Junkfood Cinema: The Dark

By  · Published on March 19th, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema… where we’re usually full of more than just shit. The more astute among you (and possibly Jeff Hall too) may have already noticed something a bit different about this week’s installment. But for the slower readers, it comes with a heavy heart and empty stomach that I have to report the following news. I am not Brian Salisbury.

I know. It came as a shock to me as well.

It seems a little known fact about Mr. Salisbury is that he starts each day with a jelly doughnut jammed down the front of his pants. (No one knows why, at least no one who’s talking, but it’s an indisputable fact nonetheless.) Something a bit more relevant to Junkfood Cinema though is that he also has a terrible aversion to horror films. Seems strange that someone with such a profound love for bad movies would want to avoid a genre filled to the bloody gills with some of the most entertainingly terrible cheese-fests this side of the Great Madison Dairy Fair cum Circus Massacre of 1909. He claims he’s contractually obligated to avoid writing about the horror genre, but the simple truth is he’s afraid. Apparently as a young child he watched his parents be killed by a horror movie, and ever since he’s lived in fear of the dark, bears, kitchen knives, bugs, and many other staples of the genre. Which is why I’ve volunteered to step in this week to shield him from the horrors at hand.

As we all know, the movies featured in Junkfood Cinema are chosen at random by the Loom of Schlock kept in the basement at Reject HQ. It usually picks films from the action, science fiction, or exploitation genres, but this week fate decided to hand down a different beast all together… this week the Loom spit out one of the horror genre’s many under-appreciated classics… this week Junkfood Cinema will be laughing shivering along with 1979’s The Dark!

A woman walking alone at night is beheaded by a madman on the dimly lit streets of Los Angeles. Just another Saturday night you say? Normally that would be the case, but this girl was the daughter of ex-convict turned long-haired hippie turned successful horror novelist Steve Dupree (William Devane), so someone’s going to pay damn it. A second murder, this time of a philandering old man, leads the police to believe that they may have a serial killer on the loose. This shows an incredible amount of skill on their part as one victim was beheaded and the other exploded like a doomed Tie Fighter. But we’ll come back to that. Dupree joins forces with an incredible female news anchor named Zoe Owens (Cathy Lee Crosby) and will stop at nothing to find his daughter’s murderer. Well, maybe he’ll stop for a night of wining and dining the incredible Miss Owens in his swanky bachelor pad, but after that it’s right back to looking for the killer! Also on the hunt is Detective Dave Mooney (Richard Jaeckel), the no-nonsense cop who put Dupree behind bars years ago, and a psychic who sees the killer in mirrors and tries to warn the police that the next victim will be a “young man.” You’d think with that kind of detailed information they could find the guy before he gets blown up… but can they stop the madman before he strikes again? Will we discover why a blind man walks across the screen before every murder? What’s up with the voices that whisper the movie’s title during every “suspense” scene? Why is the movie obsessed with homosexuality? Will the novelist nail the reporter and then exclaim “That’s incredible!”

What Makes It Bad?

First let me say that I’ve never quite understood Salisbury’s two distinct sections here… it seems to me that what makes these movies so bad are the very same reasons why we love them. But I’m in his sandbox, so I’ll play by his crazy rules.

The Dark is bad from the very beginning. An opening text crawl tells us of the myriad of species on Earth that use camouflage, acid, and boomerangs as defense mechanisms against predators and their prey, and then posits the incredibly original and unlikely supposition that we’re not alone in the universe. The text ends with a prophetic warning that “It is also a certainty that not all alien encounters will be friendly!” So much for slowly doling out the plot and milking the suspense… the murderer is of extraterrestrial origin. The effects are limited, but with only one exception those that are present are laughable. The marauding alien wears jeans and a blue windbreaker (of course), and while closeups of it’s hands and eyes are green and a bit rough and scaly there’s a shot where it tosses a victim and the jacket rides up in back… revealing fleshy, Caucasian back fat.

The screenplay is ridiculous (in the best possible way), but it’s tough to tell how much of the fault lay with the writer and how much blame belongs with meddling producers. The killer was originally written as an abused child who grows into a monstrous wacko impervious to pain, but somewhere along the line the producers decided that the hip kids were into aliens and space and shit so they changed it mid-film. It shows.

Why I Love It!

For all the reasons mentioned directly above of course. And more…

Let’s start with the voices. Every scene that takes place in a dark alley, street, building, or parking garage is accompanied by omnipresent whispers saying “the daaaaaaark” or “daaaaaaarknessssssss.” Eventually the phantom whisperers stray from the script and start ad-libbing with gibberish, but occasionally recognizable words can be heard including “aweemaway”, “hoobastank”, and I’m pretty sure at one point I heard someone say “seven daaays.” Your results may differ.

This cast is awesome too. Devane is one cool piece of work and always has been. Crosby parlayed her work here into ABC’s hit show “That’s Incredible!” where she got to introduce jugglers and people who could fold themselves into suitcases for four seasons. Jaeckel was a hard-ass in several seventies classics including Grizzly and Day of the Animals. And look at this supporting actor roster… Casey Kasem! Philip Michael Thomas! Ok, well that’s it, but still… Tubbs! And he plays a character named Corn Rows!

