Fade to Black has long been one of my favorite movies about the movies. I was lucky enough to see it new in 1980, a number of times, thanks to having just started work at the downtown grindhouse movie theaters on Horton Plaza and along Fourth and Fifth Avenues. It’s a film I love so much that, on hearing that Vinegar Syndrome was releasing a loaded Blu-ray edition last month, I finally broke down and bought my first Blu-ray player. Just for Fade to Black. (Warning, a minefield of spoilers lie ahead – though uncommon, this flick’s been out for 40 years, so let’s not pretend nobody’s seen it yet)
An obsessed and bullied cinema devotee murders his tormentors via movie scene recreations - rarely has Hollywood portrayed its own audience as potential serial killers who emulate what they see on screen. The surprise here is that the killer's inspiration isn't always horror movies, but rather gangster flicks and even Hopalong Cassidy westerns, genres whose inherent violence is often overlooked, or at least under acknowledged.
Another surprise – Fade to Black isn’t even a horror movie. It’s a psychological thriller that shares little in common with the then-burgeoning slasher genre, as marketed on its original release (coming after the indie hit Halloween, which shared a producer with Fade to Black, but before the onslaught of studio copycats like Friday the 13th, etc).
Dennis Christopher - lauded for his geeky role in Breaking Away, but who I was more familiar with in 1980 from the previous year’s California Dreaming - found perhaps his greatest role as movie buff Eric Binford, a skinny, shy pasty-faced loner who works on the outskirts of the movie biz (delivering film canisters on a ratty company scooter) and patterns every aspect of his life after the films he adores. When bullies and scammers drive him over the edge (one played by young Mickey Rourke!), he retreats into a dream world full of movie-informed revenge fantasies, that he at first only tries to enact by frightening people, not hurting them.
For quite a while, almost everyone else in the movie is the bad guy (and gal), not Binford.
It’s important to the character that Binford doesn’t set out to commit murder, but rather to scare people. The first death, his abusive Aunt (a former actress who may actually be his Mom), is basically a wheelchair accident. One almost doesn’t notice that Binford only gives the chair the slightest push, just to get her away from him, before a malfunctioning switch on the chair sends her toppling down some stairs.
In the original script, when he starts dressing up as Dracula, it was to chase a prostitute who had mocked his attempt at a hookup, and he then kills her like a vampire, biting her throat. Dennis Christopher, in one of many instances where he completely rewrote the script with his own ideas, insisted that it would be better for the hooker to be so terrified that she accidentally falls, killing herself by getting impaled on a white picket fence post. This at first horrifies Binford. But then he notices the piece of wood, protruding from her neck, and seeing what seems a “bloody stake” plunges him at that moment into the fantasy film world, more or less permanently.
He touches the wound with an incredulous expression, places his bloody fingers up to his lips and, with only the barest flutter of hesitation – or is it anticipation? – tastes the essence of his victim. Once he’s tasted blood, he’ll never emerge from that dream state again (or will he? He may actually have one more lucid moment, as I’ll speculate on shortly).
Binford eventually takes it to the next lethal step and starts killing off his tormentors by enacting famous movie scenes. Film buffs will love all the winking references to and scenes from classic cinema, and the Marilyn Monroe look-a-like lead actress (Australian model Linda Kerridge) does one of the most convincing Marilyn impersonations ever.
It’s when Binford first meets the sex goddess doppelganger, also named Marilyn, that he starts losing touch with reality. He impresses her enough with his knowledge of movie trivia that she kind of tricks him into setting up a date with her, which sets off Binford’s fantasies to the point where he tells his mean old Aunt and his even more abusive boss that he has a date with the actual Marilyn Monroe.
Unfortunately, Marilyn likes to drink a bit, and gets easily distracted by boys who spend money on her (not unlike Ms. Monroe?), and accidentally breaks her date with Binford. She feels bad about this, as she genuinely likes the weird little guy, but this turns out to be very bad for all concerned.
Marilyn actually gets a visit from Binford on the night he dresses as Dracula and (accidentally) kills the hooker, though he doesn’t intend to harm her either. He does scare the beejeesus out of her, sending him scurrying away in an almost comical re-creation of the shower scene from Psycho (one that even finds an inventive excuse to seemingly switch to Hitchcockian black and white, as the “blood” – in this case, the black ink of an autograph pen – circles down the shower drain).
The Blu-ray extras reveal that it was Dennis Christopher who talked the writer/director into adding a masturbation scene where his character is looking up at his ceiling poster of Marilyn Monroe and angrily whacking off. For the scene as scripted, Binford was to instead dance with a life-size Marilyn cutout, all alone in his room. Christopher realized the absurdity of this and created the masturbation scenario on his own, telling the director to just roll the camera and shoot the scene, which ends with him cursing Marilyn as a “bitch.”
