Alone in the Dark (1982) Retrospective

Dr. Dan Potter is the replacement for Dr. Harry Merton, a psychiatrist at Dr. Leo Bain’s psychiatric haven. Dr. Merton has taken a position at a psychiatric hospital in the nearby city of Philadelphia. Dan, his wife Nell, and daughter Lyla, have recently moved into a house in the area. Dan’s sister Toni arrives for a visit. Leo operates the haven through very lenient methods. The 3rd floor patients–paranoid former POW Frank Hawkes, pyromaniac preacher Byron “Preacher” Sutcliff, obese child molester Ronald Elster, and homicidal maniac John “The Bleeder” Skagg–initially treat Dan with mixed hostility. Dan learns from staff worker Ray Curtis that the 3rd floor patients believe he has killed Dr. Merton. Later, the four men on the 3rd floor talk of killing Dr Potter.


That evening, Dan, Nell, and Toni go to a punk rock club. Lyla and her babysitter, Bunky, remain home. A regional power blackout occurs. Frank realizes the security system keeping patients in check has failed. The four men begin to carry out their plan. Preacher and Robert kill Ray. The four escape in a doctor’s car. They drive to a store in the middle of a looting raid to pick up weapons and new clothes. Skagg slashes an innocent bystander and runs away. The others take the murdered man’s van and drive off. Dan arrives at the hospital to discuss the escaped patients and the people they killed, with Leo.

The next morning, with the blackout still in effect, Preacher arrives at the Potter residence to deliver a telegram, but Dan is at the hospital. Nell and Toni leave to participate in a demonstration at a nuclear power plant and are arrested. Lyla arrives home from school and discovers Ronald there, claiming to be the replacement babysitter for Bunky.


Nell calls Dan from jail to tell him she and Toni were arrested. Dan phones Bunky to have her go to the Potter residence to check in on and to stay with Lyla. Bunky arrives at the Potter residence and finds Lyla asleep. She invites her boyfriend Billy over to have sex. After hearing a noise, Billy is dragged and killed underneath the bed by Preacher, and Bunky is strangled by Ronald. Dan arrives home with Nell, Toni, and Tom Smith, a man who Nell and Toni met in jail, claiming he was arrested at the same demonstration they were at and allowed them to take his turn on the phone to call Dan. When they see police all over the house, they are concerned about the family’s safety. Lyla wakes up unharmed, but she tells them about Ronald. The police haven’t found out about the murdered Bunky and Billy, nor do they find anyone else in the house.

The police leave but Dan invites Detective Barnett to stay for dinner. Barnett investigates noises outside the home and is killed by Frank’s crossbow. With the phone line out, the family barricades the windows from the crossbow bolts; meanwhile, Leo is told by the telephone operator that the phone line to the Potter residence is out of order, causing him to drive over to the house where he is slashed and axed by Preacher. Dan recalls Curtis telling him that the four men want to kill him because they believe he killed Harry. Dan screams at the men outside, telling them that he did not murder Dr. Merton, but he gets no reply. Barnett’s dead body is thrown through a window by Ronald, and the group stacks furniture against it as Frank shoots his crossbow through the broken window. Preacher sets a fire in the basement, prompting Dan to the basement where he injures Preacher and extinguishes the fire. Ronald attacks the group before getting killed by a meat cleaver.


While Dan starts Leo’s car, Tom’s nose bleeds, revealing his identity as Skagg, the fourth patient in the group, and he attempts to strangle Toni. Dan runs back inside and grabs Tom away from his sister. Nell stabs Tom, killing him. Preacher comes out of the basement and Dan struggles with him, though Dan manages to stab Preacher and throw him back into the basement. As Dan, Nell, Lyla, and Toni gather together for comfort, Frank reappears standing in the kitchen doorway with his crossbow aimed at them and shouts “It’s not just us crazy ones who kill!” Dan pleads with Frank to spare his family. Suddenly, the electricity comes back on and Frank sees Harry being interviewed in a news report on television. Upset, Frank breaks the TV, leaves the house, and escapes into the night. Frank then walks through the town and enters the club. While Frank watches the punk rock band perform, a drugged out girl walks up to him, and he pulls out his pistol and points it at her neck. She looks at it and laughs, and so does Frank.

