Although its ads suggest a fairly stylish horror thriller, "Fade to Black" washes out by relying too heavily on assocations from older films. The excerpts from old movies are far more vivid and evocative than the host attraction.
Writer-director Vernon Zimmerman ends up sharing the unhappy fate of his forlorn protagonist, a movie-crazy wimp called Eric Binford who begins knocking off the people who nag or belittle him while he is disguised as characters from the movies.
The role of Eric appears to make demands on Dennis Christopher, the young actor who is ingratiated himself as the lead in "Breaking Away," that he's temperamentally and technically illequipped to satisfy. Although he dresses up as Dracula, Hopalong Cassidy and The Mummy to stalk certain victims, Eric derives overwhelming psychotic inspiration from the behavior of Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in "Kiss of Death" and James Cagney as Cody Jarrett in "White Heat." Eric's first homicide reenacts Tommy's notorious outrage: pushing a crippled woman down a flight of stairs. The victim is Eric's guardian, an embittered aunt who keeps barging into his room, a cluttered sanctuary of movie memorabilia, to remind the boy of what a disappointment he is. When she intrudes once too often, the ensuing murder scene is intercut with the prototype episode from "Kiss of Death."
While the police inexplicably fail to connect auntie's fatal plunge with her nephew's presence in the house, Eric ends up with the law in hot pursuit several homicides later. He makes his last stand atop the Chinese Theater in a sequence intercut with Cagney's infernal send-off atop an oil refinery in "White Heat." There is also a deliberate parody of the shower sequence from "Psycho," ending with a disarming sight gag, but Brian De Palma in "Phantom of the Paradise" and Mel Brooks in "High Anxiety" certainly beat Zimmerman to this particular facetious punch.
Christopher lacks the ear, voice and humorous flamboyance to imitate Widmark and Cagney in their flashier roles. The only effective impersonation is contributed by newcomer Linda Kerridge, a slight platinum blonde from Australia who plays a starlet called Marilyn. Eric, who works as a delivery boy at a film exchange, spots her while stopping for lunch at a diner and immediately fantasizes Marilyn the unknown as Marilyn Monroe. Where impersonation tends to frustrate Christopher, Kerridge seems dramatically improved by it.