On her way home one dark night in Los Angeles, a young woman is viciously attacked by a snarling, shaggy-haired fiend of unknown origin. Her grief-stricken father, ex-con turned horror novelist Steve Dupree (William Devane) clashes with Det. Dave Mooney (Richard Jaeckel), the grouchy cop assigned to the case. Ambitious TV news reporter Zoe Owens (Cathy Lee Crosby) and her boss Sherman Moss (Keenan Wynn) whip up a media frenzy as more victims fall to the monster while the cops are at a loss to explain its random modus operandi. Meanwhile, eccentric psychic De Renzy (Jacqueline Hyde) has a premonition the monster’s next victim will be third-rate actor Randy Morse (Jeffrey Reese), but is dismissed by the cops as a kook. Steve tries to trace the elusive psychic before eventually he, Zoe and half the LAPD come face to face with the terrifying, death-ray spewing monster.
There are a handful of horror movies titled The Dark including a 1993 effort featuring Stephen McHattie, Brion James and a young Neve Campbell and the 2005 Sean Bean-starrer directed by the talented John Fawcett. However, this 1979 obscurity earned a degree of notoriety as a near-incoherent patch-up job. Co-produced by iconic music television host Dick Clark, of American Bandstand and Rockin’ New Eve fame - who made the earlier, superior cult gem Psych-Out (1968) - this was originally a zombie movie, but in the wake of Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) the monster was hastily reworked into a creature from outer space. Hence, we have some hokey narration prattling on about close encounters with extraterrestrials while the filmmakers superimpose laserbeams shooting from the monster’s eyes.
As well as the supernatural overtones failing to gel with the science fiction rationale, The Dark has a wide range of problems: the pacing is slow, plot threads lead nowhere, killings occur with no rhyme or reason, the psychic angle doesn’t amount to much, and the romance between Steve and Zoe (who initially hints Steve deserves all his suffering since he writes such violent novels!) does not ring true. Little of what occurs onscreen makes sense in the cold light of day. And yet, as Dario Argento demonstrated with Inferno (1980), a horror film does not have to make sense in order to be scary. While nowhere near that league, The Dark still taps that primal fear of something horrible and unfathomable lurking in the darkness. You don’t know what it is, nor what it wants, but it is coming to get you. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the tense sequence where Sherman flees what may either be his own overactive imagination or something genuinely prowling in the shadows. He goes from joking about the idea to slowly succumbing to this primal, irrational terror we all share.
First-choice director Tobe Hooper was sacked early on, replaced by underrated B-movie hand John 'Bud' Cardos. While the story is nonsensical, Cardos sustains suspense quite effectively, aided by moody cinematography from John Morrill - who shot all his films plus cult favourite A Boy and His Dog (1975) - and a creepy score by Roger Kellaway with its hissing chorus (“The darkness!”). Cardos is interesting character. A former child actor with family connections at Twentieth Century Fox and whose uncles managed the lavish Graumann’s Egyptian and Chinese theatres, he appeared in the famous Our Gang shorts by producer Hal Roach besides more prestigious fare like The Return of Frank James (1940) for director Fritz Lang. His skill with horses led to a career as a rodeo rider during his teens while he later worked as an animal wrangler and bird handler, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock’s peerless The Birds (1963). Throughout the Sixties and early Seventies, Cardos worked as an actor in exploitation films before directing became the next logical step. His films were usually saddled with shoddy scripts but distinguished by his ability to stage complex set-pieces on low-budgets and imbue key scenes with surprisingly potent emotions, be they terror (Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)) or wonder (The Day Time Ended (1979)).
Screenwriter Stanford Whitmore was a regular TV writer toiling on popular shows of the time (e.g. McCloud, Ironside, The Wild Wild West) but had an eclectic range of big screen credits including war dramas War Hunt (1962) and Baby Blue Marine (1976), the Hank Williams biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart (1964) and the eccentric Faust update comedy Hammersmith is Out (1972) directed by Peter Ustinov and starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Given his original premise was extensively reworked it seems harsh to suggest he had little flair for horror, but the film works better as a quirky ensemble character piece with a monster attached.
Most horror films from this period focus on young women being mauled. This broadens its range of victims with middle-aged men and would-be vigilantes getting zapped by the alien. Cardos evokes a seedy Seventies milieu of cynical cops, weary hookers and drunken bar patrons and pits an array of intriguingly oddball characters against the monster including William Devane giving a by turns apathetic or genuinely offbeat peformance with eyes shrouded in dark glasses, hunched and sporting a hacking cough. Future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas appears as a mouthy street punk, Angelo Rossitto cameos as a dwarf news vendor, and Casey Kasem - famed DJ and voice of Shaggy on Scooby-Doo! - plays a forensics expert. Appearing as the monster is John Bloom, hitherto known for playing the Frankenstein Monster in Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) for infamous schlock merchant Al Adamson for whom John 'Bud' Cardos often worked as an actor. The monster makeup is quite unsettling and the laser-spewing showdown injects some welcome excitement, but goodness knows whether the original script made any more sense.