Jack Sholder
Jack Sholder

Jack Sholder’s notion to make a suspense film is of more recent origin. “I’ve known Bob Shaye, the head of New Line Cinema, for a very long time,” says Sholder, “I was at his wedding, and his wife went into labor in my apartment. He’s seen some of my short films, and I’ve edited a lot of trailers for him. I was in his office one evening after closing time, and I asked him what he’d think of a story about a bunch of maniacs who escape from a mental institution during a blackout, terrorize Little Italy and are captured by the Mafia. He told me he liked the idea, and proposed that I write the script, for very little money. Then, if the film were made, would direct it under a deal that would compensate for the lower payment on the script.

Though the final screenplay is credited to Sholder, the story was developed by the director in collaboration with Shaye and another writer, Michael Harpster. The largest revision from Sholder’s original idea was the change of setting, from lower Manhattan’s Italian community to suburban New York, a change dictated by the high cost of location shooting in urban areas. Since the Mafia holds a low profile in the ‘burbs, the Sicilians fell by the wayside.

Sholder felt it was important from the first to see that the film reflect his sense of humor; he considers the evocation of laughter a far more honorable pursuit than the chore of scaring people. “The whole idea of the shrinks provided a good opportunity to do a send-up. I didn’t want to write a comedy, though; I didn’t want to do, for instance, what was done in Mother’s Day, which I think played down to the audience, that said ‘We’re better than the genre.’ wanted to do a film that would take its job as a horror film seriously-really scare people and give them their money’s worth, with interesting, real characters. At the same time, humor is very useful in setting up scares; there’s a scene in Jaws where some people are out in a boat, and you know the shark is going to turn up; it’s gonna come, it’s gonna come any second… then there’s a little joke, and all your defenses go down, when whammo, the shark comes up the back of the boat! I must’ve jumped six feet.”

Sholder’s handling of the frightening elements in Alone in the Dark was also influenced by his experience editing The Burning, which he says “was a much more frightening film before it got the rating, and a lot of Tom Savini’s effects were cut out. As a horror film, I think it was quite scary, but it had an awful script: it will be forgotten, though they had a good director. But it was very helpful to me, because it was made by people who had never made a movie be. fore who got videotapes and studied every successful horror film, to put together a That’s Entertainment of horror films. It helped me to learn all the conventions, the ditferent kinds of scares and the different kinds of set-ups. So after The Burning, when Bob Shaye approached me for a rewrite, was delighted to do it, with all that I’d learned

“For instance, we had a scene in Alone in the Dark with two bodies falling out of a closet-every horror film has a body fall out of the closet, but ours differs in the set-up. There’s a fire and maniac in the basement, and the husband says to his wife, where’s the fire extinguisher? He’s going into the basement–the sort of stupid thing that people do in horror films that make audiences groan, ‘oh, come on.’ But we’ve established that they’re trapped in the house; everyone that’s left the house has been killed. So the wife says, ‘Don’t go down in the basement, there’s a fight, shouting, the husband says. “Look, it’s a wooden house, if I don’t go down we’ll burn to death.” So that’s resolved and the wife turns to the closet to get the fire extinguisher, and the bodies fall out.

“To me, the film is about what’s crazy and what’s not. There’s a line in the film that came from an experience of mine, in a bank. I hate Muzak, it’s one of my pet peeves, and l approached a bank officer and said, ‘look, I must complain: 1 think it’s terri ble that you have Muzak here, can you please turn it off. Right away, of course, they look at you like you’re a bag lady. So the bank officer said to me, ‘I don’t hear it, most people never hear it…maybe you have sensitive hearing; my wife hears sounds coming out of the TV when it’s not turned on.’ So I had the detective give that line at the dinner table, and turn to the young psychiatrist and say, ‘Is that normal…or what?’ and the psychiatrist replies, ‘I don’t know what’s normal anymore. That’s the whole thing like when the same psychiatrist goes to a rock club and there’s a band there called the Sic F*cs singing a song called Chop Up Your Mother, and everybody there looks like they should be put away.”