Christopher also created Binford’s entire bedroom décor – as well as the bathroom – covering every available surface with his own movie memorabilia and material he got from cutting up magazines. When he arrived on day one of the film shoot, he says all they had for set dressing was four of producer Irwin Yablans’ own movie posters and some furniture.
The spectacular big-budget looking finale on the roof of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood echoes several specific movies, in particular James Cagney's White Heat (with snippets of Cagney actually edited into the action), but it manages to be unnervingly unique in its own right, mainly because we've come to sympathize and even care, at least a little, for poor, beat-down Eric Binford.
I recognize the film’s flaws, particularly the sub-plot with a female police detective falling into a casual affair with a social worker setting up shop in the police station basement. As the social worker who realizes Eric Binford is the costumed murderer the cops are looking for, poor Tim Thomerson (Trancers, Dollman) has a dreadful role and painful dialogue ("But, Sarge, he’s a victim of society..."). Though he does light up the screen for a moment when he snorts coke in the cop-house basement and flies into a rabid harmonica jam, only to get caught (but not “busted”) by his policewoman lover.
I do kind of wish that ALL Binford’s victims were accidental, even if one can understand why the film had to eventually deliver on its promised premise. Once he actually starts killing, on purpose and quite graphically (at one point with a real tommy gun and a room full of exploding glass and body squibs), the movie takes on a darker tone and loses its (subtle) humor, as well as much of any goodwill accrued so far toward Binford.
Chronologically, the scene where he dresses as a mummy to scare his cranky boss should come BEFORE any of the actual murders, because the boss dies of a heart attack before Binford can touch him. That should have happened after Aunt/Mom Stella died (due to a malfunctioning wheelchair, rather than a push), and just before the hooker accidentally died by not looking where she was running. Three accidental deaths where he was only trying to scare someone. Then the taste of the hooker’s blood would have been what makes him a killer from that point onward.
Having the boss die of a heart attack well into the actual killing spree is a nearly egregious editing error, when it could have helped us sympathize with Binford before he goes all Michael Myers.
Drugging Marilyn while in disguise as a photographer seems another misstep - had Binford wooed her without slipping her a mickey (a couple dozen mickeys, actually), the character would have had some small last minute redemption. Instead, he becomes rather gross and definitely a “bad guy,” basically roofie-ing his date, even if it seems evident that she swallows his handfuls of pills just as willingly – if not as enthusiastically - as she shares Champagne glasses with him.
The Blu-ray extras reveal that the seduction scene, just before the finale, turns out to be another Dennis Christopher invention-slash-improvement. As scripted, Binford just wanted to get Marilyn naked and re-create the iconic nude calendar photo that Playboy magazine made famous. Aside from being gratuitous, it made no sense when you consider that his fantasies aren’t of Playboy, but of the movies. If he has Marilyn Monroe for any scenario that he wants to pay to enact, of course it’s gonna be a movie scene. A romantic scene. So it’s a vast improvement to instead have Binford re-create the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. Where he can woo the object of his affection-obsession by way of a true love scene. Which is what he gets.
In one of the most amazing revelations from the Blu-ray extras, it turns out the entire Prince and the Showgirl scene was so last minute that the dialogue is completely improvised! It’s a remarkable tribute to how well Christopher and Kerridge understood their characters, that they were able to make up so much valuable and revealing character interplay on the spot.
And the scene makes it clear that she’s completely seduced by this guy. Even tho Marilyn is shown being fed multiple pills, and drinking Champagne, it’s evident that “The Prince” would have been able to seduce her with the elaborate, romantic scenario, without getting her so wasted. I mean, this is a gal who slid her short-skirted legs right onto the back of creepy Eric Binford’s ratty little scooter five minutes after meeting him – at her own suggestion! – and we’ve seen her drinking and giggling herself into one stumbling shower scene already, so she’s not exactly a model of impulse control.
Kerridge, it turns out, ends the mutual mirror part of the Showgirl scene by improvising what I consider to be the film’s most thought-provoking and potentially game-changing bits of dialogue (spoiler alert) – in a brief second of clarity, she looks away from their dual reflection and instead gazes lovingly at “The Prince” and says, quite sagely, “But I know who you really are.”
