Fade to Black (1980)

Director: Vernon Zimmerman
18 | 1h 42min | Horror, Thriller

Hollywood is often referred to as La La Land. In fact, they even named a film after it, a musical homage about the highs and lows of creative aspiration. Not only is Hollywood the land of impossible dreams, it is a place where dreams inevitably become impossible. For every glamorous superstar there are legions of lost souls chasing an unattainable obsession. Hollywood’s fabled Walk of Fame, twinkling with cinema’s great and good, aches with the tragic desperation of misguided ambition. The world may be infatuated with cinema’s shining stars, but more intriguing are those who are infatuated with becoming one.

The term La La Land came into use during the late 1970s, around the time that Vernon Zimmerman’s psychological horror Fade to Black was pitched to Halloween executive producer Irwin Yablans. Yablans had already written a similar script two years prior entitled Alex, elements of which were incorporated into Zimmerman’s finished screenplay, resulting in a curious little movie that would foreshadow the furore surrounding ‘video nasties’ and their supposed influence on modern society. Fade to Black is the story of a reclusive kid who falls headlong into the realms of fantasy following a series of interactions that push him over the proverbial edge. It is a flamboyant ode to film both narratively and stylistically, but one that harbours a deeply troubled centre.

By 1979, the home video revolution was in full swing, and the general public were able to access an abundance of unregulated exploitation films the likes of which had never been seen. Parents were unable to monitor exactly what their impressionable children were consuming. Depictions of graphic rape, the torture and degradation of women, real-life animal cruelty and what at the time were very realistic portrayals of murder, were a far cry from what audiences had been used to previously. These weren’t classic, fantastical monsters committing acts of pure make-believe, they were regular people committing very believable and accessible atrocities.

Fade to Black instead concentrates on villains from a bygone era, the most modern being Norman Bates, the deeply troubled, borderline-whimsical star of Alfred Hitchcock’s proto-slasher Psycho. That particular moment gives us a loving recreation of the film’s infamous shower scene. Dressed in one of his many guises, protagonist Eric Binford imitates the scene with a fountain pen, earnestly informing his pretend victim that he only wanted an autograph before fleeing into the night. The fact that he broke into her house never occurs to someone so wrapped up in pretence. It is a comical moment in a deliciously self-aware movie, but Eric will soon graduate to much darker recreations.

The film stars Dennis Christopher as a movie nut living with his wheelchair-bound aunt, a curmudgeon who blames him for the loss of her legs and her sister. His bedroom is a closed-off shrine to classic cinema, posters of iconic stars smothering his walls as a projector plays movie prints stolen from his job as a shipper for a Los Angeles film exchange. His pasty visage and obsession with movie facts makes him the perfect victim for arrogant co-workers and malcontent bosses, and when a Marylin Monroe lookalike named Marilyn O’Connor (Linda Kerridge) accidentally stands him up for a date, Eric becomes a little too comfortable in the realms of fantasy. It’s incredible to think how many horror movies took their cue from Hitchcock’s most troubled character.

Movie buffs will appreciate the endless genre nods scattered around like props in a Hollywood backlot. Kerridge was a real-life Monroe impersonator cast for her striking resemblance to the actress, which should give you some indication of Zimmermann’s loving attention to detail, and there are all kinds of trivia titbits to sink your proverbial teeth into. Eric’s narrative is permeated with intercuts from classic movies as he slips in and out of different personas, descending into Cary Grant monologues during everyday conversations and dressing like a hood from a James Cagney gangster flick. He even changes his name to Cody Jarrett, a psychotic criminal portrayed by Cagney in White Heat, and when he pushes his aunt down the stairs, imitating a scene from Kiss of Death, events take a dire and irrevocable turn.