The equation between the asylum and the outside world is carried to its logical conclusion in the picture’s final scene, where Jack Palance, the last surviving crazy, stumbles across the same rock club, and en counters a stoned-out young lady. “It ends with him holding the gun to the girl’s head, and they’re both smiling,” says Sholder, “He’s smiling because he knows that he’s not alone–the whole world’s crazy.

“I loved that ending, thought it was a marvelous, sort of existential ending. The problem is that the horror audience is not a very existential crowd. While we followed a lot of the conventions, we did not follow the convention of closing the film with a strong shock. When Palance finally confronts the family in the kitchen, the audiences shout for him to kill–and he doesn’t, he walks away. Then he draws the gun on the girl-and he doesn’t shoot her! In editing, suggested to the producer, almost as a joke, that we could add the sound of a gunshot to the track, after it cuts to black. I seriously thought about it, and decided against it: 1 now feel that I should have done that. because this is not an art film. When a film ends on a strong note, the audience goes out buzzing.”


Much of the film’s strength comes from its excellent cast. Dwight Schultz deserves praise as the quiet, logic-ruled doctor/hero, but the flashiest roles belong to the escaped maniacs and their keeper. “It’s customary on low-budget films to get one personality with a small but crucial role, and while everybody else works six weeks, they work two weeks and their name is put on the marquee. The character Jack Palance plays was to be that character, so I knew we were going to get somebody heavy for that role, and I wanted Palance or Sterling Hayden for that role. Then I learned that they felt they should have three names instead of one; they felt they could afford it, and would more than make it upin foreign sales. We all made up lists, and when I found out Donald Pleasence was going to play the part of Dr. Bain I was thrilled out of my mind – I respect that man so much, from films like Cul de Sac. Martin Landau surprised me, because when I thought of him I thought of Mission Impossible and Space: 1999, and he didn’t Strike me as the kind of guy who would play that kind of role. When I told him so, he said, ‘Obviously, you don’t know my work that well, because in most of the roles that I’ve played I played crazy people.

“But the scary thing for me about working with those guys was that, in all my short films, I always rehearsed with my casts, as did with all the non-name actors in Alone in the Dark. That way, we had an idea of what their characters were, and what they were going to do, while with these guys I wasn’t going to meet them until the day they showed up on the set. They had to come in and be suddenly right in character. Landau, for instance, has almost no real dialogue in his role, but had instead a certain kind of presence.

“Palance was somewhat difficult. He was doing a show, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and it turned out that they wanted to begin shooting during our picture, he wanted to be let out and we wouldn’t let him. He was also led to believe that the character he was playing was the personification of evil. He is an enormously talented man, who has a face that has limited him to playing a great many evil characters, so that did not make him happy. He walked on the set the first day and said ‘I don’t know what the hell to do; I don’t know why I’m here; I don’t like to play these characters and so on. Furthermore, he was supposed to kill somebody that night, and he said he didn’t want to do that: he didn’t like violence. Sol said, ‘Look. The guy you’re playing is not a villain, he’s a hero. What he’s doing, he’s doing because he thinks it’s right. He thinks the new doctor deserves to be killed because he killed the old doctor. Palance said, “Don’t give me any of that psychological horseshit. But, in fact, that’s what he did with the character.

He played the character a little bit crazier than I’d thought of it, he brought a real in tensity and a strange, sardonic humor to the part. So we had a truce. “When we got to the point where we were behind schedule, we were shooting scenes as fast as we could set them up-‘Ok, quick, you stand over there, roll sound, roll camera, let’s go.’ Palance was obviously getting very annoyed. When we were just about to roll, he stood there and said, ‘I have to tell you this story…

‘It was my privilege to work several times with George Stevens, the great director. Of course, they had a lot more money and resources than you people have, and he was a very powerful man who could do pretty much whatever he chose to do. But he would sit in his chair, and he had a little set of knobs right next to him. When a scene was all ready to go, when everything and everyone was on set in their expected places, he would stop. He would turn one of these knobs and music would come up, the right sort of music to prepare you for the scene. He would let the music play for about 30 seconds, and then gradually turn it down, and say, roll camera.’



