Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Zombies of a Kind

You gotta love film school. Where else could you watch John Carpenter’s They Live for educational purposes? Anyway, watching They Live reminded me of the other connotations of the word ‘zombie’. Zombie like what your friends call you when you get a job at Starbucks. Zombie like the sort they warn you about when corporate America, rather than an open portal to hell, is afoot. Anyway, Carpenter’s done his share of both – open portal to hell and corporate America – and has met with just about the same amount of success each time. So let’s see what happens when he takes on the world of zombies great and small.

They Live
by John Carpenter

A nameless drifter rolls into Los Angeles looking for work; this man never gets a name so seeing as how he’s played by former wrestler Roddy Piper, we’ll just call him Roddy. After some wasted time at the unemployment office Roddy finds a job at a construction site. When his foreman yells at him about not sleeping on the job, Frank, one of his co-workers tells him about a shelter nearby where there’s hot food and showers. That night he notices a few odd goings on. First a phantom broadcast keeps interrupting the cable TV. A bearded man keeps ranting about ‘them’ and that they’ve been keeping us asleep and uninformed. Second is that men keep coming and going from the church across the street. He gets the run around from one of the men he asks and when he investigates he finds what seems unquestionably like something illegal. Amidst chemistry sets, piles of knock off Ray-Bans and stacks of cardboard boxes are men talking about moving products over the sound of a pre-recorded church choir. On the wall is a bit of graffiti, which in my opinion is the best thing about this movie “They Live We Sleep”. Roddy finally pisses off when a blind priest feels his face and tells him he wants to show him something – I guess I would, too. Later that night the police show up, raid the church, and then break up the hobo camp with their batons.

When Roddy goes back to the church he finds one box left. He seems a little disappointed when he finds out it’s just full of those same sunglasses. When he puts them on that disappointment turns to fascination and horror. First of all, everything’s in black and white. Second on the list of new sensations is that every thing that carries a slogan of any kind simply says “Buy”, “Obey” and “Submit” on it where there should be cheerful business talk. That means we’re treated to a view of every hippy’s perception of America, a street coated in big black and white billboards with big ominous words on them. Third and last, every third or fourth person he sees doesn’t look human at all. I’m not sure what Carpenter was going for with these guys but they look like the Mutant from This Island Earth via Jan Svankmajer. When Roddy starts calling it like he sees it (it starts with him making a scene in a supermarket, and then ends with him shooting up a bank), he discovers a few things. The bug men die when you shoot them, they all communicate through their wristwatches and can disappear whenever they please.

Roddy lets two people on this new phenomenon. The first is a woman named Holly Thompson who works for the cable TV station that the underground sunglass manufacturers were corrupting. He hops in her car and bums a ride at gunpoint. When they get back to her house, she brains him with a bottle of champaign and sends him flying out her second story window leaving the sunglasses and his crazy ass story behind. When he staggers back to town the next day he tells Frank about what he’s seen. Frank, a family man on the straight and narrow, wants nothing to do with a multiple murderer. The two men come to blows over whether Frank will where the sunglasses for what feels like an eternity and in the end Frank sees the light too. Terrified, the two men go looking for the resistance and then for the signal keeping everyone blind.

I’d like to say that They Live is a cult film, but I have no proof. It just seems like one from start to end. Larry Franco’s screenplay, which probably seemed really cool when he wrote it, doesn’t hold up, least of all with Carpenter’s weirdly static direction and Roddy Piper and Meg Foster’s ‘acting’. I feel like there ought to be an honorary cult status placed on this movie just through it’s mixture of badly functioning elements – isn’t that what cult films are all about? The makeup alone places this on Ed Wood’s plane. Franco’s screenplay calls for a lot of one-liners to be delivered with much manliness and a lot of Springsteen-esque anti-Reagan poverty talk to be delivered with much manly resolve. There aren’t characters so much as there are types – Roddy Piper is a working class Rambo type, Keith David who plays Frank is a family man with responsibility. Neither has much depth and both become one-note action heroes when the film hits the halfway mark. This is everyone’s fault, really. Keith David was better in The Thing and Roddy Piper isn’t actually an actor, so when depth is called for, he falls pretty short of the mark. Meg Foster who plays Holly is both disconcertingly weird looking and wooden. If Franco cared half as much about believable protagonists as it did for throwaway “Here I Am, Kill Me!” henchmen, this might have been a worthy successor to…well anything other than Big Trouble in Little China, but even there it falls short.

Carpenter is such an interesting director; like Wes Craven he loves youth culture and being politically active and his message is always topical it’s just that his execution always falls so short of relevance. Look at Escape From New York. Carpenter’s assertion that New York belonged to freaks that civilization wanted nothing to do with was a reality that kids were living with, his film just comes nowhere near the sort of lifestyle they were living. Carpenter makes films that typically place a lot of importance on the actions of a small group of people. They Live, The Thing, In The Mouth of Madness, Prince of Darkness, and Vampires all share this common thread, but They Live is the one that doesn’t have the gravity to back its apocalyptic nature. I guess because They Live is also sort of a satire, it spends less time being serious, but it’s still violent and weird and not nearly as funny as it thinks it is. They Live is a strange hybrid of all the styles of filmmaking he had ever dabbled in and is easily the least exciting of all the films he’s made. It’s still fun to watch, but a scene, let alone a movie, should never hinge on Roddy Piper’s facial expressions. Carpenter always picks very odd things to carry his films. For awhile this next movie was just ‘the pirate ghost’ movie to me. Now there’s a strange thing to base your film around.

The Fog
by John Carpenter

Before we start the review proper, I just want to point out how big into self-referencing Carpenter is. Horror directors are, the best known of them I should say, people who like working with the same crew over and over again. Starting in the 1980s, directors and writers sometimes got into the habit of naming their characters after genre people they idolized (hence why every character in Night of the Creeps shares a last name with a horror director from that era). In They Live Carpenter used a few of his stock players (George "Buck" Flower and Keith David) and in the end he gets to do the self-referential thing when he has a bug-eyed alien TV commentator talking about movie violence and how it should be toned down ("people like George Romero and John Carpenter"). In The Fog, John really amps it up. He has a drifter named Nick Castle (writer of Escape from New York) a meteorologist named Dan O'Bannon (who went to film school with Carpenter), a sailor named Tommy Wallace (who's actually in the movie as a ghost), a doctor called Phibes, and in the cast is Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, "Buck" Flower, and one of his cinematographer's children. This was definitely a family affair for Carpenter and I think that goes some way toward explaining why it's so easy to watch.

On April 20th, a lot of spooky goings on...go....on....yeah, so between 12 and 1 in the morning a number of strange things take place in Antonio Bay, CA. After a car crashes, lights flicker, gas stations go haywire, Jamie Lee Curtis sleeps with Tom Atkins, and a priest finds his grandfather's diary behind a stone in his church's wall, DJ Stevie Wayne, proprietor of the only radio station on the small island of Antonio Bay, delivers her nightly shipping news. A fog bank is rolling in, boat captains beware. The crew of the Seagrass would have done good to heed that warning but by the time they get it in their heads to leave (When one of them says "I'm Drunk Enough" and then makes to stand up, I got to wondering what the hell goes on in Antonio Bay that the best thing three men can do with their night is to go out to sea and drink) the fog bank has already surrounded them. The men go out on deck in time to witness a rickety old ship pass them by. They might have written off to their drunk (I would) were it not for the musty pirates who murder them brutally a few seconds later.

The next day we get us some exposition. Jamie Lee and Tom's characters investigate the disappearance of the Seagrass. Tom is good friends with one of the sailors, you see. So when they find only one body covered in what looks like hundreds of years of sea debris, Tom is a little upset. When they bring the body back to shore for autopsy and all that good stuff, he wakes back up for a few seconds. Then Stevie's little boy Andy finds a piece of the Elizabeth Dane on the beach and gives it to her as a gift before she leaves for work, putting a babysitter in charge. And our last bit of business concerns Kathy Williams and Sandy Fadel. Kathy is the wife of one of the dead sailors and she's also the head of a committee preparing for the town's 100 year anniversary; Fadel is her secretary. What would really make the ceremony complete would be a benediction from the island's only priest. Well that priest, Father Malone is his generic name, discovers that a few hundred years ago, the town of Antonio Bay was founded by a crew of bastards. A boat called the Elizabeth Dane carrying a lot of gold and a lot of lepers was coming into town, but some malcontents who lived in the town, including Malone's grandfather, set a signal fire that drew the ship into some shoals and crashed it. This supernatural mischief seems a little weak when you consider that if its undead pirates out for revenge all they did was kill three people and mildly inconvenience some others. well real revenge is just around the corner. According to meteorologist Dan O'Bannon, the fog bank is rolling into town again, and this time it means business.

