Fade to Black (1980) Retrospective

SUMMARY
Eric Binford is a hollow, chain smoking, socially awkward and unlikable young man who is also an obsessed film addict whose love of old films extends far beyond his job at a Los Angeles film distributor’s warehouse and endless late-night film screenings in his bedroom. For his vast knowledge, he’s been bullied by his friends and family. His singular obsession eventually turns into psychosis after he crosses paths with Marilyn O’Connor (Linda Kerridge), an Australian model and a Marilyn Monroe lookalike who becomes the physical embodiment of his cinematic desires.

When unintentionally stood up by Marilyn on their first date, Eric becomes homicidally unbalanced, transforming himself into a gallery of classic film characters including Dracula, The Mummy, and Hopalong Cassidy—and sets out to destroy his oppressors, starting with his crotchety, wheelchair-using, ex-dancer Aunt Stella (who is actually his mother), pushing her wheelchair down a staircase to her death (reenacting a scene from Kiss of Death) and making it look like an accident. Eric attends her funeral dressed as Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark’s role from the aforementioned film).

Eric then dresses up as Count Dracula to attend a midnight screening of Night of the Living Dead at a local cinema, then afterward’s targets a hooker who had earlier snubbed him. She trips, falling to her death, and Eric drinks her blood.

A few more nights later, Eric dresses up as the cowboy Hopalong Cassidy, when he shoots and kills a boorish co-worker (Mickey Rourke) who taunted him on a regular basis.

Another few nights later, Eric dresses up as The Mummy, where he drives his mean and vindictive boss, Mr. Berger (Norman Burton), into suffering a fatal heart attack while he is working late night at the distribution warehouse.

Finally, Eric dresses up as gangster Cody Jarrett (from White Heat) and kills a sleazy filmmaker named Gary Bially (Morgan Paull), who stole his idea as his own for an upcoming feature film inspired by Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (to be called “Alabama and the Forty Thieves”) at a barber shop in broad daylight which finally gives away his identity. Eric then eventually works his way toward Marilyn, hoping to lure her to his side.

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Investigating the murders is a criminal psychologist named Dr. Jerry Moriarty (Tim Thomerson), who tries to find a pattern to the murders and find Eric, to help or stop him, with the assistance of a friendly policewoman. But Moriarty’s investigation is hampered by his own mean-spirited and nasty boss Captain Gallagher, who tries to stop Moriarty’s investigation because Gallagher wants to take all the credit of finding the killer for himself.

It all leads to Eric luring Marilyn to a photography studio where he drugs her to reenact a scene from The Prince and the Showgirl which is interrupted when Dr. Moriarty arrives, and Eric is forced to run with Marilyn at his side. It leads to the Mann’s Chinese Theatre where the insane Eric is shot by the police on the roof of the building while reenacting Cody Jarrett’s death scene (Made it, Ma! Top of the world!) in White Heat. Eric then falls off the roof to his apparent death.

DEVELOPMENT
The lobby of LA’s El Portel theater is vacant, save for a few production assistants hurrying about, cleaning up after the day’s shoot, taking down a number of classic old horror film posters from the walls. Among those still hanging can be spotted one of Universal’s original posters for The Mummy, now worth several hundred dollars-just one example of the painstaking attention to detail involved in the production of Fade to Black, the new project from Compass International Pictures, the production company that brought you Halloween.

Fade to Black is the biggest and most ambitious project to date for Irwin Yablans, producer and head of Compass International Pictures, and the man who originally set the ball rolling for John Carpenter’s Halloween. Budgeted at about $2.3 million, Fade to Black also brings talented young Dennis Christopher back to the screen fresh from his overwhelming success in Breaking Away.

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In a role that seems tailor-made for his talents, Christopher plays Eric Binford, a shy delivery boy for a Hollywood film company. Like many of us who eat, live and breathe the films we love, Eric is wholly immersed in a movie fan’s fantasy world. Above all else, he idolizes Marilyn Monroe and Hopalong Cassidy.

