Sometimes, it's really frustrating to be a horror fan. True admirers know their way around the genre, and they know what they like. So, when a film fails, sometimes it was a bad idea from the start, but more and more you start to see all sorts of missed opportunities.
The opening credits can catch you a bit off guard. You don't expect your horror films to be produced by Dick Clark, with walk-ons by a pre-MIAMI VICE Phillip Michael-Thomas and - zoinks! - Casey Kasem playing a coroner. It should be a signal of a pretty good time, but it's actually just a dull stigma on their resume.
THE DARK gets going right away, not that it matters. A woman walks down the street and is stalked by an unseen killer (John Bloom - not to be confused with Joe Bob Briggs' alter-ego). The killer is called the Mangler, but the credits call him the Dark. This point is punctuated by a laugh-inducing theme song that features two people whispering, "The daaaaarrrk..... yeeeeeesssss." The whole thing sounds like a bargain basement imitation of Goblin. And by "bargain basement" I mean it sounds like the producers recorded the thing in their basement.
The Dark catches up with her and kills her in cold blood. The girl's father, Steve Dupree (William Devane - KNOTS LANDING), gets the bad news and begins pestering the police to find the killer. This doesn't sit to well with the investigating officer, Dave Mooney (Richard Jaeckel - who's graced everything from THE DIRTY DOZEN to THE GREEN SLIME). Mooney put Dupree away years before and now that Dupree is back on the street, he has become a successful horror novelist, something Mooney seems to resent.
Sounds like a great dramatic development, doesn't it? Well, don't count on it, the writing is too amateurish to deliver the goods. Typical exchange between Rooney and his partner: "He's paid his dues." "Hey, screw him." David Mamet doesn't need to lose any sleep over this one.
As if having his daughter murdered and being hated by the man in charge of the investigation isn't enough, Dupree also has his criminal past exposed on national television by reporter Zoe Owens (tennis pro and THAT'S INCREDIBLE host, Cathy Lee Crosby). Soon, Dupree and Owens are hunting the killer together and they seem to be falling in love. After all, what woman could resist a guy who introduces himself by saying, "If we were both liberated, I'd knock you on your ass?"
Other minor subplots grace the story. A psychic claims to have a psychic bond with the killer. Rooney is allowed to expand somewhat as the politicians pressure him to solve the case, even though they seem to not care how it's to be done. Owens is pressured in the beginning by her boss not to get too close, before he finally comes to her aide.
This actually makes up the best few scenes of the film. Her boss is played by Keenan Wynn, who experienced a bit of a career resurgence in the mid-70s with inexpensive sci-fi pictures. He's a jolly and fun-loving presence and seems to have more heart than anyone else in the film, both the characters and the bored actors playing them.
THE DARK gives the strong impression of a film that went into production with great fanfare, only to have the budget drastically slashed at the last minute. This is what I thought and I wasn't far off. In truth, it seems the history of the film is far more complicated than that. TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE director Tobe Hooper quit during production and was succeeded by John "Bud" Cardos (KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS, MUTANT).
Troubles behind the scenes also hamper our chances of figuring out just what the hell the Dark is. THE DARK is an appropriate title, since although we see more of the killer each time, we never get a clear idea of who or what it is. In fact, several scenes appear to have been darkened in post-production to further obscure the creature. There are vague statements in the beginning and end that he is an alien from another planet. Thus, when he attacks his prey, in addition to having great strength, he shoots laser beams out of his eyes, often causing some BATTLESTAR GALACTICA-type explosions that defy logic. No matter what planet he?s from, the Dark still appears vaguely human. He even wears designer blue jeans, a shock to those of us who didn?t think Sergio Valente sold on Venus.
It didn't take much research to get to the bottom of this. Originally, THE DARK was supposed to be a zombie movie, but had poor test screenings. The box office was still riding high in the mid-70s from ALIEN and STAR WARS, so the film was treated in post to make the Dark an alien. Ironically, five years later, original director Tobe Hooper would combine both zombies and aliens when he made his underrated film, LIFEFORCE.
THE DARK is so unsure of itself that when it comes time to confront the creature, we wonder what the big deal was. It's this carelessness and lack of continuity that severely hurts any attempts at suspense, even if a few set pieces come close to hitting their mark. If the filmmakers didn't know or care what they had, then why should we?
Another problem is the performances. The film is filled with people who were much more comfortable on television, where they could pick up a weekly paycheck. The worst offender is William Devane in the lead role. He approaches the part like Warren Beatty but comes off as an aging Michael Beck (look it up). For most of the part, it's hard to see his face behind his blow-dried hair and thrift shop-sized sunglasses. He plays every scene as cool and confident but never seems to know when to turn off the suave and show some genuine emotion. Instead, he lounges around in his goofy looking bathrobe and leers over Crosby, accentuating the sad fact that there isn't an ounce of chemistry between them. He slips into a generic action hero mode and shows no enthusiasm for the project. And indeed, why should he? It's a shame since just two years prior, Devane starred in one of the greatest revenge films ever made, ROLLING THUNDER.
There isn't much true artistry going on here, and the film could have been handled much better. Towards the end, I kept imagining the great things a director like Lucio Fulci could have done with the material. Psychics, unseen killers, zombies, aliens, rugged hero, strong-willed but dumb-as-a-post heroine. Everything was there to make an atmospheric horror film. The problem is, someone forgot the atmosphere.
At one time, THE DARK may have had all the makings for a great horror film. But somewhere along the line, it had the soul sucked right out of it. A mundane and generic film full of dull spells, convenient plot twists and half-hearted performances. It's a film that suffers from equal parts lack of direction and lack of heart.