That's odd...all of Judge Bryan Pope's nights are dark.
A night to remember until the day…you…DIE!
If someone dared you to spend just one night in a crypt, would you? My momma didn't raise no fool, so I'm fairly certain I wouldn't. But in One Dark NightJulie does, triggering a surprisingly tense chiller that maintains a spooky ambience until it leaps cheerfully over the edge in its final act with silly, gross-out scares.
The highest compliment I can pay this low-budget horror effort is that it would be perfect viewing for a Halloween party or a junior high lock-in. If you think that sounds like a slam, think again. Young people like to be scared, too, and this movie is a natural stepping stone for teens before they embark on horror films of a darker, more adult nature. When One Dark Night works-which it does most of the time-it is a stylish popcorn flick that's packed with enough harmless jolts to have young teens squealing and giggling until the lights come up.
Facts of the Case
High school good girl Julie Wells (Meg Tilly) wants more than anything to be a member of the elite group The Sisters. So what if one of its members walks around with a yellow toothbrush sticking out of her mouth, and so what if it means sleeping with the dead for one night? But when Julie locks herself in the local mausoleum to quietly complete her initiation ritual, malicious ringleader Carol (Robin Evans) hatches a plan for a night of pranks on the inductee.
What none of the girls realize is that, only a few hours earlier, crazed psychic Karl Raymar was buried within the mausoleum's walls after draining the life force out of several of his victims. The dead don't always rest easy, and, tonight, something is stirring inside the crypt.
The frightfest One Dark Night was made in 1981 on an $850,000 budget, shelved until its brief 1983 theatrical run, then was sentenced to cable television, where it became a popular mainstay for the next 20 years. So you can hardly blame a person for assuming it's another in the long line of teen splatter flicks that stunk up televisions in the '80s. But cowriter/director Tom McLoughlin (who later gave us the schlockier, jokier Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives) had some esteemed influences in mind when making this film. There's a touch of Carrie, a smidgen of Halloween, and a healthy dose of Night of the Living Dead. Toss in the blender and voila!
But One Dark Night is more than a copycat. What separates it from the pack is the undeniable skill on display. McLoughlin and Michael Hawes have written two horror films in one. The first, about a psychic whose powers reach from beyond the grave, has a premise that could support a movie all its own. The second, about a teen initiation ritual gone horribly awry, also could (and has, a hundred times over). The two plot threads dovetail nicely into a coherent movie that quickly establishes its rules and sticks to them.
The filmmakers compensate for their meager budget by shooting on location in a fantastically scary Hollywood mausoleum. They adorn their film with shots of endless, claustrophobic hallways, not letting you forget for a moment that the only thing standing between the living and an army of the dead is a quarter inch of steel. They also allow their film moments of unsettling silence, unusual for a horror film.
Meg Tilly, who had just finished filming Tex with Matt Dillon when she began work on One Dark Night, is attractive and sweet as Julie, a damsel in distress who, for a change, shows some common sense (if I'm stuck in a mausoleum for the night, you can bet I'm gonna lock myself in the bathroom). Evans, Leslie Speights and Elizabeth (E.G.) Daily have fun bitching it up as The Sisters (it's always nice seeing Daily, who would later appear in Valley Girl, Pee-wee's Big Adventure and Fandango). As Raymar's daughter and the heroine of the story, Melissa Newman balances the horror with her calm presence, and she deserved an Oscar for suppressing laughter during her scenes with the grim-faced Adam West.
One Dark Night contains very little foul language and no nudity, but its piece de resistance—a 20-minute parade of gooey, rotting corpses—earns it a hard PG (PG-13 wouldn't arrive for another couple of years). Unlike the undead in Romero's Living Dead movies, the corpses here don't feast on flesh. Come to think of it, I'm not exactly sure how they take down their victims. They just float up and down the hallways, pretty as you please, their feet barely even brushing the ground. The effect is simple, but the result is eerie, at least until the corpses start bashing their slushy selves into anything that moves. Then maggots and body fluids fly everywhere, and things get all icky and squishy. This is the kind of stuff kids will love. I'll stop there, but only because I've run out of synonyms for "gooey."
But never mind that. Except for one attack sequence that had me chuckling, One Dark Night is good, scary fun. And hold out for one final fright just seconds before the credits roll. It's a cheap gag-and one for which the filmmakers ought to be ashamed of themselves-but my wife spent the next half hour prying me off the ceiling.
Evidently, One Dark Night has developed a cult following over the past couple of decades. How else does one explain the attention it receives on this two-disc set from Media Blasters? In addition to the theatrical cut, we get McLoughlin's rough cut, a feature-length commentary by McLoughlin and Hawes, a 40-minute featurette, and trailers galore.
The theatrical cut is provided on disc one in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, and it's a disappointment. I realize the film is about 25 years ago and cost next to nothing, but DVD has spoiled me to expect crystal clear transfers even under these circumstances. Unfortunately, the image here is grainy throughout and marred by all sorts of specks and scratches. The stereo sound is serviceable but unremarkable, and subtitles are not included.
The director's cut, titled Night in the Crypt, is provided on disc two in a full-screen transfer, and it fares even worse. At least it begins with a message warning viewers that this is a rough cut and that they should expect imperfections. And imperfections there are, including many exterior shots in which the colors look bleached out. The soundtrack contains several dead spots where the audio is missing entirely.
Given the poor condition of the director's cut, is it worth watching? For hardcore fans of the genre, absolutely. Comparing the two cuts provides a solid example of how subtle editing choices can alter the tone of a film. McLoughlin's original opening-a slow-motion sequence in which a fleet of ambulances slowly arrives at a crime scene to the strains of Bob Summers' eerie score-generates dread right off the starting block. The theatrical cut, by contrast, doesn't begin turning the screws until its second act.
Disc one also includes a running commentary with McLoughlin and his cowriter, Michael Hawes, and it is an entertaining listen. The two remember making One Dark Night as if it were yesterday, and the stories pour forth for the film's duration. An amused McLoughlin recalls giving West the bit part because nobody else wanted to hire Batman, only to later realize that "the way Adam speaks is exactly the way Batman speaks."
According to the DVD package, the 40-minute featurette "R.I.P." contains behind-the-scenes footage and production stills. More accurately, the featurette is nothing but footage and stills. A nice inclusion, but not particularly interesting.
Finally, each disc contains four Shriek Show trailers.
One Dark Night is better than you'd expect, and Media Blasters salutes it with a lavish DVD set. The picture could stand some more cleaning, but we're provided two cuts of the film and an engaging commentary. Not a bad purchase for fans of '80s horror.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Commentary with director Tom McLoughlin and cowriter Michael Hawes
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