The underrated psychological thriller turns 40 & finds a new audience on Shudder.
It’s a bold move for a filmmaker to turn his camera on his audience, particularly in such an unflattering manner as 1980’s Fade to Black. Writer-director Vernon Zimmerman made a movie for film buffs and horror fans that portrayed them as socially maladjusted losers, bullied by their peers and yet also kind of deserving it at the same time. Either offended or confused, audiences didn’t really know what to make of it, and it quietly disappeared, with home video and DVD releases met with little interest. Now available on Shudder for the first time, it’s getting a long overdue reconsideration as an odd little nugget of horror cinema, weird and silly and deeply sad all at once.
Dennis Christopher is Eric Binford, God’s forgotten child. He’s maybe 25 or so, but has the weary stoop and sallow skin of someone much older. Eric always looks to be on the verge of tears, a soft boy who would jump if you coughed too loud. He’s in desperate need of fresh air and sunshine, but instead spends almost all his free time holed up in the depressing little apartment he shares with his aunt, who hates him (but might also be committing incest with him), watching old movies. Eric lives for movies. Other than cigarettes, they’re the only thing that gives him any sort of pleasure.
The problem is that, where he could use his bottomless knowledge of vintage Hollywood trivia as a casual icebreaker, Eric prefers to wield it as a cudgel instead, haranguing his co-workers with impossible “trivia contests” and speaking almost entirely in movie quotes. He’s not interested in engaging, he only wants an opportunity to feel smug and superior, because he has nothing else going on in his life to feel good about. Sound familiar? It will if you spend any amount of time on Twitter, where sincerity is frowned upon and attempts to draw people into conversations about “good” or “bad” movies often devolve into insults and harassment.
If you need an example of how deeply, pathologically personally people take these things, I remind you of when Martin Scorsese compared Marvel movies to amusement parks. It was neither incorrect, nor a particularly negative thing to say, and yet Marvel fans acted as though Scorsese shit in producer Kevin Feige’s mouth and then asked him if he wanted seconds. Scorsese’s softball “attack” was interpreted as not just against Marvel movies themselves, but those who enjoyed them, and an exhausting, incredibly irritating debate carried on about it for over a month, culminating in such absurd claims as Scorsese only making movies about the mafia, and Scorese’s vague dislike of superhero movies (which he actually described as “fine”) as being rooted in jealousy. Eventually Scorsese wrote an op-ed in The New York Times clarifying his statement, but no minds were changed. He had committed a grave offense and would not be forgiven.
It’s…an odd little nugget of horror cinema, weird and silly and deeply sad all at once.
Perhaps if Eric Binford had been born twenty years later and had access to social media, he wouldn’t have started killing people, as he does in Fade to Black. Now, I’m not saying that every online bully, troll or Someone With Very Strong Opinions has the potential to become a murderer. I’m just saying that a lot of them do. Like Eric, they’re simmering cauldrons of anger and insecurity, who have merely found a somewhat healthier outlet than dressing up like an old-timey cowboy and shooting one of their co-workers (played here by a young, astonishingly handsome Mickey Rourke). That Zimmerman was able to somehow predict the rise of toxic film bros even before we had constant exposure to movies via 24 hour cable is remarkable. If Eric makes you uncomfortable, it’s because you’ve encountered someone like him in your life. Or you’re an Eric yourself.
Fade to Black also takes an interesting bipartisan approach to Eric’s descent into homicidal rage. Yes, he’s picked on by his boss and co-workers, ignored by women, and abused by his aunt (if the movie stumbles anywhere, it’s in treating the incest reveal as a throwaway “ewwww!” moment). He clearly has some sort of untreated personality disorder. That being said, Eric is also unequivocally, unquestionably a creep. Maybe he doesn’t realize it, but it seems like he might. He certainly knows that people in general aren’t as obsessed with movies as he is, and rather than rein it in or find anything else in the world to talk about, he takes a Principal Skinner “No, it’s the children who are wrong” approach and just gets more aggressive about it. When Eric finally does snap, it’s at least as much due to his refusal to meet the world halfway as it is the world giving him a hard time.
Compare that to Joker, which, despite Joaquin Phoenix’s typically excellent performance, spells out its themes in crayon. It’s society’s fault that Arthur Fleck resorts to murder. It’s his mother’s fault, it’s Thomas Wayne’s fault, it’s his employer’s fault, it’s his pretty neighbor’s fault, it’s a TV talk show host’s fault. Arthur himself is an innocent victim of circumstance, and cannot be held responsible for his actions. According to Arthur himself, “You get what you fucking deserve.” There’s never any question of on whose side the audience’s sympathy should lie. Yes, it’s terrible when Arthur shoots Murray Franklin, but maybe it wouldn’t have happened if everyone hadn’t been so mean to him. It may seem a little far-fetched to put it that way, but consider every time a school shooting takes place, and how often the narrative changes to one where the shooter was bullied and just snapped one day, like it was inevitable. Like it was someone else’s fault.
In Fade to Black, the viewer feels a strange combination of sympathy and repulsion for Eric. Yeah, the guy could use a friend, but also who would want to be his friend? Who has that kind of patience, particularly when you know that suggestions of doing anything other than watching 40 year-old movies will be met with derision? He needs more than any one person should be expected to give. When Eric dies at the end, reenacting the death of his favorite movie character, Cody Jarrett in White Heat, it is sad, yes. Not because of how the world treated him, however, but because of all the chances he had to turn things around for himself, and didn’t take them.