Memory: The Origins of Alien


You never want to mess with the furies.

2019) Documentary (Screen Media) Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Diane O’Bannon, Ben Mankiewicz, Ronald Shusett, Roger Corman, Roger Christian, Ivor Powell, William Linn, Clarke Wolf, Axelle Carolyn, Henry Jenkins, Adam Egypt Mortimer, Carmen Scheifele-Giger, Gary Sherman, Linda Rich, Mickey Faerch, Rhoda Pell, Shannon Muchow.  Directed by Alexandre O. Philippe

 

One of the classics of its time was Ridley Scott’s Alien, which came out in 1979. While it wasn’t the first movie to meld horror and science fiction, it is certainly one of the best examples of both genres. Even now, 40 years after its initial release, the movie still terrifies and inspires.

Over the years there have been plenty of “making-of” documentaries about the film but few have taken the tack that this one has. Philippe, best known for his dissection of Hitchcock’s shower scene from Psycho in his documentary 78/52, looks more at the gestation of the film culminating in its infamous “chestburster” birthing scene which in 1979 caused audience jaws to collectively drop. Even today, new viewers of the film going in unprepared can be taken unawares.

Philippe does a deep dive into writer Dan O’Bannon’s influences to begin with; from his fascination with Greek and Egyptian mythologies to the loathing of insects he developed on the Missouri farm he grew up on to his eventual love for writer H.P. Lovecraft, no stone goes unturned in discussing where the ideas for Alien germinated. O’Bannon’s widow Diane (her husband passed away in 2009 of complications from the Crohn’s disease he lived with all his life) acts as something of a shepherdess, guiding us through his initial filmmaking foray (Dark Star which he co-directed with John Carpenter) through an abortive Dune project with Mexican surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky but which introduced him to the work of Swiss artist H.R. Giger and through the frustrating attempts to sell what would become his masterpiece. Giger’s influences are also briefly summarized as well as a lengthy discussion of painter Francis Bacon’s influence on the look of the chestburster scene (I would have preferred a little more time spent on Giger but that’s just me).

The documentary isn’t as comprehensive as The Beast Within, the making-of documentary that first appeared on the DVD edition of The Alien Quadrilogy which collected the first four films of the franchise along with an array of special features. In fact, some of the archival interviews from that feature appear here, projected onto video screens on a faux bridge of the Nostromo, a touch I liked very much.

There is a very intellectual approach to the film; there are interviews with respected critics and film historians such as Axelle Carolyn, Ben Mankiewicz and Clarke Wolf. There are also contemporary interviews with some of the cast and crew of the film including Cartwright and Skerritt (but interestingly enough, not Scott or Sigourney Weaver whose career essentially began with the film). There is discussion of how the politics of 1979 affected the film and how some of the social points are still relevant (the expendability of the working-class crew, for example).

In many ways, this is an excellent lead-in for those who haven’t yet seen the film although I can’t imagine someone willing to invest the time on a detailed examination of a movie they haven’t seen. Fans of the movie will no doubt enjoy this even though some of the on-set stories have been told elsewhere.

Almost by necessity there is an endless parade of talking heads although it is well-dispersed with footage from the film as well as behind-the-scenes footage, particularly when the examination of the chestburster scene finally arrives about halfway through. I don’t honestly know if this is the definitive documentary about the film – it really doesn’t examine the movie’s effect and legacy except in very broad terms. Still, fans of the movie will find the academic approach different and perhaps enlightening. It reminds me of the early days of DVDs and VHS home video releases when certain movies got documentaries that really gave great insight into the development of the film unlike the modern back-slapping love-fests that you see these days when you see anything at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Definitely a godsend for fans of the movie.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too detailed for the casual fan.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as horrific images from the original film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is one of the first purchases by the fan-owned entertainment company, Legion M.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Empire of Dreams
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Wallflower

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The Cabin in the Woods


The Cabin in the Woods

That's putting the "arm" in armoire.

(2012) Horror (Lionsgate) Chris Hemsworth, Kristen Connolly, Anna Hutchison, Fran Kranz, Jesse Williams, Bradley Whitford, Richard Jenkins, Sigourney Weaver, Brian White, Amy Acker, Tim De Zarn, Tom Lenk, Dan Payne, Jodelle Ferland, Dan Shea, Maya Massar, Matt Drake. Directed by Drew Goddard

 

Five friends take off for a weekend at a rustic cabin in a remote, wooded area. Sounds familiar, no? Well, I’ll admit this kind of scenario has been done before, but never quite like this.

