Arena (1988)

Arena (1989)

For a thousand years no human has been the champion. He wants to be the first.

An intergalactic fighting competition between different worlds has never been won by a human before due to the much larger and stronger aliens that compete. So when human Steve Armstrong falls foul of the corrupt promoter Rogor as he tries to earn money to return to Earth, he must compete in the tournament and attempt to overthrow the system.

 

Cheesy and mildly entertaining, Arena is a bizarre mish-mash of Rocky and Star Wars which tries its hardest to defy its low budget and prove that you don’t really need millions of dollars to make a convincing science fiction film. It nearly manages to achieve its goal. Where else can you see some sort of UFC-throwdown between a human and a giant slug-like alien?

Arena is nowhere near as exciting as it appears to be – it’s a low budget production which spends most of its cash in the fight scenes and so has to make up ground elsewhere. Cue lots of padding between the fights as Steve Armstrong works his way up from nowhere to fight the champion ala Rocky. The story isn’t as riveting as it could be and there’s a predictable narrative which allows Armstrong to win a few and then fall foul of the scheming Rogor. You’ll know how it all ends up and there are boxing flick clichés to write a book about here but it’s not that bad a journey to get there. Arena is rarely dull, though at times it pushes the boundaries a little bit, but you wouldn’t exactly call this a ‘lively’ film and at 115 minutes long, it’s got far too much filler than necessary. There are some amusing moments but it is never outright camp. Arena finds itself trying to corner a niche market that doesn’t exist.

The real joy to Arena lies in seeing how a bunch of filmmakers, evidently without a massive pot of money to dive into, rely on old fashioned techniques to really bring to life this alien universe that the film tries to convey. Think back to Mos Eisley in Star Wars, the first real time we saw a living, breathing intergalactic universe all come under one roof, with fleeting glimpses of multitude of alien creatures and cultures giving us the tiniest suggestions of each of the races on show. Arena does just as good a job as that in showcasing all manner of giant beasts and aggressive competitors to the fighting competition. The fights themselves are dated, hardly slug-fests like Apollo Creed versus Rocky Balboa, but do the job in conveying the brutality of this sport. Particularly pleasing is the fact that the stunt men do get down and dirty with the fisticuffs and wrestling and everything you see is real, rather than CGI’d in a later date.

Credit goes to the effects department who piece together a whole low budget world of unusual aliens with different masks, costumes and even various added appendages. Most of the aliens are just guys in latex masks but one or two of the monsters that Armstrong has to fight are animatronic models which look amazing. It’s really heartening to see a production put so much effort into making everything look as good as possible, despite the obvious limitations. Whilst the costumes may look the part, the rest of the effects in the film don’t look that impressive. The sparsely decorated and overly-used sets are way too small to convey the sense of futuristic scope I’m guessing the director was going for and look like they were made for an old science fiction TV series rather than a full blown film. The outer space shots of the station and various ships flying around look awful too. There’s no mistaking that this is an 80s science fiction film!

The cast is solid. Lead man Paul Satterfield is the weakest link, relying on his tall and muscular physique to sell the part rather than any real acting ability. He looks and sounds like some drugged-up version of Christopher Reeve and spends most of the film fighting in some terrible jock strap-like combat tights. Satterfield’s bland performance is sort of like a black hole of charisma, forcing those around him to appear worse than there are. It’s no coincidence that the film is better when he’s not around, or failing that, talking. Claudia Christian (of Babylon 5 fame) attempts to provide the sexual attraction and is far better than the material she’s given. The bad guys are the ones who have all of the fun and it’s nice to see future Star Trek alumni Marc Alaimo (who went on to play Gul Dukat in Deep Space Nine) and Armin Shimmerman (most famous as the Ferengi bartender Quark in Deep Space Nine as well) ham it up in villainous roles – well it’s nice to see them under copious amounts of latex as per usual. Having watched Alaimo on Deep Space Nine, the man is a great actor, particularly good at roles like this where he is required to emote under layers of make-up.

