Tag Aliens

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon (1997)

Infinite space. Infinite terror.

When the Event Horizon, a spaceship lost for seven years while exploring the boundaries of the solar system, suddenly reappears, a rescue ship is sent to search for survivors and find out what happened to her. After an accidental explosion renders their own ship unusable, the crew has no choice but to board the Event Horizon and attempt to pilot her back to Earth. However, the crew begin to experience strange hallucinations and through slowly piecing together what happened to the original crew, they realise that they are about to share the same hellish fate.

 

What if? That’s the big question on my lips having watched Event Horizon and realising that it was brimming with unfulfilled potential. A big budget b-movie is basically what this is, with the lavish special effects and star-studded cast adding some glossy sheen to what is essentially a ‘haunted house in space’ story. But considering just what this film went through, it is amazing we get something even half as entertaining as the final product is.

When Paramount realised Titanic would not meet its release date, filming and editing on Event Horizon was rushed through to fill the gap in the schedules and allow the studio to make the most of the free slot. Usually films get a ten week editing period after filming for the director to produce a first cut of the film but this was shortened to six weeks for Event Horizon, with Anderson having to shoot a further two weeks with the second unit effectively meaning he had one month to come up with a coherent and workable print. The original 130-minute cut of the film was heavily edited at the demand of the studio after test audiences apparently fainted during some scenes, with the extreme amount of gore being something Paramount deemed unacceptable and the excessive run time too long. To his dismay, Anderson trimmed out thirty minutes worth of footage, a decision he has since said he regrets, in order to meet their demands. So all in all, from being given the green-light to total completion, the film took ten months to make, a staggeringly short time for such a complex and effects-driven film and the end result is the potentially brilliant but ultimately flawed Event Horizon.

Things start off well enough, the script creating a genuine sense of foreboding and imminent danger as the crew arrive on the Horizon and began fathoming out just what went wrong. There are shades of Alien at this point, with an expendable crew of varied stereotyped characters responding to a distress call and going investigating something they’re not fully educated in. But the script manages to avoid too many clichés at this point – not going along the obvious space-monster-on-the-loose route for a start. The quality ensemble cast with Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, Jason Isaacs and more adds plenty of depth to the characters during the earlier running time. Neill has always been grossly underrated as an actor and delivers another quality performance throughout. Fishburne channels his inner Morpheus here a few years before The Matrix. They all do a decent job of portraying the effects of the psychological horror and the mind games that the ship has on them.

Despite a really strong opening half that promises a lot, Event Horizon quickly degenerates into an exercise of style over substance and falls into the clichés it was trying to steer clear of – flashy special effects and gratuitous gore are substituted in as the script begins to stutter and the direction becomes muddled. The story doesn’t do anything with the concept of Hell once it is unleashed, simply replacing the traditional monster-on-the-loose approach with characters meeting demonic demises at the hands of unseen supernatural forces. There is plenty of hellish imagery on screen which is more reminiscent of the Cenobites’ domain in Hellraiser than anything else – I quite expected Pinhead to waltz out from the shadows at one point and start preaching to the survivors (ironically, the Hellraiser series had already sent Pinhead into space the year before with Hellraiser: Bloodline). The make-up effects on show for some of the mutilated corpses are superb and give the audience a glimpse of just what Anderson had to cut out – it’s a brief glimpse into the nightmarish Lovecraftian vision that Anderson originally had for the film which was canned for its lack of broad appeal. Coincidentally though, it’s around this point in the film where the slow-burn psychological horror that had been building is jettisoned and it soon becomes more standard issue horror. This is probably where a sharper, more focused script from pre-production would have come in handy and any kinks ironed out before filming began. Disappointingly, the finale is your run-of-the-mill protagonist vs antagonist showdown which didn’t appear to be on the cards early on.

One aspect of the film which can’t be faulted is the superb production design and special effects, which add a whole level of scariness themselves. The Event Horizon herself is a mesmerising Gothic construction, modelled on the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, with its long, darkened corridors resembling a church nave at night and the warp drive core looking like something out of a medieval torture chamber, with a rotating black sphere in the middle. Despite the vastness of the ship, it has an unnerving claustrophobia to it – you just want to get off as soon as you can. The exterior shots of the ship, silently and majestically gliding along through space, are wonderful at both highlighting the beauty of the ship but also its eeriness and dark side. The ship isn’t the only fancy effect though. The opening rotational shot which pulls out from the space station overlooking Earth took nearly a third of the film’s visual effects budget, but every single penny is up there on the screen. Event Horizon is without question one of the best-looking films of its kind and the effects not only look wonderful, but allow the Horizon to become a character herself.

 

Despite borrowing heavily from the likes of Alien, The Shining and Hellraiser, Event Horizon is one of the best marriages of science fiction and horror going and is certainly an entertaining and chilling watch for most of the duration. Given its difficult production, Event Horizon is way better than it has any right to be although the tantalising glimpses into Anderson’s original vision offer the missing pieces of the puzzle which could have turned this into a grade A classic.

 

 ★★★★★★★☆☆☆ 

 

 

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

You’ll never close your eyes again.

