October Horrorshow: Alone in the Dark (1982)

A slasher flick starring Jack Palance and Martin Landau as murderous psychopaths? It would have been impossible for me not to seek this mother out, especially for an October Horrowshow viewing. Expectations were low. After all, despite the star power, this is an obscure movie, never a good sign. It’s a pretty simple formula. If a movie has stars, and you’ve never heard of it, there’s a chance it stinks. A great example of this idea is Robert Altman’s Quintet. That one had Paul Newman and Fernando Rey, two actors with gigantic reputations in a film helmed by one of Hollywood’s great directorial talents, and it was dreadful. Palance and Landau are no slouches, each having won Oscars for films after their roles in Alone in the Dark, but this film, like Quintet, was tough to watch.

Written and directed by Jack Sholder (no Robert Altman), Alone in the Dark follows Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz), a psychiatrist starting his new gig at a mental hospital run by Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence). Here we are, a couple minutes into the movie, and I was wondering if I was watching an American remake of Asylum. Except for the lack of overwrought music, the two films are very similar in how they open. But whereas Asylum has a dour, gothic feel to it, Alone in the Dark has none of that noise, especially after a viewer is introduced to Dr. Bain.

Donald Pleasence must have had fun with Alone in the Darkthis role. He had spent two films playing the very somber Dr. Loomis in the Halloween movies, and thank goodness he didn’t try to repeat the performance here. Dr. Bain is an unorthodox clinician, to say the least. He’s nothing less than a goofy little nutjob. He’s a little squirrely, a little stoned, and totally devoted to helping the patients in his care (a lesson Dr. Loomis could have bothered learning, quite frankly). Just like anything else he’s in, Pleasence was a pro, and gave another totally reliable performance.

As for Palance and Landau, they play a pair of patients who suffer from delusions and paranoia. After Dr. Potter arrives, they, and a couple of the other patients, are convinced that Potter killed the doctor he’s replacing, whom they liked. They decide after lights out one evening that Dr. Potter must die. They get their shot when a power outage plunges the town and the asylum into darkness, opening all the electronic doors. Once free the group starts to murder its way across town to confront the doctor and his family in their home.

This sounds like a very interesting film. But it’s not. Its pace is downright somnambulistic and it had a devil of a time maintaining my attention. Palance and Landau were mailing it in, and still outperformed Dwight Schultz. It just was not the right role for Schultz, and he was the star of the film. The role demanded that at some point he seize control of the film, that his character grow into the plot, but in many ways he stayed the same meek presence he was at the beginning. A more forceful performance was needed, not a performance that seemed to seek out the background in every scene.

The final sin of this film is that it is just not scary. There was not a single moment that wasn’t telegraphed beforehand. A lack of surprises, a lack of good acting, a lack of urgency — this is one of those films I have no qualms calling boring, a term I normally avoid due to its lack of imagination. But I’ve already spent 600 words on this dog. It deserves only one final pronouncement. Alien: Resurrection is a better film than Alone in the Dark.

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