The Fog, as I said at the beginning is really quite easy to watch. That the film is framed as a campfire ghost story is fitting because it feels like one. Things happen for little to no reason other than they're spooky or because they're characteristic of ghost stories. Stevie Wayne's episode on top of her light house is a good example - they take forever to attack her, but it takes only seconds for them to dole out pain to the sailors aboard the seagrass. Because everyone of the performers has that sort of likable John Carpenter laconicism to them and so sympathy isn't impossible like it would be if this film were made by the Italians that The Fog takes its cues from. Frequently there are moments that feel overly drawn out like they do in Italian films. The murder scenes (and the illogicality of many of the supernatural occurrences) feel like they might have been taken from Suspiria or Anthropophagous. By 1981 or thereabouts everyone had had their turn at making a film like Suspiria - even Jesús Franco took a turn - and Carpenter's may be the best of them. The boldness of color, the way in which the arms of the undead pirates slowly plunge through walls, that Giorgio Moroder-esque score, the lingering over the murder weapon - if it weren't for Tom Atkins, I'd say this was an Italian Film. Carpenter had admitted as much, but I think he should rest easy knowing that his film makes much more sense and is ten times more fun than any of the cruel films he was aping. One look at his pirate zombies (which I guess to be fair aren't totally zombies, but they're zombies of a kind. Zombies with ghost-like tendancies) and you can tell what films he was watching. Rob Bottin did a really great job crafting the zombies and his performance as the lead pirate is really good. There's that one shot of the pirates standing in the church near the end - it may be his most beautifully composed framing of all his films. Intoxicatingly spooky is what I'd call it and the movie is worth watching just to give context to that shot.

It's funny how time makes you reconsider things - The Fog is by no means a great film, but when Carpenter financed a remake in 2006, the original looked like the superior, mature film. A remake can make anything look good, I guess. David Gordon Green's writing a remake of Suspiria; maybe that'll break the curse.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the moon turns red and the dead walk the earth...

Here's a lesson, learn it well: Always take chances. A few years ago I got a collection of bad zombie films for like 10 bucks mostly cause I wanted to watch Last Man On Earth. On the disc were like 9 other films (Night of the Living Dead was the obligatory classic as it has no copyright to battle with). I watched most of them (including Amando de Ossorio's terrible vampire comedy Fangs of the Living Dead and Lucio Fulci's nightmarishly nonsensical House by the Cemetery) as occasionally there's a decent film hiding among the mostly bad ones in these sorts of collections. Anyway, I'd watched all of the films in the collection except one and I only remembered to watch it because the other film on the disc I'd just watched, The Thirsty Dead, was on a Something Weird double feature with The Swamp of the Ravens. I'd watched The Thirsty Dead, hadn't I? How bad could this other film, The Messiah of Evil, be? Well, as it turns out it was really awesome and I'm glad that watching The Swamp of the Ravens didn't turn me off of it completely. Was that story way too confusing? I need to get out more.

The Messiah of Evil
by Willard Huyck
I'm not sure exactly sure what to call you, my friend? Dead People would appear to be the film's actual title if the IMDB is to be believed, but it sounds more like a working draft title, something that they created while it was still being fine-tuned by the powers that be. I can tell you that if I didn't know better I'd say that the title Messiah of Evil was something distributors attached to it to capitalize on it's satanic climate so they could send it to drive-thrus with Jean Brismée's The Devil's Nightmare (that's the seven deadly sins movie, in case you were wondering). However, Code Red DVD, the same fanboys who brought you hi-def transfers of Beyond The Door and Don't Go Into The Woods.....Alone recently did a remarkable job with the 35mm transfer of the DVD. I would still have my doubts about the title but they actually got Willard Huyck and editor Scott Conrad to actually touch up the print themselves and approve it for DVD release. With the actual director behind the project, he must have endorsed the title choice, even if it wasn't the original, so I'm going with The Messiah of Evil (though I do like one of it's secondary names, The Return of the Screaming Dead, a whole lot. And you have to admire the brazenness of a title like The Second Coming for a film about satan).

Anyway, so, we start with one of the two voice over tracks we'll be hearing throughout. A woman running down the halls of what appears to be an asylum of some sort warning us about something...someone. This someone's appearance is going to bring death and destruction and there's nothing we can do to stop it. She's seen it before. Her use of the past-tense lets us know that the film proper shall be a flashback and that the fates of every character we meet are pretty much sealed. It all started when her father, an artist of some repute, stopped writing her a few weeks ago. He warned her not to follow, but daughters being daughters, she did. Her travels took her to a seaside town called Point Dune that Huyck and co-writer, director and spouse Gloria Katz never give a region in the country, but it's pretty apparently California. Anyway Point Dune became famous because of legend surrounding the town involving a blood red moon. People stopped moving there not too long ago and everyone you ask will tell you it's a dead town (they just don't know how right they are). On the way into town, Arletty (more brazenness from Huyck, naming his very plain star after one of the most legendary of French Actresses), stops at a mobil station at the same time as a big creepy guy in a red truck. The attendant (who is inexplicably shooting at a cactus with a revolver when we first see him) knows some shit is up when he sees that the bed of the truck has a pile of corpses in it, but decides to keep it to himself and insists rather rudely that our young heroine keep on driving. A short while later the attendant is killed by somebody we can't see beneath the belly of a car he had been working on.

Point Dune is a little like that town in Utah that Candice Hilligoss stays in in Carnival of Souls; it's deserted, spooky, and right on the water. Arletty goes to an art gallery where her father's work is being displayed and aside from a suitably creepy blind dealer and a good number of her dad's paintings on display, she finds nothing worth writing home about. She goes to the hotel room of someone her father mentioned in his last letter and finds a vagabond relating the contents of his dreams to a slick Michael Sarazin type named Thom and his two female sidekicks Toni and Laura. This being the 70s Toni's age is never alluded to; she could be as young as 14 and as old as 24. Laura is Thom's sometimes girlfriend if I'm reading their dialogue right. Thom plays aloof with Arletty and doesn't give much away. We'll learn that he's a sort of Lafcadio Hearn of small town America. He goes around collecting folk lore and weird tales like the one the old man shared with him. Before Thom shows up again, Arletty runs into the vagabond who delivers a cryptic warning, but our girl is having none of it. If she didn't leave when the gas station attendant told her to, a drunk raconteuring for alcohol to strangers isn't going to change her tune either.
When Arletty returns to her father's fascinatingly decorated house that night she finds Thom and the girls have beat her there (both Laura and Toni have already taken showers). Thom tells her that his lust for collecting tales has led him here to her father's house and would be happy to leave if he weren't so goddamned certain that he could get Arletty to sleep with him. He also off-handedly mentioned that the old man was found eaten alive in an alley way. After Laura blows up in her horny friend's face, Thom admits he does indeed want to sleep with Arletty, but he'll wait until things are only slightly less awkward before they consummate anything. Laura leaves that night in a huff (here's where Toni's age confusion comes in. When Laura is saying goodbye to her younger friend, she says "You'll be alright, you're just a kid." This could mean literally anything, of course, but I feel like her relative uncouth behavior at dinner characterizes her as a teenager. But I digress). So Laura attempts to hitch a ride out of town, and who should pick her up but our friend the crazy guy who drives the red pickup. His scene lasts just long enough for him to eat a rat in front of the disgusted Laura who feels she'd rather walk than deal with that noise. As he drives away she sees that the bed of his truck has about eight more corpses than it did the last time we saw it and their all sitting up right. When no one greets her at the motel she finds, she heads to the grocery store. The guy who follows her down the aisles would have been creepy enough, but when she finds a pack of well-dressed people sitting in the meat rack eating as much of the red stuff as they can fit in their hands, that's really the last straw. She doesn't make it out of the store alive.

The next morning Arletty gets a call from the police; they found her father (how do they know that she's staying in his house? O-O-O-O-OH!!) She goes to scene of the crime; seems he was building some structure on the beach, which I'd wager is a sacrificial alter of some kind, and it collapsed on him, killing him instantly. She goes home distraught and explains to Thom that it couldn't be her father; her father's hands were much smaller, they were the hands of an artist, you see. Thom sends Toni to the movies so Arletty can spill her guts to him and Toni has an even creepier evening than Laura did. In a scene consciously reminiscent of The Birds Toni sits in the theatre watching a trailer for Gone With The West with the theatre fills with pale folks with dead eyes. She only notices that she's the only warm body when two of them sit on either side of her. She gets up and tries to leave but the doors are locked from the outside. Goodnight, Toni.

