For the last four years, Alamo Drafthouse programmer Zack Carlson has hosted a late-night horror movie celebration called Terror Tuesday and if you are a lover of horror, both esoterically brilliantly and obscurely awful, this night was invented just for you. The Terror Tuesday Report will dissect the movie shown as well as provide a barometer for the audience's reaction; as many of these films demand to be seen with an audience, this proves a vital component to the evening.
This week's film: Alone in the Dark, directed by Jack Sholder, 1982 The Film
An attending psychologist at a mental institution, Dr. Merton, resigns under mysterious circumstances. The director of the facility is forced to bring in a young, fish-out-of-water psychologist, Dr. Potter, to handle the dangerous inmates of the third floor. These men are the most violently disturbed in the hospital and they don't take too kindly to Dr. Merton abandoning them. They decide the only explanation is that the incoming Dr. Potter must have murdered him. In order to restore order to their world, they decide they must kill Dr. Potter and his family. One serendipitous black out and a murderous escape later, Dr. Potter's home is besieged by geriatric lunatics. Will his family survive? Will we be able to round up this cadre of psychotics? What the hell is Jack Palance doing at a new wave concert?
It is no hyperbole to assert that Alone in the Dark is the best film I've seen at Terror Tuesday. This film should be readily on the lips of every horror fan when the discussion turns to the best of the 80's. First of all, the film has an amazing cast...a cast not to be trifled with. The leader of the escaped mental patients is Jack Palance as a former military man and prisoner of war. If ever an old man could make me fear for my life it's frickin' Jack Palance. He is aided by none other than Martin Landau who plays a former preacher who now favors hacking up sinners to converting them. Adding to this cadre of madness is Erland van Lidth, better known as the fat guy covered in Christmas lights from The Running Man, as a gigantic child killer. The administrator of the asylum is played by Donald Pleasence because he knows how to deal with escaped crazy people.
What is so great about Alone in the Dark is its ability to construct atmosphere from almost nothing. If you were to just hear the concept of the film in passing, you may think it sounded awesome but perhaps in the so-bad-it's-good type of ironic appreciation. Alone in the Dark takes what should be an easy gimmick and crafts fantastic mood and performances to engender an entirely unexpected reaction: fear. There is one particular moment, as Pleasence is showing the new doctor around the asylum where a careful placement of an extra produced an image I could not get out of my head. This guy is stark white pale and is leering, near motionless, from around the corner and the two actors don't even notice him. It is incredibly eerie and sent shivers up my back. The dream sequence at the beginning is disturbing and adds a real depth to Landau's character because he doesn't seem crazy until the end of the dream.
I love a good siege horror film and that is exactly what this is. It is a bunch of people trapped in a house because of the violence outside that is doing everything it can to get inside. Alone in the Dark does an especially fine job of using the darkness and the creaky old house to build suspense and throttles back on showing the actual invaders which lends a further degree of menace to the villains. My favorite part of the entire story was that, throughout all of it, Donald Pleasence had total faith in the rehabilitation of the inmates so much that he routinely put himself in jeopardy in order to reason with them...an interesting juxtaposition from Dr. Loomis being 100% convinced that Michael Meyers had no redeeming characteristics and was pure evil. I also love that the entire motivation for the siege is predicated on a misconception; on the warped, but understandable logic of lunatics. In fact, there is something entirely sympathetic about these murderous gents that makes the film so much more complex than it has any right to be.
Speaking of Dr. Loomis, there is a shot in the film that is so picturesque that I wonder about the inception of the screenplay. There is a moment when another psychologist drives up to the asylum just after the blackout and sees inmates wandering around in the front lawn. Aside from the inescapable difference of prominent daylight, it reminded me very much of the scene from Halloween when Michael Meyers escaped. I began to wonder if the motivation behind creating this story was someone asking the question of what happened to the other patients that escaped from Smith's Grove and how they get out in the first place. Even if that wasn't the genesis, I still really like the idea and it positively colored my perception of the rest of the film.
The film seems really timeless until the sister character shows up; a concentrated ball of 80's. She in turn leads the characters to the most ridiculous and cult-canonizing moment of the film: the new wave concert. The band in the film, dubbed the Sick Fucks, are the worst of the worst 80's concept bands. The concept, by the way, was apparently "boy isn't The Rocky Horror Picture Show just keen!" They vomit up indecipherable lyrics while worthless backup dancers wield plastic axes and chant. But even this seemingly unnecessary diversion sets up one of the greatest endings in horror history. A moment that seems spawned for laughs until you begin to think about its implication. The ending of the film is perfect in every way. Check out our own Alison Nastasi's alternate take on this band's inclusion in the film here!
The movie started off prompting the familiar giggles and guffaws, but that soon turned. I've said it countless times, but the most interesting audience responses to me are the responses to films that are far better than our expectations. The laughs suddenly died down and the creepiness of what was unfolding on screen hit us. As I looked around, girls were curled up in their seats or cradled in the armpits of their dates just as you would expect mainstream audiences to react to modern horror. It filled me with a sense of satisfaction and reaffirmed my faith in the eye-opening epiphanies of which Terror Tuesday is capable.