Fade to Black, 1980.
Written and Directed by Vernon Zimmerman.
Starring Dennis Christopher, Tim Thomerson, Gwynne Gilford, Norman Burton, Eve Brent, Linda Kerridge, James Luisi, Mickey Rourke, Peter Horton.
A film-obsessed loner embarks upon a violent killing spree inspired by characters from classic cinema.
If you were to describe me as a movie-obsessed oddball, then you would be right on the money. Since I was a child, I’ve adored film from the iconic classics that critics regularly write whole books about to the more obscure cult favourites with small but devoted followings. So, you can imagine my curiosity when I stumbled upon Fade to Black, a cinema-inspired 1980s slasher that, if my grip on my sanity gets any looser, could be a worrying vision of my future.
Fade to Black tells the story of Eric, a shy and lonely movie buff who adores all things cinematic, his bedroom adorned with posters and head-shots of classic film stars, with him often lapsing into impressions of his favourite actors. Bullied by his co-workers, his boss and tormented by his Aunt, Eric is presented as a sad, pitiful character whose eventual collapse into madness takes on an almost tragic air to it. This aspect of the film, while interesting, is somewhat undermined by the often comic tone that the film goes for and the outlandish way characters around Eric behave.
Take, for example, Eric’s crippled aunt, who acts like an old fashioned screen queen straight out of Sunset Blvd when she isn’t tormenting him for merely existing or asking him for “back rubs”. Or, for an even funnier example, Eric’s cantankerous boss, a man so ludicrously angry all the time at everything in existence that he’s seconds away from causing his heart to implode. It’s all daft stuff, but the impact that it has on Eric’s eventual breakdown would have been more impactful if the film had played these characters such as these in a more low-key straight-faced manner.
The horror elements depicting Eric’s mental collapse and eventual killing are handled somewhat better. The movie inspired manner of his murders veering, from humorously weird to surprisingly dark. The strangest is perhaps when dressed in a bizarre prosthetic mask, Eric becomes classic western figure Hop A-Long Cassidy and challenges a very young Mickey Rourke to an old school duel to the death. While in another surprisingly dark sequence, Eric dons a cape and pale face make-up to become Dracula, chasing down and eventually drinking the blood of a murdered prostitute. It’s a suspenseful scene, but it’s also one that, given the relative lack of gore in the rest of the film, comes across as perhaps unnecessarily gruesome.
With a film-obsessed killer as its focus, of course, Fade to Black is filled to the brim with references to classic cinema as Eric dons the mantel of several characters from films of the past, such as villains like Dracula and Richard Widmark’s psychotic Tommy Ugo from Kiss of Death, to name a few. Yet, he also takes on the mantel of a few surprising choices, such as Laurence Olivier’s character from The Prince and the Showgirl. Perhaps the most prominent recurring persona adopted by Eric is Cody Jarret, the villainous criminal played by James Cagney in classic crime drama White Heat, even going so far as to refer to himself to others as Cody Jarret. These references are fun little nuggets scattered throughout, the film adopting a habit of cleverly intercutting clips from some of these older films into the action. Such as how in the climax, it regularly cuts between Eric and Cagney in the dramatic finale of White Heat, the fate of the characters beginning to mirror each other.
Dennis Christopher cuts a sad figure as Eric, the actor imbuing his performance with nervous energy and a growing mania that makes him an increasingly unnerving but often entraining screen presence. The real fun of Christopher’s performance comes when he takes on the mantel of the cinematic icons he idolises, essentially playing multiple characters throughout. Whether mimicking Bela Lugosi’s Dracula or Widmark’s Tommy Ugo, Christopher is great fun whenever embracing his inner celluloid psycho. Out of all the character’s he channels, it’s Cagney’s Cody that Christopher excels at, clearly having a great time parroting the legendary actor’s distinctive and exaggerated manner of speech, often cackling up a storm as he does so. It’s a hugely entertaining and varied performance that makes Eric a somewhat more colourful killer than a generic silent masked psycho.
The supporting cast is sadly not as strong as Christopher. Many of them give overdone performances that border on cartoonish and leave you begging for them to meet a brutal death. The scenes following police psychiatrist Moriarty (yes, really) are particularly insufferable with his clashes with the absurdly angry (and Anti-Irish?) police captain being a chore to sit through as they often end up just screaming at each other. Although I will give small props to Linda Kerridge for her portrayal of Marilyn, Eric’s new obsession, mainly because Kerridge look so much like Marilyn Monroe that it’s downright eerie, something that the film rather cleverly uses as a plot device.
While I did enjoy certain aspects of the film, Fade to Black is surprisingly dull, with much of it being spent waiting for Eric to don another costume and kill again. And while those murder scenes are highlights, they and Christopher’s performance stand as perhaps the only highlights of the film. Much of the rest of the runtime, however, is a tedious chore as we spend time with unpleasant characters that I simply didn’t care for or, in perhaps the creepiest but arguably most unnecessary scene, watch Eric masturbate while thinking of Marilyn.
While its premise is novel and its lead performance engaging, the slow pacing, inconsistent tone and mostly annoying characters prevent Fade to Black from reaching its full potential. While the premise of a film obsessed killer would later be emulated by others (most notably Wes Craven’s Scream), Fade to Black stands as a fascinating but severely flawed attempt at originality amongst the deluge of unoriginal slashers that dominated the 1980s. Check it out if you’re curious.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★