The Hidden: An Oddball 80s Movie

The Hidden (1987) is an obscure science fiction film starring Kyle MacLachlan after his role in Blue Velvet, but preceding his Twin Peaks fame.  Despite several tropes, the skewed plot line makes it an enjoyable distraction. 

Essentially a warped version of the “buddy cop” genre, Michael Nouri plays L.A. detective Thomas Beck.  Beck pursues and (apparently) fatally injures spree killer Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) during the chase.  FBI Special Agent Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan) later confronts Beck, saying DeVries is still a threat.

“Mr DeVries, we think you might have a throat infection.”

Meanwhile, in the hospital, DeVries jumps up and attacks a heart patient Jonathan P. Miller (William Boyett).  DeVries pops opens his mouth and out crawls a hideous, slug-like alien.  It crawls down Miller’s throat and takes him over, letting its old host collapse.  Miller runs off to commit more of the random violence in the same manner as DeVries.

After this starts, Gallagher tries to convince Beck that Miller is a partner of DeVries who is every bit as dangerous, despite no criminal record.

You can probably guess how the rest of this goes.  The evil alien continues to jump through host bodies while the authorities struggle to catch up. 

Aliens are teatotallers.

It’s fairly obvious from the beginning that Gallagher is another alien.  MacLachlan does a brilliant job of being “not quite right”.  He conveys a vibe of alien without much scenery-chewing.  Not only his weird questions, but MacLachlan’s deliciously “off” mannerisms.  There’s an especially amusing dinner scene with Beck’s family, where Gallagher gets tipsy.  Bloody hilarious.  My favorite part is when Beck asks him where he’s from.  Gallagher points straight up.  “From up north?” Beck asks.  Gallagher nods.

It turns out Lloyd is an alien “cop” (named Alhague) and the evil alien is a criminal who killed Alhague’s family.  Yes, it’s a cop revenge story.

That’s a damn fine ray gun.

If all this sounds cheesy, it’s actually not.  Or not much.  The performances in this are wonderful, despite the bizarre premise.  William Boyett has a wickedly good time being the heart patient turned evil alien.  His murder spree is both amusing and horrifying.  Of special interest is when the alien possesses a stripper named Brenda (gorgeous Claudia Christian of Babylon 5 fame).  She fondles herself in front of a couple of cops before shooting them with an assault rifle.  This is after she humps a drunken lecher to death.

Claudia’s role is . . . I’m sorry, was I saying something?

There aren’t many special effects in this.  I suspect it’s deliberate–a combination of shrewd writing and budget considerations.  The few that do appear are pretty effective.  The alien slug switching bodies is skin-crawlingly impressive.  I think it’s a case of “less is more”.

MacLachlan’s freaky acting in this is worth it, even if you don’t care about the rest of the film.  Go dig up a copy and enjoy.

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Krull: A Flawed Movie That Could Have Been Great

In the ancient days of yore (1983) I viewed a movie called Krull.  It is a strange tale.  Neither science fiction nor fantasy.  Not great, but not terrible.  I weep for the movie it could have been.

This chimera of a movie is the tale of an alien invasion of a fantasy world.  Sort of.  Details are a little fuzzy. 

Essentially, a big bad called “The Beast” invades the planet Krull with an interplanetary castle called The Black Fortress.  The fortress disgorges a bunch of (literally) faceless bad guys called “slayers” (no, not the band,) armed with one-shot blasters called “neon spears”.  The slayers run around conquering Krull for The Beast apparently has a bit of a hard-on for Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony).  I can almost see his point, as she’s a fine-looking woman, but planetary invasion seems like overkill.  The Beast apparently thinks that the way to woo her affections is by kidnapping her and slaughtering her family.  Not exactly progressive.

“Hey, could you hold onto this nuclear weapon for a bit?”

Standing in the way of The Beast’s incredibly violent nuptial plans is Prince Colwyn (Ken Marshall). Slayers interrupt  their wedding ceremony when they nab Lyssa.  Their wedding is meant to unify their two kingdoms against The Beast.  Instead, we get to see pretty much every soldier they have die in one night.  Anyway, in what would be an important plot point in a better movie, the wedding ceremony involves a ceremony where Lyssa hands Colwyn a magical flame.  Or rather, she tries to before the slayer wedding crashers arrive.

