Undermarked Oversights: One Dark Night (1982)

Never underestimate the simple effectiveness of a horror film's ability to gradually and properly build up its concept. Oftentimes, entries in the genre rush toward the expected scares at such a rapid pace that they neglect how an audience absorbs and processes information, leaving character motivations and the in-universe logic of how the supernatural functions scrambling to catch up. One Dark Night wouldn't be considered a particularly remarkable example of the genre, splicing the old-hat playfulness of sorority hazing with the mystique of psionic electricity and the dead rising from the grave, but writer/director Tom McLoughlin appreciates how the right type of progression and escalation can magnify the supernatural mood. Some iffy ‘80s affectations and a decidedly hollow plot can't detract from the atmosphere generated by the overnight premise and the credible characters, resulting in a slight yet absorbing and mostly convincing jolt of supernatural horror.

Following the reported death of occultist Karl Raymarseivich Raymar, in which several other women were discovered at the crime scene, a funeral takes place at a local mausoleum. On the other side of town, reserved yet growingly adventurous high-schooler Julie (Meg Tilly) has been enduring a battery of obstacles in order to join the "Sisters", a purple-jacket-wearin' clique of girls helmed by Carol (Robin Evans). She fits the stereotype of the sororal ringleader, bubbly yet jealous and petty in her treatment of Julie, which reaches a fever pitch once she discovers her deepening connection with ex-boyfriend Steve (David Mason Daniels). In retaliation, Carol decides that the final step to Julie's initiation will involve spending the night inside the local mausoleum, which … you guessed it, so happens to be the resting place of the recently deceased occultist. Thus, a long evening of growing dread begins for Julie, which intensifies once elements of the paranormal begin to emerge from within the mausoleum.

After setting an eerie tone with the oddities of the murder scene, Tom McLoughlin pumps the brakes on the film's paranormal thrills, directing its attention to the mannerisms of the potential victims and those with connections to the occultist angle. While the daughter of the occultist, Olivia (Melissa Newman), alongside her wary skeptic of a husband (Adam West), gains exposure to the depths of her father's research and capabilities -- the words "psychic vampires" come up at one point -- the story focuses on layers of justification for the high-school kids to act in the ways they do, a tricky thing since so many horror scenarios can get dismissed simply by them being the product of poor or out-of-character choices. Julie's motivations for wanting to join the Sisters at any cost and Carol's spurned malice toward her make plenty of sense, and it's because writer/director McLoughlin insistently emphasizes the state of their decision-making through passably sincere teenage drama. By the time Julie rolls up to the cemetery in the car with the "sisters", it makes sense.

Inside the mausoleum, One Dark Night takes a largely hands-off approach to the inherently gloomy atmosphere of the thick black-and-white marble and lengthy echoic hallways, gradually enhanced by cracks forming in walls and dimming lights that worsen as the evening goes on. McLoughlin wants this to initially feel like a real night stuck in the creepy building, and the stillness in the air while Julie explores her surroundings achieves that effect, with only the knowledge of the occultist's burial place closing in on her as a terrifying factor. The pacing could've taken a hit while she wanders through the mausoleum -- and, granted, it still does to a degree -- but McLoughlin helps that along by revealing Olivia's discoveries about her father at the same time. What does impact the intensity of the thrills is the unnecessary usage of hallucinatory drugs, which casts doubts on the validity of certain imagery and contrives subplot elements that conveniently assist the story in dire situations later on.

Immersed in pink lighting and eerie shadows leading into the increasingly dangerous corridors, One Dark Night eventually arrives at the point where it transforms the mausoleum from a psychologically taxing maze into an outright house of horrors. Sharp practical effects generate bolts of lightning, decaying flesh, and floating bodies that culminate into a wild climax for the clues and buildup throughout the film, though the scale remains comparatively small and confined to the location and the specific evening. The steadiness and restraint of McLoughlin's buildup also translates to the caliber of its thrills, though: regardless of the impressive low-budget construction providing macabre eye candy, the scares themselves end up low-key, anticlimactic, and too neatly wrapped-up once all's said and done. For its duration, however, One Dark Night lures those watching into a distinctly pragmatic yet entrancing atmosphere that, unlike many contemporary horror flops, puts ambient due diligence above hasty shock value with an agenda.

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