This week’s Monday pick is the 1982 horror classic Alone in the Dark which was the debut film from Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), The Hidden (1987), and By Dawn’s Early Light (1990). The film stars Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Dwight Schultz, and Donald Pleasence.
Alone in the Dark is one of the most intelligent and generally frightening horror films that came out in the early 1980s, a time where cinema was oversaturated with slasher films like the Halloween or Friday the 13th franchises. Jack Sholder and fellow writers Robert Shaye and Michael Harrpster created one of the greatest cult horror films that would go on to influence a whole new generation of fans and filmmakers.
Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, Murdoch from TVs The A-Team) is hired as a replacement psychiatrist for an institution known as the Haven. The hospital’s owner is Dr. Leo Bain (Pleasence), an unorthodox shrink whose very lenient approaches to the treatment of his patients is met with astonishment by Dr. Potter. Dr. Bain refers to his patients as “voyagers” individuals who are having trouble adapting to an already insane world.
As the two men walk the grounds, Bain shows Dr. Potter the third floor of the hospital where four of the most dangerous “voyagers” are contained with an elaborate electrified security system. The four men who reside on the third floor are former POW and paranoid schizophrenic Frank Hawkes (Palance), pyromaniac and former preacher Byron Sutcliff (Landau), Obese child molester Ronald Elster (Erland Van Lidth), and Skaggs aka ‘The Bleeder” (Phillip Clark) who hides his face throughout the whole film.
Dr. Potter introduces himself to the patients and is met with mixed hostility as the patients have trouble accepting the fact that their former doctor has taken a new position elsewhere. Later on at night Hawkes convinces the other patients that Dr. Potter has murdered their former doctor and that he will murder them next. With the electrified security measures that activate steel shutters and an alarm when any of the men approach any windows, makes it impossible for the men to escape. Hawkes and the others patiently wait for the opportunity to escape when the time is right.
As Dan begins settling into his new position at the hospital, his younger sister comes to stay with he and the rest of the family after she was successfully treated for a mental breakdown. Dan’s sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan) tells about her time living in NYC and her involvement in the art and thriving punk rock scene. After dinner, Dan, Toni and Dan’s wife Nell (Deborah Hedwall) are taken to a rock club where Toni tells them that a band known as The Sic Fucks are playing. Dan is unenthusiastic and complains that he deals with abnormality everyday and is uninterested in seeing the band.
Nell who is more interested and free spirited suggests that it’ll be fun. During the performance at the club, a power outage occurs which ends the concert. Dan is thrilled that the power outage has ended the show, but the power outage allows Frank Hawkes and the other inmates at the Haven to escape and put their plan into action. Without any electronic countermeasures to stop them, the four men flee the hospital after killing their guard, and a killing a doctor and driving off in his car.
Dan arrives at the hospital the next day to discover that the power outage has allowed the four men to escape. It appears that the power outage is statewide and Potter becomes apprehensive that the four patients may come looking for him and informs the police. Meanwhile, Hawkes and the others have stolen a van, drive through a residential neighborhood where they begin to torment a bicycle messenger who mouths off to Hawkes by calling him an asshole. The enraged Hawkes throws the van in reverse and runs down the messenger. Preacher puts on the messenger’s hat and flashes a sinister smile.
Later on, Preacher arrives at Dr. Potter’s home and tells Nell that he has an urgent telegram for the doctor and that only he can deliver it to him. Nell tells Sutcliff that Dan isn’t home and that he should return later. Sutcliff smiles and assures Nell that he will most definitely return later on that night. Nell begins to suspect that there’s something not right with the messenger. With the power still off, Dan and his family are unaware that they are about to enter a night of terror that will test their strengths to the limits.
I’ve always loved this type of formula in horror films where the hero is just as disturbed and troubled as the villain. It’s a formula that was made famous in earlier films like Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) or The Hills Have Eyes (1977), the hero or heroes are placed in an overwhelming situation and are forced to be just as or even more brutal than their attackers. Jack Palance delivers a great line at the end of the film where he tells Dr. Potter “It’s not just us crazy ones who kill.”
Alone in the Dark came and went in the fall of 1982, but quickly gained a huge cult following by the time it made it to VHS. Sholder had originally scripted the film to take place in NYC where the escaped maniacs where being hunted by the mafia. Due to budget restrictions the film was re-scripted to take place in the New Jersey suburbs. The punk rock band the Sic Fucks appear as themselves in the film. When they were hired to appear in the film, the band didn’t have a working demo tape to play over the film’s soundtrack. The scene was shot w/o any sound and the band’s song ‘Chop up Your Mother’ was later dubbed in. One of the members of the group in an interview many years later about the film claimed that they saw Jack Palance on the street in NYC and went up to him and said that they were one of the Sic Fucks in the film. Palance replied, “We were all sick fucks in that movie.”
Alone in the Dark is available on DVD through Image Entertainment.