“There are no crazy people, doctor. We’re all just on vacation.”
—Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes, “Alone in the Dark”
My first exposure to “Alone in the Dark” came from “Terror in the Aisles” (1984), a pseudo-documentary about the then-nascent 1980s horror boom and America’s cultural love of fear as pop-entertainment. “Terror” is essentially a compilation of horror clips interspersed with some adorable if dated commentary by Donald Pleasence and Nancy Allen. “Terror” may not have stood the test of time, but it’s laudable for having been one of the first American feature-length documentaries to slice horror film up the belly and study the creamy filling (as in, ‘What makes this stuff tick?’)
One “Terror” clip intrigued me especially: a slowly cruising white van pursues a bike messenger. It is broad daylight on a quiet New Jersey residential street. A POV shot within the van reveals the stalkers from behind, silhouetted in darkness, the victim in their sights: “I want the hat…” someone says from the passenger seat.
The van nudges aggressively from behind the cyclist who then swerves and falters along the curb into dry autumn leaves. The random violence that unfolds from there is difficult to fathom, mostly due to the sheer randomness of the assault: the maniacs in the van want to kill, simply because that is what they enjoy during that particular moment.
Why? Why not?
“In the end [the villains] simply don’t distinguish between right and wrong.
Perhaps they don’t know the difference. Perhaps they just don’t care.”
—Donald Pleasance, “Terror in the Aisles”
The main story of “Alone in the Dark” involves a psychiatrist whose entire family endures a nighttime home invasion by a group of three escaped convicts during a citywide blackout. Doctor Dan Potter, played by Dwight Schultz (‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch of “A-Team” fame!), has taken a new post at “The Haven,” a beautiful manor converted into pysch-wards. We then meet the chief psychiatrist Dr. Leo Bain played by Donald Pleasence, and it soon becomes quite plain why he enjoys his work a little too much: he’s loopy as any of the patients, even the ones on “the third floor.”
Bain gives Potter a tour of the hospital, and explains the third-floor security system that keeps the “most dangerous” patients under lock and keycard: it is state-of-the-art, foolproof, and runs completely on electricity. And so Bain is an enormous fuckup—we can see where this is all going.
The third-floor patients are, in fact, even more ABC-List actors: Jack Palance, Phillip Clark, Erland van Lidth (Dynamo in “The Running Man”), and Martin Landau. Once Bain introduces Dr. Potter to this tribe, their reactions range from cold to hyper-aggressive. Their previous doctor, Harry Merton, had apparently earned their trust and reliance, and they see this newcomer as a disruption at first, then they conclude in a paranoid reverie that Potter has murdered Merton, and will soon murder each of them. They decide to retaliate, to counterattack at the first opportunity.
This sets into motion one of the most enjoyable horror classics of the 80s “slasher” era. At turns subtle, hilarious, self-consciously low-budget, genre-baiting (especially during the babysitter scene), and gleefully excessive, “Alone in the Dark” is definitely worth seeking out. There is even an amazing music club sequence brought to you by the real New York horror-punk band The Sick F*cks (which included Snooky and Tish Bellomo, the two founders of Manic Panic).
Donald Pleasence plays Dr. Bain like a deer in the headlights, and yet with an adorable enthusiasm, as if he’s channeling the screenwriter/director (which makes sense, since this was Jack Sholder’s feature film debut).
But highest praise is due for Martin Landau’s portrayal of the Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff. There are completely deranged psychopaths in horror film, and then there are totally rabid, post-Aftermath, Defcon-One hell-toads full of malignancy, wrath, and flair. Landau gets the hat.
Do your utmost best to steer clear of Uwe Boll’s “Alone in the Dark” (2005), which is not a remake.