There’s nothing like a good mystery, and HBO’s Blackout (1985) has a central premise that’s hard to deny: You survive a car crash, but have no memory of who you were before. Until, 7 years later, someone shows up and insinuates that you were a man who murdered his entire family and then fled. Now, could you go about your life, or would you want to know the truth? And if you were a killer, would that impulse return?
HBO’s original programming was still in its infancy, so the film, which debuted on Sunday, July 28th, plays as a barely more graphic version of a network offering, which is fine anyway; Blackout offers enough story and characterization to diminish any desire for extra blood or sleaze.
Once more, to our faux TV GUIDE:
BLACKOUT (Sunday, check local listings for the 42 of you who have HBO)
Following a horrific car accident, a man starts a new life with no memory of his past – but a retired cop claims the man killed his own family in his previous life. Keith Carradine, Richard Widwark, and Kathleen Quinlan star.
A neighbor discovers the bodies of a mother and her three children in their family basement, propped in front of a blaring TV set, the air conditioning on blast to mask the smell of the decaying corpses. Enter cop Joe Steiner (Richard Widmark – The Swarm), determined to find the missing father who is surely responsible for the murders. While he starts his investigation, the film cuts to a grisly highway accident involving a semi and a car with two people, both unseen – the driver and a hitchhiker. Only one survives, and the local police, headed up by Mike Patterson (Michael Beck – The Warriors), are trying to determine exactly who he is.
The problem is our charred survivor, Allen Devlin (Keith Carradine – Nashville), has no recollection of anything before the accident, and several facial reconstructions close off the possibilities of any connections to his past. Complicating matters is a burgeoning romance with his nurse, single mom Chris (Kathleen Quinlan – Event Horizon), which turns to marriage much to the chagrin of ex-boyfriend Mike. When Steiner receives a newspaper clipping of Allen from an anonymous source, he’s led to believe that Allen is the missing murderer; meanwhile, Allen, desperate to find out who he was before the accident, begins his own investigation deep into his past – but is the killer far behind?
Blackout is known mainly for lining video shelves in the mid ‘80s with the terrible box art of a leather zipper masked man gracing the cover. And while the outer image inspires nothing so much as the cover of November’s issue of S & M Monthly, the film within is a smart, if very convoluted thriller that plays to the strengths of its impressive cast. (The mask does figure into the story, but I figure I’ve convoluted you enough for one day.) Even as the plot threatens time and again to collapse on itself, Blackout manages to massage some suspense in between this turn and that, all under the muscular direction of Douglas Hickox.
For this genre fan, Hickox’s Theatre of Blood (1973) stands as a ghoulish ‘70s highlight, infused as it is with a giddy sense of gallows humor and a seasoned cast that finds just the right tone for the material. Blackout doesn’t offer up any humor on the screen, but Hickox surely sees the absurdities in David Ambrose (The Final Countdown)’s script, choosing to emphasize the thriller aspects and downplay the more melodramatic moments that would drown out the horror in lesser hands.
Downplay as best he can, anyway. There are some florid moments in the screenplay, including a few scenes more apt for a Lifetime movie than an HBO joint that threaten to derail the film (and some broad acting choices by Beck certainly don’t help the cause). But the concept alone is so intriguing, and Hickox et al do a good job of selling the mystery; you may get there before they want you to (at this point, the story’s been done a few times) but you’ll enjoy yourself waiting for them to catch up.
Carradine, and especially Widmark, were firmly established by this point; HBO would begin to use their growing clout to bring in big hitters like Widmark (although by this time he was relegated to supporting roles at best), because they were reliable and would bring a certain cache beyond teenage programmers like The Last American Virgin and Private Lessons. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) And he’s terrific here, giving a nuanced performance not afforded him in schlockfests like The Swarm. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that either.) Carradine had already excelled at worrisome, flustered characters, and Allen is no exception; he needs to find out if his past is tainted by these horrific occurrences, even though he assures everyone (and most everyone is convinced) that the upstanding family man he’s learned to become could never commit such atrocities. Quinlan was a veteran of a lot of TV and a few features (Airport ’77, Twilight Zone: The Movie) before Blackout, and her strength, easy charm, and beauty are used as motivation for (at least) one particular character.
Blackout will remind you of a few films after the fact, but that can’t be held against it. If you saw it when it originally aired, I’m sure every screwy turn played as promised; if you’re coming to it now, there’s still plenty of melodrama to chew on. (Zipper mask sold separately.)Next: It Came From The Tube: DEAD OF NIGHT (1977)