Call Victor Zimmerman's 1980 low budget Fade to Black a guilty pleasure. Decidedly flawed, the quirky movie comes up from time to time for re-watching, and for some reason has held fascination over the years. Most likely that is due to its essential idea—hardly a new concept—that the images ingested by today's young television and film viewers are having enormous impact that is brought to the forefront whenever one crazed individual carries out they have witnessed in the media. Despite warnings, a few are certain to mimic the Jackass television show and occasionally a grisly murder brings parallel images of crime or horror genres to conjure up the old debate whether the media contains too much violence.
Putting a face on this oft cited issue is Dennis Christopher as lonely young Eric Binford, whose whole life is wrapped up in cinema. The gangly, socially inept youth loves movies more than life itself, and we can't blame him, considering the fact that he lives with his health food obsessed bitchy invalid Aunt Stella (Eve Brent), who continually belittles him and craves his back rubs for her own perverse pleasure. With such a dysfunctional home situation, Eric justifiably seeks masturbatory comfort in his Marilyn Monroe poster and insulates himself with his favorite James Cagney movie, White Heat.
Binford comes across initially as a film geek without a social life, who transforms into a revenge seeking psycho, most vividly symbolized with a schizophrenic half Binford/half Count Dracula face before a viewing of The Night of the Living Dead. He works a low level job at a film distribution company with an abusive boss, who has to grab for his heart medication every time he yells at his daydreaming employee. (Incidentally, look for Mickey Rourke's cameo appearance as a bullying co-worker) The product of a lifelong series of put-downs and rejection, Binford's social life begins to look up when Marilyn Monroe lookalike (Linda Kerridge) inexplicably agrees to a movie date, but falls apart with predictably disastrous consequences when she shows up late. Beware the pent up anger of a mild-mannered nerd when pushed beyond his breaking point—especially one with as vast a fantasy film life as Binford.
Highlighting the film is Dennis Christopher's performance. Hailed by Screen World as one of the twelve most promising actors of 1979, Christopher stretches his previous Breaking Away persona with this complex character that engages both sympathy and revulsion without turning sensitive viewers completely against him. Consider his masturbation scene, and how daring this was for a 1980 theatrical film. Audiences may not approve of Binford's actions, but can feel his pain when his favorite movie is rudely interrupted and his film projector destroyed and can feel empathetic when his contemptible boss refuses to let him retrieve his highly valued original movie posters. The role requires a gamut of emotions, and Christopher delivers in rapid fashion without melodrama. Despite a gimmicky role requiring schizoid mood changes and immersion into other film star caricatures (including Cagney, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Mummy), Christopher makes his painful existence believable, contrasting with his stereotypical and unsympathetic victims.
Other supporting characters are tossed in superfluously, like the dope smoking social worker, Gallagher (James Luisi) who gets it on with a lady policeman and exclaims "I never fucked a cop before." He represents the liberal forces that understand that Binford is a victim of his dysfunctional upbringing, yet he humorously declares near the end that his young charge is “fucking insane,” joining the same basic camp as the establishment that clearly wants this crazy kid put away and emphasizing the theme that the violent images being drilled into the youth are a disaster in waiting.
The B nature of the film project shows through a number of times with inane dialogue and clunky editing that skips back and forth between the present and Binford's fantasy world of classic films. Ideas behind the scenes that skip back and forth between The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Public Enemy, and others are certainly clever, but could have used upgraded equipment to smooth out the transitions. More successful are the fuzzy images that transform Binford's love interest into the "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" sequence and later the Psycho spoof.
Although the set piece ending at Mann's Chinese Theater ties in with Marilyn's footprints and Binford's film obsession, its abruptness and simplicity leaves viewers unfulfilled. Fade to Black is a film for film geeks that get the many references and can relate to Binford's lonely lifestyle, but it doesn't deliver as much as it could have. That would take more work on the script to flesh out the supporting characters, but fortunately left on the celluloid is Christopher's memorable performance. He starred in relatively few films, and moved more towards stage work after his promising early film work. This underrated film demonstrates his acting prowess, and will even make audiences more aware of classic film details (like Rick's last name in Casablanca). Although it doesn't stand up to any the classics referred to within its 100 minutes, Fade to Black is far more enjoyable to watch than most of the crap hitting the summer Cineplexes.