The Dark (1979)
This is without a doubt the dumbest, most inept, most maddeningly unsatisfactory thriller of the last five years. It’s really bad: so bad, indeed, that it provides some sort of measuring tool against which to measure other bad thrillers. Years from now, I’ll be thinking to myself: Well, at least it’s not as bad as “The Dark.”
—Roger Ebert, 6 June 1979
On our planet, hundreds of species of animal, plant, and insect life protect themselves by using their ability to change their color or shape, to blend into their surroundings. Many other species are capable of killing their prey by use of electric shocks, acids or poisons.Of the millions of planets capable of supporting life in the universe, it is a certainty that hundreds of thousands have developed species of life with characteristics similar, and possibly more dangerous, than those found on our own planet earth.It is also a certainty that not all alien encounters will be friendly!
The late Roger Ebert was generally a champion of well-crafted fantasy films. He considered Dark City (1998) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) to be his choices for the best films of the year. Last summer he gave Prometheus (2012) his highest rating, even though the film was flawed with cliched characters, inept scientists and a confusing script. I still love Prometheus for the spectacle of sound and visuals and tie-in to the Alien mythos, which I felt was accomplished. But when Ebert disliked a movie you knew where he stood. Such is the case for The Dark (1979).
This Dick Clark production isn’t a very good film, but is worth seeing due to the cast of veterans and unusual horror/sci-fi storyline —more on that later. The film stars Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen, 1967; The Green Slime, 1968), Keenan Wynn, William Devane (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012), Casey Kasem (as a police pathologist!), and Cathy Lee Crosby. Look fast for little Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, 1932; The Corpse Vanishes, 1942) as Angie the paper “boy”. Note the newspaper headlines “MANGLER A ZOMBIE”.
Originally this film was meant to be a zombie flick and remnants of the old script remain in the film. It plays a bit like a Dan Curtis production, with a writer, TV anchor and police detective investigating a series of random Jack the Ripper type murders (hats off to Carl Kolchak). Basically, the mangler rips the head of its victims. Here, Casey Kasem (miscast as a pathologist) talks epidemiology with L.A.’s finest. He comments on the tissue having no vascularization or color. The tissue and mangler is gray… (like a zombie).
The original director Tobe Hooper was replaced by John “Bud” Cardos. I’m not sure if Hooper was fired or quit. Given Hooper’s background making The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), I understand why he might have originally helmed the film. In any event, he went on to make the far superior TVM Salem’s Lot (1979). At some point, perhaps after production screenings, the story was changed a bit to make the mangler an alien. Hence the poorly-rendered cartoon animation effects (see Ebert’s review) and the opening prologue about unfriendly alien encounters.
I’m not a fan of Keenan Wynn. I like him in Dr. Strangelove (1964) and as the voice of the Winter Warlock in the R&B stop-motion classic Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970). He’s also in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), as the sheriff, but I can’t remember him in the film. I do remember Charles Bronson playing the harmonica. In The Dark, Keenan Wynn plays a TV jerk and doesn’t contribute much to the film.
Ebert’s a bit unfair to director Bud Cardos, calling him a “mangler”. I like Cardos and think he is a capable director. For The Dark he basically inherited a mess. There are too many story lines with Cathy Lee and Keenan looking for headlines, journalist William Devane poking around, Richard Jaeckel investigating, combined with a wacky as hell subplot with a psychic. All this is condensed in an 86 minute movie. Cardos directs it straight up —ok, we have a zombie script that we are playing like an alien encounter movie. Let’s shoot it.
The main flaw to me is the creature design. Ebert says it looks like the Wolfman. It looks nothing like the Wolfman. Maybe a tintsy bit like Oliver Reed in Curse of the Werewolf (1961).
Plus, this thing has laser eyes!