Saturday, July 22, 2017

This Vastly Underrated Film Is The Dark Underbelly Of "La La Land!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"

                                     It was that recent episode of "Cold Case" that led me to this film.  In tracking down "Targets," I came across this online.  I had always wanted to see it--why I did not when it was first released is a mystery to me, as it was, and is, right up my alley.  Maybe I was too busy, that same year, going gaga over Betsy Palmer as Mrs. Voorhees in "Friday The 13th."

                                      Seeing "Fade To Black" made me wonder what ever happened to Dennis Christopher, who, incidentally, is my age.  He exploded onto the scene in 1979's "Breaking Away," then did this film as a vehicle of his own, but what after that?  Was he in "Chariots Of Fire?"  If he was, I have forgotten, for, save the haunting theme, I have blocked that film out.

                                       In many ways, "Fade To Black" is similar to the "Cold Case" story.  Eric Binford lives with his Aunt Stella in a Freudian house of horrors, with only his love of movies to fall back on.  I get it, but someone should have told Eric, or the writer, that having the character chain smoke and have butt-filled ash trays all over the room is a fire hazard, with all that film material around.  I guess writer/director Vernon Zimmerman was too busy getting his film references accurate, though I spotted one glaring error.  If one is going to make-up Dennis Christopher as a Bela Lugosi inspired Dracula, why show Christopher Lee in the film clips?  Maybe it was a rights problem.

                                      Nevertheless, I bet Dennis Christopher, the set and costume designer, and, most of all, the make-up crew, had the time of their lives making this film.  As critics said at the time, it is an ordinary revenge story, but, with its inventive background settings of sleazy Hollywood, the brilliant make-up, and Christopher's empathetic performance, it should have been one of the major films about Hollywood.  When "La La Land" eventually hits the revival circuit, at places like the Film Forum, this should be shown with it.

                                        Surprise of surprises!  This film features a--you'll never believe this, girls!--a baby-faced, hot looking, Mickey Rourke, as workplace bully Richie, who gets his, in a brilliantly shot noir sequence, where Eric Binford guns him down--impersonating Hopalong Cassidy!!!!!!!!!!  Though horror characters are mostly used, Cassidy, and Cody Jarrett, James Cagney's brilliant acting turn in 1949's "White Heat," are prominently featured.

                                         But my favorite sequence is the one that redoes Richard Widmark pushing his mother down the stairs, in the 1947 classic, "Kiss Of Death."  As one of the screen's underrated bitches, Aunt Stella, played by Eve Brent, just about steals the show!  Looking like an obese Elizabeth Taylor wannabe, especially with that wig, it turns out she has her own back story.  She was a Hollywood hanger-on, a promising dancer; no Donna McKechnie, certainly, just a dime a dozen in Hollywood, especially in the Forties and Fifties.  What Eric does not know is, she is actually his mother, who, though she resents having given birth to him, and blames him for the accident that put her in the wheel chair, still lives with him, and has a quasi-incestuous relationship with him, via some nightly back rubs she makes him give!  Oh, honey!  No wonder this kid is guaranteed to be messed up!

                                        Aunt Stella's malevolent glory is displayed early on, when she speaks her first words to Eric--

                                        "Eric!  Get up!  Well, lookie here, Mister Smart Mouth fell asleep
                                          with his nose buried in the screen again!  Your one-eyed monster
                                         is gonna soften your eyes, much less rot your brain!  You spend
                                         all your time daydreaming, and watching those silly movies on
                                         the TV, and on your projector."

                                        What a hateful bitch!  I was ready to rank her up with Shelley Winters as Rose- Ann D'Arcey in "A Patch Of Blue."  Actually, Aunt Stella is not quite that bad, but her words really resonated for me.  You see, my father had two uneducated sisters, my aunts, whose husbands were distinctly blue collar, and, once I reached adolescence and it was clear I was not going to follow the family program, said pretty much the same words to me.  And, along with the movies, I actually read books, seriously and scholarly.  So, I can relate to Eric, in a way, just as I could to Paul Shepard.  I wish I  had his make-up ingenuity!  The Dracula drag is the best!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

                                          Everyone in this film pretty much gets their comeuppance--and so does Eric.  The confrontation with his boss unintentionally echoes the famous Ernest Borgnine scene in "Willard," but minus the wit and humor.

                                          Maybe the film was too gimmicky for a mainstream audience.  Or maybe only the more cinematically attuned would get it.  I know I did.  And, as the film really did fade to black, itself, a thought struck me.

                                           Eric wouldn't have had the emotional problems he had, if he had been raised by Aunt Ida!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
                                           Aunt Stella is the one in blue!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Victoria Adams said...

Look up " Dennis Christopher on Breaking Away and the almost-made sequel to Fade to Black"
when you get a chance; he had a Lot of input into that movie.

Videolaman said...

I've tried to sit thru "Targets" on the rare occasions it surfaces on cable, but tune out within 20 mins each time. It makes "Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls" seem like a coherent artistic piece of storytelling.

"Fade To Black" was ironically one of the last films to play in my little local neighborhood cinema (remember those? "the nabes"?). I think I saw it with my mother, who used to love any kind of horror thriller. We both liked it, and I saw it again later with friends. It never quite clicked with the gay-driven Hollywood-horror "camp" movement, which is odd because Christopher coming off as "kinda faggy" is what kept the straight teen audience away in droves despite wall to wall advertising (it was expected to be a much bigger hit than it was). So it kinda fell thru the cracks forgotten by all but us impressionable film junkies who identified strongly with ole Eric Binford. Its a goody that should be included in any festival of slasher flicks.

Dennis Christopher went on to a fairly regular career: he was indeed in "Chariots Of Fire" as well as the acclaimed "Don't Cry, It's Only Thunder". After that he strayed back to television, where he appeared in noted series like "Six Feet Under" and "Deadwood" along with LOTS of pedestrian fare like "Murder She Wrote". I was thrilled when he turned up as the serial killer antagonist in "Profiler" (one of my favorite unappreciated TV series).

He did handful of the bizarrely-titled TV movies throughout his career, notably "Dead Girls In Lingerie" and "Bernice Bobs Her Hair". Very early on, he was even in Altman's "3 Women"! Plus, Stehen King miniseries "It"! Most recently he was in the Tarantino film "Django Unchained".

The Raving Queen said...

Had no idea Dennis Christopher is still out there.
It is unfortunate "Fade To Black" did not get the attention
it merited. From your comments, it actually sounds like it
is better than "Targets." I wonder how he looks today?