Every discussion of Alone in the Dark begins with the exact same disclaimer: no, not Uwe Boll’s 2005 catastrophic video game adaptation of the same name. The Alone in the Dark we’re concerned with is director Jack Sholder’s 1982 slasher classic, a film that is decidedly more underseen than underappreciated. Besides a modest U.S. DVD release in 2005 (of which out of print used copies go for more than $70 on eBay), the film has languished on VHS, thereby remaining virtually inaccessible to the modern day horror fan. Which is unfortunate, as I would argue (and will) that Alone in the Dark is perhaps the best horror film no one has ever seen.
It’s appropriate then that Jack Sholder is also an unsung hero in the annals of genre filmmaking. While Alone in the Dark is a criminally undiscovered horror gem, his 1987 film, The Hidden, remains the best 80s sci-fi actioner this side of Verhoeven or Cameron. Sholder is best known for directing A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985), and for all the flack that movie gets, you won’t hear too many people bash the directing. That’s because he is a classic journeyman director with a talent for truly muscular filmmaking—a style I would compare to John Carpenter: his direction is fluid, the narrative lean, and the politics subtextual. All meat and no filler, as it were.
Alone in the Dark was Sholder’s first film and initially conceived to be quite more ambitious in scope than what ultimately made it to the screen. The story was pared down due to the low budget, but what it lacks in scope, it certainly makes up for with star power. After all, this film stars Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence, and Martin Landau. How much more class can one ask for in their stalk-and-slash shenanigans?
Dwight Schultz plays Dr. Dan Potter, a psychiatrist taking a position at a rural mental hospital run by the very eccentric Dr. Leo Bain (Pleasence). He is replacing Dr. Harry Merton, a favorite doctor of the “3rd Floor Patients,” a group of the most insane, homicidal patients at the hospital. Jack Palance is Colonel Frank Hawkes, an extremely paranoid former prisoner of war and de facto leader of the group; Martin Landau plays Byron Sutcliff, a preacher who likes to burn down churches; and then there’s child molester Ronald Elster (Erland van Lidth) and maniac killer John “The Bleeder” Skagg (and I guess I won’t give away his identity in an effort not to spoil a big reveal). Together, they construct a paranoid delusion that Dr. Potter killed Dr. Merton and commit—pun intended—to killing Potter in revenge.
Their plan gets a kick into high gear when a massive power outage hits the region, and they are able to escape and terrorize the new doctor and his family at their country home. From here on out is the slasher/home invasion film we were all promised. Sholder had originally envisioned this to be a bigger, more urban film with an entire subplot involving the family enlisting the help of the mafia to battle the escaped lunatics. However, due to budgetary reasons, he moved the setting to the country and scaled down the action. And the film is much better for it.
(Though, to be fair, I’m dying to see what Sholder would have done with such a bonkers idea. The Hidden proved he could take big action and absurd genre trappings and distill them into cinema of pure ecstasy.)
Alone in the Dark works for the very same reason all great slashers work: the care and time dedicated to setting up likable characters that feel real and seem to have their own lives off screen. They’re not cardboard cutouts and stereotypes whose only raison d’être is to be fodder for the psycho killer. If you think of Black Christmas, Halloween, My Bloody Valentine, and House on Sorority Row, they all have characters we’re happy to hang out with and then be aghast when they are picked off one by one.
For instance, Dr. Potter’s younger sister, Toni, comes to live with them at the house (played by the very attractive Lee Taylor-Allan). She’s really into punk rock and leftist politics, and in any other movie, this would be a source of conflict within the family. But she finds acceptance and even a friend in Potter’s wife, Nell (Deborah Hedwall), and much of the first half of the film is just them hanging out. They even get caught smoking pot by Lyla, the Potters’ young daughter. It’s all very quaint and real, and at no point are we wishing for a gang of insane degenerates to invade the house with sharp tools.
And sharp tools indeed. There is nary a gun to be found in this movie—unless you count spear guns. Just axes, knives, and bare knuckle brutality. When there is the inevitable battle between the killers and the family, it’s all played out with knives, which lends the film a real tactile feeling. You feel Nell’s dread as she hesitates to stab an intruder to protect a family member, and you especially feel the subsequent stab wound as the camera refuses to flinch at all. Where most slashers, either due to style or incompetence, have a way of taking you out of the film, Sholder invites you in with his proficiency of technical craft and gritty, guerrilla-style violence.
Sholder also utilizes levity and humor to disarm the audience in the first half of the film. The movie is surprisingly funny for the genre it exists in, and not in the ironic, detached way. Donald Pleasence steals every scene he’s in as the kooky doctor who would probably be better off as a patient at the institution he runs. The interactions between the 3rd Floor patients are goofy and hysterical, and any scene with Martin Landau (pre-killing) is delightful and weird. There’s also a humorous, fish-out-of-water scene where Toni and Nell drag Dr. Potter to a punk rock club. A real lightheartedness pervades this movie without it ever succumbing to camp (though Pleasence’s performance gets pretty close).
This film should have propelled Sholder to the top of the A-list the same way A Nightmare on Elm Street did for Wes Craven and Halloween did for John Carpenter. The fact that it doesn’t even have a Blu-ray release is a cinematic crime. A friend of mine who contributes to The Hysteria Continues just texted me to say that even he hadn’t seen it.
Like, what the hell? I feel like we’re all living in a mad house not run by Donald Pleasence.