The Tomb of Terror – Fade to Black (1980)
Writer/director Vernon Zimmerman (writer of Teen Witch) has some interesting things to say when he isn’t focused on the Jerry storyline. He seems to understand how film can affect a lonely person’s life and what it’s like to be different. But once the film starts to move away from these angsty tropes, the film goes off the rails. There is no sense of cause and effect to the events that take place once Eric loses it. He goes after Marilyn (which makes sense), but decides to play a prank on her instead of kill her (which doesn’t). She then isn’t mentioned again for nearly a half hour, as he kills random bullies who were mean to him at the very beginning of the film. A subplot involving a greedy producer stealing Eric’s script idea is started after Eric has snapped, but would’ve made much more sense if it was one of the reasons he snapped. Nevermind the fact that Eric meets the producer while hitchhiking, even though he’s driving a car in many previous scenes!
There’s also the sense throughout the picture that Zimmerman has something to say on the effects of film on people. This is an interesting debate, especially in relation to horror films. Do they create monsters, or are they just an easy scapegoat? The film never decides either way. If Zimmerman was trying to make a point about this, he should’ve made some aspects more blunt. If Eric was an especially big fan of horror films, then maybe whatever message about how film relates to real world violence would’ve been clear. Instead, he loves everything from monster movies to screwball comedies. Now I think the whole “movies make people bad” argument is ridiculous, but there could be an interesting character study done with the concept. Fade to Black doesn’t have strong enough convictions to even convince you which side of the argument it falls on.
The acting in the film is uniformly over the top. Dennis Christopher was coming off of the Oscar-winning Breaking Away and was a hot young property in Hollywood at the time. I’m sure he saw this script as an interesting character study and a part he could really sink his fangs into. Christopher does an amazing job in the opening third of the film. You really feel for Eric and hate the people who are mean to him. Once the killing starts, Christopher goes overboard with accents and crazy eyes, turning a believable character into a cartoon. The best supporting performance comes from Linda Kerridge as Marilyn, but her character makes so many stupid decisions that it’s hard to muster much sympathy for her. The film is notable for featuring an early appearance from Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler). He plays Richie, one of the mean stock boys at the warehouse where Eric works.
It’s always hard to watch a film start off well and go down the drain. The build up to a possibly great movie leaves a worse taste in your mouth than something that was terrible the entire time. Fade to Black features a great premise for a film: what if a movie fanatic got lost in his own pop culture-filled imagination? The promise shown in the early parts of the film is squandered by a bad script, lack of vision, and mediocre performances. The death scenes where Eric dresses as classic characters are fun, but would’ve packed much more of a punch if it felt like the same character we fell for in the first place.
Final Grade: C
Fade to Black has been released onto DVD twice, but both editions have been out of print for years. The first edition came in 1999 from Anchor Bay Entertainment. This was when Anchor Bay was the king of horror on DVD, bestowing lavish special editions on the most obscure of movies. Fade didn’t receive this high class treatment. Although it had a nice anamorphic transfer, the only bonus feature was a trailer. The same disc was used in a 2003 double feature which paired it with another mediocre 80s slasher, the Linda Blair vehicle Hell Night. That film got a commentary track featuring Blair, the director, and some producers as well as a trailer, TV spots, and cast and crew biographies in addition to a nice anamorphic transfer.