Color, 1981, 101 mins.

Written and Directed by Vernon Zimmerman

Starring Dennis Christopher, Linda Kerridge, Tim Thomerson, Norman Burton, Morgan Paull, James Luist, Mickey Rourke / Music by Craig Safan / Produced by George G. Braunstein and Ron Hamady / Cinematography by Alex Phillips

Format: DVD - Anchor Bay (MSRP $29.95)

Letterboxed (1.85:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital Mono

Neither as awful as some critics griped on its original release nor as remarkable as its champions have more recently proclaimed, Fade to Black contains enough fascinating and creative elements to overcome some irritating structural and thematic flaws, providing an enjoyable and occasionally impressive film at least worth an evening's rental. Shot for little money and a moderate success on the drive-in and shopping mall circuit, the film made an impression thanks to its occasionally nightmarish imagery and a very memorable trailer (thankfully included here).

Eric Binford (Breaking Away's Dennis Christopher), a wimpy movie buff, lives a pathetic existence in which he's browbeaten by his aunt, mocked by his coworkers, and unable to get a date. He constantly watches one movie after another, including such favorites as White Heat and Kiss of Death. He finally meets the girl of his dreams, Marilyn (Linda Kerridge, in a very nice performance), who looks an awful lot like a similarly named dead blonde celebrity. When things with Marilyn don't work out, matters go from bad to worse. Eric sinks into a world of complete cinematic dementia and acts out his most familiar violent fantasies, dressing up as characters ranging from Richard Widmark to Karloff's mummy and Lugosi's Dracula.

A bizarre mixture of Maniac, Taxi Driver, and The Monster Squad, the film benefits primarily from Christopher's convincing, creepy, yet essentially sympathetic performance, though the unappealing scene in which he abuses himself to a fantasy of Kerridge crooming "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" may test most viewers' sensibilities. Craig Safan's nerve-jangling score ranks with some of his best work of the period; too bad he doesn't still do so many horror movies. What keeps the film from completely succeeding is the essential message than excessive film mania causes a tendency to react violently and indulge in gruesome activities -- precisely the same activities in which the film wallows and tries to turn a profit. For all its skillful writing and sincere delivery, this essential contradiction never resolves itself and ultimately leaves a feeling of emptiness rather than utter terror. Anchor Bay's DVD sports no extras besides the trailer and a genuinely wild animated menu screen, but this should be enough to satisfy fans. The image quality looks fine though unremarkable; the obviously less than prime film stock combined with the urban setting don't exactly make for a visually dazzling setting. The framing mattes off extraneous information from the previous Media VHS version while adding a little to the right and left sides; compositions really look fine either way. Definitely not for all tastes, Fade to Black continues to leave horror fans split down the middle but still manages to retain a strange fascination and morbid effectiveness even after dozens of other wacko serial killers in its wake.

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