Fade To Black

by Alex Kirschenbaum Oct 14, 2020

Fade To Black, released 40 years ago today, is a deliciously demented, and surprisingly tragic, slice of meta-cinema. The tale of a much-maligned matinee maniac gone sour, Fade To Black rides a riveting, tour de force star turn from Dennis Christopher into certifiable legend status. This criminally under-seen thriller received a chilly reception upon its initial release (its Rotten Tomatoes rating of 45% among critics is a tremendous injustice) and did not make much of an impact with domestic audiences, but it has garnered something of a cult appreciation in recent years. To wit, Trailers From Hell Guru Adam Rifkin, a man who knows his movies, cited it as one of his favorite movies about movies in an early episode of our podcast The Movies That Made Me.

Tormented film fiend Eric Binford (Christopher), a stock boy for a movie marketing firm in the heart of Hollywood, lives to reference and rewatch classic cinema, plus horror flicks of a more contemporary vintage. This cineaste outcast lives with his cruel wheelchair-bound aunt Stella (Eve Brent Ashe), who is secretly his mother, blames him for the accident that crippled her, and constantly berates him for his laissez faire attitude towards earning his keep. So, in short, a typical LA roommate.

Eric’s no-nonsense boss Marty Berger (Norman Burton) also numbers among the ranks of Eric’s many oppressors. He considers Eric an apathetic irritant, prone to botching invoices and missing deliveries. Eric’s coworkers Bart (Hennen Chambers) and Richie (a young Mickey Rourke) — a minor film buff himself but, you know, a cool Mickey Rourke-esque one — constantly badger this precocious weirdo until they earn his ire.

Eric’s life takes a turn when he runs into Australian roller rink worker/wannabe actress Marilyn O’Connor (Linda Kerridge), a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who plays up their resemblance, at his favorite diner. After Marilyn inadvertently stands Eric up for a date, Eric begins to spiral. Soon, he has embarked on a violent serial killing spree, channeling slayings from his favorite flicks in the process.

Innovative criminal psychologist/amateur harmonica and cocaine enthusiast Dr. Jerry Moriarty (Tim Thomerson) and his lover, LAPD officer Anne Oshenbull (Gwynne Gilford), concerned with the impact of cinematic violence on a recent rash of homicides, become Eric’s main foils.

Though these characters occasionally feel like they’re on loan from The Rockford Files more so than they are intrepid cops in a gritty suspense picture, the off-balance tonal nature of their interjecting storyline actually helps break some of the unbearable tension that this viewer at least felt in watching Eric descend into hopeless mania.

As young Eric becomes increasingly more unhinged, his killings go from unpremeditated, semi-accidental crimes of passion to more disturbingly calculated serial killings, replete with thorough wardrobe and makeup changes.

Written and directed by Vernon Zimmerman, this delightfully uncomfortable psychological thriller draws from the same nervous energy that informed the chills of Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960) and Taxi Driver (1976), trailblazing tales of social deviants driven to murderous madness by their own sick compulsions.

Unrepentantly uninhibited thanks to his secret life of crime, Eric hitches a ride home from work one day via stoner producer Gary Bially (Morgan Paull), who seems to take a liking to Eric’s pitch for a Sam Fuller-esque crime picture. His internal fantasy life, unfortunately, starts to bleed into his waking life, and soon he becomes intermittently convinced that Marilyn O’Connor is Marilyn Monroe herself. Using a generous inheritance from his aunt, Eric fashions a faux identity for himself to ensnare the aspiring actress under false pretenses, as Moriarty and Oshenbull begin to close in.

A first-rate cast, a nervy and off-putting script, and some terrific cinematography courtesy of Alex Phillips Jr. work in tandem to create something special here. Christopher, probably best known for portraying hardscrabble athletes in Breaking Away (1979) and Chariots of Fire (1981), is hauntingly poignant as this maniacal psychopath, doomed from birth thanks to decades of mistreatment from his horrible aunt/mother. Christopher proves able to vault from a bundle of bubbling internalized asocial energy to histrionic theatricality, sometimes in a single sequence.

Kerridge, too, is deeply affecting as the hopeful ingenue, and bears such a striking resemblance to Monroe that she would go on to play a Monroe doppelganger again in Go West, Young Man (also 1980) and pose as the late great starlet in a Playboy magazine spread. Rourke, as a slightly more even-keeled film buff who doesn’t deserve his inevitable fate, makes a lingering impression in only a few scenes and has movie star writ large all over him in this early appearance.

Despite a handful of quirky narrative gaps, Fade To Black is well worth a spooky season screening. For maximum effect, be sure to watch it alone in the dark, late at night, on a big screen.

A comprehensive four-hour Projection Booth podcast episode incorporates conversations with Christopher and Thomerson, composer Craig Safan, and executive producer Irwin Yablans, and is well worth a listen. In his interview, Christopher notes that he poured a lot of himself into the film, including improvising edgier details of Eric’s devolving psychosis, designing his character’s own makeup and wardrobe changes, building out the terrifying wall plastering of Eric’s bedroom and home dressing room, and cooking up the entire ending! “I never worked so hard in my life as I did in that particular movie,” Christopher claimed.

If you go to enough Los Angeles revival houses or upscale arthouse theaters, you’ll eventually run into your own Eric Binford, lurking in the back rows during a late-night double feature. There is a joy and a torment in sitting in the dark, night after night, whiling away the hours as the lives of others are projected onto a 40-foot screen.

Fade To Black is currently streaming on Shudder.

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