Thom goes out that night and finds the streets full of the bloodthirsty undead; Arletty stays in and gets a visit from her father, who she had believed to be dead by this point. Dad explains that 100 years ago a stranger came out of the woods and explained that he was bringing with him that death and pestilence that Arletty mentioned in the opening voice over, and that he's coming back now to do the same, hence all the zombies. In one final move of conscious humanity, Dad tries to stop himself from killing his daughter, but can't really do it so she stabs him with a pair of sheet metal cutters and then sets him on fire. Thom shows up in time to try and save her from the hoards of the undead gathering on the roof. Once they escape Arletty has one more surprise in store for her.
I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn that Lucio Fulci had seen this movie. An open portal to hell movie where the dead sorta take their time coming back and killing people. Our hero is a blonde who receives orders from an omniscient presence who turns out to be not of this earth. Like Fulci's The Beyond, Messiah of Evil is a little bit zombie film, a little bit satan film, a little bit mystery, and a whole lot a crazy. Unlike Fulci's film, I rather liked The Messiah Of Evil and was pleasantly surprised to find another zombie film made in the first half of the 70s that didn't suck out loud. It more than a little takes from Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls, but it had a lot of things going for it. In the good corner, it has Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz. Huyck and Katz are really great filmmakers when they choose to be. They won, along with George Lucas, the best screenplay oscar for American Graffiti and would spend most of their time following that success working for Lucas on increasingly bad movies. This must have been the film that Lucas saw that made him take an interest in the two and I suppose I would have too. The Messiah of Evil does a lot with very little and along with Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is the best of the post-night pre-dawn zombie films. And as an added bonus, first instance of running zombies in film history!!!!! Take note, students. That's crucial!

Also in it's favor are strong performances from just about everyone. Michael Greer I like a lot in this because he starts off as one of those tremendously sleazy, immaculately dressed svengali types that haunt so many bad 70s films, but it's an act and the script knows it's an act. Thom sheds his layers as shit gets weirder and weirder until he's just a regular guy dealing with a situation much bigger than him. Huyck keeps him shady enough for the first half of the film to suggest he might be in on it, but he drops it coolly as the movie wears on. Elisha Cook Jr. as the crazy guy in the red truck is pretty mesmerizing. The sound of him biting into a rat is something I won't forget anytime soon. Huyck and Katz' screenplay was pretty thoughtful with it's characterization of everybody. Also, apparently Walter Hill is in here somewhere as an extra. The only thing I didn't really like was Marianna Hill's voice over that runs throughout - it's a little too dramatic and Barbara Steele-esque for a film this small. Oh, and speaking of small, Huyck and Katz do an impressive amount with very little. Future Oscar nominee Jack Fisk's art direction is flooring. The colors are pretty amazing, especially in the movie theatre when they accentuate the cold colors of everyone but Toni. Arletty's dad's apartment is painted so that it resembles some kind of expressionistic, post-modern mall and is decorated wildly. Every new thing that Arletty encounters (the blind art dealer, the vagabond, her dad's apartment) makes it harder to trust her surroundings and Point Dune soon becomes one of cinema's great ghost towns. This is a film that benefits from it's dreamlike atmosphere rather than suffering from it like A Virgin Among The Living Dead. In fact Messiah of Evil could have even been made in response to that film as it shares a plot structure (no, that doesn't mean that everything was just a dream!). The film's plot is similar to H.P. Lovecraft's The Shadow Over Innsmouth as well, but I tend to see Lovecraft everywhere these days.

The death scenes are handled really well. The scenes where Toni and Laura meet their makers are so superbly handled it's really a shame that more people haven't seen the movie. Like Hitchcock, Huyck does a lot with glances and silence. For example in both scenes there is no music other than what plays from the speakers in the grocery store and the movie theatre. Really great stuff. You could make a case for so many other films ripping this off, it's incredible. The whole notion of a town closing up when it gets dark so the dead can walk the streets? That's The Night of the Seagulls - nevermind that they both end on a day-for-night beach. I also love the ending which I believe is left purposely open ended, something I like but that others consider a weak spot. I like to think that when the Messiah finally shows up that he impregnates Marianna, cause why else would the word sacrifice be used, other than for her to be the prophet of his next appearance, like her father was before her. There are other little things that people chalk up to poor scripting that I chalk up to average open-portal-to-hell behavior, to borrow a phrase. The strange things that confront our heroes are stylish and creepy enough that I think a hack like Lucio Fulci could have easily found inspiration here. He may have had better cinematography and scarier zombies, but he didn't have the better film. The Messiah of Evil may not be a forgotten classic but it's better than just about all of it's peers and is most definitely worth a look. Ok, I'll say it: It's a forgotten classic and it's the best trippy zombie film ever made.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Strange Personal Life of Jesus Franco

Jesús Franco is a man with problems. The creator of more films than I've had seconds of life, Franco has had ample opportunity to put his life on film. Look at Woody Allen, that man's made only a handful of films (by comparison) and most of them have something to do with his own neuroses. Franco is a different sort of filmmaker. In Italy (Spain, Germany, and France, too, but to a lesser extent) movies are just a business. Franco's a pretty decent example of this; the man made 69 films in the 70s alone. Somewhere in there, he did pour his heart out just a bit, but unless you were familiar with his biography, you would have no idea. To the untrained eye, a movie like A Virgin Among The Living Dead is simply pornography that makes no fucking sense. To someone who knows a little bit about Franco, it's very personal pornography that makes no fucking sense. And by the time it ends, you're gonna feel pretty goddamned cheated out of your 80 minutes.

A Virgin Among The Living Dead
by Jesús Franco
Let's start the fun shall we? Ok, so Christina Benton is an orphan staying at an inn. She's at this inn because it's a halfway point to her uncle's estate. Uncle Howard (a common Spanish name I'm sure) is her only family now that her father has died offscreen. In the middle of the night, while Christina is wandering about in her underwear, she starts up a conversation with the hotels only other guest ("you don't happen to be a writer do you?" "No, I'm a doctor." Thanks, Jess) when her uncle's valet, Basilio arrives. He is some kind of mongoloid who can't form words, so how Christina understands that this is the man she's supposed to get into a driverless car with is beyond me. Interestingly enough, he's played by the director. So, Christina blathers on in voice over about her eerie surroundings for ten minutes or so and then arrives to meet the bunch of loonies that make up our supporting cast. There's Howard, a man who spends all of his spare time lounging about and leering at everything insight like he's on some Quaalude that causes malevolent demeanor. His sister-in-law, Christina's step mom Herminia, is on death's door and dies as soon as Christina visits her. Howard's wife Abigail must be on the same drug as Howard cause she never looks pleased. Carmenze, the blonde, whose relationship is never explained may be the weirdest of them all (except maybe Basilio). She kisses Christina whenever she can, hangs around in varying states of near-nudity for most of the movie and writhes around on the floor at inappropriate times (like after the reading of Christina's dad's will). Then there's the blind ghost who hangs around and visits Christina in her dreams.

Christina has a few days before the lawyer can show up to read the will to this bunch of degenerates, so Christina has plenty of time to wander around aimlessly and walk into increasingly stranger situations. She swims naked in a lily pond while two creepy men peep on her. A local boy drives them away and then he and Christina begin a sort of relationship. Christina wakes from a violent dream to discover Carmenze sitting over her in her underwear ("Have you been here long?" "Just an hour." Uh...huh). She walks in on Carmenze having just stabbed the blind ghost with a pair of scissors; the two are naked and Carmenze laughs and invites Christina (for what seems like an eternity) to join them. She finds Basilio and Abigail holding one of Herminia's severed hands which they don't explain to her (and still she doesn't leave). She finds a giant wooden penis on her bedroom floor one morning (the hell?). The real icing on the cake comes when she sees her dead father with a noose around his neck. And before long she can't distinguish between dream and reality, just like everyone in the audience.
A Virgin Among The Living Dead is a pretty trying movie. It asks you to sit through a funereally paced nonsensical parade of nudity and strangely passive violent images and just when you think you have a grip on things, Franco reveals the films only secret, which, though illuminating, is pretty fucking aggravating. I'll give you a hint: why would a movie strive to feel as illogical as a dream? Anyway, the film is shoddily put together, makes little to no sense even at its lucid moments and is generally unpleasant to watch. Franco makes frequent use of what be called his signature camera angle, whenever Christina lies down to sleep, Franco zooms right up into vagina like he's being subtle for placing her there. So, I hear you asking, how does an onslaught of naked women amount to anything personal? Well, I'll tell you.

