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Friday, April 3, 2020

The Quatermass Xperiment



The Quatermass Xperiment (aka The Creeping Unknown)
1955
Val Guest

A rocket crashes in the middle of a farm somewhere in rural England. The rocket belongs to one Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy), a cranky rocket scientist. Two of the three astronauts who were supposed to be on board are missing and the one survivor, Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth) isn’t looking too good. While Quatermass and his team try to uncover what happened to the missing astronauts, Victor is snuck out of the hospital by his wife. Quatermass discovers that Victor isn’t Victor at all, he is an organism that has hollowed out that man and is now loose and looking to spread itself across the world.

Those going into the Quatermass Xperiment expecting Bernard Quatermass to be a kindly eccentric British scientist (ala Doctor Who) are in for a shock. Professor Quatermass is brusque and rude but driven. He does show concern for people in danger and expresses regret at deaths but these moments are fleeting and soon enough he’s back to working on the problem. It is a surprising portrayal for a lead character, his personality has no soft edges. The problem comes from there being no real sympathetic characters in the film. The closest comes in the form of astronaut Victor Carroon, who at least shows moments of hesitation or pity for his actions but at the same time, he is something quite inhuman. I think a stronger script could have played off the coldness of Quartermass and the dwindling humanity of Carroon to great effect.

"Oh him? Yeah, he's fine."
The Quatermass Xperiment is a slow procedural film, so if you are expecting some prime 1950s era kitsch, there isn’t much of that here. There are a lot of lengthy talking scenes of scientists figuring out the mystery at hand. Much of this is a holdover from its source material the original Quatermass Experiment (1953) a six-episode series broadcast by the BBC, which would have necessitated limited locations and plenty of dialogue. The film compresses the story greatly and makes a few minor changes, but somehow doesn’t increase the pace.

The special effects are few in this film, but it uses what it has effectively. The two most striking are the gaunt Carroon with his deformed hand and the massive tentacled monster at the climax. Both are kept out of sight until they can achieve maximum impact and it does wonders for the air of doom that hangs over the entirety of the story. For all its pacing and character issues, this movie makes its horror trappings work transforming it into one of the great early Horror-SF hybrids.

"NO, REALLY, I'M FINE!"
There is nothing whizbang about The Quatermass Xperiment, it treats its characters and its subject with gravitas. There is some amusement to be found in just how big a jerk Quatermass himself can be, but it is almost never played for deliberate laughs. This is a serious film hiding under the guise of another monster from space romp and it is the start of a trilogy of films that get better with each incarnation.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Sons of Steel


Sons of Steel
1989
Gary L. Keady

Black Alice (Rob Hartley) is the lead singer of a metal band and a well known anti-nuclear activist. After getting tangled up with a lot of people who don’t particularly like him or his message, they trap him in a hologram. A wandering barbarian couple accidentally releases him from his prison over a century later. Now with only ten hours to live Black Alice must find a way back to his time and he must prevent the nuclear accident that turns the future into the desolate wasteland it is.

"He said hold the mayo."
Sons of Steel embraces a similar gutter cyberpunk aesthetic to Max Headroom (1985), Cherry 2000 (1987) and Tetsuo the Iron Man (1992). High technology exists but it appears to be made out of scraps of old material and machines adapted to a new use. Costuming is the same, people often wear a mishmash of looks and outfits. The end effect creates a chaotic visual hodgepodge that reflects an equally chaotic world teetering on (and eventually falling into) oblivion. The plot itself just barely holds on to any coherence. All of this is strung together by the unusually charismatic lead performance of Rob Hartley as Black Alice.

This is Hartley’s movie, he’s in virtually every scene. Black Alice is a diminutive yet completely ripped lead singer of a metal band also called Black Alice (his band in real life). He's a pacifist (at first) anti-nuclear activist but that doesn’t stop him from daydreaming about gunning down people who annoy him. Did I mention Sons of Steel is also a musical? Black Alice launches into a number of metal ballads throughout the film and they are all pretty great, often adding an amusing and on occasion melancholy note to the scene.

