Retrospective: A Look Back at One Dark Night

Back in good old ‘81 when slasher flicks were at the peak of their popularity, power and profit, director/co-writer Tom McLoughlin (interview here) chose to jeté out of the herd with this odd little number. It took balls to make a skittish PG-rated spookfest when all distributors cared about were woodsy body counts, but we are talking about McLoughlin – the same gent who dared to poke fun at Jason upon helming Friday VI.

What I adore about One Dark Night (DVD review here) is that it came to play. Though the script intends humor hither and thither, not once does the movie intend self-jabs. Indeed, the film opens on a dark and stormy night, with lightning strikes illuminating a large mausoleum and tombstones keeping each other company in a graveyard. Low bass notes on the soundtrack act pissed at anyone not taking the opening credits seriously.

Before we swan dive into the plot, allow me to share a few thoughts on the film’s opening. It’s true – the best moments in the film, for me, come right off the bat. Immediately after the graveyard shots, we share a brief, ominous flashback with a pretty woman lying in her night-soaked bed before being hazily transported to sunny city streets on a very bad day. A fleet of white County Coroner vans glumly park next to a seedy apartment building where a crowd has gathered. McLoughlin permits us the privilege of listening to radio dispatches betwixt the authorities (“The condition of the apartment is…well…bizarre. It’s a little hard to explain – you have to see it.”), while spectators clamor for a glimpse of whatever unholy business has been conducted inside the complex. Meanwhile, city officials fuel the fire by dutifully swarming into the building and amongst the crowd. All the while, a strange white-haired gent watches from the perimeter, and turns silently to leave as the stretchers are loaded in.

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It is a beautiful moment in horror history. McLoughlin chose to open the film with a wonderfully visually violent contrast: the spooky graveyard where ghosts in sheets may dance gives way to the bitter, stained city streets where most ghosts wouldn’t dare roam. The combination creates a remarkably uneasy atmosphere, and leaves the viewer reeling: what comes next?

Well… High school chicks that jabber about hickies and sport purple customized sisterhood jackets. Lucky for us, one of them is E.G. Daily, who looks at the camera few times. Yeah – these chicks will be around for a while, but then again, they are charming. AND they’re mega-80’s. Like, so 80’s. And if ya dig the 80’s, watch for the shots of youngsters clinging to mammoth arcade games like pre-pubescent barnacles.

All right, let’s brake again for some plot: the aforementioned apartment was that of Raymar – a famed Russian psychic who died of an “apparent heart attack” and left his apartment in a bizarre, body-filled condition. But sweet Raymar wasn’t just a psychic – he was a fucking psychic vampire who can drain you of your energy. Ever had a friend that bitches about how terrible their sex life is, no matter how much you don’t want to hear about it? Drains you, right? That’s Raymar, ‘cept Raymar’ll kill ya. Kill ya good.

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Now Raymar’s to be buried in a large and marvelous mausoleum – but his death doesn’t soothe the weird visions his daughter suffers (even though she’s married to Adam West, in total Adam West-mode). When the young sisterhood decides to put a new member, Julie (Meg Tilly) through an awesomely 80’s high school initiation, the mausoleum becomes Julie’s – and the movie’s – home for the duration.

Yes… Julie must stay the night in the mausoleum with you-know-who-and-whoever-you-know-who-might-resurrect. Some high school letterman-dude-shit breaks up the tension. Where you really wanna be is in that crypt with Julie. She’s there – all by herself – and chances are you’d do exactly what she does: investigate. She wanders the dead palace, from the bright marbled tombs to the chapel to the restrooms, all the while clutching her sleeping bag.

After E.G. bails, the remaining two sisters come in to cruelly prank Julie with fake hands, glop and costumes. To the point that poor Julie is driven to pray in the chapel. Meanwhile, Julie’s boyfriend heads in to save her.

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Some might question the editing decision to cut back to Raymar’s daughter listening to a revealing cassette tape the whole time, but in real time, it could make sense. I guess. Then again, why split hairs when there are supernatural deluxe delights on the way?

That’s right: Raymar’s still got the goods. It is his wish that the rotting corpses of the mausoleum rise from their tombs and scare the shit out the girls. Not to bite them or hurt them or kill them. Just float towards them and freak ‘em out. So shall it be done.

The ghouls that come are so wonderfully haunted-housey that they warm the heart as much as they cool the blood. They hover, their rotted toes tickling the ground as they close in on the squealing girls. It’s like seeing images from some cherished scary story books of your youth coming to life onscreen.

Raymar’s corpse rises from a hot pink-lit coffin, lookin’ like a dehydrated anthology professor with lightning eyes. The other corpses look fantastically gruesome in the most Halloweenesque sense of the word. You will feel like a kid again during this film’s final moments.

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Written by Chris Haberman

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