The Void.

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I’ve often trumpeted my love of films from the late ’70s and early to mid-’80s on this blog –particularly those of the horror genre — but have never taken a moment to discuss just why I find them so uniquely appealing. If I had to guess, I’d have to say that it is a combination of factors. For one, the majority of them were independently produced, and as such were free from big studio expectations. These productions were lean and mean, and not a bit afraid to tell stories that were far beyond the usual tropes. Couple this with quickly advancing filmmaking technology, not to mention a burgeoning industry of visual and makeup effects talent, and you’ve got the makings for a great deal of inspired and entertaining cinema. Also, in retrospect, I grew up on the stuff. What most folks revile as low-budget schlock and surreal storytelling I welcome like a warm and familiar blanket, temporarily distracting me from the horribly normal world.

Luckily for me, I have compatriots out there — filmmakers who were truly inspired by that long-gone golden era. Unlike the droves of direct-to-video hacks who now blatantly reproduce the same tired scenarios and cardboard characters (cue the radio music as the car filled with nubile ignoramuses flies down the backroads of Nowhere, USA, where folks tell of a killer on the loose…), these guys have got it down. They know how to tell a tale filled with tension and atmosphere, and more importantly, just how much of the Damned Thing to show beyond the shadows. In particular, I speak of Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski, and their fine little gem of a time capsule entitled The Void.

From the initial trailer shown online, I was ready for this one. Like It Follows before it, The Void showed a great deal of promise from the get-go: I immediately imagined John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and The Thing had a baby with good old Howard Phillips Lovecraft acting as midwife, and soon realized I wasn’t far off the mark. Thanks to the glories of modern digital technology, I was able to see the film on opening night with video-on-demand — otherwise, I would’ve probably had to wait until it was released on Blu-ray or DVD.

The Void doesn’t waste a bit of time getting the viewer into the story. Before we know it, Officer Daniel Carter (Aaron Poole) is delivering a mysteriously injured man to a nearby hospital — one which, due to an upcoming move to a newer building, is currently functioning in a limited capacity. Here a number of other characters are thrown into the mix, including Allison (Kathleen Monroe), the head nurse on staff, not to mention Carter’s wife, and Sheriff Mitchell, played by none other than Art Hindle, of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Brood fame. Pretty soon afterward things begin to go awry, as a number of creepy cultists (pictured above) encircle the building — not to enter but to keep anyone from getting out. Needless to say, but things don’t get any better for them from here.

The film continues along a disjointed and surreal path, filled with spectacular visions and horrific monstrosities. Major kudos as always from me for filmmakers who dare to simply show a story instead of telling it, awkwardly using characters to spew narrative instead of having the confidence to let the viewers sort out the goings-on for themselves. Gillespie and Kostanski have that confidence, and only allow what little information the audience needs to advance, and even then leaves a great deal to their interpretation. The practical effects are low-budget but beautifully applied, and create moments of abject horror and confoundment. Overall, the acting is serviceable but more than enough to carry the narrative, and amid the hypnagogic visuals and an atmospheric soundtrack including the work of personal fave Brian “Lustmord” Williams give a proper commentary while presenting a world gone horribly — and wonderfully — weird.

While not a direct throwback to past films per se, The Void takes its influences and hammers out a solid homage to the genre jewels of my youth and still manages to charter bold new territory. No spoilers here, but I would be very pleased if the success of this film granted the filmmakers with more opportunities to continue telling such ambitiously torrid tales. If you agree with any of the reasons listed above and The Void is playing in your area, I wholeheartedly encourage you to go see it. If not, do like I did and seek it out via video-on-demand. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, if you gaze long into The Void, it will inevitably gaze into you.

Arrival.