 

So that’s the 80s nugget that is Arena. It’s nowhere nearly as good as you’d hope it is but you’ll have a hard time hating it. Providing perfect low budget, no frills sci-fi action nonsense with no real pretensions of grandeur, it’s a decent timewaster and, in all honesty, does deserve a bit more fame than it has for the great array of practical make-up effects on show.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Live Feed (2006)

Live Feed (2006)

They will all pay the price…

Five friends on a trip in China decide to visit a seedy porno theatre after a night out drinking. One of the couples in the group heads off to a private room for some quality alone time whilst the other three friends explore the theatre. However, the night soon turns sour when the couple are locked in their room and realise that they’re being filmed. It turns out that the theatre is a front for a Chinese businessman who loves watching people being tortured and killed and the Americans are now next on the list.

 

It was only a matter of time before people started jumping aboard the Hostel bandwagon and here we have one of the most blatant and pointless knock-offs doing the rounds in the aftermath. Live Feed is a badly acted, laughably shot and weakly executed excuse for a horror flick. The sweet cover box with the rather large chap in surgeon’s attire hides a multitude of sins which are evident from the get go and despite a mildly entertaining ‘all hell breaks loose’ couple of minutes in the middle, the film is a drawn-out drag of boredom. Though director/writer Ryan Nicholson apparently wrote this before Eli Roth’s Hostel came out, the fact that this is sold in the manner it is and was released shortly afterwards clearly tells me that the studio were cashing in, even if Nicholson wasn’t. Sorry to say it Mr Nicholson but someone beat you to the chase.

I’m trying to not to be too harsh on Live Feed because everyone has obviously got decent intentions to make a good flick and I’ll applaud that. It’s just that the outcome is like sitting through the painful efforts of a media college student putting together their first major project. The script is dire and already within the opening ten minutes, not only are you reaching for the mute button but you’re hoping that all of the cast meet their demises at the hands of the big guy on the front cover….sooner rather than later I might add. Living up to the obnoxious American tourist stereotype has never been easier! The actors are bad. The characters they are playing are obnoxious. So give me a reason why I should care about any of them? They disengage the audience from the film within the first few minutes of being on screen, meaning the wait until their demise is long and arduous.

The porno theatre setting is decent. It already looks like the cesspit of humanity when the tourists enter with filthy bathrooms and disgusting bedrooms – dimly lit, sparsely furnished and a wizened old guy hiding in the booth at the door. It’s certainly not the place you want to be at the best of times, let alone having some big guy butchering you and your friends. But the setting is rather wasted when the tourists are confined to the same one or two rooms for most of the film.

Production values aren’t this film’s strong point. From the cinematography (everything seems so grainy and dark) to the sets themselves and the make-up effects, it’s clear that the budget was blown on getting someone to design a kick-ass DVD cover. They certainly didn’t blow the cash on the cast, no doubt friends of the director he roped in to helping him on the sly. The copious use of neon lights to backlight the sets adds to the garish nature of the film – this was filmed inside a legitimate pornographic cinema after it closed every night.

Being torture porn central, Live Feed’s clear selling point is going to be how far it can push the boundaries of Hostel and Saw. The gore is plentiful, if totally over-used at times. I love bloodbaths in films but when the subject matter is really about torture, I’d rather see a bit of torturing and pain – things that Hostel managed to do well (the cutting of the Achilles tendons for example). Some form of suffering that you could associate yourself with the victim. You can’t associate with someone getting their head chopped off but I bet you could feel the pain yourself if you watched someone on film be stabbed in the leg or chest. Here, there is blood spurting out from everywhere and at all times. Great streams of blood spurt out at high-pressure. When gore is this plentiful, the film should have been a comedy or spoof. But it’s all played out straight which is the sad thing and the weak practical effects are only good for laughs rather than scares. There’s also a scene in this film involving a snake and a glass tube which is clearly added for shock value and little else (body physics alone would have seen the snake die a horrible death in the victim’s stomach but hey, it looked good, didn’t it?)

 

If you want some really low budget, sleazy gore then Live Feed will be right up your street. But it’s all hollow, meaningless and uninspired torture porn with no real substance to it – these films only work if you can empathise with at least one of the victims and feel what they’re going through. In my opinion, this is one live feed that should have been pulled.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Alien 2: On Earth (1980)

Alien 2: On Earth (1980)

After a space capsule returns without its compliment of astronauts and only strange blue rocks in their place, psychic cave explorer Thelma receives one such similar rock as a gift from a friend. Taking it with her on a spelunking trip into underground caves, Thelma and her friends soon realise that the rocks are host to alien lifeforms. Once hatched, it appears that mankind is no longer the dominating force on Earth.