Interview with actor Dwight Schultz:
How did you get involved with Alone in the Dark?
Dwight Schultz: I was in New York City trying to break into film; I had a good theater career going. I auditioned three times for Jack Sholder, and I got the part! I had to meet Donald Pleasence at the Algonquin Hotel, which was a thrill for me because I was a huge fan. He’d been in a lot of plays by Harold Pinter, who is one of my favorite playwrights. As an actor, he’s the only playwright, or one of the few, where when I performed him, I could go on indefinitely. I wanted to talk to Pleasence about his experiences working with Pinter and Robert Shaw, and it was just a thrill all the way around-not knowing that New Line Cinema was going to become so big with Lord of the Rings.

Were you familiar with Pleasence’s work in the Halloween films at that point?
Dwight Schultz: I’d seen bits and pieces. I hadn’t seen either one all the way through, but I’d seen previews and excerpts. And Pleasence was very unabashedly making money there, as he was with (Alone in the Dark). You know: “This is how I make money, so I can do these other things.”

Was it intimidating going into the film opposite so many big names?
Dwight Schultz: Well, you know, you get your composure together and say, “I’m working with Jack Palance, I’m working with Martin Landau, I’m working with Donald Pleasence-I’m working with them!” And you do your takes, and you sit down and talk between them. It’s much easier to do a movie in that regard than it is to do a play. You have so much time to get to know each other and what you do outside of the business. That’s much harder when you’re working in the theater, because you’re always rehearsing, and you don’t have time for small talk. You get to know people better on a movie, because all you have is time. That’s why people get in trouble on movies!

And you had to be the straight man among all those over-the-top characters.
Dwight Schultz: Very straight-laced, yeah! He’s the victim of his own work. They’re the motivators of the angst, and I just had to take my part. That’s your job as an actor: to know your part and enjoy it as best you can.

How about Jack Palance? How was he to work with?
Dwight Schultz: When I was introduced to him, I was brought onto the set, and he was standing in a garden at what was supposed to be the hospital, and he had his back to me. And he had the biggest head of anybody I had ever seen in my life! I was brought right to his back, and the AD said, “Mr. Palance, Dwight Schultz is here.” And he just turned to me, looked at me like this (squints his eyes and does a Jack Palance rasp) and kind of talked like this. But he ended up being an incredibly sweet guy who was very friendly to all the actors and very gentle. He didn’t like Jack Sholder, though, so there was a lot of tension there.

Was that due to creative issues, or just a personality clash?
Dwight Schultz: No, it was… Jack Palance had worked with some of the great directors, and he wanted the set to be controlled by the director so the actors could work. But this was more like a television shoot, because it was very quick. There was lots of noise, lots of noise, Sholder would say, “OK, let’s get ready to shoot,” and Palance would say, in Palance raspl “George Stevens…wouldn’t do that.” Laughs “George Stevens would have a Victrola, and he would play some Vivaldi to bring the set to a quiet so the actors could compose themselves to do the scene.” And Sholder, who stuttered to begin with, would stutter more and Jack would imitate his stutter. But you could see Palance just wanted the respect: “This is my work. I respect your work because I’m here, now you should respect mine.” And this was Sholder’s first film.

Did he seem intimidated, especially dealing with all these big names?
Dwight Schultz: Oh my God, he was terribly intimidated. I mean, it wasn’t a big budget, it was a short shooting schedule, he had all these personalities to deal with. Now, Pleasence accepted it all, and kind of went into the chaos and, as the psychiatrist, he used that chaos. But Palance had no time for that

And Martin Landau?
Dwight Schultz: Oh! If you knew him from television or the Alfred Hitchcock films, he was always very deep and together and an Actors Studio type, but when you met him, speaking much faster he’d talk like this and he was just this bundle of energy! Which, for me, was wonderful, because you knew what a good actor he really was. I had a fight scene with him, and that was great! We had a ball.


