Sunday, October 21, 2012

Alone in the Dark (1982) dir. Jack Sholder

Logline: Four violently deranged patients escape from an unconventional, low-security asylum during a electricity blackout and go on a rampage, their ultimate target being the home and family of their new doctor, Dr. Potter (Dwight Schultz).

Crime in the Past: No actual inciting crime here, but there is an imagined one. The four patients, due to the influence of leader Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), begin to believe that their previous doctor (who simply took a different job at a hospital in Philadelphia) was murdered by their new doctor, which is what inspires them to track Dr. Potter down to his home and exact revenge against him and his loved ones.

Bodycount: 11, which should clue you in to the fact that one is rarely ever alone in the dark.

Themes/Moral Code: The film rails against New Age-y psychiatric therapy, as seen through the example of a mental institution run by the eccentric Dr. Bain (Donald Pleasence), in which the patients are literally allowed to run the asylum. Bain refers to his patients as "voyagers"-- see, they're not permanently disturbed, but are merely on the path to a new plane of existence that sane folks can't fathom (as Hawkes grins at Dr. Potter, he asserts, "There's no crazy people, doctor. We're all just on vacation"). Bain's treatment of his "voyagers" include bright ideas like giving matches to pyromaniacs and making sure that his violent ones are restrained by a security system entirely dependent upon electricity. Before the dung hits the mechanical fan when the power goes out and the voyagers start their literal homicidal voyage, the film gives some hints that Dr. Bain's methods aren't quite as effective as he'd like to claim. Chief among these is a moment when he's forced to whisper to Preacher (Martin Landau) that he will hoist him up and cut him in half if he doesn't refrain from twirling a flaming jacket around ("sometimes you have to be forceful with them," he admits). The film itself takes a slightly more extreme position, arguing that we should probably either lock up our maniacs (and swallow the keys) or kill them outright if they pose a tangible threat. Dr. Potter and his family (a bunch of civilized peaceniks) are forced to cross the threshold into violence in order to save themselves, but unlike some other films that carry this same theme (see the last section, below) Alone in the Dark never seems to judge its characters for taking this drastic route to problem solving. When Hawkes tells Dr. Potter, "It's not just us crazy ones who kill. We all kill when we must," he's not exactly wrong. Alone in the Dark investigates the microscopic line separating the sane and rational from the deranged and murderous, deciding that one side bleeds to the next far too easily (see: the fact that society appears to crumble the moment after the blackout hits town). Perhaps we're all "voyagers," and what we call insanity is merely an congenital part of human nature, always at the ready to express itself.

Killer's Motivation: Well, they are violent mental patients. Each is scarred by his own personal demons: Fatty is a child molester, Hawkes was a prisoner of war, Preacher burnt down a church full of his parishioners, and The Bleeder... bleeds? But their assumed motivation is the imagined revenge plot described above. That rationale doesn't totally cut it, because they also murder people indiscriminately (the Bleeder because he's insane; Preacher because he likes to punish sinners). It's sort of a grab bag of motivations, but we may also choose to believe Dr. Bain's prognosis that "they won't survive on the outside" the asylum because it's "too scary," and so are simply reacting violently in fear. Again, doesn't quite work: as we see through the total devolution of its society through looting and murder during the blackout, Alone in the Dark's sane world is as mad (if not madder) than the asylum, and at the end of the film Hawkes couldn't be happier to be stranded outside with the insane. ("Insanity" is here coded as "attending a punk rock show"). Maybe Bain was right, and Hawkes' voyage has come to an end.

Final Girl: We're actually gifted three final girls: Dr. Potter's wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall), his daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), and his sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan). While ostensibly Dr. Potter is forced to "man up" and protect his family, these woman actually hold their own well: during the siege on the Potter residence, Lyla slits Fatty's shins with a knife (incapacitating him and allowing the others to take him out for good), and Nell stabs The Bleeder to death while Dr. Potter restrains him. Toni isn't much help in this squabble, but she's sort of debilitated by her pathological fear of the dark, so it's understandable. These are interesting, nuanced women-- both Nell and Toni smoke pot and are arrested for protesting the nuclear power plant; Toni wears a mesh top without a bra, moshes at a punk show, and pretty clearly doesn't have any hangups about sleeping around; and Lyla is precocious but responsible, chastising her parents for their lapses in smart behavior. The film treats its women well, which is in sort of shocking contrast to its most well-known scene, wherein the film's sole female victim, Lyla's babysitter, is menaced by a knife that repeatedly pops up through the mattress of the bed that she and he boyfriend just got busy on. The phallic knife leaping up through the mattress towards the babysitter's spread legs creates a pretty horrific image of overt sexual violence, but this seems to be an anomaly within the film-- a scene filmed for the creative novelty of its conceit rather than any thematic or moral import.

The Good, the Bad, & the Cheese:  What a gem. Alone in the Dark was the first horror film produced by Robert Shaye's New Line Cinema, two years before they scored their first major hit, Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), which forever defined their brand. That's all well and good, but it's a shame that Alone in the Dark hasn't received the same mainstream appreciation or regard. Director Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985), The Hidden (1987)) skillfully blends the slasher with the siege picture, deriving almost as much influence from films like Night of the Living Dead (1968), Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), and Straw Dogs (1971) as it does from its recent bodycount picture contemporaries. (In fact, considering its thematic concern of "kill the bastards before they kill you," we could call it most akin to Straw Dogs, but this also means it bears a connection to Wes Craven's first two films, Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), both of which feature genial protagonists devolving into savagery in order to survive). Alone in the Dark is alternately creepy (some very unnerving shots of the killers lurking in the bushes, just barely visible, standing still as statues), surreal (Landau's character's opening dream of being hoisted up at a diner and split down the middle at the crotch by a sword-wielding Pleasence dressed as a short-order cook), humorous (mostly moments provided by Dr. Bain's new age healing methods), and cheesy (a punk rock show featuring the Sic Punks and their oversize axe-chopping dancers.). I mean, honest, if I'm telling you that it's a schlocky yet skillful film prominently featuring Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, and Martin Landua, and you don't start salivating, then there's little hope for you. Personally, I am incredibly peeved to have taken this long to get around to it, so will now commence hanging my head in shame with all the lights turned off.

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