Tag Aliens

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.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Stuff, The (1985)

The Stuff (1985)

Are you eating it …or is it eating you?

David ‘Moe’ Rutherford is an industrial saboteur hired by a group of unscrupulous businessmen to steal the secret ingredients of a new fast-food product called The Stuff that is sweeping the nation. No one knows what is in it but as soon as anyone eats it, they become hooked, eventually replacing all of their regular food with pots of the yoghurt-like substance. But as he investigates further, he discovers that The Stuff is actually alive and is highly dangerous to whoever should eat it.

 

Ah 80s horror movies – the best kind of horror movies! Gleefully doing whatever they could get away with and not caring about the consequences, they owned the home video market for the decade, turning everything and anything they could into instruments of death. With one of the strangest ideas for a film yet, The Stuff updates the old 50s sci-fi B movie formula into the 80s with gloriously gory results. Coming off as some comedy-horror mash-up of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Quatermass II and The Blob, The Stuff never has enough laughs to constantly amuse and never has enough scares to really get under your skin but it will leave a memorable impression on you.

Ice cream. Yoghurt. Flavoured dessert. Whatever it is, ‘The Stuff’ is a fantastic creation. You can’t criticise Larry Cohen for lacking ambition with this project. The way he constructs the whole frenzy over ‘The Stuff’ as a product is scarily-realistic, with our supermarket shelves today full of weird products we know little about and which are aggressively marketed to the consumer. Who knows if there is anything like The Stuff sitting in there today? The commercial satire in here is something that Paul Verhoeven would have been proud of in Robocop or Starship Troopers. The mock adverts for ‘The Stuff’ are hilariously realistic and a whole marketing campaign looks to have been constructed purely for the film, with catchphrases, slogans and packaging all really hitting home the conglomerate message. Though the film is pitching ‘The Stuff,’ for all intents and purposes this could be Coca Cola or McDonalds with its multi-national propaganda. Scary thought. Consumerism doesn’t get an easy ride here.

But we aren’t here to watch commercial satire, we’re here to watch a horror flick and this is partly where The Stuff falls down. I think the comparisons to The Blob just created false expectations of how the white goo was going to behave but it’s not far short. The Stuff works very well until the final third. Though not that much happens, it works more like a crime thriller or episode of The X-Files as slowly but surely the conspiracy behind ‘The Stuff’ is revealed. Suspense is built up, there are a few tantalising glimpses of what ‘The Stuff’ can really do and there are lot of interesting loose threads that you’d expect the final third to answer. Lead actor Michael Moriarty works with Cohen again here after Q, The Winged Serpent and he’s one of the film’s strongest assets, portraying his seemingly dim-witted saboteur with a great relish and cunning.

Sadly, it’s in the last third where it all falls apart and you have to wonder how rushed Cohen got when he was editing it. Crucial plot points seem to get forgotten about and the story moves along far too rapidly considering the leisurely pace of the first act. The introduction of a far-right militia group to save the day in the finale just seems to show the film running out of creative ways to end the film. Ultimately, The Stuff is let down by the quality of its special effects. The more effective make-up effects scenes involving ‘The Stuff’ seeping out of victims’ mouths look alright, if a little rushed, and the film’s best gore moment comes right at the finale involving one unlucky character. But it’s the matte work and some dodgy miniatures which hurt the film as ‘The Stuff’ isn’t brought to life very convincingly when it moves. I think the correct word is ‘dated’ and no doubt the effects looked a lot better thirty years ago. Above all, despite the numerous gore moments, the film isn’t very scary. Yes, you wouldn’t want to get caught in the same corridor as ‘The Stuff’ but it’s hardly nightmare-inducing material.

 

The Stuff is one of those films that you’ll look back upon and believe that it was better than it actually is. The idea is fantastic, the mood is generally spot-on and there are some memorable moments but it’s a definitely a case of the execution not living entirely up to its premise. It does look quite delectable to eat though!

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Unknown Origin (1995)

Unknown Origin (1995)

Only one species can rule the Earth….it may no longer be human

An underwater research facility set up in the year 2020 to mine for resources receives a distress call from a similar Russian base nearby. A team is sent to investigate and offer assistance but when they arrive, they find that most of the crew are dead. They take back the surviving Russian crew member and a few bodies to study but when they arrive back at the facility, the Russian has some sort of fit and a strange, parasitic organism escapes from his mouth. The science team discovers that the organism is actually an alien being which has been perfectly preserved for millions of years underwater until the Russian released it. What’s worse is that it needs a human host in order to survive, living off the victim’s bodily fluids until they die before moving on to the next host.

