Fade to Black (1980)
There I was, a still-young monster kid in the process of graduating from Famous Monsters of Filmland to Fangoria, from Universal and Hammer to Michael Myers and Jason. In the pages of Fangoria, I read this about an upcoming movie:
Fade to Black: Irwin Yablans, the man who made film history when he asked John Carpenter to make a fright film about babysitters and Halloween, is producing another shocker, this one about a film buff who loses his grip, and can no longer distinguish between reality and the movies.
I have rarely experienced such excitement about an upcoming horror film. This one was made for me… heck, about me, perhaps a cautionary tale about someone who loves movies so much that he becomes immersed in them and becomes a slasher. Surely I would identify with this character and this would be my favorite horror film ever!
Then I saw the movie poster. This character, now known specifically as Eric Binford, played by Dennis Christopher, is depicted with his face half made up to look like Dracula, his monster hands squeezing a box of popcorn and cup of soda. Even the tite, Fade to Black, carried a double meaning: the end of a cinematic scene and the end of someone’s life as they die.
I don’t remember when I finally saw Fade to Black (1980.) I know I didn’t see it in theaters, so it was probably when it aired on HBO. If it was late enough, I may have been further encouraged by a blurb in Famous Monsters of Filmland that came in March of 1981:
The climax is said to rival those rooftop hair raisers of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Murders in the Rue Morgue et al, as Eric is chased high atop the world’s most famous movie house, (Grau)Mann’s Chinese Theater!
With these expectations, how could I not have been disappointed? What I didn’t expect was that I not only disliked the movie, but I detested it. So much did I not enjoy it that, until recently, I had never watched it again. Surely after 40 years, my more mature moviegoing sensibilities would cause me to appreciate it. When I clicked “play” on Shudder, my expectations were again high.
Guess what? I still didn’t like it. When I read today what Yablans said at the time of its release, I realize how wrong one person can be:
...we all love the exhilaration of a good scare. If you were to open a door and a hideous creature jumped out at you, chances are very good that you would jump back and scream. That’s why a horror film is easy to do: we’re all like Pavlov’s famous dog, conditioned to jump every time. If you make a comedy, not everybody will get the joke. If you make a drama, not everyone will be moved by it. We’re all different. But when it comes to a good scare, I can get you every time!
You, sir, did not get me this time! Not only was I not scared, I wasn’t even entertained by a 102-minute movie that felt like it was 204-minutes. Even if I write off its lack of logic as a figment of imagination for a young man who is losing his mind, it makes no sense. And that wouldn’t even matter if it were the least bit suspenseful or scary.
When I first saw it, my disappointment sprung from the fact that Eric didn’t just masquerade as characters from horror movies (Dracula, the Mummy, etc.) when he killed, but also as characters from other genres like gangster films and westerns. A younger monster kid like me was simply not interested in anything but, well… monsters.
Seeing it now, my disappointment sprIngS from other aspects of filmmaking that I’ve come to appreciate since I was 17 years old. Therefore, Fade to Black slapped me in the face with bad acting, even worse script and dialogue, and poor execution. How could such a magnificent concept be squandered like this?
For example, when Eric dresses up like the gangster (modeled after Jimmy Cagney’s Cody Garrett in White Heat), he inexplicably drives a vintage car down a modern Los Angeles street. I tried to accept it, again, as a figment of his imagination. However, that doesn’t explain how bystanders would watch it pass and say, “Where did he get that car?”
My question exactly: where did he get that car? I believe at that point he had quit/was fired from his job at a film distribution warehouse, so even if the car was sitting in its parking lot, he wouldn’t have access to it. He collects movie memorabilia, but how’d he get a car when he can barely afford to pay rent and lives with his Aunt Stella (Eve Brent.)
Since Cody Garrett is the character with which Eric most consistently identifies, we must suffer through repeated Cagney impersonations. There was a time in my life that I’d call someone “a dirty rat” in Cagney’s voice, but there’s a reason I no longer do that. It doesn’t sustain much longer than one phrase or sentence. More than that is just silly.
Back to Aunt Stella… when a movie squanders the stereotype of the eccentric old woman that mistreats her nephew (ala Willard), or doesn’t at least attempt to cast Shelley Winters, there's a big problem. The low budget may have been prohibitive to such an A-lister, but, as I’m sure Irwin Yablans would be quick to mention, a cast of unknowns worked for Halloween.
In a longer feature in a later issue of Fangoria, writer David P. Nichols mentions:
...painstaking attention to detail involved in the production of Fade to Black…
Fade to Black is the biggest and most ambitious project to date for Irwin Yablans…
Where is this painstaking detail? Where is its $2.3 million budget? (That’s $7.3 today.) I’d love to see an interview with Yablans after the fact in which he discusses the end product. Would he stand by his claims?
Believe it or not, I don’t enjoy so thoroughly criticizing a movie. Therefore, I will admit that I enjoyed one scene in which Eric dresses as the Mummy and stalks his boss, Mr. Berger (Norman Burton.) As a self-contained short film, this scene would be terrific. In a few moments, it does everything I assume the movie aspired to do in its entirety.
Written by Vernon Zimmerman
Directed by Vernon Zimmerman
Starring Dennis Christopher, Tim Thomerson, Gwynne Gilford, Norman Burton, Linda Kerridge, Morgan Paull, James Luisi, Eve Brent
RT 102 min.
Released October 14, 1980
June, 1980, United States, Starlog Group
David P. Nichols, Fade to Black
October, 1980, United States, Starlog Group
pp. 14-15, 42
Famous Monsters of Filmland #171
March, 1981, United States, Warren Publishing Co.