Nineteen Eighty-Two saw the release of the third Friday the 13th movie (in 3D!), which was the first film in the franchise in which Jason donned his famous hockey mask. That mask transformed Jason from a simple camp killer to an Iconic Movie Villain. However, most people are unaware that another movie murderer also picked up a hockey mask that same year and has been all but forgotten. Maybe it’s because The Bleeder from Alone in the Dark had to share his psychotic load with three other madmen, or maybe it’s because he only wore the mask for one scene, but Jason has gone down in history and The Bleeder is just a footnote in horror movie archives.
Directed by Jack Sholder (who also directed A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), Alone in the Dark is one of the smarter slasher films of the early 80’s. As far as horror films from the era go, it seems like pretty standard fare. It’s got the prerequisite mental hospital, Donald Pleasence (from the Halloween movies) as a psychiatrist (just like in the Halloween movies), the aforementioned hockey mask scene and even a house that looks suspiciously like the house from Psycho. The way that these ingredients are put together is what sets Alone in the Dark apart from its contemporaries. For all the horror movie stereotypes included, Alone in the Dark is a very creative movie.
At the center of Alone in the Dark is a young psychiatrist named Dr. Dan Potter (played by video game voice actor Dwight Schultz) who begins work at a new mental facility. This “alternative” facility is run by Dr. Leo Bain (Pleasence) and operates more like a country club than a high-security hospital. When Dr. Potter arrives, a quartet of patients mistakenly assumes that he has killed his predecessor and vows to avenge their former doctor. This group of inmates includes a crazy preacher (Martin Landau from Ed Wood), an ex-prisoner of war (Ripley’s Believe It or Not’s Jack Palance), a 400lb child molester (Erland van Lidth from The Running Man) and a bona-fide serial killer (The Bleeder, played by television actor Phillip Clark). A power outage accidentally frees the patients from their maximum security rooms, and that’s when Alone in the Dark really starts getting scary. The four crazies stalk and terrorize Dr. Potter and his family while Dr. Bain tries to gather them back up. The plot is well written and there are plenty of scares once the inmates have escaped (including a terrifying scene that is a must-see for those who are afraid of monsters under the bed).
Part of what makes Alone in the Dark such a chilling movie is the instability of the villains. The unpredictability of these lunatics doesn’t let the audience get too comfortable. Landau’s Preacher Sutcliff is the epitome of a fire-and-brimstone holy man, but with his scriptures crossed and his mind warped. Van Lidth’s “Fatty,” the child molester, seems like a child himself trapped in the body of a huge man, and his temper and strength keep the other characters and the audience always on the edge. Clark’s Bleeder is an enigma, never showing his face and adding an air of mystery to what the audience already knows is a dangerous man. Palance’s Frank Hawkes, the ex-POW and de-facto leader of the inmates, alternates between whispering and shouting his thoughts and feelings and keeps everyone around him wondering what he’ll do next. Between them, these guys promise four times the scares of any single psychopath, and they deliver on that promise, each in his own way.
The dialogue in Alone in the Dark is by far its weak point. It is stereotypical at its best and downright laughable at its worst. The factor that really saves the film from these silly lines is the actors. Pleasence, Palance and Landau all turn in great performances. When the viewer hears these weak lines delivered, they still believe the words because they believe the characters. It helps the suspension of disbelief that the characters are insane, but the skill of the cast saves the film from the poorly written speech.
Aside from the dialogue, the script is well crafted. The story makes sense, flows logically and even includes a couple of hand-over-the-mouth twists that keep the audience guessing until the very last scene. In its time, Alone in the Dark was overshadowed by the larger, more successful slasher films, but in retrospect, it’s worth a look to those who were unfortunate enough to have missed it.