And lasers? Frickin laser beams! Shit gets real at the fifteen minute mark as the alien finds a second victim. But instead of ripping the guy’s head off it shoots lasers from its eyes and the guy blows up. He explodes. There’s no blood or guts and no wet sounds… instead the lasers and explosion look and sound exactly like the ones you’d see in an episode of “Buck Rogers” or old-school “Battlestar Galactica.” The lasers go “pew, pew, pew” as they fire and a shower of sparks and flames is superimposed over the guy to the sound of an actual TV explosion. It’s madness. Especially afterwards when the cops recover the body (and the head in a bag) and continue to talk about heads being ripped off! What kind of forensics team can’t tell the difference between a decapitation and an explosion? Madness!

And the psychic. Seriously, WTF? How can she have a psychic connection with an alien being? That’d be like uploading a Mac virus into an alien spaceship and having it actually infect their alien mainframe. Ridiculous! She sees the incredible reporter riding a horse in the mirror and somehow teleports right in front of the stallion, but how?! And why does her later vision of the beast in the mirror lead to a tornado blowing through her home?! And how did Jacquelyn Hyde not win an Oscar for her powerful portrayal of the psychic post-tornado when it’s revealed the windstorm apparently caused her to have a stroke?! She speaks from one side of her mouth without altering a single other characteristic of her performance, and you can’t help but think if Daniel Day Lewis were alive today that’s the kind of acting he’d be attempting.

There’s some choice bits of dialogue throughout too, and most come courtesy of Mooney. “Hey! Screw him!” “This channel sucks!” And my favorite… “Did she say anything about problems or kinky friends?” The psychic tells Dupree that “the beast grows in strength! Soon it will be undefeatable!” She tells him the next victim will be a young actor, and he heads out in search of the guy but fails. “I’ve been all over this town,” he says to the incredible reporter. “You have no idea how many young actors there are.” In Los Angeles…

And really, what’s up with veiled barbs against homosexuals? The psychic tells a guy that maybe he’s interested in boys, and he replies “Hey, I’m not that way!” A crowd protesting at the police station consists solely of men dressed like “movie” gays in tight denim shorts, odd costumes, and one guy wearing a t-shirt with “Mr. Antoine’s Health Spa” written on it. He even complains to a reporter that “an unnatural creature is stalking the street and we’re being persecuted!” One of the cops suspects a leak and blames it on a “lab worker passing on the info to his gay buddies.” Dupree tells an old woman that he’s looking for a woman, and she replies “Well that’s a change of pace.” See what I mean? Is it just me? What are you insinuating exactly? It’s an odd but humorous reminder of a more innocent time when prejudices were openly tolerated and political correctness had yet to be invented.

It all comes to a glorious end with one of the finest confrontations with a laser-shooting, denim-wearing alien ever captured on celluloid. It has chased our heroes into an old church, but the cops arrive and surround it. The creature stands still as the cops move in, but they never stop moving. They pause and shoot, then hustle as a group a few feet away and shoot again, then shuffle back to the original spot. It’s a comical bit of misdirection that unfortunately fails to confuse the beast who continues to pick them off with laser-guided laser blasts. It’s here where we discover the lasers have differing effects too… some blow the victim up, some simply set fire to the guy’s pant leg, and some manage to float a guy sideways through the air, pin him to a wall, and then explode. The creature also demonstrates phenomenal peripheral vision as we watch him tilt his head, dart his eyes to the side and fire off a few rounds. In the middle of the fight our two genius heroes walk up within ten feet of the alien dude and stand there to watch… and the look on their faces is calm, relaxed, and similar to how they looked when they were back at his pad getting their groove on his shag carpet.

“Of the millions of possible alien confrontations, man has had his first. An encounter for which he has no understanding or explanation. In the darkness of the universe, man is the alien, and from this day forward, only those who walk forever in darkness will have nothing to fear in the dark.” This is the nonsensical coda we’re left with at the end. But what does it mean? Should it scare us? Warn us? Make us want to pluck out our eyes? There’s a lesson here, I’m sure of it, but I’m waiting for the voices to tell me what exactly it is.

Junkfood Pairing

This is tough, and I give Salisbury props for coming up with something interesting and ideal week after week. My immediate and obvious thought was to go dark… Milky Way Dark, Dark Chocolate M&Ms, Goobers, grape soda. But instead I’m going in a completely different direction.

Wintergreen-flavored Lifesavers.

Because if you watch yourself in a mirror when you chew them in a dark room you’ll see sparks in your mouth. Sparks that look vaguely similar to the ones flying off the people who get laser blasted and explode in The Dark. Am I reaching? Probably. But damn do I sound smart referring to candy triboluminescence in a post on FSR.

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Don’t worry folks… Brian Salisbury will return next week with all the wit, humor, and insight this column is normally known for (or at least was known for before my guest appearance). But don’t get too comfortable, because someday when we least expect it, the Loom of Schlock will churn out another horror title and once again I’ll be forced to step in for him.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.