 

Made for television and shot in eighteen days, Unknown Origin is basically Aliens meets The Thing underwater but coming from producer Roger Corman I’d expect no less a shameless cash-ins of far superior films. Undersea horrors had come and gone in the late 80s with the likes of Deep Star Six and Leviathan but, always one to milk an idea dry, Corman decided to go back to the cash cow another time to see if it had any pennies left. Sadly this cow was short on change.

If you’ve seen The Thing, and most likely everyone who is visiting this site will have, then you’ll be familiar with the set-up at a remote location, this time underwater instead of the Antarctic, and a crew of assorted individuals who encounter an alien life form which has the ability to imitate humans. There’s little hiding it as the inspiration for Unknown Origin. Events happen almost like-for-like, with the crew visiting a foreign base (only Russians this time instead of Norwegians) where they find that those pesky foreigners have been digging something alien out of the rocks (or ice) which has been buried there for millions of years. Once the danger has been inadvertently brought back on board the station, all hell breaks loose as the creature finds new victims to consume.

Not content with rehashing The Thing, there is also an android crew member (Alien) and a slimy corporation calling the shots (Aliens) thrown in for good measure. They really did try and cover all of the necessary bases with this one. It’s just a shame that they forgot to include anything fresh and worthwhile because the film is as mechanical as it comes, clunking through each set piece and scenario with a lacklustre drive. The film knows we’ve all seen this sort of thing before but instead of getting on with it, it tries to drag it out as though it’s original material, almost in petulant rebellion against the audience.

Despite the unashamed plagiarism, Unknown Origin can’t even muster anything worthwhile to show for its efforts. The pace is dreary, the narrative uneventful and there’s a void of excitement and scares. The film looks low budget too and there’s little hiding it: the undersea station is too well lit, too sparsely detailed and looks too nice to live in (though I’m sure interior decoration was never a factor in the construction of the International Space Station) to even remotely come off as a threatening environment to be trapped in.

The penny-pinching continues as some footage is recycled from a couple of Corman’s previous films, including the exterior shots of the underwater base and a couple of explosions. I guess if you own the rights to the footage, it’s yours to do with as you please. Those expecting the miniscule budget to have gone towards the creature effects will also be sorely disappointed as the silly little toy alien that emerges from people’s mouths looks to have been purchased in a joke shop. As for the rest of the time that characters are being used as hosts, it’s just down to the actor to change their mannerisms a bit and pretend that there’s something ‘different’ about the character. It saves on money but doesn’t add any excitement whenever a character is revealed to be under alien control.

The cast is interesting. Roddy McDowall is the token big name on show and he looks like he’d rather be anywhere else. He has this permanent scowl on his face, delivers his lines with his usual softly spoken voice and looks disinterested as if the sooner he’d finished his lines, the sooner he could go and put his feet up. I’m sure McDowall wasn’t actually like that but that’s the impression you get here. William Shatner’s daughter Melanie provides the glamour, Richard Biggs would go on to sci-fi fame in Babylon 5 and Alex Hyde-White has the dubious distinction of playing the first Mr Fantastic in Roger Corman’s unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four movie.

 

Unknown Origin is, unsurprisingly, a load of uninspired tosh. Devoid of ideas despite leeching off the best that the genre has to offer, it’s formulaic, pedestrian and ultimately a total waste of time. Those with a burning desire to see whether Captain Kirk’s daughter can act any better than her old man should really watch one of her other films.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Quatermass Xperiment, The (1955)

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

It’s coming for YOU from Space to wipe all living things from the face of the Earth! CAN IT BE STOPPED?

A experimental space rocket, designed and launched by Professor Quatermass and his team, crash lands back to Earth. However two out of the three crew members have mysteriously vanished during the mission and the surviving member, Victor Carroon, is in bad shape and taken to a local hospital. As Quatermass and his team try to fathom out what happened to the rocket, Carroon slowly undergoes a horrible metamorphosis. Quatermass realises that he has been taken over by an alien being which absorbs everything is touches and increases itself in mass.

