I’m always looking for a hidden horror gem, especially if it came out somewhere in the seventies or early eighties. There was something truly special about horror films made in those eras. It was an interesting time for cinema back then — the limitations on exploitation cinema had vanished. The wholesomeness of the sixties had been destroyed by the counterculture and audiences didn’t want The Brady Bunch anymore. The Vietnam war was in full swing and people wanted something real. They wanted to explore the darkest depths of human depravity. Or perhaps they just wanted to see unsuspecting teenagers being killed by homicidal maniacs — nothing wrong with that either.
The success of Black Christmas and Halloween birthed a new subgenre of horror called the ‘“Slasher” films. Technically this genre might have started with Alfred Hitchcock‘s Psycho, but that’s a conversation for cinema-historians, not for this article. The watchful eyes of the MPAA was the biggest problem back then, as they restricted much of the beautiful bloodshed on screen. This ultimately did affect the quality of many notable slashers — especially the Friday the 13th franchise.
Luckily the gore of these films has been salvaged somewhat in new, uncut releases. Even though the restored footage isn’t always the best, like with My Bloody Valentine (1981). Yet, it isn’t even always about the gore. We see this is in the original Halloween, which is an artfully crafted slasher built mostly on suspense and atmosphere. There’s actually barely any blood to be seen in that movie!
Which brings us to 1982’s Alone in the Dark, directed by Jack Sholder. Until recently I had never heard of this film. I was just browsing through the internet when I suddenly discovered the existence of an eighties slasher film starring Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence and Martin Landau. Naturally I had to see it as soon as possible. In the beginning I was a little disappointed — it didn’t fulfill many of my genre expectations. But close to the end, I realized I was watching an 80’s gem.
This is a deeply underrated film and it needs to be talked about more.
The Great Cast of Psychos
This plot might seem like your average home invasion thriller, but it’s so much more. A blackout causes four lunatics to escape from their asylum. Their target is Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz), who recently replaced a former beloved psychiatrist in their asylum. They have come to believe that he secretly killed his predecessor. Dr. Potter, his family and his sister’s recent love-interest — Tom (Phillip Clark) — must try to survive the night.
One thing that makes Alone in the Dark stand out from conventional slasher fare, is the cast of psychos. They aren’t masked, hulking figures waiting in the dark for an unsuspecting victim. Often times, the psycho turns out to be one of the main cast, and most of the time you can guess who the psycho is supposed to be.
We already know who these homicidal maniacs are. We are introduced to them in the beginning and they seem weirdly benign at first. They are placed in a special department of the facility, under the treatment and care of Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence).
Their ringleader is Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance). He is a former POW whose warlike experiences has made him dangerously paranoid. Hawkes is the one that becomes convinced of Potter’s guilt for murdering the preceding psychiatrist. This is despite the fact there’s no evidence of this at all. He’s followed by Byron Sutcliff (Martin Landau), a former preacher who burned his own church filled with his devout parishioners. Sutcliff has consistent nightmares of hellfire, where Dr. Bain rules as some nefarious king of the underworld.This is the reason Sutcliff is often very meek in Dr. Bain’s presence. Sutcliff is followed by Ronald ”Fatty” Elster (Erland van Lidth), a gargantuan child-molester with a childlike mind and extraordinary physical strength. Last, but not least, is Skagg. He is a dangerous, homicidal loon who hides his face from anybody he doesn’t know. His face is hidden from us until the end and the reveal is quite surprising, even for this veteran horror buff.
All of them are perfectly cast and the film really shines whenever they are on screen. They all have great chemistry together and there’s something psychotically endearing about seeing them work together. You almost wish the film would have focused more on them and on Dr. Bain, instead of Dr. Potter and his family. Potter’s family is all quite mundane, which was probably the point. Yet, it would have been good for the overall message of the film to see each family member dealing with their own mental struggles.
We Mustn’t Ever Forget Who They Are
The film has an interesting satirical bend to it, especially in regards to the overly sanitized view of psychopaths. Alone in the Dark‘s satire comes in the form of the idealistic and somewhat clueless figure of Dr. Bain. Writer/Director Jack Sholder based Dr. Bain’s character on R.D. Laing, one of the pioneers of the anti-psychiatry movements in the 60’s. Laing fought against established insight of the human psyche, believing that many of the modern treatments for mental illness, such as the use anti-psychotic drugs or shock treatment, only exacerbated the problem. He was considered less radical and more acceptable than the likes of Timothy Leary. Laing had many celebrity fans, ranging from Jim Morrison to Sylvia Plath.