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Before Star Wars leaped into our media consciousness in 1977, science fiction films were considerably different. After being a schlock stock of trade in the 1950’s and early 1960’s with a tirade of films featuring someone or something either becoming significantly larger, mutated or both (Zappa’s Ship Arriving Too Late to Save A Drowning Witch pops into mind: “All of them HORRIBLY LARGE from RADIATION”), the genre was brought into more slower-paced, thought-provoking territory. With Godard’s Alphaville in 1965, and continuing three years later with Kubrick’s 2001, the science fiction film became a format for more mature concepts. While the giant whatever sub-genre continued into the 1970’s (due mainly to the efforts of schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon — don’t get me wrong, I love his films), they were countered with the likes of The Andromeda StrainSolaris, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s entry the same year Star Wars premiered — Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Over the past few decades, a scant few other fruits have dropped from the “serious sci-fi” tree, which include Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Blade Runner in 1982, Terry Gilliam’s visionary 12 Monkeys in 1995, Ron Howard’s moving take on the Carl Sagan novel Contact in 1997 and most recently 2004’s Primer and Moon in 2009. Most recently, in the vein of all of the above and more, comes Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.

Arrival is the tale of Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist who is thrust from a life of bland academia into the forefront of an alien invasion. Paired with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a mathematician, they are tasked with trying to communicate with the inhabitants of an alien craft, one of twelve that have appeared above different countries on Earth. Colonel Weber (Forrest Whitaker), makes them aware of the global situation, albeit from a military point of view. The rest of the film is about how they not only manage to communicate with the visitors but also with each other.

While avoiding spoilers (believe me, I hate them much more than you do), that last sentence bears more review. As I have stressed throughout this writing, this is no Independence Day. It is slower paced, logical and heady, but not without a wealth of surprising ideas and intimate emotion. A bit of patience is required for those used to more action-oriented fare, but for fans of the movies mentioned above, it is a revelation. Communication is the main theme of the film, and, like my favorite Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok”, it is about the struggle to surmount the differences to find the greater good of what we all share. Cue the music:

Adams is incredible (as always), and Renner, who basically plays to the audience’s emotional state throughout the film, more than fills the role. Whitaker makes a credibly crusty Colonel, although I’m much more looking forward to him in the upcoming Rogue One. While the effects are seamless and awe-inspiring, the cinematography spot-on and the music successfully reflecting both alien and human themes, the real stars of the show are Eric Heisserer’s screenplay and Villeneuve’s direction. Going into detail about how they are would truly spoil the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen Arrival, but needless to say, if you’re a fan of “old school” science fiction with genuinely thought-provoking and emotionally moving themes, this film is definitely for you.

Gene Wilder (1933 -2016).

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To some, he’s Willy Wonka (not that chirpy, bubble-headed nebbish Johnny Depp played in Charlie & The Chocolate Factory), the wary misanthrope who wielded sly surrealism and biting humor to his advantage in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. It’s entirely possible you’ve seen him in this role on the interwebs:

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To others, he’s the Waco Kid, that gunfighter with impossibly fast hands and an equally impressive constitution for alcohol in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. But to me, he’ll always be Victor von Frankenstein (that’s FRAHN-ken-STEEN) in one of my all-time favorite movies, Young Frankenstein. From “Walk this way” (which actually inspired the classic Aerosmith hit), to “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (not to mention the dreaded name of Frau Blücher!), the movie never fails to entertain — a good part due to Wilder’s writing and performance in the lead role. He went on and starred in several films with his consummate co-star, the brilliant Richard Pryor. He was also accepted the Old Vic, studied acting under Uta Hagen and Lee Strasberg, and was a champion fencer. Later in life, he took up writing and released several novels, as well as promoting awareness to ovarian cancer, which took both his mother and wife Gilda Radner. Not bad for a kid from Milwaukee named Jerome Silberman.

Humanoids from the Deep (Roger Corman Cult Classics).