 

Ah the good old Italians and their shameless exploitation. During the late 70s and early 80s, Italian cinema saw an explosion of films ‘loosely based’ on successful American films – by ‘loosely based’ I mean these films were billed as ‘sequels’ to US blockbusters (like Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters, which was marketed as a sequel to Dawn of the Dead, released as Zombi in Italy – confused?). These unauthorised sequels drew the ire of Hollywood but, in the case of Alien 2: On Earth, where Ridley Scott’s seminal classic Alien was the target, the courts actually decided in favour of the Italians due to some obscure 1930s book called Alien and the inability of anyone to trademark the Alien name at that point. It’s a good job that we film buffs can distinguish the difference between a true sequel (Aliens) and a dodgy hack-job cash-in like this! Think of The Asylum or SyFy and the sort of terrible cash-ins they release today like War of the Worlds 2: The Next Wave or Titanic II (yes that does exist!) to give you a flavour of what these older films were like.

Alien 2: On Earth is terrible. There’s no sugar-coating the issue. Even as a failed ‘sequel’ it doesn’t even attempt to make any connections to Ridley Scott’s film – I’m assuming the opening shots of the astronaut landing on Earth are meant to be Ripley and the emergency shuttle from Alien? Who knows because there are so many ideas floating around in the first fifteen minutes that it’s almost impossible to get the gist of what is happening. As well as the space landing, we’re introduced to a psychic spelunker (the main character) who foresees lots of doom and then a kid finds a rock on the beach which can explode and melt away faces. It’s a trying time to sit through and Alien 2: On Earth trudges its way slowly along, without any real focal point, and clearly just padding out a lot of screen time before the alien finally appears.

Thankfully, the low budget doesn’t really show that much once the action switches the caves. There is a decent amount of suspense created with the minimal use of lighting in the dark caverns and, coupled with the use of the lamps on the characters’ helmets, the cinematography works better than it should do. Though nowhere near the same level of sophisticated or claustrophobic underground terror, these scenes reminded me of The Descent. I’m not sure whether they filmed on a set or real caves but it’s a credit to the film that the difference is hard to tell. Even if they’re not being attacked, there is still something unsettling and nervy about these scenes underground.

It’s in these caves where the alien finally starts to do what all sci-fi horror film aliens have to do and that’s pick off the cast. With about thirty minutes to go, Alien 2: On Earth does wield out the big guns in the form of its gory set pieces. The one trump card that the film has going for it is the practical gore effects. But if you go onto Youtube and search for the trailer, you’ll pretty much see everything in that and save you the job of sitting through the rest of the film. There’s a head explosion, melted faces, an eye-bursting moment, a gruesome internal beheading and people being crushed inside rocks. Throw in almost a full can of red paint for added effect and its decent stuff but really not worth the wait if you watch the trailer first.

The other disappointing thing is the actual title beast. The alien is never really seen in any specific appearance and seems to have multiple forms depending on the situation. Is there more than one alien? Do they come in different types? Rocks come to life to kill people. There are small flying worm-like creatures. The alien has the ability to control human bodies and make their heads explode. Then in the final scenes of the film, we get an alien POV where it appears to be some form of messy blob-like substance. As no explanation is given to the alien at any point, we’re left a little baffled as to the creature’s true appearance.

 

Alien 2: On Earth packages everything together with a creepy synth soundtrack which, coupled with the underground cinematography and borderline nasty gore scenes, do offer some moments of genre delight. However the continually-telegraphed scares, the ultra-low budget which forces the decent stuff to be put on the back burner in favour of time-consuming stock footage and conversation-heavy scenes, and general sense of ‘what the hell is going on?’ doesn’t allow Alien 2: On Earth to be anything but a long-forgotten footnote in Italian horror history. If you’re going to pretend that you’re a sequel to one of the greatest sci-fi horror films ever made, at least make an effort!

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