Eric lives with his invalid Aunt Aunt Stella (Eve Brent), who is a constant nag when it comes to his obsession with movies. In his personal life, Eric runs into numerous crises and dead ends-his boss fires him, two creepy co-workers welsh on a bet and an unscrupulous producer steals an idea from him for a film plot. Even a prostitute scorns him, and, little by little Eric begins to lose his grasp on reality. The final straw comes when Marilyn O’Connor (Linda Kerridge), a struggling model who resembles Marilyn Monroe, fails to show up for a date. In a homicidal rage. Eric commits the first of a string of grotesque murders, all patterned after characters and incidents from his favorite films. So begin the crimes that the police attribute to “The Celluloid Killer”.

Fade to Black is being produced by George Braunstein and Ron Hamady, and directed by Vemon Zimmerman from his screenplay. which is based on an original idea by Zimmerman and Yablans. Irwin Yablans is acting as co-executive producer with Sylvio Tabet. The film is the first co-venture between Compass International and Tabet’s L.I.C. Productions.

Executive Producers Irwin Yablans & Sylvio Tabet
Executive Producers Irwin Yablans & Sylvio Tabet

It was in the dimly lit lobby of the El Portel theater that we met producer Braunstein, who shared some behind-the-scenes comments on what may prove to be the biggest film cultist’s movie since Rocky Horror.

“This is where Eric attends a horror film marathon dressed as Bela Lugosi’s portrayal of Dracula,” says Braunstein, gesturing toward the now-deserted lobby. “Everyone comes as their favorite monsters. I provided some of the costumes, and some people from the L.A. chapter of the Rocky Horror Picture Show fan club came down in their costumes. I was the only one in plain clothes.

After attending the film here, Eric commits a murder as Dracula, and drinks the blood of the prostitute who put him down. The real fun of the picture is seeing Dennis change into these different characters. It’s not a who-done-it. It’s already known who the killer is.

Indeed, the picture might be termed a “how-done it,” as Eric cooks up different cinematic methods for his madness. Besides the undead Count Dracula, he becomes Boris Karloffs Mummy (and scares his boss to death), as well as a Cagney like gangster, a Western gunslinger and a few others-best kept secret for now. The concept of Fade to Black began when George Braunstein, Ron Hamady and Vernon Zimmerman were kicking around ideas for a movie about movies, concerning a psycho who dresses up as matinee idols and kills people. They entered Yablan’s office and presented the idea. At that Yablans smiled and pulled a script entitled Alex out of his desk drawer. He had written Alex two years before. It was about a film buff who…well you get the idea. According to Braunstein: “Irwin Yablans is one of the few guys in Hollywood who really loves movies. He is a walking encyclopedia of film trivia. It is so good to be able to make a movie for someone who loves what he’s doing.”

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With the additional input from Yablans work, Zimmerman completed the shooting script. “There were no creative problems, which you so often run into,” says Braunstein “But then we needed a great young actor. I had seen Dennis in two films, and took the script to his agent. I really didn’t feel I’d be lucky enough to get him. Dennis just loved the script, I think in part he is that character. He is wrapped up in films, and he’s a fan of a lot of the actors he becomes in the picture. Dennis brought a lot to the movie, and I think he’s responsible for making it into a real A film.”

Marilyn O’Connor, the heroine of the film, is played by 24-year-old model Linda Kerridge in her screen debut. Braunstein discovered Kerridge in London almost two years ago, where he offered the famous phrase: ” you ever get to Hollywood look me up.” When she did get to Hollywood and looked him up. Braunstein was working on the later aborted John Carpenter project. The Prometheus Crisis. “There just wasn’t anything in there for her–then Fade to Black came up, and she was perfect.” Though the character of Eric Binford is a twisted one, you care about him and his unfulfilled love for Marilyn right up to the end. Like a cross between Walter Mitty and A Clockwork Orange’s Alex, Eric is a lovable rogue that you will cheer as he lashes out against the wrongs that we all have suffered.