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From the Pleasant Diversion Dept., I thought I’d take a break from the relentless pace of my D&D campaign posts and kick back for a bit, while also reminded of a piece I’d been remiss to write for some time now. Shout! Factory‘s series of Roger Corman’s films from the late ’70s and early ’80s (which I first mentioned here ) have been a well to which I’ve returned several times, bringing back memories of those first films seen on late-night excursions into the premium cable abyss. Before the likes of Humanoids from the Deep, my tender eyes had never witnessed such nudity, violence or gratuitous Doug McClure (well, not since the Amicus and EMI pics he’d done, loosely based on the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs such as At the Earth’s Core, The People That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis).

For the unwashed (no obvious pun intended), Humanoids is at its heart a tale of both economic and evolutionary turmoil. The populace of Noyo, California make their living from the sea, which has of late been less than giving. The town wants to have a cannery to ensure stable work conditions for its residents, and cooperation with a corporation called Canco (not to be confused with their derivitive entities Bottleco or Boxco) seems to be the answer to their prayers. In addition, Canco and Dr. Susan Drake (played by perennial ’70s tough-chick Ann Turkel, who’s nonetheless referred to as a “great little scientist” by the town’s mayor) have introduced an experimental growth hormone into the local waters to likewise ensure plenty of fish.

Of course, we wouldn’t have a Corman movie if all this didn’t go to batshit. Turns out the genetically-altered sea life have been on the menu for a long-forgotten strain of coelacanth, or prehistoric fish. In doing so, they’ve taken full benefit of the situation and managed to become the aforementioned humanoid beasts. As the original hormone was based on that of frogs, these monsters have gone amphibious and started taking to the land. After first trying out the local canines (with disastrous results, just ask local fisherman hero Jim Hill (McClure) about his dog), the humanoids find their next evolutionary partners with human females. If this isn’t quality entertainment, I don’t know what is.

Almost as fascinating as this initial concept is the history of the film, which is quite bi-polar. Initially entitled Beneath the Darkness and helmed by Barbara Peeters, the production attracted the required level of star-power (which includes the late great Vic Morrow as local heavy Hank Slattery) and included what could be considered “principal photography”. This is due to the fact that when Corman saw the finished product, he was dismayed by the lack of female nudity. It turned out that Peeters, while sparing no expense of film when it came to the gruesome demise of male characters, often reverted to portraying those of the female characters offscreen. As a result, the producer had another, separate crew shoot additional scenes, with the specific purpose of adding a good dose of simulated rape, as well as comedic sex scenes (featuring ventriloquist David Strassman and “Chuck Wood”) and nude body doubles for those actresses who declined to shed their clothes during the initial shoot. It was this film that took the title Humanoids from the Deep, or simply MONSTER in some venues.

If that wasn’t impressive enough for one of Corman’s tightly-funded affairs, he also managed to get the likes of Rob Bottin (who basically re-defined what was possible with practical effects with John Carpenter’s The Thing) and Chris Walas (whose work has run the gamut from those adorable Gremlins to the uber-disturbing Brundlefly in Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly) to design our favorite land-walking fishmen and their more unfortunate victims. Mind you, this was early in careers, when both were eager to work for next to nothing (knowing Corman’s history, it was more likely closer to nothing). Nonetheless, their work is effective and imaginative, especially when paired with editor Mark Goldblatt’s skill at making us think that three guys in humanoid suits were actually hordes of such baddies terrorizing Noyo’s annual festival parade. Throw in a sensitive, moving score from none other than James Horner (who would go on to supply the music for Braveheart and “Big Jim” Cameron’s Titanic, although his Krull score will always be my personal fave), and you’ve got one of the more quality products from the era (which seemed to begin after 1979’s Alien, and continued until such low-budget affairs were given the blank checkbook treatment once the likes of Schwartzenegger and Stallone were involved).

No, this isn’t a review. I’ve decided to not slap numeric values on films anymore, but rather to bring forth what I feel is awesome and (by some amount of perspective) not so great about them. Am I a fan of Humanoids of the Deep? Hell yes, even though it is something of a guilty pleasure of sorts. It’s the stunted stepchild of the more forward-thinking horrors and the exploitative drive-in features of years past, but a unique blend of unintentional humor and “mature content” which will always appeal to me. If that sort of thing even makes you curious, you should by all means check it out.