Dana (Connolly), her roommate Jules (Hutchison) and Jules’ hunky boyfriend Curt (Hemsworth) are getting ready for a weekend away from school. Dana is suffering from the break-up of a romantic relationship she had with her college professor and Curt’s cousin has just bought a new vacation getaway in the woods a ways out of town. Along for the ride is Holden (Williams), a bookish friend of Curt’s whom Jules is eager to set Dana up with, and Marty (Kranz) the stoner childhood friend of Dana.

Stopping at a gas station on the way there, they meet the obligatory creepy old man (De Zarn) who rather than warn them not to go to the cabin drops some dark hints about the place. Not enough to dissuade them from going but just enough to be intriguing. There must be a central casting agency for creepy old men somewhere in Hollywood.

The cabin, set on a bucolic lake in the mountains, at first seems to be a perfect vacation spot. However, upon further investigation there are some troubling features. Why is there a one-way mirror between bedrooms? And why is there such a collection of arcane things in the basement?

That’s probably because the cabin isn’t what it seems. The five friends are being observed and have been since before they left the city. Two technicians, Sitterson (Jenkins) and Hadley (Whitford) are manipulating events, forcing the five friends into decisions. What is their motivation? What plans do they have for the young people. And who is the mysterious Director (Weaver) and what is her agenda?

Forget everything you know about this sub-genre. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural but also of J-horror, science fiction and spoof as well. Goddard, who helmed the magnificent Cloverfield teams up with Joss Whedon (who co-wrote and produced this and did a little second unit directing as well) to produce what is easily one of the best horror movies ever and certainly the best so far of the 21st century. Not only that, it is one of the best movies of the year period.

It has the right mix of action, viscera, sex and comedy and timed at the right places. It’s hip and old school at the same time. For example, when the creepy old man (a.k.a. Mordecai a.k.a. the Harbinger) calls Hadley to voice his doom and gloom gospel about cleansing the sins of the young people, he breaks off to say “Hey, am I on speaker phone?” which he is. The touches are light when necessary and even goofy in places before they hit you with a big whammy.

I’m being deliberately vague about some of the plot points – I found knowing very little about the movie enhanced my enjoyment of it. Hemsworth filmed this before he became a big star in Thor and shows the kind of easy-going charm that is going to net him more earthly roles in the future. Connolly, a soap opera veteran is pleasing as the plucky virginal heroine and Hutchison is very hot as the bimbo – she has a make-out scene with a wolf’s head…well, let’s just leave it at that.

Most people are going to come off remembering Kranz as the stoner. He is comic relief initially but his role evolves unexpectedly and not only does he get most of the best lines in the movie, he doesn’t flub them either. Fans might recognize him from his previous work with Whedon in the short-lived but much-loved TV series “Doll House.”

Whitford and Jenkins are both seasoned pros who get to let loose a little bit from their normal serious personas. The two have good chemistry together and can switch from light comedy to serious in a heartbeat. For Whitford, this is his best work since “The West Wing.” Weaver gets pretty much a cameo appearance but she makes the most of it.

There are plenty of digital effects, some of which are simply amazing. I’m really glad that the film was released in 2D only because although the break-neck pace of the film lends itself to 3D, the dark nighttime settings really don’t and you would have lost a lot of the subtlety of the action sequences.

I can’t say enough about this film. It is rare to have this much fun at a movie and to not want it to end while it is playing. Those who are timid about horror movies be advised – while there are some nightmarish images, for the most part it is less scary than you might think and much more fun. While young children and those who are more susceptible to having nightmares should probably think twice about seeing it, anyone else will have a great time. This is pure and simple a masterpiece of genre filmmaking and most everyone who sees it, like me, will leave the theater grinning ear-to-ear.

REASONS TO GO: Hands down, the best horror movie of the 21st Century so far. An amazingly inventive roller-coaster ride you never want to end.

REASONS TO STAY: The gore can be excessive and some of the images are disturbing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of gore and violence, bad language and drug use. There’s also some sexuality and a little bit of nudity as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was originally filmed in 2009 and was due to be released by MGM. The studio had wanted to post-convert this into 3D despite the objections of Goddard and Whedon, but those plans were never realized, partially due to the bankruptcy of MGM that year. Lionsgate eventually picked up the property.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are mainly negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Evil Dead

HORROR FILM LOVERS: There are homages all over the place to a variety of horror movies, from The Hills Have Eyes to Hellraiser  to Creature from the Black Lagoon and on and on and on.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Our Florida Film Festival coverage kicks off with a review of the opening night film Renee

Re-Animator


Re-Animator

Barbara Crampton has no idea what's in store for her in Re-Animator.

