Fade to Black (1980) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • A shy, lonely film buff embarks on a killing spree against those who browbeat and betray him, all the while stalking his idol, a Marilyn Monroe lookalike.

  • Shy, lonely Eric Binford delivers film cassettes and film-related supplies in Los Angeles for a living. But he really exists only to watch movies and immense himself in fantasies about cinematic characters and stars. Frequently bullied and betrayed, Eric comforts himself by pretending to be one of the many tough heroes and villains who have captivated him from the silver screen. However, his sanity takes a turn for the worse and he launches grotesque murders all patterned after characters and incidents from his beloved movies. He becomes known as the Celluloid Killer, one of the most horrifying murderers the city has ever known.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Aunt Stella Binford (Eve Brent Ashe) finds her deceased dance partner's son, Eric Binford (Dennis Christopher), asleep in his bedroom while an old movie blares on the small television. As she wakes him, she complains that he wastes his time watching movies all day and night. Stella is full of regrets that Eric's father broke up her dance team, and that her career was cut short by a car accident that left her legs paralyzed when Eric's babysitter called her away from a party to care for the sickly four-year-old. As they eat breakfast, Stella pushes a stack of Eric's VHS movies off the table, and rages that he should fill his mind with knowledge instead of entertainment. Impersonating James Cagney, the cynical Eric tells Stella she talks too much and that someday she is going to eat her words.

    At Continental Film Services, a film rental company, Morty Berger (Normann Burton), the hostile and boorish boss, yells at Eric for being late, and asks him to make a delivery.

    At a city police station, LAPD Captain Gallagher (James Luisi) meets with psychiatrist Dr. Moriarity (Tim Thomerson) to discuss Moriarity's employment at the station. The cynical and racist Gallagher (whom he annoys Moriarity throughout the film by referring him as "Irish") is openly skeptical that Moriarity's program to rehabilitate juvenile offenders will work, and reminds Moriarity that he has only six months to produce results. Anna (Gwynne Gilford), a more friendly police uniformed officer, shows Moriarity to the basement, where a former drunk tank is his new office.

    As he leaves to make a delivery, Eric bets his co-workers, Richie (Mickey Rourke) and Bart (Hennen Chambers), $20 each that they cannot figure out Rick's full name in the movie Casablanca. Eric says if he loses the bet, he will pay them $50.

    After making the film delivery to a local studio, Eric stops at a diner for lunch where he becomes fascinated by an aspiring Australian-accented platinum blonde model named Marilyn O'Connor (Linda Kerridge), sitting in a booth with her friend, Stacy (Marcie Barkin). Eric imagines Marilyn O'Connor made up to look like Marilyn Monroe, singing 'Happy Birthday'. He tries to impress her with his knowledge of movie trivia, and Marilyn asks him to give her a ride back to work. He leaves her at a skate shop in Venice, California, and they make plans to see a picture at a Westwood movie theater.

    Later, Stella is impressed when Eric cleans his room and dresses smartly for his date. In his best Cary Grant voice, Eric tells Stella his date's name is Marilyn Monroe, and he asks her for some movie money. She agrees in exchange for a back-rub after his return.

    Eric waits in front of Ship's diner and then moves on to the theater but Marilyn never shows. At dinner, Marilyn remembers her date and races off to meet Eric at Ships. Tired of waiting, Eric returns home, and screens a print of 'Kiss Of Death' in the study. Stella knocks on the door, but he ignores her. However, she then opens the door with her key, and delivers an ultimatum. If he does not find something to do besides wasting his time watching movies, he can find himself another place to live. When he tells her she is missing the best part of the film, where actor Richard Widmark pushes an invalid in a wheelchair down the stairs, she knocks the projector to the floor. Then, Stella apologizes, but complains that Eric's bedroom is a mess. He replies that she has ruined his film like she ruins everything, and reenacts the scene from the movie, pushing Stella in her wheelchair down the outdoor staircase, killing her. Afterward, Eric sinks to the bathroom floor, vomiting.