Videodrome, Or How David Cronenberg Foresaw Internet Culture, and the “Deep Web”.

 

Way back in 1983, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s Videodrome was released to mixed reviews. Most negative takes on the film cite how, while it initially delivers a intriguing premise, the film ultimately relents into a series of gory set pieces that barely manage to resolve its plot. This is most likely due to the fact that due to a narrow production window, Cronenberg began the shooting of the film with only a rough draft, and literally wrote the script as it progressed. While the result is pretty much as it has been reviewed, it remains a remarkable film, filled with intense, disturbing imagery and concepts.

For the unwashed, Videodrome is the tale of one Max Renn (James Woods), a UHF television company president. Back before cable television, there were two types of television stations — VHF channels, which were usually affiliates of the “big three” networks (those at the time being ABC, CBS and NBC) — and UHF channels, who were primarily independent and privately owned. In order to attract viewership from the major stations, these channels often provided a steady diet of reruns of older shows and movie marathons. The two best known survivors of this period are WGN in Chicago and TBS (originally WTBS, formerly WTCG) in Atlanta. Probably since the film takes place in Canada, Max Renn’s fictitious CIVIC-TV is able to draw viewers in with the likes of softcore porn and other sensationalist fare.

What ultimately grabs his attention is a pirated satellite broadcast called Videodrome, a plotless and extremely violent exhibition of torture. The mystery of why and how Videodrome exists is the premise of the film, and leads Renn on a darkly surreal journey, punctuated with everything from pulsating videocassettes to televisions disemboweling (with real bowels). Neither of these are at the heart of the matter, but rather that which finds itself at the center of Cronenberg’s early efforts — the human condition. Videodrome is about how the aforementioned condition has been extended into technology, for better or worse. Well, okay — in Renn’s case it’s definitely for the worse. But what’s really eerie about it is the way Cronenberg in many ways anticipates that then upcoming technological venue — the internet.

One of the many characters Renn meets on his descent to the seventh ring of technological hell is Professor Brian O’Blivion (based on philosopher Marshall McLuhan) who admits that O’Blivion is not his real name, but rather a “television name”, and asserts that the battle for North America will be fought in a “video arena”. Anyone who has donned a “handle” in a multiplayer game or online chatroom, or are even slightly informed about the WikiLeaks scandal or the doings of hacktivists in recent years may find the coincidence a bit chilling.

But the most disturbing parallel the is object of Renn’s obsession. According to Cronenberg, Videodrome was first inspired by his experiences as a child, hunting from UHF signals from the United States after all the Canadian stations had signed off. He did so with trepidation, afraid that what he might see would be more than he could handle. Anyone familiar with recent attention brought to the “deep web” or “dark web” may find these feelings familiar. While what is most commonly termed the deep web is simply that area of the internet that has yet to be indexed by current search engines, the dark web is that portion of the deep web which can only be accessed with particular forms of software (such as that could function on a TOR network), and possibly then after some sort of additional key is given.

Honestly, I’m not even sure if that is the case, seeing as how I myself have never ventured to such areas — but that isn’t the point of this blog. Whether it is purely myth, hoax, or yet another form of internet prank, a persistent legend is that of the Red Room, which features actual human torture and murder. Some allude the myth has its basis with a Japanese pop-up software which ultimately curses its victims with a violent death, but it seems more likely that these supposed sites would appear like the picture at the top of this article. The consideration that what occurs in Videodrome the film (depicted as Videodrome the signal) could actually exist is beyond disturbing, but ultimately would be a grim tip of the hat to Mr. Cronenberg for being all too familiar with the darker side of humanity.

Leviathan.