Jesús Franco started off making films that were taboo breaking for their time. Films like Vampyros Lesbos. For whatever reason people really love these movies, I don't get it. The few times I've watched his movies is because of the promise of zombies (many of you who notice a paucity of zombies in this review can take it up with the title). The reason this movie is more than just Christina Von Blanc skinnydipping is because of Soledad Miranda. Miranda was Franco's favorite actress to work with; his Diane Keaton, if you will. She was in many of his best remembered films like Vampyros Lesbos and The Devil Came From Akasava. One evening, Miranda and her husband were driving to meet Franco to discuss their next project when they were in a fatal car accident. Franco was crushed and went into a deep depression. A Virgin Among The Living Dead is what you might call closure. It's all his feelings for Miranda in one confusing, hard to follow fever dream. I guess he felt he had done her wrong - and truth be told, he had. I'd be a pretty angry ghost if my legacy was flashing my tits in a few cheap-ass vampire movies directed by a nutcase. Oh, did I mention that Jesús Franco has claimed to see Soledad Miranda in his dreams after she died and she would tell him things. Apparently he altered pretty big plans on her advice. Serves him right I suppose. When Franco met Lina Romay, she became his new muse, and their partnership has lasted for many, many years. In fact as late as 2005's The Snakewoman, they're still making movies.
So does all this bizarre history make the film worth watching? Not on your life! I watched this with a friend who at about the halfway mark shouted "This is just porn!" Ordinarily I'd have chimed in with some obscure piece of sorta-redeeming information, but in this case, I couldn't argue. I didn't even want to argue; I fast-forwarded out of guilt. While knowing why Franco made this movie the way he did is empowering in a sense, it doesn't make A Virgin Among The Living Dead even a half-way decent sleaze film. In fact I'd count it as one of the most agonizingly aimless movies I've yet seen. I can think of no redeeming feature to recommend it, I can think of no element worth complimenting, I can think of no better film to forget (except maybe other Franco films).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Earth Everyone Wants You To Fail

Ok, you’re about to hear one of my favorite stories. After Aliens cemented the Giger designed outerspaceling into the collective unconscious of the entire movie-going populace, a third film may not have made sense in the context of the story (neither did Aliens, really), but it sure as hell made a lot of financial sense. Or so it seemed. So with this task ahead of them producers David Giler and Walter Hill went searching for a fresh face not unlike James Cameron’s or Ridley Scott’s. Before directors could be contracted, they needed a screenplay. William Gibson was brought on for a draft; his centered on Bishop and Hicks dealing with the aliens in a futuristic mall in outerspace – Gibson admitted to having been influenced by Alien and was happy to write a film for Giler and Hill. The problem was he wrote a film and not a treatment that could be played around with and he was already drafting other projects when they called him for a rewrite. With Gibson out of the picture, they started from scratch. Renny Harlin was hired to direct and he suggested Hill and Giler get Eric Red to write a screenplay. His, predictably enough, took place in a biodome made to resemble a Texas border town. Renny Harlin hated it (cause he’s an idiot, is my guess) and moved on to ruin other franchises. Giler and Hill fired Red and brought in David Twohy. Twohy’s idea was about a prison ship that faked executions so they could use prisoners to run experiments with new kinds of alien; they were essentially being used as bait for Weyland-Yutani’s special alien breeding grounds. This too was scrapped. Vincent Ward had been brought in to direct by this time and had an idea of his own. His was really the best of them; evidently Giler and Hill thought so because they poached most of his ideas for their 'final draft'. Ward's idea centered on a planetoid made of wood, inhabited by an order of luddite monks who despise technology. It featured Ripley coming down and bringing an alien with her and inciting argument about whether or not she was the devil. It featured beautifully conceptualized set designs and if it had been completed it would have been brilliant. Halfway through constructing the mammoth set, Giler decided he didn’t like the script and Ward was cut loose. Finally, with more than half of the budget blown on sets which were now unusable, Giler and Hill rewrote the screenplay combining elements from Twohy’s draft and Ward’s shooting script and brought on first-time director David Fincher, veteran of music videos and commercials who had a real sense of the visual. The result is a big, old mess that I love dearly.

by David Fincher
Well, Ripley does crash land, but not on a planet run by monks. The universe’s least lucky lady finds herself in Fiorina ‘Fury’ 161, a lead foundry that used to be a work-based prison. When she awakens to the hardened, bristly face of Clemens, the foundry’s only medical officer, she looks as though she knows that bad news is about to follow. Newt and Hicks are both dead and Bishop was damaged beyond repair. She demands to be shown the remains of the ship and upon spying a nasty looking acid burn on the side of Newt’s hyper sleep tube she makes Clemens take her to the bodies. Ripley makes Clemens perform an autopsy on the young girl despite his certainty that she drowned. We know very well she’s not looking for evidence of drowning or cholera as she explains. When Andrews, the superintendant of the prison shows up with his parroting assistant Aaron, and demands to know why an autopsy was conducted without his permission, Clemens covers for Ripley, hoping that she’ll level with him if he has her trust. She further requests for the bodies of her companions to be cremated.

In a lovely piece of parallel editing Ripley, Clemens, Aaron, Andrews and the 25 inmates left on Fury 161 attend the cremation of Hicks and Newt (which consists of Dillon, the leader of the prisoners, reciting an inspiring prayer about the creation of life) while an alien bursts out of the chest of…well, that depends, really. In the theatrical version one of the first things we see is a prisoner named Murphy looking in on the wreckage of the escape pod with his dog Spike. Spike would then fall victim to a stowaway face-hugger and give birth during the cremation. In the assembly cut, which was the version created using thrown-away footage that fans longed to see ever since Alien³ made it to theatres and rumours began circulating about what went wrong, an ox gives birth to our antagonistic beast. Either way, it’s a whole new beast. It walks on four legs most of the time, except in close-up when it’s played by Tom Woodruff Jr. in the still-impressive suit. Whenever movement on all four limbs is required our alien will be played by a rather sorry looking color-changing puppet processed into the shot.
After a really awkward luncheon where it’s established that everyone of the 25 prisoners are hostile, religious and crazy, Ripley asks Clemens for some information. He explains that when Fury 161 was still a prison, Dillon converted a few of them to his own brand of religion. The prison was shut down not too long after and the converts opted to stay and look after the lead works as the site may one day be used for its massive nuclear waste holding tank in the basement. Hence why everyone dresses in thick monk-like robes. Ripley deflects Clemens’ question about the autopsy by sleeping with him and before he can explain why he has a barcode on the back of his head like all the other prisoners, he’s called away to deal with some mischief that smells of a certain quadruped.

