A police officer suspects that a local husband and father who has recently undergone facial surgery because of injuries received in a car accident is in reality the same man who committed a quadruple murder several years before
Director: Douglas Hickox
Starring: Keith Carradine, Kathleen Quinlan and Richard Widmark
Blackout is an unusual film. It has many flaws, but strangely, they feel less inherent and more inflicted upon the film in an effort to subdue its primary appeal. Why anyone would do this is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the prospect of a relatable mass murderer was a concept the studios were not altogether comfortable with, back in the 80s. Or perhaps it was just a result of lack of confidence. Whatever the reasoning, there is a brilliant film in here somewhere, that feels like an overall fumble.
A young man (Carradine) wakes up in a hospital bed, his face utterly disfigured and with no recollection of who he is after a horrific car crash. With the kind help of his beautiful nurse, Chris (Quinlan), he eventually gets his life back on track, assuming the persona of Allen Devlin, who was confirmed as being in the car that crashed. Years later, however, a retired Joe Steiner arrives at his door step, believing that Devlin is in fact a vicious murderer…
The concept itself has massive potential. An amnesiac who may, or may not, have been a murderer prior to his accident can be approached from any number of angles. It’s the sort of plot that you’d find David Fincher attracted to. As a character study, it could even be Kubrick worthy. And Hickox certainly attempts to approach it with this level of complexity, at least initially.
He takes a smart approach, giving us as little information on the murderer as possible, but still taking his time for long enough in order to instil an atmosphere of dread. We follow the unfortunate neighbour as she discovers the massacre that was his latest killing spree in a manner that is reminiscent of the opening of John Carpenter’s Halloween. It’s a nice slow burn, which foreshadows the pacing of the film to come.
Once we’ve seen what this killer is capable of, there is a rapid switch to his escape, which is then interrupted by the Accident only minutes later. The hook is in the fact that the Accident involved two men. One lives and one dies. The man who lives cannot remember anything of his life before. Or at least, he claims not to. There is a constant shadow of doubt regarding his identity, as his features are utterly malformed following the crash.
Is he the killer?
If he is, does he actually have amnesia?
Is his newfound love and her family simply a convenient way to hide from the law?
Or is he actually a changed man?
…..is it possible for wild accusations and self doubt to actually create such a deranged individual?
These are the questions that Hickox poses towards the audience. Keith Carradine is well cast as Devlin, as he can veer from charming and likable to intensely unsettling with ease. It has that A History of Violence ambiguity to it that makes it wonderfully gripping, arousing curiosity as to how it can possible end. And while the result is less satisfying than one might like, his performance remains impressive throughout.
Nicely balancing his conflicted and vulnerable victim is the Columbo-esque, whiskey swigging, retired Steiner. His calm demeanour expresses an air of certainty that makes the outcome seem very one-sided. He is an easy hero to side with, his conflict with the killer far more interesting with his character as a whole.
It’s a slow burning character study/whodunit, which feels more intelligent than actually it is. The good largely outweighs the bad. There are still lulls in the action and a great deal of muddled exposition. Many of these mistakes are forgivable, even the lingering presence of boom mikes in two separate scenes is dismissible (albeit massively unprofessional).
As a thriller, it isn’t particularly intense, but it does allow for one of the creepier phone calls heard in most horror films. It all builds up at such a leisurely pace, an absolute belter of an ending feels guaranteed. Sadly, instead of a bang, it fizzles with all the enthusiasm of a slowly deflating balloon.
It’s not even morbidly disappointing. It just comes across as bland and vanilla when you consider what could have been. And it will be inevitable to consider what could have been, when so much potential has been teased up to this point. In the hands of someone more prone to taking risks, this could have been a real smash hit. However, it bears the unmistakable fingerprints of someone who is taking only frustratingly short baby steps with his work.
Consider if you were offered the choice between, say, a bowl of muck and a delicious chocolate pudding with a muck centre.
In such a scenario, one would do well to consider the following:
1. A bowl of muck is nearly always identifiable as a bowl of muck.
2. Even if not, few people will finish a bowl of muck after the first bite.
2. And it doesn’t matter if it was the greatest chocolate pudding you’ve ever tasted, you will always, always, resent it for having a muck centre, far more than you would ever resent a simple bowl of mud.