Thursday, May 11, 2017


It was the same rented house in Georgia, back in 1980, when at four years old I had seen Carrie, Alien, Jaws, and Jaws 2-practically cementing my future as a horror-fiend. That house, while not as scary as the previous house we'd lived (which was straight up haunted and a story for another day), was where I started having reoccurring nightmares that are still fresh in my mind 37 years later. I never connected to them to Alien or Jaws, which seemed to play on HBO all the time, because they were about being strapped to a hospital bed in a dark room surrounded by doctors in surgical masks. I was unable to scream and everything kept speeding up and slowing down. I've never had a surgery in my life, so I have no idea why, in that house only, I was plagued by those dreams. I was terrified to go to sleep in there and that was the beginning of my sneaky late night TV viewings.

I've never really had much of a bed time in the first place, so I have vivid memories of seeing the opening of The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson all the time. That year, two films came out that I saw the trailers for on TV that really scared me. One was Alligator, which just seemed so much scarier than Jaws, since that fucking alligator had legs and being on land wouldn't save me. The other was Fade To Black. The image of the lead character's (Eric Binford played by Dennis Christopher) face, half painted in ghoulish Bela Lugosi Dracula-style was seared into my brain. Every time I caught the commercial, my blood ran cold. (Side note; my dad dressed up as Dracula every Halloween when he was the manager for the various Walmart stores he worked. He'd lay in a coffin at the front of the store and rise up to greet the shoppers. I was TERRIFIED to be near him until he wiped the make up off. I remember begging him to be Frankenstein instead, because Frankenstein didn't scare me. So I was already predisposed to be freaked out by Drac.)

A few years later when we got our first VCR and I started regularly renting horror movies, Fade To
Black was a must see. I checked every shop in town (we had five or six) and no one had it. It did get a VHS and a Beta Max release in the 80s, but didn't see a re-release until 1999's Anchor Bay DVD, which was apparently bare bones. I've heard there were some rights issues with the film that made it sort of a lost gem. I poked around on the web before starting this piece and didn't find anything to back that up. I missed out on the Anchor Bay release, though, and Fade To Black continued to be a lost must-see, until a week or so ago when it was dumped onto Amazon's streaming service to very little fan fare. Johnny Metro of Cult Credentials tweeted about it and I was pretty damned excited.

While the film starts off with a great amount of promise and we get strong performances from Christopher and Eve Brent Ashe as Aunt Stella and even a young Mickey Rourke as a bully co-worker named Richie, Fade To Black quickly begins stumbling. With over the top dialogue, disposable co-stars, and an over abundance of on-the-nose references and gimmicks, the movie loses steam fast. Christopher's Binford is literally the only thing that keeps Fade To Black afloat through its 100 minute run time. My wife pointed out that some of the over the top dialogue sort of reminded her of a John Waters film and I can kind of see that too, but I don't think that's what the writer and director intended, which is too bad. If Fade was injected with a bit of Waters' humor and sleaze, it might have stood up better.

I hesitate to knock the film too hard, as it's been built up in my head to be something it never promised to be. In fact, if you watch the trailer, it represents the film pretty well. Also, I went in expecting a horror film, but instead got more of a psychological thriller with some muddled sub-plots. Would I be more forgiving if Fade To Black was a slasher film? Maybe. Also, now that we're living in a post-Scream meta world, did that color my experience as well? Also, maybe. Speaking of Scream, both movies reference Halloween; in both, characters are watching the film, in Scream there's a discussion about Halloween and the rules of the slasher film, and in Fade there's a Halloween poster prominently displayed, alongside a Tourist Trap poster (all three were produced by Irwin Yablans). Binford, though, is more Norman Bates than Michael Meyers. Plenty of Psycho parallels throughout. What's interesting about the Halloween parallels is that Fade was reacting to Halloween when the slasher boom was still young and coming together and Scream is reacting to Halloween after the slasher boom has crashed and burned under the weight of it's own tropes and cliches. If Yablans wanted another Halloween or Tourist Trap, Fade was just too cerebral, slow, and bloodless to compete with Friday The 13th or the following year's Halloween II.  

What's the verdict? Fade To Black is not a waste of your time. It is worth seeing, but I'd stream it rather than buy a physical copy. I think it would play best as part of a double feature with 1990's Popcorn. 

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