If you’re reading this, that means you possibly love the movies just as much as I do from the opening scene to when the credits fade to black. The cinema is a broad space made for all cultures and ages to enjoy, whether it’s for entertainment, education, or a perfect combination of the two. Writer and director Vernon Zimmerman (The Unholy Rollers) explores the mind of extreme cinephile, Eric Binford, and the volatile environment of old Hollywood in Los Angeles in his 1980’s dramatic thriller, Fade To Black.
Eric Binford “is a lonely movie-buff who struggles to find his place in the world. The rejection by a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, who embodies his obsession, sends him on a killing spree during which he transforms himself into classic film characters.” Starring Dennis Christopher (It 1990), Tim Thomerson (Near Dark), Mickey Rourke (The Wrestler), Linda Kerridge (Surf II), Gwynne Gifford (Masters Of The Universe), Eve Brent (The Green Mile), and James Luisi (The Rockford Files) Fade To Black is an early look at the divisive relationship between the film medium and mental health effects culminating in one man’s inspired revenge against his tormentors.
It Was A Double Bill
Having your audience follow an unlikable protagonist is a divisive artistic choice for storytellers. Zimmerman presents a unique character in Eric Binford as he walks the line between anti-hero and villain in Fade To Black. Binford is incredibly consumed by the cinema world to the degree that his interest moves from endearing to obnoxious, distracting him from daily responsibilities as well as taking care of himself physically. His caretaker Aunt Stella is emotionally abusive, he is undermined at work, and has unfortunate luck with women. He takes on feelings of being worthless and assumes the blame for much of others’ misgivings. He only finds solace in the “escapist trash” of film, but sadly loses himself to the fictional characters he admires. After being accidentally stood up by Marlilyn O’Connor, the embodiment of his iconic starlet dream girl, and his aunt’s manipulative retaliation against his beloved film projector, Binford’s psyche ultimately snaps.
In a way, Eric Binford is a mean spirited portrait of a man suffering from mental health issues. His resentment toward women, although not admirable in any way, speaks to a traumatic upbringing that turns the revenge plot into a more complicated illustration of emotional pathos. Dennis Christopher absolutely chews up the scenery and gives Binford that engaging balance of sympathetic and repulsive effect. Christopher’s role excels in his ability to provide a dual performance through both Binford’s pitiful demeanor and his immediate off-the-cuff imitations that morph his facial expressions and body language with every scene.
“[Director Vernon] Zimmerman presents a unique character in Eric Binford as he walks the line between anti-hero and villain in Fade To Black. “
While Fade To Black poses Eric Binford’s break with reality in a terrifying manner, it manages to hold a decent level of depth. The armchair psychology is debatable, but depicts a gradual build up of one man’s subtle delusions as they become dangerously immersive fantasies. Turning to his cinema icons, Binford’s loneliness and internal infatuations eventually get the best of him, resulting in a method spiral. He uses these characters to divert from the world’s cruelty and switches these personalities on and off the most around people he feels malice toward, some deserving, so to speak, and some not deserving of his rampage. At times we see his remorse, yet his uglier side dominates.
What begins as amusing imitations transpires to harassing bystanders on the Boardwalk to vicious murder, the invincibility to Binford’s behavior turns the story into an uneasy note on mental health. The multiple instances of influence on his identity transforms him into the characters he admires so much so that he doesn’t even know who he really is in the end. It’s an early application of understanding the psyche behind homicidal acts, especially compared to more educated films of modern cinema, but an interesting piece that gives viewers much of their own to chew on.
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Enter Dr. Jerry Moriarty, a criminal psychologist who attempts to understand Binford’s patterns and motives while hot on his trail alongside police officer Anne Oshenbull. Clashing against the stubborn and selfish department Captain Gallagher, Moriarty represents the progressive clinical and judicial movement that began to seek more of a psychological explanation for criminal activity and behavior. Unfortunately for Fade To Black, that plot point is portrayed in a rather shallow narrative that is never given enough time to truly flesh out. However, modern viewers will have no trouble interpreting Zimmerman’s intentions and seeing the depth that he was aiming for, which might not have translated in full effect.
Moriarty is able to explain Binford’s break from reality and deflection from true emotion, alleging that he believes his life is a movie. The projection of these characters both reflect his desire to be someone else and subconsciously provide him with reason to be free of consequence. People like the police Captain and Binford’s enemies stand as society, fearing someone that is different from what they assume to be normal and damn him from the start. Moriarty states he is a product of society, as his behavior seems to be influenced by the cinema but only as a reactionary causeway due to the perception and treatment of those around him.
