[review by JA Kerswell]
It’s perhaps fair to say that Vernon Zimmerman’s FADE TO BLACK is something of an anomaly in the canon of early 80s slashers. It is debatable as to whether it is even a slasher movie at all. The film was made after HALLOWEEN (1978) and before the release of FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) but was released after the summer barnstorming success of Sean S. Cunningham’s film in October 1980. By the time cinema-goers saw FADE TO BLACK it seemed as curiously out-of-time as its central character …
Irwin Yablans – the pioneering producer behind HALLOWEEN and who was playfully dubbed “the merchant of menace” by his press agent – had hoped that lightening would strike twice. However, before the successful slasher movie formula had fully coalesced, he utilised the financial success of Carpenter’s film to make his decidedly non-cookie-cutter, quirky pet project a reality. Yablans had previously produced David Schmoeller’s excellent TOURIST TRAP in 1979 – another quirky take on the teen horror genre (which was actually made before the release of Carpenter’s film). FADE TO BLACK came about after producers George G. Braunstein and Ron Hamady, and eventual director Vernon Zimmerman, were throwing around ideas about a movie about movies. Specifically, a psycho who dresses up as his matinée idols and kills people. With horror being a hot commodity at the time, they approached Yablans and, in a moment of synchronicity, he pulled a synopsis entitled ALEX from his desk – which he had written two years before. With additional input from Yablans, Zimmerman completed the script.
FADE TO BLACK, at its black heart, is a film about denial and descent into madness. Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher) is a young loner who spends all his free time losing himself in the world of classic horror, gangster and film noir cinema of the 1930s and 1940s; where he daydreams of himself in the hero role. He lives with his wheelchair-bound Aunt Stella (Eve Brent), who berates him constantly for his perceived laziness and inability to handle real-life and who appears to blame him for the accident that led to her losing the use of her legs. The relationship is shown to be increasingly dysfunctional, when the film hints at an incestuous history initiated by Stella – one that becomes even more uncomfortable by later revelations.
Eric is bullied at work (a movie depository) by his boss and co-workers. But he hardly helps himself; he is a pompous, know-it-all who constantly quizzes people about film – and then regards them with disdain if they don’t have the same encyclopedic knowledge that he possesses. He glimpses an opportunity at happiness when he stumbles across a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like (Linda Kerridge – playing a character called Marilyn) eating at a diner in Hollywood. She is initially charmed by his love of old movies and agrees to a date with him – unaware that he is really attracted to her fantasy persona.
Eric’s sanity continues to unravel after Marilyn accidentally forgets their date (playing the character of Monroe and her sweet ditziness to perfection). But the biggest trigger is the semi-accidental killing of his Aunt, who falls to her death down a set of stairs after being pushed by Eric in a scene reminiscent of the one in the noir KISS OF DEATH (1947). This is, of course, not lost on Eric who retreats further into his film fantasy world; something the eventual inheritance he gets from Stella allows him to indulge in without constraints. Another accidental death occurs, when Eric – dressed as Dracula – chases a sex worker who had previously rejected him, and who ironically dies after being impaled on a white picket fence. However, this causes Eric to break completely from reality (shown by him drinking blood from the wound of the dead woman) and is now free to indulge in his murderous fantasies against all those he believes have wronged him …
Interviewed six months after the film’s original release, director Vernon Zimmerman said: “Fade to Black is not truly a horror film”, but said it was advertised as such to cash in on the trend toward quickly made, low budget fright films that were so popular at the time. Here, perhaps, lies its central problem. FADE TO BLACK is many things – a fascinating look at mental collapse and the dog-eared glamour and world-weary cynicism of Hollywood in 1980 – but it isn’t scary or particular horrifying. This is somewhat ironic given that Yablans made a great play at the time about the best formula to scare audiences. He told Famous Monsters of Filmland: “We all love the exhilaration of a good scare. If you were to open a door and a hideous creature jumped out at you, chances are you would jump back and