Fade to Black (1980)
BY SPECIAL GUEST WRITER JIM
What’s It About: As the movie opens, we meet our hero Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher in his first role after the amazing “Breaking Away”.) He has eschewed life in the Midwest with the Cutters, and is now a creepy movie fanatic loner who looks like he’s done more meth than six seasons of Breaking Bad. He is awakened by his Aunt Stella, who looks like a bizarro-world Rue McClanahan and has the voice of a 45 of Betty Boop played at 33 1/3. She reminds Eric how much she hates him and how he ruined her dancing career by having a stomach ache and having the sitter call her home, which obviously caused a car crash and her inevitable paralysis. Over breakfast we are slightly introduced to the depths of Eric’s psychosis. As Aunt Stella lectures him on the importance of a good morning meal, he fantasizes about smashing his grapefruit half into her face in James Cagney-ian glory complete with a cutaway to the actual film clip.
Keeping the formula of how most loners choose their careers based on their obsessions, we see Eric at his job at a movie distribution house delivering film cans and posters. Naturally, he is behind in his work and is a total f**k up. He even forgot to gas up his delivery Vespa much to the chagrin of his angina-suffering boss. He is tormented by two bullying co-workers (one of which is Mickey Rourke in a role so early that I’m sure he can only remember it in black outs), and basically all we need to know is that life sucks for Eric and already you can hear him start ticking.
Before we move on with the main story, a brief mention of the B plot must intrude. It involves a policewoman getting involved with a new progressive hippie-esque kind of therapist, who comes to work at the police station that will of course be investigating whatever shenanigans Eric will involved in. It is a useless side story that could have easily ended up being cut entirely, but the therapist is portrayed by Tim Thomerson, who for my dollars was always Full Moon Features’ answer to Bruce Campbell. Seriously, go Netflix Dollman and Trancers. Great Saturday afternoon b movies.
As Eric stops for lunch, he is introduced to a lass named Marilyn who just happens to look exactly like Marilyn Monroe. Isn’t that always the way? He immediately start fantasizing about her singing Happy Birthday to him. Because that’s what every introverted virgin psychopath wants – to be crooned to. He then unsuccessfully creeps her out by making a Creature From The Black Lagoon reference, and if nothing but to further the plot she asks him for a ride back to work. Eric happily obliges because nothing gets the ladies more inclined to get horizontal than a ride on a moped.
In order to make the straw loud enough for the camel’s back to break, Marilyn shamelessly goes out on another date, not remembering her commitment to Eric well into the dessert course. Meanwhile Eric has been roaming the streets armed with only his trusty pack of Lucky Strikes and his Hopalong Cassidy watch, wondering where the Hell this tardy bitch is. She eventually shows up at the theater where they were to meet with a despondent, “I think I might have just pissed off a serial killer” look. While dejectedly waiting for the bus home, Eric tries to proposition a hooker who quite rudely turns down his offer of ten dollars. Something tells us we’ll see her again.
After finally returning home Eric drowns his sorrows not in booze or drugs, but in 1947’s Kiss of Death – because nothing can alleviate the blues of a bad date more than Richard Widmark. Aunt Stella bursts in with her typical insults and criticism and Eric finally begins his descent into homicidal madness. Just like Tommy Udo, he aims Aunt Stella’s wheelchair towards the stairs, gives one last final push and off she goes. Dead as Julius Caesar. Eric then recites the cast of Kiss Of Death, looks in the mirror, vomits, then dresses as the aforementioned Udo at Stella’s funeral. It has been well documented that serial killers have no compassion for human life, but a good protein spill and the desire to want your pain in the ass Aunt buried near Marilyn Monroe – is actually alright with me.
As Eric continues his healing process he burns Aunt Stella’s books, throws out all of her produce and vitamins, changes the name on their mailbox to Cagney’s name in White Heat, and also alters the street address to reference White Heat. I believe this is right between anger and bargaining on the stages of grief flowchart. Plus, when the mail carrier calls you a strange bird you know you’re in trouble.