When chemist Elizabeth Driscoll confides in her colleague Matthew that her boyfriend seems to have changed, he advises her to visit one of his friends, a psychologist named David Kibner. Kibner believes that Elizabeth doesn’t realise that her relationship is falling apart due to modern society’s stresses. But as more people they know start to become cold and distant towards each other, they discover that something more sinister is at work. Spores from outer space have landed on Earth and are perfectly replicating humans without anyone realising.

 

The original 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a landmark classic in its own right, served to portray a contemporary society which feared the breakdown of the cosy small-town American way of life and its traditional conservative values into something more alien (and Russian, as the case was during the early days of the Cold War and fears of Communist usurpation in the West). Twenty-two years later, those fears have now been realised in this remake. America had massively urbanised, had lost the cosy sense of safety that everybody knew everybody else, and society had become distant and cold to each other as a result of individual self-drive and ambition. It wasn’t about what you could do for your country anymore, but what you could do for yourself. People had become so self-absorbed that they failed to notice things from the past that had been the very fabric and essence of early twentieth century life. These changing times are reflected perfectly in this updated version of the story, a rare instance where a remake not only builds upon the themes of the original but surpasses them. Back then, people could recognise change and do something about it – here, society is changing under their very noses, but their new way of life doesn’t allow them to see it until it’s too late.

It’s this sense of being slowly consumed by an unseen enemy and being powerless to stop it that Invasion of the Body Snatchers masterfully conveys. The film isn’t in your face. It isn’t loud. Nor is it really that exciting. It’s grim. It’s bleak. Its unrelenting. The film lures you in, not even with a false sense of security, but an overwhelming claustrophobia and ominous foreboding. There’s an element of resignation from the characters as they’re facing a losing battle and the net begins to tighten around them. You’ll question your own sanity, your own identity and your own mortality many times before this one is over. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an experience like no other film I’ve watched. It’s deeply troubling and unsettling, but at the same time you know full-well you’re in the hands of some amazing craftsmen who are manipulating your every thought. Direction. Script. Cinematography. The score. The cast. It’s almost an impenetrable assault on your subliminal senses from all angles, right from the opening scene up until the infamous final shot.

Cinematographer Michael Chapman deserves so much praise for the way he lights the film or doesn’t light it. There’s lots of shadows, darkness and silhouettes, creating an unsettling film noir intensity which constantly hides or reveals minor details in the background. Director Philip Kaufman made the decision to shoot a lot of the film from weird angles too, making sure his audience is never settled, always making sure they’re on-the-edge, always looking out for something. Characters are lit in dim blue lights, are seen through the fisheye lens of a door peephole or reflected in warped mirrors. It’s eerie beyond belief to catch glimpses of random people standing on the street staring at the characters from the corner of the frame. In one superb shot, we watch as an emotionless neighbour sweeps up some grey dust and deposits it in a garbage truck. It’s only later on that we realise the dust was actually the remains of his human self. It’s a chilling moment – one of many subtle nuances Invasion of the Body Snatchers puts in front of the audience to build up the big picture. This invasion is widespread and it’s unstoppable and the mastery behind the camera ensures that this is as disconcerting for the audience as it is for the characters.

Despite the strong cast, at no point do you sit and see the actors themselves but rather the characters they’re playing. Donald Sutherland, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, Brooke Adams and Leonard Nimoy all manage to create natural, multi-layered characters which is so important for later in the film when people begin succumbing to the pods – these aliens can’t replicate emotions . Sutherland owns the screen whenever he’s around, whilst Goldblum shows early signs of the hyperactive nervous delivery that he became known for. Nimoy, in particular, is a curious choice for the character he plays. Most famous the world over as the stoic and honourable Spock from Star Trek, Nimoy’s turn as the high-profile celebrity psychiatrist gives us a glimpse of a sinister edge he rarely showed on the big screen. The casting choice of one of the most popular and recognisable faces of the 60s gives the film the smart opportunity to really play upon audience expectations: if Spock is powerless to stop the pods, what hope does humanity have? In an amusing cameo, star of the original Kevin McCarthy pops up and shouts his infamous line.

This being the late 70s, special effects have come a long way since the 50s and so the actual sequences of being replicated are a lot more vivid and nightmarish to really draw out audience fears of being silently killed. Two sequences stand out – Goldblum’s encounter inside a spa where a nearly-finished duplicate lies on a slab next to him and the scene where the four humans are sleeping outside, only to realise they’re all slowly being replicated by hidden pods around them, spine-chilling fetuses writhing around on the floor coming to life. A combination of fantastic prosthetics, lots of goo and slime, and some stomach-wrenching sound effects really convey this sort of duplication process like few other films have managed to. As I’ve already mentioned, the resulting pile of dust left behind that was the real person is an utterly terrifying prospect.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers release at the end of the 70s kick-started a wave of 50s films being remade over the next decade: The Thing, The Fly, The Blob and Invaders From Mars all found new life in the 1980s with modernising, some more so than others. I’d argue that all of them were better than their originals by a country mile. Something that can’t be said much nowadays about remakes.

 

A cutting-edge sci-fi masterpiece of fear and paranoia, Invasion of the Body Snatchers slowly draws you in to its web of suspicion, begins to suffocate you once you’re in too far and will linger long in the mind after viewing. There are few films that are constantly this grim and downbeat and leave such a lasting impression – it’s virtually flawless. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is as essential a film I’m ever going to recommend on this site.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)

In Space No One Can Eat Ice Cream!

