31 Days of Horror: Alone in the Dark (1982)

“All right, they’re crazy. Isn’t everybody?” – Dr. Leo Bain, Alone in the Dark

I’m a horror fan, but I’m not that crazy about slashers. That’s what makes 1982’s Alone in the Dark so special. Directed by Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge), the film mixes black humor with genuine scares, both of which elevate it far above the average slasher.

Dr. Dan Potter (Dwight Schultz, TV’s The A-Team) has just moved his wife and young daughter to a new town to become the resident psychiatrist at Haven Hospital. This isn’t your run of the mill loony bin, however. The man in charge, Dr. Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence), doesn’t consider his wards to be “patients” but “voyagers” traveling on a journey different from the so-called sane people. His unconventional approach to psychiatry is the polar opposite of doomsayer Dr. Loomis from Halloween and this provides many of the film’s best comedic moments.

Alone in the Dark has its share of kills, but also much humor. Schultz and his family have a delightful, authentic chemistry together, including Dan’s ebulliently punk rock younger sister Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan, Stargate), who’s visiting for a week after having had a nervous breakdown some months before. As Lyla, the Potter’s daughter, Elizabeth Ward gives an unforgettably spunky performance, one quite deserving of her “Best Actress” win at the 1983 Sitges Film Festival. And who could forget Lyla’s lustful babysitter, Bunky (Carol Levy)? She’s one of the best supporting characters in any slasher.

Then there are the four psychopaths on the hospital’s third floor, who should be in a maximum security jail, but thanks to Dr. Bain’s special electrical security system, they can remain at Haven as “voyagers” instead of prisoners. There’s shell-shocked vet Hawkes (Jack Palance, 1974’s Dracula TV movie ), pyromaniac preacher Sutcliff (Martin Landau, Ed Wood), overweight child molester Ellster (Erland van Lidth, The Running Man), and the faceless Skaggs a.k.a. “The Bleeder” (Philip Clark, The Crimson Mask). They’re all inordinately creepy, especially Palance and Landau, who chew the hell out of the scenery to frightening effect.

The impetus for the action in the film starts early on, but since we become immediately engaged with the characters, we are totally invested in what happens to them when shit does go down. Alone in the Dark also flirts with social commentary in the style of Dan O’Bannon, and despite its violence, it comes across as clever instead of gratuitous, continually subverting expectations. It even presents a surprisingly sympathetic view of mental illness, not only because of Bain and Potter’s attitudes, but also because of Toni, whose struggle to re-acclimatize to the world is compelling.

Alone in the Dark even has punk rock cred, thanks in no small part to Tony’s PiL T-shirt and the appearance of New York band The Sic F*cks.

Image Entertainment released a DVD of the film in 2005, including a commentary track from Sholder, an interview with Carol Levy, and more, but Alone in the Dark is definitely overdue for a renaissance.

This article originally appeared on Rue Morgue on May 2, 2016.

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