scream. That’s why a horror film is an easy do: we’re all like Pavlov’s famous dog, conditioned to jump every time. … It’s like a rollercoaster ride, you scream and yell as you rocket up to the summit and plummet down into oblivion – but you know you’re safe. No matter how unnerved you become while watching a horror film, you can still look around and see you’re in a safe place. A film should be an experience, preferably a memorable one. That’s what I want to deliver to you.” However, FADE TO BLACK was no HALLOWEEN. Another clue as to why the film bucked the emerging trend towards more gratuitous horror was the view of Braunstein, which showed that it wasn’t just the character of Eric Binford that looked back to the halcyon days of Hollywood. He thought that FADE TO BLACK was a distinctly different approach to suspense and horror. “I saw the trailer for The Shining the other day. … It gets to a point where you can’t go any further – there’s only so much blood and gore you can do. Maybe there’s an insatiable market for horror, but these elevator doors open and blood just pours out all over the place. I just had to bury my head in my hands.” Yablans was equally against explicit violence. He told News Pilot in May 1981: “The secret is not to show too much murder, mayhem or gore. It’s what the people don’t see that scares them the most. Nothing was more horrifying that the old radio shows.” Of gory films of the time he said: “Some of them are embarrassing because they are such obvious steals … I mean Terror Train, Maniac, Prom Night and some of the others that followed Halloween. I could probably sue, but I won’t.” However, after the relative box office failure of FADE TO BLACK, Yablans – presumably realising that his had misjudged the public mood – got over his squeamishness as the on-screen violence amped up in his subsequent production duties on HELL NIGHT and especially HALLOWEEN II (both 1981).
Today’s audiences will perhaps be left scratching their heads and miss many of the film’s nods to Hollywood movies of yore. Whereas audiences in 1980 would have been much better versed in the movies it referenced, but even then it failed to make a huge impact with cinema-goers. Where FADE TO BLACK fascinates is its central character of Eric Binford. He is both unlikeable (especially as the insufferable cinephile) and likable as – at least at first – the hopeless dreamer and romantic. The film touches on the real-life atrocities that were playing out in the news in 1980: serial murders; plane crashes and terrorism. Is it any wonder that he retreats into a fantasy of the supposed good old days? The ultimate irony, of course, is that through his subsequent crimes he actually becomes the very thing that he actively sought to avoid through his cocoon of nostalgia.
Actor Dennis Christopher was only 25 when he played the role, but he looked younger. The LA Times led on an interview with him at the time with the title: “Baby-face Christopher plays cold-blooded killer”. Christopher was keen to jettison his clean-cut image – although he had actually previously appeared in the proto-slasher BLOOD AND LACE (1971) (dubbed the sickest PG movie ever made!). His breakout role had been the previous year’s BREAKING AWAY; a PG-rated sports-related movie. He told the paper: “At first I wasn’t going to do Fade to Black. I didn’t know Vernon and the script was a bit sketchy. But I couldn’t get the character out of my mind. Anyway, you must not weigh things so heavily that you become afraid to take chances.” He continued: “Vernon and I had a ball rescuing this story from horrifying rewrites.” The actor took some chances – including insisting on the inclusion of the (non-graphic) masturbation scene. His performance received mixed notices. Malcolm L. Johnson in the Hartford Courant said: “ […] it has a quite remarkable performance at its center, Dennis Christopher’s anguished, yet sometimes darkly humorous acting out of an increasingly twisted escape from reality is the only real thing in this movie. … Rated R, this film contains several grisly murders and one surprisingly frank passage of sexual fantasy; and is inappropriate for young children and impressionable teenagers.” Box Office Magazine, however, were not impressed: “A bigger disappointment is Dennis Christopher as the simpering murderer. Though excellent in last year’s ‘Breaking Away’, Christopher fails to generate any sympathy or interest for poor Eric.” For his part, Christopher was surprised that FADE TO BLACK wasn’t a hit – especially with horror fans. But in Europe, the film was well received: “It was more popular in France than Breaking Away” Christopher said. “They’re cinemaniacs there.” And in Italy, he won the Bronze Mask at the Taormina International Film Festival.
