Some of y’all may have noticed that, whenever I don’t have much to say about a movie, I’ll usually start things about be praising either the film’s title or its poster art.
With that in mind, the 1979 film The Dark has got a great title. I mean, what self-respecting horror film could actually resist a movie called The Dark? It’s a title that promises horror and blood and no holds barred morbidity! And really, the title is so brilliant that it almost doesn’t matter that the film itself come no where close to delivering.
And finally, just check out the poster art!
Seriously, that’s a great poster! If I had been alive in 1979, I totally would have wanted to see this movie just because of the poster. Not only is the film called The Dark but the poster literally promises that this movie is going to be — and I quote — “A chilling tale of alien terror!”
Of course, The Dark didn’t start out as a chilling tale of alien terror. The Dark is one of those films where what happened behind the camera is far more interesting than what was actually filmed. The story behind The Dark is a classic tale of low-budget, exploitation filmmaking:
Originally, The Dark was going to be a story about a zombie decapitating people in Los Angeles. The zombie had once been a Confederate soldier who ended up resorting to cannibalism. As originally envisioned, the Dark would feature numerous scenes of that dead Confederate wandering around with a big axe that it would use to chop off heads.
Tobe Hooper, who was hot as a result of having directed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, was brought in to direct. However, after just a few days of shooting, he was replaced. Depending on which version you read, Hooper was either fired or he walked off the set. Either way, all accounts seem to agree that Hooper didn’t see eye-to-eye with the film’s producers. (One of those producers was Dick Clark, the same guy who always used to host ABC’s New Year’s special.)
With Hooper gone, a new director was brought in. That director was John “Bud” Cardos, who had previously had a drive-in hit with Kingdom of the Spiders. Cardos finished the film but he had no emotional investment in it and that’s obvious when you watch The Dark today. Visually, The Dark looks and feels like an old cop show, the type that you might expect to turn up on a cable station that is specifically programmed to appeal to the elderly.
The film that Cardos completed featured a Confederate zombie with an axe. However, the producers showed that film to a preview audience and quickly discovered that nobody cared about a Confederate with an axe.
So, they made some changes.
At the time, Alien was the most popular film at the box office so the producers thought, “Why not add some special effects, redub some dialogue, and make our Confederate zombie into an alien?” Sure, why not?
Hastily, The Dark was reedited. All shots featuring the zombie with an axe were removed from the film. Instead, whenever the monster attacked, the film now featured a freeze frame of the monster’s face with some hastily added laser beams shooting out of his eyes. This would be followed by a freeze frame of the victim and stock footage of an explosion….
(That said, there’s still plenty of references to the alien removing people’s heads…)
Interestingly, there’s still a scene in the film in which a police detective suggests that the creature might be a zombie. “Zom-bies!?” his superior yells, “I don’t want to hear those two words again!” Well, don’t worry. It’s not a zombie! It’s an alien!
(You do have to wonder why an alien would be wearing jeans and flannel shirt but, then again, why would a Confederate zombie be wearing jeans and a flannel shirt? It’s a strange world.)
As you’ve probably already guessed, The Dark is a bit of a mess. The alien is going around Los Angeles and blowing people up. (Though a few times, he also rips off their heads because … well, we already went into that.) The father of one of the victims is a burned out writer and he’s played by William Devane. (This is the same William Devane who has played the President in nearly every movie and TV show ever made. Words cannot begin to express how bored Devane appears to be in this movie. Oddly, with his hair long and graying, Devane bears an uncanny resemblance to Law & Order SVU‘s Richard Belzer.) The father is investigating, even though the lead detective (played by Richard Jaeckel) tells him not to. A reporter (Cathy Lee Crosby) is also investigating. And then there’s a psychic (Jacquelyne Hyde) and the psychic somehow knows what the monster is and who is going to die next.
The characters do eventually cross paths. When the detective meets the reporter, the detective announces that he’s going to kill the killer. “38 caliber justice?” the reporter replies. “If he’s dead, he can’t kill again!” the detective explains and he kind of has a point.
(Making it even stranger is that, while the detective and the reporter talk, there’s a political protest gong on behind them. The protest consists of people jumping up and down.)
It’s all really messy because, while watching the movie, you get the feeling that none of the actors knew what anyone else was filming. It’s like six different films with six different tones and they’ve all been smashed together. It’s also not particularly scary because ultimately, the
zombie alien is just a freeze frame with some hastily added laser beams. (It doesn’t help that the lasers occasionally go “pew pew” when they’re fired.)
But still, The Dark is a great title for a movie.