Alone in the Dark tends to get less attention than most of the other films to come out of the early 80s slasher craze. In part, that’s because it doesn’t quite have the singularity of focus or vision of Halloween, Friday the 13th or any of the other trailblazers. At the same time, however, that lack of a single focus – and lack of a focused slasher aesthetic – is part of what makes it so powerful, since in effect this is a film that attempts to split the difference between older horror cycles – especially the Universal and Hammer cycles – and the demands of a new slasher era. As a result, it alternates between two key spaces – an old-fashioned mental asylum and a suburban house straight out of slasher horror – just as writer-director Jack Sholder’s vision lies in how he manages to draw a common denominator between them.
Narratively, the connection is more or less straightforward: the film opens with Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz) arriving with his family in what appears to be a small New England town to take up the post of resident psychiatrist at an experimental institute run by Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasance). Although Pleasance was a great naturalistic actor – his role as Septimus Harding on The Barchester Chronicles, released the same year, is one of the greatest moments in BBC period drama – he really shone when called upon to deliver the kind of histrionic discursion that’s required here, as he leads Dan through a theory of mental illness in which even the most dangerous psychopaths are “voyagers, not patients.” One of Pleasance’s great gift as an actor was his ability to imbue these kinds of absurd claims with just the right amount of camp to prevent them being laughable or even implausible, and the surreal comic edge that persists right throughout Alone in the Dark owes a lot to his presence and panache.
Bouncing off Pleasance’s comic and creepy attributes are the actual patients in the asylum – and, in particular, the most dangerous patients, who are housed in a special maximum security on the third floor. According to Bain, each of these inmates is “very into his own space,” and that’s not hard to believe, given that the film assembles a bevy of extraordinarily plastic actors, faces that are already somehow prosthetic, with Martin Landau and Jack Palance leading the crew as a psychopathic priest and serial murderer who are just ridiculous enough to prevent you knowing whether you’re supposed to be laughing or not. Their plasticity is all the more uncanny in that the rest of the cast – especially Dan and his extended family – are more or less naturalistic, with the critical exception of Pleasance, an overlap creates an unsettling, residual sense that there is some kind of unholy alliance between these psychopaths and the director of the asylum as well, even if it’s not ever quite clear what it entails or how far it stretches.
Of course, it’s only a matter of time before the prisoners escape and run riot on the local town. As we’re reminded from the very beginning, this asylum is more modern than its American Gothic features would suggest thanks to the use of electricity, instead of bars, to house its most dangerous charges, with the third floor sequestered by a complex system of wired doors and security measures. For some inexplicable reason, however, there’s no backup generator, and so it only takes a blackout to set these psychopaths free to roam around the asylum, the town and, finally, Dan’s house, at which point the film starts to resemble more of a regular slasher thriller, as Dan, his family, and various hangers-on – his daughter’s babysitter, his sister-in-law, his sister-in-law’s new boyfriend – find themselves fighting for their lives against wave after wave of concentrated attacks.
On their own terms, these scenes in and around Dan’s house are masterful exercises in suspense, suffused with the beautiful suburban thresholds so precious to this particular moment in horror cinema. If the asylum envisages a new kind of architectural interface – “no bars, just electricity” – then something of that uncanniness translates back into the suburban register as well, especially in an extended sequence which a policeman arrives and scouts around outside while the family move from window to window to see what he uncovers. As with so many early slasher films too, the gore is still very visceral, melodramatic and gruesome, but somehow incidental and accidental as well. After all, at this point gore still hadn’t really been standardised in mainstream cinema, and it’s still shocking just how awkward, ungainly and contorted even the most passing conjunctions of flesh and weapon turn to be, as well as how casually and regularly the film converges sensuality and morbidity into tableaux of utter perversion and depravity.
For all that the film brilliantly offers an exercise in slasher suspense, however, it often feels as if it is the blackout itself that is designed to be the real object of horror. At this point in time, the New York Blackout of 1977 was still in recent living memory, partly because the twenty-five hour power shutdown occurred at a time when broadcast news was reaching a new kind of omniscience and cable television was starting to emerge on the horizon, turning the most damaging blackout in American history – looting, assault, arson – into an unprecedented media event, even or especially since the media being used to depict it were unavailable to those actually experiencing it at the time. Something of that fear and disorientation carries across here, with the blackout first depicted in the midst of a punk concert, coinciding with an anti-nuclear rally and leading to widespread supermarket looting, which the gang of escaped psychopaths join in order to arm themselves for the assault on Dan that makes up the second half of the film.
In each case, there’s a fear of the kind of mass gathering – whether figured as a mob or a demonstration – that’s enabled when infrastructure shuts down. It makes sense, then, that what we’re dealing with here is in some sense a mass of slashers, who gather around Dan’s house and operate according to a single, shared collective purpose. In that sense, the film often feels like a home invasion drama as much as suburban horror, especially since it gradually becomes clear that the killers have managed to invade the house mentally as well and to impart something of their psychopathic symptoms to the people inside. That’s particularly clear in the case of Billy, Dan’s sister-in-law’s boyfriend, who starts to develop physical symptoms as a result of the attempted invasion that turn psychological when the killers bring in their climactic effort; a nosebleed transforms, in seconds, to full blown psychosis.
Like the Universal and Hammer horror films, then, Afraid of the Dark is haunted by the possibility that mental illness might be infectious, although where those earlier cycles tended to focus on a supernatural agent of transmission, here Sholder taps into more contemporary epidemiological panics, especially those surrounding the AIDS crisis, which never feels too far away. Granted, the supernatural element is still there in the opening sequence, but it is quickly subsumed into an epidemiological naturalism in which even the most absurd pronouncements are accepted as fact so long as they purport to stop the spread of disease. From that perspective, the film finally plays as something of a mind invasion drama and a critical moment in the contagion panic of the early 80s, while its perfectly pitched taste for the absurd also seems to be Sholder’s way of commenting on that panic without succumbing to it.
Key to that comedy is the way is Pleasance’s gift for naturalising absurdity, with the result that the naturalism of Dan and his family starts to feel somewhat absurd by the end of the main home invasion sequence, which only seems to enhance their sprightly, sunny, can-do attitude as a family, until it feels as if Sholder is getting very close to parodying the victims of slasher horror as a demographic in themselves. Nowhere is that clearer than in the last scene, a joke ending on par with the final shot of John Carpenter’s They Live, in which Palance’s character escapes the police only to find an unexpected harbour in the punk and new wave community, which, throughout the film, has been presented as antithetical to Sholder’s family, even or especially when they tentatively “tolerate” it in some of the opening scenes. In a film about being caught at home alone, in a blackout, with nobody around and the surrounding woods encroaching, the rise of punk and new wave is finally, comically, presented as the scariest prospect, and there’s something about that gesture that parodies slasher horror as a whole, even as it offers a beautiful slasher experience in itself.