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Dwight Schultz (Dr. Dan Potter), Jack Palance (Colonel Frank Hawkes), Martin Landau (Byron "Preacher" Sutcliff), Donald Pleasence (Dr. Leo Bain), Erland van Lidth (Ronald "Fatty" Elster), Phillip Clark (John Skaggs/"The Bleeder"), Lin Shaye
Directed by Jack Sholder
There are no...crazy people, doctor, we're all just...on vacation.
The Short Version:Unjustly underrated slasher thriller from 1982 has one of the best horror movie casts ever assembled in this smart, wickedly well written picture about nutty people. One of the best horror films/siege pictures of the 1980's plain and simple.
Dr. Dan Potter and his family move into a new home after he takes a position at the Haven Asylum for the Criminally Insane, an intriguing facility in that it is run entirely on electricity for maximum protection. Replacing Doctor Harry Merton, Potter learns that several of the more dangerous inmates were particularly close to the former physician. Believing Potter to have murdered Merton, four of the crazies plot to kill Dr. Potter. A power outage results in the asylums security system being shut down and allowing all the psycho's to leave freely. Led by Colonel Hawkes, the four crazies including "Preacher", "Fatty" and "The Bleeder" escape into the night and lay siege to Potter's home trapping them inside.
One of the best slasher movies ever, period. And what a killer cast! Jack Sholder (THE HIDDEN) creates some nifty characters with just enough depth to keep them interesting, and not just the obvious roles. He also manages to pull off numerous scenes of suspense and terror with his cast of crazies. This is all the more remarkable in that none of them wear a mask of any kind (there is one brief moment involving a hockey mask a year before Jason would don one for FRIDAY THE 13TH 3-D). The notion of multiple killers with different personalities is also unique for a slasher at this time. The real coupe is the terror triumvirate that is Palance, Landau and Pleasence.
Both Palance and Landau had appeared a couple of years prior in the cheese encrusted camp classic, WITHOUT WARNING. Both pretty much play similar characters from that movie, but their acting (especially Landau who horribly hams it up in the other film) is much better here. Of the fearsome four, Hawkes actually builds some sympathy for himself in addition to being a scary son of a bitch. He obviously had great admiration and affection for his former therapist and firmly believes his replacement did in fact murder Dr. Merton. Of the others, Hawkes is also the most unpredictable. You're never really sure just what is going on behind that sinister visage of his.
Aside from the chaotic finale, both "Preacher" and the character of "Fatty", the child molester, features in the movies most harrowing scene and possibly the most famous sequence of the film. It involves a babysitter, having a sexual encounter with her boyfriend, unaware that the killers are in the house. Checking out a noise in a closet, the boyfriend is pulled under the bed. Too scared to move, a large knife begins thrusting upwards through the mattress threatening to pierce her flesh. Sholder squeezes maximum effect from this brief sequence.
Another strong scene involves Potter's youngest daughter and her encounter with "Fatty". He strikes up a conversation with the little girl and tries to get her to go upstairs with him. We, the audience, are left to wonder just when and if, the maniac will harm her.
Landau is super as the maniacal "preacher", a former holy man who enjoyed setting fire to churches while people were still inside of them. One of his best bits involves he and the others stalking a bicycle riding postman proclaiming, "The hat...I want...the hat!" After offing the mailman (in broad daylight no less), Byron gets the postman's hat and proceeds to knock on Potter's door looking for him claiming to have a telegram for him. For the "Bleeder", you never see his face until the end and the makers of VALENTINE (2001) must have seen this movie as that film featured a slasher whose nose bled during the killers murder spree.
Pleasence is amazing and memorable as the off-kilter Doctor Bain. He smokes marijuana and seems quite at home in the asylum referring to the inmates as voyagers on a journey of discovery. Bain also allows some of the less harmless inmates to have more freedom. Lin Shaye has a humorous role as a "receptionist" who greets Potter upon his arrival. He quickly surmises that she is not quite right upstairs. Schultz is also very good as the family man, Dan Potter. He tries to explain to Hawkes on several occasions that he did not kill his predecessor and that he has taken a job at another facility. Ironically enough, Schultz would later play a mad character on the popular TV show THE A TEAM.
There are an additional handful of memorable scenes in this picture. The opening scene in the diner (featuring some make up effects by Tom Savini) starts things off on the right note and numerous bits inside the asylum have an air of gallows humor about them. Once the blackout occurs, mass looting overtakes the town and the quartet of maniacs fit right in amongst the hysteria. They grab as many sharp implements as they can from a hardware store and embark on their mission to stalk and kill Potter and his family. At that point, the siege aspect of the film takes over.
The script is exceptional and the level of characterization on hand is extraordinary for this type of movie. The notion of insanity is a constant and relevant plot device throughout the entire picture. Whether it's actions by cast members both crazy and otherwise, or witty lines spoken by the characters, Jack Sholder's movie shows us just what kind of mad world we inhabit. The script also explores what scares us and how nightmares can effect our actions and emotions.
The last scene hammers this home beautifully when Hawkes enters a punk club filled with rowdy and seemingly psychotic patrons. After a woman pushes herself on him, he pulls a gun and this apparently unstable young lady begins laughing and caressing the firearm while it rests on her chin. Hawkes grins from ear to ear upon the realization he's found a new home. This goes back to a statement he made about his "trip" earlier at the asylum during his conversation with Potter, "I enjoy the social life. There are no crazy people, doctor, we're all just on vacation." With so many strong points, it's amazing that this production didn't perform well, while other, far more braindead and uninteresting pictures soared over it.
For those accustomed to typical slasher movie conventions, ALONE IN THE DARK (1982) may not be your cup of tea. There's a moderate amount of gore (a nasty throat ripping by way of a small garden rake; throat slashing; meat cleaver in the back...), but nothing close to a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, or similar picture. What it does have, are some strikingly lunatic performances, some choice suspense and scares and a strong script. For a lot of people, that is more than enough. This 80's horror entry is an unappreciated hidden gem and highly recommended.
This review is representative of the Image special edition DVD
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I've been a huge movie buff since childhood catching old horror and monster flicks on Shock Theater and kung fu movies at the drive-in during the late 70's and early 80's. I've had a long time fascination with, and appreciate all genres of fantastic cinema, good and bad. One fans cheese is another fans juicy steak. I like both equally and seldom find a film I truly dislike as I will find something of interest in just about anything. The bulk of the films or tv series' seen here are mostly from my childhood, or films I own in what has become an Amazing Colossal DVD collection.