“Binford never had a chance, the poor little weasel,” says a well-meaning social worker near the end of Fade to Black. It’s a dour summation not only for the film’s protagonist Eric Binford, but for the film’s target audience and anyone who frequents this site as well.
Fade to Black was neither the first nor the last movie about a film geek whose obsession gets the better of him, but it was certainly the first ‘80s horror film by, for, and about cinephiles which both celebrates and condemns a deep love of the movies.
The first hint that you’re not dealing with a typical ‘80s horror film aimed at a typical teenage audience is that the first voice you hear is James Cagney in Public Enemy. Eric (Dennis Christopher, who made this between roles in two Oscar-nominated films, Breaking Away and Chariots of Fire) is in his room, watching the film intently as he mutters factoids and recites lines of dialogue along with Cagney. To drive the point home, the camera pans around the room, revealing that it’s insanely cluttered with movie memorabilia. He even has his own 16-mm projector and screen. Over the course of the few minutes immediately following the credits, we learn most everything else we need to know.
Eric’s mother died in childbirth and since then he’s been living with his wheelchair-bound aunt, a former dancer who lost her legs in a car accident. She blames Eric for this and for most everything else. In fact everywhere he goes he’s mocked, shunned and abused, so retreated into the movies as an escape. Old films (specifically noir films) are both Eric’s refuge and his retaliation against a world that hates him. Eric has a meager job as a delivery boy at a low-rent advertising firm where his boss thinks, correctly, that he’s a fuck-up. His co-workers (film geeks themselves) think he’s creepy. Even strangers dismiss him as an obvious loser. The only weapon at his disposal is his knowledge of film arcana and he fights back against his tormentors (including Mickey Rourke in his second feature) by peppering them with trivia questions. The strange thing is, while this allows him his one chance to feel superior, he also tends to get really, really mad when people don’t know the answer, which doesn’t help matters. (Personally, I’ve always thought Eric might get along better if he didn’t insist on doing such awful impressions and didn’t get so many of the lines he’s quoting wrong.)
Writer/director Vernon Zimmerman clearly knows what he’s talking about here, loading each scene with film references; in the dialogue, in the set decoration,or in the plentiful film clips he drops in. At the same time, he portrays Eric as a kid who is at once sympathetic, pathetic, abused and incredibly abrasive. Eric is not a pleasant kid, but the people around him are so much worse you can’t help but root for him.
Cut to the well-meaning social worker Jerry Moriarty (Tim Thomerson), who sets up an office in an LA police precinct trying to get a new work rehabilitation program for juvenile offenders underway. He also firmly believes that violent movies and TV shows are turning kids into killers. Little does he realize that Eric is about to become a case study for him. But what do you do when the violent blameworthy movies were all made in the ‘40s and ‘50s?
Well, then Eric sees a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like (Linda Kerridge, playing a Marilyn look-a-like for the third and last time) in a diner and all bets are off as he begins to slip into fantasy. For some reason she agrees to go out with him even after he gets unusually angry when she blows a question about The Creature From the Black Lagoon.
It’s only when his aunt smashes his projector that Eric begins to prove Moriarity’s theory right. He’d been watching Kiss of Death at the time, so becomes Tommy Udo and pushes his aunt’s wheelchair down the stairs. (Admittedly his Richard Widmark impression is far better than his Cagney and infinitely better than his Cary Grant.) From that point on, Eric gains confidence and self-esteem as he slips further and further into madness, insisting among other things that people call him Cody Jarrett (Cagney’s name in White Heat). Nobody treats him any better, no, but now when he’s abused or humiliated he simply assumes the persona of a film character; Lugosi as Dracula, Karloff’s Mummy, William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy and kills them with style and flair.
Regardless how it looks, in quiet ways Zimmerman makes this much more than a simple horror revenge film with a twist. There’s a beautiful mirror shot, for instance, in which Eric is putting on his Dracula makeup. Splitting his face down the middle, half Eric/half Dracula makes for a neat shock effect (and the centerpiece of the TV spot), but also shows a character who at that point in the film is teetering on the edge. There is still some Eric left, he hasn’t yet been completely consumed by the movies, but he is well on his way to losing himself in the fantasy for good.
That’s the bigger question. On the surface Fade to Black worked like most any horror or action film at the time. You suspend disbelief, don’t ask too many questions, and merely accept what’s given. Here, however, if you do start asking questions things become much more interesting. Namely, are the events in the second half of the film really happening or is it all in Eric’s head? While there are cutaways to other characters, specifically Moriarity (itself an interesting and counterintuitive name to choose), who’s closing in on Eric as a suspect in the string of strange murders, these other characters talk about things they have no way of knowing. Is it merely easy, sloppy exposition in a low-budget horror film or is Eric putting these words in their mouths? How could he get away from a murder scene dressed like the mummy without being noticed? Where did he get that working tommy gun? When the movie producer who picked him up hitchhiking and stole his movie idea later tells him that he never picks up hitchhikers, was the producer telling the truth or being an asshole? That is, did Eric imagine the whole encounter?
Given his character in the first half of the film, things in the second half work out a little too neatly for Eric to be taken at face value. Even the film’s final scene atop Grauman’s Chinese Theater, while answering no questions, still dances the line between fantasy and reality. Eric is at once pathetic and sniveling, but there he is at the top of the world, on the roof of the most famous movie theater on earth with Marilyn Monroe, a gun and all the little people looking at him. Best of all he gets to go out the way he wanted, by recreating the final scene in White Heat and neatly bookending the scene from Public Enemy that opened the film. Again it’s a little too perfect. Or maybe it’s just a movie.