Fear the Death Frisbee!

Lyssa gets abducted, Colwyn gets injured and everyone else in the castle dies.  Along comes Ynyr, the Old One (no, not Cthulhu.)  Ynyr (Freddie Jones) is a kind of Obi-Wan mentor to Colwyn, and leads him to find a magical weapon called The Glaive.  Colwyn finds this magical, edged Death Frisbee after a very boring climbing sequence which ends with him pulling The Glaive out of lava.  I think it’s meant as a “test of faith”, but I’m not sure.

Armed with the Death Frisbee, Colwyn and Ynyr set out to find The Black Fortress.  The snag is that the fortress teleports every morning to another place on the planet.  Now, how The Beast maintains any logistics with that setup, I don’t know.  I do know it makes it pretty hard to storm the evil headquarters.  Probably pretty hard to receive any mail, too.

“Fred, did you notice a black fortress there last night?”

Along the way, Colwyn and Ynyr pick up a gang of followers.  Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley) is a magical faerie-type fellow, who has a running joke of trying to transform others into animals, only to become the animal himself.  Rell the Cyclops (Bernard Bresslaw) tags along with the backstory of how The Beast cheated his people of an eye to see the future–but the only thing they can see is their own deaths.  Finally, a group of outlaws led by Torquil (Alun Armstrong) joins up.  Liam Neeson, in one of his early roles, plays an outlaw named Kegan.

This motley band sets out to find the Black Fortress in a series of encounters with a body count akin to a Friday the Thirteenth movie.  Torquil’s outlaws serve admirably as redshirts and have worse life expectancy than V.A. patients.  There are a couple of decent fight sequences and a memorable stop-motion giant spider with the “Widow in the Web”.  Unfortunately, slow pacing and ponderous editing neutralize a lot of the good stuff.

The actors are all very British–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  The actors are all very competent–with the exception of Ken Marshall.  Seriously, Ken isn’t strong enough to carry a movie.  The guy’s a block of wood, made worse by the solid actors around him.

My biggest complaint is probably the ending.  The Glaive/Death Frisbee finally gets used against The Beast (and why he didn’t use it in previous fights isn’t explained) only to be useless.  Then suddenly Lysette hands Colwyn that marriage flame and now Colwyn can shoot friggin’ Godzilla-sized flames!  Apparently nobody at the wedding party mentioned “Oh, by the way, you can use that marriage flame like a super-flamethrower.  I mean, if you wanted.”

(beats head into wall)

Can you foresee me in better movies?

I can’t help but wonder who decided this ending made sense.  It could have been fixed to make sense.  I can think of a half-dozen ways off the top of my head.  But no, they decided “Nah, this is good enough.”

That’s what irks me the most about this movie.  There are several moments throughout where it starts to work, only to slam into a wall.  The production values are excellent.  The acting (with one glaring exception) is solid.  The musical score by James Horner is outstanding.  With a rewrite and somebody other than Ken Marshall, this movie had a lot of potential.  Hell, even with Ken Marshall they could have muddled through.

I can still enjoy parts of this movie.  The points which rise above.  Mostly, I just mourn for the movie it could have been.  It might be why I’m an aficionado of Spelljammer and similar fanboy nonsense.

It’s worth watching once for the oddball nature of it and those moments I mentioned.  Check it out.

Quatermass and the Pit

Quatermass and the Pit, or as it’s known in the U.S., Five Million Years to Earth, is a Hammer Film production of a BBC serial.  The phenomenon of Quatermass is a uniquely British craze.  It has had influences on science fiction for decades, but most Americans are completely ignorant about it.

The original Quatermass series on the BBC was tremendously popular in Britain in the 1950s.  It would not be unfair to compare their popularity during their period as something akin to Star Trek in the U.S.  Only three were produced: The Quatermass Experiment, Quatermass II and Quatermass and the Pit.  Their influences echo, as both Stephen King and John Carpenter cite them as influences.  In fact, King’s book The Tommyknockers is nearly a remake of The Pit (or perhaps a ‘homage’.)

Hammer made the previous two serials into films, titled The Quatermass Xperiment (The Creeping Unknown in the U.S.) and Quatermass II (Enemy From Space in the U.S.)  The Pit is the first one in color and the first to use Andrew Keir as the main character.  The first two films are well, mediocre.  The scripts and acting are solid enough, but the production values are weak–especially with The Quatermass Xperiment.  They’re not much above the production values of the original, live serials.  They feel more like serials uncomfortably squashed into movies.  Pit, however, feels like a big screen movie, and in color to boot.

