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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Dark (1979) review


William Devane (Roy Warner/Steve Dupree), Kathy Lee Crosby (Zoe Owens), Richard Jaeckel (Detective Dave Mooney), Keenan Wynn (Sherman Moss), Warren Kemmerling (Captain Speer) Jacquelyn Hyde (De Renzey), Biff Elliot (Bresler), Casey Kasem (Pathologist), Vivian Blaine (Courtney Floyd), Philip Michael Thomas (Corn Rows)

Directed by John "Bud" Cardos

The Short Version: Fractured minor league terror tale began its gestation as a slasher picture about a shunned mental midget with superhuman strength being unleashed on the world, but quickly changed course into a space monster murder mystery. A maniacal mess of a movie, it nonetheless sports one of the greatest casts ever assembled for a drive in movie whose production is more memorable than the film itself.

A ten foot tall alien visitor comes to Earth and terrorizes Los Angeles. Bodies begin piling up with their heads torn off. A reporter and a disgruntled book writer whose daughter is butchered attempt to stop the murders before the thing from another world kills again.

John "Bud" Cardos, the director of the classic 'Nature Amok' classic, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS (1977), guides this incredibly silly, but frequently spooky little horror picture about an E.T. of the unfriendly kind ripping apart bodies and zapping victims with lasers. It's one of the most bizarre creature features ever made and one of the most convoluted. There appears to be several ideas going at once that are all thrown together with little in the way of cohesiveness.

One of the reasons is that the film originally began under the direction of Tobe Hooper, a director who has had his fair share of ups and downs. Removed from the picture supposedly for falling behind schedule, Cardos was brought in to take over. Not only that, but the script originally leaned towards a proto-slasher angle about a family that kept their insane progeny locked away in an attic shut off from society and technology. When the home accidentally burns to the ground, the unhinged mongoloid with freakish strength is let loose on the world.

Since STAR WARS mania was sweeping the planet at the time, Edward L. Montoro, arguably the most notorious and unscrupulous producer to ever walk the Earth suddenly decided to change the plot to feature an increasingly indestructible monster from outer space. This would explain why some characters are mutilated and others are disintegrated by laser beams fired from the monsters eyes. The alien being heralds his arrival as lights inexplicably shut off wherever the victim happens to be followed by a great gust of wind. The abrupt change in the storyline is evident in some of the death scenes. When the monster is shown killing with lasers, the next scene shows the police and ambulance carting away a corpse on a gurney.

Adding to the already messy plot is a psychic woman named De Renzy, an eccentric woman who sees some of the killings before they occur. One evening, the beast visits her home, its visage seen in her mirror just before her house is wrecked by an unseen force. It's a thoroughly nutty premise bolstered by one of the most perplexing cast of actors and technicians for a film such as this.

According to Cardos, William Devane was anxious to work with Hooper and it was a bit of a rocky start between the two once Cardos took over. Devane plays the novelist whose daughter is killed by the creature. He approaches the role in a similar detached fashion that he did his disturbed Vietnam vet from the shamefully underrated ROLLING THUNDER (1977). The beautiful Cathy Lee Crosby is fine as the spunky reporter dying to find 'The Mangler'. Crosby is probably best remembered from the THAT'S INCREDIBLE! TV program. She also played the original WONDER WOMAN in one of two pilot movies before Linda Carter took over. Character actor, Keenan Wynn (PIRANHA '78, ORCA '77) plays Crosby's boss.

Richard Jaekel gives his all as usual playing the frustrated cop on the case. He was one of the most dependable actors working in Hollywood and appeared in dozens of movies and television programs of various genres. From Japanese movies like THE GREEN SLIME (1968), LATITUDE ZERO (1969), to westerns like CHISUM (1970), drive in action like WALKING TALL 2 (1975), and more horror like GRIZZLY (1976)and even martial arts movies such as KING OF THE KICKBOXERS (1990). There's a running gag in the movie regarding Jaekel's partner played by Biff Elliot. Every time you see him he's eating, putting some kind of sandwich, or junk food into his mouth.

Television sensation, Dick Clark(!) was the producer of this B movie train wreck and even his pal, radio sensation, Casy Kasem(!!) has a role as the baffled pathologist who comes to the realization that they aren't dealing with anything human. In another bizarre bit of minutiae, Paris Hilton's mother plays the first victim. Shot in 1978, the film was released in April of '79 and made little noise. It wasn't long before it was sold to television where most fans probably saw it the first time.

A few years before hitting it big on the television show MIAMI VICE, Philip Michael Thomas was playing racially motivated characters named 'Corn Rows' in John Cardos's peculiar and muddled sci fi horror non-masterpiece

The trouble the film went through shows from time to time and it suffers from lots of talky stretches, but many of the characters are decently drawn out in spite of a few rough spots of dialog. There's one nice touch, though. Considering the name of the film, a blind man is seen wandering the streets at certain points during the movie. I assume this character is supposed to be symbolic of the nature of the monster and how and when he kills. It's not much, but it's something among this potpourri of mangled ideas and mismatched plot devices. The whole movie manages to go to hell during the big finale which is preceded by an out of left field car chase(!!!) This leads to the monster being assaulted by a cadre of cops in an epic light show of hilariously cataclysmic proportions inside a dilapidated monastery.

Amidst the chaos, there are actually some well done scenes in this movie. The stalking bits are moody and creepy and each one shows the monster getting stronger. Whether hurling his victims through fences, crashing through walls, moving vehicles like they were cardboard, or firing off ocular blasts of laser beams, the beast is big, but never looks like he came from the stars. If anything, it resembles a less hairy werewolf. Now there's an idea! An intergalactic lycanthrope with ray gun eyeballs that awkwardly roams the streets at night tearing off unsuspecting noggins.

The soundtrack is eerily appropriate and unusual from the normal horror movie score. I first saw the film back in the early 80's as the ABC Movie of the Week and it gave me the creeps. Some of the cues will sound familiar and are borrowed from the original TWILIGHT ZONE show. While it's far from assimilating anything even remotely close to consistency, I have a soft spot for this minor footnote of horror cinema. No doubt it will be remembered for it cast and production than it will for what limited merits it possesses.

This review is representative of the Media Blasters/Shriek Show DVD


Franco Macabro said...

This sounds like worth tracking down! I wasnt aware of Hoopers involvement, but the themes that you mentioned, about a family of crazies unleashing their beast child upon the masses once their house burns down sounds like the kind of theme that Hooper loved to revisit!

So many of Hoopers films are about disfunctional families with a freaky son: TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 1 and 2, THE FUNHOUSE, heck even SPONTANIOUS COMBUSTION is about that...and now this one.

Those images look eerie, and cheesy, sounds like a fun halloween movie, thanks for the heads up on this one!

venoms5 said...

I have affection for the film mainly from nostalgia, but if you go in with low expectations, Fran, I think you'll derive some enjoyment from it. I have the original poster, too, and it was some years after I first saw the film did I ever realize it was a theatrical movie. I thought it was a TV movie for years. Not sure why it was even rated 'R'.

I Like Horror Movies said...

This is one of maybe 20 films I have actually sold. Gave it a second chance, and just wanted to be sure that I wouldnt end up wasting another 1.30H on it. Didnt have the same nostalgic remembrances V =D

venoms5 said...

I like it mostly for the cool cast. Such a bizarre collection of great character actors and personalities.

Granted I liked the movie itself better as a kid, everything else makes up for it to me.

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