To preface this, there’s something I’m wanting to try out. Starting with this post and possibly with future ones, I’m going to hyperlink the out-of-the-way movies that I reference in my posts (that is, if a version of them has been uploaded online). After all, the main reason I blog about them is out of love, so why not share them with my readers? Now I know it’s not exactly legal that someone has uploaded some movie to YouTube, but seeing as how I didn’t do it (nor would I ever), I personally don’t see the harm. Besides, a lot of times I’m sure some of you (like myself) will often endeavor to find DVDs or Blu-Rays of said films after seeing crappy versions of them online. Prepare to be disappointed though, as many of the VHS rips uploaded are the only copies known, that is until the likes of Shout Factory or Blue Underground manage to get them remastered.

From the Don’t Get Me Started department: It’s 4:30 in the morning, I happen to wake up and guess what’s playing on cable? Only my all-time fave underwater Alien rip-off — Leviathan. See kids, way back in the late 1980s (1989, to be exact), there was this weird trifecta of “underwater action thrillers”, all being an offshoot of the rampant Alien ripoffs of the 1980s, but reset in the equally alien setting of the deep ocean. They were (by popularity) James Cameron’s The AbyssLeviathan and Sean (Friday the 13th) Cunningham’s Deepstar Six. Don’t get me wrong — I dearly love The Abyss (the scene where Ed Harris resuscitates Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio gets me every time), and Deepstar Six ranks high among my favorite Alien clones (which include Corman classics like Forbidden World — see here for my thoughts on that), but Leviathan will always be my favorite of this peculiar sub-genre.

But why? Is it the late, great Jerry Goldsmith’s score? Maybe, although he sort of seems to be phoning it in (compared to even his Hollow Man or Deep Rising scores, which have comparably much more bang for the buck. I mean who doesn’t want to take a power boat out on the waves blasting the Deep Rising theme — unfortunately not until about 1:30 on this video –? Am I really alone in this?). Is it David Peoples and Jeb Stuart’s script? Not really, since it’s an unabashed Alien retread: a schlubby bunch of deep-sea miners encounter a foreign (as opposed to alien) wreck, which is explored with ultimately less than desired results. Instead of a xenomorph we end up with a Stan Winston-ized metamutant, whose death the late Roy Scheider might find amusing. The screenplay is clever when it wants to be, but for the most part stays safe in shallow waters (nyuk).

What about the acting on this voyage? This is where things get interesting. We’ve got none other than Buckaroo Banzai himself, Peter Weller as the lead, doing what Peter Weller does best — offer a stoic, if somewhat wooden performance, punctuated with wry delivery and tired expression. Don’t get me wrong. I love the guy, but it’s no coincidence he got cast as the lead in RoboCop. It oddly enough works in this case, since he’s the one most everyone’s looking to for some sense of order when it hits the fan. Calm and reserved, until driven to shout in less than quiet moments, Weller holds his own in Leviathan. As for the rest of the cast, there’s veteran actors like Richard Crenna (best known to most as Rambo’s ally Trautman, but I love him best in Wait Until Dark and the cheesefest horror flick The Evil) and Hector Elizondo, personal fave Daniel Stern (desperately summoning his inner redneck five years after his seminal role as “The Reverend” in the schlock masterpiece C.H.U.D.), the adorable Amanda Pays (who starred in The Kindred) and the foxy Lisa Eilbacher (check her out in This House Possessed from her early TV days, with *zoinks* Parker Stevenson!). Then there’s Michael Carmine, who I mainly know from this film as DeJesus, the beans and rice gourmet who has a serious skiing fetish. Oh wait, there’s Meg Foster, who plays the same ice-cold bitch she did a year earlier in John Carpenter’s anti-fascist manifesto They Live (which I will blog about soon, for sure). They all do an admirable enough job with the crappy script, making the best of their amiable (except in Foster’s case) but stereotypical characters.

