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Dark, The (1979)
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by Jack Sommersby

"Often-Dazzling 'Dark'"
4 stars

A very obscure movie, I know, with a title that isn't particularly descriptive of the story, but it's worth a look for the curious-minded.

The sci-fi/horror movie The Dark is about an inimical extraterrestrial slaughtering one innocent a night in downtown Los Angeles. The victims are mutilated and decapitated by the nearly-seven-foot-tall fiend's massive claws or blown to bits by red laser beams that shoot from its eyes. It's about the police's frustrated attempts led by Det. Dave Mooney (Richard Jaeckel) at stopping it, though with a dire lack of evidence despite their exhaustive efforts. With no witnesses and no victim pattern and no discernible motive, all they have to go on are the findings of the pathologist, who informs them, based on a substance found under a victim's fingernail, that the culprit is gray-skinned and possesses no blood vessels. It's about an ambitious newscaster, Zoe Owens (Cathy Lee Crosby), trying to convince her boss she's better than doing pieces on Beverly Hills fashion trends and has the determination to do investigative reporting to get to the bottom of the killings. It's about the bereaved father of the first victim, Roy Warner (William Devane), who did time for manslaughter for killing a man he caught in bed with this wife and is now a best-selling author of violence-filled novels, taking matters into his own hands because of the pithy progress of the cops. He installs a police scanner in his souped-up Corvette and goes wherever Mooney does. It's about the growing concern of the low-class citizens who don't live in high-dollar abodes and whose parts of the city have been struck by the fiend who the press (after details of the pathologist's report leaks) have labeled The Mangler. Most important, it's about how John "Bud" Cardos, who took over the production after Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper was fired, manages to take a half-baked story idea and expressively re-imagines it in rich cinematic terms. Call The Dark slight and derivative and spottily plotted, but what you can't accuse it of is being boring or exploitive or uninvolving. It's nothing great, but it's unnervingly hypnotic in a weird sort of way -- you can't take your eyes off the darn thing because Cardos uses visual (as well as aural) sophistication to pull us into the eerie happenstances and keep us on edge throughout.

Until the conclusion, there are only three killings to the recently-arrived creature's credit, but their untimely demises are built up to with tact. First, a young blonde women stands under the marquee of a movie theatre when the lights on the billboard above her all of a sudden go out. As she walks home we see in the periphery of the frame a nondescript-looking man apparently starting to follow her; on edge, she starts to walk a bit faster, and Cardos crosscuts between a close-up of her footsteps and the man's when we're brought up short when the man veers off on a side path, and the woman continues on only to walk right into the sparsely-shown creature emitting an ear-shattering Tyrannosaurus Rex-like roar as it barbarically slays her. The next victim, a night watchman of an ice-packing warehouse, has a hooker all set to pay him a visit when the lights in his small office go out; investigating the source, he slowly walks through the building, thinking the hooker has snuck inside and is playing with him, only to fall victim to the creature, as well -- rather than mauling him, it laser-beams and blows him away to smithereens. The public is indeed panicked, and more and more they, along with the press, start using the pronoun "it" rather than "he" in referring to the fiend; and more and more, the cops, baffled at the uniqueness of their adversary, gradually start adopting that taboo of a pronoun, too. Where most undisciplined cinematic fare would lay on the carnage with more and more victims to the creature's credit (and the movie's presumably ensured box-office potential), The Dark has the willingness to take a few step backs and let the implications of the ultra-creepy goings-on seep into our fertile minds; like Ridley Scott's magnificent Alien, we're left with the proper amount of downtime to contemplate what the creature's doing in its downtime -- what's it ultimately up to, and is it as unpredictable as we fear it is? As it happens, an acute female psychic character is thrown into the mix who touched a wannabe-actor's hand during a luxury-yacht party, and upon doing so foresaw his violent doom at the hands of the creature. And she's helpless at preventing this because he didn't believe her and she doesn't have a name to give to the police, who she contacts, and whom the police don't believe, of course.

