This week for EXPLOITATION ALLEY, I chose a movie that isn’t so much an exploitation or genre film but one that is more of a horror slasher-ish homage to film in general. It’s a movie that breathes cinema and has one of my all-time favorite performances in it. I’m talking about Vernon Zimmerman’s 1980 film FADE TO BLACK.
FADE TO BLACK stars Dennis Christopher (BREAKING AWAY, STEPHEN KING’S IT (Eddie Kaspbrak!) and more recently in Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED) as Eric Binford, a young man who lives and breathes film. Everything Eric does is film related, right from his job at a distribution warehouse to his wardrobe, to his room decked out from top to bottom in posters, masks, you name it. Eric dresses like Cagney, talks like Widmore and lives in an almost delusional reality where he thinks he’s in a movie. He’s constantly bullied by his wheelchair confined aunt whom he lives with, along with his coworkers & boss (look out for Mickey Rourke as one of the asshole coworkers), so he spends his time watching films new and old in his bedroom late at night, chain smoking and reciting the films’ lines as he watches them.
Things get more complicated for Eric when at his usual diner; he spots Marilyn O’Connor, an Australian model and Marilyn Monroe look-alike. Already obsessed with Monroe, Eric begins talking to O’Connor like she’s the real deal and begins to be enthralled by her, eventually giving her a ride to work and asking her to go to the movies with him. Everything seems to be getting better for Eric until Marilyn accidentally forgets about the date until it’s too late and unintentionally stands him up. Eric, already pretty delicate, begins to unravel afterwards, and while watching KISS OF DEATH and being bothered by his aunt again, Eric pushes her wheelchair down the stairs, killing her, and beginning his murder streak.
What follows is an angle that I think is so unoriginal that it’s amazingly original. Eric begins to assume the personas of different film characters that he loves and systematically kills the people who have wronged him. He paints his face and dresses up like Dracula and stalks a prostitute that dissed him earlier in the film and after she falls onto a wooden fence and dies, Eric drinks her blood. He dresses like Hopalong Cassidy and decides to go after Rourke, followed by stalking his boss in full Universal Mummy attire. It’s a concept that pays homage to those classic films yet doesn’t come off too trying or pretentious. You can tell from everything in the film that the writer of it had a genuine love for cinema and wrote a movie that gives love to those said films, while setting up a character that lives so much in those movies that he doesn’t know how to live in reality. It’s awesome to see Eric unravel, and get deeper and deeper into madness and obsession until he begins to change the name of the street he lives on, and begins to call himself Cody Jarrett, James Cagney’s classic role from WHITE HEAT.
The movie isn’t without its faults though. It has in my opinion, the least effective police squad around. Trying to figure out who the person behind all of the character based killings is Dr. Moriarty, a criminal psychologist played by Tim Thomerson. I’m a massive fan of TRANCERS so it’s cool to see Thomerson in anything, but his role and pretty much every single police-related role in FADE TO BLACK isn’t fleshed out very much whatsoever. Anytime we have scene of Moriarty and his partner, or their boss, we’re waiting for the next scene with Eric to begin, as he’s infinitely more interesting than the others. If there’s ever a remake of FADE TO BLACK made (just a matter of time until there is), it would probably benefit from spending more time creating interesting characters looking for Eric, or entirely doing away with those characters.
The small problems aside, FADE TO BLACK has you on a ride the whole time, it’s a very fun slasher-like film that boasts one of the best performances by a very underrated actor as far as I’m concerned. While I was stoked on everyone in DJANGO UNCHAINED, it was seeing Dennis Christopher as Moguy that made me decide to revisit this gem and put it here in EXPLOITATION ALLEY. He’s great in it, and it’s well deserved of a watch. Until next time folks, have a good one!