Mike and Debbie, a pair of young lovers, decide to follow a shooting star that has landed outside of their hometown and they discover a mysterious circus tent in the middle of the woods. Exploring inside, they find dead people hanging in what looks like candy floss cocoons and sinister clown-looking aliens walking around.  Rushing in to town to alert the local police, they are frustrated when no one believes them and thinks it’s a prank. They don’t realise that the clowns have followed them into town.

 

An affectionate throwback to the 50s sci-fi flicks of the past that used to be shown in drive-ins (The Blob immediately springs to mind), Killer Klowns from Outer Space has garnered one of the biggest cult followings known. And there’s a good reason for that. For all its silliness and ridiculousness, it’s one of the most creative horror-comedies to come out of the 80s and certainly something that you’ll not likely to see replicated any time soon. This is a film which does anything and everything it can to live up to the promise of its title, a true labour of love from its directing team.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space is the perfect example of a film which exists solely based on its central idea. Everything you can associate with clowns and the circus is brought to life and twisted into all manner of horrific forms – balloon animals come to life, pieces of popcorn are eggs for clown-headed snake monsters, cream pies are laced with acid, Punch and Judy shows take on sinister new meanings, giant shadow puppets eat spectators and the clowns make human ventriloquist dummies. It’s a film full of wacky and kooky ideas and your enjoyment of the film will depend on whether you can suspend your disbelief for a while and enjoy the sheer creativity on display. The film doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to delivering on the absurd premise – these are aliens that just so happen to look like clowns after all. But for each of the bad taste kills, there is a nightmarish quality that lies under the surface once we find out just why the aliens have landed on Earth.

The plot is structured exactly the same way as those 50s sci-fi films, where the young heroes discover a threat, try to warn the adults, are ignored and then have to save the day when the threat comes to town. Of course, the audience are in on the act from the start as we see exactly what Mike and Debbie have uncovered but the dramatic irony is that no one else believes them for the stupidity of the story they appear to be concocting. Killer Klowns From Outer Space is extremely pacey and the klowns are on the screen right from the early going – no slow reveals here. The narrative can sometimes be too dependent on the loose collection of kill scenes and klown set pieces strung together, but it doesn’t really need to be doing anything overly dramatic. Simplicity is the key here.

The Chiodo Brothers were known for their effects work so it’s no surprise to see that the film’s strengths lie in the production values, the sets, the make-up and, of course, the special effects. With a low budget, the Chiodos know how to get maximum mileage from the tools at their disposal. Apart from some obvious miniature and composition work during the finale with Klownzilla, the special effects generally hold up. The ray guns that turn people into the cocoons are a simple effect and the spaceship itself looks decent as it takes off. The sets are colourful and wacky, like you’d get in some Halloween haunted house attraction, and really add to the aesthetics. Literally everything you seen on the screen to do with the klowns has been designed to perfection. It’s attention to detail on a grand scale.

But the undoubted stars of the show are the ‘klowns’ themselves. Believe me, if you ever had Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) then you’ll want to stay well clear of this one as these creatures are terrifying. The demonic rubber masks give them human qualities, with just the right amount of Otherworldliness – you know these chaps aren’t local lads from Barnums! Generally tall and imposing, with huge red noses, sharp animalistic teeth and hairdos which must have taken ages to style properly, give the clowns a menacing physical presence despite the cartoonish appearance. The costumes look fantastic too and during the finale you really get to see just how many variations with both make-up and costumes they created for the film.

The cast isn’t particularly brilliant – both Grant Camer and Suzanne Snyder were hardly ever going to make it big after this but their relationship on-screen is good enough to pass muster. Likewise, for the annoying comic relief sidekicks Michael Siegel and Peter Licassi, though most of their irritability comes from the script trying to make them funny rather than anything they do personally. It’s veteran hand John Vernon who steals the show as grouchy Officer Mooney, the old-fashioned cop who believes in being sterner with the younger generation. Vernon gets to spout the infamous “You’ll never make a dummy out of me” line, oblivious to the fate that the klowns have planned for him.

Topping off the film is an excellent soundtrack from John Masssari, with plenty of calliope-style circus tunes suitably matching up what is happening on screen – the perfect combination of light-hearted fun and dark, brooding danger. There’s also a highly-catchy punk theme song by The Dickies, which bookends both sets of credits nicely. They just don’t make soundtracks like they used to!

 

In a genre filled with knock-offs, copy-cats and derivative rehashes, Killer Klowns From Outer Space is arguably the most unique and original comedy-horror ever made. The Chiodo Brothers had a wacky vision for a film and they saw it through to the very end with this fantastic amalgamation of ideas and practicality. Time has been extremely kind to this film and the whole production design still looks fantastic.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

Blob, The (1958)

The Blob (1958)

Beware of the Blob! It creeps, and leaps, and glides and slides across the floor.

A meteor crashes to Earth near a small America village and a blob-like creature emerges from it, devouring the arm of an old man who touches it. Teenager Steve Andrews and his girlfriend find the old man and rush him to the local doctor, only to see both men attacked and eaten. However, the local police are sceptical of his story and think that he’s just playing a prank on them. With the blob growing in size every time it eats someone, Steve realises that he must do something soon to prevent the whole town from succumbing to the blob.