The Dark hasn't been written like most entries in this genre, and for those wishing for thrill-a-minute shenanigans with heaping helpings of cheap scares and bountiful gore will certainly be disappointed. Cardos has concentrated on conjuring frightening atmosphere and sustaining it from start to finish; he's not above standardized effects (when the creature does strike, it does so in a way that will make one jump out of their seat), but the way he arrives at them is always admirable because he shapes the sequences intelligently -- clearly, he knows the difference between achieving effective moments with or without uncouthness, and opts for the former. Working with the phenomenal cinematographer John Arthur Morrill, who lent astute 'Scope compositions to the cult classic A Boy and His Dog, Cardos shoots in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio with a sure instinct for widescreen framing; and he superbly de-emphasizes bright primary colors and accentuates the secondary ones, giving the visuals oodles of ghoulish suggestiveness. During the daylight exterior scenes, the sun can't quite seem to penetrate all the way through, as if the creature's all-encompassing sense of menace is always reminding the citizens that inevitable darkness is always on the horizon; and this visual strategy extends to the interior locations, like a room in a police station room where the pathologist is showing slides of the evidence on a projector, dimly-lit seedy bars, and Warner's dank home where he cranks out his controversial works -- he even wears prescription sunglasses throughout as if he can't quite escape the dark-at-heart man he once was. (All of this helps convey the disquieting impression that the angels are on temporary vacation in the City of Angels.) What this amounts to is nothing staggeringly insightful, mind you, but it is indicative of a director in complete artistic control and lending maximum-quality treatment to minimal material. Cardos pulled off something similar in his similarly low-budget Kingdom of the Spiders: taking a wooden William Shatner in the lead role and making an edge-of-your-seat entertainment from the basic story premise of killer tarantulas was no small order, but because Cardos was never snobbishly "above" it, he was able to make something unexpectedly commendable.

Oh, there are areas where The Dark could be improved upon. There's a pointless long sequence where Zoe's elderly boss has a panic attack inside a parking garage when the lights go out, and the man, scared stiff as an ironing board, finds refuge in an elevator, and there's really no clear indication that the creature was at the scene. The psychic has an episode where the supposed lifeforce of the creature causes her bedroom to be as massively windswept like something out of Exorcist II: The Heretic, and it's a bust because we haven't been given any context beforehand that the creature has any kind of telekinetic link with her. And the love interest that eventually develops between Warner and Zoe is superficial and arrives on tired schedule. (It also doesn't help that the usually-dependable Devane contributes a joyless, mannered performance as the hero -- he can't even pick up a telephone receiver without trying to make something grandiose out of it.) Luckily, the movie really pulls out the stops in its stunning conclusion, with the creature cornered outside a long-abandoned monastery by the police while it's stalking Warner and Zoe; unlike before, several cops are able to converge on the scene before it claims a victim, yet they're not prepared for the merciless havoc it wreaks. No matter how many bullets are dispatched, they don't even faze the thing -- rather, it puts its laser-beam eyes to full phantasmogoriac use by sending explosive projectiles at its adversaries; and the way Cardos engineers it, it's got the kind of energetically-sustained craziness Pauline Kael praised the conclusion of De Palma's The Fury of having. (It's also neat in that the creature is finally done in by mankind's most primitive discovery.) Will the majority of the mainstream masses enjoy something as off-the-cuff as The Dark? Probably not. It takes some getting used to, and unless you get aligned with its odd, deliberate narrative rhythm you're probably going to feel shut out. But it offers up many pleasurable rewards, including a truly dazzling music score, with dexterously-placed sinister whisperings on the track ("The daaaaaaaarkneeeeeeess""), from the very same man who conducted the great score for the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And it confirms John "Bud" Cardos as a director with undeniable, bona-fide talent.

The DVD is more than welcome after having had to suffer through the grainy, cropped VHS tape for so long; and the special features, including a commentary by Cardos and an interview with him, are excellent.

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originally posted: 12/17/11 11:01:06
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User Comments

12/29/11 Jack Confusing plot and atrocious acting. Just awful. 1 stars
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  27-Apr-1979 (R)
  DVD: 11-Oct-2005



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