The Cybermen strike!
The plot moves quickly and at first, I felt lost but as things rolled on I realized it doesn’t matter. This is a film where the details are really secondary to the feeling of future shock, amusement, and horror. Sons of Steel even comments on its own disposable story in its final moments as Black Alice rewrites the end of the movie just because he can. Even the power of the narrative is subject to his whims.  With that in mind, it is difficult to feel there is anything at stake here. Even with the threat of nuclear annihilation and a barbaric future, Black Alice is all but invincible. It does let you sit back and enjoy the mayhem but the cost is that it makes the film feel slight.
I went into Sons of Steel completely unaware of what it was about. I understood it was Australian and post-apocalyptic but that only really scratches the surface of this musical cyberpunk fantasy that includes robots, barbarians, and nuclear annihilation. It is a truly bizarre little film and one that begs to have a larger cult following. Check it out before the post-nuclear barbarian riddled hellscape claims us all.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Biohazard


Biohazard
1985
Fred Olen Ray

A group of soldiers and scientists gather at a remote location to witness a “psychic materialization” courtesy of a scientist and his subject, Lisa Martyn (Angelique Pettyjohn), who has been given a drug to stimulate her psychic powers. She manages to make a small box appear out of nowhere. The military takes the box for study. On the way to a base, the box opens to reveal a small blue monster that embarks on a murder spree. Mitchell Carter (William Fair) teams up with Lisa to try and figure out where the monster is and how to stop it before it kills more people.

Among Biohazard’s many charms is its monster, credited as The Bio Monster and played by director Fred Olen Ray’s son Christopher Ray who was 8 at the time. So, while the cover might convince you that a hulking beast will be stalking its prey the reality is that it's a kid doing his best ‘arms out monster acting.’ I can even imagine him saying “rawr” as he attacks. The counterpoint to this is that actual attacks are quite gruesome with plenty of blood and slime. If the blood and gore don’t keep this from being a goofy family monster movie, there is also some nudity thrown in from Angelique Pettyjohn and Carroll Borland.

"Ask if I can just show the delivery driver my tits instead of paying them a tip."
Plotwise, Biohazard doesn’t have much going on. Initially, the idea of a psychic pulling an object from another dimension is interesting and the opening does have some fun parallels to Terror from the Year 5000 (1958), but after that, the story is largely dropped for some traditional stalk and slash scenes. The plot is finally picked up again in the finale but it is a little too late to have much narrative impact (or least the kind you might expect, see below for further details.)

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my favorite thing about Biohazard which is its final moment. If you don’t wish to be spoiled, just stop here and go watch it. It is a breezy and silly science-fiction horror film that encapsulates the great things about the home video boom of the 1980s.

So cute!
The final scene of Biohazard sees Lisa reveal she is a being from another dimension there to test out one of their race's soldiers on a trial run before an invasion. She then rips her face off to reveal a slimy hand puppet underneath. Mitchell stands there dumbfounded and then… stops the movie. He makes a cutting motion and ends the whole film. It’s a great moment that took me by surprise and was such a fun way to short circuit the usual rote denouement in a typical alien invasion movie. It retroactively makes everything that went on before even more fun. Biohazard continues with some bloopers interspaced with the credits while a rock-a-billy song plays. Fred Olen Ray knows Biohazard is silly fun and he’s willing to play it straight until the last possible moment.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Alien Lover



Alien Lover
1975
Lela Swift

Alien Lover is a telefilm that was presented on ABC as part of the series, The Wide World of Mystery. The series often featured conventional and supernatural mystery stories, but science-fiction was less common. Alien Lover is even rarer in that tosses in a healthy dose of horror into the mix creating an unsettling little hidden gem.

Kate Mulgrew plays Susan, an orphaned teenager who has suffered some mental illness in her recent past. She has come to stay with her aunt and uncle. Almost immediately she starts hearing a voice whispering her name. Unsure if she relapsing back into illness or not she searches around the house until she finds a strange-looking television in the attic. She turns it on and sees a man who calls himself Marc (John Ventantonio). Marc claims he is not a human but in fact a being from another dimension. Susan fights with herself over what is real or not, but the fact is, she is falling in love with Marc.

No, I'm not married, baby, I'm uh... from another dimension.
Perhaps it is the low resolution of 1970s television or the cramped and often gloomy interiors of the house but Alien Lover manages to create a very eerie atmosphere. Also of note, is the soap opera-like staging of the story which creates another level of unreality that helps bring home the undercurrent of horror. The video effects surround Marc during his broadcast have not aged well but the final imagery I found delightfully unnerving. If online reviews are to be believed, it seared itself into the mind of many teenagers who stayed up to watch it.

Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek Voyager and Orange is the New Black fame makes her first on-screen appearance here and she’s already great. Susan is sympathetic and we get a very clear understanding of her need to be wanted and her inability to trust her own senses. If you had to pick a platonic ideal of ‘New Age Looking Guy from the 1970s’ Marc would fit the bill complete with a leotard and questionable haircut. I’m normally not one to really criticize a movie for looking like the era in which it was made, but Marc's appearance is the only thing that doesn't really hold up over the years.

Animal lovers, I wouldn't get too attached to that cat.
The writing for Alien Lover is quite strong, creating a situation that is indeed slowly escalating but you aren’t really sure where it is heading. The first two acts are languidly paced but I found myself enjoying the sparse yet troubled atmosphere. The third act really brings it together with some plot developments that not only address why an alien would appear on an old television but also begin to signal that there is a real danger here and the characters are either unable or unwilling to see it.

Alien Lover is a low-key yet very satisfying bit of horror-SF ephemera that still manages to convey both surprise and horror in its brief runtime. The complete film is available on Youtube and I would recommend it to anyone who likes the aesthetics of 1970s television or weird TV movies in general.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Evil Spawn


Evil Spawn
1987
Kenneth J. Hall, Ted Newsom

A scientist working on microbes from space is murdered by his assistant Evelyn Avery (Dawn Wildsmith) when she releases an alien creature. She then proceeds to take the microbes and give them to an actress that she is obsessed with, Lynn Roman (Bobbie Bresee). Lynn finds her acting career drying up as she is aging, but when a mysterious woman appears offering her an injection that can make her younger, how can she possibly say no?

"The hair is still good though, right?"
At its core, Evil Spawn is basically a remake of The Wasp Woman (1959) with a lot more nudity and gore. Taking the way traditional feminine beauty is weaponized against women and turning it around into a source of horror is a commentary that is still relevant today. Where Wasp Woman lays the blame at the feet of the beauty industry, Evil Spawn takes aim at Hollywood’s obsession with youth. I think it’s a credit to the writing that this element is taken seriously in an otherwise knowingly camp movie. Lynn’s anxieties as an aging star inform all her actions and even though it causes her to behave in cruel and petty ways, her reasoning is always clear.

Surrounding this core message is a whole lot of silliness. We meet John Carradine in a brief role with the most casual death ever put to film, and Dawn Wildsmith’s Evelyn Avery is sinister and unhinged but sadly exits the film far too early. There are also some delightful rubber puppets, monster suits, and plenty of blood. Evil Spawn is a great goopy monster film from the tail end of the golden age of low budget monster movie video rentals.

Everyone likes heads scritches.
The whole set-up of the film involves a microbe from space that is kept in a storage locker(?). Except it’s not a microbe so much as it is a spider the size of a small dog. None of this actually matters as the goal of the film is to get Lynn Roman injecting those space microbes to turn her into a creature. Almost the entirety of the film takes place at her house and it is here that the film had an opportunity to take its one location and make it feel small and isolated as Lynn’s downward career and recent monster problem isolate her. Instead, the very limited locations just feel like it was just what the directors had access to and that gives the production an unfortunate cheapness.

Evil Spawn is very aware of how cheap it is, taking a few shots at low budget horror movies enlisting washed-up actors mere moments after having John Carradine recite a few lines and then promptly die. This mixture of serious and ridiculous really keeps the spark of fun alive in Evil Spawn, you can enjoy it as a monster movie and you can enjoy it a (mostly) straight forward horror film.

Friday, February 28, 2020

Star Crystal


Star Crystal
1986
Lance Lindsay

For the record, I am a fan of big tonal changes in films. When handled deftly they can be an exciting and energizing way to keep a story fresh. Something Wild (1986) is possibly the most well-crafted example that comes to mind, a wacky manic-pixie dream girl comedy that turns deadly serious in its third act. A big change in tone creates a sense of unpredictability. Comedies are generally consequence-free but what if suddenly that changes? The viewer is left unguarded. Handled poorly, the tonal whiplash can wreck a film diminishing its separate elements in the process. So, what happens when your Alien (1979) turns into E.T. (1982) and you bungle the whole thing?

You get Star Crystal.

