“There are no crazy people, doctor; we’re all just on vacation.”

Jack Sholder’s Alone in the Dark (1982) builds its whole premise around this quote, a fun, underloved and winkingly perverse little beaut from the burgeoning minds at New Line Cinema, two years before Freddy stepped out of the shadows - and right around the time slashers were retreating into them.

Released in North America in November, AITD was one of New Line’s first forays into film production, focusing on distribution only, up until the mid 70’s. Some decent notices were not enough to put audiences in seats, and that’s just cuckoo – AITD succeeds in melding a couple of sub genres (slasher & siege) with a dollop of pop psychology guaranteed to etch a smile onto even the most disordered horror lover’s face.

Our tale opens with a dream sequence (nice practice for Sholder, whose next feature would be the unfairly maligned Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985) – which I like, so send those angry tweets to: @biteme. I’ll get right back to you) in a diner named Mom’s (paging Dr. Freud), where we meet Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff (Martin Landau – Ed Wood), who just wants some coffee but instead gets bisected by a short order cook (Donald Pleasence – Halloween), who in ‘real’ life is his head psychologist, Dr. Leo Bain. Byron wakes up screaming in his bed at Haven, an asylum for the insane.

The next day we meet Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz – The Temp), the newest addition to Haven, replacing Dr. Harry Merton who has moved on to greener pastures. After meeting Leo, Dan is shown around and is introduced to Merton’s patients, and our main antagonists: besides Byron, we have Frank Hawkes (Jack Palance – Batman), Ronald ‘Fatty’ Elster (Erland Van Lidth – The Running Man) and Skaggs, aka ‘The Bleeder’ (Phillip Clark - The Black Godfather), a tight knit group who immediately don’t take too kindly to their new shrink – so much so that Frank, in all his delusional glory, believes Dan has killed Merton to take his place. Before you know it, the gang breaks out of their electronically controlled rooms during a city wide blackout and set out for Dan’s place to lay waste to the man who tore their little family apart. Not included in summary: nosebleeds, ample bible quotes, bicycling mailmen, arts & crafts with a child molester, Pleasence smoke-um the peace pipe, gratuitous rioting, and the soothing sounds of The Sick Fucks.

Mental illness is, of course a serious issue. And to be fair, the patients are given traits only to move the story along – Frank is a post partum war vet, Fatty a child molester, Byron a pyromaniacal ex-minister, and Skaggs a serial killer – but the film isn’t about their maladies, but rather the method of treatment used (they are deemed by Bain as ‘Voyagers’ – Sholder’s piss take on R.D. Laings’ theory that the mentally ill are on a journey, and may find their way back to sanity. Uh huh.) and how society is just as twisted as them. Much of the humor wells from this setting – it’s made quite clear that Pleasence is easily as disturbed as his patients, his sunny-side-up disposition at odds with the dire medical needs of his ward going unaddressed.

Grounding us in reality is Potter and his family, wife Nell, sister Toni, and daughter Lyla (played by the delightfully quirky Elizabeth Ward – various ABC Afterschool Specials) – new to town, and the voices of reason, we view both sides – insane and insaner – through their confused and terrified eyes. This is a wise move on Sholder’s part, as our villains are just too cartoony to invest any real emotion in, even as colorful as they are. Sholder also shows a great touch with suspense (ably abetted by Joseph Mangine’s sharp cinematography), especially during the siege portion of our show, as well as a gratuitous babysitting session that precedes the invasion. He deftly intertwines the humor and horror, never going too broad, reeling it in just as his marauding band of misfits threatens to upend the loony bin. This skill would bode very well for his best film, The Hidden (1987), a classic alien-body jump- sci-fi-buddy cop feature that should not be missed (and another mention for Freddy’s Revenge, regardless of exploding parakeets and pop gun porno. Don’t forget to tweet!).

All the sanity lies in the casting choices. As our reluctant hero (a familiar trope by this point in the game, but great genre thrives on archetypes), Schultz acquits himself with a calming and level headed presence that, of course, was nowhere to be found in his signature role the following year as ‘Howling Mad’ Murdock on TV’s The A Team. It’s a thankless role but he does what he can, especially next to his flamboyant costars. Palance is menacing in full on asthmatic overlord mode, Van Lidth does wounded soul, dim witted goliath better than anyone, and Landau cackles, sweats and preens with a smile as wide as it is desperate. But my MVP award goes to Pleasence – Dr. Leo Bain should be as iconic as his Dr. Loomis, bewildered but calm, as everything (and everyone) falls about him. It’s a hilarious performance, right in tune with the satiric tone that Sholder presents throughout.

Lost in the shuffle, AITD deserves your attention. As horror fans, it’s our duty to shine a light on forgotten gems, so that they may sparkle again. Do yourself a favor and follow Dr. Bain’s advice: be a Voyager – and pull Alone in the Dark out of the shadows.

Alone in the Dark is available on DVD from Image Entertainment.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE HITCHER
  • Scott Drebit
    About the Author - Scott Drebit

    Scott Drebit lives and works in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He is happily married (back off ladies) with 2 grown kids. He has had a life-long, torrid, love affair with Horror films. He grew up watching Horror on VHS, and still tries to rewind his Blu-rays. Some of his favourite horror films include Phantasm, Alien, Burnt Offerings, Phantasm, Zombie, Halloween, and Black Christmas. Oh, and Phantasm.