The film starts out with a discovery of humanoid fossils in a London Underground dig site at Hobb’s End.  Paleontologist Matthew Roney (James Donald) is brought into to supervise the site.  Roney discovers a buried metallic casing.  He believes  it to be an unexploded bomb from The Blitz.

Professor Quatermass is brought in, along with his new ‘compatriot’–Colonel Breen (Julian Glover.)  Quatermass loathes Breen, as the military forced the colonel into his rocketry program.  The two men investigate the supposed bomb, only to find it something else.  It appears to be an ancient spacecraft.

A workman tries to drill into it, only to have his strongest drill bounce off.  The vibration it creates causes a reaction which opens up a sealed area.  Within are the bodies of several giant, tripodal insects.  Roney and Quatermass examine the decaying bodies and decide they must have come from the Mars of five million years in the past. 

Meanwhile, the workman is struck by a kind of ‘psychic fit’ while working in the spacecraft.  He runs in fear, throwing objects around with telekinesis.  Through investigation, Quatermass finds all sorts of folklore and legends surrounding Hobb’s End.  The ship’s effects activate anytime the ship is disturbed in the ground.

Roney uses a device that can record dreams (just run with it) to try to record impressions from the ship.  His assistant, Barbara Judd (Barbara Shelley) has the strongest reaction to the ship and they record her dreams.  The images captured shows the Martians purging hives in a racial genocide.  They wipe out all that are ‘different’.  (This is probably the weakest part of the movie, as the special effects consist of grainy images of bugs on sticks.  It’s bad.   A bit more spending on visual effects here would have helped.)

Quatermass and Roney conclude that the Martians manipulated ancient apes to evolve into modern man.  They tried to have a ‘colony by proxy’ since they couldn’t survive on Earth.

When presented with this evidence, Breen and the government officials dismiss it.  Breen convinces them that it’s a Nazi propaganda weapon and there’s no danger.  The government allows the press in, over Quatermass’s strong objections.  A workman’s blunder accidentally gives the ship a huge burst of electricity.  It comes to life and begins manipulating all human minds in the vicinity.  A gigantic, glowing Martian face explodes out of the Pit visible over the city.  The Martian ship makes the Londoners it influences wipe out every life form that is different, including other humans.  They can do so with the psychic powers at their disposal, thanks to the ship.  The Martians want humanity to inherit all their behaviors, including the need to ‘purge the hive’ of all differences. 

Quatermass tries to kill Roney, but manages to overcome the Martian influence.  Roney is one of the few unaffected (hence ‘different’.)  The two men come up with a plan to ground the Martian image to the ground with iron, dissipating the energy.  Roney climbs a nearby crane, meaning to use it, but the energy causes the base of the crane to crack, sending it careening into the image.  Roney neutralizes the Martian ship, at the cost of his life.

The movie ends on a very quiet, introspective note, with none of the survivors speaking.  Nice, melancholy denouement.

Overall, the movie maintains a good level of tension and uneasiness, despite the odd and esoteric nature of the menace.  It’s another good example of the ‘less is more’ school of tension building.  The series and movies do a good job of merging science fiction and horror, without clubbing you over the head with either. Other series copy these themes in later years, including Doctor Who.  In fact, episodes such as Image of the Fendahl can’t be anything but direct descendants. (Although the creator of Quatermass, Nigel Kneale, had great distaste for Doctor Who, as he felt that the series was nothing short of a rip-off of his work.)

The themes of the movie are meant to reflect the growing racial tensions in the U.K. of the fifties, but they fail to resonate.  Perhaps it’s simply too far removed from the events surrounding the original series.

Check it out. 

Also, the entire run of the original BBC series is available online.

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Island of Terror: A Nifty Horror Movie

Island of Terror scared the shit out of me when I was a kid.  In fact, I only made it through a few scenes before running to the other side of the house and hiding.  I didn’t remember the name for years.  Only with the advent of the internet could I track it down and watch it all the way through.  Even that took a lot of keyword searches.