“ [Fade to Black is] an early application of understanding the psyche behind homicidal acts, especially compared to more educated films of modern cinema, but an interesting piece that gives viewers much of their own to chew on. “
Eric Binford is not the only character in Fade To Black who falls victim to the struggles with identity in a city that revolves around show business. Captain Gallagher resigns to ignorance accepting crime as a regular activity under his domain. His boss at the distribution warehouse, Mr. Berger is uptight and stressed to the point of suffering from heart complications. Aunt Stella is an aged dancer who resents her responsibility for Binford, an accidental paralysis, and the secret she’s kept for decades to maintain the once-promise stardom. Marilyn O’Connor is a young model living day-to-day with an uncanny resemblance of another tragic figure, Marilyn Monroe, that defines her persona indefinitely.
Fade To Black plays on these characters’ commitment to the industry as well as the pressures and expectations that come with trying to make it big. Desperation, perseverance, naivety, and even artistic theft all play a nuanced role in the world that surrounds Eric Binford. Zimmerman touches on themes of film influence on behavior, without delving too deep (almost not deep enough at times) and gleans on the notion of expectations as a result of what’s seen on television and in the movies versus what makes up reality. All of these characters want to be somebody, especially Binford, and the narrative provides a range of victims and villains blinded by the bright light that is Tinseltown.
See You In The Movies
Elaborating on Fade To Black’s cinematic nostalgia, the set pieces are particularly eye-catching for those who love the movies. Binford’s home is filled with film paraphernalia from posters to props and cut-outs painting to the visual holds the industry has on the consumer as well as a cinephile’s display to own bits and pieces of the motion pictures they admire. The dialogue between Binford and others is casual, but saturated in both exposition and film jargon, especially in his bouts of spitting trivia to prove his die-hard loyalty to the screen. His on and off again voiceover is not consistent, but sets the stage for viewers to follow his point of view. The memorable two-faced makeup work as Binford becomes Dracula shows his physical and mental confusion.
Zimmerman brilliantly splices film clips from Kiss Of Death, White Heat, Public Enemy, Horror Of Dracula, Creature From The Black Lagoon, and others with reality to mirror his actions, highlighting his impressions from those borrowed scenes to blur the line within Binford’s accepted perception. The scoring of Fade To Black, though underutilized, twinges with magical notes and forebodes with dramatic plunges accompanied by the film’s sad theme song. Marcha Hunt’s rendition of ‘Heroes’ speaks to how Binford as so many others look up to these characters and their larger-than-life presences on the screen. As Binford is confronted by authorities in an empty theater with a blank screen, Zimmerman ends his narrative with a grand homage to Hollywood come the final act.
One of the most appealing, and simultaneously repugnant, qualities of Zimmerman’s strange love letter is the Hollywood backdrop that sets the scene of Fade To Black. Eric Binford’s hyper infatuation with classic cinema, much of which has influenced film as it has his own metamorphosis, provides a relatable sense of nostalgia to all kinds of cinephiles. The range of social commentary from the illusion of cinema to its universal appreciation provides an interesting backbone for the narrative with much to explore and entertain. Fade To Black offers humorous bits with intrigue, peril, drama, and terror like any good classic film. The functioning nods to fan favorites, cult flicks, and classic legends of the craft shape a unique world that seems to defy reality all on its own while also scraping the embellished surface to reveal the unpleasant core beneath.
“One of the most appealing, and simultaneously repugnant, qualities of Zimmerman’s strange love letter is the Hollywood backdrop that sets the scene of Fade To Black.”
Binford’s choice of character projection represents some compelling further analysis with Dracula, The Mummy, Hopalong Cassidy, Cody Jarrett, Tommy Udo all being anti-heroes or villains. His motivation to win the heart of a living tragic figure reflection, his aunt’s physically crippled dreams, the deception of producer Gary Bially, and the constant danger facing women looking for a break all expose a more nefarious side of the city that promises glory. The glitz and glamor juxtaposed against the grit of the daily grind for aspiring entertainers follows the split parallel themes running throughout Fade To Black so poetically, you’d only see it in the movies.
With the 80’s being such an incredibly inspiring era for film, especially within the horror genre, Fade To Black is often an ironically underrated pick. It’s not a completely substantiated approach to purveying an accurate depiction of any one mental health disorder, but intentional to the common understanding of disassociating personalities as a means to deal with trauma at the time of release. Eric Binford’s aggressive break from the real world that he occupies and his resulting rampage is instead a revenge narrative driven by a more psychological application of outside factors. Zimmerman asks the audience to take a closer look at the misfortunes of reality through the screen as Eric Binford uses what he sees on the screen to deal with his life. The invocation of cinema as a way to cope is surely a relatable factor to countless viewers and one that gives Fade To Black its odd brand of charm and value.
Fade To Black is currently streaming on Shudder as well as SlingTV and Amazon Prime.
Are you a fan of Fade To Black? What do you think about Vernon Zimmerman’s terrifying portrait of a cinephile’s psyche break? Let us know your thoughts over on Twitter, Reddit, or in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!