The Dark (1979)

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“An alien mutilator stalks and kills human prey during the night.” — IMDb

OH MAN, this movie was something. I’ll preface this by saying that Nate actually chose this one. Considering how many horror movies I make him watch in the month of October (okay, who am I kidding, it never really ends), it seems only fair to let him choose which one we watch once in a while. If you pair a ridiculous and loosely sci-fi plot with the cinematic style of the 70s, Nate is going to be on board, so we dove right into The Dark, and… it was an adventure.

Apparently Tobe Hooper was originally hired to direct this — he’s actually listed as an uncredited director on IMDb — and it pains me to think of how much cooler it could have possibly been. When he signed on, the storyline was quite a bit different… but then he fell behind schedule and the producers fired him and brought on John “Bud” Cardos, who had previously done quite a bit of acting and working as a stuntman in addition to directing a few other feature films. The plot was changed pretty significantly towards the end of the shoot — in an effort to cash in on the recent success of Alien — and I think the entire film suffered as a result.

There really isn’t much more to the plot than there’s a mysterious killer prowling the streets of Los Angeles and everyone is trying to either avoid getting killed or catch the killer or both.

** SPOILERS! **

So I actually loved the opening scene of this film. The initial crawl, actually, was awesome, too… but I wasn’t prepared for how little any of that would really come into play (aside from the fact that they just wanted to cover their asses so they could show a vaguely otherwordly creature instead of just a dude killing people). The music was all whispers and chaotic piano punctuated with the clicking of heels on pavement… the lighting was so dark and contrasted that you could only see the occasional glimpse of blonde hair in a beam of light or shoes whisking along the ground… it was great.

The creature itself — I’m not even sure what to refer to him as, or even that it IS for sure a “him”, though they referred to it as The Mangler in the movie — is not much more than a less hairy werewolf in jeans. But wait, it can shoot lasers out of its eyes! Lasers that often don’t seem like they’re even coming from its eyes OR hitting its targets, but dammit, they are somehow still super effective! It growls and snarls a lot and it has superhuman strength (but don’t they all?) but it limps along clumsily when it chases people. Ah, logic.

The cops, Detective Mooney (Richard Jaeckel) and his donut-eating companion, Detective Jack Bresler (Biff Elliot), are awful. Like they literally do nothing but scowl and pick fights with random people until the end, when Mooney is ONLY in the right place at the right time because he’s obsessed with Roy Warner (William Devane), a man he had once helped get put into prison.

But it had some highlights, too. I loved the entire scene with “Sherm” (Keenan Wynn) and Zoe (Cathy Lee Crosby) in the parking garage, from him hilariously scaring her (twice) to his fevered sprinting from what he imagines may be the killer. At one point, Zoe asks him “you aren’t afraid of the dark, are you?” and he responds with, “No, I’m afraid of what’s in it”. Awesome. I also loved seeing Casey Kasem as the police pathologist (I only wish he had played a more central role).

It has all of the usual oversights of a crappy sci-fi B-movie. The effects are pretty terrible. The creature — The Mangler, the alien, the werewolf, whatever it is — has absolutely no backstory, explanation, or motive. Two characters watch The Mangler break through a wall of concrete blocks WITH ITS BARE HANDS and then not a minute later think they can hold it back with a locked wooden door. There are all kinds of mentions of The Mangler beheading and eviscerating its victims… but any time we see someone get killed, his laser eyes seem to just explode them. WHICH IS IT, WRITERS? Also, the thing is seemingly unaffected by countless bullets being fired at it, but ends up literally just going POOF! and exploding when touched by fire. Okay?

Also, the very last scene shows a blind man — one who had been shown repeatedly throughout the film but never referenced directly — as a voiceover tells us that “only those who walk forever in darkness will have nothing to fear in the dark” and like DAMN that would be kind of a cool line if the movie itself wasn’t such a disjointed mess. Come on, Tobe, come back around and do this thing for real.

But despite all of that — every single bit — I STILL ENJOYED THIS MOVIE. This is the formula that can never be pinned down, friends. A movie can have everything it possibly should to be a quality movie and can be hated… and a movie can be a hot mess of bad effects and stale acting and a plot that is barely hanging together by some weak threads and it can be super fun. This firmly falls into the latter category. So, ya know, go give it a watch.

Rating: 6.5/10 | Director: John “Bud” Cardos, Tobe Hooper (uncredited) | Writer: Stanford Whitmore | Music: Roger Kellaway | Cinematography: John Arthur Morrill | Starring: William Devane, Cathy Lee Crosby, Richard Jaeckel, Keenan Wynn, Warren J. Kemmerling, Biff Elliot, Casey Kasem, John Bloom

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