysterious house of horrors. What were these girls doing there? Why were they murdered? What was Raymar’s involvement?
All of these questions are of no concern Carol (Robin Evans), Leslie (E.G. Daily), and Kitty (Leslie Speights), a trio of high school students who have formed an exclusive clique dubbed “The Sisters.” Barred from entry from this club is Julie (Meg Tilly), a girl who has done herself no favors by dating Carol’s ex-boyfriend Steve (David Mason Daniels). Still, The Sisters are willing to give her a chance if she can survive an initiation ritual that will force her to spend the night at a local mausoleum, where Raymer’s body has been interred and waits to unleash havoc from beyond the grave.
McLoughlin isn’t exactly in a rush to revel in that havoc. If he were a storyteller unspooling this tale around the campfire, he’d really draw out that “one dark night…” introduction, as the film patiently builds up to the carnage. In many ways, he takes that storyteller role a bit literally since his script relies on a clunky, expository subplot involving Raymer’s daughter (Melissa Newman) and her husband (Adam West), both of whom learn about the occultist’s bizarre obsessions. We watch as she digs through mounds of papers and letters to uncover the truth about both her father and herself, all the while piecing together his fiendish plot to live on. While it’s not the most graceful plot device and mostly amounts to Newman staring and reading intently while West looks on admonishingly, it at least adds some sense of dread and dramatic irony to the main plot, which finds these girls engaging in shenanigans, blissfully unaware of the imminent terror lurking within the bowels of the mausoleum.
Whenever McLoughlin ventures into that unsettling resting place, One Dark Night finds that devious spark that allows it to thrive on that childlike sense of intrigue and horror. Mausoleums are naturally unnerving to anyone but especially to children who might tiptoe through graveyards with haste, which is exactly the audience One Dark Night seems to have in mind. For about an hour, McLoughlin is content to let them stroll through the place alongside Julie, taking in its eerie, cavernous corridors and its unsettling stillness. Once this unsuspecting girl is locked in for the night, she is completely alone, with only the reverberating sound of her thudding footsteps accompanying her.
Or are they? Of course, something else prowls within, waiting to raise hell. And not just Raymar’s unrested spirit, either: naturally, alpha bitch Carol and her lackey can’t help but return to scare the wits right out of Julie. As mean-spirited as that sounds, there’s a purity to it that’s irresistible: who hasn’t delighted in scaring the shit out of friends? Sure, Carol might be a prototypical mean girl engaging in unpleasant hazing rituals, but she’s at least somewhat relatable in this aim. By and large, McLoughlin dials into that perfect wavelength with these teenage characters, most of whom spend carefree days on a seaside pier, where a pavilion arcade serves as a perfect complement to the funhouse freakout awaiting during the film’s climax.
That, of course, is the sequence McLoughlin has been eagerly building towards for the duration of One Dark Night. It’s not that every moment before is completely disposable, but it they’re most certainly in the service of setting up a show-stopping sequence that finds the director unleashing haunted house thrills on both his unsuspecting characters and a delighted audience. You can practically feel McLoughlin breathlessly recounting the ghastly sights and sounds here as an assortment of ghouls—headlined by Raymer’s reanimated corpse—springs to life, many of them dripping with maggots, puss, and ripped flesh. One Dark Night channels all of its energy into this delirious, manic display of effects wizardry. In what amounts to the effects department emptying their clip, this climax delivers exquisite corpses by the bushel, allowing McLoughlin to effectively tread the line between vintage, gothic thrills and 80s splatter, a tightrope he’d walk all the way into Crystal Lake—er, Forest Green—a few years later for Jason Lives.
One Dark Night will test your patience, especially if you’re expecting an unrelenting, nerve-shredding exercise in terror. McLoughlin isn’t interested in mimicking Raimi-esque spook-a-blasts, nor is this on the same wavelength as the unremitting Poltergeist, which unceremoniously stole some of its thunder when it was released about 8 months earlier. Instead, he’s much more invested in atmosphere and suspense: he knows you’re here to see the awful contents resting in the mausoleum, and he delicately strings you along in his attempt to recapture the vibe of EC or Amicus. There’s something forbidden and mean about One Dark Night but not so much that you can’t absolutely revel in its gruesome sense of showmanship or its gnarly sense of comeuppance. Ultimately, One Dark Night is a cautionary campfire tale, one that intones against being a total shit, lest you wind up beneath a pile of melted flesh and mausoleum rubble.
After first making its way to DVD courtesy of Shriek Show over a decade ago, One Dark Night finally debuts on Blu-ray with a spectacular new edition from Code Red. Despite a disclaimer regarding the condition of available elements, the top notch restoration is quite the upgrade from the DVD release: it might not absolutely pop like a modern movie might, but it looks wonderfully natural, with a fine layer of grain remaining intact without obscuring details.
Code Red has outfitted this disc with a ton of features as well, including two separate commentaries headlined with McLoughlin. One features him alongside co-writer Michael Hawes (who would get a shout out in Jason Lives), while producer Michael Schroeder joins him for the other. Over 150 minutes of vintage behind-the-scenes footage and newly recorded interviews deliver just about every morsel any One Dark Night aficionado could ever want. Where the making-of footage is real fly-on-the-wall stuff capturing day-to-day set minutiae, the interviews are expectedly more retrospective in nature, with most of the participants reminiscing beyond this particular production.
McLoughlin—who I think never quite got his due—is certainly more at peace with his career trajectory, which eventually made him a veteran on the TV circuit following the success of Sometimes They Come Back and In a Child’s Name. In a nice touch, his interview is actually staged in the actual Hollywood Forever Cemetery mausoleum that served as the film’s main location. (Yes, he also acknowledges his Freddy’s Nightmares stint, much to my extreme gratitude.)
Other interview subjects include Daily, Schroeder, cinematographer Hal Trussell, actress Nancy McLoughlin, production designer Craig Stearns, and makeup designer Paul Clemons, who also provides a scrapbook bursting with images and designs from his career. The film’s theatrical trailer and a SD workprint cut entitled Night in the Crypt are thrown in for good measure, making this a truly definitive release for an unsung little gem from one of the genre’s more infectious personalities. Few filmmakers wanted to have so much sheer fun trying to scare an audience than McLoughlin, and that’s more than evident in this terrific debut. comments powered by Disqus Ratings:
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