ALWAYS KEEPING AN EYE ON HOLLYWOOD!!!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

JER'S TURN- FILM RECOMMENDATION OF THE WEEK: FADE TO BLACK (1980)

JER: With so many topics to address on a week- to- week basis, we have maneuvered away from the topic of “Film Recommendation of the Week” for quite some time. The origins to the “Film Recommendation” was to either talk about a film that needs to either be seen for the first time or re-visited, if it has been far too long since last viewed.

I can say that both JOHNNY CHAZZ and I have talked about many well and respected films and we have recommended less- known films that we suggest be added to your ‘must see’ list.

This week, I focus my attention on the film that defined my ‘obsession’ since I was 12 years old. It is the 1980 cult favorite, FADE TO BLACK. (Hey Jay-Z... thanks for ripping off this title)
Written and Directed by Vernon Zimmerman (writer of the 1976 exploitation movie BOBBY JO AND THE OUTLAW starring “Wonder Woman” Lynda Carter) the story tells the tale of reclusive and slightly- off Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher: BREAKING AWAY) who lives in Venice, CA with his Aunt Stella. Eric is a majorly obsessed twenty- something who loves the movies, particularly the classic 40’s and 50’s. Because of its original release in 1980, the film is dated specifically for its time, speaking for an entire generation who relied on VHS video tapes and having to program or record films without the use of DVRs or other smart- memory devices. Binford’s bedroom reveals columns upon stacks of VHS tapes labeled with every classic title imaginable. His walls are layered with wonderful vintage posters, movie stills and his counters are stacked with countless movie memorabilia and movie masks. Lying on his stomach, reviewing the TV Guide for the wish list of upcoming films to watch or record, he lulls himself to sleep in a movie- riddled coma, passing the wee hours of the early morning before dawn.

Based on the rude awakening by his Aunt Stella, it is clear that Binford is mousy and declines confrontation when provoked. There is also a clear point made in which she blames Eric for her immobility. In Stella’s prime, she had dreams and aspirations in becoming a stage dancer. Those dreams were shattered when becoming confined to an electric wheelchair after an accident she had running home to care for a then four years old sick Eric. In an attempt to escape the ever- smothering advice and opinions of Aunt Stella, Eric prepares to leave for work as she sarcastically begs Eric to “live in the real world with the rest of us”… his under- the- breathe reply is “no thanks!”

Binford is off to escape the realities of his strict Auntie by walking to his job within a film distribution warehouse complete with film cans, trailers and movie one- sheet posters. Poor Eric just doesn’t seem to catch a break as he is confronted with bullies within his workplace. Richie (played by an unknown Mickey Rourke) is a muscle- bound jerk who must have pushed his way through a few geeks in his own high school days. He finds it slightly amusing to pick on frail and lonely Binford as he man- handles him throughout the day and jokingly tests his knowledge of film for his cheap pleasures. If that wasn’t enough, there is the crabby Mr. Berger, the warehouse’s manager, who pops heart medication pills and screams at Binford with the constant reminder that he is a screw- up!

As the film develops, Eric finds complete solace within his films, a world where he can look up to mentoring cinema stars like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart and Cary Grant. It is here that Binford walks tall as he embodies the personalities of his heroes, to the degree of impersonating voices and facial expressions and mimicking smart and tautly one- liners as only a man’s man could. The lines of reality and cinema fantasy eventually blur, however, as Eric creeps too far into the celluloid world by taking on the name of Cody Jarrett, the character that James Cagney portrays in WHITE HEAT. Eric also changes his street’s name to 99 River Street, taken from the 1953 film of the same name.