The alien first makes a nuisance of himself by spitting acid into Murphy’s eye as he cleans a duct nearby a giant fan; doesn’t take a genius to know that whenever an expendable character stands next to a big fan, he’s going in. The only piece of Murphy left to identify is a boot. While this goes on, Ripley begins getting ideas about the nature of her ship’s crash. She seeks out the black box from the ship and the only computer capable of reading its contents: Bishop. In an attempt to familiarize us with some of the other inmates, two things happen. First, Ripley is found out in the open by four prisoners who try to rape her (only three of the four, Junior, Gregor, and William will get names). She is saved when Dillon intervenes with a lead pipe and doles out some vengeance. Next, three prisoners, Boggs, Rains, and Golic are sent into a portion of the basement to do a job (because Giler and Hill are not actually screenwriters, that job will never be shared with us). Boggs and Rains are killed and Eric, the prisoner who must be the chef, is unsurprisingly startled when Golic shows up in the dining room coated in Boggs’ blood. Just after telling Ripley that there was an alien on board their ship, Ripley disconnects Bishop in time to see Aaron, Clemens, Andrews, and Dillon arrive with Golic in a straightjacket. Only Ripley believes Golic’s story about a dragon making off with his friends. When Ripley shares the contents of the last few years of her life with Andrews, he thinks she’s as mad as Golic and sends her away. Everyone’s tune changes when the alien kills Clemens in the infirmary and then runs down the hall to kill Andrews while he’s in the midst of a speech about remaining calm. Now that everyone believes her, just what in hell is she going to do with no weapons and a company drop-ship en route?
I think the biggest problem with this film is that it has no idea what kind of movie it wants to be. It works as science-fiction, but Alien³ is so uneventful that it’s easy to forget you’re watching the sequel to a movie as good as Alien. The scare scenes are decidedly not scary and the atmospherics serve only to make Ripley’s situation seem hopeless, not horrifying. Ripley spends most of the second and third acts exhausted and disappointed. When you remember that she ended the last film in a big yellow robot battling a gigantic alien that looked like the goddess Kali, watching Sigourney Weaver sigh endlessly and explain her problems to three different characters, all of whom don’t listen to her, is really uncinematic. There’s little else but characters talking to each other for a good deal of the movie and it just doesn’t work. It especially doesn’t work because the few times that the alien actually shows up are handled all wrong. Giler and Hill didn’t bring the scare in their script and Fincher couldn’t do anything but what was asked of him. And so the film just mires in its own depressed cycle until the ending, which is a predictable let-down. By the time the curtain has to fall, there are 11 characters left, only four of whom have been given exposition and they disappear so quickly that it seems completely arbitrary. The film's climactic race between the prisoners and the alien in the lead works is confusing and really gets to the root of the script problems. The end shows Ripley and Dillon coaching the last prisoners, Troy, Gregor, Jude, William, Kevin, Morse, David, Eric and Vincent (who is never shown and is killed instantly) through the tunnels in the leadworks so they can trap the alien. The cast is whittled down quick (Eric is never killed on screen, he simply disappears; William's body is shown for literally a second of screentime and his death is never depicted.) and then, as if by accident, Morse is the only survivor. What sort of film were Giler and Hill trying to produce? Characters are killed at random and the last character alive is someone we barely know.

If I had to pick someone to blame, I’d pick David Giler. Giler was the most outspoken critic of the best sounding of the proposed drafts of the script and it is pretty exclusively his fault that all the money was blown on sets that never got used (as he was the one who took issue with the logic in Ward's script). Fincher had no money left to spend when he arrived to make a film out of the pile of elements they laid at his feet. Giler and Walter Hill’s script is a mess that has no focus; characters disappear for little to no reason and importance is given to characters who die quite unceremoniously. Hill and Giler made no secret of the fact that they were just trying to finish the film so it could go out and make them some money before people lost interest. David Fincher reportedly received new script pages via fax and was expected to shoot them the day of their arrival. The theatrical version is practically unwatchable, what with its jittery editing, its disdain for explaining what the hell we’re seeing and its melodramatic finish. The few successes that Alien³ enjoys are due to David Fincher, cinematographer Alex Thomson, and as usual, a boatload of character actors.
I like films with big casts of little known actors. The assembly cut of Alien³ is something I’ve studied extensively for this reason. Before I knew about the assembly cut, my only experience with Alien³ was when I caught a few minutes of it years ago on TV and noticed how dreary it looked and how unlike Aliens it was in its presentation – unromantic, unexciting, unengaging. Here was Ripley conqueror of worlds bantering with Charles Dutton and sleeping with Charles Dance. Where was that soldier she bagged last time around? Where’s the action? I tried the theatrical film a little later and was pretty miffed save for one scene, and it is by all accounts the worst executed scene of the movie, but it’s the one I like best. It’s that scene near the end when they’re in the lead works. I like the assembly cut because it allows me to try and figure out exactly what’s going on and when the prisoners are killed. I find the scene so compelling because it actually uses the relative anonymity of the prisoners to its advantage. Here these poor bastards finally mean something. They're the last hope for civilization, whether they know it or not. That's a fascinating idea and they wring a fair amount of conflict, pathos and empathy, because they're largely phenomenal actors/presences, even if they're only on screen long enough to die. In a remaster I can also appreciate the costume design, which is excellent, and Elliot Goldenthal's score, which fits the film like a glove, and I can really appreciate the look of the film. Finally getting my hands on the assembly cut, however, did little to improve the plot, the wild inconsistencies, the hacksaw editing and the depression that seeps from Alien³’s pores.

The assembly cut makes a little more sense by the time the film ends and it packs more of an emotional punch. It’s also full of proto-Fincher moments like Junior’s death after the first failed attempt to kill the alien. The explosion that Ripley engineers to draw the alien out of the duct work and into an old fallout shelter is a pretty lame device and is comprised mostly of repeated shots of prisoners falling from vent shafts while on fire. The idea that an explosion would just eat up half of your cast is phenomenally lazy writing. During the explosion, Gregor catches fire and Junior and Ripley have to beat the flames out, their only interaction since the two men tried to rape her. They put it out and Junior runs ahead. Everyone watches in horror as the alien climbs down the wall and cuts Junior off from the rest of the prisoners. Junior, perhaps to redeem himself for trying to rape Ripley, screams at the alien to draw its attention and runs inside the large holding compartment. The alien follows and Ripley closes the door behind them. Fight Club, Seven, Panic Room, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo all have moments like this; loss and sacrifice complicated by motivation and the past. Without this scene, not only does the film lose one of its only genuinely exciting moments, it loses fairly important characters (Junior in this moment becomes more interesting than almost anyone else left standing) without so much as a verbal acknowledgement. Why spend so much time getting to the alien attacks if you’re not going anywhere special with the plot?
The film is full of sloppy compositional and editorial errors like this. It has more ADR than I can recall ever having seen in a big budget film like this; many of the film’s lines are shown coming from characters whose mouths are clearly not open. Many of the scenes cut out for theatrical release seem to have been dropped as part of a conscious effort to make the movie less interesting. Take the opening shots of Charles Dance’s Clemens walking alone on the beach in his enormous coat. It’s a masterfully composed sequence and adds so much to his character without even a word of dialogue and the producers tossed it in favor of a quicker, cheaper opening. Then there’s the dog alien vs. the ox alien. The dog makes more sense anatomically and behaviorally, but the feasibility of an ox on the planet is greater. And why does no one but Dillon seem to exhibit any sort of religious fervor? What happens to Eric during the climax? Why not make more of the prisoner’s belief that the alien has brought the apocalypse? That could have been so much more compelling than watching everyone bicker for acts 2 and 3. It also would have given the religious aspects of the movie some reason for existing, cause as it stands it accomplishes next to nothing. Why bother giving Clemens as much exposition as he gets if he’s going to be killed for no real reason? Why spend so much time with Aaron and Ripley as they go round and round and round? The film was filled with so many aborted ideas and so many half-cooked ones that it feels like you’ve eaten an entire meal of bread and water because your dinner never arrived.

And what a cast to waste! Paul McGann is given almost nothing to do as Golic, but his physicality is remarkable. Peter Guinness and Holt McCallany as Ripley’s wanna-be rapists Gregor and Junior do more with facial expressions and the way they lean than many can with pages of dialogue. Holt McCallany and Christopher John Fields (Rains) are the only actors in the cast that David Fincher has worked with since; no small feet considering the horrible memories Fincher has of the film’s production (Fincher was supposed to have said he would rather have colon cancer than direct another movie. I can't blame him as Giler was supposed to have said "Why are you listening to him? He's a shoe salesmen" numerous times on the set). Actually it’s rumoured that Charles Dutton shows up in Seven, but it must not have been for long. Pete Postlethwaite is pretty much always fun to watch; Charles Dance is sober and reserved, but ultimately it’s his character, not his acting that falls short of the mark. Charles Dutton and Ralph Brown (Aaron) ham it up a bit towards the end, but by then who’s paying attention? Everyone else does a fine job, with the exception of Leon Herbert (Boggs) who lays it on pretty thick. Vincenzo Nicoli (Jude), Paul Brennan (Troy), Philip Davis (Kevin), and Niall Buggy (Eric) have so little to do (Paul Brennan has exactly one line) that you don’t notice how good they are. Alien movies live and die by their character actors.

The creature effects are a pretty good metaphor for the film as a whole. Fincher had some pretty good ideas concerning the alien design – like the idea to make him four-legged, thus solidifying the alien’s feature as something that takes on the form of whatever host it has. Tom Woodruff Jr. and his effects team also had what is most certainly the best rubber suit the franchise ever saw. That’s about where the problems started. The puppet they use for the long shots is wholly unconvincing and comes off looking like the world’s worst CGI monster ever. In point of fact, the film had very few actual CGI shots – the alien’s reaction to the water at the film’s end is a good example. The puppet shots were processed in later and in some scenes it can pass, but barely. For the most part it’s just a big reminder that CGI wasn’t there yet – the purple thing that hangs on ceilings that looks hand-drawn onto the film is really distracting. Film hadn’t yet become as advanced as it is today and so any idea Fincher had regarding the alien design was basically fuel to a fire with no spark to start it. Like much else in the film, the crew had a lot of energy but nothing productive to do.