Star Crystal opens with a couple of astronauts in extremely cheap space suits wandering around a red-filtered landscape. They find an egg buried in the ground and drag it back to their space station. The egg hatches to reveal a crystal and a tiny slimy monster. A while later another group boards only to find the oxygen running out on the station and they escape before it mysteriously explodes. The alien sneaks onboard and then goes about killing crew members one by one in gruesome fashion at least until it reads the Bible…

Me in the winter before putting any lotion on.
So yeah, Star Crystal starts out like any other Alien rip-off, dark corridors, slime, horrible deaths, and plenty of inter crew tension. The movie makes some attempt to give the space crew some personality, but they all seem unusually crabby at one another, which might be realistic for people in a tense and hopeless situation, but it doesn’t make for good viewing. Thankfully they all die relatively early. It seems like the movie is burning through crew members quickly, we are down to the obvious final couple by the half-way point. Then we are treated to a scene of the alien “Gar” looking up the Bible on a computer and learning the error of his ways. The movie takes a huge shift here as Gar and the survivors become friends, work together, and play chess. The whole thing culminates with a syrupy ballad called ‘Crystal of a Star.’

The Radioactive Testiculon of Altair 4!
The second half of Star Crystal is a complete mess, but I will give it credit for going full-on with both its horror and with fluffy E.T. elements. This is not a film that does anything subtle, blood splashes and people become heartfelt space buddies with equal intensity. The change over from one mood to another never connects, no one really seems to care that most of the crew and hundreds of people on the space station are now dead and that leaves the more hopeful elements feeling hollow. The final capper is the end credits song. It needs to be heard to be believed.

So, what I’m saying is that the movie is a colossal mess and a complete failure, but I love its earnestness and its attempt to weld two completely different kinds of stories together. There are dozens of Alien rip-offs in the world but not one as completely off the rails as Star Crystal.


Friday, February 21, 2020

Greener Grass


Greener Grass
2019
Jocelyn DeBoer, Dawn Luebbe

Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) is happily married to her husband Nick (Beck Bennett) and is best friends with Lisa (Dawn Lubbe). While they are attending their children's soccer game, Lisa takes a liking to Jill’s baby. Lisa gives Jill the baby to keep and begins a spiraling deconstruction of her identity that will lead to everything she was being taken away from her.

At a surface glance, Greener Grass feels like a feature-length version of the short films that Adult Swim often airs, or, if you’re feeling cruel, a really long Skittles commercial. The film posits a nonsense world where off-kilter people and things just exist without explanation and the denizens (mostly) just accept this weirdo life as it comes to them. This bright and airy existence floats over an underside that is much more sinister and only half-seen. Its menace bleeds through, especially as the story reaches the closest approximation is has to a climax.

I hope you like teeth and mouths and spit and needlenose pliers in your movies.
Visually the film is bright with mostly sunlit scenes and bold oversaturated colors. The clothing and interiors have a distinct mid-1980’s vibe to them. All of our characters are affluent and well-conditioned to conform. Everyone seems to be very wary of falling out of step with their friends and neighbors. The twist is, they are all terrible at keeping up the status quo. Everyone seems prone to just make decisions on a momentary whim, none more so than Jill who just gives away her infant daughter to her friend in the opening scene. To be fair, It would be hard not to just act without thinking in a world where children turn into dogs, everyone wears braces, and a murderous grocery store bagger is on the loose.

The overwhelming interpersonal competitions and the sunlit world of Greener Grass creates a suffocating pressure and the majority of the film is watching that pressure ultimately crack Jill wide-open, drive her to extremes, and in a final triumph of true horror, not allow her to escape. If I had to compare this film to any other it most reminds me of Midsommar (2019) with its oppressive brightness, building dread, and distrust of a community that ultimately crushes our hero and subsumes her into the collective. The main difference is that one has people getting their head smushed in with a hammer and the other has a man obsessed with drinking pool water.
Honestly, this movie would not be a terrible sequel to The Foot Fist Way (2006)
The most difficult element of Greener Grass as a viewer is trying to become invested in the plot or any of the primary characters when their world defies applying any real sense or logic to it. Eventually, things take shape as we watch everything Jill has stripped away from her over the course of the movie, but more often than not it is her own doing, she decides to give her baby away on a whim, she decides to divorce her husband at the merest mention of it from a friend, she abandons her entire identity when an angry woman claims it. From all this comes a harrowing darkness in the third act that leads up directly back into a similar scene that started the film. Jill has been through hell and looks it, but her world has not changed one bit.