 

Everyone has heard of this cult classic from the 1950s, something a little bit different in the sci-fi driven era of alien invaders and atomic monsters destroying cities in abundance. Its non-too-subtle underlying Cold War message about a ‘red mass taking over the world’ is one of the most blatant from this entire sub-genre of films but The Blob isn’t about politics, it’s about cheese and ham and everything that comes in between. Originally part of a double-bill at the cinema, it soon became apparent that The Blob was the film that everyone was really paying to see and so it became the main feature. This was certainly the cultural phenomenon, at least in the States, for its time and day.

The Blob’s plot is now synonymous with this type of schlocky monster flick designed to appeal to teenagers: a menace which slowly grows deadlier and claims more victims whilst the rebellious main teenage character is ignored because of their age and must prove themselves to the authorities to save the day. Compared to a lot of the other 50s sci-fi flicks which featured military personnel or scientists in the lead roles, to have a ‘teenage’ main character was rather unusual and The Blob is something of a trend-setter in this instance. It makes the film more accessible than it might have been had the lead character been a general – these teenagers are more bothered about hanging out than they are anything else and so its up to the resourceful of youth to save the day.

The blob itself comes off as a lousy monster, though its existence and purpose is chilling – this is not a monster that has any reason or pattern, it just consumes things and grows bigger. The mix of red dye and silicone gives the blob an unusual appearance unlike other monsters of its time – certainly the alien is helped by the fact that this was shot in colour as opposed to black and white. In some sequences, particularly the infamous cinema scene, it’s clear to see how the special effects were created but in the earlier shots of it moving around the doctor’s surgery, it’s not so apparent. This makes the creature look rather ethereal and hard to decipher, adding a nice sense of menace and unpredictability to what it may do next.

The fact that it can’t be killed adds to the tension – just how on earth is the film going to end? Well there’s a nice open ending which promised (and got) a sequel. Being indestructible and unstoppable means that the set pieces throughout the film are tinged with an element of mystery. There are some decent moments, if somewhat fleeting, where the blob attacks different townspeople. Most of these are little more than brief glimpses of the character being attacked by something red and gooey and that’s it. Not really dwelling on the blood and carnage left over is more down to the budget and fact that in 1958, you were never going to see anything remotely disgusting, but it all adds up to the enigmatic nature of the creature.

Whilst the blob moments work reasonably well given their limitations, the bits in between with the teenagers and the police don’t work. One of the first films to capitalise on a teenage audience hungry to see representations of themselves up on the big screen, The Blob features plenty of scenes of the teenagers hanging out together, either in the diner or with their cars. No drinking, doing drugs or attempts to have sex – these are clean cut cats from the 50s who just want to be respected by their parents. I guess these are realistic representations of American youth of the day. Steve McQueen’s first starring role shows little of the talent he’d display in the 1960s when he would become one of Hollywood’s most famous icons. McQueen looks a lot older than he is (he was twenty-eight in this) so seeing him portray a seventeen-year-old teenager is a laugh, especially when some of the adults are trying to tell him off. He cut quite a good deal for his salary on this one and came out a few pennies richer for it too. It’s a good job he negotiated before the producers saw his performance as, like the rest of the cast, it’s woeful. However, you kind of give him the benefit of the doubt because it is Steve McQueen after all and he’s effortlessly cool, almost as if he’s in on the joke throughout the entire film.

 

Very dated, dreadfully slow and highly cheesy, The Blob might be a cult classic to some but it’s just awful viewing nowadays. Ironically in a day and age where terrible and pointless remakes are all the go, it’s the remake of The Blob from the 80s that stands out as a rare effort which betters the original by a mile. Check that one out if you want to see some gooey extra-terrestrial nastiness done properly.

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Evolution (2001)

Evolution (2001)

Have a nice end of the world.

Ira Kane and Harry Block are wo science lecturers who investigate reports that a meteorite has fallen in the desert. They quickly discover that the meteorite contains organisms that evolve at an enormous rate, crossing two million years of evolution in a matter of hours. Once the military get wind of the discovery, the site is cordoned off and Kane’s work is taken, preventing him from further studying the evolution of the organisms. Unfortunately for everyone involved, they discover too late that the aliens have advanced to the reptilian stage and begin to burrow up through tunnels to emerge on the surface. With the creatures rapidly evolving and developing human-like abilities, it is up Kane and Block to stop them.

 

Evolution can be best described as Ghostbusters-lite with aliens. Director Ivan Reitman tries so hard to replicate the same lightning-in-a-bottle as he conjured up back in the 80s, almost in lament at not being able to ever get Ghostbusters 3 off the ground. Heck, he tried to repeat the trick with Ghostbusters II – though I think it’s an underrated sequel, it’s still nowhere near the quality of the first one. The way the narrative develops here is rather similar, with lots of similar set pieces and scenarios for the three heroes to deal with, as well as coming up against an uncooperative authority figure and battling a larger-than-life threat in the finale. It’s not very original but what Evolution lacks in these stakes, it makes up for with an easy-going charm which makes it hard to dislike.

