A man known as Preacher (Martin Landau) enters his local diner and takes a seat at the counter. The waitress asks him if he wants to see the menu but he says he'll have his usual, only for the waitress to bring him a large, dead fish on a plate. Suddenly it's raining indoors and the cook emerges from the kitchen wielding a cleaver and Preacher is chained up while the cook takes aim with the blade... Preacher wakes screaming - it was all a dream, and the cook from his nightmare is actually Leo Bain (Donald Pleasence), the head of the asylum Preacher is incarcerated in. Today the institution is welcoming a new doctor, Don Potter (Dwight Schultz), yet not everyone is pleased to see him.
Tired of just having one psycho killer in your eighties slasher movies? How about two instead? Or three? In fact, let's make it four, the grand total of deadly maniacs on the loose in Alone in the Dark, which was scripted by the director Jack Sholder and arrived at the height of the subgenre's success. The film takes care to set up the characters rather than diving straight in, and Bain is presented as a liberal minded psychiatrist: as he reveals to Potter, extremely liberal minded because if he had his way the high security patients wouldn't be locked up behind sophisticated electronic doors to keep them safe inside.
Potter is a nice middle class fellow with a wife, Nell (Deborah Hedwall) and daughter, Lyla (Elizabeth Ward), but even for him Bain's methods come across as lax and potentially harmful. Bain is an eccentric who calls the inmates "voyagers" and has a pioneering view of paranoid schizophrenia, that is, that the afflicted are pioneers through the boundaries of the mind. Pleasence is having fun with his role, a more hippy dippy alternative to his Dr Loomis from Halloween, and the actors playing the inmates - who all believe Potter has killed his predecessor (he hasn't) - seem to be enjoying themselves too with all the manic laughter and hard stares (I'm sure one of the extras is stroking a banana, too).
Of course, something must occur to release the bad guys, and it happens after Potter's sister (Lee Taylor-Allan) comes to stay. She's also had mental health problems, but is sympathetic in a "hey, they're not all dangerous" kind of way, and when she takes Potter and Nell out to see a band (the cartoonish Sic Fucks as themselves), there's an electricity cut at the nuclear power plant meaning the town is plunged into darkness. And not only that, but the electrical security system at the asylum is deactivated (whatever happened to good oldfashioned locks and bolts, eh?) leaving four of the most violent patients to wander out into the night, led by Hawkes (Jack Palance on fine form).
So far so good, but for the most part, after they're free we hardly see the killers. Occasionally a scene will feature them running over a bicycle courier for his hat, or turning up at Potter's house to menace his family while he's out, but Sholder is obviously going for the less is more technique, so that by the last act, when the Potters and their new friend (Phillip Clark) are under siege in the home, Alone in the Dark is kind of like Night of the Living Dead with the villains hiding. The tone threatens towards the reactionary, with liberal views no match for the criminally insane, and anti-nuclear demonstrations leading to personal endangerment, but it's really the old Straw Dogs or Hills Have Eyes message about supposedly civilised people easily descending into savagery that's at work here. The twist is none too well concealed, either. Music by Renato Serio.