Fade to Black (1980) February 13th, 2021
I bought the Vinegar Syndrome Fade to Black blu-ray because it promised to be a great unsung movies about an outsider pushed to the brink of insanity by an uncaring world like Taxi Driver or Cecil B. Demented. Unfortunately for me Fade to Black‘s more a self indulgent exercise in whining than a triumphant story about a righteous antihero.
Fade to Black‘s premise concerns Eric, a young man living in Hollywood making a living in the film distribution industry but struggling with his own social awkwardness and the general meanness of nearly everyone in his life. His wheelchair bound Aunt Stella (who’s eventually revealed to be his mother in the laziest ‘tell don’t show’ fashion I’ve seen in a long time) is constantly on his case. She hates his messy room covered in movie memorabilia and can’t stand it when Eric spends all night watching old films on his projector. Eventually the pressures at work, home, and the rejection of women send Eric over the edge where he loses touch with reality. He starts disassociating and imagining himself as characters in movies doing horribly violent things. He starts by imitating a scene from Kiss of Death and fatally pushes his Aunt Stella down the stairs. A string of movie themed murders follows where Eric gets his revenge on everyone who’s wronged him in the course of the film.
This is the premise that got me excited, I thought it would be a gritty mash up of Scream and Cecil B. Demented but those movies were masterfully made whereas Fade to Black‘s a self indulgent masturbatory slog. Have you ever heard the phrase “Murder your darlings”? It’s a piece of writing advice I could obey more stringently but self effacing aside, it suggests no matter how much you love something you’ve created you should cut it from your story if it doesn’t serve the greater or most significant purpose of the story. Fade to Black‘s writer/director Vernon Zimmerman’s movie is so full of darlings one shudders to think what ended up on the cutting room floor.
All Fade to Black needs to be is the story of a man pushed to the edge who commits no more than three murders dressed as a character from classic cinema. As the audience we need to relate to his struggle, empathize with his retribution, and rejoice or despair at his triumph or loss. Everything else we need to know about the character can be seen in how he behaves in those moments and how he lives in his world. What does he wear? Where does he live? What are his interests? Those questions can and should be answered nonverbally. When it comes to show don’t tell Fade to Black is all tell.
For example, when Eric personifies movie characters as he’s getting revenge on his abusers/victims we see flashes, sometimes even snippets of dialogue from the movies he’s embodying. It’s a cute trick that I like but when the movie has 5 or 6 of these sequences it makes one wonder if they’re all necessary?
There’s a whole subplot where Eric’s bullied by two muscle-head coworkers. Their disrespect for his film knowledge results in him murdering them while dressed as a cowboy. This conflict is likely present to represent how ever aspect of Eric’s life is horrible. His Aunt/Mom is abusive, his work life is no different, even the Hollywood prostitutes won’t let him pay for sex. That’s a great trifecta, three aspects of life fitting nicely into the rule of three that’ll easily sway an audience into empathizing with their costumed killer hero. The filmmakers didn’t stop at three, they added another scene where Eric dresses as The Mummy and murders his boss. This reiterates the ‘trouble at work’ element in a way that detracts from the impact of the previous scene instead of adding to the picture as a whole. But the filmmakers didn’t stop at four, there’s another sequence where Eric miraculously finds himself in the passenger seat of a fancy car with a big time Hollywood movie star who listens to Eric’s movie pitch and promises to make him a big star. Later Eric sees the same guy on a talk show taking credit for Eric’s idea. What’s Eric to do? Dress up like a gangster and murder the guy with a Tommy gun. Each of these murders individually serve the same purpose to the overall story, Eric is unlucky professionally. The inclusion of all three is redundant and boring. Murder your darlings, pick one and cut the rest.
The same can be said for Eric’s bad luck in love. Early in Fade to Black he’s stood up on a date and in desperation turns to a prostitute who cruelly rejects his offer to pay for her services. He eventually finds his way into the home of the woman who stood him up. Dressed as Dracula, Eric stalks into her bathroom and clearly recreates the shower sequence from Psycho complete with raising a fancy pen up to stab the woman in the shower but drops it into the water letting the ink flow down the drain like the chocolate syrup in Hitchcock’s classic. Great sequence, it has a beginning a middle and an end… but then there’s more. Still dressed as Dracula Eric finds the prostitute who rejected him and chases her through a neighborhood. Terrified of her pursuer she trips and impales her neck on a white picket fence post. Completely dissociative and ‘in character’ Eric drinks the fresh blood from her neck wound… Ok, that was unnecessary but they got it out of their system let’s just move on and forget about it. Nope, Eric still lusts for the woman in the shower (who not only bears a deliberate and forced resemblance to Marilyn Monroe but goes by Marilyn in the film) and tricks her into coming to his photo studio for a late night shoot. Eric drugs and seduces her before the cops, who’ve been searching for the person behind all these strange kabuki-theater-murders, arrive at the studio to arrest him. Armed with a pistol and dragging a drugged up Marilyn to the roof of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, Eric makes his last stand before falling to his death in a hail of gunfire and redundant sequences.
All that being said, Fade to Black sucks in an entirely different yet equally irritating way. The addition of Dr. Moriarty, a criminal profiler working for the LAPD despite not being a cop or otherwise affiliated with law enforcement, enters as the movie’s exposition machine. If you were too thick to figure out the cause of Eric’s mental breakdown, don’t worry Dr. Moriarty is there to explain everything. Dr. Moriarty’s inclusion ruins any opportunity for speculation on Eric’s motives or psychology. He makes the message of the film very clear, violent media corrupts audience’s psyches and creates mobs of violent young people who can’t differentiate between fiction and reality. We know his theories must be true because everything he predicts about Eric’s behaviors is demonstrably accurate. He’s Fade to Black‘s Will Graham. Moriarty, unlike Will, is completely unnecessary. Yes, the story needs the police to add an element of danger to Eric’s existence but it didn’t need to be so blatantly expository. If Eric is intended to die like King Kong atop the Empire State Building then seeing the police work that results in his death is one method of achieving that, like in The Silence of the Lambs. Alternatively we could’ve seen the movie from the Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer perspective and never seen police at all.That choice would necessitate Eric getting away with everything and that wouldn’t lend itself the the moral lesson Fade to Black intends to tell. Regardless, the only stories that ever need a character to explain the themes this boldly are Sunday school parables and badly written fiction (mas o menos).
Bottom line, someone needs to reedit Fade to Black and cut the fat Vernon Zimmerman couldn’t. My kingdom for a director’s cut with some actual cuts. Don’t believe me? You suffer through Fade to Black‘s hour and forty five minute runtime and tell me it’s a masterpiece. Dennis Christopher’s performance as Eric is the film’s major saving grace. He’s phenomenal as Eric and fully commits to every silly scene. I suspect Christopher’s acting made cutting those unnecessary scenes difficult for Zimmerman. I can empathize, but if murdering your darlings was easy no one would need reminding.
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