Dark (1979, dir: John 'Bud' Cardos; scp: Stanford Whitmore;
cast: William Devane, Cathy Lee Crosby, Richard Jaeckel, Biff Elliot, Warren
J. Kemmerling, Keenan Wynn, Jeffrey Reese, Jay Lawrence, Casey Kasem, Russ
Marin, Vivian Blaine, Vernon Washington, John Bloom, Angelo Rossitto, Philip
Michael Thomas; aka The Mutilator).
a film that borrows elements from not one, but two distinct decades of
horror: 1950s bug-eyed monster movies, and 1970s supernatural TV horror.
Dark opens with a long informational scroll across the screen,
read by an ominous narrator, informing us of the various deadly ways in
which species adapt to life on Earth, speculating that the same likely
occurs elsewhere in the universe, and suggesting that not all first encounters
such life forms are likely to be friendly...
evokes those 1950s BEM movies in which some narrator or scientist delivers
an overly-long bit of pseudo-science, spoken with the stern seriousness
of a high school biology film strip. Although, it may also have been
inspired by Star Wars's screen scroll, that
film released only two years earlier.
Dark's informational scroll culminates with a red ball of light
hurtling toward Earth. We cut to a young woman exiting a movie theater. Oddly, it's night and the streets are deserted. Was she the only
patron? Anyway, she's properly frightened, and scurries up the street. She hears footsteps. Spooky voices whisper...
runs, ducks, thinks she's safe... An alien monster rips off her head! (No, you don't see it. Despite the alien's MO, you only see one decapitation
in the entire film. This film isn't too gory.) Anyway, thus
"Theeeee da-a-a-a-a-a-a-ark!" because whenever it's dark and lonely, and
some character is wandering about, that eerie (and eerily familiar) canned
1970s music is mixed with nondiagetic spooky voices whispering...
whispering makes no sense. This is not a supernatural film. No spirits or ghosts. Just a gypsy fortune teller with some clairvoyance. It seems the whisperings were added solely to create atmosphere, and frighten
assure we're scared, characters oblige us by wandering about dark deserted
hallways, parking lots, streets, nervously glancing about, sometimes killed,
sometimes not. Yet despite the title, this is not a film about the
dark, but about a killer alien.
the atmospheric style is 1970s, the monster story is 1950s, with a shamelessly
cheesy alien. Its hands resemble Lon Chaney's werewolf, hairy with
long dark fingernails. It hurriedly stumbles after our heroes in
what appears to be (in silhouette) Frankenstein monster boots. Its
cat-like eyes shoot raygun beams that toss people across a room before
causing them to explode without a trace.
the atmosphere and monster. Here are the characters and story:
woman was the daughter of horror novelist Roy Warner (William Devane). Devane has made a career out of playing clean-cut authority figures, but
here he is scruffy and long-haired, as befits a horror novelist. Naturally, Roy Warner has also done prison for manslaughter, his novels
are "nothing but blood and gore," and he lives in a pricey Hollywood Hills
ALL horror novelists fabulously rich felons who only write blood and gore? (As The
Dark was released in 1979, I assume the "rich" part was modeled
someone's idea of Stephen King.)
is one of The
Dark's more original characters, as the film is a parade of
stereotypes. We have two cops assigned to catch the killer. One's a clean-cut straight-arrow (Richard Jaeckel), the other's a pudgy
slob (Biff Elliot) forever dripping donut filling. This allows for
the usual comic relief, as when Jaeckel tells Elliot to "buy a bib."
let's not judge too harshly. The critically acclaimed Hill
Street Blues was still recycling cop/donut jokes years after The
Dark has the usual Police Captain (Warren J. Kemmerling) who
gets heat from the mayor, hates the press, and wants to "keep a tight lid"
on events. You've met him in many a Kolchak episode. When one cop suggests the killer is a "zombie," the Captain
explodes: "Zombie! Mangler! I don't want to here any of
Dark also has a bizarre gypsy fortune teller, a midget newspaper
vendor (more comic relief), and jive-talking blacks (one of them wearing
a puffy denim pimp cap). Philip Michael Thomas (Miami
Vice) has a bit part as an angry young black man. In fact,
the Internet Movie Database credits Thomas
as "Angry Young Black Man." This is noteworthy, because the film
credits refer to Thomas's character as: "Corn Rows."
his hair IS in corn rows.
