The Thinking Man’s Slasher Flick-Alone in the Dark (1982)
Although slasher flicks will always have a reputation for being rude, crude, and downright dumb, they are getting a little more respect these days than when they were first released. (But really, even that is not entirely true, as most of them did well at the box office decades ago and continue to be rereleased on every new home video platform introduced, so isn’t that the ultimate respect for a film- ticket sales?)
The one phrase that was used over and over again when these flicks first flashed across screens was the description that they were nothing more than “Dumb teenage hack and slash,” or some such derogatory description of the plot of the film in question. “Mind numbingly bad,” “Typical dead teenager flick,” or “As dumb as they come but you don’t expect much from these slasher films,” are all basically saying the same thing.
I get that not everyone connects with the slasher flicks and hey, it is what it is. I do. I love them. I keep buying them. I have them all on DVD and if they have since been rereleased on fresh new Blu-ray editions I have those too. I watch them all the time. I like that I can take my brain out and put my eyeballs on a “Typical dead teenager flick” when the day’s been long, and I don’t want to try and understand whatever new A24 “psychological slow-burn supernatural thriller” the kids at work are raving about.
Ah, but are all slasher movies “Dumb teenage hack and slash?” Are there any with more on their minds than showing teens getting high and engaging in pre-marital sex before being snuffed by some masked crusader of puritanical beliefs? Sure. Heck, even most of the stupidest ones have the nugget of one great idea, they just maybe fumble it in the telling.
One flick that comes to mind is Jack Sholder’s 1982 psychos on the loose thriller Alone in the Dark. Here, everything you expect from a slasher movie is amped up and turned on its ear.
After a blackout, four dangerous inmates from the State Institute for the Terminally Twitchy go after their new psychiatrist believing that he killed their former psychiatrist and now wants to kill them.
These aren’t just any run of the mill slashers either and include firebug Byron 'Preacher' Sutcliff (Martin Landau), former POW Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance), 400-pound child molester Ronald 'Fatty' Elster (Erland Van Lidth) and hockey mask wearing The Bleeder (Phillip Clark), whose nose bleeds when he is about to kill a victim. These guys head to the domicile of their new doc, Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz) to avenge the supposed killing of their beloved Dr. Harry Merton (Larry Pine).
All the tropes of the slasher movie are present, and as soon as the boys are out on the street, they begin their murder and mayhem with a messenger with a sweet hat and a bad attitude on a bicycle. (The hit this guy takes and then the slide across the yard he lands in is spectacular!) These guys are not fooling around.
New-age head of the institute Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence) is almost as out of his mind as his patients. He sees each patient as a voyager on a journey to recovery and allows them the freedom to do whatever they have to do to heal, even when they ask for matches.
After their escape, the tension mounts as Potter and his family are trapped inside their house. The psychos’ siege began earlier in the day when Fatty Elster crept into the house posing as the new babysitter to keep an eye on the Potter’s tween daughter Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan). When real babysitter Bunky (Carol Levy) arrives and finds Toni sleeping (?) she invites her horny boyfriend over for some sexy time. It ends badly. (They are terrorized by Preacher, who is under the bed jabbing a giant Rambo knife up through the mattress!)
Various people arrive to help the Potters but are no match for the psychos. Potter’s sister Lyla (Elizabeth Ward) begins to have a breakdown and imagines Tom Savini created demons haunting her.
Once the psychos converge onto the house, the family has to decide what they are willing to do to survive.
It is fair to say that Alone in the Dark did not resonate with me when I first saw it as a teenager compared to other slasher fare as Friday the 13th- The Final Chapter (1984), My Bloody Valentine (1981) or Terror Train (1980). It did not fall into the same bracket as the classic slashers that we all know about. It always seemed to have all the ingredients of the classic slasher, but it never tasted the same. I’ll say it, it was too rich for my teenage gutter tastes in slasher films.
I think this is how many experienced this film. It spoke a little above our heads. We just wanted boobies and blood. Alone in the Dark delivers slasher thrills on a level most of us were not hip to or even mature enough to pick up on. (Since slasher films were primarily aimed at a teen market, Alone in the Dark was that rarity aimed at the adult market who probably did not care to watch “Typical dead teenager flicks.”)
Alone in the Dark is a film that I have “grown into,” if that makes sense. The first time I saw it on HBO, I didn’t have the life experience to really pick up on the nuances and subtleties of the story Sholder was telling. It took time get the experience needed to really enjoy the film.
I didn’t even totally get that Pleasence as Dr. Bain was as much of a lunatic as his patients. I just saw Dr. Sam Loomis from Halloween and expected him to come to the rescue. Sholder plays on that expectation and twists the results in a most satisfying fashion. (Maybe not when I first saw it, but I really appreciate what the character is now.)
While I certainly picked up on Sholder’s commentary that there is a fine line between insane people locked in institutions and insane people walking around in real life, it did not resonate with me as it did like my recent reviewing. It is a revelation to the psychos that the people “on the outside” are as violent as they are and “kill too.”
The scene that really grabbed me and gave me a good shake was near the end, when Frank Hawkes wanders into a club during a concert performed by the punk band The Sic F*cks (singing "Chop up your Mother"), and a tripped-out young lady starts rambling weird thoughts to him.
There is a moment when we see on Frank’s face real horror. This trippy little punk chick is really scaring him, and he’s supposed to be this unstoppable killer! She rambles incoherently until he finally pulls his gun on her and then she likes it! The weapon pressed to her flesh is a turn-on. It’s almost a sexual moment. It is sick. It is depraved. And it is a wonderful reveal. Frank Hawkes is home within the asylum of the “normal world.”
Alone in the Dark was the first film New Line Cinema produced. It begins with a sequence that they would expand upon in their A Nightmare on Elm Street series. (Sholder would go on to helm the second entry in the series.) It has smart dialogue and a wonderful early appearance by Lin Shaye as the institute’s receptionist.
Alone in the Dark definitely goes beyond the expectations of the slasher genre to deliver a truly mind-bending experience. If you still enjoy the slasher flicks of yore but don’t remember Alone in the Dark as fondly as some of the other titles in the genre, it might be time to give it a re-watch. It may be more rewarding now than when you first saw it. It is definitely a slasher film with more on its mind than most, a film to delight adult slasher fans who believe they have seen it all.
Thank you, Jack Shoulder.
Alone in the Dark is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory