I remembered this movie being much better than it is. Now that I view it again after a lapse of nearly 40 years, I think that some of what I recall actually came from a novelization that I read around the same time; there are scenes and snappy bits of dialog not in the DVD version that I have. I’m sorry they didn’t use whoever wrote that for this screenplay.
In 1980, Fade to Black was Dennis Christopher’s follow-up after the success of Breaking Away. I had a mild crush on him after that film, and he is easily the best thing in this one, playing a shy film geek who one day snaps and starts to identify too closely with some of his favorite screen legends. But he’s got a difficult and somewhat incoherent script to work with.
The DVD I bought of this film comes from Italy; it’s in English, but there are captions in Italian that pop up to translate any street signs, book or film titles, or other text that appears on the screen. Thinking of this as gialli helps me cope with the incoherence and some of the other plot problems. If you watch enough Italian horror, you get used to it not making any sense. Plus, it’s got the elaborate sort of set-piece murders that Italian horror movies enjoy so much (but without all the gore).
Eric Binford was born and has spent all his life in Hollywood. Like a lot of people, he has dreams of going into the film business. This being pre-VCR or DVD days, he keeps a film projector at home and watches a lot of old movies in his room. The walls are covered with movie posters and photographs of the old stars. He is particularly attached to Jimmy Cagney’s character Cody Jarrett in White Heat (“Top of the world, Ma!”). He has an idea for his own film script he’s just waiting to pitch to someone, if the opportunity arises.
While he’s dreaming of that opportunity, he works for a film rental company and trades movie trivia with his jerkish coworkers. His boss is kind of a jerk too. He lives with his aunt, who is in a wheelchair; she was in a car accident years ago, when a babysitter summoned her home early from a date because young Eric was ill. She blames him. Near the end of the movie, someone mentions almost as an aside that Aunt Stella was actually his mother, but Eric never finds it out so it doesn’t really add much to the story except to make her occasional ogling of him even more creepy.
Eric’s life begins to go off the rails when he meets a girl.
This might normally be a good thing to happen to a shy boy, but in this case the young lady (Linda Kerridge) looks like Marilyn Monroe.
Okay, she doesn’t look that much like Monroe, but she wears her bleached hair in a similar style and her first name is Marilyn. Whether she chose to call herself that when she first came to Hollywood with her own ambitions to become a movie star, or it’s the name her parents gave her remains unclear. But Eric is immediately struck by the resemblance and is emboldened to speak to her. He courts her with some movie trivia and the two hit it off. When he asks her to go to the movies with him that evening, she accepts.
Unfortunately, Marilyn is a ditz and forgets about their date. Eric stands around outside the theater, all dressed up and waiting for hours. He gives up and heads for home just before Marilyn, who belatedly remembers that she was supposed to be there, finally shows up.
At home, Eric broods while watching Kiss of Death–featuring that memorable scene where Richard Widmark as psychotic killer Tommy Udo pushes a woman in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs.
You can see where this is going even before Aunt Stella rolls into Eric’s room to nag him and knocks the projector over.
Everyone believes that Stella had a tragic accident. Eric now has the house to himself as well as his aunt’s money, which isn’t enough for him to be able to quit his job, but he can finance some of the things he wants to do. Although he imitates Tommy Udo’s maniacal giggle when no one is around to hear, Cagney’s Cody Jarrett remains his main identification figure. He puts that name on the mailbox, which confuses the postman since he can see that the same guy still lives there.
Eric’s next murder is more of an accident. He dresses up as Bela Lugosi’s Dracula to attend a horror-movie fest.
The image of Dennis Christopher’s face half-painted white is the most memorable in this film. It’s on the poster art and the DVD cover. While it is a striking image, representing Eric’s dual personality, it makes no practical sense. Nobody fully makes up half their face, then does the other half. When we see him at the theater, enjoying his popcorn while watching Night of the Living Dead, his entire face is painted white with black “vampire” highlights. He’s also wearing a Lugosi-style evening clothes and cape.
On the way home, he encounters the same prostitute who insulted him the other night after Marilyn stood him up. He chases her. Frightened, she runs down an alley and impales herself on the slats of a broken wooden fence.
That same evening, he takes a measure of revenge on Marilyn, stalking her at her home, entering the house, and waiting until she’s in the shower to emerge.
It’s a recreation of the shower scene from Psycho, except that Norman Bates wasn’t dressed like Count Dracula, and this is a fake-out parody. Eric doesn’t want to murder Marilyn, only punish her.
When he flings back the shower curtain, he’s holding a pen, not a knife. It’s hard to hear under Marilyn’s screams, but he says “I only wanted your autograph!” before running off.
The pen, which Eric dropped in the shower, “bleeds” black ink which spirals down the drain.
Eric’s not done with his spree, though. He has suppressed resentments against other people that have been building up for a long time. Once you’ve committed one or two movie-themed murders, the rest become easier. You just need a little imagination and some theatrical make-up.
He next takes revenge on one of his jerky coworkers (a not-yet-famous Mickey Roarke) by dressing up as Hopalong Cassidy and challenging him to a gunfight. Mickey’s gun isn’t loaded. Eric’s is.
This shooting draws the attention of the police. Eric is interviewed along with other people who worked with the victim, but he doesn’t catch their interest as a possible suspect.
There’s been an uninteresting sideplot about a psychologist and a policewoman who are lovers, and their conflicts with her abrasive boss whose idea of good police work is when in doubt, shoot. Their discussion of the effects of violence in films on impressionable viewers is meant to be an important theme, and in a better movie there might be something to be said about the fabulous dreams which films offer the fantasy-prone in contrast with reality–but the dialog is inane. The three characters are superficially written. Even once their investigation gets underway, they contribute so little to the plot that they might as well have been removed except for serving as generic police to show up at the end.
On the plus side, their scenes are the ones that feel most like gialli to me. In Italian thrillers, the police are always stupid and incompetent, which is why visiting American writers, British jazz musicians, blind crossword-puzzle composers, schoolgirls, high-fashion models, and hapless tourists have to solve the horrific crimes going on around them.
Somewhere in here, Eric’s dream comes true. A famous film producer gives him a lift in a lovely vintage automobile, and Eric gets a chance to pitch his idea for a movie. The producer likes it, gives Eric his phone number, and tells him to give him a call.
Eric hasn’t forgotten Marilyn. He continues to obsess over her, until he believes that she is actually Monroe. He even thinks he’s going to marry her.
Meanwhile, the murders continue.
Next up is his boss, who laughs when Eric says he’s planning to wed Marilyn Monroe, and fires him over other issues. While the boss is working alone in the warehouse that night, Eric shuffles in dressed as a mummy and gives the man–who has a weak heart–a fatal heart attack.
When he sees the producer he met doing an interview on television, describing Eric’s idea as the plot of his next big film, Eric is at first delighted. He calls the producer–who not surprisingly denies that he ever met Eric and doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
This puts Mr. Bigshot next on the list.
Cody Jarrett’s been haunting this movie since the beginning, and now it’s time for Eric’s tribute to him.
Dressed like a 1930s gangster and carrying a tommy-gun–who knows where he got it?–Eric shows up at the producer’s favorite hairstyling salon as the people there are throwing their valued customer a small birthday party.
When he first sees this costumed kid doing a Cagney impression, the producer believes it’s part of his birthday present, something like a singing telegram. Then the bullets start to fly. While everyone else flees in terror, Eric takes the time to be sure that his victim remembers who he is before plugging him full of lead.
Somehow, even though they’ve done absolutely no useful investigation, the police are now aware that Eric is responsible for all these murders and are looking for him.
Eric still has one last thing to do before they catch him. Renting a small office studio, he phones Marilyn about an acting job.
When she gets there, the set is decorated to resemble a scene from The Prince and the Showgirl. Eric is dressed as the Prince, and of course he wants Marilyn to perform her Showgirl role.
Marilyn has no idea about Eric’s mental state, or what he’s been up to since the last time she saw him. For her, it’s a romantic gesture and she’s happy to play out this love scene with this boy she barely knows, but has gone to so much trouble for her. A pity the police have to interrupt.
Eric makes his break, taking Marilyn with him. The next thing you know, they’re both up on the roof of Grauman’s Chinese Theater with all the spotlights turned on them and a crowd gathered on the pavement below.
The psychiatrist wants to try and talk Eric down. The police captain just wants one of his men to get in a good shot as soon as they can. But Eric wants to play out his own ending of White Heat–except that this iconic theater is not an oil refinery and it’s not going to go up in a ball of flame while Eric cries out “Top of the World!”
One point in Fade to Black’s favor is that it doesn’t simply use the trope that was already tired by 1980, that horror movies cause people to commit acts of violence.
Eric isn’t influenced by classic monsters or noir gangsters alone, but by all types of movies, and takes his inspiration even from characters that most people would consider innocuous.
What could be more wholesome than a sarsaparilla-sipping cowboy?
And yet the story that strings these “kill” scenes together is patchy. The characters besides Eric are sketchily written just so they can be jerks to him and give him a reason to murder them. It occasionally aims for a satirical commentary on the superficiality of life in Hollywood, but these moments fall rather flat.
The novelization ending was more poignant and yet managed to hit that satirical note the movie was trying for: The next morning, two workmen are hosing clean the cement-cast footsteps of the stars in front of the theater. One asks if the blood will wash off.
The other replies: “It always does.”