Lee Crosby (That's Incredible) plays Zoe,
a crusading TV reporter. And yes, although hired for her looks, she's
tired of covering fluff, and wants to do hard news in "the big league."
supposed to be bright, but she's not very. At least not as written
by Stanford Whitmore. Zoe pontificates that it's "ironic" that the
daughter of a horror novelist (who trades in gore) was killed in gory fashion. Warner accuses Zoe of implying that it was "poetic justice." Zoe
insists she meant ironic, but that's because she's illiterate. Irony
requires incongruity, so it would have been ironic if Warner's books had
think screenwriter Whitmore intended Zoe to be illiterate, but she is. Zoe's
illiteracy also causes her to be self-contradictory. She accuses
detective Jaeckel of not doing enough to find the killer. Moments
later, she switches and accuses him of going too far ("Thirty-two caliber
justice?" she accuses).
that Whitmore was writing cool clichés, unaware when his lines were
contradictory. Zoe is supposed to be smart and idealistic, yet if
one listens, she sounds illiterate and ego-driven. But since Crosby
looks good, we're not really listening to her Zoe.
Good-looking Zoe (Cathy Lee Crosby) interviews a protester upset over the cop's inability to find "the mangler."
atmosphere, monster, characters. I haven't gotten to the story yet? Well, the "story" is simple. What you'd expect. Characters
their heads are ripped off, or shot into nothingness by the alien's red
raygun eye beams (I call them eye beams, but sometimes they look more like
mini-photon torpedoes). Curiously, when one jive-talking black guy
goes in search of his prostitute, he gets shot with those eye beams and
explodes into nothingness. But later, it's reported that he was decapitated. Then, when another character burns and disappears into nothingness, the
remaining characters marvel that there appears to be nothing left.
and Zoe repeat to each other: "Weird."
clues are found and the alien is cornered. At which point, the heroes
run away. The cops arrive, and there's much shooting of guns and
eye beams. The alien snatches Zoe and, maintaining proper 1950s BEM
standards, for the first time in the film he does not instantly
kill his victim. Seems he just wants to hold Zoe, maybe carry her
off somewhere. This gives her time to scream and be rescued.
Dark was produced by Film Ventures International, a prolific
horror film company during the rise of video. It eventually went
bankrupt, the fate of many indie startups. Much later, The
Dark was re-released on video as The Mutilator,
making all that whispering of "Theeeee da-a-a-a-a-a-ark" all the more nonsensical.
(Not to be confused with the 1985 slasher film, The
Mutilator, aka Fall Break).
Dark is hardly original or great. And despite its comic
relief or cheesy clichés, it's not intended as parody. Nor
is it unintentionally funny. But it is fun.
I'm overly fond of The
Dark because I first saw it in a theater during its initial
release, having only recently turned old enough to sneak into R-rated horror. It was a grand time to attain that age, for horror was just beginning its
slasher and Italian zombie cycles. Every week, the Midway theater
devoted one of its four screens to a new horror double feature -- back
then, horror filmdom was THAT prolific!
Dark every few years, and have not yet tired of it. I
view it not for a scary masterpiece, but out of warm nostalgia. You
may enjoy it for the same reason -- even if you've never seen The
Dark, you've seen its characters and character actors in dozens
of other horror films.
like 1950s BEM movies, if you like 1970s TV supernatural thrillers, then
you'll enjoy this walk through...
Review copyright by Thomas
Stanford Whitmore responds: "I wrote [The Dark] on spec as a piece
that my friend, DP Bill Butler, would use to get his foot in the directing
door. My script was an experiment meant to take advantage of Bill's
camera, which would render the repeatedly gathering dark remindful of the
score for Jaws.
An initial deal was made with Dick Clark's company, and when that fell
out, some thief stepped up to single-handedly take over the script, fire
Tobe Hooper, and invent a monster shooting death rays. The upshot
was the WGA bringing suit on my behalf for monies owed, whereupon said
producer skipped town, putting a cherry on top." -- 8/13/04
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