    A few days later, Eric attends Stella's funeral dressed as a 1930s era gangster. At home, Eric burns her health food books in the fireplace. He applies theatrical makeup and dresses as Bela Lugosi in 'Dracula' and watches a horror film, 'Night of the Living Dead', at a theater. Later, he chases after a prostitute, who becomes impaled on a fence.

    At work, Eric tries to collect on the Casablanca bet, but Richie reneges and bullies him. Later that evening, Eric, dressed as Hopalong Cassidy, Eric confronts Richie at a carnival off of the Venice boardwalk, shooting and killing him.

    At the police station the next day, Eric and Bart leave after their interrogations with the police and Dr. Moriarity. Soon after, the hostile Gallagher orders Moriarity not to interfere with his criminal investigation of the cowboy and Dracula killings.

    On the street, Eric gets a ride with an important producer named Gary Bially (Morgan Paull). As they share a marijuana cigarette, Eric pitches a movie idea, and Gary's enthusiasm causes Eric to go home to tell Stella that they will never have to worry about money again as soon as Gary buys his screenplay. Then, he remembers that Stella is dead.

    Later, Eric spends his time buying movie stills, taking photographs at Grauman's Chinese Theater, and watching movies at home. He masturbates to images of Marilyn Monroe and then apologizes to her.

    Another day or two later, the hostile Morty fires Eric for insubordination and stealing the company scooter. When Eric wants to retrieve his rare posters, Morty refuses to let him in the building. At night, Eric returns dressed as "The Mummy," and frightens Morty into having a fatal heart attack.

    Another day later, while at a local appliance store, Eric sees a TV broadcast on one of the many TV sets where Gary takes credit for his movie idea during a television interview. When Eric phones Gary to remind him that the idea came from him, Gary denies knowing Eric, and claims not to accept outside material. Eric dresses as James Cagney, playing Cody Jarrett in 'White Heat', somehow tracks down Gary at a hair salon and sprays him dead with machine gun bullets.

    Meanwhile, at the Venice boardwalk, Marilyn sees an advertisement posted by a photographer looking for a Marilyn Monroe lookalike, and pursues the job. Later, police think Eric is a suspect and search his home, while Gallagher argues with Moriarity that Eric is dangerous. Although Eric has moved out, police confiscate his Polaroid instant snapshots and other items he has left behind.

    That evening, when Stacy drops Marilyn at the photography studio, Eric is the photographer, dressed as Laurence Olivier from 'The Prince and the Showgirl'. Marilyn changes into the showgirl costume, and they drink champagne and dance on an elaborate set. Marilyn says she knows Eric's true identity. Meanwhile, Moriarity and Anna answer a radio call, and discover Eric's photography studio. Eric shoots Moriarity in the leg as he enters, while holding the rookie Anna at bay. Moriarity tries reasoning with Eric, who is completely insane and hostile at this point. Eric runs away, denying he is Eric.

    Soon, Eric and Marilyn head to Hollywood's Chinese Theater. Moriarity follows them inside the theater and urges Eric to release Marilyn, but doing his Cagney impression, Eric refuses to surrender her. While Eric and Marilyn climb to the roof and lock the door behind them, a SWAT team arrives and surrounds the theatre. A marksman ignores Gallagher's orders and shoots Eric in the chest. With a crowd gathering, the angry Gallagher orders Moriarity and Anne removed from the area after they tell him to attempt to talk Eric down from the roof without using lethal force. Gallagher now orders his men to shoot-to-kill when they see Eric again.

    On the roof, Eric pushes Marilyn into the staircase and locks the roof door. He climbs the awning, takes a bow, and the police snipers on the ground shoot him multiple times. With the little strength he has left, he reenacts Cagney dying at the end of 'White Heat'. As more shots ring out, Eric plummets to his death on the pavement below.

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