Fade to Black

Fade to Black ★★★½

Fade to Black is the final feature length credit of writer/director Vernon Zimmerman, whose short career demonstrated an interesting variety of genres. This film itself, while clearly a sort of horror/thriller on its own, also represents a greater love for film in general and rubs shoulders with numerous genres. I find it a bit curious that I don't see it talked about more, because for all its faults it certainly represents a proto-meta film that likely could have inspired films like Scream.

This little love letter to film isn't without faults though, even for its heart. The pacing drags in some places, and many of the characters are little more than caricatures who come and go when needed. For example, the prolific character actor Tim Thomerson appears as Dr. Moriarty, a coke fueled, harmonica playing hippie who seeks to rehabilitate young criminals he sees as having been influenced by violent film and television. Sounds interesting, except that he disappears half the movie (after a sweet harmonica solo) and when he does reappear, it's mostly to butt heads with the police chief and complicate the climax by getting involved. The dialogue is really uneven in parts of the film, and shows often with characters like this, who one minute are trying to talk the lead down and seconds later are screaming "You're fucking crazy!" at the top of their lungs. Not the most effective negotiation tactic I've ever seen.

Anyhow, even as goofy as the characters can be, the cast mostly all does really well with what they're given. They make their mark with memorable, over the top performances that drive things forward. Dennis Christopher (who most would know from the 90's It and his role in Django Unchained) stars as the movie obsessed and troubled Eric. His performance is pretty excellent, doing a lot of impressions and quotes, while teetering between the mousey geek and the deranged killer comfortably. The writing makes it difficult to sympathize with Eric early on though, which is another part of the weakness of the film. He is already very far gone from the onset and only shows moments of kindness or normalcy. It's hard to say exactly what the ultimate intent was in Zimmerman's script with the way that it goes. Interestingly, Mickey Rourke also has a small role in the movie, his second feature film at the time. It's neat to see him so young.

The technical aspects are a good part of what keep the film working thankfully. The score, while not amazingly good, is effective with a lot of piano driven pieces, but paired with some really driving percussion during the more intense chase sequences. The editing is really well done, with a ton of cuts to classic movie clips, as well as some nice use of lighting. Related to the title, every kill sequence ends in a fade to black, most of which are really well executed. The vampire fade out looked gorgeous and made me comment out loud, and the cowboy scene looked fantastic with his silhouette in the fog. On that note, the makeup and costume work is really great as well, with each creature/character persona that Eric takes on being fully realized, be it the frightening mummy or the cheesy gangster. It shows the passion for film that fueled the film's realization.

I can't help but feel like, even though I enjoyed the movie, that I really wanted to enjoy it more but just couldn't. Some weak performances, drawn out pacing, and uneven dialogue really hampers the film, and it feels as though there wasn't quite a perfect vision for what this movie really wanted to say. Is it a love letter to movies? Is it anti-violence on TV and film? Is it simply a character study? It's sort of all those things and more, without fully realizing any of it. I think that with ideas like this, Zimmerman could have eventually come up with something really impactful (and maybe this movie is even ripe for a remake, in the hands of a writer/director who could tighten it up and really bring the themes to a better light). As it is, it's an interesting and entertaining film that is worth checking out for fans of film, and not just horror fans.

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