But the star of this film, outside the conventional limitations of role and script, is Ernie Hudson as Justin Jones, this film’s answer to Yaphet Kotto’s Parker in Alien. See what I mean about a retread? But no matter. Hudson (best known from the two Ghostbusters films, which he was between at this point in his career) knows what he really is within the scope of the movie — he is the Voice of the Audience, our prickly representative in this doomed underwater scenario, and he works his position to the forefront with ease. His performance gives an otherwise predictable movie a satiric edge, imbuing the Angry Black Guy stereotype with a sly intelligence and wit. Mind you, the script does have a few of its better moments with his character, like the following which takes place just before the film’s climax:

MARTIN (on monitor, communicating from the surface): I know you’ve all gone through hell —

JONES: Gone? Bitch, we’re still here!

But it’s Hudson’s delivery that aces even these lines with the same hint of incredulity that we as the viewers are experiencing, without an obvious breaking of the fourth wall. It’s like a bad movie with its own built-in MST3K episode. Really, what could be better than that?

As mentioned before, the late Stan Winston, best known for his work on James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminator films, as well as Jurassic Park (and whose influence was sorely missed in the recent Jurassic World) provides the special prosthetic and animatronic effects for Leviathan, and honestly I wasn’t impressed. I don’t know what possible budget and time constraints he and his team might’ve been under, but what would usually be an exciting element of fantasy films from this era is ultimately a disappointment here. One of the films Leviathan is often compared to is Carpenter’s magnificent 1982 remake of The Thing (on which Winston assisted effects lead Rob Bottin), and such a comparison is very unfair. While Bottin’s work on that movie was wildly creative and imaginative (in my opinion the only other effects artist to come close to Bottin’s extreme genius is Joji Tani, otherwise known as Screaming Mad George), Winston’s work in Leviathan is merely adequate. We get a lurking rump roast which manages to sprout a tentacle at one point, and a final monster that looks like it could’ve come out of an early Roger Corman flick. Mind you that’s not an insult, but certainly not what should’ve come from the likes of Winston.

One avenue of excitement for me was the production design work of Ron Cobb. Cobb is best known as a artist and cartoonist, but his design work on Star WarsAlien, Conan the Barbarian and Total Recall (not to mention John Carpenter’s first film, Dark Star) has its own legion of fans, yours truly included. His unmistakable influence was present both within and without the fictional Tri-Oceanic deep-sea mining installation Shack 7 — right down to the underwater basketball goal.

Finally, the glue which holds all the disparate elements together was the late director George Cosmatos. Best known for Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cosmatos’ prowess with action is matched by a keen eye for drama. One standout scene is that of Eilbacher’s character Bowman realizing her mutagenic fate, and committing suicide.

As could be discerned from above, Leviathan tries to be several things at once, but still manages to define itself. It’s awareness of being an adjunct to superior films is notable, in particular with Hudson’s performance and overall with the script and direction. By no means as sly as the collaborations of director Joe Dante and scribe John Sayles earlier in the decade, it regardless finds a middle ground between straight-up parody and self promotion. While visually it could’ve been more, the overall production is slick enough, and the cast is memorable. Not great cinema by any standards, but Leviathan is one of those movies that manages to entertain in ways that such films cannot, like the consolatory joy one gets from a microwaved burrito as opposed to a steak dinner. It may not be for everyone, but in the right situation, and at the right time (like 4:30 in the morning), it surely satisfies.

7/10

Sir Christopher Lee (1922 – 2015).

To my nephews he was Saruman the White and Count Dooku, to me, the Prince of Darkness. In between there was the heroic Duc du Richleau in The Devil Rides Out, the wacky, yet sinister Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, and the goose-stepping Captain Wolfgang von Kleinschmidt in Spielberg’s 1941. He served in the Royal Air Force during World War II (and was supposedly attached to the elite Special Air Service in its beginnings) and fronted a symphonic metal band as lead vocalist. How someone could not possibly be more awesome without bursting into pure energy is truly beyond me. One of the greats.