Irwin Yablans apparently rewrote the script of FADE TO BLACK after meeting actress Linda Kerridge at a party in 1979. He said: “I figured I’d get a beautiful blonde actress, but I never thought I would get a Marilyn Monroe who can act. Linda is so much like Marilyn that I have rewritten the whole script to capitalise on this startling resemblance.” Kerridge as Marilyn in the film is a fascinating paradox. Although she becomes a fantasy figure for Eric (in a scene cut from the movie because of rights and budgetary issues she was going to sing Diamonds are a Girls’ Best Friend in a big fantasy sequence) she plays her as a rather ordinary, down-to-earth woman with an extra-ordinary resemblance. In fact, she insisted she was playing herself – and wanted to be, not-so-much as Monroe look-a-like but rather a “blonde for the 80s”. So much so that she retained her native Australian accent for the production. She’s a likeable presence in the film and it is a shame that the last 20 minutes relegate her to little more than a drugged-out prop. Perhaps echoing the vulnerability of the real Marilyn Monroe, Kerridge said she suffered from an inferiority complex and was so shy that she hadn’t answered the phone until she was 16 years old. She had met Braunstein in 1978 when she was modelling in London and he was working on the unproduced John Carpenter project THE PROMETHEUS CRISIS. He told her to look him up if she ever got to Hollywood. Known in Australia and Europe for her striking resemblance to Monroe, Kerridge had originally wanted to make it in films not exploiting this fact. She said she couldn’t land an acting job and was “almost destitute” before landing the gig on FADE TO BLACK – which, ironically, was largely based on the Monroe likeness. Producers helped her out by paying her an advance of $150 a week and $200 a week whilst making the film, but she still owed producers $1,000 after the film had completed. She alleged that one of the producers – which she didn’t name – had suggested she did a Playboy shoot to earn enough to pay him back. She appeared in 10 pages of Playboy Nov 1980. She hated the shoot and got drunk on champagne for 3 days to do it – complaining they started with fancy French champagne and ended with the cheap stuff. After waking up with what she claimed was the worst hangover in history she was at least $10,000 richer, but was soon broke again. She had hoped that FADE TO BLACK would lead to “better” roles, but her screen career fizzled out by the late 1980s – despite good notices for her appearance in this – and she moved back to Australia and into relative obscurity.
The original script was changed in some significant ways ahead of and during shooting. Originally, the film opens at a ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) showing – with Eric judging everyone else in the queue as not real film fans. Stella wasn’t his mother in the script (this change was a suggestion by Dennis Christopher). In the original script he had rigged the brakes on her car ten years before ‘like something out of a Joan Crawford movie’ – which would have tipped its hat to his mental health problems much earlier on. Originally the film he goes to see was Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (1960) – but, as with many things in the film, was changed due to rights issues (in the finished film he sees Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) – which infamously was never properly copyrighted). This, of course, makes more sense as to why he goes to Marilyn’s house and frightens her in the shower. Originally the film was meant to end with a shootout in the photo studio with Kerridge naked (replicating Marilyn Monroe’s original famous nude calendar shoot). It was Christopher who suggested that this was anticlimactic: “He’s got to go to the temple of movies!” – and the climax was shifted to Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. In the late 1970s, Hollywood Boulevard was akin to Times Square for its reputation for drugs, sleaze and vice. “Nobody really thought of Grauman’s that way it was so sleazy on the Boulevard, so broken down, and the theater was tattered”, said Christopher. Yablans called in some favours and the location was locked down for three days and nights for scenes that called to mind both James Cagney’s WHITE HEAT (1949) and the climactic scenes of KING KONG (1933).