Reitman’s films are usually pacey and energetic, and Evolution is no exception. There’s little time wasted on non-essential storytelling, even if a lot of the plot makes little sense when you think about it (like why two college professors like Duchovny and Jones’ characters would continue to be kept in the loop long after it’s been established that this is a serious threat to the survival of life on Earth), and the set pieces flow fairly frequently. However, there’s rarely a memorable set piece that stands out. Reitman throws lots of special effects at the screen to bring all the various aliens to life and the CGI is as good/bad as you’d expect it to be for a film made in 2001. The main characters have plenty of problems to overcome as they encounter the aliens at different stages of their evolution from the fungi right up to the giant amoeba in the finale. It is just that Evolution never really manages to get into its rhythm and it feels like it’s over before it gets going. The action sequences all make sense from the progression of the story, but they never really generate any sort of excitement or tension. Everyone on the screen and behind the camera is trying, it just never clicks together.

The same can be said for the comedy aspects of the film. Unless you like laughing at the sight of a man having an alien insect removed from his rear end (and the younger version of me did find this scene funny), then a lot of the humour here will make you smile, rather than laugh. Evolution is mildly amusing – you’re desperate for it to get funnier and a few scenes and gags really fall flat on their face. The script tries too hard to make the film funny and this isn’t a knock on the writers or the actors involved, it’s just that sometimes a comedy film like this needs a group of actors who can improvise better on the spot during filming. Imagine working with Bill Murray on set and the sort of improvisation he would be capable of. Now compare that to someone like Sean William Scott, perfectly fine for a role like this, but doesn’t really come across as a quick-witted individual who could come up with some genuinely funny and witty dialogue on the spot. Not the first film to be guilty of this – if you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ve probably seen the funniest moments.

David Duchovny, Orlando Jones and William Scott make for an amiable threesome, though they lack a real sense of camaraderie and never quite gel as a trio. Unlike the comic timing and sheer brilliance of the three main leads in Ghostbusters, for all their efforts, both Jones and Duchovny just can’t quite get the same level of hilarity from the story. Perhaps it is because Reitman has pitched the comedy of the film at a lower demographic, hence the inclusion of William Scott who was making waves in a number of teen comedies in the late 90s and early 00s. Jokes about sex, bodily fluids and farting pander to the lowest common denominator (though I’m not suggesting that we don’t all like a good fart joke) and lack the finesse of more sophisticated humour. Funnily enough, it’s Julianne Moore who displays some nice comic timing as the scientist/love interest that makes the biggest impression upon the audience. Dan Aykroyd shows up in an unnecessary cameo role as the governor – how the film could have done with one of his famously fast-talking and intense speeches.

And if you think you’re going to get through Evolution without some sort of nod or reference to The X-Files and Duchovny’s most famous role, then you’re totally wrong.

 

Easy-going summer films such as Evolution have a time and place and it seems that they’re few and far between nowadays in the 2010s, which is a bit of a shame. It’s likeable enough, innocent enough and entertaining enough, just not as enough as you’d like it to be.

 

 ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Virus (1999)

Virus (1999)

Life on Earth is in for a shock

When the crew of an American tugboat find an abandoned Russian research vessel drifting in the eye of a storm, they start to dream of the money they’ll be paid if they can claim it as salvage. However, when they board they soon realise that they will share the same fate that befell the Russian crew – a hostile alien life form that has taken over the ship views humans as a virus and is prepared to wipe each and every one of them out.

 

Originally scheduled for a big budget summer release in 1998 with the tune of $75m behind it, Virus suffered at the box office and was hammered by critics when it was eventually put out early in 1999 due to restructuring at Universal Studios. Bizarrely enough, it even got its own action figure line, which is a sign of just how much Universal were banking on this! Maybe they should have released it when they had the chance. Being the unfortunate later arrival of a ‘twin film’ pairing with Deep Rising, Virus was clearly a case of ‘been there, done that’ only a few months earlier – and for all of its faults, Deep Rising is by far the better, more entertaining film.

Virus had so much potential as a sci-fi horror but it’s a boring disappointment from almost the first scene until the last. Despite all of the alien hardware on display and a fairly decent sized cast to kill off, it’s got no energy whatsoever and drags its way from set piece to set piece. It takes far too long to get going anywhere remotely interesting and by the time the salvage crew have boarded the vessel and encountered the aliens for the first time, you will have already subconsciously switched off. Too long is spent touring the abandoned Russian ship with no real tension or excitement – we know something has happened to the crew but the narrative never once tries to make that mystery seem engaging.

Once the crew do eventually come across the aliens, and the weird assortment of robots and cyborgs that it likes to assemble in its automation shop, Virus does pick up slightly but even then, the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with it’s alien villains. Clichés rule the roost for the most part, with a few action set pieces that barely register a pulse, and characters are killed off in a relatively predictable order. If you’re going to invest so much money in a film, then at least make an effort to keep the audience on the edge of their seat. It’s almost as if the producers blew their budget on the special effects. The idea of mixing in human body parts with machine parts was quite unsettling, and was the perfect set-up for some chilling moments. Instead, we get a few token “Oh look it’s our former shipmate” sequences which matter little since we hardly got to know the person in the first place.

