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ANALOG ABATTOIR: “ALONE IN THE DARK,” New Line Cinema’s mean little Freddy-less nightmare

Friday, January 5, 2024 | Analog Abattoir, Reviews


Starring Jack Palance, Donald Pleasence and Martin Landau
Written and directed by Jack Sholder
New Line Cinema

It’s hard to believe, but long before it became the juggernaut that distributed Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings trilogy – even before it was the house that Freddy built –  New Line Cinema was a blip. In the early ’80s, founder Robert Shaye shifted New Line from film distribution to production. Shaye focused on low-budget horror, and one of the pitches he received came from The Burning editor Jack Sholder. It concerned insane asylum escapees wreaking havoc, only to fall into the hands of the Mafia. Financial limitations forced a rewrite that scrapped the mob angle. With Sholder also taking the reins as director (he would go to direct the queer-horror favorite A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), what we ultimately got was a delightfully mean-spirited little slasher called ALONE IN THE DARK.

Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz) has a lot of problems. He’s just moved into a new house in New Jersey, and that in and of itself is horrifying (author’s note: It’s called “Pork Roll,” not “Taylor Ham”). Additionally, he receives a rude awakening when he arrives at his new place of employment. The Haven, run by the eccentric Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence, delightfully committed to this film about the committed) may be just as unwell as some of his patients. He espouses that the real world is far more inhospitable than the safety of his facility and that his most dangerous patients would be horrified by the realities of the outside world. Yet, there is also a touch of darkness in how he wrangles them, not through physical violence but by weaponizing their individual psychoses. (See the scene where he pacifies Landau by whispering the promise of making a nightmare into a reality.)

Donald Pleasence unleashes madness in ALONE IN THE DARK, 1982

Special electronic security measures are in place for Dr. Bain’s most dangerous patients on the third floor. However, Dr. Potter is rightfully concerned about the potential for escape. He has good reason when he meets the foursome located on that floor: Ex-POW Frank Hawkes, played with steely-eyed resolve by Jack Palance; pyromaniac Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff, brought to life by a somehow extra wall-eyed Martin Landau, hulking child molester Ronald Elster (Erland van Lidth); and face-shy serial killer John Skagg, prone to nosebleeds during his acts of horror. Frank quickly spirals into the delusion that Dr. Potter killed their previous caretaker, Dr Merton. His comrades are easily swayed into what becomes a group psychosis. Their only logical solution? Kill Dr. Potter. A poorly timed blackout facilitates the escape of all four killers, and we quickly find out that Dr Bain was quite wrong. It is the outside world that should be afraid of them – very afraid. Joining looters at a sporting goods store, our gang of four arms themselves and proceeds to track down Dr. Potter’s residence. Under the cover of darkness, they begin a siege of the home, dispatching anyone who dares interfere. Dr. Bain arrives, only to fall victim to his own hippie-like hubris. The Potter family must band together to fight the mad killers, and their survival hinges on a moment that reads as deliciously timed black humor.

A supremely unhinged Jack Palance in 1982’s ALONE IN THE DARK

It’s truly hard for me not to like this movie on every level. Get a load of that poster! A figure hefting a blood-soaked axe stands facing an isolated suburban home. The scene is lit by a cloud-shrouded moon. Better still, the film delivers on the promise of that art, and if you’re a horrorphile, you know the disparity between ’80s horror poster art and movie quality can be jarring. The film moves at a clip as it introduces the cast of characters and only seems to gain speed once the four psychopaths escape. They seem energized by violence, delighted at the prospect of unleashing madness on an unsuspecting world. It helps that the acting combo of Landau and Palance is as hell-raising as putting Ozzy and Lemmy together. Speaking of two of my heavy metal heroes, there is a unique sense of dark humor present that I’m sure they would approve of. Look no further than the conclusion of the film featuring Palance’s Frank realizing he may be closer to punk rock than he thinks. So, slap this unhinged little New Line gem into your VCR (or Blu-ray player, the Shout! Factory release is a pristine transfer), and hold your loved one close. When the lights go out, peek out the window into the fog-shrouded night, and look carefully because you may miss the flash as moonlight glints off a bloodied axe, the silhouette that holds it stalking ever closer.

Death to false horror,
Dr. Benny Graves

Benjamin Grobshteyn
The thrash metal Marc Maron, Dr. Benny Graves serves as arch-fiend of the analog abattoir. With a deep love for shock rock, schlock horror, and dead media, he can often be found searching the wasteland for the right SOV horror to sate his lust for trash-cinema. Dr. Graves resides in the unholy circle of hell known as New Jersey.