Dr. Moriarty: [Using his calm voice and trying to be the good cop] You’re Eric Binford. We can help you, Eric.
Dr. Moriarty: [Well, that didn’t work. Time for bad cop] Binford, you’re out of your FUCKING MIND!
Seemingly predicting an entire decade of blame-the-movies arguments for the rise in violence, 1980’s Fade to Black tells the story of a lonely, emotionally abused cinephile who loses his hold on reality and starts killing people. But he’s not just any run-of-the-mill killer. No, he dresses up like famous Golden Age Hollywood movie characters, running the gamut from old Universal monsters to western gunfighters, before committing his deadly deeds. By the end of the movie, he no longer recognizes his own name (thus the above exchange), having lost himself to the delusion that he’s actually James Cagney’s character from White Heat and the hot blonde he’s been courting is actually Marilyn Monroe.
This is one of those horror movies I vaguely knew about but had never actually seen. Thankfully, it recently ended up on Amazon Prime, which has been amassing quite a few cult classic horror movies (Fright Night 2) and outright oddities (Dorothy Stratten’s Galaxina) as of late. Viewed through modern eyes, Fade to Black certainly has many of the same touchstones as the early slashers, and I can see why it attained cult status. However, it’s not especially scary, riddled with potholes, and doesn’t totally add up.
Dennis Christopher, fresh off of Breaking Away, plays Eric Binford, a hollow-faced, meek young man who spends his days cutting together reels at a Los Angeles film distributor’s warehouse and his nights at home in his room watching old black and white movies he’s clearly already seen countless times before. He lives with his Aunt Stella, a wheelchair-bound, failed starlet who took him in as a baby after his mother died in an accident. Picture Norma Desmond mixed with Norma Bates mixed with Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. That’s Stella, who relentlessly hounds Eric with “You’re wasting your life!” and “You robbed me of my youth!” condemnations.
Life away from home isn’t much better for Eric. He’s a little too lost in his own mind to make friends, with co-workers regarding him as a bit of a “space case.” He’s on thin ice at work due to chronic tardiness, a side effect of his all-night movie marathons. And his quest to find a nice girl who loves movies just as much as him isn’t exactly working out as well as he hoped.
Meanwhile, in what initially feels like a completely different movie, a hotshot psychiatrist (the FBI has a file on him!) named Dr. Moriarty (Tim Thomerson) joins the local police force as part of a 6-month trial to rehabilitate delinquents rather than jail them. Literally, in the first minute of his screen time a young female police officer throws herself at him. Because, ya know, the 80s.
The film sporadically returns to these two, eventually building to the point where Moriarty’s new-fangled profiling techniques will be the key to catching the killer, even though we’ve seen next to no actual profiling on his part. He mostly just has sex with the officer, watches TV with her and complains about the influence of TV on kids, and aimlessly drives around LA with her, showing no reaction when she needlessly observes, “Can you believe all this traffic?”
The “ killer,” of course, is Eric, who becomes fixated on a hot Australian model named Marilyn (Linda Kerridge, who ended up playing Ms. Monroe multiple times) and suffers a psychotic break when she accidentally stands him up on a date they’d planned. This is the key turn in the movie, yet the moment when he takes his frustration out on Stella isn’t entirely convincing, despite writer/director Vernon Zimmerman cross-cutting between Eric’s actions and footage from an old movie to highlight that he’s really just reenacting something he saw on screen, a trick established here and re-used throughout the rest of the film. Abruptly, we cut to a scene later and Eric’s already fully interacting with the world as if he was Cody Jarrett from White Heat.
Dennis Christopher makes the pathetic, earlier version of Eric lovable or at least highly pitiable, and he also fires off some fairly killer Golden Age impressions once Eric goes bye-bye. However, there’s not enough devoted to his inner-conflict during this part of the story, which renders Eric a little more uninteresting than he should be. Combine that with the underdeveloped other side of the film with Moriarty, which is mostly there to help us understand Eric’s psychosis, and you’re mostly left with a simple series of murder scenes featuring Eric in full costume as someone or something else.
These are all competently, if not spectacularly staged and suggest Zimmerman loves old movies as much as his protagonist, but they’re not at all scary. So, they actually work best in the rare moments when the real Eric sneaks through, such as the stunned/saddened look on his face in the above image after his pursuit of a girl ends with her tripping and killing herself without any real contact from him. Plus, there’s a moment in the final act where he thinks all of his dreams are about to come true only to suddenly remember, “Oh, yeah, I killed all these people.” He crumbles into a ball on the ground, and we realize that even though this horror movie isn’t all that horrific it has a couple moments of sneaky emotional impact.
THE BOTTOM LINE
As a passing curiosity combining a love for Golden Age Hollywood with the then-nascent slasher movie movement, Fade to Black has its definite charm as well as disappointing elements. But despite the obvious low-budget and grainy look they still had enough money to stage an entire finale atop (then-named) Mann’s Chinese Theater. Come on, that’s pretty awesome.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS/TRIVIA
- Early Appearance from Future Movie Star Alert: Mickey Rourke, as one of Eric’s bullies. This was just his second movie.
- Halloween’s Irwin Yablans served as executive producer, which is why we see posters for several of his movies in the background and hear dialogue from Halloween emanating from a TV at one point.
- Two-thirds of the way into the movie, Eric gets the break of a lifetime when he meets a Hollywood producer willing to fund his movie idea. That producer, though, ends up stealing his idea. According to the actor who played the producer, this was based on something which actually happened to Zimmerman. Fucking Hollywood, man.
- Whoever wrote that Supernatural episode with the killer who dresses up like old movie monsters must have seen Fade to Black, right?
What about you? Have you seen Fade to Black? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments. And also let me know if there are any other cult horror classics you’d like me to review.