Fade To Black

Director: Vernon Zimmerman   
Dennis Christopher, Linda Kerridge, Tim Thomerson

Seeing his career today, it's kind of hard to believe that back in 1979, Dennis Christopher was considered on the verge of superstardom. Christopher spent hours studying at the pet store to perfect that lookYou know... Dennis Christopher. Well, I see a number of you are probably drawing a blank on his name, so I'll identify him for you: He played that bicycle-riding Italian-mad youth in the movie Breaking Away. Ah, now you remember him. When that movie was released to receptive audiences, it really seemed that he was just a film or two away from serious fame; after all, even though Breaking Away was an ensemble piece, it was his performance that stole the show. Yet the momentum that he had built up just seemed to fade away with every subsequent role. It seemed that every subsequent choice he made was cursed. In the next few years, he got leading roles in California Dreaming and Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder, but the public didn't seem interested in seeing those movies. He also accepted several non-leading roles in dubious projects (like Jake Speed) that did nothing boost his star power; though even when he managed to nab a part in Chariots Of Fire, that didn't seem to help his career at all. Actually, upon further examination, it may very well have been that Christopher made these career choices not from bad advice or bad decision-making, but simply for the money. From reports I've read, Christopher's main love is the stage, not movies, and has been so even before Breaking Away. He may very well only be taking on movie roles during dry spells, and be satisfied with whatever he's offered first.

There was one other movie during this brief post-Breaking Away period Christopher appeared in where he was the lead actor - the 1980 horror movie Fade To Black, produced by the legendary Irwin Yablans of Halloween fame. Though only officially credited as producer, it was actually Yablans who sketched out the story, which writer/director Vernon Zimmerman (Deadhead Miles) fleshed out. The most interesting thing about the final screenplay is that reports indicate that Christopher did indeed love it, and at least in this instance he signed on for the acting opportunity it gave him. In fact, Christopher got so into his character that he even wanted to do his own stuntwork for the film's climactic sequence, though he was denied the opportunity. Such reports made this Dennis Christopher fan wanting to see the movie even more - I remember years ago having to make arrangements with my parents to rent a Beta machine to see the movie when I found the only copy available to rent in town was in Beta format. I also remember feeling kind of disappointed after seeing it, reliving the same feeling just recently when I saw the movie again. It's by far not the worst movie ever made, and it's not really painful even at its poorer moments, but it's muddled and seriously lacking in enthusiasm in its execution. What maybe makes it really disappointing is throughout you see some promising ideas, even the occasional good moment, that show a great opportunity to make an effective horror movie was squandered.

Christopher's enthusiasm for Fade To Black was also in part due to the fact his character loved and imitated some of the same actors he himself admired. The "This isn't what I thought when you said you'd take me to the Ritz!"character he plays is named Eric Binford, a geek of geeks when it comes to movies. His room is filled with film reels and assorted movie memorabilia, including a promotional card for Bambino (the original title of Breaking Away.) He's remembered the most trivial of details about movies, such as Rick's last name in Casablanca. And when you consider that Binford works at a film distribution warehouse, you would think he's made the ideal life for himself. But it doesn't take long to see Binford isn't happy at all. He has no friends, and is surrounded by unsupporting individuals. He lives with his aunt, who verbally abuses him and considers him worthless. His boss treats him like crap, and is ready to fire him. One of his coworkers not only treats him like crap as well, but also happens to be Mickey Rourke. A hooker gets all huffy towards him, even when he offers her $10. There seems to be a reprieve from this hell when he befriends a friendly Marilyn Monroe-look-alike (Kerridge, Alien From L.A.), but she accidentally forgets their date. Binford's not only heartbroken, but broken in mind as well. He finally snaps, and starts to bump off everyone who has caused him grief in his life... but with a twist. Before each murder, he dresses up as one of his favorite movie characters, and bumps them off in the style of the character he's dressed up as - Richard Widmark's Kiss Of Death character, Dracula, the Mummy, even Hopalong Cassidy at one point.

