Alone in the Dark
February 11, 2021
Erland Van Lidth
1 Hr., 32 Mins.
ne should expect it to take a while to adjust to the rhythms of a new job. But what happens when that new job is so fiercely unpredictable that it seems basically impossible to find its proverbial beat? For Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz), the protagonist of the nifty home-invasion thriller Alone in the Dark (1982), the usual first-few-months-on-the-job anxieties — worrying about stepping on people’s toes,
fucking up a task before you’ve built much trust, being a disappointment compared to your predecessor, inadvertently announcing yourself a lousy fit — don't seem like they'll stay confined to the short-term.
As the film opens, Potter, a psychiatrist, starts a new gig at an off-kilter psychiatric hospital run by the eccentric Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasance). Known colloquially as “the Haven,” Bain helms this now-six-year-old New Jersey asylum not much differently than an apartment complex. “I’m running a haven here, not a jailhouse,” Bain explains. He believes his patients will be better equipped to return to civilian life if they have as much autonomy as possible. If one is in thrall to a particularly destructive delusion, he treats them as though they can ride it out on their own.
Security is minimal. Bain’s most dangerous patients, like a serial killer who previously made his name as “the Bleeder” (his nose gushed whenever he murdered) or an evangelist who liked arson more than he did reading scripture (Martin Landau), are kept on the third floor. Though contained by a metal door that locks electronically, they’re otherwise allowed to shape their daily routines mostly undisturbed. It’s hard for the straight-laced Potter to get used to Bain’s laxness. Is he too lax? (When the Landau character asks for a match, Bain doesn’t hesitate to hand him his entire pack.) “Everything seems turned upside down, but once you see the results…” Bain’s assistant assures Potter in an early scene. Potter, though, remains unsure — and uncertainty won’t get much room to straighten out in the course of Alone in the Dark. Shortly after he’s established himself at the Haven, a cadre of patients — specifically those assembled on the third floor — start believing that Potter killed his predecessor, Dr. Merton, and together conclude that he shouldn’t get away with it. If they don’t do something, who will? (In reality, Merton has landed a job in Philadelphia.) How does one acclimate to a job's expectations when there are some interested in forcefully preventing that from happening?
The film’s revenge-driven conceit takes a while to emerge — writer-director Jack Sholder takes time to evocatively familiarize us with the dynamics of both Potter’s work and home lives. Once it does, you can’t help but laugh a little at the tidy developments that make it possible. A regional power outage one evening allows for four of the third floor’s patients to sneak out through the Haven’s front doors. After participating in some of the outage-related anarchy that explodes downtown, they figure now is as good a time as any to visit the Potters’ new abode and right the wrong of Merton’s ostensible murder. Considering this quartet’s collective history, one can assume this will not be a civil drop-by.
Alone in the Dark’s home-invasion format isn’t that original; most movies of its ilk in some way or another make big on the “maniacs on the loose” idea. But Sholder lends it some freshness. His writing has some satirical oomph; the Pleasance character in particular seems a sendup of his most famous role, Halloween's frantic Dr. Loomis. Once the home invasion itself gets going, Sholder has no problem milking the use of darkness as a creepy scene-setter or ensuring that when a character is brave enough to double-check where that creaking noise came from or what that rustling in the bushes was, we're agonized for as long as possible.
Rather than emphasize gory effects, he opts for memorably offbeat kill-offs: arrows smashing through windows at a bullet’s speed; a huge knife plunging through a mattress as a way for the literal monster under the bed to taunt a woman innocently reclining on top of it. (One can’t help but think of 1975’s Jaws in this moment — the poking-out blade a shark fin and the red-patterned quilt the prospective victim’s sitting on bloody waters.) The final plot twist has the right amount of punch — it jolts you, but it isn’t so schlocky that it throws the narrative out of whack — and the threatening non-conclusion the last shot provides maintains the movie’s way of being scary while also being a little funny. Our uneasy laughter disappears quickly, though. By then we’ve learned there’s some value in taking threats seriously rather than downplaying them. B