This doesn’t make it a great movie.  It’s decent because of some atmospheric tricks, pacing and passable acting.  Honestly, I’ll watch anything with Peter Cushing–the man turns in a solid performance in every movie.  If Peter appeared in an insurance infomercial, I’d watch it. 

Terence Fisher is a veteran director of Hammer horror movies.  He turns in a decent showing with this, even with its flaws. 

The basic plot is familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with science fiction movies of the 50s.  Scientific researchers on a remote island accidentally create monsters.  Said monsters run amok.  Heroic scientists come to the rescue.  The monsters are unstoppable, until the heroes discover that one weakness.  Monsters are defeated.  Roll credits.

A rather unpleasant and unusual form of demise helps to sell the beasts.  Bodies start turning up with no bones left.  So they look like Silly Putty in clothes.  Slow reveals also help to maintain the tension during the first half.  Nobody gets a decent look at the critters until the halfway point.  You merely see their handiwork and hear creepy sounds.  I’ve seen better movie monsters, but then again I’ve also seen worse.

Turns out these nasties are “silicates”.  They’re composed of silicon and chow down on humans for the calcium in the bones.  The special effects team did their best to make them look like single-celled animals with flagellum.  Unfortunately, they come across a bit more like tortoises with tentacle heads.  I suspect they did the best they could with a limited budget.

The silicates are slow, but unstoppable.  The island’s single boat isn’t available, trapping everyone.  (This is a bit contrived.  How many island communities only have one boat?)  Like amoebas, the silicates divide to reproduce, growing at a geometric pace.  The breakthrough occurs when a silicate is found deadpoisoned by snacking on an irradiated test dog.  Being a 50s formula, one can expect radiation as a staple.

The scientists dose up a bunch of cattle with strontium-90 and feed them to the silicates.  All of the island survivors hole up in the town hall, hoping the strontium will work.  The silicates close in, followed by much screaming and panicking.  Until the creatures succumb.

We have the obligatory denouement, where the heroes talk about the dangers of science.  Then we have a: “If it hadn’t been an island, we couldn’t have stopped them.”  As it turns out, scientists in Tokyo were cooperating and performing identical experiments.  The movie ends with a Japanese scientist entering a lab after hearing creepy sounds.  Screams follow.

The movie did leave me with one or two questions.  One is the idea that an island community only has one boat.  Another is how do cancer researches end up accidentally creating silicon monsters?  Seems a rather roundabout method of research.

Despite its flaws, it’s enjoyable enough.  Check it out.

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Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction, Part Two

I received a lot of feedback on my Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction post.  The lion’s share, however, consisted of people pointing out how hopeless things are.

Sigh.

So to follow up, I thought I’d explore the genesis of this mindset.  Despite the mounting evidence that, despite travails, we are easily in the best time to be alive, all remains doom and gloom.  We can’t possibly survive.  We’ll choke ourselves in pollution, fry like eggs in global warming doom, slaughter one another in war, or all fall to starvation and disease.

Crap.  Seriously, that’s crap.

Could it happen?  Sure.  Lots of things could happen.  However, few people seem to be basing these outcomes on science or present trends.  They’re told constantly in journalism and entertainment media that The End is Nigh!  Every news outlet will give you the worst case scenario of . . . well, everything.  They’ll tell you that all the experts agree that doomsday is just a stone’s throw away.

And for the journalism industry, I know why.  Danger and doom sells.  Few people read the headline saying: Everything’s Okay.  You don’t tune into the local news and expect to see a story about how nobody got shot and nobody got roasted in a house fire.  Put up a sexy blurb about a campus rape, though, and watch the numbers go up.

It’s the nature of the journalism beast.  I don’t like it, but I do understand it.

But the entertainment industry?  Why?  Why is there so much doom and gloom?  Positive and uplifting science fiction typically outsells the hand-wringing doom.  Not always, of course, but dystopian worlds have their own appeal.  But as a rule, the science fiction with hope and heroes gets better mileage than hopelessness and anti-heroes.

Hell, even in bleak settings, you can still have hope.  You can aspire to something better.  Bleak settings make hope and heroes shine all the brighter.

Nine of the top ten highest-grossing science fiction movies are essentially positive (Avatar being the hold-out).  It’s dominated by Star Wars, and even though the science is goofy and some of the movies execrable, the message is essentially positive.  The heroes can win.  Evil can be overcome.  Even in Independence Day (which I actually loathe) the message is that humanity can overcome tremendous obstacles.  Back to the Future is an amazingly positive trilogy of movies, especially the ending.

