For a time in the late seventies, movie theaters were filled with science fiction films while television was packed with cop shows. Every film studio wanted a Star Wars just like every broadcast network wanted a “The Streets of San Francisco.” In 1979, prolific television writer Stanford Whitmore had the idea to marry the space opera with the hard-boiled crime drama by creating a serial killer who was an alien werewolf. The resulting film was called The Dark.
After a Star Wars type prologue that all but explains that the antagonist is an alien, The Dark opens with the stalking murder of a young woman. The press dubs the killer “the Mangler,” and every night another murder is committed. The police are baffled not only by the brutality of the crimes, but by the fact that the murderer leaves behind absolutely no forensic evidence. The only clues to the madman’s identity come from a crazy old psychic lady named DeRenzy (Jacquelyn Hyde). The father of the first victim, a writer named Steve Dupree (William Devane from “24”), starts to shadow the police in his own attempt to track down the killer. Investigative reporter Zoe Owens (Cathy Lee Crosby from “That’s Incredible!”) is on the trail, too. The Police want justice, Dupree wants revenge and Zoe wants a story, and the Mangler keeps a step ahead of all three of them.
The Dark is a creative twist on the killer-on-the-loose formula. It was originally slated to be directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but Hooper was replaced by B-Movie jack-of-all-trades John ‘Bud’ Cardos (Kingdom of the Spiders), who gave the picture a much campier feel. Cardos brought his experience as an actor and a stuntman to the production, and although the look and the dialogue of the film are dated, the plot moves along and the characters are well acted enough to make The Dark a forgotten classic.
The visual effects in The Dark, although cutting edge for the time, look primitive by today’s standards. The laser beam animations fired from the Mangler’s eyes and the resulting explosions were created by none other than Peter Kuran (who did the same effects for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) and Harry Moreau (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). The integration of the effects is anything but smooth, as there is consistently an awkward pause before the Mangler blasts his eyes that is distracting, but that can be blamed more on direction and editing than special effects. Kuran and Moreau did what they could with what they had, and the sequences look as good as anything that came out around the same time.
The soundtrack for The Dark is some of the creepiest music ever put into a movie. Composer Roger Kellaway (who scored horror classics The Silent Scream and Evilspeak) mixes discordant piano and string music with eerie whisper vocals that really add to the Mangler stalking scenes. The score’s dissonance adds to the suspense of the film by keeping the viewer off-balance, and the whispering, while a bit overdone at times, is just unsettling.
The big fault in The Dark is in the knowledge of the Mangler. Cardos does a good job at showing the audience the Mangler slowly, but the fact that the killer is an alien is known by the viewer from the start of the film. While the characters are chasing down what they think is a human, the audience knows that they are dealing with something other-worldly. The film would be better served by keeping the origin of the murderer a secret for a while, letting the audience wonder with the characters until the big reveal. What could have been a big “oh, wow!” moment is turned into an “it’s about time!” moment.
With The Dark, Cardos and Whitmore more or less successfully made a genre-crossing sci-fi crime drama. Mostly forgotten by fans of both genres today, it’s worth remembering for fans of aliens, serial killers or laser-shooting eyes.