I’m always searching for movies. After the April Ghoul’s Friday night, I headed back to our room and watched this movie on TCM and wanted to add it to my collection. It’s out of print, with prices going anywhere from $90 to $120 for the DVD. Imagine my happiness when I found it for $4 at an antique store!
The film opens with a dream sequence where Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff (Martin Landau, forever Bela Lugosi and John Koenig to me) finds himself in a diner where he is chopped in half by a demented short order cook (Donald Pleasence!).
That cook turns out to be Dr. Leo Bane, who runs a psychiatric hospital that is able to reach the unreachable. Sure, his methods are practically surreal and he randomly smokes weed during the day. But they work.
Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, Murdock from TV’s The A-Team) is the new doctor in town, the replacement for Dr. Harry Merton who has moved to another hospital in Philadelphia. He’s brought his wife Nell and daughter Lyla (Elizabeth Ward, who played the original Carol Seaver in the pilot for TV’s Growing Pains before Tracey Gold won the role) to town and is preparing for a visit from his punk rock, post-nervous breakdown having sister Toni.
The really dangerous people in Dr. Leo’s care are all on the third floor. We already met the preacher, who loves setting things on fire. Then there’s the paranoid prisoner of war Frank Hawkes (the transcendent Jack Palance), child molester Ronald Elster (Erland van Lidth, Dynamo from The Running Man who was also in Stir Crazy) and John “The Bleeder” Skagg (Phillip Clarke, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud ), a killing machine who bleeds from the nose when he kills. No one has seen The Bleeder’s face, as he hides it from everyone but his close friends.
Dan learns from security guard Ray Curtis (Brent Jennings, Witness) that the third-floor men all believe that he killed Dr. Merton and want revenge. He blows this off.
A night at the punk rock club — a place that Dan hates — ends after the power goes out, as a nuclear power plant has caused a regional blackout. Lyla is at home with Bunky, her babysitter. And the men from the third floor kill their way out of Dr. Leo’s hospital, with all three but The Bleeder staying together.
Preacher makes the first move, trying to deliver a telegram to the Potter house. Then, Nell and Toni go to protest the nuclear power plant but are arrested, forcing them to bring in Bunky to babysit. However, Ronald gets there first and teaches Lyle origami. As for Bunky, well, she calls over her boyfriend Billy for some sex, but Preacher and Ronald kill them in a scene that has a disconcerting bit with a knife emerging from the bed.
When Dan bails out Nell and Toni, they bring along Tom Smith, a man they met in jail. The police are all over the house, investigating the murders of Bucky and Billy. Luckily, Lyle was in bed sleeping the whole time after playing with Ronald.
What follows is a night of murder and mayhem, with cops getting killed by crossbow bolts, Dr. Leo trying to reach out and hug the Preacher (he had previously told him that if he didn’t settle down he would cut him in half, leading to the nightmare we saw at the start of the film) before getting killed with an axe, a fire in the basement, the reveal of The Bleeder and so much more.
“It’s not just us crazy ones who kill,” says Dan at one point. The end of the film and the closing scene are harrowing. I’m not giving it away. You need to hunt this down for yourself.
Co-written and directed by Jack Sholder (The Hidden, the near franchise realigning of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge and The Omen TV movie remake) along with additional writing from producer and New Line co-chair and co-CEO Robert Shaye (who worked on the first two Elm Street movies), this was New Line’s first release. It also features a quick effect from Tom Savini.
One of the members of the band in the movie, The Sick Fucks, said that he ran into Jack Palance years after the movie. He told him he was one of The Sick Fucks from Alone in the Dark and Palance replied, “We were all sick fucks in that movie.” He’s right — Palance is awesome in this. He went so far into character that he refused to film a scene where he would kill the driver outside the Haven. He said that the audience didn’t need to see him kill the man to know how dangerous he was. He was totally right.
Alone in the Dark was written off as just another slasher in the early 1980’s. It’s basically disappeared as there hasn’t been a major re-release by a label like Shout! Factory or Arrow Video. That’s a shame — it’s an intelligent film that is as comfortable discussing the existential philosophy of R.D. Laing as it is with showing people get skewered.
UPDATE: You can now stream this on Shudder.