Fade to Black

Fade to Black ★★★

Fade to Black is one of those movies that, like Blood Beach, I remember being terrified of its commercials when I was a kid, but which has, since its release, faded into relative obscurity. In recent years, it has developed a reputation as a sleeper classic - at last year’s Halloween marathon at Coolidge Corner Cinema in Allston, our serious cinephile friend Gariana implored us to leave the house to catch it, if I remember correctly, but midnight movies are for young people, or people who don’t start drinking beer at 7 p.m. But now that it’s on Shudder, let’s see if it was worth those days of avoiding the theater listings in the paper until the flick left the big screen.

Our protagonist is Eric, a film obsessive who would probably be diagnosed on some part of the autism spectrum today, but in 1980 could have been found in the DSM 3 under “Creepy Nut: Foul Odor, Likely to Masturbate Against the Vinyl Siding Under Bedroom Windows.” He lives with his aunt, who not only buys into diagnosis B, but blames Eric for putting her into a wheelchair when his babysitter called her home when his was sick at 4 years old, like he’s the one who convinced her to drink a quart of Old Fitz and try to suck the foreskin off the first guy who knew the word “Producer” before she tried to drive home.

Anyway, everyone picks on Eric, including an infantile Mickey Rourke from the days before he decided a career in the pictures wasn’t as interesting as stopping the punches of professional boxers with his face. But one day, he meets a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, meaning he was within 100 miles of downtown Los Angeles, and convinces her to say yes to a date to the movies, which she thoughtlessly, but unintentionally, misses, And Eric goes full disassociated, deciding he’s a variety of movie characters, starting with Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, probably because it means he can push his wheelchaired bitch of an aunt down the stairs while remaining in character. And then Eric goes on the most widespread, yet weirdly accidental and lucky, murder spree since Charlie Manson discovered he could give LSD to other people.

This movie is strange, in the sense that I guarantee you that it has aged better than I’ll be anyone involved in the production would have thought. In 1980, the concept of someone so obsessed with a pop culture subject they can’t separate it from their reality is mostly just slasher villain bait, but in 2020, where San Diego Comic-Con sells out every year and Asperger’s Syndrome isn’t a one-year-old diagnosis, it carries a little more sympathy. And the movie weirdly carries some of that sympathy, despite its time; Tim Thomerson plays a psychologist working with the cops who understands that Eric is sick and not innately dangerous… but taking that message from Jack Deth from Trancers is a slightly bitter pill.

And the kills here are legitimately reminiscent of old movies! There’s Aunt Stella’s Kiss of Death demise, but the hooker kill reminds me of Romero’s Martin, the mummy attack driving Eric’s boss into a heart attack feels like the original flick, plus about a million classic cartoons and screwball comedies. And Eric’s aborted attempt on the Monroe lookalike that mimics the Psycho shower scene, with the “blood” coming from a fountain pen? Magnificent.

Add to that that the victims are, almost to a one, legitimately terrible to Eric, and you’ve got the odd 80s horror flick where you like to see the victims take it in the shitter not just because the genre’s tropes mean they’ll probably be naked when it happens. So by the time we get to the ending - an inspired one, taking place at Grauman’s Chinese Theater - you find yourself more than half pulling for this hapless dope, who was born on second and called out for stealing, to somehow find a way to survive this.

I can see why Fade to Black kind of disappeared, given the era when it was released; when you’ve got a public screaming for killers in hockey masks giving the hard machete to whatever wanna-be ingenue willing to smoke pot and show her jugs on camera, it was probably a hard sell to get people to watch a killer who was more lucky than supernatural. But this is a surprisingly solid psychological thriller… which they should never, ever remake. Because in 2020, Eric would shoot Timothee Chalamet while dressed like Indiana Jones, and make his final stand on the roof of the local multiplex with Arnie’s Terminator 2 minigun while muttering, “Hasta la vista” like he’d been partially lobotomized.

This is worth watching on Shudder, if you’ve got it. I wouldn’t spend the $60 that the last DVD edition is demanding, but if it gets a wider release, I’ll probably grab it. Despite my childhood fear of that half-Dracula face in the newspaper, I liked this movie a lot.

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