Watching Alien³ is interesting because it shows how talented David Fincher is without showing you evidence you can trust. If you have any doubt watch Alien³ and realize that every shot, every interaction is more than competently done. The design may be borrowed, but look how splendidly Fincher and Thomson find the angles, look how they frame the characters in relation to the sets. The problems lie in the writing, the editing, and the effects. Fincher had no control over what anyone said, he simply told them how to say it. If you consider this, it becomes clear that our director made a bad film great so that the producers could make it bad again. If a benefactor asks an artist to paint something vulgar, he can make it the most beautiful depiction of that vulgar thing, but it will always be vulgar. Alex Thomson’s cinematography is amazing - even critics saw that at the time. The scenes in the lead foundry are terrific; that otherworldly orange glow is a big part of the film’s aesthetic. Fincher always pushes his cinematographers to achieve palpable moods with their cameras, and it all started here. If anyone at Fox had the slightest idea how brilliant David Fincher really was Alien³ would have been great, but now Fincher won’t even go near it. As it stands, it’s simply an odyssey.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

My Favourite Films Volume 9: Aliens

Here’s a riddle for you. When a movie’s plot leaves no questions to be answered, what happens next? Give up? A sequel. Ok, so that’s unfair in this case, but it applies more often than not. Name one big Hollywood sequel (leaving aside those based on novels) that was truly warranted? Some of them are good, mind you, but would it have been the end of the world if Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, Die Hard, The Terminator, Jurassic Park, or Airplane had never gotten sequels? My point is that when these films came to a close, I doubt there was a viewer in the audience (who didn’t have “Producer” written on his nametag) who thought “I can’t wait for the next one!” There are formulas, sure, and the one I’ll be illuminating is the trend to take an existing film and for the sequel, militarize the plot and quicken the pace. It happened for 28 Days Later and it happened for Alien. Neither film’s sequel is as good as the original, but they’re entertaining and no one could call them boring. And as it just so happens Aliens, James Cameron’s Vietnam-geared sequel to what may be the finest sci-fi/horror film ever made, has personal significance for me. My earliest memory as a child is of watching the climactic battle between Sigourney Weaver and the queen alien; Aliens is why I’m here writing about zombie films. Aliens is why I watch films.

by James Cameron
When last we left Ripley, she was floating in an escape ship with nothing but bad memories and pet cat Jones to keep her company. She’s picked up by a salvage team who ship her dehydrated body to a “company” owned hospital. The “company” we learn, is called Weyland-Yutani, and they have human faces now instead of just phantom directives. Ripley wakes up in time to be brought to trial for the destruction of the Nostromo, a million-dollar space ship carrying millions of dollars worth of ore. Ripley informs everyone that an Alien sighting trumps all their bullshit and flips out on them despite her lawyer Carter Burke’s urgings to take it easy. She gets her license reduced (I find this funny because everyone seemed to know everyone else’s job aboard the Nostromo. What was her speciality exactly. Also interesting that they use the word license, because she was supposed to be a warrant officer, which is a military rank, which a corporate tribunal can’t strip you of. James Cameron was doctoring an old script when he wrote this, so I’ll let it slide) and is stuck with a shrink for the duration of her probation period. As a final warning, she asks the big wig in charge of the proceedings to go and see for himself, to which he coolly replies that they have. There are 60 or 70 families worth of terraformers running a giant oxidation plant on the planet (which they refer to now as LV-246) where Ripley and the crew of the Nostromo found their interstellar foe. She knows nothing good’s going to come of this.

Weeks later her suspicions are confirmed when Burke shows up at her door with a marine lieutenant named Gorman and news that contact with the terraformers has ceased without warning. They’re starting to come around to Ripley’s claims of a 7 foot space demon with acid for blood, now! They’re sending in colonial marines to see what made the calls stop coming in and they want Ripley as an adviser. Though initially she refuses her recurring nightmares show no signs of stopping unless she confronts the thing that killed her crew. Soon, she’s waking up in a new set of hypersleep capsules, this time surrounded by marines instead of blue-collar workers. So let’s meet our crew of laughably over-matched boyscouts, shall we? Gorman, a greenhorn by all accounts, is in charge, but the marines really take orders from Apone, the sergeant, who is the black equivalent of R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket. The grunts are Corporals Hicks, Ferro, and Dietrich and Privates Vazquez, Frost, Hudson, Drake, Spunkmeyer, Crowe, and Wierzbowski. Burke comes along for insurance reasons – the installation they’ve lost contact with is company property after all, and he doesn’t want a bunch of yahoo soldiers blowing up anything expensive by accident. Finally there’s Bishop, the ship’s android – another company policy (Ripley must be just thrilled with the company by this point). Ripley throws a fit when she finds out about the android and warns him to keep his distance – didn’t have so much luck last time she was in close quarters with one. After the personality set-ups, the marines are dropped into the terraformers home base, guns blazing.

An initial sweep of the wonderfully dreary colony turns up bullet holes, evidence of acid leaks like the one that nearly chewed through the hull of the Nostromo, six face-huggers in specimen jars (only two still alive), and a little girl named Newt, the only human survivor. In fact Newt’s the only evidence that there were people here in the recent past. Ripley tries interrogating her and short of the girl’s name and the news that everyone else is dead learns very little about what happened. From what they can deduce the colonists must have found the same downed ship and brought back the same uninvited guest with them. Just when things look to be completely empty of human life, Hudson finds the colonists on the third floor sub-basement of the atmospheric processing plant (they show up as dots on a tracking computer because each colonist has a surgically implanted tracking device). The marines move out leaving Bishop behind to continue autopsying the dead face huggers and Ferro and Spunkmeyer on standby in the drop ship. The problem with the marines moving into the plant is that the station works like a big fusion reactor and the use of their ammo is going to rupture the core. No firearms. Marines are still intimidating without guns right?

When the marines find the remains of the colonists, they’re mostly cocooned in hardened slime with holes in their chest. They show up in time to see the last survivor give birth to a chest-bursting worm alien, just like Kane, and in burning the little bastard alive, wake up something bigger. Make that somethings…many, many somethings with big teeth on the end of their tongues. When the aliens start attacking, Gorman quickly loses his head and freezes up. Ripley refuses to stand by while everyone is killed and drives the APC into the third floor corridor for an impromptu rescue mission. By the time the Vietnam-esque fiasco that ensues is over, only Vasquez, Hudson and Hicks remain of the marines, the drop ship has crashed because an alien snuck aboard and dispatched its pilots, and Gorman has a concussion. Shall we raise the stakes a bit? The aliens quickly try and take ground to get ahold of the seven tasty human beings and one robot hiding in operations. Hicks and Ripley order everyone to weld the doors shut and barricade themselves into a small portion of the compound. Not high enough for you? In emergency situations such as these, protocol states that a rescue mission won’t be sent until 17 days after contact with the marines has stopped. Higher still? You got it. Well, it looks like the marines weren’t careful enough in their attempt to defend themselves from the onslaught of aliens and ruptured the core anyway, leaving six hours before the station explodes in a giant fusion reaction. The only hope for escape lies in remote piloting another drop ship from their mothership. Bishop volunteers (proving his not-evil credentials once and for all) and his calculations put the ships arrival in time to be really goddamned close to the whole place going up in smoke. And as if that weren’t enough, Ripley finds out what made the colonists bring the face-huggers back to the colony in the first place. It seems that when SOMEONE found out there was an unstoppable killing machine just a few kilometers away from a whole host of fresh meat, an ‘investigate’ order showed up. And that someone is still just as interested in bringing back this killing machine to profit from it. That sounds like something a company man might do, doesn’t it? Let’s see what happens when the aliens work as a team and the humans don’t.