 

Greatness has to start somewhere and here we are with the true birth of the Hammer Films studio. Hammer, which became synonymous with horror and would reinvent the genre in the late 50s with a series of groundbreaking films, had been making film noir since the early 50s. The Quatermass Xperiment was their first major breakthrough in horror and science fiction and was seen as a gamble by the studio at the time. Originally a serialised TV play shown by the BBC in 1953, the story caught public attention and the rights to a cinematic adaptation were soon snapped up by Hammer. The film received the dreaded X certificate by the BBFC and Hammer slightly re-worked the title to play on that fact (hence the Xperiment bit). The film was a resounding success at the box office and established Hammer as a big player. It proved that there was an appetite for horror from the British cinema goers, an appetite that Hammer would satisfy two years later in The Curse of Frankenstein.

That’s not to say that The Quatermass Xperiment is an outright horror film. The science fiction elements dominate this one and though it may be a landmark British film, time has not been too kind to it from the horror viewpoint. Looking rather quaint and antiquated nowadays, it’s rather difficult to identify just what caused the BBFC to give it the X rating. Carroon’s mutated hand and the eventual appearance of the alien at the end look rather tame today but I guess back in the 50s when fear of the A-bomb and Cold War paranoia was running high, the more psychological elements may have hit a raw nerve. Looking at it now, everything happens in a rather procedural fashion, evidential of Hammer’s earlier film noir output, and it plays out more like a crime thriller for the first half.

Given the slew of sci-fi monster movies being churned out in America during the 50s, one would have expected The Quatermass Xperiment to go down the same route and the change of approach comes as a bit of a shock. But legendary screen writer Nigel Kneale, who was one of the finest sci-fi writers ever to pen a script, made his name with the BBC television play. The adaptation by Val Guest pays faithful attention to that, expanding the scope of the play for feature film length and, in turn, crafting a more thoughtful, haunting film instead of the generic gung-ho popcorn filler than the Americans were making in the same era. This is “thinking man’s science fiction” which, in some quarters, can mean that the film is rather slow. It is, there’s no question of that. The slow, methodical build-up to the finale does plod along merrily in old school British fashion. But Guest’s intelligent script keeps the mystery level high (Kneale had no involvement in the cinematic version) and, as he also directs, he’s in full control of the interesting direction that the film takes.

This is down, in no small part, to the great performance by Richard Wordsworth who plays doomed astronaut Victor Carroon. Wordsworth, who I’ve only just found out was the grandson of the great Romantic poet William Wordsworth, makes for a sympathetic and tragic character, almost Frankenstein-like in his silent portrayal (he even encounters a little girl and everything goes wrong from then onwards). We know that something is seriously wrong with Carroon but we don’t know what. The blank expressions and pain-stricken eyes hide something deadly and the film takes its time to drip-feed the audience hints as to what that could be. It’s not pleasant, that’s for sure.

Brian Donlevy seemed like a rather awkward choice to play the lead role. Donlevy was an Irish-American actor who was cast in the role in an attempt to breakthrough into the US market but in his later years he was known for his alcoholism and was troublesome to work with. Ironically it’s these qualities that make his Professor Quatermass click. Donlevy plays the role with a gruff, no-nonsense approach and turns his Quatermass into an arrogant, obnoxious, single-minded character. Given the nature of Quatermass’ almost-obsessive determination to succeed, Donlevy makes the right call to play him this way. His lack of compassion in the face of such tragedy is uncannily realistic.

It’s of no surprise to see that the finale is the part of the film which hasn’t aged well. The appearance of the rubbery alien in Westminster Abbey gets decent build-up and would have looked alright back in the 50s. But nowadays it’s a bit of a dud creation and the finale is a let-down given the build-up it had received. The alien worked so much better in the human guise of Carroon but the story dictated that the it reveal itself at the end. If it had done so earlier on, I wonder how many people would have kept watching. The finale doesn’t really spoil the rest of the film but it feels like a waste. Hammer’s budget wouldn’t stretch too far and the special effects are adequate but unconvincing.

 

The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most influential genre films ever made and definitely one of the UK’s most important contributions to cinema. Without this film’s success and the identification of a niche market for horror in the UK, Hammer may never have decided to make The Curse of Frankenstein or Dracula, two landmark films which changed the horror genre as we know it forever. Though some of its elements lack the impact they most undoubtedly did upon its original release, The Quatermass Xperiment is one of the most intelligent and ambitious science fiction films of its era, ambitions that were challenged further in its two sequels Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit, both of which (in my opinion) are far superior. I would have loved to have seen what else Hammer could have done in the science fiction genre but they chose to focus their efforts on the horror market. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 ★★★★★★★★☆☆ 

 

 

Brain, The (1988)

The Brain (1988)

The Pounding of the Afterbrain Signals Vengeance and Death!

