Fade to Black (1980)

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Hollywood is often referred to as La La Land. It was even the title of a 2016 film, a musical homage about the highs and lows of creative aspiration. Not only is Hollywood the land of impossible dreams, it’s 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’s a flamboyant ode to film both narratively and stylistically, one that harbours a deeply troubled centre.

By 1979, the home video revolution was in full swing, the general public 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 breaking into the girl’s house was a very real and frightening invasion of her privacy never occurs to someone so consumed by fantasy. It’s 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 mother. Eric’s 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.

Though buried beneath numerous overt references to other fictional works, another film that seems to have a huge influence on Fade to Black is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom ― ironic as the filmmaker’s innovative study of voyeurism, which asked questions of both the nature of filmmaking and our participation as an audience, was quickly buried in the recesses of commercial ignominy, essentially ending the director’s career. On a purely psychological level, Binford is more than reminiscent of Peeping Tom‘s Karlheinz Boehm, a reclusive and deeply troubled film crew member who rarely socialises outside of work, living a double life as a POV killer who commits sadistic acts of murder through the cross-hairs of a viewfinder. If you’re to fully embrace this movie you need to avoid such comparisons. Powell’s unfairly maligned masterpiece, released two months prior to Psycho, only serves as a reminder of Fade to Black‘s cavalier execution, undercooked screenplay and general lack of conviction.

That’s not to suggest that Fade to Black isn’t enjoyable in its own right. There’s an intriguing concept at play here, and 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. 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 or 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, but 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 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 that 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.

Fade to Black‘s imitative, self-aware formula proved extremely problematic, not only in terms of a production that was forced to make amendments based on copyright issues (Binford was originally meant to dress as the Universal-owned Frankenstein), but in a court of law. The loaded pop culture concept would ultimately land the film, American Cinema Releasing Co., Fade to Black Productions, Move Venture Limited Productions Inc., American Communications Industries Inc., and Leisure Investment Co. in some legal hot soup. Disgruntled at the movie’s portrayal of fictional cowboy Hopalong Cassidy and actor William Boyd, the U.S. Film Office of Northbrook, IL, and William Boyd Enterprises of Beverly Hills, CA filed a $15,000,000 lawsuit alleging “contempt and ridicule”. An injunction was sought to remove the film from theatres, which only added to its various commercial and distribution woes.

Though Fade to Black, released on October 17th, 1980, remained in theatres into the following year, it was a huge box office failure for Yablans, who saw the film as the monetary successor to Halloween, a cultural phenomenon which managed an incredible $70,274,000 worldwide on a budget of only $325,000. The exact numbers for Fade to Black were never released, but after a “triumphant” showing at the Cannes Film Festival, it fell way short of expectation on US shores, and was certainly enough to rankle Yablan. Yablan would put the blame squarely in the laps of flailing distributor American Cinema Releasing, a company that would file for bankruptcy in 1983, but the film, marketed as a slasher during the sub-genre’s boom, had commercial problems intrinsic to both its concept and execution.

Yablans was a known detractor of the kind of onscreen violence that superseded Carpenter’s suspense-driven Halloween, and tonally Fade to Black is hugely indecisive, dancing around the slasher genre and ultimately barely qualifying as horror. At a time when creative kills were the in thing, the movie must have been severely underwhelming based on its insincere marketing campaign alone. In an interview with Famous Monsters of Filmland, Yablans would expose the commercial flaws inherent in his personal tastes, explaining, “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…” In confirming his aversion to blood and guts horror in an interview with News Pilot in 1981, just as the slasher was reaching new, deplorable highs, Yablans would reveal just how out of touch he had become in relation to modern genre trends, “The secret is not to show too much murder, mayhem or gore,” he would claim. “It’s what the people don’t see that scares them the most. Nothing was more horrifying that the old radio shows.”

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’s 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 expositional purposes. Fade to Black loses its way during its final act, ditching the psychological 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 demands he 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!

A unique concept indecisively 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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