Of the three films in the original Alien series, Aliens is the one that has aged with the least grace (if you leave out the bad puppet shots in Alien³). James Cameron was busy writing a Vietnam film when someone offered him Aliens as a follow-up to his box-office smash The Terminator. A few months later, he had reworked that script into Aliens and it shows. Listen to Hudson speak through most of the film – it’s entertaining, but do you know anyone who isn’t a character in a film made between 1975 and 1997 that talks like that? That’s really the biggest problem with Aliens. In contrast to Alien, which did everything in its power to exist outside the trends of the time it was made in, Aliens couldn’t be more a product of its era. In nothing but a mid-80s romantic (anti)war film could you find a force of less than 12 taking on an entire army all the while glorifying a family unit. In fact Cameron’s script is structured so as to erase any and all military presence by the time the film’s climax rolls around. So leaving aside the Vietnam-syndrome that plagues the action and dialogue, we also have a lot of very 80s looking technology and a lot of budget-conscious staging. One thing you notice after having seen Aliens a few times is that there are surprisingly few shots that contain large numbers of aliens in them. With the exception of the shootout in operations at the end of the second act, you’ll rarely if ever see more than one alien in frame at one time. Cameron was all about editing tricks and making scenes feel big as opposed to actually making them big, hence his constant use of miniatures (which, don’t get me wrong, look great). If Cameron had been as willing to spend studio money as Ridley Scott was, he might have a film slightly better than the one he ended up with.
That’s not to say Aliens isn’t a great film. One thing I give Cameron and crew props for is making the film feel much more ramshackle than its predecessor. Things buzz and shake more and thanks in large part to Adrian Biddle’s cinematography, Aliens feels like apocalyptic, like everything’s coming apart at the seams. Biddle was a camera operator under Derek Vanlint on Alien and was moved up to DP for the sequel. His work is nearly as nice to look at as Vanlint’s, and his use of blue and red throughout makes for nice contrast. Where Cameron really shines (as evidenced by the best parts of The Terminator) is in the action. Cameron likes two things more than action, he likes depiction of the working class, and he likes love stories. That’s why every fiction film he’s made has both. Aliens was almost a much more mawkish picture, which but for one scene I’d have been ok with, but what he didn’t realize was that the chemistry between Ripley and Hicks and Ripley and Newt worked because it was always against the backdrop of something fast and mean. When you take time out from the story to be cute, you lose big. So, the theatrical version of the film keeps those two things nicely in check and we’re left with a pretty awesome collection of action scenes. All these scenes are accompanied by James Horner’s excellent score adaptation. With all the ratcheting up of the suspense Cameron does, he would have been quite damned if he couldn’t have followed through, but he does. The battle scenes between the marines and the aliens are the reason boys love monster movies. The bit where Ripley and Newt are stuck in the O.R. with the two facehuggers has been ripped off more times than I can count – just as a for example, look at the Raptors in the kitchen from Jurassic Park. Aliens is damned exciting and I could watch it any day of the week.

The performances are all pretty strong. Michael Biehn and Sigourney Weaver make for a nice pair and Carrie Henn does an excellent job as Newt. Jeanette Goldstein as Vasquez, Bill Paxton as Hudson and every other marine is little more than a variation on an existing stereotype, but, they all work. Interestingly enough, Cameron hired two stunt men to play Crowe and Wierzbowski, the two marines with no dialogue, just like Danny Boyle did in 28 Days Later. As a nice bit of coincidence, Trevor Steedman who plays Private Wierzbowski and Marvin Campbell who plays infected Private Mailer both wound up as stunt players in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men. Paul Rieser plays Burke with just the right amount of sleaze and backsliding; he’s an usual choice to play the film’s one human villain but he does so effortlessly. Lance Henriksen and William Hope are both benign, except that William Hope has the film’s best exit.
Oh, there’s one thing I’ve forgotten. That scene I mentioned that I saw as a 3 or 4 year old. That had about the profoundest effect on me I can imagine. I’m a ravenous film hound because my dad let me watch it and my mom didn’t stop him; she loves the film arguably more than he does. Everything I do is coloured in some way by this experience and I’ll defend the climax of this movie until my dying day. It has the perfect blend of elements all kept in check. After taping a machine gun to a flame thrower, rides down a dozen storeys on an elevator to rescue Newt from the Alien’s lair. Using a tracker-wristband, she follows the signal, until she hears Newt scream. She pulls her out of her cocoon and carries her away as the place starts exploding. Ripley runs away from the flames right into the nest of the queen. A long pan moves from a heinous looking egg sack up a thick, slug-like tail, over a tubular collection of limbs and finally on a big crown. When the monster’s head protrudes from beneath its giant crown and clacks its jaws together, little worlds were being built and destroyed in my little brain. When Ripley makes her daring escape, with Newt on her shoulder all the while, and red herring number 2 is revealed back aboard the mothership I was given the yardstick by which I would measure all film climaxes. I love Aliens with all my heart.

My Favourite Films Volume 8: Alien

A digression is about to take place, one that I’ve been looking forward to ever since I started writing about movies. I’ve branched into sci-fi horror but a few times, and each time it was because zombies were involved. Now I take a moment to digress fully from the living dead and tackle a series of films I’ve loved more than any other (my affections for it rival those I reserve for Romero’s Living Dead Trilogy). This is a trilogy comprised of a film that changed science fiction forever, a film that became the first prestigious monster movie, and a movie that remains one of the most famous box-office horror stories of all time. Let’s start at the beginning, with the film that ran with the smartest ad campaign ever conceived for a movie. Close-up on an egg, not unlike an ostrich egg, cracking open and pouring light out of the center. Then a tagline: “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream.”

by Ridley Scott

In actuality, the egg looks nothing like the one used in the film it advertised, and the fact that audiences in 1979 had no clue what was about to happen was just about the coolest damn thing I’d ever heard. Imagine going into The Exorcist, Audition or The Hills Have Eyes when they were new without any idea what you’re about to see (or for that matter, imagine going into Eraserhead the same way), not even a vague hint as to the nature of things; that’s what audiences got in 1979. The film starts with one of those post-Star Wars miniature ship crawls, but the one here seems different from the million others you may have seen – it’s darker, less glamorous. The ship is called the Nostromo; a commercial towing vehicle on a return trip. In what will prove to be one of many brilliantly composed, devastatingly quiet, genre-breaking moments in Alien, the crew wakes up from hyper sleep and then goes to breakfast. The first to wake is executive officer Kane and then the others follow. Captain Dallas, warrant officer Ripley, science officer Ash, navigator Lambert, chief engineer Parker and his assistant Brett all wake to discover they’re being paged by some beacon or other on a planet a fair distance away from home (which is still Earth, in case you were wondering). There is also the ship’s cat Jones, but we don’t see him wake up. After trying to get in touch with traffic control in Antarctica (a Lovecraftian device), they figure out that Mother, the ship’s computer (on “company” orders, as we’ll later see) stopped them in their tracks to follow the signal. The planet is uninhabited and the weather conditions go a long way toward explaining that – it appears to be snowing nuclear debris at gale force speeds. The landing gear snags on something while they land and Parker and Brett have to fix it while Dallas, Lambert, and Kane go exploring the planet’s craggy surface to find the source of the signal. What they find is another ship, shaped like a crab claw that made a similarly calamitous crash landing and never took off again. Inside, our explorers lose radio contact with the Nostromo and then find the remains of its pilot: a behemoth alien entombed in its seat with a hole in its chest that would indicate something has burst out. Beneath the carcass is a hole leading to a cave-like basement area where a few thousand stowaways wait for our intrepid space cadets. Kane belays down into it and sees that it is full of leathery eggs that would probably come up to Kane's waist if he stood upright. Kane is understandably fascinated and thus doesn’t run like a bastard on fire when one of the eggs opens up and like the proverbial cat he pays dearly for his curiosity. Ripley has in the meantime figured out that the signal was some kind of warning (too little, too late, eh?); Ash tells her not to worry about it.

When Dallas breaks radio silence a short while later, Kane has something stuck to his face that no one has ever seen before. Ripley refuses to let Dallas, Lambert and the incapacitated Kane back on board as it’s a direct breach of safety protocol. Her objections are over-ruled when Ash lets them in anyway, much to the third officer’s chagrin. When Dallas and Ash surgically cut Kane’s mask off, they find a pale-skinned animal with eight humanoid digits for legs all clasping his face and its tail wrapped firmly around the man’s neck. X-rays reveal that it’s got a proboscis of some kind in Kane’s throat and might be feeding him oxygen. Prodding it just makes the tail clench tighter on Kane’s neck. Making a minute incision releases highly acidic blood that promptly melts through three floors worth of ceiling stopping just short of the hull. Kane is most assuredly in some hot water – Dallas is flustered and clueless. Parker and the others get the ship running again and they take off for Earth once again. Not 24 hours after they brought Kane on board, Ash looks in on his patient and discovers a paucity of space spiders – a search of the room turns up its corpse hidden in an overhead compartment. Kane wakes up in time for one last meal before they all go back into hyper sleep. Kane really ruins the jovial mood when he starts having an attack and then a wormy thing with fangs bursts through his chest and runs away leaving everyone coated in their first officer’s blood. They jettison Kane’s body into space and set about locating the culprit – what they don’t count on is that it has been growing rapidly since its escape from their friend’s anatomy. When next we see it, it’s a much more formidable opponent than it was in its spider-crab or worm stage and it appears to have no qualms about eating people.