Filming the Finale, Braunstein says that the biggest problem in the course of production came in filming the finale, where young Eric, running from the police, flees to the roof of the world’s most famous film palace, Grauman’s Chinese Theater. The problem was in convincing Christopher not to take on the hazardous stunt himself. “I had hired stunt doubles to ascend the roof,” the producer recalls. “Dennis was so intense about the part that he wanted to be up there wavering on the roof’s edge. It was pretty dangerous, I couldn’t allow him to do it.

They wanted to get the girl that looked like Marilyn Monroe and get her naked, then build around that with a slasher.” says Dennis of the base motivations for the FADE TO BLACK producers. Sultry Australian Star Linda Kerridge – a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe – was plucked from the pages of PLAYBOY to play Eric Binford’s muse, and Dennis credits her for suggesting him to be in the film. That boy from BREAKING AWAY is the one that you should get love! he imitates in a high-pitched tone, “She was the best Marilyn that ever has been anywhere.”

Director Vernon Zimmerman, Linda Kerridge, Dennis Christopher
Director Vernon Zimmerman, Linda Kerridge, Dennis Christopher

She was really fabulous to work with.” he remembers. She was toe-to-toe with me as an actor, and that takes music, even though she seems list as a feather. She had gravitas.” Dennis reveals having a relationship with Kerridge, but says that he drew a line once production started in order to concentrate fully on the project: “I loved her. She was a favorite girlfriend of mine. We broke it off…. Then we got to have fun after the movie was over. Went to the Golden Globes for BREAKING AWAY. I took Marilyn Monroe to the Golden Globes!”

Appearing in only his second feature film Mickey Rourke was also cast as one of Binford’s co-workers bullies who meets an untimely end, and Dennis says that Rourke refused to die the way his character was scripted: “Mickey came in doing his badass stuff. More handsome a man there never was. He’s great in the movie, but he didn’t want to give it up He didn’t want to die like a villain. After trying to convince the renegade actor during rehearsals that there was power available in the way he would die in the scene where Binford guns him down as Hopalong Cassidy, Dennis says Rourke still insisted that he do it “his way”: “He had a scene there that he was too afraid to claim because he wanted to claim strength. Every young actor that thinks he’s a badass goes through it. But when a badass dies ignominiously, there’s a beautiful scene there. Don’t be afraid of it, Take it.

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Still, there were many times that Dennis had to pull the “I’m not leaving my Winnebago until I get what I want!” act. ‘I pushed things through and made things happen that without a bit of a fight, would never have happened.” says the veteran actor. “And I’m proud of every one of the things I fought for, right down to the way Dracula looked. Right down to The Mummy They came up with a Mummy suit that you just stepped into and zipped up in the back. They delivered it the morning that we shot it because they knew how hard I was being on the costumes. And I said, ‘I’m not doing it. It’s cheesy and it’s awful, and you’re insulting the people that you’re trying to make a movie for. Yablans was called in to smooth things over, and he himself couldn’t believe the low quality of the costume. “He sent an assistant out to get 10X rolls of gauze, and for the next three hours, we’re Ica-dying game in my trailer and adding flour to make it flake down, and Irwin is wrapping me from the bottom of my foot all the way up as a practical Mummy.” says Dennis with a smile. “We were like kids putting our show in the garage.

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Dennis Christopher Interview

 Not too long after Breaking Away, you snagged the role of Eric Binford in Fade to Black. I understand that Fade to Black started out as being a lot different than what we ended up seeing on the screen. Can you tell us a little about how you got the role and how the project changed with your involvement?
Dennis Christopher: I know the script had been around for a while because you could just tell it was a script that had been rewritten many times. Rewriting on computers is particularly perplexing, or can be, be- cause you can just lift a scene out and rewrite a scene. In the old days, you had to rewrite the whole thing, so you got to see if it flowed. Now you can pull out a scene, chop it up, rewrite it and stick it back in, and there’s no flow at times. So you could tell that the script was really hacked by this torturous rewrite process. They had put [writer/director] Vernon Zimmerman through all the different people that wanted to produce it, but then Irwin Yablans, who I just love working for, got a-hold of it. He was our main producer on that film. I was sort of hot at the moment and they came after me. I was really always saying no, but they were continually persuasive in ways that made me say, “Wow! They pay you this much to be in a movie? They don’t know that I would pay them!” So I went in and we had a lot of creative meetings on it. Vernon and I were really in sync. I said, “It seems to me that people have made you rewrite this script so many times. Let’s talk about the original thought behind that scene.” A lot more truth came out in the movie as far as this man’s particular mental illness was concerned. It was a little vague be- fore. We sort of hooked that up with the artistic part of the movie as well.