Director Bruno was a visual effects man on Terminator 2: Judgment Day and you can spot some of the similarities with the creatures on show here. The cyborgs that the alien creates looks like some sort of mutant offspring of the Borg from Star Trek. They look excellent, with the characters who are killed off and turned into the cyborgs looking particularly menacing in layers of make-up and robotics. It’s a pity that these cyborgs don’t really do much except skulk around in the shadows and leave the bulk of damage to the larger robot. Less convincing, this larger robot (or the actual alien in robot form) is brought to life mainly through some ropey-looking effects and the poor quality takes you out of the moment whenever it’s on-screen – some sort of drunken older brother of Johnny 5 from Short Circuit springs to mind. The mix of practical effects with some early CGI has dated Virus more than it should for a film made in 1999, but the overall appearance of the practical effects does still look effective.

There’s a reasonable ensemble cast here too, with Jamie Lee Curtis providing the Ripley-esque heroine material, William Baldwin as the bland hero and Donald Sutherland as the salty sea dog captain, but they’re not required to do much more than chew their way through some badly-written lines and provide the necessary exposition to get from plot point A to plot point B. Curtis and Baldwin have absolutely zero chemistry and their forced romance is just as inexcusable as Sutherland’s ropey faux-Irish accent, as he hams it up in one of his worst ever performances. Its hard to really care about anyone else as they’re so thinly written and get tiny amounts of screen time.

 

Virus wants its audience to love it and there’s plenty of potential just waiting to be mined but, unfortunately, it’s lack of energy and general lethargy mean that it never really gets going. You have to wonder whether it being put back in the release schedule did have something to do with the end product not being very good after all.

 

 ★★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing, The (1982)

The Thing (1980)

Man is the warmest place to hide

A group of scientists at a remote Antarctic research station find themselves in a terrifying fight for their lives as a deadly extra-terrestrial organism capable of assuming human form infiltrates their camp.

 

Sometimes cinematic greatness is not acknowledged until years down the line once the fallout from a film’s original release had subsided. The Thing had the unfortunate distinction of being the other ‘alien lands on Earth’ film of 1982 behind colossal family-friendly hit E.T. (The Thing was released a mere two weeks after it). The sweet-natured alien with the glowing finger who wanted to be friends with a young boy was a queer bed fellow to talk about in the same breath as a shape-shifting monster whose ideas of first contact were absorbing and killing humans before turning itself into its previous victim. So The Thing didn’t do very well at the box office, derided by the likes of Roger Ebert as a ‘geek show’ and simply branded as a ‘barf-bag’ movie. Not only that but fellow science fiction mega-hit Blade Runner was released at the same time. To say that it was a competitive year was an understatement!

However, thirty years of solid home video viewing solidified the reputation of The Thing. Audiences began to see the levels of detail and the depth to the film, looking far beyond the, admittedly, gross special effects, to see that this was a superbly crafted masterpiece of suspense and tension. In 2008, Empire named it as one of the ‘500 Greatest Films Ever Made,’ a far cry from its early days of derision and detest from the critics. The film was John Carpenter’s first big budget film after a number of low budget successes but since this flopped, he was barely trusted with a large budget again. It’s a big shame as Carpenter is one of the most talented men ever to set foot behind a camera and The Thing is proof.

I can’t think of too many films that have such a bleak outlook as The Thing. From the first twenty or so minutes, the script drip-feeds the audience with a number of clues as to what happened at the Norwegian camp. As soon as the truth is sickeningly revealed, that’s it for the characters. You realise that not one of them is going to have a happy ending. Carpenter proceeds to wring every scene dry of as much tension, suspense and paranoia as possible. This is as remote a location on Earth to set a sci-fi horror film and you know from the opening shots of the desolate Antarctic landscape that these men are on their own. Despite the openness of the wilderness, The Thing is deathly claustrophobic. These men are trapped inside a ramshackle assortment of wooden huts, hardly the greatest protection against Mother Nature and the freezing cold. If they stay inside, the alien will assimilate them. If they go outside, the cold will get them. The situation is hopeless and it isn’t long before some of them accept that fact.

The notion that one or more of the crew could be infected by the alien leads to the escalating tension as they go about finding ways to see who is human and who isn’t. Each twist to the story adds more layers of tension, suspense and paranoia because Carpenter is very crafty when it comes to revealing details. You will never guess who is human and who isn’t and for first time viewers, this is just brilliant to try and piece together. Even on multiple viewings, I find myself trying to work out when certain characters were assimilated and whether there are any hints in there. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling with red herrings, bluffs and twists and turns every scene to keep you guessing – the blood test scene where the surviving characters gather around to test blood to reveal who is human and who is not is one of the most suspenseful scenes ever filmed.

The problem with The Thing is that because the middle section of the film is tense, the final showdown was always going to be anti-climactic and that’s what happens here. Whilst it’s not a bad finale in any stretch of the imagination, it pales in comparison to some of the film’s earlier set pieces – the dog transformation, the defibrillator scene, the blood test, etc. You’ve already been put through the ringer a couple of times and you’ve got nothing left to give. Thankfully Carpenter ends the film on one final dour note, where any lesser director would have sold out and gone for a happy conclusion.

