‘The Black Hole’ (1979) Review

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We’re doing Disney this month at SAW, and that’s a bit of a pickle for me. Not because I don’t like Disney – I love Disney films and shows, I grew up on ’em. No, it’s a problem because Disney doesn’t do horror movies. And, you know, *waves vaguely at the Fear Flashback tag*.

That’s not to say Disney doesn’t do fear, though. There are plenty of frightening things in Disney movies when you think about them -Bambi’s mother, Pleasure Island in Pinocchio, “A Night on Bald Mountain” in Fantasia – there’s almost always something in even the most innocuous Disney movie that’ll leave a mark, even if it’s in the background, like the shadow of Clayton hanging in Tarzan. It’s just that they don’t really make movies whose whole point is to scare. (Except the once – and we’ll probably review The Watcher in the Woods at some point this month.)

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So knowing that there’s a dearth of horror to choose from in the Disney catalog I decided to focus on films with a darker tone, a spooky atmosphere or movies that just gave me a bit of a chill as a kid. I’ve got a handful to choose from already, but I’m honestly hoping to hear from YOU folks about what Disney films scared you, or jumped you or gave you the creeps. The animated skeletons in The Black Cauldron? Scar and Mufasa in The Lion King? Those freaky seagulls in Finding Nemo? (“MINE” gah!) Let me know in the comments – maybe I’ll end up watching your picks instead!

But first, we’re going to watch one of my favorite failures of all time, a science fiction film with a definite horror tinge, Disney’s first PG rated movie – The Black Hole.

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“The most destructive force – in the universe, Harry. Nothing can escape it, not even light.”

I don’t remember exactly when I watched The Black Hole for the first time. I have a vague memory of the overture – the opening piece of music before the start of the film – so it’s possible that I even saw it in the theater. I do remember loving it. I was young enough to dig both the goofy robots and the spooky ship design, to want to play the laser shooting game and shudder at the black hole effects. It wasn’t Star Wars and it wasn’t 2001, but it was a damn good time and I liked the music, the effects, the ships and the sets. I desperately wanted the Cygnus X-1 model kit by MPC, though I guarantee you I would have glued my hands to it and it would have ended up half-done in a closet somewhere with airplane glue fingerprints all over it. I think I did end up with some of the trading cards.

I watched the movie a lot in the 80’s – it seemed to end up on TV at least a couple of times a year – and I would be glued to the screen every time. Yes, there are goofy chunks to the film – those robots in particular (though I’ll always be partial to a robot named Bob) – but it was the more horror-adjacent elements that stuck in my brain. The first long pass of the Cygnus, looking like a haunted cathedral floating in space. The swirling black hole itself, growling like a monster on the soundtrack. That epic, bombastic score by John Barry. The terrible secret of the ‘robot’ crew.

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The Black Hole wasn’t available on home video for a long time, but when I saw a DVD in the early ’00s I bought it. That was the Anchor Bay release (yeah, there was a time when Disney allowed other companies to do releases of their films) and it had both a wide-screen and full-screen presentation as ‘extras.’ Watching it again I was struck by how much less scary it was than my memory, how static and cheap some of it looks – more like an episode of Battlestar Galactica than a big-budget movie. The robots – particularly the ‘game’ sequence – are even more goofy than I remembered, with those big eyes and out-sized personalities.

I still loved it, though. And the scary parts are still scary.

The Medium
I watched The Black Hole on Disney+. As I mentioned,  I do have an old DVD of the film, but the opportunity to watch it in HD was too great to pass up. Disney offers a bare-bones Blu-ray through their Disney Movie Club as well. In addition to Disney+ the movie is available for rent/purchase at most of the online streaming places.

The Movie
After the overture – for a long time The Black Hole was the last feature film to have one – John Barry’s score starts up. It’s an immediately recognizable piece of music that manages to be both epic and a touch haunting . I remember as a kid discovering that you could make the same twisting tube of congregating lines that forms the background of the credits and spent hours at my kitchen table with a ruler, trying to recreate the graphics (a triumph of CGI at the time).