That character is what every hardcore movie fan feels, and what some of the crazier ones might want to do but of course can’t. Did you feel like you could identify with the character?
Dennis Christopher:  I loved playing that guy. I couldn’t stop thinking about the character. As sort of awkward as each scene was and the actual dialogue as written was, I couldn’t stop thinking about the opportunity of playing this character. Vernon’s creation of this character was brilliant. And you can still see that feeling in the movie. We don’t quite hit the mark, but I had a ball playing Eric Binford and with the help of Irwin Yablans I was able to make a lot of those fantasies come true, including dying on the top of the Chinese Theater! Fade to Black was supposed to be over in the photo studio. There was supposed to be a big shoot-out with her [Linda Kerridge] lying there nude somehow. Irwin and I talked about it and Vernon and I said, “He’s got to make his way to the Chinese Theater. He’s got to try to get into that screen.” There was no ending. It was just a shoot-out with police.

Were you actually up on top of the Chinese Theater in reality?
Dennis Christopher:  Oh yeah! We built a stage, too, to look just like it, but no, I was up on the thing. Absolutely, Then we built a stage, too, for the falling off and stuff, you know. But it was amazing. Hollywood Blvd. right now is very glossy, but you all remember what it was like back then.

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One of the great things about Fade to Black is the chemistry between you and your costar Linda Kerridge. Did you know her before the film?
Dennis Christopher:  No, I didn’t, but I just fell hard for Linda Kerridge. Very underrated actress. They were treating her with an immense amount of “oh, she’s the girl.” You know, her character didn’t even have a name. I said, “Listen, if this is my love interest, this has got to be a better situation.” There were a lot of last- minute solutions on that. There was a big fantasy number of her singing “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” Linda was all pre- pared for it. It was choreographed and every- thing. They waited to find out how much that was going to cost to get the rights for the song until the day of the shoot and they nixed it. So then there were no references to her as Marilyn Monroe left in the movie. The first reason why they were interested in Linda was because of her ability to transform her- self into Marilyn. I said, “This is not going to be in the movie?” So with her, with the same dress and sort of a Vaselined-up lens, be- cause there was no real background, they went in real close, and this was all at mine and Linda’s suggestion, and she sang “Happy Birthday” a la Marilyn singing “Happy Birth- day” to President Kennedy. She did a fabu lous job just like that. The cameraman barely had time to get it together and do it. I think it’s a high point in the movie. It was on film, it was shot, and it was so brilliant and it was only later that they found out that you have to pay for “Happy Birthday,” too! With it already on film, they said, “We’ll pony up for that.”

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I’m dying to find out how they picked the celebrities you impersonated in Fade to Black and which film clips to use? How was it decided it was going to be Dracula and the Mummy and a semi-impersonation of the Creature From the Black Lagoon? Did it have to do with licensing?
Dennis Christopher:  I think there was a little bit of licensing with the Creature because I think the original one was Frankenstein’s Monster when he carries the girl into the woods. It’s just a snap of the Creature holding a woman screaming or something.

We noticed that in the film an 8×10 was shown of Bela Lugosi, but when they actually showed video footage during the Dracula kill scene, it was Sir Christopher Lee.
Dennis Christopher:  Yes, yes. That was another licensing thing as well. I was really crestfallen when that happened. I didn’t know it until after the movie was cut together. It made me even happier that the 8×10 of Bela as Dracula was there by the mirror because I decorated that room, by the way. I cut out the thousands of pictures that were all over the walls and put them up.