This is an actor’s film but not a starring man film. As good as Kurt Russell is as McReady, he’s not the star of the show. It’s an ensemble piece where every single supporting player contributes an equal amount with fine performances across the entire board. Character actors like Wilfred Brimley, Donald Moffat, Richard Dysart, Keith David, Charles Hallahan and Richard Masur all bring something different to the table in terms of their character, even if the script doesn’t really give them a lot of back story or depth. As they begin to mistrust each other, the script does a great job of seeing personalities clash, egos rise to the top, minds going crazy and tempers flaring. Each characters reacts to the situation differently as an audience, there’s someone for each to us to root for. We know whether we’d be a McReady or a Fuchs or a Blair or even a Norris in this situation….or do we? How do we know how we’d end up, faced with the grim reality of what is confronting them? The characters are real, they react like anyone would react and as a result, the potentially-overblown nature of a shapeshifting alien is never questioned.

The Thing’s previously-bad reputation comes from its gross-out special effects. This was the 80s and body horror was all the rage, where the human form was subjected to all manner of grotesque transformations in the likes of The Fly and An American Werewolf in London. Special effects wizard Rob Bottin subjects the audience to a nauseating freak show of monsters and forms as various characters are hideously deformed and mutated as the alien absorbs and replicates them. Blood, puss, goo, slime…..everything that Bottin can throw into the mix, he does. Some of the most ghastly visuals ever committed to film, The Thing will take a strong stomach to sit through if you’re not a regular gore hound. The best part about it is that even in 2016, the make-up effects have yet to be better on-screen. The tepid prequel relied too heavily on CGI to convey the same level of grotesque but didn’t have the same effects.

I’ve done a lot of talking about the film and haven’t yet mentioned that it’s actually a remake. The Thing From Another World was a classic 50s science fiction film, rumoured to have been mostly directed by one of Carpenter’s heroes – Howards Hawks. Carpenter goes back to the source material, a scary novella from 1938 called Who Goes There? and throws in a number of references to the original as a tribute. Having read the story, I can say that this version is very true to the source material and improves on it in every way. A rarity nowadays.

One last point in this lengthy review – Ennio Morricone’s minimalist synth score sounds like a traditional John Carpenter soundtrack but adds so much to the proceedings that it gets overlooked far too often. Aside from the ominous title track, there is good use of the low, droning synthesiser during a number of key scenes in the film, drawing out every last possibly ounce of tension possible.

 

The Thing is a masterpiece of sci-fi horror and one of the greatest genre films ever made. No one has ever come close to recreating the paranoid atmosphere, the twisted imagination and the sheer talent that combined to create this almost-perfect fright fest. Forget Halloween. The Thing will always be John Carpenter’s best film. An essential part of any film fan’s collection.

 

 ★★★★★★★★★★ 

 

 

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!

 

 ★★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing From Another World, The (1951)

The Thing From Another World (1951)

Where Did It Come From? How Did It Get Here? WHAT IS IT?

Scientists at an Arctic research station discover an alien space ship buried in the ice along with its frozen pilot. They take the body back to the base but when it thaws, the crew find themselves struggling for survival against not only a massive alien life-form hungry for human blood, but the science department who insist that the creature must not be harmed so that they can study it.

 

One of the earliest and most influential science fiction films to come out of the 1950s, The Thing From Another World is the one that most critics credit for the rise of the ‘alien invasion’ flicks that were to follow in number. It’s the prototype for the ‘base under siege’ formula that has been replicated so often in films since. Not only that but it’s a damned fine film on its own merits, forgetting the legacy that it has built for itself in the meantime. In a paranoid era of Cold War and the worries over nuclear weapons, the film taps into this vein of unease and plays off it. The final lines of dialogue “Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking, keep watching the skies” are a chilling reminder of the 50s and of the fear that people had. What would come out of the sky? Nuclear missiles? UFOs? Giant monsters?

Based on the classic novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, The Thing From Another World is light years ahead of its 50s compatriots. Coming before the slew of sci-fi films that were to follow gives this an original slant and it isn’t bogged down by clichés. In fact rather the opposite as the film establishes many genre staples that we’ve come to know and love (or hate) today. You’ve got to remember that science fiction as we take for granted today was still in its infancy during this era. Whilst horror dominated the 30s and 40s, science fiction took off after the Second World War and never looked back. The Thing From Another World laid down an early benchmark for the genre to follow. We’ve obviously got the ‘base under siege’ plot and alien invasion theme with isolation being a key factor, right down to the meddling scientists who believe that they can reason with or understand the creatures they come across (before meeting a horrible demise).

One of the most positive aspects to The Thing From Another World is how pacey is it. This is spot on and the film is tightly edited, flows smoothly and contains enough peaks and troughs to put people through the emotional ringer. It doesn’t really waste too much of its screen time trying to explain anything or do anything which doesn’t further the story or add some tension. I’ve only got to rack my mind at a handful of other 50s sci-fi films to remember how slow, drawn-out and sluggish they were, taking a lifetime to get to where they needed to be.

Despite being based on the novella, the film ditches most of the material, keeping only the wintry setting and the idea of a crashed spaceship (John Carpenter’s later remake was much more faithful to the source material with its assimilations and overt paranoia). I can understand the cost necessities of trying to create a complex film like that back in the 80s but they could have done a bit better than their eventual output: a big stuntman with a boiler suit and a large head piece. Still, the sets used for the Arctic are quite convincing and it’s good to see the film actually shoot some footage ‘outside’ as opposed to many other films at the time which just kept its horror based indoors. Though they’re still on a soundstage, at least some of the shots look like they were filmed in the snow.

