By David Weiner
Back when I was editor of Famous Monsters magazine, I lunched with BREAKING AWAY star Dennis Christopher, who detailed his unlikely detour into the slasher cult classic FADE TO BLACK…
As Hollywood was beginning to focus solely on blockbusters in a post-STAR WARS world, Dennis Christopher biked straight to fame alongside Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern and Jackie Earle Haley in the wonderful 1979 classic BREAKING AWAY, an optimistic coming-of-age tale cutting through the the grit cinema of ‘70s. Thrust into that rare, fleeting plane in which practically every producer and director was fighting to land him for their project, the then-twentysomething Christopher chose a decidedly different path for his highly anticipated follow-up film: the slasher genre.
Rather than succumbing to the immediate-typecasting roles of sports heroes or charming romantic leads (he even turned down a lucrative BREAKING AWAY television series, with Shaun Cassidy taking his role), Dennis made a radical departure by playing the introspective, movie-obsessed Eric Binford in FADE TO BLACK — a boy next door that had a lot more to do with Norman Bates than, say, Lloyd Dobler in SAY ANYTHING.
Living a lonely life with his verbally abusive aunt, Binford longs for love and is regularly hazed by his boss and work friends alike. Often retreating into his imaginary world of film noir fantasy, he is finally pushed over the edge and loses his mind, engaging in a string of cinematically inspired killings.
Released in the fall of 1980, FADE TO BLACK was ahead of its time, addressing the concepts of fame, revenge fantasies, and role-playing murder that is exponentially more relevant today than when it came out, now that we live in a world where mentally disturbed individuals have walked into movie theaters to gun down random strangers.
“FADE TO BLACK was tacked together with chewing gum and good intentions,” Dennis told me in an exclusive lunchtime interview over above-average diner food — not unlike the kind served up during THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON fantasy sequence in the film. “They thought they had an exploitation horror movie; what they had was a script that poor [director] Vernon Zimmerman had to rewrite 5,000 times to satisfy 5,000 different people that were going to give a dollar. It had been watered down so much that the story was lost. Well, I said no a hundred times, but they kept raising the offer — I was never used to people fighting for me with money before — and I couldn’t get the character out of my mind. I just thought if it wasn’t so cheaply presented, this would be a real opportunity an actor’s not going to get very often in his life — to play these screen legends [such as Jimmy Cagney, Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Boris Karloff as The Mummy, and Hopalong Cassidy] and to insist that they be done correctly, with the right costumes and the right props and the right setting, everything.”
USING FAMOUS MONSTERS FOR RESEARCH
One reason why Dennis was so enthusiastic to speak with Famous Monsters of Filmland about the film was because he used Forry Ackerman’s classic magazine as research for his role, in addition to watching a lot of great film noir to imprint the physicality of the actors on his mind. “I just tried to re-awaken that sense of enthusiasm I had growing up,” he said of the genre material. “[When I was younger}, I had the Famous Monsters magazines. I also had the models of the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Of course, I had Dracula, I had Frankenstein. I wanted the Wolf Man, but I don’t know if I got it. That’s where all my disposable cash went.”
A big fan of the ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET monster movies, Dennis revealed that early desires to pretend he was a monster himself laid the foundation of early teen rebellion. “I went into that thing at about 11 years of age where you wanted to be a vampire. I was what would now be a Goth. When you’re not allowed to grow your hair as a form of protest, you turn to the dark arts! I wore capes in my room, and my little vampire teeth, and was into it.” He added, “I never would’ve gone out on Halloween dressed like that, though, because it was too sacred. … It was very important to me at that time.” Dennis wanted to wear a Famous Monsters T-shirt featuring Boris Karloff as Frankenstein in one of the scenes of FADE TO BLACK, but the idea was nixed by the producers, who did not want to clear the rights for it — and for a lot of other iconic cinema imagery that could have enhanced the look and theme of the film. “But I did sneak in a Nosferatu shirt,” he said wryly.
DAILY BATTLES FOR PERFECTION
Making FADE TO BLACK was a physically challenging task for Dennis, who had badly broken his leg just a week after the New York release of BREAKING AWAY and had to wear a state-of-the-art, hinged cast beneath his costumes. But mentally it was far worse. Describing the production as “an uphill battle from the start,” Dennis found himself rewriting the script with director Vernon Zimmerman every night in order to maintain the truth of his character, from the reasons why Binford first throws his aunt Stella (played by former TARZAN star Eve Brent, who won a Saturn award for her performance) down the staircase, to his accidental kill dressed as Dracula, to a private dance with a Marilyn Monroe cardboard cutout that evolved into a more shocking autoerotic act to the screen icon.