Any memories of Erland van Lidth, the man mountain who played Ronald “Fatty” Elster?
Dwight Schultz: Well, I didn’t get to talk with him. I mean, he was just big. He didn’t really speak a lot, but he was a very sweet guy. I loved everybody on that production-Deborah Hedwall, who played my wife… I got to work with her husband, Dennis Boutsikaris, in a musical play in New York. There were a lot of good actors on that set, and we actually got some good reviews.

It is a very good film. But were you apprehensive at first that this might be just another slasher movie?
Dwight Schultz: No, because I thought it was well-written, and I was going to get to work with Donald Pleasence. The moment I knew who the cast was, I said, “My God! How could I turn this down?”

I imagine it was largely night shoots, especially when you were doing the house siege that makes up the second half of the film. How was it working the vampire schedule?
Dwight Schultz: Oh, it was very interesting. It was, for me, a new experience. It was chaotic. Of course, there was lots of waiting. You know, it’s the old Spencer Tracy thing: “I don’t get paid to act, I get paid to wait.” Jack Sholder also wrote the script, and there were aspects that weren’t fin. ished, and there would be a lot of pacing about-“We have to have a line here.”

There was one line in particular toward the end, I think it was the very last scene it was a long time ago, I wish I could remember—but Palance didn’t like his last line and couldn’t think of one, so he kept saying to me, “Come up with a line! Come up with a line!”

One of the most fun moments in the film is when you get dragged to the nightclub where The Sic F*cks are playing. What was that situation like?
Dwight Schultz: It was, again, total chaos. I was kind of familiar with that type of music, but I just didn’t have a lot to do. I was basically taking in the performance. I don’t have any great memory of that particular part. Most of my memories have to do with the structural difficulties we had with the script, and how there was tension between Jack Sholder and Robert Shaye, and between Sholder and Palance. Poor Jack Sholder was right in the middle, and I think he was unfairly treated by Jack Palance in some ways.

The film is remarkably cohesive, coming out of all that chaos.
Dwight Schultz: You know, I haven’t seen it in a long time. I went to see it when it opened in Pasadena with my wife and a friend, and we were the only people in the theater. And it was a huuuuge theater! It had 1,000 seats! We went and sat down in the middle, and it was my first big film role, and I went “Ahhhhh…” But I liked it.


The chief disaster, however came when the effects man (Tom Brumberger) refused to deliver the corpse or Donald Pleasence, whose head he had Cast near the beginning of the shoot. As a result. Pleasence is cruelly wounded this ear is sliced off, but certainly not dead in his final appearance toward the end of the film: his ultimate fate is unknown. That’s when we brought in Tom Savini,” says Sholder. “We had shot three days over our schedule in this house–the owner, coincidentally, was a psychiatrist and we had two effects to be done, the corpse and this apparition. So we brought in Tom Savini, who I knew to be a champ from working on The Burning The detective was another victim that had disappeared, and Gordon Watkins, who played the role, was still around, so we had Tom make him up for the crash through the window.

“Tom came up with just his kit, and making a guy look like he just came through a window was pretty simple for him, remember that he did something with toilet paper-I couldn’t say just what he did, but it looked horrendous. The apparition a hallucinatory monster that is another statement of the “insanity everywhere” theme; we had a meeting in the afternoon and he had to do it that evening. If he had more time, he told us, he could get a glass eye, some dental stuff, and really do something. So what he did for us that day is he took soap, and waxed down the guy’s hair, used some mortician’s wax, and got Rice Krispies and stuck it on the guy… literally worked with what is in the kitchen cabinet, and when he finished, literally couldn’t look at the guy, it just turned my stomach. It wasn’t the world’s greatest monster-it was the type of thing where it would appear, you’d jump out of your seat, and by the time you landed back in your seat it would be gone. It was quite a remarkable thing especially after working with this other guy, where everybody worried whether he was even going to show up. Tom was professional all the way. As it turn ed out, we weren’t able to shoot it that night. Tom did it again the next night, and in the meantime, he’d been able to materialize some teeth, a glass eye and a few other things, so he used a few less Rice Krispies the second time. He made a marvelous Creature, my hat’s off to Tom Savini.