Dr Anthony Blakely runs a local self-help television show called “Independent Thinking” which attracts a devoted audience and is in talks to go worldwide. But he’s not actually making his viewers think more independently – he’s brainwashing and mind-controlling them with the help of an alien organism he calls The Brain. It is up to local tearaway youth Jim Majelewski to stop them.

 

The Brain is a strange and daft low budget sci-fi horror that could only have been dreamt up in the 80s, an era where seemingly anyone with an outrageous idea and a bit of cash could make a movie that could go straight to home video and capitalise on the boom. Video store shelves were full of cheap and nasty horror films which enticed their audiences with lurid artwork and shocking tag lines and etched themselves into the minds of kids not old enough to take them home. When you did get old enough to watch them, you realised that you had not been missing out on anything. In fact you’re probably thanking a higher power that you were saved from wasting ninety minutes of your childhood. Sadly this is not ninety minutes that you’ll get back as an adult after watching The Brain.

For as terrible as The Brain is, I can’t see why this isn’t more of a cult favourite. Surely the lure of a giant tentacle-spewing, human-eating brain with razor-sharp teeth, bulging eyes and a spinal cord hanging down behind it would attract any horror fan to the table? Yet this film has never seen a DVD release (at time of writing), is impossible-as-hell to track down on VHS (though I did manage to obtain an American copy) and is about as obscure a film as I’ve ever written a review for. Why is something like Attack of the Killer Tomatoes such a cult favourite when a man-eating brain makes for a much more interesting synopsis?

The sight of a giant brain is not something you see very often in the cinema world. I can think of The Brain from Planet Arous as an early example and there are a few other 50s sci-fi films with ‘brain’ in their titles but the ‘giant brain’ genre has been few and far between since then. There is a big reason for this: killer brains don’t exactly send chills down the spine. Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would testify to that sentiment! But in an era of schlocky creature features, the sight of a killer brain does stand out from the pack.

The brain looks as stupid or as terrifying as you’d expect it to. In a time before computers did all of the fancy special effects, it was down to teams of make-up effects guys to create monsters and the brain is every inch a latex marvel, oozing with slime and gnashing its teeth constantly looking for food. It looks like the ridiculous special effect it is in later scenes as its massive head is clearly being pushed around on a cart or trolley. But in the same manner, it also looks horrific – a nightmarish creation which is bathed in strobe lighting whenever it appears. A lot of work has gone into creating the brain which is to be applauded for such a low rent film. You’ve definitely got to get on board and embrace the idea of a giant brain in order to enjoy it.

As for the film itself, it’s a rather random mix of ideas from Videodrome and A Nightmare on Elm Street and the entire film consists of scenes of our heroic teen characters being chased around the boiler rooms and through the woods from Blakely’s bearded assistant and the police, with a few nightmarish dream sequences scattered around for good measure. The dream sequences, particularly the first one, work quite well given the low budget special effects but look to have been included for gimmick purposes rather than any real attempt to scare.

David Gale should be familiar to horror fans as Dr Carl Hill from Re-Animator amongst other low brow 80s horror efforts. He lends his crazed over-the-top antics to another mad scientist role in this one as the man trying to take over the world with the help of the brain. There is a throwaway nod to Re-Animator in here for die-hard fans to take note of.

 

I didn’t think I could write a review and use the phrase ‘giant brain’ so much but there you have it. The Brain is a cheap schlock horror film about a giant brain – if that premise alone will satisfy your curiosity then watch it and regret it later. For cultured film fans, use your own brains and stay well clear.

 

 ★★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Thing, The (2011)

The Thing (2011)

It’s not human. Yet.

A Norwegian scientific team discovers a strange life form frozen in ice in Antarctica and calls in expert palaeontologist Kate Lloyd to join them in their investigation. But when they bring the creature back to their base, it doesn’t stay frozen for long and begins killing and assuming the form of members of the team.

 

John Carpenter’s The Thing is one of my favourite films, firmly taking the position of my favourite horror film by a long stretch, and has been since I first saw it at a tender age (my dad would vet certain films for me when I was a child, knowing how much I loved monsters and aliens and not being scared by splatter). Originally a critical and commercial failure due to its unfortunate cinematic release coinciding with the much friendlier alien film E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, it was only on home video that The Thing gradually begun to garner a rabid cult following and over the years, critics have not only softened their stance on it but in turn recognised it to be one of the greatest science fiction and horror films of all time. Attempts to get a sequel off the ground both with and without John Carpenter’s involvement stalled over the years. So it was with great trepidation that I heard the news that a prequel was to be given the green light. In this day and age of sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings and the like, it was only a matter of time I guess. Promising to faithfully stick to the original’s isolation, paranoia and tension, as well as a core focus on practical make-up effects, I slowly began to be won over by the thought that The Thing may not turn out to be that bad overall.