FADE TO BLACK started filming in January 1980 on a budget that is listed as either $1.8 or $2.3 million. The shoot was grueling, with filming between 12-20 hours a day. It was reportedly not a happy set, with tensions running high between Yablans and Zimmerman. In Adam Rockoff’s Going to Pieces, Yablans said Zimmerman was in over-his-head and the producer had to be on set nearly every day. Yablans vetoed the mummy costume that he thought looked unconvincing and got hands-on with the gauze to get the right look. He said Zimmerman was petulant and unhappy on the production – so much so that he resembled the main character. He also said he was strange and an ultimate loner who only spoke about movies. Perhaps understandably, Zimmerman didn’t much like Yablans interference. Yablans, in turn, said Zimmerman's script was too long – and wishes he had cut out the cop subplot (Tim Thomerson is also largely wasted in a thankless role as a psychiatrist). This subplot, truth be told, adds very little to the film and lessens the claustrophobic effectiveness of Eric’s descent into his obsessive fantasy world. It also bloats to running time. Yablans said that Zimmerman had problems with some of the actors on the movie, too. He specifically mentions a pre-fame Mickey Rourke, who plays one of Eric’s co-workers, who didn’t get on with the director and wasn’t clear what he was meant to do during the carnival scene. Yablans played the sideshow barker and more-or-less directed him in that scene. The blood was so bad on set, that reportedly Zimmerman refused to edit the movie. However, speaking in 1981, the director had mellowed: “The French film critics have fallen in love with it … There’s no accounting for their taste, of course, but I like to think it’s superior.” He also said that he might have to sue for his cut of the profits (not the only legal trouble the film found itself in): “It’s making a lot of money, which I have not seen. … Hollywood book-keeping it’s called. There are three sets of books. You never see the real ones.”
FADE TO BLACK was released ahead of Halloween in October 1980 to North American screens (although it continued on a regional roll out well into 1981). It was judged a box office failure by Yablans, who would have been comparing it to the success of HALLOWEEN – which was still bringing in money during sporadic re-releases (a practice common before the home video boom). Despite being initially buoyed by what he described as a “triumphant” showing at Cannes Festival, Yablans later blamed the film’s poor performance on lack of distribution by a company that was going into bankruptcy (American Cinema Releasing, which had hit relative pay dirt with audiences hungry for more HALLOWEEN’esque thrills with SILENT SCREAM the year before in 1979 but stopped operations after 1980). Exactly how much the film made is a little bit of a mystery. Adam Rockoff’s Going to Pieces says the film made $15 million. If that were the case it would have certainly out-grossed many horror/slasher films of the early 1980s. Websites such as the-numbers.com or boxofficemojo.com don’t list any details, which is unusual. However, a dissertation (released in 1982) on films from that time listed FADE TO BLACK as amassing $2.45 million in rentals (distributor's share of the film's theatrical revenue), suggesting the true domestic take was closer to $6 million.
The early 1980s saw the dawn of the midnight movie phenomena, where films that had perhaps failed to find an audience previously were making significant amounts of money from repeat viewings and audience participation. The best known of which, of course, was THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (which if you recall was meant to feature in FADE TO BLACK). The following year, Paramount repackaged the Faye Dunaway Joan Crawford bio-pic MOMMIE DEAREST as a camp classic after its critical drubbing and audiences laughing at it. Yablans said at the time: “We are planning some midnight previews of the film around the country to draw the genre crowd.” Producer George Braunstein may have had the midnight movie crowd in mind when he told Fangoria that he wanted FADE TO BLACK to be the biggest cult movie since ROCKY HORROR. This despite the fact that it has none of the audience pleasing and imitable moments that drove either of those films to cult status. The audience’s lack of enthusiasm for the film was summed in the ‘cinema score card’ in Box Office Magazine, in which cinema-goers gave a decidedly middling overall C rating (the other information it showed was that 56% of the audience was male vs 44% female and 73% were under 25). A tie-in novelisation, written by Ron Renauld, was released by Pinnacle Books in 1980.
