The greatest movie about movies is Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In it, one Norma Desmond (played by Gloria Swanson doing the absolute most) keeps a down-and-out screenwriter at her beck and call as she prepares to resurrect her long-dormant Hollywood career. It’s a story about the end of an era and one woman’s descent into delirium, longing not so much for a gilded time as she longs for an illusory space in which she everyone recognizes her greatness. In 1980, Vernon Zimmerman ushered in the horror genre’s Sunset with a story of a young film buff who wants something that never was, and never will be for him.
Fade to Black was released to little fanfare, a psychological thriller drowned out by the same-year releases of The Shining, The Fog, Friday the 13th, and Prom Night. It concerns Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), a social outcast who lives with his domineering Aunt Stella (Eve Brent Ashe) in Los Angeles. An obsessive cinephile, he eventually breaks under the weight of his environment and embarks on a killing spree to eliminate his tormentors. It’s a simple enough plot, and in the hands of another director the story might have veered into slasher territory—Binford adopts a persona, puts on disguises, and stalks his victims with glee, after all. But instead the Unholy Rollers director crafts a character deconstruction that makes for one of the more unique horror films of the 1980s.
Zimmerman’s psychological slasher begins with low-brow Gothic excess, filled with visual and aural references to the world Eric wishes to inhabit. Celebrity headshots and fanzine centerfolds line the walls. A portrait of James Cagney sits by the bed while a noir movie plays in the background. Eric himself sleeps half-clothed, but with a fedora atop his head. Aunt Stella is a wheelchaired Shelley Winters mimic who doesn’t approve of her nephew’s devotion to cinema; “Why don’t you live in the real world like the rest of us?” she barks. Eric’s response is simple and character-defining: “No thanks.”
Eric doesn’t just love the movies, he engages with them as if they are a childhood home that he’s nostalgic for. He rattles off trivia when talking to an attractive woman or challenging a bully, because that is his entire personality and he knows nothing else. To everyone else, he’s pathetic. His own aunt calls him “birdbrain,” while his co-worker at an LA advertising firm calls him a “space case.” He doesn’t feel at home in this world anymore (if he ever did). The story introduces its peripheral players rapid-fire: his vindictive boss Mr. Berger (Norman Burton), an Australian model and Marilyn Monroe lookalike Marilyn O’Connor (Linda Kerridge), and film distribution warehouse co-worker Richie (Mickey Rourke). Among them all sits a common thread of ostracization—if these people don’t actively bully Eric, they dismiss him in some way. The kindest among them, Marilyn, is the key catalyst in his monstrous turn; after she unintentionally stands him up for a date, the humiliation he feels is the final straw that breaks the camel’s back.
On the surface, the character of Marilyn O’Connor seems no more tangible than the paper she’s written on. She is not given much screen time to show anything other than a pretty face with a heart of gold. With a closer look, however, the superficiality serves a purpose. Marilyn the local is not her own person, but an avatar for the world he wants to enter so badly. His general struggle with women surfaces during a masturbation scene later on; hand over his boxers, he stares at a Marilyn poster on his ceiling and imagines Marilyn the local, but mutters, “bitch” repeatedly as he strokes himself. Fade to Black sees what neither she nor Jarrett realize: he doesn’t love her. He loves the idea of being worshiped by a starlet.
Jilted by one woman and henpecked by another, Eric is an incel-in-waiting. He finally snaps and kills his Aunt Stella in an imitation of the Kiss of Death kill scene, pushing her down the stairs. Following that, he transforms completely, giving Joaquin Phoenix a run for his Joker money with a sinister giggle and renewed physicality. He changes his name to Cody Jarrett (Cagney’s character in White Heat), covers his street name with a sign reading “99 River St.” and ramps up his smoking, dresses more sharply, and cracks wise like Christine’s Arnie Cunningham (another film with a lonely, misfit protagonist who falls under the mystic sway of a relic of decades past). Every time he is slighted or humiliated in some way, he recalls a classic motion picture scene and finds his motivation, all but saying that he’s ready for his close-up.
