The Dangerous Line Between Fandom and Obsession In ‘Fade to Black’

When we talk about cinematic descents into madness involving men and toxic behaviours, the films that often pop up in conversation tend to be the same ones. Taxi Driver, Falling Down, and more recently, Joker. The way a lot of the characters found within those films are often mislabeled as heroes has always enthralled me. How some viewers see characters doing awful things out of a belief that the revenge on those who didn’t give them the attention they desired is not only okay but something heroic is an interesting one. While I see things much differently than the people who think Travis Bickle or Arthur Fleck were heroes of any sort, I do find a lot of films dealing with that anger and resentment quite compelling.

Fade to Black, the subject of this piece, is an under-appreciated gem falling within that subcategory. A film that is finally getting its due respect, thanks to an excellent Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome. The 1980 Vernon Zimmerman-helmed slasher is a great look at the fine line between being a fan of something and allowing that obsession to turn an individual into a one-man executioner.

There’s an innocence to Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher). When we meet Fade to Black’s protagonist (turned antagonist by the end of the film), there’s a sweetness to the character, one that allows you as a viewer to latch onto the young man. A film buff like so many of us, Eric lives for movies, devouring them every moment he can, while working for a distribution company warehouse just to be around celluloid. Endlessly quoting his favourite films, the only thing Eric has on the countless bullies at his job is his vast knowledge of all things film. Held up to the good looking character played by Mickey Rourke, Eric doesn’t stand a chance with the ladies, so the “Yeah, well, I betcha didn’t know THIS!” attitude he has towards his coworkers and people, in general, is understandable if a bit standoffish. The way Christopher plays Eric is as nuanced as humanly possible, there are layers to the character. A man who just wants to feel accepted and a part of something, Eric’s desire, throughout the running time, goes unchecked and leads to the downfall of himself and others.

Like many films of its kind, it’s not the onslaught of bullying Eric suffers at work or the verbal abuse his aunt (who also might be his mother) throws his way that is the crack that permanently fractures to the point of no return. What does it, is the very moment he sees the Marilyn Monroe-esque aspiring actress Marilyn (on the nose, I know). From that very moment, we see Eric begin to develop an unhealthy obsession with the woman, referring to her as if she IS Monroe, leading to small cracks already there, growing, until his entire psyche breaks.

In a series of moments detailing being pushed to the edge by his coworkers and aunt, Eric snaps and begins to don the personas for various characters he’s obsessed with. Whether it’s Dracula stalking a sex worker, a mummy killing his verbally abusive boss, or a sinister-looking cowboy pulling out a sharpshooter and mowing down the people who damaged him, Eric begins to slowly descend into an amalgamation of all of those personas, losing the one that started off being halfway decent.

That’s part of the charm of Fade to Black. The film is a great look at the moment when a decent person becomes a toxic one, hellbent on revenge to the point where they become the very thing they wanted vengeance against. While Marilyn makes Eric happy, he has a very incel-heavy, “you owe me your time” approach that speaks volumes on a lot of the issues that are alive and well in 2021. When rejected by a woman earlier in the film, Eric throws photos at her, while screaming about film trivia he doesn’t think she knows and that really touches on the “I bet you can’t name three songs” stuff women have to deal with over and over again, from men who think they’re forever owed validation.

What sets Eric apart from Travis Bickle or Falling Down’s D-Fens character is how he never feels like he’s doing the world a favour with his anger. It’s personal for him, his anger is towards those he feels victimised by. The tragedy of it, though, is in how he victimises in return. While Taxi Driver and Falling Down deal with men who think they’re cleaning up the world with their quests, Fade to Black hits home closer to the Film Twitter bros always wanting women to know how much smarter they are by dropping shinfo (info that doesn’t mean shit) left and right.

There’s humour to the film as well, especially involving a psychiatrist played by Trancers’ own Jack Deth himself, Tim Thomerson. One sequence involving Thomerson’s character doing cocaine before improvising some hilarious harmonica jamming helps break up the somewhat serious tone of the film. Though the inclusion of the character could pull away from other films like this, it works for this one, adding an unexpected yet entertaining sidetone.

As a viewer, it’s easy to be sympathetic towards Eric for the first half of the film, but it’s interesting to follow the character once he’s most definitely the villain of the picture. Zimmerman, along with a lot of character input by Christopher (the special features interview on the collector’s Blu-ray shines a light on how involved the actor was with crafting Eric), created a character that you feel for, before pulling the rug out from under your feet, revealing a man who is just as dangerous as those who victimized him.

Fade to Black will never be heralded in the way that so many other films of its kind have been, but what it is, is a film that remains relevant and a great example of how unique the genre can truly be.

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