(Empire) Jeffrey Combs, Barbara Crampton, Bruce Abbott, David Gale, Robert Sampson, Gerry Black, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon, Peter Kent. Directed by Stuart Gordon

My wife’s favorite horror film of all time is The Hitcher which just goes to show that some people can have diametrically opposed tastes in horror movies and still co-exist. The Hitcher is one of two movies that I’ve walked out on in the middle of the movie in my entire life (for completists, D-Wars is the other). I thought it was creepy enough, but I simply couldn’t get behind the actions of the hero in the movie and finally gave up on it after the infamous truck stretching scene.

But what is my favorite horror movie of all time? Well, I have several that are contenders – The Exorcist, Bride of Frankenstein, Poltergeist, Alien, Them and probably a few others that rotate in and out of my top ten depending on my mood but generally speaking the movie I usually name as my all-time fave is this one.

After a scandal forces young Herbert West (Combs) to leave a prestigious university in Switzerland (under the tutelage of the brilliant Dr. Gruber) to slum over to second-rate Miskatonic University, he rents a room from Dan Cain (Abbott), a medical student studying neurosurgery under the arrogant Dr. Carl Hill (Gale). Cain is also dating the lovely Megan Halsey (Crampton), daughter of the straight-laced Dean of the Medical School (Sampson). Sweeeeeeeeeeeeeet set-up, dude!

West, himself an arrogant little jerk, has been spending an awful lot of time in the basement of the house of Cain and Dan and Megan soon find out why. It turns out that West had been working on forbidden experiments with Dr. Gruber in Switzerland that involved re-animating dead tissue and the two had been successful using a bright green glowing liquid West refers to as Re-Agent.

The problem is that the re-animated dead become violent and unpredictable, basically mindless animals who lash out to inflict the pain that they themselves are feeling. There’s a whole lot of screaming involved with the process.

At first Dan is appalled but quickly sees the legitimate medical value of the stuff and begins to help West out with his experiments. In the meantime, Dr. Hill has also found out about the Re-Agent and wants the formula for himself so that he can take credit for the discovery. He has also developed an unhealthy obsession with the nubile young Megan.

As West tries to keep control of his discovery, he slips into a kind of obsessive madness that is equal parts mad scientist, nerd and obsessive-compulsive. He longs to have more bodies to test out his serum on and after not too long he’s up to his elbows in them.

This was one of the most influential horror movies of its time on a lot of different levels. Made for horror producer Charles Band’s first studio Empire (which would later be replaced by the notorious Full Moon Studios which was essentially direct-to-video), it was one of the more critically acclaimed horror movies for its time (and remember the 80s were one of the most fertile periods for the genre, with the Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises going strong) and remains a cult favorite for many.

Part of the reason it works so well is that it is perfectly cast. Combs established a persona that he has spent a career spinning off of as the twitchy unlikable lead. Gale makes the perfect counterpoint, being loathsome, arrogant, smooth and lecherous all at once. Crampton, a veteran of soap operas, became a horror scream queen based on her work here – she was cute, sure but she had more personality than most of the other cute scream queens of her time. Of course, her notorious scene with Dr. Hill was unsettling, funny and sexy all at once…I know it had a number of people squirming in their seats at the time.

The effects don’t always hold up 25 years later but for their time they were pretty innovative and quite a few of them still pack a wallop even today. The script by Dennis Paoli is imaginatively written and even if it didn’t have a whole lot to do with the source material, a short story by horror icon H.P. Lovecraft, it still was an outstanding piece of work.

Dead is dead but not in the horror movies, and director Stuart Gordon knows when to go over-the-top and when to be subtle. This is one of those serendipitous movies in which everything came together perfectly and all the planets aligned correctly to make a movie that surprised a whole lot of people with how good it was. It established the careers of Gordon, Crampton, Combs and producer Brian Yuzna and raised the bar on horror movies, a bar that remains even today. If you love horror movies and haven’t seen it, you need to stop what you’re doing and go rent this. It’s fairly widely available and the Anchor Bay DVD edition is loaded with special features. It’s got something for everybody and even those who aren’t fond of horror movies will appreciate the quality of this one.

WHY RENT THIS: One of the best horror movies ever made; it has everything from black humor to extreme gore to titillating sexuality. Combs made his career with his twitchy performance here and Crampton made a great scream queen.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Might be too over-the-top for some.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of gore and ghoulishness, with plenty of nudity and sex. They just don’t make ‘em like this anymore; not for kids in the least.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The special effects department went through 25 gallons of fake blood during the shoot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A recent re-release of the movie on Anchor Bay includes a 12-part documentary feature on the making of the movie as well as the controversy surrounding it, and a PDF version of the original H.P. Lovecraft short story for those equipped with DVD-ROM on their computers.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs