It takes a special talent to direct the weirdest Nightmare on Elm Street, a franchise that eventually stepped outside of itself for an entire movie about making another Nightmare on Elm Street, and not even realize it’s a feature-length treatise on closeted homosexuality. But Jack Sholder maintains his innocence/ignorance about Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. The film, about a teenager who can’t bring himself to have sex with his girlfriend because of the strange urges inside that his best friend soothes and his leather-clad gym teacher provokes, was deemed “the gayest horror movie ever made” at the time and every article written about it since has borrowed that title. It regularly occupies the basement of Internet-obligated franchise rankings, more for the blasphemous changes to Freddy Krueger than its subtext-turned-full-blown-text, and only recently has writer David Chaskin admitted his intent.
Taken on its own, Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is by no means a lost masterpiece, but it’s a far more interesting slasher than it needs to be. The same can be said of the movie that earned Sholder a Nightmare in the first place — 1982’s Alone in the Dark.
New Line Cinema, soon to be known as “The House That Freddy Built,” was a much different animal in the early ‘80s. Not yet a full-fledged production house, the company specialized in distributing arthouse fare like Reefer Madness on the campus circuit. Come 1980, Friday the 13th kicked off the slasher boom and convinced New Line that their best shot was low-budget horror. Jack Sholder, an editor fresh off The Burning (a different movie about a summer camp with a death curse), pitched them a story following a band of psychopaths who escape their confines under cover of night in the middle of a city-wide blackout. New Line promised they’d let him write and direct it as soon as the money was lined up.
Sholder’s Alone in the Dark, his feature-length debut as a writer and director, landed too late for its own good. In 1978, John Carpenter’s Halloween invented the modern slasher for $300,000. By 1982, the ambitions and the budgets had drastically dwindled. But as is their nature, the slashers never stopped, even if the audiences didn’t run so fast. Friday the 13th pumped out three movies in as many years, but the third had to lean on throw—stuff-at-the-camera 3D to make any kind of impact. Halloween II almost took the same route, but settled for a budget eight times the original and one-quarter the box office. The slasher cycle exploded, crashed, and went direct-to-video in under four years. Mere months after Jason killed in three dimensions and Halloween III put its franchise on ice, Alone on the Dark reached empty theaters and tired moviegoers.
That’s a shame, considering it’s a rare breed — a slasher with more on its mind than half-naked high schoolers and butcher knives, though Alone in the Dark is still smart enough to include a little of both.
It opens at a roadside diner called Mom’s. Martin Landau walks in and orders what everyone must at a roadside diner called Mom’s — “the usual.” But here, that’s a dead fish on a plate. A bullfrog jumps onto the plate. As the kitchen is casually engulfed in flames, the cook, played by Halloween hero Donald Pleasance, taunts him with Biblical brimstone and an impractically large blade. He strings up Landau by his shoes and readies for a one-swing bisection.
Landau bolts up in bed, screaming. It echoes down the locked halls of the mental hospital where he’s being held for burning down churches with the faithful still inside.
It says everything about Alone in the Dark that the first scream belongs to a serial killer waking from a bad dream. The movie doesn’t ask sympathy for the devil; it asks what makes a devil in a world that’s already so devilish. Sholder’s original idea involved the Mafia having to hunt down serial killers when the power goes out, but it would’ve been impossibly expensive for New Line. His second approach came from the writings of R.D. Laing, an either notorious or visionary psychiatrist as the mileage varies, who thought the insane had merely adapted to an insane world and should be treated as sane. Taken at its most literal, this concept leaves the sane against the grain. It makes the sane insane and vice-versa.
In a bit of symmetry that must’ve been deliberate, Donald Pleasance plays a psychiatrist like he did in Halloween, but the similarities end there. Here, Pleasance calls his patients “voyagers” and envies their journey into deeper, stranger forms of consciousness as he puffs from a feather-adorned peace pipe. Whenever a voyager acts out, he either enables their psychosis or whispers a violent, awfully familiar threat. The faded line between doctor and patient is summed up best early on, when the de facto hero, a more traditional psychiatrist played by Dwight Schultz, breaks a vase as his family moves in.
“You know, a little bit of Crazy Glue and you’d never know this was broken,” he says.
“Better get epoxy,” his daughter corrects.
“What’s the matter with Crazy Glue?”
“Well you could get your fingers stuck together, then you’d have to go to the hospital.” The craziest characters in Alone sound the most level-headed. The professionally sane are indistinguishable from patients acting out their delusions. And the more the latter tries to help the former, the more Crazy Glue gets on their hands, until it’s hard to tell which one was broken in the first place.
Alone in the Dark plays like an alternative sequel and hypothetical prequel to Halloween. Michael Myers is pure evil, even as a child, beyond salvation and condemned by a psychiatrist who’s not even sure he’s human. Alone wonders if he would’ve turned out that way if they’d given him a little breathing room, a little agency. In the same way, it plays like a follow-up where Pleasance survives, snaps, and decides hands-off psychiatry is the answer.
All this is to downplay how good Alone in the Dark on its own merits as a horror movie. The cast is overqualified and off-the-wall, and it’s hard to imagine anyone but Jack Palance savoring lines like “There are no crazy people, doctor; we’re all just…on vacation.” The suspense can be downright squeamish. The movie holds an all-timer of a jump-scare, where the when of it isn’t half as startling as the what of it. The final showdown even manages to undercut the worn-out trope of killers with an unquenchable sense of vengeance, courtesy of a convenient news broadcast. With a score that owes more to giallos than John Carpenter, Alone in the Dark is a refreshing curio on the slasher shelf that manages to come off a lot classier than the colleagues it broadly imitates and gently mocks.
