Drive-In Dust Offs: FADE TO BLACK

2015/12/19 19:46:54 +00:00 | Scott Drebit


I’ve always been obsessed with watching movies. From seeing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the age of four at a Saturday matinee revival to today, the flickering shadow shows have filled my life. Consumed, I’m sure some would say. However, discerning fact from fiction has never been an issue, unlike Eric Binford, the hapless ‘hero’ of the eerie (and funny) Fade to Black (1980) – now here’s a kid with issues.

Written and directed by Vernon Zimmerman (The Unholy Rollers), Fade to Black was distributed by American Cinema Releasing on October 14th, 1980. The film bypassed audiences for the most part, but critics were generally pleased with the offbeat tone that it brought to the genre. If you love movies about movies, especially with a horror bent, Fade to Black is the film for you.

Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher – Breaking Away) lives with his haranguing aunt, and spends his days working at a film distribution warehouse in Los Angeles. He is a walking encyclopedia of film knowledge, continually badgering his co workers (and anyone he meets really) with movie trivia. Friendless, this is how Eric tries to connect with people, drawing them into his celluloid world. For most it doesn’t work, until one day he meets an Australian model who is the spitting image of Marilyn Monroe (Linda Kerridge, in a winning role), hits it off, and agrees to see a film with Eric. When Eric is (accidentally) stood up by Marilyn, something…snaps. Tired of being rejected, and unloved, Eric starts down a path of retribution and revenge against those who have wronged him. Everyone from his aunt, to his co workers (an early, slimy role for Mickey Rourke), his boss, and a greasy producer who steals Eric’s film idea – all are terrorized by Eric as his love of cinema manifests itself in very real ways. Dressing up as his favorite movie characters (Dracula, The Mummy, Hopalong Cassidy, Cody Jarrett) he quickly slips into his fantasy world, falling deeper into the flickering abyss from which he cannot return, culminating in a showdown at Grauman’s Chinese Theater that James Cagney himself would be proud of.

If you’re looking for a straight up horror film, Fade to Black is not it. However, it shares a lot of the same DNA, enough so that any horror fan will be pleased. Many references are made to classic movie monsters, and these strands are interwoven with a slasher sensibility as Eric makes his way down his list of wrong doers. What Fade to Black does (exceptionally well, I might add), unlike most revenge fantasies, is provide you with a protagonist (antagonist? It’s complicated) who is three dimensional and forces the audience to care for him. A back story filled with guilt and remorse adds to this, and provides a basis for his obsession, his need, to lose himself in the world of film. The humor comes from thoughts of Eric’s that manifest in intercut classic movie moments, showing how he would react if he could. As he loses his grip on reality, we lose the ‘coulds’ and Eric starts to create his own movie moments for real.

What writer/director Zimmerman is able to accomplish is nothing short of a miracle: he somehow keeps the film light and breezy, while still providing tense scenarios and a good dose of pathos for our poor put upon Eric. His love of movies is very apparent, and the enjoyment you’ll receive from Fade to Black increases ten fold if you share his obsession. The film is littered with references and enough sight gags to keep even the most earnest cinephile smiling from start to finish. It’s a confident outing for Zimmerman, and it’s a shame he never dipped his toe again in the more macabre side of the pond, as he shows a sure touch for the bizarre.

Helping him achieve his Tinseltown tribute is cinematographer Alex Phillips Jr. (The Devil’s Rain), who uses heightened lighting and angles during some of the kills to emphasize Eric’s break from reality.  It really does add to the mood, and lets the viewer know it’s just a bit of tongue in cheek fun.

Walking the red carpet is an exemplary cast of fresh faces (at the time). Tim Thomerson (Trancers) plays a police psychologist helping to figure out the mysterious murders. He brings a laid back looseness to an otherwise stock character that is refreshing. Actually the only downside to the film is the police angle, which is rote and unnecessary to the plot until the final showdown. When the film is focused on Eric (as it mostly is) and his interaction with others, it really flies. Rourke, as Eric’s co worker, shows even in his second role, a unique streetwise sensibility that is mesmerizing. The find of the film, though, is Australian Kerridge. She does look a lot like Monroe, true – however, she possesses a sexiness and easy going charm that leans more towards the modern, like a less urbane Debbie Harry.

The marquee, however, belongs to one person – Dennis Christopher. Fresh off his acclaimed performance as underdog amateur bicyclist Dave Stoller in Breaking Away, Christopher does a complete 180 in his turn as Binford. At first, Eric seems rather pathetic – miserable and annoying. However, as we learn more about his character, we begin to see him as a lonely young man whose only sense of human connection is through his onscreen heroes. He has reached out to people, but starting with his belittling aunt, he keeps getting pushed away until the only home (and sanctuary) he has lies within the projected image. With his wounded eyes, broad shoulders looking ready to buckle, and a vulnerability that is soul crushing, Christopher is transcendent. He leads Eric on a journey from down trodden to (in his mind, anyway) triumphant that is by turns sly, magnetic, and heartbreaking. It’s a tour de force performance, both as Eric and his ‘homages’ to his onscreen idols.

Fade to Black is not a satire about Hollywood. It is a love letter to the film fan, to the dreamer who sees himself (or herself) aglow and magnificent, waiting for the velvet curtain to be drawn. So dim the lights, lean back, and pour out a little popcorn for poor Eric Binford. He got to live out his dreams – unfortunately on the wrong side of the screen.

Fade to Black is available on DVD from Starz/Anchor Bay.

Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THEATRE OF BLOOD
  • 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.