Thursday, September 3, 2009

Fade to Black (1980): or, It's Blaine, You Morons

Eric Binford, the hero (?) of Vernon Zimmerman's 1980 horror (?) flick Fade to Black, is the kind of guy many parishioners of a certain age should be able to identify with. An Old-Hollywood-obsessed movie buff in the days before home video and the Internet made it easy to be such a creature, Eric spends long nights holed up in his bedroom, surrounded by an expensive clutter of memorabilia, scouring the TV schedules and revival-house listings in the daily paper for opportunities to feed his flick addiction. Socially backward and constantly derided by his coworkers and his haggish guardian Aunt Stella, he fills the holes in his life with flickering images of Cagney, Bogart, and Bela Lugosi, memorizing movie trivia like Holy Writ. Without a messageboard or blogging community to make him feel less alone, he retreats further and further into the black-and-white world of his dreams, on a self-destructive path that can only lead to tragedy.

There but for the grace of God and Blogger, am I right, people?

"Do I frighten you, baby?"

First we meet Eric (Dennis Christopher), enjoying a late-night screening of the classic gangster/noir The Public Enemy, starring his idol, James Cagney. It's easy to see why Eric idolizes Cagney and his tough, confident swagger, since it quickly becomes clear the boy shares none of his hero's qualities. Wheelchair-bound harpy Aunt Stella (Eve Brent, who seems to be channeling both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) scoots in to berate him for filling his mind with "this escapist trash!", then spouts a couple paragraphs of exposition about his dead mother and good-for-nothing father. The dressing-down continues over breakfast, as she blames him for her paralysis (she was hurt in a car accident coming home from a party to coddle him when he was 4 years old) and touts the benefits of grapefruit for health. Eric stares at the grapefruit on his plate and contemplates recreating the Cagney citrus-to-the-face gag from The Public Enemy (Zimmerman helpfully provides us with the relevant clip from the original film for reference), but instead storms out and heads to work.

Eric's place of employment is a movie distribution/advertising warehouse in LA, full to the rafters with old film cans. His boss Marty Berger (Norman Burton) is just as horrible as Aunt Stella, calling him a "fuck up" and docking his pay for the slightest infractions. His coworkers (one of whom is played by a very young and very low-billed Mickey Rourke in only his third feature film) also bully him mercilessly, not appreciating his encyclopedic knowledge of Casablanca trivia to the degree they clearly should. All in all, things are pretty bleak for young Mr. Binford.

Oh, Mickey, you're so fine

All that seems set to change when Eric meets Marilyn O'Connor (Linda Kerridge), an aspiring Australian actress who works in a roller skate shop ("The United Skates of America") despite being a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe AND living in LA--you can make madd tips for that, baby! Improbably impressed with Eric's clumsy impression of The Creature from the Black Lagoon (again helpfully augmented by actual clips from the Universal classic), Marilyn accepts a ride back to work with the starstruck geek, then agrees to meet him for a movie later on that evening. However, a few minutes later she accepts a date with skate-shop customer Joey (future thirtysomething hunk Peter Horton), completely forgetting her promise. Stood up by the spitting image of his Hollywood Glamor Dream, Eric takes the short jump off the deep end into full-on movie madness.

The first victim is Aunt Stella, who makes the mistake of interrupting Eric's private bedroom screening of Kiss of Death (1947), leading Eric to recreate Richard Widmark's chilling wheelchair-down-the-stairs murder scene IRL. (Are there clips of that earlier, better film? You bet there are!) Apparently the cops see nothing suspicious in the old lady's having attempted to surf the stairs in her cripple-mobile, and suddenly wealthy with his guardian's life-insurance payoff, Eric is free to indulge his darkest movie-loving whims.

How dark, you ask? Well, THIS dark:

"Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Wellllcoooome..."

Like any independently wealthy movie geek would do, Eric first makes himself up as the most un-Lugosi-ish vampire he can concoct with a 99¢ makeup kit and heads out to a midnight showing of Night of the Living Dead, which allows Zimmerman to show us many extended highlights from Romero's zombie classic. Afterwards Eric confronts a hooker outside the theater, horrifying her with his Bela impression (that honestly wouldn't pass muster as Count Chocula) before chasing her down dark alleys and finally forcing her to stake herself on a white picket fence. I can't decide which part of this scene is more hilarious: Eric's windmill-arm cape-billowing action, the waist-high fence somehow throwing a shard into the hooker's jugular, or Eric's decision to actually drink the sex-worker's blood, reckoning his vampire makeup will protect him from Hepatitis B.

It's all downhill from here, as the rest of the movie consists of set-up after improbable set-up allowing Eric to act out his favorite films while getting revenge on those who've wronged him. Mickey Rourke's "Hopalong Cassidy" death is a particular hoot, with Eric's William Boyd mask & outfit making him look more like Howdy Doody. Also thrown in is a slimy movie producer (Morgan Paull) who picks Eric up hitchiking, steals his script idea, and is paid back when Eric (having rented an antique roadster and somehow got hold of a working tommy gun) strolls into a salon in broad daylight and guns him down Little Caesar-style. The LA police, showing why they're one of the most highly respected enforcement divisions in the world, are completely baffled and without leads.

Sure, the likeness is impressive, but less so than the stereo-earphones on My Favorite Martian back there.

Oh, and remember Marilyn? While still in Dracula regalia, Eric sneaks into her apartment (where she's got falling-down drunk in preparation for her evening shower--like you do), and recreates the Psycho shower scene in a way Zimmerman doubtless thought was incredibly clever, but really just isn't.

