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Fade to Black
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by Jack Sommersby

"Costars Outshine the Star"
1 stars

Die-hard cinephiles may get a kick out of it if they're willing to lower their expectations, not to mention their standards.

Nothing can sabotage an initially-intriguing project than a woefully inadequate actor in the lead role, which Dennis Christopher more than demonstrates in writer/director Vernon Zimmerman's Fade to Black. Many praised his work as the eccentric bicyclist in the Academy-award winning Breaking Away, but what I saw registered more as presentation than performance -- starting with the eccentricity, if you will, rather than with the character and allowing for eccentricity to naturally flourish. Next up was California Dreaming where he was required to emanate both charisma and sex appeal and failed at both. With Fade to Black it's understandable why Zimmerman thought he'd be ideal for the role of Eric Binford, a puny movie obsessive who eventually does in the people he dislikes by masquerading as his favorite movie characters -- after all, this nerdish nebbish is called a "poor little weasel," and the gruesome Christopher, who hasn't an iota of genuine appeal, all too well fits that bill. But there's no surprise or tension in the performance, and with a whiny voice that records not well at all Christopher is an obnoxious bore on the screen -- you can't believe that out of all the actors in Hollywood someone with even halfway decent instincts selected him. And, not surprisingly, he plays Eric unsurprisingly, emphasizing the obvious at each and every turn. Working at a Los Angeles film-exchange warehouse with hundreds of celluloid prints, Eric would seem to be in pure heaven but is irresponsible, coming in late and failing to make deliveries. His orphaned self lives with his disapproving wheelchair-bound aunt who's always lecturing him on healthy eating and getting a social life instead of watching movies all night long with his prized film projector -- "Why don't you live in the real world like the rest of us?" her fed-up self puts to him. At a diner Eric's life promises to take a turn for the better when he manages to charm a beautiful Australian-born Marilyn Monroe look-alike named Marilyn O'Connor (Linda Kerridge) into meeting him later that night at a theatre, but she loses track of time while with a male-friend acquaintance, and Eric is devastated. Feeling sorry for himself and holed up in his room for the next few days, after the ever-complaining aunt accidentally knocks his projector to the floor, something inside him snaps, and he pushes her down the stairs to her death a la Richard Widmark in 1947's Kiss of Death. And he doesn't stop there -- Marilyn, a bully from work, a producer who's stolen his idea for a movie, and a local hooker who's previously insulted him on the street.

While the role isn't exactly teeming with complexity and nuance, any adept actor would revel in playing up Eric's newfound confidence and malevolence, conveying he's finally coming alive for the first time dishing out real-life consequences while still adhering to the make-believe. With the inept Christopher, however, Eric doesn't have any more vitality or force than when he was running mundane errands at work and spending nights at home with auntie. Christopher looks the part, all right, but his being physically right for it is his only advantage: there's a dire shortage of acting imagination within him, and when he does something that seems Eric-esque "off" it isn't rooted in anything in particular. We have absolutely no emotional stake in the "before" Eric, so of course we're not pained at witnessing the "after" Eric's moral disintegration -- he's just a twerp we don't want to look at; and Christopher is a limited, askew actor who never actively engages us. With far less screen time the beautiful Kerridge makes a far more indelible impression, and Mickey Rourke, as Eric's machismo-fueled co-worker, is so vivid we wish it were him rather than Christopher doing leading-man duty. But fault also lies with Zimmerman, who's come up with an okay story idea but hasn't interestingly developed it -- we're always getting the expected, and almost always on cue. Which is disappointing because he starts out juxtaposing Eric's exploits with film clips of the B/W movies he's imitating through voice and manner, but when violence enters the equation, for some unfathomable reason, he largely drops this device when it's aesthetically justified and most needed. The blurred line between fact and fiction isn't satisfyingly realized. And though Eric dresses up as Count Dracula, the Mummy, James Cagney's White Heat gangster, it's only as Hopalong Cassidy where there's a truly surrealistic effect: the scene takes place in a back alley, and the bluish smoky backlighting accentuates the creepily costumed Eric -- it's like something right out of a nightmare, and the only time the movie really comes to life. There's an unnecessary subplot involving a psychiatrist assigned to a police division just so he can inform the captain that movies are corrupting minors, and a lackluster action finale on the roof of Hollywood's Chinese Theatre that's bludgeoning in its irony. Then again, this is the kind of movie whose idea of wit is dialogue by the likes of, "Besides, Binford, nothing you know is worth the price of admission."

The out-of-print DVD offers up a decent picture, mediocre audio, and a mere theatrical trailer.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=25055&reviewer=327
originally posted: 04/06/13 00:55:32
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USA
  14-Oct-1980 (R)
  DVD: 24-Aug-1999

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