The ways in which Alien succeeds are almost innumerable; there’s the score, the production design, the art direction, the cinematography, H.R. Giger’s creature and ship designs, Ridley Scott’s script doctoring and direction, the stellar performances, and the scare moments. In order then? Jerry Goldsmith’s score is, along with Derek Vanlint’s cinematography, the first thing we encounter in this film. Goldsmith does a very interesting thing with his compositions. The music seems to always convey a sense of doom and/or foreboding, even during lighter moments. The scene in which the ship makes for the uninhabited planet and the crew enjoys a rare moment of cooperation; everyone’s smiling but the music tells us that they’re making a grave error and that darkness lies in store. His music also greatly helps the scare scenes unforgettable like when the alien shows up in Ripley’s mad dash for the escape pod and the horns flare up like torches. What’s better even than his moments of orchestral-filmic synergy is when his music builds up to something and then gets quiet. When the music just ceases after a build-up, moments like the climax of the chase scene in the ducts take you fully by surprise. Perhaps Scott had something to do with it, but those moments where everything is deathly quiet except for the odd faraway clanging or industrial-sounding noise are brilliant. In fact a good deal of the film’s action sequences happen in silence and they’re much the better for it. Letting the terrific sound design take over was a wise choice in those moments; the noises that accompany the alien attacks are superbly chilling.

The production design and art direction complement each other beautifully. I think the perfect example of this is in the difference between the ships dirty underbelly where Parker and Brett spend most of their time and the sterile control room where Dallas talks to Mother, the ship’s computer. Alien was the first film to make the interior of a space ship look like an old factory, which is, let’s face it, what a commercial towing space craft would look like after years of use. This was the movie that revolutionized the sci-fi film in that regard. Star Wars took steps in that direction, but Alien was really the one. The viewer is constantly confronted (in a tasteful way) with the many corridors of the big, dirty Nostromo. The color and relative size of everything is all perfect, it’s realistic and mesmerizing and best of all Ridley Scott places his actors in the thick of them, but doesn’t give them the Lord of the Rings money shots Peter Jackson gives to every one of his scene changes. Scott keeps everything reigned in and he can basically keep wowing people because all the elements are in check. His story arch is also pretty remarkable; killing the characters he does when he does is just another way to ensure that the audience is just as confused as the crew of the Nostromo. The subplot involving Ash confuses the hell out of everyone the first time they see it. Derek Vanlint’s cinematography helps a good deal; he works no small feat in making the sets of Alien look realistic; his use of low-lighting and brilliantly placed incidentals (the flamethrower, the emergency lights, the lights on the space helmets) makes everything all the more realistic and never draws you out of the action. This is key in the scenes when the creature shows up. In the wrong hands, the alien would look painfully like a guy in a suit (as it is this almost happens a few times) and that would have been a goddamned crime. Scott and Vanlint wisely keep the critter out of sight for most of the film. Nothing kills a monster film quicker than overkill; filmmakers need to know how to tease and deliver in proper doses. I choose my words carefully here. Anyone who’s seen the design of all things Alien knows about its creator’s affinity for putting sexual undertones into his work. The movie is, ostensibly, about a forced birth, so it makes a lot of sense that the creature and his home base should be a little suggestive. This is why every possible architectural hole looks like a vagina or a sphincter, like the openings to the big derelict ship or the tops of the eggs, and why the monster has what looks like a penis with teeth in its mouth that spews a viscous secretion. Giger’s work has been praised probably more than Ridley Scott’s direction, and it stands to reason I guess, as aesthetics stay with people much longer than mechanics. And when you’ve seen three people in space suits walking into a giant vulva, you don’t soon forget it.

As for mechanics, another reason why perhaps Ridley Scott isn’t the first name that comes up in a discussion of Alien is because his direction is pitch-perfect. Ridley Scott is one of those directors who can get a film to work so organically that his direction basically disappears. In other words, Alien is a movie that never lets you know it’s a movie. There are so few times where you wonder about the making of this, the placement of that, all those thoughts comes afterwards once the magic is done. Alien sucks you in so thoroughly to its man-made world that you forget that it’s man-made. The only time that the medium is revealed are in those sly close-ups Scott employs on things like the face-hugger, but those are so subtle you don't notice them. He is dead set on making sure rapt attention is paid. And the secret ingredient that ensures we aren’t constantly focusing on the little things are the unprecedented performances. In one of the few instances that a producer has been dead right about a film’s direction, Walter Hill and David Giler decided that the Dan O’Bannon/Ronald Shussett-penned script they were handed was not nearly good enough. They took liberties and rewrote the everloving crap out of O’Bannon’s script and once Ridley Scott finally got to the set, he set about making a real film out of a B script. The dialogue is a minor miracle – to capture the feel of a real, worn-down, grimy space ship, similarly worn-down people would be needed to pilot it. So, in what would become standard operating procedure for Alien films, a handful of character-actors were hired.

Alien has exactly seven characters and if they weren’t all excellent, the movie would simply not work. Tom Skerrit as Dallas is believably over-matched and tired – his flustered claim “I just run the ship” is a wonderfully timeless line and fits so many ill-fated cinematic captains like a glove, and he seems to know it. Dallas wants desperately to feel like he knows what’s best, but he makes mistake after mistake and he’s all too aware that he’s a clueless pawn and just wants to go home. Harry Dean Stanton is one of my favorite character actors and his turn as Brett is one of his most believable. Yaphet Kotto is tremendous as Parker – he is menacing just through his sheer physicality and his dialogue delivery is prosaic and full of that sort of mechanic's bravado. John Hurt and Ian Holm, the only British faces in this British movie, are both a joy to watch. They both make whatever film they’re in much the better for having them in it, and they both command their screentime well. Watch John Hurt as they take atmospheric readings of the alien planet, he does and says so little, but he’s hypnotizing. Ian Holm’s acting becomes much better after the twist has been revealed. Go back and watch the way he deflects questions and subtly pushes all action toward one objective, then you see that his ambivalence has a much more sinister edge to it and that Holm was really doing a much better job than you thought. Veronica Cartwright was by 1979 an old hand at the damsel in distress role and in some ways her over-wrought horror is the most believable. It may be the first real performance by any woman in a sci-fi film up to that point. Sigourney Weaver was the odd man out, having only done minor film roles and stage plays in England. She walked away from Alien with the best possible rewards waiting for her – I think it’s safe to say those Oscar nods she’s accumulated wouldn’t have come about were it not for her turn as Ripley. She’s a terrific and beautiful actress and it took something as intense as Alien to get her face in front of the public’s eye. So with such competent actors handling everything glamourlessly their weariness can grow as things become more and more grim. These are seven people who were already at the end of their rope who now have even less to grasp onto. Imagine for a second being woken up in the middle of the night and asked to stay awake for another 48 hours and survive constant tests of mental endurance and then fight the smartest killing machine you’ve ever encountered. You think you’d be as collected as Nicole Kidman in The Invasion, or might you look a little more like Lambert?
Finally the movie is simply terrifying. Ridley Scott had said that he didn’t want to make a film in the tradition of the B-sci-fi the script so clearly took its cues from. He wanted to make, in his own words, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre of science fiction.” It comes closer to being The Legend of Hell House in Space, but, its horror elements are assured in any case. The Nostromo is a huge environment so the characters are able to co-exist with the creature for long stretches of time, and yet, its darkness is reminder enough that things are bad. So when the film wants to scare you, it’s already gnawed at your fear center enough to make you susceptible and despite tremendous build-up in some cases it still manages to surprise. Ridley Scott really is some kind of genius; twist after twist and we should see it coming, but somehow we never do. Alien is unquestionably one of the greatest films ever made; it's one of the greatest sci-fi films and one of the greatest horror films, all you have to do is decide which aspects you like best, but either way you'll enjoy yourself.