It all ends up with Eric luring Marilyn to a photo shoot with a strategically placed poster on Hollywood Blvd. advertising for "Models who look like Marilyn Monroe." Since obviously his dream girl is the ONLY person in Hollywood who would answer such an ad, she shows up at his ornately furnished, rented photography studio (the "BLOW-UP" studio--yageddit?) and falls into Eric's Cinderella's Ball finale. Finally tracked down by the cops, Eric drags Marilyn to Grauman's Chinese Theater (bypassing security with unrealistic ease), drags her to the roof, and gives a farewell performance as Cagney in White Heat--with clips, of course. Fin.

"Top o' the world, Ma!"

Fade to Black is a movie with what could have been a winning premise--movie geek meets Walter Mitty, with murderous results--but stumbles badly in its execution. It clearly wanted to be a searing character study of a damaged person getting lost in his unhealthy obsession with Hollywood fantasy, but instead comes across as a kiddie pool-deep clip-show of writer/director Zimmerman's favorite old flicks. The script is pretty terrible, with characters spouting ham-fisted exposition, forgetting things that happened days or even moments earlier, and never reacting like real people would to their situations, because if they did it would ruin the reenactment.

And not all of the reenactments even make sense--for instance, Eric scares his heart-patient boss to death by dressing up as Karloff's Mummy and stalking him through the warehouse--while wielding a flashlight! The terrified old man pulls a fire axe from its case, but instead of attacking his pursuer with it, hacks away at a steel fire door until his ticker gives out. That's the kind of stuff we're dealing with here.


(Also, continuity buffs--watch for the cop later referring to their killer "dressing up as a mummy," even though no one but the dead man could have seen him in costume.)

The performances are pretty bad across the board. Someone apparently once told Dennis Christopher he did a great James Cagney impression, and maybe he did--when he was twelve. As an adult, his Cagney is frankly embarrassing. (It doesn't help that he looks much less like Cagney than he is a dead ringer for a young Roddy McDowall.) Kerridge looks enough like Marilyn Monroe to make the connection, though her delivery brought Deborah Harry to mind more often. Future Dollman/Jack Deth Tim Thomerson appears in a subplot as a burned-out hippie turned social worker, preaching against the evils of violence on film while banging his hot police liaison, but that plot runs parallel for the whole movie, going nowhere; in fact Thomerson (clearly phoning it in) never shares the screen with Christopher, and I'd be surprised if they even met during filming.

While moderately entertaining as a "name the movie he's referencing" trivia game (Do you know Rick's last name in Casablanca? Eric does! But he never tells you), Fade to Black ends up a suspenseless, goreless, excitement-less "thriller" whose only real redeeming quality lies in reminding you of these great old Hollywood classics you could have been rewatching instead. 1 Limp Thumb for this one. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Thomerson: Has No Recollection of Starring in This Movie


Prof. Grewbeard said...

yeah, i'll never forget that bit where he does the Creature impression- NOT sexy. funny thing is, whenever I tried it out on various members of the opposite sex who looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe, it always worked. must be timing...


Yeah this one was pretty lame... I tend to like movies where the worm turns with murderous results but this one didn't do a thing for me.

I might say more about the whole idea the cathartic pleasure of watching an oppressed milquetoast finally stand up for himself but my wife told me to stop being so assertive.

Great blog BTW

J. Astro said...

Good call, Vic. I wanted to like this one when I caught it late into the wee hours one lost, lonely night... but in the morning, I just couldn't respect myself and I tossed it to the bottom of some heap.

Michael Jarema said...

80's MmmmmMadness? With the notable exception of Stuart Gordon and crew, I've just never found it to be satisfying. Too self-aware I suppose, too cynical. You just don't get the feeling that the film-makers were on the same delirious ride as their 60's and 70's predecessors.
All the good drugs gone? The end of free love? Jeans too tight? Oh well... at least we got home video out of the deal. And Miami Vice.

Jeff Allard said...

I had remembered really digging Fade To Black at the time of its release but when I watched the DVD a few years back, I couldn't even get through the movie. Just painful. Dennis Christopher plays Eric as such a nebbish, it's impossible to root for him - while at the same time, no one would ever find him scary, either.

K. A. Cozy said...

I recall liking this one a looooong time ago (when most of the references beyond Dracula went whooosh over my head) but I doubt it would hold up on a re-viewing. This (along with The Sentinel) is one of those good idea/bad execution movies that SHOULD be remade, instead of lame reworkings of movies that were perfectly fine the first time out.

The Vicar of VHS said...

FWIW, I also remember liking this one pretty well in 1980, when I was 9 and the only Monster Kid on my block. Anything with the Creature, Dracula, and the Mummy in it had to be good, right? But it really does NOT stand the test of time, as many of you also found out.

Thanks prof. grewbeard for the tip! I'll have to try that out next time I see a Marilyn/Blondie lookalike at the bar. ;)

@K.A. Cozy--I agree, a remake might actually improve upon this one--they could update it to make Eric much more sinister, and imitate flicks/monsters/killers from the 70s instead! Make it a total update!

Thanks @ everyone else for the comments, too! Keep 'em comin!

Anonymous said...

All I can remember from first seeing this as a teenager was the acute embarrassment I underwent watching it with my Mom when it got to the scene where he's in his room, thinking of the girl and reaching into his pants...

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Derek O'Brien--that DOES kind of come out of nowhere, doesn't it? :) I neglected to mention the graphic, EXTENDED Marilynsterbation scene in this, probably b/c I was trying to block from my mind the image of Eric in Ecstasy. *shudder*

If it's any consolation, I'd wager Mom was just as embarrassed as you were. ;)

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