There’s a camp, overtly fictional tone to the movie that is offset by moments of graphic violence, the kind that are staged and lit to reflect the Hollywood fantasy of classic cinema, as well as that existing in our protagonist’s mind. After convincing himself that O’Connor is in fact the real Monroe, Eric takes his obsessions to the next level, adorning a Dracula cape as he seeks retribution on a hooker who glibly questioned his manhood. Dracula is one of just several personas Eric assumes as his list of victims grows and his grasp on reality becomes ever more tenuous. There’s a scene of almost carnival grotesquery in which Eric hunts down a young Mickey Rourke in full cowboy regalia; a co-worker who welshed on a movie trivia bet. A scene that sees Eric stalk his former boss in Mummy bandages is shot just like a golden age horror movie. When he looks at his reflection, Eric sees not himself, but the characters he was weaned on.

Christopher is hugely impressive in only his second film following his turn as an obsessed cycling enthusiast in Peter Yates’ 1979, Oscar-nominated comedy drama Breaking Away, leaping from giggling schoolboy to manic depressive with dazzling aplomb. There is a sub-narrative featuring cult B-movie legend Tim Thomerson’s post-hippy psychiatrist, Dr. Jerry Moriarty, who sees Binford as a victim of society, not the madman the police captain has him pegged for, but those scenes are mostly tacked-on for expostional purposes. Fade to Black loses its way during the final act, ditching the character study for an overblown stand-off on the roof of Mann’s Chinese Theatre, but such a cavalier finale proves a fitting end for a character who falls so desperately apart. His ravings may be garbed in theatrical opulence, but the real Eric Binfords inhabit dark corners.

You Dirty Rat!

Hollywood is renown for its ruthlessness, especially when it comes to plagiarism, but one unsuspecting victim lands himself a crash course in the purest sense. Cadging a ride with one of Hollywood’s A-list producers, an excitable Binford pitches a movie idea over a stick of marijuana, one so well conceived the producer tells him to call him, only to play dumb after stealing his idea and announcing it on live television. Finally becoming Cody Jarrett in more than just name, Binford tracks the hotshot down in full mobster garb, spraying him with machine gun bullets while sneering like Cagney at his most devilishly opulent.

Reality Bites

Much like Norman Bates, the opposite sex casts a huge shadow over Binford’s tenuous existence, our protagonist caught between oppressive dominance and the sweet, yet unattainable lure of sexuality. Catching up with a cynical streetwalker who openly mocked him in a previous scene, Binford adorns the Dracula cape and causes an accident that sees the woman staked through the neck with a piece of broken fencing. Buoyed by images of Christopher Lee, Binford even envelops the dead and stoops down to drink her blood in a moment of jarring fanaticism.

Choice Dialogue

During a confrontation with his soon-to-be-ex-boss, Matt Berger, Eric reveals the extremity of his delusional state:

Marty Berger: You shut up! I’ve been hearing all kinds of things about you lately, Binford.

Eric Binford: You mean like my wedding?

Marty Berger: Now that is one I haven’t heard. I can’t picture the creature who’d want to marry you. Tell me, who is this unlucky girl?

Eric Binford: She’s a famous actress.

Marty Berger: And who may this famous actress be?

Eric Binford: Marilyn Monroe.

Marty Berger: That’s it! Hand over the key to the Vespa, Binford.

Eric Binford: [mimicking James Cagney] It’s Cody. Got it? Cody Jarrett and don’t ever forget it!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

A unique concept beautifully realised, may be a little rough around the edges, but Dennis Christopher’s prodigious turn as the fanatical Binford is certainly one to cherish, and a welcome commentary on the influence of mainstream violence proves a notable precursor to an era of censorship frenzy.

Edison Smith

2 comments

    1. Hi, Michael. My pleasure.

      I actually only just discovered this myself after finally landing a copy of Trailer Trauma 3: 80s Horror-Thon (which may also interest you, though copies were limited: ebay?). It includes a trailer for Fade to Black and I was immediately intrigued. The movie more than lived up to expectation.

      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

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