Let’s just say that after I saw it in the cinema back in 2011, you could have cooked bacon on my cheeks such was my rage at how appalling it had turned out. But in the interests of fairness and not a knee-jerk reaction, I promised myself that I would put some time between watching The Thing and writing a review for it, such was my loathing and sheer disgust at the time. So here we are, a year and half later, and after re-watching it on blu-ray, the rage has cooled down and the negativity, whilst still prevalent, has been toned down.

Truth be told in hindsight, The Thing isn’t that bad….it’s just that I, and many others, were expecting a lot more. Having thirty years in between films should have given Universal enough time to do the original some justice. In dressing itself up as a prequel, The Thing feebly tries to hide the fact that it’s a shameless remake. Almost all of the major set pieces from the original are recreated in lesser form including a scene with a test which the scientists develop to determine who is human and who isn’t. Characters get trapped outside in the snow when others think they have turned. Other characters sabotage communications and vehicles so that the creature can’t escape.

Lazily casting Americans in the pivotal roles in a Norwegian research station smacks of pandering to Western audiences, with the token bearded Nordic cast being relegated to little more than alien fodder. In doing this, The Thing eliminates any possibilities for paranoia or tension as we know the more famous actors will survive. Whereas the original crafted its story around a series of character actors who, Kurt Russell aside given that he was the lead, could all have been killed off or survive in equal measure to keep the suspense and tension going right until the end, this one runs more like your typical modern horror film which is as predictable as it is dull as know who will live and die (hint – the characters who don’t say anything or speak Norwegian will have seriously shorter life spans than those who speak fluent English). The problem here is that we don’t really get to know any of the characters except for Kate, Carter and Dr Sander and so when they are killed off, there’s no emotional attachment. Who cares if that bearded guy who hasn’t said anything is killed off?

The Thing attempts to compensate for the lack of character development by featuring more alien attacks and transformations and getting to them a lot quicker. The original was a bit of a slow burner but here we can see the demands of modern audiences, spoon fed on a diet of instant Michael Bay films, being pandered to with the creature being unleashed very early on. We see a lot more of it too, which isn’t a good thing. Though the pre-release media releases promised old school special effects, what we actually get are a load of sloppy CGI monsters – the bulk of the practical make-up effects were removed or CGI’d over after test screenings failed to be impressed (no doubt these screenings were made up of teenagers who would laugh at the original if they ever saw it). Youtube footage of the various practical models in action in the warehouse looks awesome and it’s a real shame that the decision to replace them was taken. In removing this, The Thing strips away a lot of its heart and soul. These CGI cartoon monsters are soulless, lack any believability and would have been better served in a computer game version. Not only this but the way in which these CGI monsters move is totally at odds with the appearance of the creature in the original film, which is slow, stealthy and methodical in its approach, not lightning fast and happy to reveal itself at the first opportunity.

I’ll give the writers big credit for attempting to craft an entire film based around a couple of moments from the original which hinted as to what happened in the Norwegian camp. These hints are faithfully recreated here so you find out what happened to lead up to them, from the frozen corpse who has slit his throat to an axe lodged in a door and a hideously deformed body burning in the snow. On many occasions, it was arguably better to remain in the dark and use your imagination as to what happened than see it all played out – they certainly don’t detract from any subsequent re-watches of the original, yet don’t provide the satisfactory resolution that one would have expected. The look of the two films, save for the CGI special effects, also seems to work well with each other. You would believe that the two films exist in the same universe which was the intent.

But The Thing fails to convince you that it is worthy of holding a candle to the original. Taking Carpenter’s classic out of the equation and The Thing still wouldn’t work. There is virtually no character development, the special effects are poor and there’s a genuine lack of scares, tension or atmosphere. There’s nothing to grab the attention of the audience. There are no scenes which really stand out. It’s just another reasonably budgeted modern monster movie, only this time it comes with a legacy which it fails to live up to. Lest we forget that Carpenter’s film was also a remake.

