Alone in the Dark Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review
Written by Robert Gold
Blu-ray released by Scream Factory
Written and directed by Jack Sholder
1982, 93 minutes, Rated R
Released on September 14th, 2021
Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes
Donald Pleasance as Dr. Leo Bain
Martin Landau as Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff
Dwight Schultz as Dr. Dan Potter
Erland Van Lidth as Ronald “Fatty” Elster
Deborah Hedwall as Nell Potter
Lee Taylor-Allan as Toni Potter
Phillip Clark as Tom Smith
Dr. Daniel Potter has recently moved with his family to a new home in small-town New Jersey where he is to join the staff at the local mental hospital, The Haven. His eccentric boss, Dr. Leo Bain, practices a peaceful, non-confrontational approach to treating his patients, who he refers to as “voyagers”. Leo shows Dan around the hospital, introducing him to the people whose cases he will be taking over from his predecessor. They include Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff, a man who burns churches – with people inside; Ronald “Fatty” Elster, a four-hundred pound child molester; a serial murderer nicknamed “The Bleeder” who gets nosebleeds whenever he kills; and lastly, Col. Frank Hawkes, a war veteran suffering PTSD. The maximum security floor of the hospital where they reside is equipped with a top-of-the-line electronic security system that promptly fails when a statewide blackout disables the power. Believing Dr. Potter has killed their former psychiatrist, Hawkes and his men escape into the night seeking to murder Dan and his family in retaliation.
By 1982, the slasher film was in full bloom with a multitude of masked psychopaths stalking neighborhoods, high schools, college campuses and wooded campgrounds in search of decadent nubile teens doing drugs and having pre-marital sex. The success of early titles, including Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980), set a template for a wave of aspiring filmmakers and studios hoping to cash in. While no less than eleven slashers were released in 1981 alone, there was the occasional title that would step outside the box.
Writer/director Jack Sholder (The Hidden) began his career cutting trailers for countless grindhouse movies in the 1970s before making the jump to features as editor on The Burning (1981). The following year, wanting to direct his own genre flick, he teamed with producer Robert Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street) on what would be the fledgling New Line Cinema’s first film, Alone in the Dark. Sholder took notes on how the horror formula worked and came up with a fresh spin on the material that subverted many of the familiar tropes and offered something different. For starters, this is more of a tense home invasion thriller than something of the stalk-and-slash variety. Instead of one crazed killer, this story has four, the victims are all adults and while there is some nudity, there is very little gore.
The script weaves a steady thread of black humor that pointedly takes aim at new-age psychology and the dismal approach to mental health care in 1980s America. In this story, the outside world is crazier than anything going on inside the hospital environment. Society is unhinged and out of control and when the patients hit the streets, they blend right in with a group of looters. When Potter’s young daughter comes home to find “Fatty” (Erland Van Lidth, The Running Man) the child molester waiting for her, she isn’t remotely frightened; she merely assumes he is a new babysitter. It isn’t just a trusting child at risk here, as the entire family lacks judgment when inviting strangers into their house.
Alone in the Dark avoids many of the slasher movie’s pitfalls by focusing on generating suspense over titillation – but we do get escaped mental patients, a horny babysitter, an obligatory side trip to see a punk band (Sic F*cks) perform and a couple of make-up effects from Tom Savini (Creepshow). Interestingly, one of the characters dons a hockey mask before killing, although this is simply a coincidence since Friday the 13th Part III was made at the same time and released only a week before this film. Another popular trope was to cast a seasoned actor in a supporting role for marquee value: think Ben Johnson (The Wild Bunch) in Terror Train or Glenn Ford (Blackboard Jungle) in Happy Birthday to Me. Sholder went for the hat trick, casting Donald Pleasance (Halloween II), Jack Palance (Without Warning) and Martin Landau (Ed Wood) as the leads, the latter two future Oscar winners.