Because here’s the secret: people like positive messages–even goofy, horribly-scripted ones (I’m looking at you, Independence Day).  They want to look towards the future with hope, not doom.

Maybe the problem is that people see it as naive, and not realistic.  To have hope for the future is quaint and old-fashioned–even if the trend is towards a better world.

Breakthroughs in genetic engineering through CRISPR technology, emerging nanotechnology, increasingly capable AIs, GMO foods, better air and water and decreasing violence are all the trends.  We are on the cusp of an amazing new world–and a lot sooner than you expect, thanks to exponential trends.

And yet . . .

And yet so many people see nothing but destruction and death in our future.  Nothing but the same in our science fiction books and movies.  Do they genuinely believe this, or does it seem foolish to say anything else?  Do they seek depth in gloom, like an Emo-obsessed teenager?

I don’t know.  I only know that despite the pall of inevitable chaos rising from mass media, the future’s so bright, you gotta wear shades.

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Hopeful Science Fiction Versus Hopeless Science Fiction

I have noted a disturbing trend in science fiction recently.

By ‘recently’ I mean ‘the last few decades’.  Science fiction and science fiction fandom apparently has a civil war going on.  On the one hand, you have the old school hopeful science fiction.  The kind of SF that has troubling futures, but balanced by the heroes and mankind getting smarter and more capable to meet the challenge.  It still poses troubling questions, but offers up possible solutions.

Then there’s the other side.  The side in which the planet is doomed, mankind will fall and our own foibles doom us all.  Or in which humanity is the stupid, brutish and warlike idiots, saved by the kind, benevolent and wise aliens.  Woe!  We are so stupid!

I’ve seen it in all media–movies, television, books and comic books.  The trend of seeing the future as an unending bleakness isn’t new, but didn’t become a major force until the sixties and seventies.  I think at some point it became ‘trendy’ to be pessimistic in SF.  Writers are always seeking the next ‘doomsday’ to be worried about.  If it isn’t nuclear war, it’s overpopulation, ozone depletion, acid rain, global warming, etc., etc. 

I get it.  The future is uncertain and dangerous.  They miss the point, however–the future has always been uncertain and dangerous!  You think Cro-Magnons didn’t fear what the next year would bring?  You think the ancient mariners traveling across the Atlantic to find the New World weren’t fantasizing the worst?  Science fiction at its best is either a cautionary tale to avoid future pitfalls or an inspiration to illuminate the way for the next generation.  Sure, there’s nothing wrong with dystopian futures, especially when dipping into horror, but as a change of pace–not a staple.

It seems to me this disconnect is especially wide when we consider the magnitude of technological achievements and development around us.  The free market and technology has lifted over two billion people out of poverty in the last four decades.  The percentage of people living in abject poverty has dropped below 10% for the first time in history.  (The percentage of people in abject poverty in 1800?  94%!)  Violence keeps dropping, life expectancy keeps increasing, quality of life keeps improving.  And on and on.  Yet all we hear in the news is Doom! Doom! Doom!

Maybe that’s it.  The 24-hour news cycle offers us a constant barrage of everything that’s wrong.  Many writers feel wrong by not reflecting this cavalcade of misery into their writing.  Like it’s a cheat to do otherwise.  Like they’re not “keepin’ it real” or something–even if it flies in the face of reality.

This schism seems to have a political component to it as well.  The hopefuls tend to be more conservative or libertarian.  The hopeless are progressives.  What this says about the two philosophies I’ll leave to others to interpret.  However, we have recently seen the SF Cold War get hot with the advent of the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies with the Hugo Awards.  I won’t say that conflict is completely about the hopeful/hopeless conflict, because it’s not.  That’s an element of it, though.

I don’t mind cautionary tales.  Hell, War of the Worlds is a cautionary tale about British colonialism.  It’s a time-honored trope.  What bothers me is that it’s now the default setting, despite positive progress on a staggering scale.  Where is the new hopeful science fiction?  Where is the next Star Trek?  The next Asimov?  Have we become so negative we find those very ideas quaint?

I haven’t.  I still think science fiction is at its best when it shines brightest.