Apologist films: Color of Night

I won’t pretend that this will catch on like those darling AV Club lists, and I resist doing it because of the similarity. But: a friend suggested I try this and I cannot deny it sounds catchy. It’s a complete coincidence – I’m sure – that my recent subject matter all centers on Bruce Willis, therapy, the Oscars.


Do I enjoy Color of Night..? That almost misses the point. As a writer, maybe I just see Color of Night as some Wiseau-like aberration, a mutant offspring you can’t resist scrutinizing before purging wholly from memory. Actually, it’s probably one of the few places where my masochism plays uninterrupted by company or guilt.

Hungarian-American super producer, Michael G. Vajna

Hungarian-American super producer, Michael G. Vajna

To understand where this film comes from, first attempt to inhabit the mind of Hungarian-American film producer Michael G. Vajna. Because this is a script somebody had to love, a film somebody desperately wanted made. Wikipedia tells me he started out as a hairdresser in Hong Kong, which sounds so contrived it begins to explain the projects Vajna would champion:

  • First Blood (1982)
  • Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)
  • Angel Heart (1987) (personal favorite)
  • Rambo III (1988)
  • Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
  • Total Recall (1990) (and that’s only two of five in 1990)
  • Basic Instinct (1992)
  • Tombstone (1993)
  • Color of Night (1994)
  • Nixon (1995)
  • Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995)
  • Evita (1996)
  • Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
  • Basic Instinct 2 (2006)
  • Terminator Salvation (2009)

It’s plainly evident that the Aughts were a rougher time for Vajna, filled with desperate efforts to maintain his former lucked-in glory.  This was one ambitious man, and that’s only taking into consideration what I listed above – in between those toes are entire fungoid ecosystems of action-packed, muscular-male-centric thrillers.  So we’ll start thinking of Mr. Vajna as a Greco-Roman type… Gaudy Gracchus.  I would love to imply that Color of Night is the fruit of these rutting peccadillos, Vajna’s thoughts on his own emotional life and the role of a woman in that prurient paperback of his mind… but that credit I am going to allot to the film’s screenwriter, who wanted to get something hysterical out of his system. This project came from a very emotional man.

Screenwriter Billy Ray

Screenwriter Billy Ray

His name is Billy Ray and – wouldn’t you know it? – he’s back in the public eye, today. He wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games. In between he wrote the horrendous Volcano (1997), some Willis film nobody cares about called Hart’s War, and – this interests me greatly – the intriguing little E. Elias Mehrige project and bizarre studio picture, Suspect Zero. When you find out your film was written by the Color of Night scribe, you know you’re getting something special. Some of us love to roll around in… well, ourselves, and those in therapy are distinctly susceptible. A therapy narrative, above all else, is tricky business – tricky to make us give a damn.

The film’s got a welcome cast of reliable 90’s b-listers including Scott Bakula, Kevin J. O’Connor, Brad Dourif, Lesley Ann Warren, Lance Henriksen and Rubén Blades. Spritely female lead Jane March does not quite factor into that list as nobody has spotted her since. Yes, alas, like the much loved Brigitte Bako, her name was only heard in the 90s. Miss March, born in 73, was discovered first alongside Chinese star Tony Leung in 1992’s The Lover and was typecast by Mr. Vajna.

Singer-songwriter Lauren Christy, from the music video for "The Color of the Night"

Singer-songwriter Lauren Christy, from the music video “The Color of the Night”

The film’s theme song, The Color of the Night sung by Lauren Christy, is a horny young woman’s swan song of supplication and tantrum, her passion cresting and crashing with generous usage of the cymbals. All she wants is to do is see him in the light, but he, he, hides behind the color of the night. It is however possible that he just likes to bang you, and not to stick around for the conversation – just listen to what spills out.

Director Richard Rush allegedly directing Brad Dourif

Director Richard Rush allegedly directing Brad Dourif

It’s funny, but the film’s actual director came to me only as an afterthought. After making a number of films in the 60’s Richard Rush would direct The Stunt Man in 1980 and then disappear from the radar for 14 years before making Color of Night. I’m less interested in Rush and Color of Night‘s direction than I am in how such a film ever came to be.

Here we go. Color of Night in pristine blu-ray quality.

A curious logo. We miss you.

Erotic softcore sax for a film they’d like to pitch as a major studio production, the first and immediate sign that something’s wrong, and that we’re entering a paperback. Strange, synthy scoring for the film was done by 63 year old Dominic Frontiere, and marked the end of his long career.

Who hasn’t been here? The emotional pitch of each character invariably reaches a similar hysterical level, all springing from the same source.

Nothing out of place here.

An ecstatic Eff You to NYC and the east coast.
Isn’t that awful? The blood looks totally fake!

Therapy à duex. It’s not the sock mix-up which is strange, but the fact that he had solid green and solid red socks in the same drawer as the rest, apparently in total disarray.

And here again, such hideous colors to look at. The costume designer was Jacqueline G. Arthur (one protuberant deli sandwich of a name) who served as an assistant costume designer on the worst 90’s Willis films, interestingly: Die Hard 2, Hudson Hawk, The Last Boy Scout.