Really?
Dennis Christopher:  Yeah. It was pathetic. They had like two horror movies that you’ve never heard of in your life that they could get the rights to the posters of. They stuck one in the bathroom and one in his  room and that was supposed to be the extent of his collection. When I saw it I went, “Oh, no no no.” I had a good friend who was working with me at the time and I said, “Here, go back to my house and get every magazine that you can find everywhere anywhere! The scissors are in the drawer. Bring them back.” At lunch time, we had cut up a million pictures . They were all of celebrities. Tiny ones. Big ones. It was quite a room that we made really, really fast. In Fade to Black, I got to be James Cagney. I got to be Bela Lugosi. I got to be Laurence Olivier. I got to really have fun. The Laurence Olivier part. The Prince and the Showgirl part, was not in it at all either. I said, “You’re going to give Eric Binford, tragic hero, a leading lady and he’s not going to get to kiss her or almost kiss her? He’s not going to imagine a romantic scene? Is he just a craven fucking killer?” He’s not a craven killer. He’s a movie lover. He’s a cinephile. He knows the best of life can be experienced in a movie in his poor twisted mind! And there was no love scene. I lured her back to a photo studio to make her pose nude on red satin like the Marilyn calendar. But that was it! There was no dialogue. There was no like how did I get her nude! I said, ”Wait a minute! What about The Prince and the Showgirl?” They said, “How are you going to explain it?” I said, “She’s so high, she loves it! We’ve got to shoot the whole thing in the mirror because if you shoot it in the mirror, you can see these two little kids, that are really high, and they’re playing dress up… and there’s guns involved… and that’s drama!” And Vernon went, “Yeah! Okay!” Just get a bunch of white furniture, man, and some champagne. We’ve got makeup stations here. Just get light bulbs to put all around it, you know, because they’re always broken. Vernon and I had a ball rescuing this story from horrifying rewrites and then, you know, I can’t imagine what people’s thoughts were or intentions were. But I think the people that were trying to make this the movie that you saw glimpses of were me, Vernon and Irwin Yablans, but it takes more than that. Like with Breaking Away, it takes all things clicking, all things firing.

It would’ve been very, very sad if the characterizations had been poorly performed but they were great. Also, the look of the characters was fantastic. The makeup was very well done. You came up with the vampire makeup for the Dracula characterization?
Dennis Christopher:  Oh yeah, totally. I said that he’s got to be high-fashion Dracula. He’s just got to be a modern vintage, if that’s possible.

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BEHIND THE SCENES
Braunstein feels that Fade to Black has a distinctly different approach to suspense and horror than many other recent offerings in the field for good reasons. “I saw the trailer for The Shining the other day,” says Braunstein. “It gets to the point where you can’t go any further, there is only so much blood and gore you can do. Maybe there is an Insatiable market for horror, but here these elevator doors open and the blood just pours out all over the place! I had to bury my head. I can’t compete with that, even if I had $12 million to do a film. The Exorcist and Jaws did me in.

I think there has to come a time when the trend turns around. Then we’ll get back to the most frightening kinds of films. Our film is frightening because of suspense and timing. You never know who is going to get it, especially when we bring the character al Marilyn into it.”

Irwin’s enthusiasm for the truth, of the work, even though we were making a horror movie. spurred me on, and we just fed off of each other” Dennis was entirely responsible for the decor of Binford’s room. which was plastered floor-to-ceiling with movie pics and memorabilia. Initially, it was decorated solely with three movie posters on the wall, and the star kind of lost his cool when he first laid eyes on it: “I said, “That’s it?!? This is the citadel of the boy who lives for the movies. Who LIVES for the movies. Are you serious? So I had my assistant so home and get every movie magazine I had, and I cut out all those pictures that you see in the film.” The actor also strategically placed a movie transportation truck dash card with the 20th Century Fox logo on it and the name BAMBINO – the original title of BREAKING AWAY. “That’s why I’m proud of this movie,” he says. “It was a real roll-up-your-sleeves production.”