Wait, does that mean she knows he’s really Eric Binford, the guy she stood up for a date? (He's not exactly well disguised by his princely getup, and she seems to possibly recognize him on sight, but gamefuly plays along with the oh-so-romantic - and obviously expensive - photo studio scenario right out of an actual movie set). Or does she know that he’s the same Dracula who invaded her shower, with no realization that he and Binford are one and the same? Or DOES she know they’re both the same guy? Maybe she realize she's partying with the costumed killer in all the newspapers? OR does she just mean, in general, that “I’m fully aware that this isn’t a movie, but I’m totally down with this,” IE acknowledging that she knows he’s just a photographer who’s acting like a Prince for a photoshoot, but she doesn’t care and she’s going along with it. All intriguing hints that leave us wondering.
The rare paperback novel adaptation of the film fleshes out some interesting bits that can’t be found in either the original shooting script or the final movie edit. For one thing, there’s an entire relationship between Binford and the elderly security guard at the film distribution warehouse. The old man provides an external sounding board for Binford, in the time frame when he was still at least somewhat living in the real world, as well as offering a voice of reason and calm, trying to assure the young man that he’s a good kid, does a good enough job, and doesn’t really deserve the ration of shit everyone gives him.
There’s also much more in the book about the police investigation into the costumed murders. In fact, Marilyn herself is interviewed by the cops, who believe her report of a guy dressed as Dracula sneaking into her shower is related to the murders.
The book also makes it clearer why Binford was never investigated for the incident with his Aunt/Mom going down the steps in a wheelchair, something Dennis Christopher felt needed addressing in the film as well. In the movie, we see a brief glimpse of a headline about a “wheelchair accident,” but the book makes it clear that the wheelchair actually was defective. We see her clicking the control to no avail a couple of times in the film, but the book includes her asking her distracted nephew (son?) repeatedly to fix it for her, which he only complies with by doing a half-assed job.
In both book and film (though more obviously in the book), her death isn’t so much murder as inaction. Binford sees the chair malfunctioning, sees Stella heading for the stairs, but all he does is laugh and flashback to another movie scene. All he really did was push the chair away from himself – Stella and the malfunctioning motor did all the rest, something far more clear in print than on screen.
As for how Binford got the money to rent the fancy car, photo studio, and Showgirl set and equipment, the book expounds on how Stella had a substantial insurance policy, something barely evident in the film. I only recently noticed a scene where Binford has a wad of cash hanging out of his shirt pocket, it’s too poorly lit to notice.
The book also has one odd passage that mirrors Christopher’s last-minute masturbation scene by adding punctuation to this scenario with an exterior shot of Binford on the streets of Hollywood and coming up to the Pussycat Theater, a long-gone porno palace. Something about the poster out front turns him on so much that he essentially has to pleasure himself right then and there.
It’s a nice bit of work for the character, because it demonstrates how he no longer has any self-control over his actions, even when out in public, in broad daylight.
It’s also just so freaking Hollywood circa 1980, onanism on the sidewalk in front of the Pussycat Theater! Almost too perfect a metaphor for Hollywood’s urban descent from city of dreams to streets of smut, enacted right in front of what was once a classic old movie house. Binford’s fantasy of old Hollywood was by 1980 overtaken by the porno chic boom, so his own corruption is mirrored as Binford watches himself pleasuring himself in the reflection of the Pussycat marquee glass (mirrors containing Binford’s altered reality keep turning up in the film, most notably as he applies the Dracula half-makeup).
Though the Blu-ray edition only mentions the novelization in passing, and doesn’t reference it at length as I’ve done here (I love this movie too much to not give you the full overview), it does generously offer multiple commentary tracks. This includes one with Dennis Christopher, where I learned that producers basically started with just the idea of an obsessed film fan before coming across Linda Kerridge and writing the script around her as the Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. She and Christopher had dated, and she was the one who recommended him for the movie, though they apparently stopped dating just before filming started.
Producer Irwin Yablans takes credit as usual for “discovering” John Carpenter (Yablans did distribute, and possibly rename, Assault of Precinct 13), as well as claiming to have invented the slasher genre by backing Carpenter on Halloween. He also mentions that Fade to Black’s writer and director Vernon Zimmerman refused to do the final edit, there were so many disagreements on the set, so in the end Yablans and others ended up doing the final edit (which was a far bigger hit overseas than in the U.S., where the film went almost unnoticed).
There are also interviews with other creatives and performers behind Fade to Black, as well as an audio interview with Linda Kerridge from her home in Australia, where she says she had forgotten about the film until fans started reaching out to her online. She still seems bemused that, while the movie reviews were mixed at best, almost all the reviews of HER performance were glowing, even though she never really aspired to act and basically quit the business a few years later to raise her son. It’s clear that she felt somewhat psychologically split by her Marilyn look-a-like phase, and that her role as Marilyn in Fade to Black was almost autobiographical as far as being a struggling actress both blessed and cursed with the features of a long dead sex symbol.