The most disappointing aspect of the film is the alien itself. Special effects (and budgets) in the 1950s would never have allowed for the film to stay faithful to the source material, portraying the alien as a shape-shifting assimilator with all of the gooey transformations and absorptions that followed. So what we eventually get is just a big guy in a suit. It’s a tad feeble at first but once the initial disappointment has been overcome, the director (be it the credited Christian Nyby or Howard Hawks, the producer whom everyone thinks really directed this because it has plenty of his style in it) certainly does his best to create the illusion of an alien life form. The first glimpse we see of the creature tossing the huskies away during a snowstorm is chilling and there’s another infamous shot of the creature when it bursts through a door and is set on fire by the crew, all set within a dark environment and only illuminated by the raging fire which is engulfing it. Keeping it relegated to the shadows is a smart move because it does make the creature all the more scary when it eventually attacks. Of course when the creature is seen in close-up, you’ve just got to laugh a little bit – and the notion that this is a killer vegetable that craves human blood is also a bit comical. Credit to the film for making this idea pan out with deadly serious consequences.

On a final note, that title intro is still fantastically creepy to this day.

 

It might seem harmless and hokey nowadays and its shock value had diminished greatly over time, but The Thing from Another World is a landmark science fiction film which is perfectly accessible for any generation of science fiction fans and a completely different type of film from it’s superior remake in 1981.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Destination Inner Space (1966)

Destination Inner Space (1966)

TERROR from the DEPTHS of the SEA!

A submarine commander is sent to the underwater research facility Aquasphere to investigate strange sonar readings which turn out to be the result of a UFO landing on the ocean floor. He takes some crew members out to investigate the spaceship and return with a strange pod about the size of an air tank. Back at base, the pod begins to grow in size before bursting open to reveal a strange amphibian-like alien which begins to terrorise the facility.

 

Ever wonder what would have happened if The Creature from the Black Lagoon had got it together with It! The Terror from Beyond Space? Thought not but just in case you had, then the offspring would clearly resemble Destination Inner Space. A low budget hybrid of the two films, Destination Inner Space is hokey 60s sci-fi at its most evident, generating more unintentional laughs than anything else.

Nowadays, we’d call this an underwater Alien clone like Leviathan but back in the 60s this was reasonably fresh material. However it’s clear from the first few awful miniature shots that this was never going to be given a chance to be anything more than a throwaway drive-in movie which presumably tagged along with a bigger budgeted production. Destination Inner Space is plodding, routine and rather dull, with only the odd moment of inspiration to keep it going. We all know the type of film: a by-the-book plot with a host of square-jawed American military heroes and dames trapped inside a confined space with something deadly after them. Space. Underwater. The Antarctic. Remote Pacific islands. It makes no difference. The manliest character will vanquish the beast, protect the girl and save the day.

Scott Brady is said manliest character. As Commander Wayne, he struts around in his uniform dishing out instructions to everyone. You never get the sense that he isn’t in control, even when he’s wrestling with the alien. Smart and tough in equal measure, he’s like an underwater John Wayne. He has wisecracks for everything and is never one to be left hanging during an exchange. Recognisable Asian-American actor James Hong pops up in a role as the only non-white member of the research team and he’s the cook no less. Talk about racial profiling! But Destination Inner Space isn’t exactly a film to get strung up on developing characters. There is slightly more than usual and it helps the film a little bit when the alien does start causing chaos. But only a little bit.

The problem with Destination Inner Space is that it’s so ‘meh.’ There’s no excitement, no tension, no suspense and little in the way of action. Fall asleep for ten minutes and when you wake up, you won’t have missed a beat. It’s that type of film. You watch it for the sake of watching, not because you’re curious as to what will happen. The underwater diving sequences are the best part of the film: bright, colourful and well-filmed and Destination Inner Space uses the aquatic setting to good effect. Though the interior sets look rather ramshackle, you do get the sense that these people are stranded underwater and running out of time and air. It’s a shame that nothing much happens with them.

The alien looks ridiculous but, with a whole host of old school innocence about its appearance, it’s impossible to be harsh on it. Staggering around with a gormless, open-mouthed expression on its face and a large fin which makes it look like a punk rocker, the costume is at least colourful and . Director Francis D. Lyon knows he can’t get away with hiding this thing for too long so goes for the jugular from the start. There’s no gradual reveal or keeping it off-screen because the audience would just laugh whenever they saw it midway through the film. Best to get it out of the way before it starts killing. The great thing about the costume is its practicality – the bulky fin I mentioned and the large head and ‘hunchback’ appearance is so that the stuntman could wear his breathing apparatus underneath. This lends the genuine underwater scenes a nice credibility. He’s certainly no Ricou Browning from The Creature from the Black Lagoon but Ron Burke is no slouch when it comes to gracing the monster with an aurora of the unhuman.

 

Largely unknown to all but die-hard sci-fi fans, I only found out about Destination Inner Space through a colourful trailers compilation on Youtube. The fact that it’s a load of rubbish makes its obscurity valid. The alien suit is worth a look for a good chuckle to see ‘how they did it in the olden days’ but anyone looking for a decent sci-fi flick best look elsewhere.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