Palance gives a command performance as the deeply disturbed Col. Hawkes, a man whose paranoia sets the whole plot in motion. He is so good in this it is easy to miss that his character disappears around the forty-minute mark and doesn’t return until the last five minutes of the film. Donald Pleasance is captivating as the quirky psychiatrist Dr. Bain, a man who is quick to laugh, hug and smoke pot – the polar opposite of the prickly Dr. Loomis character in Halloween. The real star of the show is Landau and his terrifying piano smile. As “Preacher”, he steals every scene with his unsettling intensity. As Dr. Potter, Dwight Schultz (The A-Team) does a fine job playing the straight man who wants nothing more than to help his patients and protect his family.
Alone in the Dark is an effective chiller with a strong visual style, courtesy of cinematographer Joseph Mangine (Squirm). With its tight script, skillful direction, great cast and wicked sense of humor, this film has a lot to offer audiences looking for something more than the typical slasher. If you somehow missed this one or haven’t seen it since it came out nearly forty years ago, it is well worth checking out and deserves a space in your collection.
Video and Audio:
Alone in the Dark positively shines on Blu-ray courtesy of a gorgeous all-new 2K scan of the film’s interpositive. Presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the transfer is sharp, clean and free from any dirt, scratches or other print damage offering a new level of clarity to the many night scenes in the picture. Colors are well-saturated and black levels are bottomless. There is a surprising level of small-object detail in both wide shots and tight closeups.
A DTS-HD MA 2.0 gets the job done with clear, crisp audio cues that are clear and free from any sort of distortion. Dialogue is always understandable and music cues are well-balanced and never intrusive. There are some great sound effects throughout, particularly in the “knife in the bed” sequence. Optional English subtitles are included for anyone in need.
There are two audio commentaries, starting with a newly recorded conversation between author/film critic Justin Kerswell (The Slasher Movie Book) and author/film historian Amanda Reyes (Are You in the House Alone? A TV Movie Compendium). Their discussion is insightful and informative, starting with an overview of the depiction of psychiatry in 1980s horror films. They also provide info on the cast, the crew, the director, the production and New Line Cinema.
The second commentary is a vintage track with director Jack Sholder, who is candid with his memories of his first time behind the camera. He offers some personal history of getting into the industry and the many challenges of being a director. He recalls the production as a huge learning experience and his stories from the set are well worth a listen.
Sholder returns for the new interview segment Out of the Dark (2021, 40 minutes), which features some overlapping information from his commentary, but here goes into more detail. He talks about his writing process, working with Robert Shaye and calling in Savini at the eleventh hour to replace the f/x artist. He shares entertaining production stories about his cast and the strange scoring session he and Shaye attended in Italy. He closes with comments on the film’s release, critical response and lasting legacy.
Mother Choppers: The Sic F*cks Remember Alone in the Dark (2021, 10 minutes) catches up with band members Russell Wolinsky, Tish Bellomo and Snooky Bellomo sharing their memories of the film including performing their scene without music and a deleted sequence.
The always-welcome film historian Michael Gingold takes us on an extended tour of places where the film was shot in Sites in the Dark: The Locations of Alone in the Dark (2021, 12 minutes). He begins at the Skylane Manor Hospital and the Rockland Psychiatric Center that served as the interior and exteriors of The Haven. From there we hit various places around town, some still standing, including the strip mall and the Potter house. Gingold is clearly having a blast and his energy is infectious, especially when seen dancing outside a particular Wendy’s.
In Bunky Lives! (2005, 16 minutes), actress Carol Levy tells of her early success in a series of TV commercials advertising toothpaste, feminine products and shampoo. She goes on to talk about auditioning for this role and later filming her nude scene followed by stories about shooting her death scene. From there we learn of her switch in careers to becoming a highly successful real estate agent catering to high-end celebrity clients in New York. The interview ends on a surprising note as she demonstrates a nifty trick she can do with her legs!
Still F*cking Sick: Catching up with The Sic F*cks (2005, 16 minutes) is an archival piece once again featuring Wolinsky and the Bellomo sisters reflecting on their time on the movie. Most of the stories are the same that appear in the above featurette. What makes this segment stand out is the history of Manic Panic, their legendary hair coloring and cosmetics store that also includes a tour.
The theatrical trailer is joined by a TV ad and two radio spots.
A photo gallery slideshow (2 minutes) features production stills and international poster art.
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