Judge Dennis Prince never had a fear of being hoisted up and cut in half...not until now, anyhow.
"Vengeance is mine, says the Lord!"
In the early 1980s, the "splatter film" drenched movie screens with violent pursuits and liberal bloodletting. Some of the better pictures of the day astutely suggested unimaginable acts, manipulating audiences in a way that they imaginatively relayed the supposed details to friends and acquaintances, convinced through the effective use of editing and production design that the graphic horrors were actually shown on screen. Other films, however, literally dumped buckets of blood and slung pounds of latex flesh for lack of filmmaking style or a strong script. Films like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and Sleepaway Camp emerged at the forefront while others like Prom Night, Silent Scream, and He Knows You're Alone appeared as fast-buck imitators. Some pictures got caught in the middle, straddling the line between the formulaic teen slasher template and the floundering suspense-thriller, bedeviled by studio execs who attempted to play up the splatter pitch even for pictures that simply weren't body-count blood-fests. Here's an example of one such misguided movie: Alone in the Dark had the proper ingredients to become a notable suspense-thriller yet was burdened with an ad campaign that promised another mad-slasher, murder-a-minute shriek show. It wasn't.
Facts of the Case
Psychologist Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, The A-Team) has just arrived at the Haven asylum, assigned to fill the staff vacancy left upon the departure of the former Dr. Murton. He's greeted by Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasance, Halloween, Fantastic Voyage), the institute's director, who insists the residents of Haven aren't crazy but rather are "voyagers" who have traveled into areas of the psyche where most won't dare. Bain escorts Potter to the third floor, introducing him to the potentially violent inmates relegated to the electronically secured level. Dr. Potter learns that his predecessor was extremely well regarded by these unstable inmates, former POW Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance, Dracula), scripture spouting arsonist Byron "Preacher" Sutcliff (Martin Landau, Ed Wood), and the 300-pound child molester Ronald "Fatty" Elster (Erland van Lidth, The Running Man). Unfortunately, Hawkes believes the new psychologist has murdered the beloved Dr. Murton and vows to kill Dr. Potter in return. Comforted by the inmates' inability to leave the secured third floor, Dr. Potter shrugs off the threat. As Dr. Potter and his family labor to establish themselves in their new home nearby, a power outage renders Haven without electricity and soon Hawkes, Preacher, Fatty, and a mysterious fourth inmate, "Bleeder," escape and make their way to exact their vengeance on Potter and his family.
While Alone in the Dark isn't an entirely botched affair, it certainly exposes itself as a wasted opportunity. From the arrival of Dr. Potter at the Haven asylum and his odd encounter with the receptionist, it shows promise to be a journey into the realm of "who's crazy and who isn't?" Indeed, following on the premise of the herb-smoking Dr. Bain's unique methods of allowing the inmates extreme freedom and his insistence that they are voyagers of the deep recesses of the mind, it sets the stage for an exquisite foray into suspense of the psychotic vein. Unfortunately, the picture appears as two stories within one, with Dr. Potter's character playing the weak linkage between the two. The situation with Potter and the dangerous inmates is ripe for exploitation, especially given the voraciousness with which screen veteran Palance hisses and seethes as Hawkes while Landau is deliciously unsettling in his insane skewering of the Scripture. Opposite this is the clearly pasted-in setting of Potter's family and even a cheap babysitter-in-peril mini-plot intended to capitalize on the Halloween premise. The two never fully meld and the result is some excellent scenes with Pleasance, Palance, and Landau that are sadly diluted by some cheap scares and consummate killings as Potter's family is pursued by the inmates. It sounds fine on paper but is poorly translated to the screen.
Despite its undeniable flaws, Alone in the Dark is worth a look given the scene chewing-and-spitting-out by Palance and Landau (and if ever you wondered about the source of the scene where Landau runs down a bicycling mailman—as seen in a clip within Terror in the Aisles—this is the place). Those who praise this picture as a lost gem from the 80s splatter era will certainly be pleased with this new release from Image Entertainment. It begins with an anamorphic widescreen transfer (1.85:1) that looks quite good. The contrast is managed well, providing decent detail through many of the dark sequences, yet the color palette is somewhat muted (inherent to the production design, no doubt, that betrays the picture's 80s provenance). There is a bit of source print dirt and damage but nothing too disturbing. The audio is offered in a choice between a DTS 5.1 track (can you believe it?), a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track, or a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround mix. Extras on the disc include a reasonably interesting commentary with Director Jack Sholder, an interview with Carol Levy (seen in the film as "Bunky" the babysitter as well as in many of the film's international ad campaigns), and interview with punk band The Sick F*cks (who needlessly cameo in the picture), and a poster and ad still gallery.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No doubt, there are some who would disagree with the panning of this oft-proclaimed cult favorite, and that's fine.
"Well, Mavis, here's what you do. The next time you feel your intestine coming out, move your hands in front of your face—three times, like that—yes, and then the intestines will stay inside and you won't turn to porcelain."
Alone in the Dark is a mixed bag of nuts, so to speak, and perhaps it's fitting that it's somewhat schizophrenic in its delivery. If you love the film, you'll love this respectable DVD treatment. If you're uncertain about the picture, they you may wish to restrain your personal voyage to that of a rental.
This court will allow and accept the plea of insanity in the case of Alone in the Dark. The caregivers at Image Entertainment are commended for their respectful internment of the picture despite its unstable elements. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Director's Commentary
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