In October of 1980, my family travelled from Oklahoma City to Houston to visit my aunt and uncle who had recently moved there from Southern California. As I was six, I only vaguely remember this trip. However, I do remember that on Friday the 14th, my dad took me to the first showing of Fade to Black. While this may seem strange to most, my parents gave me an extremely wide latitude when it came to what I was allowed to see at a tender age. I was already both a film buff and a horror fan. Plus, both my dad and I were bored and I think it may have been the only thing opening that weekend that looked remotely interesting.
To say that Fade to Black changed my life would be something of an understatement. It opened a door for me that really lit the fire for my interest for older Hollywood films and, in the film’s protagonist, I found a palpable movie character whose interest in movies mirrored mine. However, given the film’s shortcomings, it’s a strange title to freely admit was such a life-changer. Some people fall in love with the movies after seeing Casablanca; I fell in love with them after this one.
The film’s protagonist is Eric Binford, a socially-awkward and painfully shy outcast whose entire life revolves around the movies. He lives with his wheelchair-bound and intensely demanding Aunt Stella and works for a film distribution company where he is mercilessly ridiculed by his co-workers and seems to be on his last legs with his boss. After he is pushed to the edge, Binford begins donning the costumes of famous Hollywood characters and killing his tormentors.
From a practical view, Fade to Black has myriad issues. It’s riddled with plot holes, packed with thinly-drawn secondary characters, contains bizarre and convenient coincidences, and presents a story that simply just isn’t very buyable. The dry, secondary storyline which requires Tim Thomerson’s coke-headed, liberal psychologist and Gwynne Gilford’s snappy beat cop to first screw and then solve the case feels like a bridge too far by every conceivable metric. Much of the time, writer/director Vernon Zimmerman (a craftsman most famous for Unholy Rollers, a Claudia Jennings-fronted roller derby picture) allows everyone to overplay their hands to the point where it’s obvious to everyone that Eric Binford is the “celluloid killer.” Well, everyone except the people who are charged with solving the case.
There is a much better film trying to get out of Fade to Black. Hidden beneath the film’s insistence to try and be a slightly more serious slasher movie is an interesting and tragic story of a sick kid, the product of an almost-Hollywood scandal, irreparably stuck in the long-gone glamor of Hollywood that he finds in the glossies he buys in memorabilia shops, the movies he constantly watches, and in the fading Hollywood landmarks he visits around town. In Eric Binford’s world, it’s not enough that he scores a date with a Marilyn Monroe-lookalike (Linda Kerridge), he readily and confidentially insists that she IS Marilyn Monroe.
Giving a performance that is the definition of “sympathetic,” Dennis Christopher’s tortured and bullied Eric Binford is nonetheless tough to watch. There are times where we can feel his character get smaller as he gets beaten down by everyone around him; his terse verbal retorts pitifully ineffective and without any authority. His taunting at the hands of a co-worker (the excellent Mickey Rourke) is believably sad and his failed connection with Kerridge is a heart-sinker. Added to this is a very slight hint of sexual abuse which could have been developed a bit further to help convincingly fuel Binford’s eventual spiral into madness. But Christopher’s saucer-eyed charm and wide grin builds real emotional capital early on that is needed as his character slowly deteriorates. And working for him rather than against him are his less-than-perfect approximations of his cinematic counterparts which add to the pathetic sadness of the character. His ersatz James Cagney and Laurence Olivier have the same depressing qualities found in the office goon who is certain his Austin Powers and Borat impersonations are still clever and relevant.
The movie itself does actually have some moments of true greatness. Christopher’s sequences that are played in Dracula garb have a true creepiness to them, despite the film’s nonsensical nod to Hitchcock’s Psycho. Likewise, his appearances as the Mummy and Hopalong Cassidy are unnerving. Eve Brent Ashe absolutely chews up all the scenery in a performance that could be accurately described as Shelley Winters crossed with a pool of battery acid. Also great are the late Morgan Paull as a plausibly slimy movie producer who keeps the top seven buttons of his shirt undone and wears a completely ostentatious and utterly amazing Greek medallion, and Norman Burton as Binford’s exasperated asshole of a boss.
But what really works is that the film captures a very specific Hollywood while simultaneously mourning a Hollywood that is no longer. Eric Binford pines for the glamorous Hollywood of old but is stuck living among the crumbling Hollywood of the late seventies, which kind-of-sort-of looked like a sun-kissed Times Square of the same era. The old memorabilia shops, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and the shaggy, unkempt decadence of Ted Mann’s Chinese Theater are all on full display; it’s a place crawling with hookers, aspiring stars, and weirdos that all stand to remind people of the dank and depressing underbelly of the Dream Factory. And it is because of this coupled with the performances that the film transcends routine slasher territory. But due to its deficits, it’s a little less than the movie it could have been.
Nostalgia being what it is, I’ll never not love Fade to Black nor will I ever see it as anything but a watershed title in my film education, for better or for worse.