Thursday, May 24, 2018

Alone in the Dark (1982)

... aka: Armoton yö (Unhappy Night)
... aka: Ausbruch der wilden Wölfe (Outbreak of Wild Wolves)
... aka: Dément (Insane)
... aka: Zwei Stunden vor Mitternacht (Two Hours Before Midnight)

Directed by:
Jack Sholder

You pretty much know right away, in an opening sequence featuring a chef-clad Donald Pleasence hacking Martin Landau in half crotch-first, that this isn't gonna be your normal everyday slasher flick. Then again, you could probably also tell that from examining the cast list. Psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Potter (Dwight Schulz), who prefers working with the seriously deranged instead of having a cushy job listening to wealthy neurotics, has just landed a new position working at The Haven, a nuthouse run by kooky doctor Leo Bain (Pleasence). It's just your standard issue funny farm where people wander around, sit in the lobby eating paper and play croquet out on the front lawn. Dr. Bain prefers to allow most of his "voyagers" (what he prefers to call his patients) roam freely, but there are a few exceptions to the general rule...

On the third floor of the hospital where Dan is set to work are the real psychos; the potentially very dangerous ones. They're so bad that Dr. Bain had to have a special security system installed with electrically-operated doors and windows just to be able to legally keep them there. On Dan's first day at work he's introduced to the four patients he'll be tending to. There's former war vet Frank Hawkes, nicknamed "Colonel" (Jack Palance), former minister Byron Sutcliffe, nicknamed "Preacher" (Landau), big guy Ronald Elster, nicknamed "Fatty" (Erland Van Lidth) and John Skaggs, nicknamed "The Bleeder," who always keeps his face hidden. Each of Dan's deranged patients is given their own distinct mental problem. The Colonel is a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks his stint in The Haven is just a "vacation," Preacher is a pyromaniac bible-quoter who enjoys setting fire to churches, Fatty is a child molester and The Bleeder is a serial strangler whose nose bleeds every time he's about to commit a murder.

Since Dr. Potter has just moved to town, he, his wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall) and their young daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward) are just getting settled into their new country home. Toni (Lee Taylor-Allen), Dan's punk sister who's just recently suffered from a nervous breakdown after being attacked, also comes to stay with them for a week. Her first night there she decides to drag her reserved bro and sister-in-law to watch the punk band The Sic Fucks perform "Chop Up Your Mother." Mid-concert, there's a citywide blackout due to problems at a nearby nuclear facility. Rioting and looting commences, and the four nuts at The Haven take advantage of the opportunity to escape. Fatty breaks an orderly's back over his knee then kills a doctor so they can steal a car.

Immediately heading into town to gather some supplies, the four psychos break into a hardware store; stealing knives, a crossbow, a hockey mask and a few other handy tools. The Bleeder claws out a guy's throat with a three-pronged garden claw before disappearing, so the other three steal a van and run over a mailman just so Preacher can get his hat. The Colonel has it in his disturbed mind that Dr. Dan has killed their previous psychiatrist, so he wants revenge and talks his buddies into helping him out. After sneaking in to kill a babysitter (Carol Levy) and her boyfriend, the escapees then lay siege on the Potter household, trapping the family, a police detective (Gordon Watkins) and Tom (Phillip Clark), a guy Nell and Toni met after getting thrown in jail for picketing the local nuclear power plant, inside. There's death by arrow, cleaver, strangulation and stabbing, a delusion featuring a zombie-like ghost (which was designed by Tom Savini) and Pleasance pops back in briefly to get his ear whacked off.

New Line Cinema would later become jokingly known as "The House That Freddy Built" because of the huge commercial success of their Nightmare on Elm Street series. But if Freddy built the house, then Alone in the Dark purchased the lumber and nails. This was New Line and producer Robert Shaye's very first horror release. Miramax had an almost identical genesis at around the same time with their first release THE BURNING (1981), a profitable slasher that helped to establish a company that would later flourish. Though it sometimes uneasily wavers between camp and wanting to be taken seriously, is a bit slow to get started and is pretty skimpy on gore, Alone is still better than most other slasher flicks from its time. Having Palance and, especially, Landau (who's at his creepy, grinning, crazy-eyed best) as two of the nuts is definitely a huge plus and Pleasence also has a fun role as an aloof, New Age-y pot-smoking (!) doctor who doesn't seem far off from being committed to his own hospital. It's generally well made and most of the performances are fine, there are a few good laughs and some scenes, especially one where the portly pedo tries to coax the little girl into her bedroom, are surprisingly tasteless.

The cast includes Brent Jennings (The Serpent and the Rainbow), Frederick Coffin (Mother's Day) and the producer's sister, future horror icon Lin Shaye, in a small role as one of the patients. According to Sholder (who'd go on to make the second Elm Street film and The Hidden), Matthew Broderick auditioned for the part of the babysitter's boyfriend but was turned down. This made it into Fangoria's 101 Best Horror Films You've Never Seen book and was also one of the picks for the 2014 doc The 50 Best Horror Movies You've Never Seen.


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