J

ack Sholder professionally came of age in Hollywood the old-fashioned way: He worked his way up the ladder, beginning in the editing bay. Getting his foot in the door at New Line Cinema during that company’s exploitation distribution infancy, one of the earliest lines on his resume was chopping together a promo spot for the Weinstein Brothers’ summer camp splatter party, The Burning (1981). Sholder’s huckster skills were so strong – and they had to be in order to hock dreck like Sergio Martino’s Slave of the Cannibal God (1978) to the denizens lining 42nd Street – that he landed a gig writing and directing New Line’s first self-financed production. After all, they needed someone who knew what their degenerate audience desired, as the distributor had practically run out of disreputable product to try and shill to the unclean masses. 

It had been just four short years since John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) became an utter sensation, and then Sean S. Cunningham and Victor Miller ripped it off with Friday the 13th (1980), practically building the Dead Teenager Industrial Complex from the ground up, one bloody kill at a time. In the near half-decade that followed, a river of crimson flowed from the silver screen, as every enterprising low-budget producer with half a brain (and at least $300,000 in their pockets) put a stalk-and-slash thriller into production, promising it would one-up the last mutilation for which fest audiences had just turned out in droves. 

Naturally, New Line also heeded this wicked capitalist call, hoping to discover a pot of bloodstained gold at the end of the black rainbow. But the movie that Sholder and executive producer Robert Shaye made is a far cry from the derivative masked-killer riffs that Brian De Palma shrewdly poked fun at with the opening tracking shot of his paranoid sound man masterpiece, Blow Out (1981), just the year before. Instead, Alone in the Dark (1982) is a witty, empathetic journey following a quartet of lunatic snakes (Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Phillip Clark, and Erland van Lidth) who slither away from the pit during a blackout, hoping to slit the throat of their new doctor (Dwight Schultz) in the idyllic suburban home where he sleeps. 

Welcome to the Haven: an institution run by Dr. Leo Bain (Halloween’s Donald Pleasence). Dr. Bain doesn’t refer to the unwell residents of this mental health facility as “patients,” but “voyagers” interested in exploring the rocky terrain of their own minds in hope of discovering what sections of these inner sanctums are broken … and if they can still be fixed. An astute viewer can’t help but notice that Bain is about as far from Pleasence’s iconic Dr. Loomis as he can get (and this writer rejects the theory that the character is a walking parody), going as far as refusing to include maximum security measures in the institution for even his most dangerous journeyers. Had Bain been in charge of treating Michael Myers, perhaps the uncanny Shatner-faced boogeyman would have given up his quest to hunt down his sister, Laurie Strode, long ago. 

To be fair, calling Alone in the Dark a “slasher” makes about as much sense as labeling The Ladies Club (1986) – a later, lesser-known New Line product revolving around victims forming a vigilante knitting circle of sorts – a straight up rape/revenge film. Both are tracers, subgenre outliers that seem outright bored with the formula their forebearers have already formally cemented. The set-up is simple, and the set pieces suspenseful, as (almost) always. But Sholder is more interested in introducing human characters, as opposed to just shoveling more nubile meat into the horror grinder. 

This focus on presenting relatable protagonists is most evident in Dr. Potter (Schultz), who has a loving, independent-minded wife, Nell (Deborah Hedwall), and punky, spunky rebel sister-in-law, Toni (Lee Taylor-Allan), who likes to drag the shrink’s better half to nuclear power protest concerts headlined by weirdo speed riff freaks, The Sic F*cks. These aren’t your typical horny, super-high (and usually incredibly attractive) teens, out in the woods for a good time and their own funerals. No; Sholder only gives us one slasher archetype – a randy babysitter, played by blonde sex kitten Carol Levy – and then grants her the movie’s best death scene. It’s a wonderful “have your cake and eat it, too” approach to body-count filmmaking that makes Alone in the Dark feel fresh amidst a crop of stale knockoffs. 

Appropriately, Sholder’s multiple maniacs own far more personality than your average masked death dealers. War vet Frank Hawkes (Palance) is a gaunt ghoul, seemingly rising in the middle of the night just to check the windows’ electric safeguards with a vague anticipation that, one (un)lucky evening, they might just fail to lock them all in. Despite his tendency to burst out in religious histrionics, Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff (Landau) hates his nickname, ostensibly because it acts as a reminder of his psychotic “trip” (as Hawkes terms it). You see, Preacher likes to play with matches, and that often leads to churches burning down. Sadly, for their congregations, the worshippers are often trapped inside while the holy place burns to the ground. 

If anyone fits the bill of “generic killer,” it’d be either Ronald “Fatty” Elster (van Lidth) or the group’s “bleeder,” Skaggs (Clark), whose face is either shielded or behind a goalie mask for the majority of his screen time. Nevertheless, Alone in the Dark is rather sensitive toward Fatty, which is quite a feat seeing how he’s an overgrown child rapist. Though Sholder has maintained that the former Olympic wrestling hopeful (whose only subsequent role would be as the opera-belting Dynamo in The Running Man (1987) struggled with major dialogue and emoting, he still managed to wring a weirdly nuanced turn out of the performer. Seeing how van Lidth was a student actor while attending MIT, Fatty’s interactions with the good doctor’s daughter (Elizabeth Ward) often echo both Lennie Small and Karloff’s monster, simultaneously, as he stumbles and fumbles around this new potential plaything. 

