I'm reviewing neither the groundbreaking videogame franchise nor the poorly-received twenty-first films based on it. No, this Alone in the Dark appeared in 19821, an initially-overlooked offering in the slasher genre. Its name cast, relative intelligence, and style gradually earned its reputation. If you like horror, it's worth seeking out, probably the best of the Halloween-derived horrors, prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street, and certainly better than Friday the 13th.
It also features some very odd intertextuality with these movies.
The set-up: a new psychiatrist (Dwight Schultz) joins the staff at Haven, where some truly dangerous patients receive treatment under the direction of maverick Dr. Bain (Donald Pleasence) who is not quite playing with a full deck himself. A power failure allows four of the most notorious inmates to escape: a pyromanaical preacher (Martin Landau), an outsize child molester (Erland Van Lidth), a paranoiac POW (Jack Palance), and a killer with a hidden face. Although happy to slash along the way, they have a destination and a target. They have become convinced that the new psychiatrist killed his predecessor, with whom they had bonded.
In short, Alone in the Dark takes Halloween's premise, multiplies the number of killers, and gives them a personal reason to target a particular house and its occupants. Unlike Mike Myers, Freddy Krueger, or Jason Voorhees, these killers have no special immunity to weapons and, because Alone... features four killers (stopping one won't end the film), they're as much in danger of dying as their prospective victims. That gives certain scenes an added level of suspense.
New Line Cinema also serves us a slasher film with real-world thematic concerns and often satiric social commentary. These elements center on Dr. Bain's notion that insanity may be a response to an insane world.2
The cast combines established actors, obviously having a ball, alongside promising newcomers. Perhaps the most interesting player is multi-talented Erland Van Lidth, Olympic wrestler, opera singer, MIT graduate, and occasional actor. Many recall him as "Terror" in the cult film, The Wanderers, and as "Dynamo" in the Stephen King-inspired Arnold Schwarzenegger flick, The Running Man.3
To be sure, Alone in the Dark has its flaws. The reveal of the fourth killer's identity, for example, strains credibility to breaking. He does, however, sport an impressive goalie mask for much of the film. It's not entirely clear if they borrowed the mask from Friday the 13th Part Two-- but this movie's connection to other cinematic terrors is impressive.
Who influenced whom? Halloween is obvious enough: it really started the genre and Donald Pleasance appears in both. A babysitter becomes one of the targets. Certain scenes and plot elements of Alone... clearly take their cue from John Carpenter.
Yet we also have a killer in a goalie mask, as in Friday the 13th. Jason did not don his until the second movie, and it's not certain if the makers of Alone in the Dark knew about that during production. Even more bizarre: A Nightmare on Elm Street would not appear until two years later; Alone... features a killer from Springwood (the town where Nightmare… takes place), a character named "Krueger" (I had to rewind—but that's the name of the official mentioned on the TV news), and a scene that bears a strong resemblance to Freddy's manifestation in the bath. New Line Cinema would eventually produce and distribute Nightmare... and Wes Craven began shopping its script in 1981, so it's likely New Line had already read Nightmare... before they began production on Alone in the Dark. Then again, maybe it's just a really weird string of coincidences.4
In any case, this often-overlooked movie from the 1980s proves that even the most formulaic and often cheaply exploitative genres can produce something that transcends expectations.
Director: Jack Sholder
Writers: Jack Sholder, Robert Shaye, Michael Harrpster
Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes
Dwight Schultz as Dr. Dan Potter
Donald Pleasence as Dr. Leo Bain
Martin Landau as Byron "Preacher" Sutcliff
Erland van Lidth as Ronald "Fatty" Elster
Deborah Hedwall as Nell Potter
Lee Taylor-Allan as Toni Potter
Phillip Clark as Tom Smith
Elizabeth Ward as Lyla Potter
Brent Jennings as Ray Curtis
Carol Levy as Bunky
Gordon Watkins as Detective Burnett
Keith Reddin as Billy
Lin Shaye as Receptionist at Haven
Jana Schneider as Spaced-out Girl
The Sick Fucks as Themselves
1. It is the 1980s, but viewers could be forgiven for being initially uncertain. Following a dream sequence that hearkens to the 1950s, Dr. Potter's arrival at Haven creates a strange dislocation in time. His car is a 1972 Saab 96 V4, with a design that reflects an earlier era. Dr. Bain drives a 1951 Bentley Mk VI and a 1940s Woodie (unsure of make and model), both of which appear in that sequence. The other cars in the opening scene are from the 40s and 50s. Potter himself dresses anachronistically for the era; he could be playing Brad in Rocky Horror.
2. Leo Bain's ideas reflect and (arguably) parody those of R. D. Laing, an influential psychiatrist.
3. Sadly, Van Lidth died of heart failure in 1987.
4. For that matter, two of the incidentally missing patients receive the names "David and Lisa." Most likely this references the celebrated 1962 film of that title, which takes place in a mental institution. David and Lisa may not be so familiar now, but there is little-to-no chance the people making movies in the early 1980s wouldn't have known it. This would be even more true of the mavericks at New Line Cinema.