 

Like the majority of the recent remakes/sequels/prequels, The Thing rehashes the same story and set pieces from its master copy yet fails to better an infinitely superior film. Like the alien being itself, The Thing is a shallow imitation of the original and whilst it’s not a bad film on its own merits, the overpowering sense of ‘why bother’ will be constantly in the forefront of your mind. This leaves no lasting impression, other than the fact you’d be better off watching the original again.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆ 

 

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Daleks' Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966)

Dr Who and his accomplices arrive on Earth in 2150 to find that the population has been enslaved by the evil Daleks who are using humans to mine the Earth’s core. Can Dr Who and the human resistance groups stop the Daleks before Earth is destroyed?

 

Doctor Who is a British institution. First broadcast back in 1963, the series has become one of the longest-running and most popular science fiction programmes not only in the UK but across the world. Though it has seen its fair share of ups and downs, Doctor Who has become part of popular culture for its imaginative stories and creative low budget special effects, bringing to life a variety of aliens, planets and situations that science fiction literature has come to recognise as some of the most iconic images in the genre.  One such iconic image is that of the Dalek, a mutant alien race who live inside rather unique pepper pot-shaped tank-like machines and are bent on universal conquest and domination. First seen in the Doctor Who‘s second serial, The Daleks, they quickly his most famous and deadly enemies, causing a generation of children to hide behind their sofas whenever they came on.

A pair of non-canon Doctor Who films were made by Amicus Productions in the 60s to capitalise on the phenomenal success of the TV series, with bigger budgets and production values that the TV episodes could only dream of. Both starred legendary actor Peter Cushing as The Doctor and both featured the Daleks – this was the height of a phenomena in the UK known as Dalekmania. The first film, Dr Who and the Daleks, based itself around the story for The Daleks. The second of the films, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D., sees the producers return to the TV series once more, this time basing their script around the more iconic serial of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. It was the first of the TV serials to utilise location shooting and the sight of the Daleks powering across a devastated London and emerging from the Thames have become engrained in UK TV history.

The better of the two big screen Doctor Who adventures, Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. sees the campy and garish nature of the previous film being ramped up a couple of notches. It’s definitely a product of the swinging 60s and unquestionably both looks and sounds dated. Visually, the film was head and shoulders above the TV series for the time. You can only imagine how much more vibrant and innovative the skilled artists at the BBC would have been able to make the series had they had this sort of budget. But not only that, this film manages to hold its own really well against any other 60s science fiction films. The production team have really gone to town on this one, delivering a futuristic vision of a destroyed London on a low budget in stunning, colourful detail. The effects work is a mixed bag – some decent model work, some not so good. Shots of Dalek spaceships flying over London look good but then the miniature sets don’t look all that good either.

Director Gordon Flemyng was back on board and, seeing where the faults lay in the first film, manages a better all-round pace, cramming in plenty of action set pieces and lots more Dalek action, as well as holding back on some of the sillier escapades. It’s still kitsch as anything and the Daleks will never really convince you of their evil intentions due to their absurd design (I always preferred the Cybermen anyway). They get way more screen time than they really should. After all, the TV series scrimped and saved on them because they were just too costly to make and so you only ever saw a few Daleks on screen at once. The bright and gaudy look of the Daleks in the film here is a bit of a surprise, turning them into fashion hazards from an era of hippies. They come off looking like they’ve lost a battle with a couple of toddlers and a few cans of paint. But they’re in the film a lot and there are some entertaining battles between them and the human resistance to keep things ticking over.

Peter Cushing makes for an interesting selection as the Doctor. Just like in the previous film, the character is not written as a mysterious alien but rather a kindly man who has managed to build a time machine (as you do). Cushing plays him as a doddery old gent, very grandfatherly and without any hint of malice or hidden intentions. It’s an eccentric performance which shows the great range that Cushing had and would have been good to see Cushing actually get the chance to play him on a regular basis in the TV series. Strangely, despite his iconic status as a veteran British actor who regularly played villains or scientists, Cushing never appeared in the TV series.

Bernard Cribbins takes over from Roy Castle who was unavailable to return and, though there’s an ill-advised and overlong sequence of him trying to be one of the robo-men, he stops the character from becoming too bumbling and farcical. Cribbins would go on to appear in the TV series in 2007 – a massive gap of forty-one years!

 

Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. is cheap and cheerful, silly and fun. Made for kids who were fascinated with the Daleks back in the 60s, the film does what it sets out to do. If you grew up on a diet of barnstorming sci-fi films like Aliens, this may be a bit too childish and quaint for your tastes. But fans of the series will find plenty to enjoy.

 

 ★★★★★☆☆☆☆☆