Kerridge later claimed that Fade to Black producers had to advance her salary during filming to keep her bills paid, but that she ended up owing them money when the movie wrapped. To pay off the difference, she says she agreed to do a nude Playboy photoshoot where they got her drunk on expensive Champagne, swapped out partway through the shoot for cheap domestic. It’s a major loss to the film business that she soon retired, after only a handful of roles, this one being among her most impressive, especially when one discovers how many of her scenes were improvised (she also has some obligatory “funny best friend” hangout scenes which were also mostly adlibbed, but managed to add character color like her huge T-shirt collection and overall youthful flightiness).
It’s also revealed in the extras that the entire, amazing Grauman’s Chinese Theater rooftop finale wasn’t even in the shooting script. The movie was planned to end with an indoor shootout with cops after the nekkid Marlyn photo shoot. Zzzzzzzzzzzz.
For the final confrontation between Binford and police, Grauman’s is a spectacular locale, used so successfully that, for the last ten minutes, it looks like a multimillion dollar studio feature. Turns out Yablans was owed a favor by someone at Grauman’s, so they essentially got the location for free, even though they had to hustle to pull off all that was required in the time allowed (those are real pedestrians that Binford and Marilyn push their way through, heading towards the theater entrance).
Something interesting I never noticed until Christopher pointed it out for the Blu-ray is that, just as Binford tries to protect Marilyn from the police sharpshooters by pushing her into the stairwell and locking the door, he hands her still MORE pills and says “Take these if you want to join me.” Which apparently means he thought their love might be real enough that she’d want to commit suicide and join him in death.
This is also thought provoking to me – does it mean Binford was acknowledging that he really did know who he really was – and who she really was – but that he was already committed to play out this final death scene? Is this the “one final lucid moment” I mentioned earlier?
Or was he still fully invested in the fantasy that he was an outlaw being robbed of his life’s rewards by those dirty coppers down on the street? Then, the mobster’s gun moll would of course want to die with the antihero, even after being “protected” with a shove into the locked stairwell. A stairwell which probably shouldn’t be lockable without a key from the OUTSIDE, but remember, this scene was all thought up at the last minute and COMPLETEY IMPROVISED! All of Dennis Christopher’s dialogue on the rooftop, his final bow, his “Top o’ the world, ma!” exultation, all made up, on the spot, as the camera rolled, with just a few hours to use the Theater locale and film the stuntman falling off the roof in place of Binford. An amazing performance.
Somewhere in all that, a final scene was filmed but cut, showing that Binford actually landed on the Marilyn Monroe cement slab in front of Grauman’s, where his own faux-Marilyn spots him as she’s being led away. She notices his eyes are open (of course he wouldn’t miss watching his own final scene!), bends over at his side, and she gently pushes his eyes closed. Pity this scene was lost, the surviving still frames seen on the Blu-ray are powerful.
When we screened Fade to Black at downtown theaters like the Casino on Fifth, I watched it with an audience quite a few times, and they really seemed to get into it, especially when Binford is atop the Chinese Theater facing off with police. People would yell “Nooo, don’t shoot!” at the screen, something I didn’t see too often.
One customer showed up on the second night with his face painted exactly like Binford in the now famous publicity shot, with half his face made up as the most urbane and art deco Dracula you’ve ever seen, and his other half completely un-done, both topically and internally.
I’d never seen moviehouse “cosplay” outside of the Rocky Horror Picture show, and certainly not a character from a movie that, as far as I know, had only been in theaters one day so far. I didn’t know whether to be impressed with or frightened by the guy. When he showed up every single night the movie played for three weeks, often sitting through multiple screenings, I leaned towards the latter. At one point, I even checked to make sure the outside fire escape was properly elevated from street level, to keep people from climbing onto the roof, just in case our Eric Binford look-a-like had a mind to climb up there for his own “top o’ the world, ma!” finale.
As far as my first Blu-ray disc is concerned, the movie itself hasn’t looked this good since I saw it on those downtown theater screens. TV prints and previous cruddy DVD transfers tended to cut off parts of the picture, especially the Chinese Theater locale. All in all, it’s great to see one of the best movies about the movies finally getting the respect and Blu-ray treatment it has long deserved.
The only thing I can’t figure out is – why does the limited edition slipcase artwork seem to depict an actress who doesn’t look or dress remotely like either Linda Kerridge OR Marilyn Monroe, but is instead a dead ringer for Linda Kozlowski from Crocodile Dundee?
Fade to Black trailer