As Eric, Dennis Christopher operates with an unassuming nature, so organic that the camera seems like an afterthought. When a retort or confrontation of some kind is scripted, Christopher opts to read the line with pathetic hesitation, as when he trails off and mumbles to a prostitute to “go to hell” seconds after she’s read him for filth and left his presence. The first half of the film has Christopher drunk with mumbles and nervous tics; the result is a fish-out-of-water arc that nips the “Why?” in the bud early on. Like Norma Desmond, the mental pot is slowly bubbling over and soon the dish will overcook. Christopher doesn’t just feel the character – he translates those feelings with a full-range physicality, becoming increasingly louder, more boisterous, and moving with an intent that wasn’t present in the story’s beginning. In doing so, he adopts a multitude of famous archetypes: a psychopathic killer, a sexually charged bloodsucker, a swaggering gangster, a stoic cowboy. Why these characters?
It’s not who these men are, but what they represent. Within that beta male personality type is a non-confrontational nature and a fear of stepping outside of his own comfort zone. In order to channel any sort of gumption, he must flip a mental switch and become one of his revered silver screen stars. What little personality Eric appears to have is cribbed from his idols. “One of these days,” he mutters to his nagging aunt, “you’re gonna eat your words, Stella.” It’s a paraphrasing of another Cagney gem, The Public Enemy, in which hoodlum Tom Powers smashes a grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face – and why not? Cagney represents everything that Binford isn’t: he’s street-smart, tough as nails, and popular with the ladies. It tracks that he would gravitate toward that alpha male symbol because this is his fantasy world where he can be whoever he wishes—and he clearly doesn’t want to be himself.
Eric is young in age but weathered in mind. He longs for a world and time that he has never experienced directly, only accessed vicariously through media. If Desmond is waiting for her great Hollywood comeback, Eric is waiting in the wings for his big debut on a stage that has been abandoned for decades. When he gets the chance to pitch a story (titled Alabama and the Forty Thieves) to big-shot producer Gary Bially (Morgan Paull), it seems like he finally has his foot in the door and might be somebody. When Bially steals his pitch and presents it on national tv as his own idea, it’s a wrap for Eric—he no longer has a reason to accept the status quo. He has been mocked, hurt, and overlooked at home, in love, and professionally (both in his desired career and his day job). When destitute screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) meets Desmond in Sunset, he makes a flippant comment that she used to be big. “I am big,” she responds, nose up in the air, “It’s the pictures that got small.” Eric Binford feels similarly bigger than his habitat and once he reaches his personal boiling point, the transition begins. He paints his face to attend a late-night screening of Night of the Living Dead. In the glow of the big screen, Cody Jarrett, formerly Eric Binford, feels perfectly at home. He is comfortable becoming the monster he reveres.
And so, he goes full Norma Desmond and tears down those holding him back from his fantasy world. After a sex worker taunts him, he finds her later in the evening and chases her until she falls upon a fence post, impaling her through the neck. Covered with a black cape, he slicked-back hair glistening in the moonlight, Cody descends on his victim and feeds off her wound. He stalks Marilyn the local and frightens her in the shower, in a direct Psycho recreation. He literally scares his boss to death and later commits a shooting in broad daylight.
The greatest scene, however, has Eric gussied up as Hopalong Cassidy, mask and all, in a showdown with his workplace bully Richie. The killer is backlit and shot from a reverent angle, making Eric/Cody seem more imposing. Richie, bewildered as to why a stranger is holding him at gunpoint, pathetically tries to negotiate with the assailant—now he is the loser, at the mercy of a superior (as Eric perceives it) man. While the film doesn’t quite sympathize with Eric, Zimmerman presents these revenge scenes as cinematically as possible, as they might play out in Binford/Jarrett’s head. As each of his victims cower before him, he gains the same strength that Desmond gets from watching her past films. It reinforces that the current world is unacceptable and the figurative land of Tinseltown is an ego oasis.
Just before the iconic Sunset Boulevard “ready for my close-up” quote, Gloria Swanson vamps, “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark.” Eric Binford, seemingly birthed from that darkness, calls it home – and knows nothing else.
“Fade to Black” is currently streaming on Shudder and out on Blu-ray this November from Vinegar Syndrome.