Being a counterculture icon, Laing endorsed individualism and personal exploration. Though, in theory, this seemed innocuous to inspired many people to reject proper mental health treatment. Over the years, and as our knowledge of mental-illness increased, many of Laing’s theories simply did not hold up. Like Timothy Leary, and many of these counter-culture icons, they inspired many people to lose themselves in the abyss while they were supposed to lead people out of it.
Pleasence perfectly plays the role of Dr. Bain — he is a man who lets his patients revel in their madness. He means well and he considers his approach virtuous, like he’s granting them their dignity. Bain believes it’s judgmental to call their world a delusion. But despite his virtuous motivations, he is actually does them great harm. He is validating their delusions which ultimately impedes their chances of rehabilitation. His eventual demise, therefore, is tragically expected. Bain is confronted by the unimpeded madness of Byron Sutcliff, who finally has the chance to expel this imagined demon from this world. In appeasement, Bain tries to use Sutcliff’s religious idolatry as a reason not to kill him, stating that killing is against the tenth commandment.
Unfortunately this does not work and Dr. Bain is supposedly axed to death — which we unfortunately don’t get to see. The message is simple: we mustn’t forget who they are. Even if you sympathize with them, as they are eventual victims of biological code, we must remember that we cannot reason with madness. It might not be their fault but we must protect ourselves and the rest world around them regardless. We cannot lose ourselves in idealism.
To Those Who are Alone in the Dark
As someone who struggled with mental health problems, the subject of mental illness is always very dear to me. This doesn’t mean that I become insulted in some way if a film doesn’t represent it honestly. I don’t believe films have to conform to my particular worldview. It is refreshing, however, when watching a seemingly mindless slasher films I discover that it has an interesting message about mental illness.
After Potter’s family defeats three of the psychos, they come face-to-face with Frank Hawkes. He has his crossbow pointing at them and it’s then that the blackout suddenly ceases — the TV turns on automatically. They all see the supposedly murdered psychiatrist being interviewed by a local newscaster about the four escaped convicts. Faced with the evidence, Hawkes almost bursts into tears but instead rages and destroys the TV with his crossbow. In hopelessness he almost attacks the Potter family but drops the crossbow and begins to weep. This is when the title made sense — it’s not just about Potter’s sister’s fear of the dark, it’s about being mentally ill and therefore being ‘alone in the dark.’
At this moment, Hawkes realized he was alone in the dark — he has been deceived by his mind and hadn’t seen reality clearly. As someone who suffers from debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, I got this… I know how ruminating in certain delusional thoughts can alienate you from the rest of the world and make existence feel so lonely.
Hawkes suddenly becomes a strangely sympathetic character, not like he was just a mindless slasher villain. He just wanted to avenge his friendly psychiatrist who had helped him throughout his time in the asylum. This strange plot twist truly elevates this film. While the film isn’t perfect — it lacks gore and inventive kills — it is nice to see a slasher film with something more to say. Jack Palance is absolutely fantastic in this film, especially at the end.
The film ends in a darkly humorous way, as we see Hawkes roam in the darkness alone and suddenly find the local punk-rock club we were introduced to earlier. Entranced by the neon-lights he attempts to enter the club. The bouncer demands money and calls him an asshole, so Hawkes beats the bouncer unconscious then takes his money. This violent act is cheered on by the punk-rock fans who were waiting to get in.
As he ventures inside, a drugged-out woman speaks to him, stating that he came here before. She is ranting in a drug-fueled delusion and grabs Hawkes’ coat, scaring him. He points a gun at her and at first she seems scared but then she starts to laugh. She asks him, “You really there?” and grabs his hand with the pistol. Then she lifts the pistol so it points to her chin and asks, ”You really there, you know?” She begins laughing and Hawkes begins laughing, too. This curiously wonderful ending finds Hawkes a world where his madness seems to be encouraged. He is not the only one who is crazy, so is she — so is everyone.
The world is full of madmen. While it sometimes might feel this way, nobody is ever really alone in the dark. There’s always someone out there, waiting to turn on the lights.
Thank you for reading! What are you thoughts on the classic horror movie Alone in the Dark? Comment down below!
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