“There was very little sleep; a lot seemed to be riding on it,” recalled Dennis. “Irwin Yablans [the executive producer of the film, known for his work on the HALLOWEEN franchise] was my champion, because he wanted to make a really good movie. He was really dedicated to making this a better movie than what was on the page. Vernon seemed to have been beaten down by everyone who wanted to change his script to get it going, and I kept trying to validate his ideas.”
Still, there were many times that Dennis had to pull the “I’m not leaving my Winnebago until I get what I want!” act. “I pushed things through and made things happen that, without a bit of a fight, would never have happened,” said the veteran actor. “And I’m proud of every one of the things I fought for, right down to the way Dracula looked. Right down to The Mummy. They came up with a Mummy suit that [you just stepped into and] zipped up in the back. They delivered it the morning that we shot it because they knew how hard I was being on the costumes. And I said, ‘I’m not doing it. It’s cheesy and it’s awful, and you’re insulting the people that you’re trying to make a movie for.’” Yablans was called in to smooth things over, and he himself couldn’t believe the low quality of the costume. “He sent an assistant out to get 100 rolls of gauze, and for the next three hours, we’re tea-dying gauze in my trailer, and adding flour to make it flake down, and Irwin is wrapping me from the bottom of my feet all the way up as a practical Mummy,” said Dennis with a smile. “We were like kids putting on a show in the garage. But Irwin’s enthusiasm for the truth of the work, even though we were making a horror movie, spurred me on, and we just fed off of each other.”
Dennis was entirely responsible for the decor of Binford’s room, which was plastered floor-to-ceiling with movie pics and memorabilia. Initially, it was decorated solely with three movie posters on the wall, and the star kind of lost his cool when he first laid eyes on it: “I said, ‘That’s it?!? This is the citadel of the boy who lives for the movies. Who LIVES for the movies. Are you serious?’ So I had my assistant go home and get every movie magazine I had, and I cut out all those pictures that you see in the film.” The actor also strategically placed a movie transportation truck dash card with the 20th Century Fox logo on it and the name BAMBINO — the original title of BREAKING AWAY. “That’s why I’m proud of this movie,” he says. “It was a real roll-up-your-sleeves [production].”
CASTING FROM THE PAGES OF PLAYBOY
“They wanted to get the girl that looked like Marilyn Monroe and get her naked, then build around that with a slasher,” said Dennis of the base motivations for the FADE TO BLACK producers. Sultry Australian star Linda Kerridge — a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe — was plucked from the pages of Playboy to play Eric Binford’s muse, and Dennis credits her for suggesting him to be in the film: “That boy from BREAKING AWAY is the one that you should get, love!” he imitated in a high-pitched tone. “She was the best Marilyn that ever has been, anywhere.”
“She was really fabulous to work with,” he remembered. “She was toe-to-toe with me as an actor, and that takes moxie, even though she seems light as a feather. She had gravitas.” Dennis revealed having a relationship with Kerridge, but said that he drew a line once production started in order to concentrate fully on the project: “I loved her. She was a favorite girlfriend of mine. We broke it off. … Then we got to have fun after the movie was over. Went to the Golden Globes for BREAKING AWAY. I took Marilyn Monroe to the Golden Globes!”
Appearing in only his second feature film, Mickey Rourke was also cast as one of Binford’s co-workers/bullies who meets an untimely end, and Dennis said that Rourke refused to die the way his character was scripted: “Mickey came in doing his badass stuff. More handsome a man there never was. He’s great in the movie, but he didn’t want to give it up. He didn’t want to die like a villain.” After trying to convince the renegade actor during rehearsals that there was power available in the way he would die in the scene where Binford guns him down as Hopalong Cassidy, Dennis says Rourke still insisted that he do it “his way”: “He had a scene there that he was too afraid to claim because he wanted to claim strength. Every young actor that thinks he’s a badass goes through it. But when a badass dies ignominiously, there’s a beautiful scene there. Don’t be afraid of it. Take it.”
CHANGING THE AVERAGE ENDING
Yet another change suggested by Dennis would prove to be a monumental improvement to the theme of FADE TO BLACK. “They didn’t know what the ending was going to be; it was supposed to be a shootout at the photo studio, and I said, ‘That’s it? He’s just going to die in a bunch of bullets?’ And they said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ And I said, ‘It’s got to be cinematic! His death has got to be like a movie. He’s got to go to the temple of movies. He’s got to get into the screen somehow and die in a movie, and he knows that the clock is ticking.’ The temple of movies, of course, would be the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where the stars all have their hand and footprints immortalized in cement. But back in the late ‘70s, Hollywood Blvd. was much like Times Square — a haven for prostitution, porn and crime, not tourism. “Nobody really thought of Grauman’s that way, it was so sleazy on the Boulevard, so broken down, and the theater was tattered,” remembered Dennis. “But they let me do it — and Irwin Yablans was the champion that made that happen.” The production closed down that whole section of the Boulevard, and it was a magical sight: “Klieg lights everywhere, extras everywhere, hundreds of people, and me being shot by snipers off the roof while impersonating Jimmy Cagney in that scene from KISS OF DEATH.”