Which brings us to Skaggs, whose usage in the movie (in masked form) at first mirrors Jason Voorhees, before Sholder’s cunning script pulls the ol’ switcheroo and turns him into a Ted Bundy type (caution: spoilers for a near 40-year-old movie abound). During a riot sequence – after Skaggs viciously dispatches a hapless looter with a gardening claw – the “bleeder” skulks off into the throng, presumably never to be seen again. Uncoincidentally, a strapping hunk (sporting a conspicuous shiner) shows up in the same jail cell with Nell and Toni, as the duo have been locked up after their New Wave hippie shindig is broken up by the cops. With a sly smile, and polite, soft-spoken demeanor, the prisoner offers to let the girls skip his place in line to make a phone call back home, begging the doctor to bail them out. Naturally, Toni can’t help but take a liking to the cute boy, and he joins the crew for the rest of their adventures. 

The hook comes when “Tom Smith” turns out to be none other than Skaggs, the “bleeder” madman whose violence is so savage he scares the rest of his absconded comrades. It’s a last-act reveal that still works wonders even if you see it coming, mostly because of how it demonstrates the two types of evil Sholder is fascinated by in Alone in the Dark. First, there’s the marauding, inevitable death that most slasher villains represent and, admittedly, deliver the visceral roller-coaster buzz of literal escape that most fans crave from these sorts of pictures. But there’s another sort of insidious force Skaggs signifies: the mundane “mask of sanity” that so many serial killers wear in order to blend in amongst those who have found mechanisms to cope with the brutal mundanity of reality. In a sense, “Tom Smith” becomes Skaggs’ Clark Kent, the same way Bundy would utilize a perceived skin suit of normality to conceal the seething monster that slept within. 

“There are no crazy people, doctor, we're all just on vacation.” 

Sholder’s background as an English major (who never actually studied film in college) seeps into his first feature, as he’s far more concerned with the philosophy Alone in the Dark subscribes to, as opposed to just offering another routine thrill ride. Pleasence’s drum-circle therapy techniques are reportedly at least somewhat inspired by R.D. Laing, a Scottish psychiatrist who didn’t believe in schizophrenia as being a tangible ailment, but rather a theory, and who often stated that psychosis was simply a symptom of individuals having difficulty adjusting to an already crazy world. Just as the blackout turns average citizens into crazed looters, and a home invasion transforms a happy family into brutal murderers (not too far removed from Wes Craven’s central brood in 1972’s Last House on the Left), maybe our four maniacs are simply embracing their true natures while the rest of us spend each day lying to ourselves as the world crumbles. 

In fact, Sholder’s original vision for Alone in the Dark didn’t involve the suburbs at all. The writer/director’s initial drafts found the queer quartet escaping from the asylum and invading New York’s Little Italy. There, they do battle with the local La Cosa Nostra, in a violent war between two factions who live outside the confines of societal norms. Unfortunately, due to budget limitations, Sholder was forced to rewrite the entire setting, as shooting in the Big Apple was going to prove too costly for Bob Shaye and his fledgling genre shingle. 

Interestingly enough, Alone in the Dark lost out to Friday the 13th: Part 3D (1982) – the first movie where Jason obtains his trademark goalie mask – at the box office (“trounced” might actually be the more applicable word). Released a mere three months after one of the original slasher symbols was minted forever, it’s possible that Sholder’s movie was a touch too brainy for blood-and-guts audiences. All the right pieces were in place for it to become a fan favorite (including a killer one sheet and solid trailer from New Line’s fine-tuned cinematic carnival barkers), yet it still didn’t initially catch the pop zeitgeist like its more recognizable contemporaries. This is a real shame, seeing how the final moments – revolving around Palance, a punk queen, and a 9mm pistol – are striking enough to make you want an entire spin-off revolving around those characters alone. 

Despite the movie’s failure, Sholder went on to become an in-house cinematic carpenter for New Line, cranking out the sequel to the studio’s first huge hit, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984): the homoerotic precursor to Tobias Funke’s “The Man Inside Me,” Freddy’s Revenge (1985)*. After that, he gifted the world the super strange “alien on the loose” Kyle MacLachlan actioner The Hidden (1987). Following a string of TV work, helming everything from the small screen redux of The Omen (1995) to an installment of New Line’s short-lived Mortal Kombat: Conquest (1998 – 1999) series, Sholder moved into the DTV realm, crafting crass schlock such as the killer spider gross-out, Arachnid (2001). But none of these efforts came close to matching the cut-up cleverness of Alone in the Dark, a movie that, in retrospect, seems way ahead of its time, despite being a distinct product of its era. Often, that’s just the way the axe falls when it comes to horror history. 

*A movie whose “subtext” still generates controversy to this day. For further analysis, see the rather moving documentary, Scream, Queen! My Nightmare On Elm Street (2019), which profiles Freddy’s Revenge star Mark Patton and the troubled sequel’s legacy.

Jacob Knight is a film writer and operator of Vulcan Video, one of the last great cinema archives in America. You can follow him on Twitter (@JacobQKnight), where he will extol the virtues of everything from silent horror to Swimfan.