And if Alone in the Dark is a what-if Halloween II, Sholder’s follow-up to Freddy’s Revenge bridges a gap in another franchise about an unstoppable killing machine.
The Hidden (1987) looks like it was shot on the other end of The Terminator’s Los Angeles. If you turned the camera just a little more, you’d probably catch Sarah Connor clocking out from Big Jeff’s. But what’s The Hidden actually about? A human-looking force of nature with bad people skills that can take impossible amounts of punishment and keep moving, killing anyone that gets in its way. There’s a reckless car chase lit by the racing lights of a bridge overhead, a brutal police station shootout, and a finale where the bad guy catches fire, destroying its bodily disguise and revealing its true form.
But The Hidden never feels like a rip-off. It’s just another story where the unreal invades a city that’s already as far from real as it gets, where even blue skies come with a tan. And also instead of a killer robot, it’s a killer alien.
The movie opens on the security camera feed of a bustling bank. We watch a stranger in a trenchcoat walk in, stand stone-still for just a little too long, and pull out a shotgun. He blows away security guards, picks up some cash, and finishes off the camera for good measure. It’s a startlingly effective opening, and one that only happened because New Line didn’t want to pay for a more complicated bank robbery. After an impressive car chase, our hero, a family-man cop played by Michael Nouri, and about a dozen other officers force him off the road with a withering barrage of gunfire. But he still gets out. So they blow up his car. But that only puts him in the ICU. But then they find him dead on the floor of his room and the comatose patient next to him long gone.
At its core, The Hidden is a buddy cop movie, with Nouri trying to piece together an impossible mystery — why do average, everyday people keep losing their minds overnight and going on sprees of murder, theft, and unchecked vice? His unlikely, off-putting partner, played by a downright adolescent-looking Kyle MacLachlan, knows more than he lets on, but they’ll have to find mutual respect and maybe even a little friendship before he opens up, a plot that writer Jim Kouf (Stakeout, Rush Hour, Another Stakeout) knows a thing or two about.
That obviously sounds a bit dismissive, but it’s to the movie’s credit that none of its genre conventions feel as such, partly because MacLachlan is another alien. So when he tells his new partner that the slug they’re chasing killed his family, it doesn’t feel like the trope it very much is. The buddy cop clichés ground the sci-fi and the sci-fi elevates the buddy cop clichés. The resulting mix ends up predicting some of Terminator 2: Judgment Day in the process. A sinister being from another time/place (please circle) comes to present time/place and another being, this one good, from that same time/place comes back to stop it, teaming with a reluctant human to stop it.
But whereas The Terminator and its sequels talk about fate until it barely seems like a word anymore, The Hidden is about the real threat of the 1980s — excess. The bad alien’s motives have nothing to do with world domination or altering the space-time continuum. It just does what it does because it feels good. After jumping into its first fresh body, the alien runs to a record store, kills the cashier, and steals a boombox. It takes the boombox to a diner, blasts some pleasantly forgettable ‘80s music, and eats like a dump truck. Then it walks to a Ferrari dealership, tells the dealer he wants one, murders him, and drives off in a hot new car. When the body wears out and springs a leak, the alien crawls into a new one (via some stomach-turning practical effects). Of course, the heroes need to force it out of hiding to truly kill it, so it’s up to them to spring those leaks. This usually entails a hail of bullets and plenty of blood squibs. How do you combat excess in The Hidden? Excessive violence, of course.
Like Alone in the Dark, The Hidden functions both as an exceptional example of its genre and a satire of the same without calling attention to either. In one scene, a police officer complains to the heroes that he picked up a flamethrower off someone on the street. Realistic? Not as far as I understand Los Angeles street crime. But it playfully toes the line of plausibility for police procedurals (Lethal Weapon 4 would eventually confirm that Los Angeles has flamethrower-wielding criminals) and offers the audience an irresistible tip that flames will be thrown by the time the credits roll. When it hits the gas, The Hidden absolutely hauls. The action is relentless. Gunplay escalates from pistols to shotguns to rocket launchers, and a weapon not of this earth that looks like the remote for a smart TV. The performances, from the leads all the way down to a dog, take it all exactly as seriously as it requires. Few movies could end on a moment that’s optimistic, depressing, satisfying, and strange all at once.
Jack Sholder doesn’t get mentioned as a “Master of Horror,” whatever the unwritten qualifications of that title might be. The infamy of Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge seems to have overwhelmed the rest of his filmography, even though he’d be the first to admit it’s not the best thing he’s ever had his name on. In the next few weeks, Alone in the Dark turns 35 and The Hidden 30. Not insignificant anniversaries, but I doubt they’ll be getting many retrospectives (though Warner Archive just released The Hidden on Blu-ray). As the leaves blush (climate permitting) and the neighbor kids smash your pumpkins in the street (neighbor permitting), you might get that festive itch for something scary and approximately 100 minutes long. Make it a different Halloween, a Jack Sholder Halloween, and try Alone in the Dark or The Hidden. You won’t be disappointed, you won’t see them coming, and you certainly won’t forget them any time soon.
Jeremy Herbert lives in terror, Cleveland.