A MISSED-OPPORTUNITY SOUNDTRACK BY BLONDIE
As the producers set out to put together the soundtrack for FADE TO BLACK, Dennis had the brilliant idea to involve the band Blondie and use their haunting new tune “Europa,” the first track on their platinum 1980 album AUTOAMERICAN. “Chris Stein and Debbie Harry have been friends [of mine] for a jillion years. They wanted to do the FADE TO BLACK thing, and I thought it would be a great way for them to earn money by having that song on the soundtrack, or maybe having the first Blondie soundtrack of a movie,” he said. After all, the band’s “Call Me” was a huge hit single from the AMERICAN GIGOLO soundtrack in early 1980, and AUTOAMERICAN had yet to be released to the public. “They’re, like, at the top of their fame, and the first cut on their latest album is an instrumental. It’s just perfect. ‘Europa’ is so achingly beautiful.” Dennis said that Chris and Debbie were excited about the prospect, but the FADE TO BLACK producers once again dragged their feet, intimidated by the perceived uphill battle with the record company to get and pay for the rights. Despite the artist-to-artist enthusiasm to use the song in the first place, Dennis sighed, “I think it was just too much.”
FADE TO BLACK: THE BROADWAY MUSICAL?
Despite the fact that Eric Binford meets his demise at the end of the film, Dennis toyed with the idea of a sequel, and he still thinks that the Blondie connection would be perfect for a reimagining — so much so that he discussed the idea with Chris Stein for a new stage version of FADE TO BLACK on Broadway, reinvented as a musical. “I think it would be a major Broadway hit,” beamed Dennis. “Just think of the unbelievable numbers that could take place. It would be legitimately bringing Marilyn Monroe to Broadway — and monsters! Really glitzy. And with the proper writing, it could have significance on people that can’t be themselves. You could say something present about fame, about idols, about these poor boys that kill people in movie theaters. Movie theaters! It’s just so horrible.”
FADE TO OBSCURITY — AND CULT STATUS
Despite the creative overhaul and working his fingers to the bone to elevate the project, Dennis’ vision of FADE TO BLACK did not fare very well at the American box office. He still scratches his head over why the horror community didn’t even embrace the film at the time of its release. Perhaps America was just not ready to see the dark side of BREAKING AWAY’s happy-go-lucky Dave Stoller so soon. But in Europe, the film was very well received. “It was more popular in France than BREAKING AWAY was,” mused Dennis. “It was called Fondu Au Noir. They’re cinemaniacs there.” And in Italy, he won the Bronze Mask at the Taormina International Film Festival for his turn as Eric Binford. “I guess in Italy, FADE TO BLACK looked like a fabulous foreign movie to them,” he chuckled. “Everywhere else that it went it was a huge success, and I got the recognition every place other than America.”
While The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have completely overlooked the film and his performance, Dennis was nominated for an Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Saturn Award for Best Actor, and the film was nominated for Best Horror Film, among seven total noms in various categories. The film remains a cult favorite and an obvious stepping stone in an extremely diverse career for Dennis, and one that grabbed Quentin Tarantino’s attention back when it first came out. The Oscar-winning director wrote a part in DJANGO UNCHAINED specifically for Dennis, and the actor recalled that their first conversation reminded him a lot of FADE TO BLACK’s central character: “We spoke for three hours non-stop, just about movies and all about every single movie that I’ve ever been in,” he shared. “I said, ‘How do you know about these things?’ He said, ‘I’ve seen every movie that you were ever in the week it came out.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’ He said, ‘Sometimes you had to go the week it came out because it didn’t last long.’ I said, ‘You saw DEAD WOMEN IN LINGERIE?’ He said, ‘Yeah! The movie was awful, but you were great. And why wouldn’t I see DEAD WOMEN IN LINGERIE?’ And I thought, ‘Well, it is Quentin, why wouldn’t he?’ And I said to him, ‘You are Eric Binford! You even have your own movie theater, which is Eric’s dream that he tells Marilyn on the back of the Vespa!’ And he goes, ‘So busted.’”
Reflecting on his long career and the ideas of fame and fantasy examined in FADE TO BLACK, Dennis brought up the fact that he won a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer for BREAKING AWAY: “I thought, ‘How have I fulfilled, or how have I failed at fulfilling, my potential?’ I’ve come to realize that I’ve had a career that’s given me artistic satisfaction, and somehow I’ve been able to remain free to live the life that I want to live. And now I’m appreciating it more and more that I had the kind of freedom that scrutiny does not allow. … It feels like my art is still free. It’s not tied down. And I guess I’m really, really lucky.”
(This article first appeared in Famous Monsters of Filmland issue #282 for the 35th anniversary of FADE TO BLACK)
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