An uncommonly brutal, Argento-ish death for Bakula – the human cost of hysteria and, it seems, ‘gender coercion.’ The spotlight shifts from Moore to Bill Capa at the Beverly Hills Police Department.

There is a pronounced undercurrent of hatred for the professions of psychiatry and psychology; it is mocked as a ‘religion,’ detective Blades has a pathological disrespect for therapy and the ‘fucking daffodils’ who use it, Capa is wracked with guilt over its efficacy and the lingering guilt of failing a patient – and then that whole business of obsessing over your shrink, murdering your shrink. It’s simply seen as making oneself vulnerable to another, being made to feel humiliated, and lashing out – an inherently youthful or childlike act. Our subject, Richie, was born “in the back of a van on the way to a Grateful Dead concert” – the worst place imaginable in this universe. Brother Dale claims Richie was “sold into psycho-servitude” – now that’s one overt association. And it is Dale’s profound despising of psychologists which motivates the film’s murders, Dale and Richie having been molested as children by the depraved Doctor Niedelmeyer. My point, if I have one, is that this is a story about an obsession with therapy and with a therapist, penetrator of minds and bodies, and, shall we say, emotional exhibitionism.
Oh, by the way, she’s 21, 5’2″, 100 lbs, he’s 39, 5’11½, 200 lbs (I had recently screened Silver Linings Playbook, and to give you a mildly nauseating sense of perspective, consider that Bradley Cooper was 39 and Jennifer Lawrence was 21 when that was filmed.  Then compare their dynamic/relationship to March & Willis). That’s two films in a row for her about sexual obsessions with older men. In 1998 she plays a North Korean spy. In 2010, a homicidal PA on a film set. Proclivities include Asian men, it would seem.
Suffer, shrink!
God, green and red do not go together. This, bizarrely enough, is that last time in the film that I know of where this color combination exists. Nice hi-tops.
Dale Dexter’s furniture office, conveniently located inside the creepy abandoned Paradox Ironworks.
Niedelmeyer molestation victim #2, Dale Dexter (Andrew Lowery), hating the hell out of shrinks. “One of you’s the same as another.” With their prying eyes!
The camera inanely reframes to… the stony-eyed spectre of the sadistic Doctor Niedelmeyer! His sins live on!
We are most lucky to have O’Connor. We like him lots.
Here Dr. Capa, very heartfelt and vulnerable, tells Rose, “In the What-I-Wait-For-Department… you’re it.”
So this means the doctor’s adobe is in the uppoermost part of Hollywood, in the hills near the sign.
Lesley Ann Warren – heavily made-up throughout this film.. – actually does an excellent job reading some implausible clichéd lines, repeating “You’re lying!” and going from laughter to befuddlement to rage through a few deliveries. Plenty of other actresses wouldn’t have pulled this off as believably as she does.
Capa’s personal shrink, Dr. Ashland, happens to be in town for the Psychiatric Convention. The film is, at least, a bit playful…
“Bill: salmon swim upstream to mate, and then die. And so do men.”
This time it’s for keeps.
Easily the most pointless and implausible event in the film, and correspondingly the studio’s 2nd biggest money shot.
Here Capa goes all Mike Hammer on worn old Mrs. Niedelmeyer – though it looks an awful lot like he’s dancing with her.
He pushes, and pushes! Those vile violating shrinks!
The camera’s next inane reframing centers on… I suppose this is meant to be Dale? The Beast?
The synth keyboard throbs as the camera is distracted by Jesus and his pierced palms.
Course immediately after Jesus the camera lingers on little fella.
Dale’s rather flamboyant inner sanctum.
Hope you like batshit finales.
Boy, again with Jesus and the nail. What precisely are we trying to evoke here?
It is difficult to conceive, but Capa does find himself forced into this position. Efficiently, like a steer.
And of course, now we’ve got this shrink right where we want him.
Nice place for a spotlight that you’re strolling into there, Dale.
Rose spirals into madness during her suicidal tear atop the tower of Paradox Ironworks.
The knight in shining armor to save you from yourself.
Do you usually find ornate gothic architecture on industrial property? Perhaps these bad boys were installed by the mad Dale Dexter.
Well, that is simply not Bruce Willis…
There was a great deal of a difficulty, vitriol… but psychology wins us over in the end. To save us from ourselves.
Blades even lands a final line of terrible dialogue as the last title of the credits is shown, ultimately a kind of cartoony “That’s all, folks!” Well, it was Buena Vista.

Referring to the film as “memorably bizarre,” Janet Maslin in her August 19, 1994 New York Times review wrote: “The enthusiastically nutty Color of Night has the single-mindedness of a bad dream and about as much reliance on everyday logic.” She also cited the revelation of the murderer, “whose disguise won’t fool anyone, anywhere.”

Siskel & Ebert television review

I don’t know if I’ll be doing another one of these. I feel ashamed.

written by David Ashley


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