It’s fair to say that FADE TO BLACK received mixed critical notices, but whilst they may have been kinder to this that, say, FRIDAY THE 13TH, the consensus seemed to be that it didn’t work. Janet Maslin in The New York Times led with: “Fade to Black filled with clichés. Gory suspense film appears more amusing than scary. … […] the main character of Fade to Black is a fellow who has seen too many movies. The director has, too. Vernon Zimmerman, whose Hollywood crazy homage is based on his own screenplay, turns Fade to Black into a non-stop parade of move references. … The worst of this is ridiculous. But the best parts have a funny, improbable vitality of a bad joke carried way too far. […] .. the killings are gory enough to be borderline vile.” Variety said: “[…] … beyond the erratic, over imaginative script, the ineffectual acting of most of the cast … is the film’s biggest obstacle.” Box Office Magazine: “On paper, it must have been all there. A complicated main character. Plenty of innovative murders. A clever homage to movie fanatics and the films they worship. … But something went terribly wrong on the way to the camera. … Unfortunately, Zimmerman runs into trouble when he can’t decide whether his character is a comic or a killer.” Jack Matthews in Detroit Free Press: “Fade to Black might have worked as a straight psychological thriller or as a dual spoof of horror and gangster movies. But writer/director Vernon Zimmerman couldn’t make up his mind which way he wanted to go, and he ended up with a bloody bore, a spoof that is too sincere in its pathos to accommodate laughs.” Alan Jones in Starburst: “It is contrived to an embarrassing degree which doesn’t help the very ragged plotting one bit. It isn’t particularly well acted either and something is definitely wrong with a film when the film it incorporates (ie Night of the Living Dead) turn out to be the scariest footage in the movie.” However, not all the notices were bad. Mark Dawidziak in The Kingsport Times gave it a 3 star review: “Eric is the central character of the extremely well-made America Cinema release Face to Black, brilliantly portrayed by Dennis Christopher. […] … it is a thrilling effort with both humour and intelligence.” Roger Ebert – who had savaged FRIDAY THE 13TH – just months before, also gave it a good review. He said in Chicago Sun-Times: “This is a weird, uneven, generally intriguing thriller about a young man whose fantasy life is totally controlled by images from movies.”
To add to the film’s problems – and the headaches of the producers – FADE TO BLACK was sued for $15 million in December 1980 on behalf of the William Boyd Enterprises Inc for unauthorised film clips of cowboy star Hopalong Cassidy. It was reported that they were seeking damages and to stop film being shown. It is not known if they were successful, but the film remained on release into the next year. The problem – of a film so steeped in pop culture – was that it seemed almost inevitable to run afoul of copyright trouble. Plans had to be amended during filming to try and avoid this (Eric was originally going to dress as Frankenstein, a likeness probably owned by Universal). Fears about rights issues also ensured that the film didn’t feature a theme song by the group Blondie (who were fast-becoming the hottest act in North America). Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were friendly with Dennis Christopher – and the actor though that their track Europa from their hit album Autoamerican would be perfect for the film’s theme tune. Alas, it was never to be. As it was, the film ends with a track sung by Marsha Hunt – who went onto to portray a werewolf in HOWLING 2 (1985). Debbie Harry and Chris Stein did makes their theme song dreams come true with the signature tune for John Waters' POLYESTER (1981) the following year.
Whilst it certainly shares enough similarities to the emerging subgenre to include here, ultimately, FADE TO BLACK doesn’t really work as a horror film – let alone a slasher movie. However, it is quite unlike any other movie of its type and in its own way it is uncategorisable. For its faults – and many of the reviews were spot on that the film never quite decides what it wants to be and that lack of commitment hurts it – it is still a fascinating snapshot of the time it was made and has enough bite for fans of the weird.
[A special thank you to Bill Ackerman for his help and and the excellent The Projection Booth podcast. Listen to their episode on FADE TO BLACK here]
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female: 4 / male: 2
2) Female neck impaled on wooden stake
3) Male has heart attack
4) Male shot dead
5) Male shot dead
6) Male falls to his death