We’re then introduced to the Palomino spacecraft and her crew – scientists Alex Durant (Anthony Perkins) and Kate Macrea (Yvette Mimieux), Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) and First Officer Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms), journalist Harry Booth (Ernest Borgnine) and a robot, V.I.N.C.E.N.T. (voiced by Roddy McDowell). They’re on their way back from a deep space exploration mission when they discover a massive black hole – and another ship parked in stationary orbit far too close to the monstrous celestial phenomena.

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Sure, it’s dated now – but I love that the movie at least attempts  to be accurate with physics. The Palomino has no artificial gravity and they only find the uncharted black hole by its affect on their course. They need to worry about fuel and oxygen. I even love the various ship designs they scroll through trying to identify the mysterious ship – at least some of them based on actual proposed spacecraft designs. Yes, they have floating robots that can be contacted by ESP and laser guns – but there’s at least a nod to scientific accuracy with some elements.

You know what feels the most dated to me at this point? The idea that they’d have a journalist on board. Now they’d have everyone do ‘video diaries’ or have Vincent (I’m not writing out the acronym every time) be recording.

The black hole itself is still an outstanding and horrifying effect – it’s what I think of when I read about black holes, even though it’s probably nothing like how an actual black hole would look. Between that huge maelstrom and the eerie, darkened Cygnus – a fantastic and brooding conglomeration of glass and black girders that evokes the feeling of a skeletal cathedral – the movie definitely gives off some horror vibes. (I recently learned that the design of the Cygnus is partially based on Victorian conservatories – which just cements my opinion that the Victorians were some creepy freaks.)

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After a disastrous flyby in which the Palomino is damaged after leaving the safety of the Cygnus‘ gravity dampening field, the crew is able to board (after an fantastic sequence of the Cygnus lighting up). They’re disarmed by a crew of menacing robots and brought to the bridge where they finally meet the only living crew member of the Cygnus, Captain Hans Reinhardt (Maximilian Schell). The Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues references are numerous and blatant, but Schell is a massive personality and dominates all of his scenes, so you forgive them. Reinhardt explains that the ship was damaged and that he had sent the crew home – though Kate’s father, his right-hand man, had chosen to stay only to perish later. He now depends on a robot crew, including a menacing, blood-red robot called Maximillian. His plan is to take his ship through the black hole – and he invites the Palomino crew to record this epic journey for posterity.

Reinhardt is all kinds of dodgy, of course, and part of the film involves Harry and the others trying to figure out exactly HOW dodgy he is. (The answer: VERY.) Meanwhile Alex engages in hero worship, Vincent engages in robot shootouts, and Kate almost gets lobotomized when we discover just what’s behind the reflective faces of the robot crew. (And those scenes with the crew and Kate’s rescue add to the movies horror bonofides).

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Once things go pear shaped and Reinhardt launches the ship towards the black hole we move into disaster movie mode, with the Palomino crew trying to escape while meteors bombard the ship. Poor Alex is eviscerated by Maximillian in a scene that is no less horrifying for the fact that we see no blood at all. A scene involving a massive meteor rolling along the superstructure of the ship as our heroes attempt to escape still thrills, even if it’s a little obviously a projection.

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The ending is a bit disappointing, but that’s what happens when you start a story not having one. Director Gary Nelson hoped they’d figure something out as they went along – and the metaphysical space-warp we get (with visions of hell and angels) is the result. It’s unsatisfying, but it could be worse. That scene with Reinhardt trapped inside Maximillion’s shell in a Goethe vision of hell is pretty damn terrifying.

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Though there was never an official sequel, there WAS a comic book called Beyond the Black Hole. I’ve never seen it, but a scene involving the Palomino crew and a dinosaur always tweaks my imagination. Did they travel across the universe, or did they travel through time to a primordial earth? I haven’t tracked it down to find out!

The Bottom Line
The Black Hole is a weird conglomeration of disaster movie, space epic, horror film and kid-friendly Disney pablum. It’s a Frankenstein film and shouldn’t work – and for many people it may not. For me, however, it maintains both a level of nostalgic charm and still manages to creep and horrify. Worth it for epic music, awesome set design, moments of terror and an overall gothic mood. And I know the robots are goofy. I don’t care.

Though if you’re in the mood for a similar look/feel and more horror you can’t go wrong with Event Horizon – something I think of as The Black Hole‘s dark sister film.

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Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.