Yet another change suggested by Dennis would prove to be a monumental improvement to the theme of FADE TO BLACK, “They didn’t know what the ending was going to be, it was supposed to be a shootout at the photo studio, and I said, “That’s it? He’s just going to die in a bunch of bullets? And they said “Well. what do you think?’ And I said, ‘It’s got to be cinematic! His death has got to be like a movie. He’s got to go to the temple of movies He’s not to get into the screen somehow and die in a movie, and he knows that the clock is ticking The temple of movies, of course, would be the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where the stars all have their hand and footprints immortalized in cement. But back in the late ’70s. Hollywood Blvd was much like Times Square – a haven for prostitution. porn and Crime, not tourism. “Nobody really thought of Grauman’s that way it was so sleazy on the Boulevard, so broken down, and the theater was tattered.” But they let me do it and Irvin Yablans was the champion that made that happen.” The production closed down that whole section of the Boulevard, and it was a magical sight: “Klieg lights everywhere, extras everywhere. Hundreds of people and me being shot by snipers off the roof while impersonating Jimmy Cagney in that scene from KISS OF DEATH.”

As the producers set out to put together the soundtrack for FADE TO BLACK, Dennis led the brilliant idea to involve the band Blondie and use their hunting new tune “Europa”, the first track on their platinum 1980 album AUTOAMERICAN. “Chris Stein and Debbie Harry have been friends of mine for a jillion years. They wanted to do the FADE TO BLACK thing, and I thought it would be a great way for them to earn money by having that song on the soundtrack, or maybe having Blondie soundtrack of a movie,” he says. After all, the band’s “Call Me” was a huge hit single from the AMERICAN GIGOLO soundtrack in early 1980, and AUTOAMERICAN had yet to be released to the public. “They’re, like, at the top of their fame, and the first cut on their latest album is an instrumental, It’s just perfect Europa is so achingly beautiful Dennis says that Chris and Debbie were excited about the prospect, but the FADE TO BLACK producers once again dragged their feet. intimidated by the perceived uphill battle with the record company to get and pay for the rights. Despite the artist-to-artist enthusiasm to use the song in the first place. Dennis sighs. “I think it was just too much.”

Despite the creative overhaul and working his fingers to the bone to elevate the project. Dennis vision of FADE TO BLACK did not fare very well at the American box office, and Dennis still scratches his head over why at least the horror community didn’t embrace it. Perhaps America was just not ready to see the dark side of BREAKING AWAY’S happy-go-lucky Dave Stoller so soon. But in Europe, the film was very well received “It was more popular in France than BREAKING AWAY was, muses Dennis “It was called “fondu Au Noir”. They’re cinemaniacs there.” And in Italy, he won the Bronze Mask at the Taormina International Film Festival for his turn as Enc Banford. I guess in Italy. FADE TO BLACK looked like a fabulous foreign movie to them, he chuckles, “Everywhere else that it went it was a huge success and I got the recognition every place other than America.”

Reflecting on his long career and the ideas of Canne and fantasy examined in FADE TO BLACK, Dennis brings up the fact that he won a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer for BREAKING AWAY. “I thought. “How have I fulfilled or how have I failed at fulfilling my potential? I’ve come to realize that I’ve liad a career that’s given me artistic satisfaction, and somehow I’ve been able to remain free to live the life that I want to live. And now I’m appreciating it more and more that I had the kind of freedom that scrutiny does not allow … It feels like my art is still free. It’s not tied down. And I guess I’m really really lucky.”

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A novelization, written by Ron Renauld was released by Pinnacle Books in 1980.

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The film score by Craig Safan was released on a promotional CD through Perseverance Records September 3, 2009.

Main cast

Dennis Christopher as Eric Binford
Tim Thomerson as Dr. Jerry Moriarty
Gwynne Gilford as Off. Anne Oshenbull
Norman Burton as Marty Berger
Linda Kerridge as Marilyn O’Connor
Morgan Paull as Gary Bially
James Luisi as Capt. M. L. Gallagher
Eve Brent Ashe as Aunt Stella Binford
John Steadman as Sam
Marcie Barkin as Stacy
Mickey Rourke as Richie
Peter Horton as Joey
Melinda O. Fee as Talk Show Hostess

REFERENCES/SOURCES
Fangoria #8: October 1980
Videoscope 101
Famous Monsters of Filmland 282

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