Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 2006, or earlater

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Growing up ALIEN: PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES, THE TERROR WITHIN


I was a young kid when ALIEN (1979) came out, too young to see it. I heard about it nonstop of course--that it was beyond scary and had a few scenes that would burst your mind. VHS didn't really exist yet (maybe a few $1,000. Betamaxes at upscale malls). and we knew it would be edited to death when it finally came to the ABC Movie of the Week, so it was all but lost to us, except through the blanched faces of the adults who'd seen it. We could try to read the novelization, maybe, but we weren't up to that level of reader comprehension. When we were finally able to rent it on VHS a few years later, we were still terrified every step of the way. By the end though --I was underwhelmed. The whole Ian Holm thing took me right out of the suspense, and the cat business was so dumb, I thought, being allergic.

Then: the summer of ALIENS (1986), and I had just finished my freshman year at Syracuse. My girl and I still just friends for I was still waiting for girls to make the first move, like a putz. So I was very pent up and tension electric, my paralysis heightening the intensity of the film when I drove up for the weekend of her ritzy Connecticut digs. Back then the point of the gore and trauma was like the threat of spanking vs. the actual spanking as a child. A good parent maybe gets us scared of it, but if we get to the point we deserve it and actually get one, then spanking doesn't work anymore. Same with gore-- The point was to get us scared of seeing it, of being scared every moment and around every corner lurked the aliens. We were all on pins and needles. But by the end, our collective fear of the boogeyman had been stretched once too often, and as a result had militarized us. Now when I see Ripley running terrified down Nostromo corridors I feel nothing as far as suspense. Not having to worry about the physical threats awaiting the final girl is a relief --repetition-compulsion disorder has proven its worth. Ripley was weaponized -- "Let her alone, you bitch!!

Gore is just funny now, either fake (funny) or realistic (artistic), but seldom ominous, something we're afraid to see; now we can recognize the signature of each make-up, a Savini vs. a Bottin disembowelment. Once the genie is out of the bottle, so to speak, shit gets old fast. Like if you commuted to work on a roller coaster, after a few years, it's just another goddamned commute.

By the time of ALIEN: RESURRECTION in 1997, just trying to generate suspense from aliens stalking humans seemed pointless, and Ripley couldn't possibly be tougher. She was now half-alien herself, any declaration of 'you bitch' could now be only directed at the mirror, and there was no longer any recognizable human in the cast, replaced instead by French director Jean Pierre-Jeunet's METAL HURLANT-style cartoonish bizarro world exaggerations. I saw it on Christmas Day in 1997 in Portsmouth with a different girl, a real girlfriend this time, for I'd found courage to make the first move at last. This time the only cool scene is of the always welcome and super-cool Michael Wincott discussing payments and acquisition of sleeping human cargo while having a cigar and drink with military commander Dan Hedaya (below). But even there, Jean-Pierre Jeunet makes sure Hedaya's eyebrows are even more tribble-like than usual.


Then there's the alien itself. It evolves. In the first film it was truly other -- there was nothing remotely like it, nothing we'd seen before - not even remotely close to any of our species except in the most preliminary or advanced of stages. By RESURRECTION time though it was just another smart mammal, making noises that sounded like pitch shifted lions, barking dogs and braying donkeys-- the weird baroque otherness of the original HR Giger alien design prompting nostalgia rather than shivers. Even the stomach bursting scenes carry no real unease anymore.

Galaxy of Terror
That's just human culture though, ALIEN's over-exposure-disseminated fear level drainage was inevitable. Throughout its long gestation there have been imitators and films that it in turn imitated, to the point John Hurt even shows up in SPACEBALLS (1987 - below), less than ten years later, and gives birth to a Vaudeville-kicking alien, a kids' movie by all accounts -- so an alien bursting out of a stomach goes from R-rated traumatic shock to G-rated joke in under ten years.

Spaceballs
Copy cats abounded too, James Cameron even got the job for ALIENS partially based on his success as art designer for Corman's ALIEN-imitating GALAXY OF TERROR (1981). Which makes sense, as a lot of the baroque majesty and sheer alienness of Ridley Scott's original is gone for Cameron's sequel, replaced by an erector set military gun locker aesthetic and cool feminist weaponization ala TERMINATOR.