More bullies or dominating figures enter into Binford’s life throughout the film, only to keep provoking the inner madness that would soon embody him very quickly. The only ray of light in his eyes is his running into of a Marilyn Monroe lookalike named Marilyn O’Connor (Linda Kerridge). Marilyn is a native Australian who moved to Hollywood with dreams of making it big. After a chance meeting at a local coffee shop, it is in his fantasy world that she sings “Happy Birthday” with the same sexy and seductive warbling as did the real Monroe to JFK on his birthday. He will soon find out that she cannot save the inner demons that will spring forth the many characters he has watched and relished in within the dark to do his murderous biddings.

Taking on an array of different characters like Hop- Along Cassidy, Dracula, The Mummy and a James Cagney mobster; Eric is loaded with an arsenal of make- up and costumes from his private collection to dress up and kill people as did his favorite characters in their perspective films.
Enjoy the original 1980 trailer!

What became an impressionable film for me at such a young age was the fact that the story evolved around an avid film fan. Mind you, he is a deranged film fan, but I admired his knowledge of film and trivia, his room and all of its displays and the uncanny impersonations he could do to emulate his role models. I will never forget watching this film on HBO for the very first time and as the film drew to an end, my mother looking at me and sternly saying, “You see, if you are not careful, you’re going to become crazy like him... all obsessed about movies!” The point would be a sharper deliver, since my mother said it in Spanish. I sat there and said to myself, “I really hope so!” (Insert evil laugh here.)

Executive produced by Irwin Yablans (HALLOWEEN), FADE TO BLACK was shot on a shoe- string budget. It was never intended for wide release and it wasn’t meant to be shot in crisp high- definition clarity. Director of Cinematography Alex Phillips Jr (BORN IN EAST L.A.) keeps a very classic dark look throughout the film, most of which takes place in darkness; Eric’s room watching films with the lights off, night time strolls through West Hollywood and the Chinese Theater and other indoor settings. Hues are dark and somewhat pale. Binford’s facial skin tones and dark circles under his eyes show signs of an unhealthy lifestyle as a smoker and a junk food consumer. Marilyn is beautiful and often shot with a glossy smear to highlight a certain radiance that the early film starlets shined through with.

The film takes you through many familiar sights in and around Hollywood; Ships Restaurant in West Hollywood, the Westwood and Bruin theaters, the Walk of Fame in Hollywood and the final stand- off that occurs at the Chinese Theater! It is a dark and slightly depressing film, as Eric is considered an anti- hero, the boy who never got a break out of life and a possible victim of society.

I truly cannot see any real film fan not seeing this movie at least once. It conjures so many memories of a Hollywood long gone and offers excitement and tension throughout its run.

JOHNNY CHAZZ: How nice to return to the “Film Recommendation” portion of our blog, yet again after diving into so many other realms over the past couple of months. So, let’s discuss your film here – “Fade to Black” (1980).
Now, there is no doubt that I can clearly see why this film appeals to you, Jer. Here’s a film where our main character is in love with movies and slowly begins to act out each of the scenes from these films. As you mentioned Jer, our character (Eric) does find complete solace within his films and that begins the weave of reality and fantasy making this film so unique. The parallel between you Jer, and this character are also quite intriguing.

What’s the genre here though? On the surface perhaps one would consider this a horror film, or perhaps even a suspense-thriller. Still, upon having re-visited this movie a couple months back, I almost see it as a drama, and even in some ways a romantic film from different point of view. When all is said and done however, I must proclaim this film as falling under the genre of ‘horror’ considering the rampage and the killing spree that our main character ventures on.

The strength of this film is, at times, almost what I would consider a weakness in “Fade to Black”. Not every scene needs to drive the plot – and often times our best directors do this intentionally to create a sort of parallel world or a break in a sense in the film offering the audience a chance to reflect for a moment. The sub-plot between Jerry and Ann (case worker and cop) is one that does not seem to really have a proper place in the film however – thus, not only does it fail to drive the plot, but it almost works as a distraction and the mood changes to almost a comedic one. In my own opinion, this damages the film and lowers the rating a notch.

There are plusses however to “Fade to Black” and these must be addressed to give the film its due. The film is very dark, and I can see why it works on so many levels for you Jer and for fans of this so-called cult classic. Eric’s obsession (almost a sickness really – no, it is a sickness) with this grim world that becomes a reality for him, keeps us on the edge of our seats. This is precisely what suspense / horror flicks should and must do. Additionally, Mickey Rourke’s performance is, albeit somewhat brief at times – Oscar worthy in my opinion. Finally, the classic black and white film clips really give the film a classic look as well as paying homage to yesterday’s Hollywood.

The premise of this film is what makes it so memorable, and will always guarantee itself a spot or two on any decent video store’s shelf. There are hints of Wes Craven surrounding this film – especially in the genre, the hues and the bare mood of the film. What concerns me still about the film and what probably keeps it from being in my top-100 of all time is the fact that the film tends to stray away to sub-plots that fail to drive the plot. This is precisely what prevents the film from really becoming suspenseful. Does “Fade to Black” really build to a climax at the end as we have seen in so many other classic horror films such as “The Exorcist”, or “Halloween”, “Rear Window”, “Dial 'M' for Murder”, “The Wicker Man” (1973), or even more contemporary films such as the “Saw” series or even what we experienced in the first “Paranormal Activity”? It is the climactic ending that gives these films their power while lurking in the minds of viewers for a lifetime.

Can I recommend this film to our audience here on Cinema: Counterpoint? Sure, why not. The plot is so unique and the mood, the lighting, the sets and the costumes really work. The performances are marginal as a whole, but brilliant in pieces. Still, that’s the issue here – Zimmerman puts together a film that crumbles into too many pieces as it moves along, and it pays a heavy price with an ending that really fails to give us the satisfaction that we hunger for. You mention that “Fade to Black” delivers a sense of tension ‘throughout its run’ Jer, but I am not sure I can go along with that 100%. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the recommendation this week, Jer, as it is a classic that audiences must visit at least once. Then the task becomes to formulate their own opinions.

** Chazz’s Rating: 6.5/10

JER: Let me offer a slight rebuttal and agreement on some of your points, JC. The character of Jerry Moriarty was played by comedian- turned- actor Tim Thomerson (IRON EAGLE) and I think that the first 2/3 of his appearances were added to give a little tension relief from the intensity of Eric’s unstable mind. I agree with you that some of this was unnecessary or that it just doesn’t work in the sense of timing, but most films of this era fell victim to its time and would play on some silliness because script writing took a dramatic (or comedic) turn somewhere in the very late 70’s. It just never recovered from there…

Zimmerman, I would believe, wrote and directed this film to purposely pay homage to films he grew up watching. The gangster/ mob movies with Cagney, Bogart and Edward G Robinson and the Hammer and Universal monster films like DRACULA, THE MUMMY and THE CREATURE OF THE BLACK LAGOON! All of these mentioned become a part of Eric’s physique since this had become his daily diet intake. The total basis of truly enjoying this film is for one thing and one thing only: seeing the steady and eventual turning of Eric Binford’s life when more pushing and shoving occurs in his life. The constant reminder of being a loser or a loner… an outcast, if you would. He is never hip or the kind of guy who will get the high school cheerleader at the end of the film and dance off into the sunset.  Binford is designed to touch the geek in us all. Society has ‘type- casted’ certain stereotypes in our culture. More recently, it is determined that only nerds, freaks and fanatics attend ComicCon in San Diego, CA for their annual rituals of geekdom or only sci-fi losers flocked to STAR TREK conventions since the 1970’s. I categorize myself in that list since I attended many such conventions in my days. Most may take this love a little too far… but the admiration and dedication to detail: costumes, trivia knowledge or allegiance to a show or film series, is one that cannot go unnoticed.

As for the climax… now, I believe that the ending has been fitting for this story and really cannot see it finishing any different. It builds itself up with a steady pace, keeping a pulse to what it calls for and finally concludes with good timing. What else do you need?

The film is dated and may not appeal to most of the post CGI- generation today. Their world is filled with quick and hasty plots, in- your- face action sequences and paint- by- numbers backdrops and sets. This is a slow broth that needs time to cook. This is a home cooked meal and not a quick drive- thru grab bag. It takes its time introducing you to the characters and their roles in this story. What is their significance to the story and what pivotal role do they play in Eric’s life? It is not made up of graphic language or violence. It is narrative in certain points and slightly poetic in recapturing the pop culture aspect of the dialog. JC best described it as a mixture of being a thriller/ drama with a hint of horror: this recipe is served as pure fun!
Enjoy this great music video/ photo tribute using Marsha Hunt's haunting closing theme "Heroes" (thanks cpz91 for a great tribute!)

One of the major points in the creation of CINEMA: COUNTERPOINT has been and will always be to offer two individual takes on the same subject. We can always agree or disagree…it is like getting a medical second opinion! If you can get past the fact that this film was made and distributed in 1980 and that it carries a time capsule of technology, gadgets and mentality… then you will enjoy this film for what it is: good performances by lesser- known actors, a unique and intriguing story line and a fanatical tribute to Hollywood and its stars! If you are looking for another WATCHMEN or SUCKER PUNCH, then you are definitely barking up the wrong tree here.

For an avid film fan, there are so many things to look for… tributes to Hitchcock, a midnight showing of George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, the many recognizable posters that adorn Eric’s bedroom, the “useless trivia” as Aunt Stella would say and an admiration of transformations Binford puts himself through. The moment of his admiration of a Dracula make- up job he is doing in front of a mirror, the tommy- gun he holds as a mobster, the linen wrappings as the Mummy and the William Boyd face mask he owns when he plays Hop- Along Cassidy and the detailed gown and suit worn in THE PRINCE AND THE SHOWGIRL sequence! All can be looked upon with an eerie appreciation.

JOHNNY CHAZZ: Jer - There is no doubt in my mind either that Zimmerman intended for this film to pay homage to the films of his era. As the primary basis for the film, if we are to focus on Eric's life, then it becomes a character study. However, if this is not a character study, then it strictly falls in the realm of the suspense / horror genre. Which is it? I am not exactly sure myself, but perhaps that is the intrigue of "Fade to Black". Whatever it is, well - it does work on some bizarre, yet tangible level that so many movie and film fans can identify with.

An excellent selection this week - and a fantastic topic to discuss here on Cinema: Counterpoint. I look forward to hearing the feedback from our readers.

Don't take our word for it...enjoy the original "Sneak Previews" take on FADE TO BLACK with Siskel and Ebert dated November 1980!


 JER: As do I… look, I can tell you that FADE TO BLACK will be a hard find and maybe not available at your local video store. After some research, I can tell you that it is available on Nextflix and for purchase through E-Bay and Amazon. It is not available for rent on Youtube, though. Beg, steal or borrow a copy from a fellow film fan or friend with an extensive film catalog… I think you will thoroughly enjoy this creepy thriller!

Have you seen FADE TO BLACK before or never? What is your take? Interested or a film you would pass on? Let us know your thoughts and comments and let our community hear your feelings on it. We always welcome your comments… tune in next week as JC takes the remote control and changes it to his channel of choice…so, as always, we will SEE YOU NEXT WEDNESDAY!

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4 comments:

  1. A movie totally about an obsession and this time with movies. I always liked it. - Greg (Twin Falls, ID)

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  2. Thanks Greg, I really wish to hear from more fans on this little gem. I know they are out there and I hope that more people get to discover how great it really is!

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  3. A blue ray dvd with special feathures would be amazing for all film fans!!

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  4. OH GOD! Wouldn't it??? Yes! Including new updated interviews with the cast today...maybe some behind-the-scenes and even some deleted scenes??? OK, I gotta sit down because I am working myself over too much! :D

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