Without missing a beat Eric then elaborately dresses up as Dracula and attends a midnight showing of Night Of The Living Dead. You would think that he would completely lose it inside the theater, but aside from a very polite “shhhh!’ to some talkative stoners, nothing happens. However, we are then treated to a horrendously done POV shot as Marilyn gets wasted on a glass of wine and takes a shower. Ericula then somehow sneaks all the way into her bathroom, and we are treated to a shameless “Psycho/Phantom Of The Paradise” tribute. Complete with a black fountain pen falling into the shower while the ink swirls down the drain.
Jump cut to our favorite hooker as she tries to get into her car, only to have Ericula pop up out of nowhere in true Michael Myers fashion. A chase ensues, (intercut with Christopher Lee clips) and the lady of the evening trips and falls onto a wooden fence, impaling herself through the throat. Now descending even further into madness Ericula, in an act that can only be justified by the pre-AIDS epidemic, drinks her blood.
In a quick bout of normalcy, Eric returns to work where the two bullies are still waiting around to torment him. They naturally don’t pay him for a previously made bet on some Casablanca trivia, and drive off. This of course sends Eric off and he dresses up as William Boyd a.k.a. Hopalong Cassidy. At this point you would think that the whole bullying, “It gets better” campaign was 20 years too late. Anyhoo, a makeshift gunfight ensues, and one of the bullies is left dead with five slugs in him. At a current body count of three this movie at halfway through doesn’t hold a candle to a Friday the 13th.
Now this next scene is a real reach. Eric is hitchhiking in what looks like the middle of Brentwood. A famous movie producer driving a 1934 Auburn picks him up, and even in 1980 the guy is wearing a white beret. Because you know, that’s what Hollywood players look like when they drive classic cars that even Jay Leno doesn’t own. They share a joint and bulls**t about the industry, and then Eric pitches him a movie idea. The producer thinks its brilliant and invites Eric to his next screening giving him the call-me-at-the-studio-sometime brush off. Eric of course takes this way too seriously, and professes to Aunt Stella’s urn that they finally made it and they’re going to be rich. Even though it’s now already an overused joke, an 80’s montage occurs here with Eric cruising Hollywood Boulevard. He takes Polaroids of the landmarks, takes a gander of the Brown Derby, buys some movie stills, then repairs to his lair to watch “Halloween” and jerk off to Marilyn Monroe pictures. Not quite a training montage from a Rocky film, but poignant nonetheless.
Either riding the high off of a fresh masturbatory session, or the next day, Eric returns to his job where his cantankerous heart diseased boss confronts him. They argue and Eric is relieved of his lackluster duties. He lapses into Cagney’s Cody Jarrett and threatens that his boss will pay for not returning his original one sheets. With which we can all sympathize. That night the same shitty POV happens again, so we know there’s going to be fireworks. The rotten boss is working late into the night trying to correct Eric’s screw-ups, he is obviously all alone sans one elderly security guard and in true slasher fashion; decides to investigate a loss of power all by himself. This as always proves to be a bad decision and he finds himself attacked by Eric replicating Karloff’s Mummy. How he went from a classic gangster archetype to an undead Egyptian pharaoh, I guess can be attributed to poetic license or suspension of disbelief. I think that they needed one more horror icon for the hat trick. Needless to say the dear old boss’s heart finally gives out without Eric even having to touch him. The scene is saved at the end by Eric putting his hand over his mummy-bandaged face and giving us that creepy high pitched laugh while standing over the boss’s corpse.
Some time later, Eric is in what we old folks called a hi-fi store pricing one of those new fangled crisp Sony Trinitrons with a tube that was only two feet thick. He sees the producer who picked him up hitchhiking on TV, telling an interviewer that his next project is going to be the very same idea that Eric told him. Eric immediately calls the talk show, identifies himself as the source of the producer’s idea, and OF COURSE is completely blown off by him. Nah, this won’t end bad.
Exhausting any sense of “C’mon. How’d he do that?” Eric shows up to the evil movie producer’s hair salon driving a 1930’s Packard, dressed in a gangster outfit reflecting the same time period armed with a Tommy gun. He is now completely Cody Jarrett. He calls the producer out on his lies and unkept promises, and then fills him full of lead like the obvious dirty rat that he was. Can we finally proceed to the third act now for Pete’s sake?