But not all films in the ALIEN imitation canon lost the Ridley Scott look, and ALIEN itself is just a very strong central link in a vast web of motifs that have been simmering for 60 years. Time enough for a space pod to carry your frozen body across the vast expanse between 1965 and 1989 for example, and with that, let's look at two drive-in classics, one an inspiration for ALIEN the other inspired BY it:

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PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES 
(1965) Dir. Mario Bava
88 minutes
*** 1/2

Some films know just how to ease you into twilight sleep. Your unconscious mind uses the impressions from the soundtrack and dialogue as paint brushes to conjure alternate vistas as you dream yourself right off the couch and into the molasses chill of something like Bava's space fantasia PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES. If you love dreaming your way through patches of otherworldly fog, eyes agog with the colors purple and red, ears lulled by the whoosh of space engines and throbbing moans of ancient races, unearthly winds, and second chakra ignited via badass proto-punk leather space uniforms with yellow piping, PLANET should be your destination. And the clear points of inspiration for Alien are numerous: for one thing, we don't have to deal with the usual origin story that sinks so many unimaginative sci fi films (such as most of Ib Melchoir's other scripts), i.e. we don't have to see the space ships taking off from Earth; there's also an ancient race's crashed ship sending an SOS that turns out to be a warning, or something.


Only FORBIDDEN PLANET before it knew that we could start from a very alien place and not need origin stories; the humans even fly in a saucer UFO instead of a phallic rocket, and we don't need to know why. PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES picked up on that - the crews here aren't even necessarily human or from Earth at all, and it doesn't matter. There's a mysterious SOS signal calling two craft here to a strange planet, where they discover an ancient crashed spaceship with dead giant aliens now reduced to calcified bones that make them look like they were giant elephant men, a bit like the huge space jockey looks in ALIEN, and there’s also a great ending which in its way harkens to the theatrical ending of ALIEN: RESURRECTION.


The film's got some issues, such as it being hard to distinguish most of the cast from each other which makes the plot. It starts just like ALIEN with space ships already out in space, being rerouted to answer a strange distress call at a remote inhospitable (but lovingly lit) planet about to be devoured by its dying sun (or something), a kind of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, where the dead rise from their plastic coverings and hot Italian girls in leather jumpsuits (the kinkiest high fashion space crew uniforms ever) become possessed--hard to follow--who's playing who from which ship and who's possessed and/or dead and who's not, etc. But, with Bava devotee Tim Lucas' commentary track on the recent Blu-ray, we learn the reasoning and craft behind a lot of the maestro's DIY in-camera special effect tricks, and this knowledge enhances our enjoyment if for no other reason than it so clearly enhances Lucas's. Never merely a scholar, fan, or biographer, his commentaries are well-known to any classic horror fan and always worth hearing, related often in a kind of low whispering flow as if on the 18th fairway. He's well-versed in what actors are playing what characters, including when one character changes actors halfway through. It's a reassuring addition, that no matter what's onscreen we know it was intended just that way by one of horror cinema's great artists. We can kick back and let the soothing space noises... lull us... to... sleep. eep... ... bleep... blip.... blip... captain, the coffin's empty, all over again! 

THE TERROR WITHIN 
(1989) - Dir Thierry Notz
88 minutes
***

This New World Alien rip smartly trims effects budget by moving the setting to Earth, but "underground" in the Mojave desert on a post-plague Earth, where only snakes and wandering mutant gargoyles survive. Aside from some terribly duck-like bills and alarming rows of teeth, the gargoyles aren't quite as ridiculous as most monsters in big rubber suits shambling around after suicidally slow-witted prey in the dead of desert daytime. Their craftiness and invulnerability make them formidable as hell, able to jump out of small spaces while being seven feet tall, as if inheriting all the DNA of both The Terminator and Michael Myers. Like other Corman pics of the era, there's eroticized monster rape to make sure the board gives the film an R, and this allows for a two-for-one shock--1) the pre-PC lurid pulp cover fetishizing of sexy girls having their clothes ripped off by all sorts of claws, ghost hands, or centipede legs (his original contribution to the Alien clone formula); 2) The inevitable unwanted pregnancy, short gestation, and ALIEN-esque cesarian birth. For me, at least, that makes it somehow less traumatizing than if perpetrated by the usual suspects. When a surviving human is found running through the Mojave brush, she's sexy, terrified, and pregnant, and thanks to the reticent scalpel of the doctor --they give a cesarian so they can study the whole fetus, instead of sluicing it through, as the lord intended, (1) doomed indeed.

Star Andreef vs. Wade
That aside, I admire the ballsy pro-choice angle when Sue (Star Andreeff) demands an abortion and the lady doctor refuses and we're allowed to wonder if it's because she's got designs on Sue's man, the 80s coiffed hero David (Andrew "Kirk Douglas’s telekinetic son in The Fury" Stevens). The doc says the reason is that Sue's too weak to undergo such a surgery, and that there's plenty of time to do it tomorrow, and that it's probably David's baby, and this after already denying the first lady an abortion she begs for, knowing what's coming. Oh man, for an alternate future with ultrasound. At any rate, David's the sort who thinks a crossbow in tight quarters is an effective weapon against a giant invulnerable monster, so his genetics might not be ideal anyway. His hair, though, is perfect and he's a decent, charismatic actor with good rapport, able to sync up with any other actor's idea of what terror is, allowing for triangulation of terror.


