There is a certain kind of actor who relishes the opportunity to play a crazy person. What better opportunity to overact and chew the scenery in ways that more buttoned-down roles won't allow? Several of those actors, including Jack Palance and Martin Landau, are featured prominently in Alone in the Dark. Donald Pleasence, no stranger to the less subtle aspects of the acting profession, is also in Alone in the Dark, playing the director of an insane asylum. But even for a character played by Donald Pleasence, he seems to be a few chairs short of a dinette set.
Pleasence is Leo Bane, the ditzy head of an unorthodox asylum known as The Haven, where the "voyagers" (don't call them patients!) are contained by doors held shut electrically. How exactly this is more humane than doors that lock mechanically isn't made clear, but neither are any of Dr. Bane's other methods. Dwight "A-Team" Schultz plays Dr. Potter, a psychiatrist whose wife wishes he would treat "neurotics, like everybody else." His only response is that he "just prefers psychopaths," and so he steps into a recently vacated position at the Haven. In his charge are several of the more violent patients, including ex-POW Hawke (Palance), church arsonist and former clergyman Byron (Landau), and a three hundred-plus pound child molester called Fatty. Led by Hawke, the psychos decide that Potter must have murdered their previous doctor for his position and so decide to kill him in return.
"Computer-- End program! End program!"
One evening a citywide blackout allows these three patients, along with another mysterious killer known as the Bleeder (whose face we never see), to escape. Under the cover of the power outage and some unbelievably quick civil unrest (Hey, maybe Prime Minster Mori is right!), Hawke, Byron, and Fatty pick up weapons and clothes at the scene of a local neighborhood looting, and head off to make some mischief.
The next day, the three psychos begin stalking Potter and his family. While Potter's wife and sister head off to protest at a local nuclear power plant (during a blackout?), Potter's young daughter is left alone. Then Fatty shows up in the house, claiming to be the babysitter. Note to Hollywood: Child molestation or the threat of child molestation is never entertainment, and really has no place in a movie like this.
Happily, somebody involved in the making this movie had a little taste, and after a few uncomfortable scenes, nothing happens. But the real babysitter shows up while the daughter is asleep, and then has sex with her boyfriend... you can guess the rest.
"If I kiss you, I'll star in B*A*P*S?
I don't see a downside!"
The next night the power is still out, and Hawke, Byron, and Fatty surround Potter's house, intent on killing him. Trapped in the house is Potter, his family, and some guy named Tom Smith that Toni picked up after the protest.
Whatever happened to the Bleeder? Hmmm...
Made in the wake of Halloween and its imitators, Alone in the Dark conforms slavishly to slasher movie conventions despite the fact that it's not about a solo slasher. And since there are an overabundance of villains, why not have a similar surplus of horror movie clichés? For instance, it is a well-known fact that in horror and sci-fi films, the token black guy is usually the first to die. In this film, once that occurs, they actually introduce another black guy, just so he can be the first to die in the second half of the film! Alone in the Dark also manages to give us two instances in which a car refuses to start in a crisis situation, and of course there's the aforementioned teens having sex who meet an unpleasant end. (We knew we'd be seeing more than a few of babysitter Carol Levy's physical assets, because she was credited as "and Carol Levy as Bunky.")
Those guys selling adjustible beds
aren't fooling around anymore.
The fact that this movie was ever committed to film, distributed, and shown in movie theaters should be a deep source of shame for most of the actors involved, but this is especially true for Martin Landau. Jack Palance we can understand -- this is the guy who did one-armed pushups during his Oscar acceptance speech and embarrassed himself for generations to come with his performance in Hawk the Slayer. But Landau -- he went toe-to-toe with Anjelica Huston in Crimes and Misdemeanors! What is he doing here, swinging a burning shirt over his head and aping the shrill, nervous laugh of a madman? It just goes to show that any career (North by Northwest, Mission: Impossible) can crash and burn (Meteor, Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island) before rebounding (Crimes, Ed Wood). True, Landau's 40-year career could be likened to a yo-yo (his latest film? Ready to Rumble), but we like to think that he's better than... this.
Topping off the shame like lukewarm whipped cream on a stale piece of pumpkin pie is one of the very worst deus ex machina endings you will ever witness. Just as Hawke is about to finish off Potter, the blackout ends. And hey, somebody left the TV on! And hey, the news is running a piece on the killers! And HEY, the news guys are interviewing the very doctor who used to treat the loonies back at the Haven! He's not dead after all, and their little campaign of vengeance has all been a big misunderstanding! Whuttaya know about that?
If, after all this, we actually have to tell you not to rent Alone in the Dark, then you're beyond our help. We do hear there's a place for folks like you, though -- where all the doors are held shut by electricity.