Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 28: One Dark Night (1983).
One Dark Night is a movie with an identity problem—but an identity problem that actually works in its favor. The film bears all the hallmarks of early-’80s horror but is also clearly inspired by the Gothic horror tradition. This cinematic schizophrenia is exemplified by a screenplay that revels in rather violent shifts in tone and style, from boardwalk bumper cars to ornate mausoleum corridors, to create a unique stylistic fusion that could be describes as … I don’t know … ’80s Gothic?
The story concerns a teen “good girl” who wants to join a clique of not-so-good girls called The Sisters. Before officially joining The Sisters, Julie (the “good girl”) has to spend a night alone in a mausoleum. Unbeknownst to Julie and The Sisters, a Russian occultist/telekinetically gifted psychopath was interred in that very mausoleum earlier that very day … so … horrific shenanigans are just bound to ensue. The primary characters are straightforward ’80s teen-horror stereotypes (the “good girl,” the bitchy/sexy antagonist, the snotty girls who blindly follow the bitchy/sexy girl, and the hunky jock boyfriend with a heart of gold) whose converging storylines play out in a setting steeped in the iconography of Gothic horror cinema (coffins, candles, shadowy corridors, well-tended cemetery grounds).
This juxtaposition of ’80s-style teen-horror imagery and Gothic horror imagery is also made evident in the film’s production design and sound design. The kinetic/sonic chaos and flashing, multicolored madness of an ’80s video arcade is complemented by the overt stillness of a somber funeral scene set amid a muted visual landscape populated by mourners respectfully clad in black. Likewise, screaming teens in a speeding car with the radio volume maxed-out counterpoises the quiet echoing of light footfalls on the percussive floor of a mausoleum hallway, which in turn amplifies the fear-induced, labored breathing of a solitary teen surrounded by—literally—the stillness of the grave.
It’s also worth mentioning that One Dark Night is reminiscent of both ’80s horror and Gothic horror in terms of adult content, or, in this case, the lack of adult content. Despite the inclusion of numerous ’80s horror tropes, including too many story and character cliché’s to enumerate here, One Dark Night is, unlike virtually all of its contemporaries, a mostly bloodless, nudity-free, totally sexless film. Even the use of profanity is ratcheted way, way down. (In one scene, the bitchy/sexy girl refers to someone as a “turkey.”) Even during the climactic final 20 minutes, when coffins start popping open and dead bodies become featured players, the film never turns ghastly. There are no decapitations or disembowelments; no arterial spurting, no protruding shards of exposed bone. Instead, the final horrific rampage features flickering candles, swirling spirals of smoke and dust, and a recurring, strangely ethereal pink light—all of which is distinctly (and intentionally) Gothic. And it all works relatively well.
While the film’s unconventional mix of contrasting styles suggests innovation, the story and the characters offer absolutely nothing new. The idea of forcing (character name here) to spend a night alone in (name of spooky location here) in order to (win a contest/appease a blackmailer/pass a rite of initiation) is a narrative construct that has been repeated ad nauseam and needs to be put down like a wounded animal. As for the characters … Well, let’s just say that One Dark Night trades in character types rather than actual characters. We have “good” characters that we are supposed to like and “bad” characters that we are supposed to dislike. Actually, there is one exception. One of the bitchy/sexy girl’s friends has a change of heart and decides not to participate in the tormenting of the film’s “good girl” protagonist. However, this change-of-heart character is also a bit of a horror cliché, and when this moment of reconsideration occurs it is in no way revelatory.
Nonetheless, One Dark Night is a solid, entertaining movie with a truly interesting visual style and a finale that should satisfy most true horror fans, even those who will likely be irritated by the film’s deliberate pacing and slowly evolving narrative.