Marilyn finally comes back into the picture by strolling along a sidewalk sale and sees an ad for a studio that needs a Monroe look alike for a photo shoot. It’s amazing at this point how celebrity imposters get these fortuitous breaks. With footage of the b-plot cops figuring out where Eric lives, the fact that Aunt Stella was Eric’s mother and not his Aunt, and Marilyn showing up to the obviously fake studio – the 80’s slasher formula kicks into it’s built-in high gear. But please disregard the complete and utter authenticity of Eric’s fake photo studio. If the guy can murder someone using artifacts the prohibition era, he can obviously whip together a convincing modeling agency by the final reel.
With some very impressive automatic doors, and again some ridiculously hard to get camera equipment, Eric is now Sir Laurence Olivier the Prince Regent of Carpathia and Marilyn is Elsie Marina from The Prince and the Showgirl. He drugs her champagne and begins to execute his final revenge on all who scorned him. The two of them dance, take some more drugs, get caught by the therapist and his cop girlfriend, and eventually make their way to Mann’s Chinese Theater. Thus ruining the late night showing of Coal Miner’s Daughter. Eric lapses right back into Cody Jarrett saying that he owns the place and smacks his gun on the movie screen. Hardly the OK Corral, or the Alamo, but it was a cheap 80’s movie for Chrissakes. Eric drags Marilyn to the roof of the theater, and after taking one shot to the chest, locks her in the stairwell to keep her from harm in true King Kong chivalry. He goes to the ledge and humbly bows to the spectators and SWAT team. For this he is rewarded with six more shots to the chest. He is now in full-on last scene of “White Heat” mode. He gets up yet again to finally yell out the line we’ve been waiting for, “Made it Ma, top of the world.” Some more automatic gunfire and Eric finally takes a header of the roof.
End credits – fade to black.
Is It Actually Scary: It is for everyone who had that one creepy guy at work that you just weren’t sure of. Sure he’s a nice enough chap who always brought in coffee and bagels every Friday – but you were almost absolutely sure that he had bodies in his attic crawlspace. Not quite a horror movie, and not quite a slasher – I consider this movie the luke warm water in between the both of them.
Scariest Moment: Pound for pound it would have to be the fact that the same music cue is used for when Eric violently masturbates to a poster of Marilyn Monroe on his ceiling, and again as he plummets off the roof of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Never mind the hairy palms and the impending blindness – if you don’t stop playing with that you’ll take a header off of a Hollywood tourist attraction.
Most Disturbing Moment: Aunt Stella’s bartering system in terms of personal loans. In order to get the funds necessary for dinner and a movie in 1980, upon his return home Eric will have to give Aunt Stella a backrub. I don’t know anyone that really enjoyed kissing their Aunts let alone giving them a rubdown. Especially for a mere sawbuck! My minimum was a cool fifty with no funny stuff once we ran out of canola oil.
How Much Gore: A quick clip was shown from the original Night of the Living Dead so you see some old school zombie-gut-eating in glorious b&w. Other than that: some arterial blood from the clumsy hooker who falls through a fence, Ritchie gets shot in the chest and has some bullet squibs, the producer who steals Eric’s movie idea gets shot too, and finally Eric’s death involves some gunshots and a fall to the pavement where we’re not even treated to the splat.
Dumbest Moment: A 3-face-lifts-ago Mickey Rourke instructing his friend how to pick up chicks on a midway with nothing but a stuffed animal that was horrendously stolen from a carnival barker.
Best Line: “I never fu**ed a cop before.” Spoken by the quintessential thespian that
is Tim Thomerson. That makes two of us Timbo that makes two of us.
Any Nudity: The Marilyn Monroe look-alike heroine takes a shower and through either steam or a Vaseline infused camera lens, gives us a shot of her completely un-Monroe like body. I think even Mr. Skin ignored this scene.
Overall: This was one of those movies that was constantly talked about in school, but after finally seeing it wasn’t that bad. It was right up there with those rumors about Frank Zappa eating s**t live on stage, and how Gene Simmons really accomplished the feat of spitting blood in concert. It took movie trivia to a whole new level and introduced a lot of us to the classic b&w movies of Hollywood’s golden era. If the time were different, Eric Binford would have a million Twitter followers, the most popular movie blog on the Internet (no offense boys), and the most sought after audio commentator for DVDs and Blu Rays. But as they say, “Life at best is bittersweet.”
Score: 8 Cagney references (out of 10)