“They’re out…for blood! Don’t let them find you!”…
…That was the tagline for the 1982 slasher flick Alone in the Dark, which had a poster featuring the bottom half of a man holding an axe, reminiscent of films such as Friday the 13th and Madman. Written/directed by Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) and one of the first films produced by New Line Cinema, it didn’t build the house as Freddy would down the line in A Nightmare on Elm Street, but the hope was that it would. Yet, as discussed many times on the new Collector’s Edition now out from Scream Factory, this was a film that didn’t resonate with slasher fans expecting the more traditional promise of the advertising.
Which is too bad, because Alone in the Dark is insane-ly brilliant.
Inspired by the 1977 New York blackout (though set in the suburbs because New Line couldn’t afford to shoot in the city), Alone in the Dark follows Dan (Dwight Schultz), a therapist assigned to an asylum run by ultra-eccentric Leo (Donald Pleasence in a delightfully weird turn). When four of the patients decide that Dan has murdered their old therapist and is coming for them next, they break out during a blackout and head for his home, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.
But this isn’t at all your average home invasion slasher flick.
As critic Justin Kerswell and film historian Amanda Reyes discuss in depth on the new audio commentary, slashers have always had a sour relationship with their portrayal of mental health. Look no further than Pleasence’s own Halloween, in which he plays the worst goddamn psychiatrist in film history (see Donald pumping Michael full of bullets instead of trying to, you know, help). But, according to Jack in his new interview, Out of the Dark, he didn’t set out to make your typical slasher. “I had no interest in making a horror film…I wanted to make an art film.”
For better and worse, it shows.
Set to the tune of Renato Serio’s Exorcist meets your typical frenetic Italian horror score, Alone in the Dark doesn’t open with Dan, but instead brings the attention to one of the “madmen”, a pyromaniac preacher named Byron (Martin Landau). Byron approaches a diner called “Moms”—a play on the idea that most psychotic men have mommy issues?—and experiences the service from hell as Donald Pleasence in a cook’s outfit strings him up and goes Terrifier’s Art the Clown down his middle with an enormous blade while spouting bible excerpts before Byron wakes up screaming. Oddly enough, the scene feels straight out of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but more importantly, it immediately establishes a sympathetic angle towards Byron. He isn’t the soulless embodiment of evil that Michael Myers was. He’s a disturbed human with real issues, as are the others.
You can argue the offensiveness of Sholder’s portrayal—one of the singers from the film’s band The Sick Fucks says her mom, who worked in mental health, was appalled—but Sholder’s intentions are honorable, in that he didn’t want these men to be just another maniac roaming the streets. Byron, Frank (Jack Palance), Ronald (Erland van Lidth) and Skaggs (Phillip Clark) all carry a certain sadness to them that’s difficult not to empathize with, despite how heinous their acts are. They’re creepy as hell (especially Landau), and they kill, ruthlessly, but Sholder does something different with Alone in the Dark in trying to bring some kind of understanding to these killers. In that sense, the film is like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest meets Halloween. The portrayal of mental health may not be spot on, but the focus is on the humanity of the patients, not Dan and his stalked family.
Alone in the Dark is somewhat of a precursor for just how weird Sholder would get with Freddy’s Revenge (not knocking it, Freddy’s Revenge rules). Aside from the opening dream sequence, Alone in the Dark stumbles around between nail-biting suspense and extreme camp. For every moment that we sit in abject horror with scenes like waiting to find out if pedophile Ronald has gotten to Dan’s daughter, Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), there’s another with three of our psychos howling gleefully during their Psychos Day Out as they chase down a mailman in a van and send him flying thirty feet in the air. The entire film feels mad, which is the point. Speaking on the use of the blackout, Sholder states “the lights go out and people revert to being savages…the entire world is insane”.
2020-2021 sure has proven that!
As Norman Bates would say, “we all go a little mad sometimes,” and Alone in the Dark aims to explore all kinds of madness, from Frank’s paranoia to Leo’s “out there” ideas to Dan’s sister Toni’s (Lee Taylor-Allan) own recovery from an extreme phobia. Some might not initially get the humor of the film, such as Dan’s obnoxiously nonchalant reaction to a quartet of men trying to break into his home and murder his family, but the joke is that that’s just the world we live in, and this insane night is just another Tuesday.
Through all of its bumps and bruises, Alone in the Dark is a unique slasher that stands out for being so much more than your run of the mill slasher flick. Memorable and even moving performances from an older than average cast for a slasher, a wild finale and one of the bloodiest kisses ever put on film cement this as a cult classic that has resonated for nearly forty years with good reason.
Scream Factory has done an excellent job with the restoration, presented as a brand new 2K scan of the interpositive. An awkward interview with The Sick Fucks, Mother Choppers, and a poorly directed as well as frantically edited feature exploring the film’s various locations from now and then, Sites in the Dark, aren’t exactly time well spent, but Sholder’s forty+ minute interview is a treasure’s trove of behind the scenes information, regaled to us with a sincere passion by Sholder. The new commentary with Kerswell and Reyes is also a joy, as both commentators know their stuff and offer a thoughtful discussion on everything from mental health in horror to a thematic analysis of the film throughout. Any fan of Alone in the Dark is going to go mad over this disc paying tribute to this unique piece of slasher history.
Turn off the lights and watch it…if you dare!
Check out the full list of Special Features on the disc below, and pick up your copy of Alone in the Dark from Scream Factory here.
By Matt Konopka