Looking Back at The Dark (1979)

With the passing of the legendary Casey Kasem, we look back at one of his more interesting, if not exactly his best, screen films.

Without having done the requisite research, I’m still going to take a wild guess that The Dark never made it onto anyone’s Top 10 list. The story of an eight-foot-tall alien who terrorizes LA, shoots laser beams out of his eyes, and comes to be dubbed “The Mangler” in the press is a fairly straightforward one, and nothing we haven’t seen before. Apart from the occasional curse, it’s shot like a TV movie, the dialogue is clunky and predictable, and the music (save for the atmospheric marimbas and the spooky voice hissing “the daaaarrrk-nessss”) could’ve been lifted from nearly any ‘70s cop show.

In fact the whole movie, apart from the opening and the closing, feels more like a serial killer movie than an alien movie. But there’s a reason for that.

After making Eaten Alive, Tobe Hooper was hired by Film Ventures International (the same people who gave us Grizzly and Beyond the Door) to direct The Dark. Contrary to what online rumors claim, it was not supposed to be a zombie picture. It was instead the story of a severely abused child who’s spent his entire life locked in an attic. When the house burns down and he escapes, he has no experience with other people or the outside world, and so begins ripping off heads. The plot focused on the cop investigating the string of murders, a young TV reporter after a big scoop, and the father of one of the victims who undertakes his own investigation.

Well, then two things happened. Hooper fell too far behind schedule, so the producers fired him and brought in former stuntman and actor John “Bud” Cardos, who’d just completed his second feature, Kingdom of the Spiders, to finish the job. Everything seemed to be going quite well until the end of the shoot, when the producers decided that instead of a murderous autistic kid movie it should be a killer alien movie, as killer alien movies seemed to be more popular at the time. So Cardos added a hasty opening crawl which said in essence (and I’m paraphrasing here): “since we have things like electric eels, poisonous frogs, and Venus Fly Traps on Earth, they must have them on other planets as well—and one of these days they’re going to come down here and start ripping heads off.” He also dropped some laser beam zaps into the murder scenes and a big alien in the final two minutes.

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While this made several elements of the film incomprehensible, the hope seemed to be that no one would notice. For instance, although the victims are repeatedly described as having been ritually mutilated and decapitated, whenever anyone gets hit by one of those laser beams, it seems they merely explode in a reasonably unritualistic manner. And a blind man appears several times throughout the movie for no apparent reason. Then at the very end as he appears again the kind narrator informs us, “Only those who walk forever in darkness will have nothing to fear from the dark,” Um, meaning what, exactly? That the blind are immune to alien attacks?

As clumsy and confounding as much of the film can be, as abrupt and deeply unsatisfying the climax, there’s still a good deal about The Dark that makes it a hugely entertaining film, mostly thanks to the cast.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tF4o7EUsvcA

William Devane (Rolling Thunder), an actor you don’t often expect to see in low-budget horror films, stars as Steve Dupree, the father of the first victim. In his ever-present bandana and aviator shades, Dupree is also the hugely popular author of sleazy and violent novels, and is clearly if loosely based on Stephen King. Perhaps coincidentally, King was the author of a short story entitled “The Mangler”—the same nickname used for the killer alien here.

Richard Jaeckel (The Green Slime, Grizzly) was another perennial character actor who appeared in damn near everything and always gave it a little tense, ultra-serious spark. Here he plays the angry, bitter, and frustrated detective who really doesn’t seem to do very much detective work, but who once sent Dupree away for three years for killing his wife’s lover.

Cathy Lee Crosby (co-host of TV’s That’s Incredible!) has always been a miserable and wooden actress, but a tall, pretty, blonde one, which assured her she would keep working through the ‘70s. Here she almost pulls it off, as she plays an ambitious young TV reporter who wants to stop covering fashion shows and get into hard news. She even knows all the right lines (“I want that story!”). She’s still awful, but it’s fun to watch a one-dimensional actress try to play a two-dimensional character.

The Great Keenan Wynn (Dr. Strangelove) plays her boss at the TV station. He was nearly completely deaf by this time, and was taking pretty much any role that came along. He clearly didn’t care about the film or the character—he was just doing Keenan Wynn, and that’s always cool by me.

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Casey Kasem (the unmistakable voice of America’s Top 40 and Scooby Doo’s Shaggy) was probably in the film thanks to co-producer Dick Clark. He’s actually quite good as the police pathologist, but it’s his first scene, in which he tells a roomful of cops that the killer has gray skin and no blood vessels, that likely led to the misconception that this was originally a zombie picture.

The wonderfully named character actress Jacquelyn Hyde is splendid as a flamboyant psychic. Unfortunately she’s merely a cheap narrative tool to (eventually) point Dupree to an unlikely rendezvous with the alien and an even more unlikely climax. It’s too bad they couldn’t have found some real use for her.

And Warren Kemmerling, who played the “tough as nails but eventually understanding” police captain in dozens of films and TV shows here plays the “tough as nails but eventually understanding” police captain. Whatever he’s in, he always seems to be smirking a little, as if he can’t believe he’s getting paid to spout these same lines in the same way yet again.

Without that cast, Cardos wouldn’t have had a leg to stand on in this mess.

Interestingly, in the years that followed Tobe Hooper would go on to direct The Funhouse, a slasher film whose plot in many ways resembled The Dark’s original script, but with better dialogue and an inferior cast. About ten years after that he made The Mangler, loosely based on the Stephen King story. You start to get the idea he’s spent all these years struggling to come to terms with the fact that The Dark’s producers fired him. 

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Rating:

2 out of 5