Prime in the Dustbin: ‘The Dark’ (1979)

The very first thing The Dark wants you to know is that it is sorry for existing. The movie opens with an ominous voiceover that rationalizes its own plot, which is tantamount to an apology. “Look,” the filmmakers are saying to their audience, “we know you’re about to sit through some unbelievable bullshit. We feel badly about that, but hold on. No, don’t leave! Wait a second. Follow this train of thought. Hear us out.

“Okay. We’re on Earth, right? And there are lots of weird animals and insects on Earth, right? They use camouflage, some of them spit acid, or can attack you with deadly venom. You’ll buy that, right? Okay. What if other planets have weird animals and insects that can do the same stuff? They’ve got to be more advanced because they’re on other planets, yeah? Think about extraterrestrial scorpions or dung beetles from across the universe. You can buy that, right? Are we good? Okay, then here’s the kicker. Maybe not all alien encounters on Earth will be friendly. Think about that, buddy! And look at the screen! See the badly animated red meteor shooting across the Los Angeles skyline? Something’s going to happen! Really. We promise.”

Some things do happen in The Dark, most of them in the dark, which makes a lot of sense. The things themselves don’t make sense, but the setting does.

There was an alien on that meteor, which could have been a spaceship, but we never see it on the ground, so we never know. What the creature likes to do is rip the heads off unsuspecting residents of Los Angeles. The media calls it The Mangler, and it is killing one person per evening, so it’s a mangler who believes in moderation. The killer’s first victim is the daughter of Steve Dupree (William Devane), a successful author who dresses like a coked-out lumberjack. In the past, Dupree spent three years in the slammer for manslaughter. His arresting officer, Mooney (Richard Jaeckel), is also in charge of finding Dupree’s daughter’s killer. They don’t like each other, but they’re both out to catch the Mangler. So is news reporter Zoe (Cathy Lee Crosby), the template for Veronica Corningstone, who is tired of covering flower shows and parades. She wants to make the Mangler her first big hard news story.

The key to putting the whole mystery together is a psychic named De Renzy (Jacquelyn Hyde, and if that’s not one of the best names ever, I’ll eat your shoe) who wanders through scenes like a demented Ida Lupino. At a party, she meets a man whom she senses is destined to be one of the Mangler’s victims. She didn’t catch his name, though, and her psychic abilities don’t include the perception of nomenclature. Her advice to the police is to figure out who was at the party, find that guy and follow him. That way, when the Mangler comes for him, the police will be able to catch the murderous beast. This is a cockamamie idea, but The Dark spends an exhorbitant amount of time with this plotline.

Meanwhile, as promised, things are happening. Dupree yells at Mooney. Mooney yells at Dupree. Dupree sleeps with Zoe. De Renzy wears too much makeup and sees the monstrous Mangler in her mirror. The murders are still happening, but things don’t really get interesting in The Dark until the Mangler starts shooting frickin’ laser beams out of its eyes. If the movie ever had rails, it goes way off them right there.

But how can you expect anything to be controlled in a movie that went berserk behind the scenes? The original director of The Dark was Tobe Hooper, who was fired after one day on set. His replacement was John “Bud” Carlos, the director of one my favorite movies, Kingdom of the Spiders. One of the producers of The Dark was Dick Clark of American Bandstand and New Year’s Rockin’ Eve fame, which probably explains the inexplicable casting of Casey Kasem as a police pathologist. DJ’s gotta stick together, yo. After filming had already begun, one of the producers decided that The Dark would be more marketable if it had a science-fiction twist to it. This harebrained decision turned a movie about a zombie who practices intermittent fasting, only eating one meal a night, roaming the alleys of the City of Angels into a gigantic ten foot tall alien who tears off body parts and shoots red laser blasts out of its eyes. The fact that editor Martin Dreffke was able to cobble anything even remotely watchable out of the behind-the-scenes meddling is amazing.

But, wait! There’s more!

The Dark was a Film Ventures International production, which means it was greenlit by one Edward L. Montoro. He’s the guy who brought us Grizzly and Day of the Animals, in which a howling and shirtless Leslie Nielsen wrestles a bear. When you see the name “Montoro” in the credits, that means quality. It also stands for “embezzlement,” After his Jaws rip-off, Great White, was pulled from theaters after being sued for plagiarism by Universal Studios, Montoro disappeared with $1 million dollars of his failing company’s money. This happened in 1984. Montoro has yet to be found.

There’s some strange history behind The Dark, and those problems show up on screen, but who knows? Just hear me out on this. Maybe you want to watch a movie about an alien with laser eyes, running on stilts through darkened parking garages. How does that grab you? What if we throw in the beautiful Cathy Lee Crosby, former co-host of television’s That’s Incredible!, huh? Okay, hold on. How about a bit part for Philip Michael Thomas, Tubbs of TV’s Miami Vice, as an inner city youth named Corn Rows? There we go. That’s the hook. Something’s going to happen! Really. We promise.

We just don’t know what.

So, yeah, The Dark is on Prime Video and you can do as you wish with that particular piece of information.

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