While this is going on, there is also a subplot concerning newly-arrived police psychiatrist Jerry Moriarty to the district, who is played by Tim Thomerson of Trancers fame. Of course, it seems inevitable that this character and Binford will cross paths, and they do... eventually, that is. Before then, we see him strike up an affair with a policewoman coworker in less than a day, we learn that his compassion to criminals and the mentally ill irks his police captain boss, as well as it being revealed that he snorts cocaine when he thinks no one is looking. In other words, until near the end of the movie, there is nothing shown about this character that proves to have any bearing on the central plot of the movie - it's just blatant padding. Come to think of it, even when he finds out Binford is behind it all and tries to track him down before the trigger-happy captain and his boys can, nothing he does really changes the situation with any significance; what Binford ends up doing probably would still have happened had Thomerson's character not been around. This part of the movie is by far not an isolated instance of padding. There are a number of other scenes that serve no narrative purpose, like Binford cleaning out his refrigerator, or a subsequent long and endless wander down Hollywood Boulevard.

The weird thing is that the movie didn't seem to need any padding; for one thing, the running time that Fade To Black ended up with was 100 minutes, a somewhat longish length for a horror movie. Another thing is Attack Of The 50 Foot DVD wouldn't even *consider* my submissions for their "wacky caption" contest for this shot a few years ago. I'm still annoyed about that.that there are a number of things in the movie that are barely touched upon, things that would have been greatly improved with more time devoted to them. Binford's boss, for example, only appears in two brief scenes before Binford sets his sights on him. The same with Mickey Rourke, though it could be argued that his brief time onscreen might be a blessing. Then there is the part of the movie surrounding Kerridge's character. After she misses the date she had with Binford, the movie simply forgets about her until near the end of the movie. Oh wait - there's the scene midway through when Binford visits her during the night to do something that makes no sense when you consider how Binford has been treating everyone else that has done him wrong. In any case, it's still somewhat jarring to see her character suddenly appear again after being forgotten about for so long. Come to think of it, I think every subplot in the movie gets stretched out like this instead of playing out with a more tight feeling. This screenplay has very poor plot construction, more so when you also consider the subplot about Binford's dealing with a sleazy producer - an essentially inconsequential subplot that gets introduced well past the halfway point of the movie.

Binford's revenge on that producer, by the way, involves him dressing up in '30 clothing, driving a '30s vehicle, and brandishing a fully-loaded and working Tommy gun. But just where on earth he got all that stuff (especially that machine gun) is never answered, nor the various other costumes and materials he uses in his other murders. There are a number of other questions in the movie surrounding Binford that never get answered, like why he was hitchhiking in one scene when he possessed means of transportation, or just how the police managed to deduce that he was the one responsible for all those murders. The most likely reason for these questions being left unanswered is simple laziness on the part of writer/director Zimmerman, though I suppose he might have felt that audiences would sympathize with Binford so much that they wouldn't be asking those kind of questions. While I think most audiences will still be wondering about those unanswered questions, they will likely have some sympathy for Binford all the same, in part because of Christopher's fine performance. His body language alone (slouched posture, sad eyes) makes this character a clearly troubled one, weak and alienated. Some may criticize how badly Christopher apes actors like Bela Lugosi or James Cagney when he dresses up as their famous character. Well, yes... but on the other hand, most people can't successfully imitate anyone famous, so these third-rate imitations may in fact be considered realistic, especially when you consider Binford is probably too mad to realize the difference.

There's one more thing about these murder scenes I haven't talked about - the murders Finding the color of the mustard spout disagreeable, she took the one from the ketchup bottle for her earringthemselves, the build-up to them and the actual killings. There is something constant about them - though unfortunately it's your thinking that they could have been done better. Take Binford's taking his revenge (and ours) on Mickey Rourke. He dresses up as Hopalong Cassidy, and confronts him one night on a deserted part of the boardwalk, walking out of the mist as a black silhouette. This could have been a cool shot, but Zimmerman films it at a distance, and the impact is lessened. The murder itself plays surprisingly flat, coming across as a simple shooting, no more or less. There's no feeling of style or real effort behind the camera. This feeling is apparent in the other murders as well; for example, during the Dracula murder, Zimmerman uses the same camera angle for about three-quarters of the sequence. There isn't even any cheap thrill to be found with the actual moments of slaughter. While Leonard Maltin criticizes the movie for "excessive violence", the bloodshed displayed here (at least by today's standards) will provoke yawns from most viewers. For that matter, viewers will be yawning at other parts of the movie, because even though there's little that's actively bad, the movie is lazy and uninspired enough to put you to sleep. But the title probably told you that already.

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See also: Psychic Killer, Psychopath, Slaughter High