Most of the cast dies rapidly in their Darwinian order. George Kennedy is the C.O., and his stalwart ubiquity in big ensemble casts of the previous decade subliminally implies there's other stars around, so it's almost okay that there's not. Sexy Sue, meanwhile thinks that if her man's in trouble battling an invincible seven foot tall yet stealthy and rabidly horny monster three floors below, the best way to help is to hop in an elevator, barefoot and unarmed, to come rescue him. But the rapid cast disappearance is only the start of the greatness, because we end up with a wounded terrified under-armed pair of survivors who communicate mainly through a two-way intercom as they try to obliterate a monster mutant whose only weakness is his painful sensitivity to David's dog whistle. The last stretch is just the three of them locked in endless tussle  like THE TERMINATOR meets CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. In other words, awesome.

And there’s a dog in the film who ably helps out in novel ways (he’s their tracker and early warning system and fearlessly distracts and attacks their foes) and even survives at the end. I'm not spoiler alerting for that, because dogs get a notorious bad break in horror films. When one survives, it's a cause for note... and celebration...


So... skewed pro-choice compassion, a reasonably clear idea of where each person is in relation to one another at any given time and the usual quick rush Corman-brand momentum, all conspires to make TERROR worlds better than most ALIEN rip-offs. If only they hired Thierry Notz to make ALIEN 3, the way they hired Cameron for ALIENS, someone with Corman know-how, with a knack for doing a lot with a little, instead of wasting the opportunity on that cold misanthropic clinician David Fincher, who has no flair of science fiction, so turns it into burly all-male Brit kitchen sink drama.

If I didn't mention ALIEN 3 at all in the introduction, it's because Fincher gutted everything--it barely qualifies as a sequel, WITHIN is more loyal to the themes, even set on a stretch of desert scrub. At least they get hair, and it's dry. Setting the film entirely on a dismal mud planet that could be anywhere in any closed-down prison anywhere in shit-field England is not enough. Fincher has to incite lice (not even space lice!) shave everyone's heads and piss off the hair and makeup union. So instead of a sexy Ripley or a weaponized Ripley we get an almost gang-raped cellmate Ripley who needs to be rescued by a self-righteous Muslim, and the dog, oh goddamned you, Fincher... and for what? So another CGI blur can get thrown in another dumb cauldron of "liquid metal"? Or something? The ending's straight out of TERMINATOR 2 as I recall. Actually, maybe I need to see it again. I hear the extended 'work print cut' is better, and the alien comes out of an ox instead of a dog, as nature intended. That's not a spoiler, for one is always better off knowing these things when it comes to dogs in films by boarding school sadists.

I'm prejudiced too, for I remember renting ALIEN 3 from Blockbuster while visiting my brother in Arizona back in '92-ish, and not being able to understand what the hell was going on half the time thanks to bad pan and scanning, and seeing double thanks to a 1.75 liter of Seagram's, many one hits, and the constant interruptions by Fred's dumbass buddies. But hey, that's what Growing up ALIEN is all about, starting as a child savoring his terror in with two whole riveted families as a child in 1980, to the sequel as a college kid on a date in 1986, and now in the dry desert, drunk off my ass, after shooting empties in the backyard with an air rifle in 1992, picking on the dumbass friends of my well-armed little brother and slowly going from excited to bored to angry to just plain drunk, as a Bush-era layabout. I was never so lonely and miserable as I was in that desert with those lost boys. Damn you, Fincher.


The internet came soon after that and DVDs. AOL discs floated in from the mail like holy wafers and connected us to a buzzing phone modem of instant omnipresence. Our modem's alien bang bang-ing connecting noises lulled us into trances, like when we slept suspended in our M.O.T.H.E.R, not knowing what yet what she looked like, not knowing the modem beeping wasn't a distress signal at all... but a warning. Until the inevitable unmasking-- the grim evening we erupted out the Kane white T-shirt ether, and plopped into the opposite chair of our 1995 Astor Pl. Starbucks rendezvous to face her with a choking scream. She was our old freezarino, our empty helmet reflection dream beforehand and, afterwards, our whiskered freshwater monster. We needed to run, but just weren't fast enough to start. By then the buzzing modem was gone; we'd evolved, if you call it that. By the time we got our restful tomb prepared, it was already moved... ++

FUTURE WARD:
The Evolver Virus: PROMETHEUS, The Dead Files (10-21-12)

NOTES
1. You should know by now I don't mean Jesus, though I do believe in him, and believe that the devil is only the Kali to his Durga, and both have a sense of perspective and irony far beyond expectations.  

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