Tom Brumberger’s side of the “Alone in the Dark” debacle

Tom Brumberger’s first association with Sholder was a straight makeup assignment on Sholder’s short film The Garden Party, which Brumberger recalls as a good experience for all concerned. Much later, a chance meeting on a New York street reunited the two and, as Brumberger tells it, Sholder was anxious to have him on the crew of Alone in the Dark. then in preproduction, on both straight and Special makeups. “It’s my experience that you really can’t do both and do both well.” says Brumberger, who eventually signed to do only the special makeups for the film.

Fred Travalena
Fred Travalena

As Brumberger describes it, Alone in the Dark was a severely troubled production Communication with the producers was so that he did not have a contract to sign until the third week of production, and he feels that it was not the contract that he was promised. One condition, however, was clearly spelled out. “My agreement was X amount of dollars for X’ number of weeks. If we went beyond that time, it was to be figured on a per day basis, at another fee.”

But Alone in the Dark went well over its production schedule, we are told, and in the crush to complete all the scenes requiring the film’s “names” before their departure, two effects scenes remained unfilmed. Advised that the film’s budget had all been spent, Brumberger told the producers that he would stay on the film for one additional week at no charge: Brumberger says that the free week” eventually became three weeks, during which time the effects sequences were scheduled and rescheduled several times

Meanwhile, Brumberger was offered an unusual opportunity. Fred Travalena was to star in a cable television special, and Brumberger was approached to design a series of prosthetic makeups that would transform the night club impressionist into nine of the personalities that he mimics in his night club act, ranging from Sinatra to President Ron. “I had to do nine characters in nine days,” he says, because four other competent and creative people had turned it down, due to the time involved and the producers had been told that the only person that could do it in that time-frame and give them quality work was Tom Brumberger.”

Brumberger says that his departure from the crew of Alone in the Dark was preceded by full notification of all involved, including an on-set announcement by himself and his partner, Don Lumkin, at the beginning of his final week. The effects scenes, however, were pushed forward to the Tuesday following the end of that week-too late, since he’d accepted another job; he advised the producers of the film to have their lawyer contact his lawyer. “Immediately Corson called me back and said, ‘Are you holding the effects for ransom?

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Months later, with the release of Alone In The Dark, Brumberger would again hear about his “refusal to deliver the film’s effects. That’s how lack Sholder described the situation. Never even remotely true, says Brumberger. *The lawyers were on the phone all day back and forth, back and forth. What was finally resolved was that I would turn over all of the equipment necessary to do these effects in the state they were in which was an unfinished state, in exchange for a release.” Brumberger says that the Donald Pleasence head, its PMC molds, and a full body suit and pullover mask for the apparition were picked up by a representative of New Line, who signed a release relieving him of all future liability in respect to Alone in the Dark and New Line Cinema for whatever reasons, New Line did not use any of these materials, and Brumberger later found himself on the receiving end of a $100,000 lawsuit.

Alone in the Dark (1982) Music Tracks

Jack Sholder
Robert Shaye
Benni Korzen
Jack Sholder
Robert Shaye
Michael Harrpster

Jack Palance as Frank Hawkes
Donald Pleasence as Dr. Leo Bain
Martin Landau as Byron ‘Preacher’ Sutcliff
Dwight Schultz as Dr. Dan Potter
Erland Van Lidth as Ronald ‘Fatty’ Elster
Deborah Hedwall as Nell Potter
Lee Taylor-Allan as Toni Potter
Phillip Clark as Tom Smith
Elizabeth Ward as Lyla Potter
Brent Jennings as Ray Curtis


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