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Friday, October 28, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 23: Warning Sign (1985)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins
Directed by Hal Barwood

Sam Waterston:  Cal Morse
Kathleen Quinlan:  Joanie Morse
Yaphet Kotto:  Major Connolly
Jeffrey DeMunn:  Dr. Dan Fairchild
Richard Dysart:  Dr. Nielsen

With G. W. Bailey, Rick Rossovich, and Meshach Taylor, making it a film that's composed of 70% "Hey, that guy" by volume.

I didn't think the world was going to end in the Eighties; I knew it was. Either the leader of the Soviet Union or the senile old man in control of the American nuclear stockpiles were going to get pissed off enough to push the big red button, or there would be a computer error that triggered the missiles independent of human activity. And then an hour and a half later, human civilization would be erased from the planet in a series of bright white flashes and the world would be left to the rats, who might vaguely miss us but would get along just fine in the aftermath without being able to steal entire pizza slices and carry them away down subway stairs. When I found out about Stanislav Petrov, it turned out that I was right to be terrified of nuclear war in grade and middle school. Someone less level-headed in charge of a monitor station when I was eight might have ensured that I never made it to nine (and that any of my readers younger than 33 might never have existed at all).

But even though I was justifiably anxious about a crop of mushroom clouds showing up at any moment during my adolescence, there was a whole bunch of other shit my country had brewing that I didn't have any idea about. Chemical weapons and disease bombs were also valuable components in the arsenal of democracy, developed because other countries had them (because other countries, including mine, had them). But there's something about chemical and biological warfare that's worse than nuclear bombs--a nuke is still something that can be aimed. The effects of a nuclear blast roughly similar to a shotgun blast that annihilates an entire city and poisons everyone within miles, but it's still something that was aimed at a specific target. Diseases and poison gas go wherever the wind blows it. In the case of chemical weapons, eventually they'll be dispersed and harmless after time and distance and chemical degradation. But if someone catches a weaponized flu and spreads it to someone else? Well, there's an eleven hundred page Stephen King novel about what kind of world that leaves the six people out of every thousand that are immune to the plague. Also a really boss tablet game, which is one of those queasily entertaining things that turns the apocalypse into something you want to strive for rather than avoid.

And sooner or later someone was going to decide to go with one of the other sides of the N-B-C armament triangle when making a horror movie in the depths of the Reagan years. Sure, you had nuclear paranoia in movies like WarGames and even Dreamscape, but people vomiting blood and dying wasn't as cinematic as gigantic mushroom clouds blotting out the sky. So if you were going to make a movie about germ warfare, setting it someplace where the wind can't dilute the disease weapon's effectiveness is a good idea. And putting someone in it who isn't a scientist making ninety grand a year to figure out how to kill as many people as possible would be nice too, because Warren Ellis said bomb designers could be heroes in 1962 in his 20th century pop culture obsessed comic Planetary, but by 1985 plenty of people thought of them as future mass murderers by proxy more than valiant defenders of the American way.

So. Set your movie in an enclosed place (which will also help with the budget, because you'll have a couple of major sets for everyone to be in and you won't be at the mercy of the weather or available sunlight for location work) and make sure that at least one protagonist isn't trying to develop a way to make cancer contagious so that Russia can be depopulated from a safe distance and you'll have a better chance of making a movie someone wants to see. But it's still 1985 and a movie set in a germ warfare lab is going to be a horror film, not a drama (or, Jesus Christ, a romantic comedy). So strap in thanks to Amazon streaming (the DVD was in print for about six hours and is too expensive to grab just for one day's HubrisWeen writing) and let's get within shouting distance of the end of the world.

The film opens with the surest guarantee that things are going to go to shit imaginable--a look out at the gently sloping green hills of the fictitous but real sounding Rudd County, Utah, where cattle graze and the skies are wide and gorgeous. Of course everything will fall apart during the narrative--film is expensive and you only show nice stuff happening at the start of a movie like this as a contrast to the horrors at the end of the first act and onward. Setting the film in ranching and grazing country is probably at least a slight nod to the 1968 event awesomely known as the Skull Valley Sheep Kill. When this film was made, an actual admission from the U.S. military that they'd nerve gassed six thousand sheep in Utah was still fourteen years in the future, but I'm sure plenty of ranchers and shepherds figured it out whether or not there was a PR flack in a uniform telling them what went down. A plane flies over fields of corn, dusting the crops before an ominous thunk on the score sounds when the camera cuts to the BioTek Agronomics corporate headquarters.

Whatever that organization presents to the outside world as its goals and methods, inside there's a late-middle-aged white guy looking at a Petri dish under a microscope while wearing full-body biohazard gear with its own air supply in a lab. He does some science for a while that involves a centrifuge and vials of something or other, and a loose tape label hooks a vial of something undoubtedly lethal to one of his sleeves without him noticing. While the scientist performs more ill-definted duties, the vial falls off his isolation suit and lands on the ground, but does not break (it slides across the ground with a scraping sound that sets the viewer's teeth on edge when someone accidentally kicks it, too). Whatever the BioTek people were trying to do, apparently some part of it just got wrapped up and one of their number wants to take a Polaroid to commemorate the occasion. A group of half a dozen scientists all pop their visors up so their faces will be visible in the snapshot, and inevitably the photographer squashes the vial underfoot (still unobserved by every character in the film, which is horrifyingly plausible). It's 5 PM, end of shift, and everyone scrubs down to leave while the security officer at a control console checks everyone out.

The security officer's a woman name Joanie, who calls her husband Cal, the sheriff around these parts, to get a ride home from work at the end of the day; she's played by Kathleen Quinlan and the sheriff is a shockingly young and brown-haired Sam Waterston. While they're talking about whose turn it is to make dinner, one of the computer monitors at the station starts reading *BIOHAZARD* *BIOHAZARD* BIOHAZARD*, which is probably nothing to get too bent out of shape over. Incidentally, other than Joanie and Cal, virtually none of the various scientists have called each other by their names, which mans that they're being presented as nearly identical drones. The identical white protective suits help distinguish them as being indistinguishable as well. Joanie might be wearing a uniform herself, but it's one that doesn't cover her face and hands while she works.

Anyway, Joanie disconnects the call (and check out Cal's super advanced for 1985 brick-sized mobile phone when he hangs up the receiver before tearing ass over to the BioTek building). The computer monitors start to show multiple biohazard symbols on a wire-frame map of the labs and Joanie carries out the ominously named PROTOCOL ONE with regards to the accidental release of whatever it was R. G. Armstrong's character stepped on. Klaxons blare, airtight steel doors slide shut and I'm guessing all the building doors lock themselves. As a warning so the scientists don't get crushed like bugs by the automatic doors, yellow and black plastic streamers fall down from the top of each door frame, which looks goofy as hell--like somebody won a prize, and instead of the klaxons we should be hearing something like this:

Dana, a perky blonde scientist, makes it past the descending security door and gets trapped on one side of it--and it looks like she can walk out of the building through the main doors if she wants to. Her squeeze Bobby is on the other side, though, and perhaps she won't want to abandon him in the BioTek building. Dana talks to the sheriff outside, complaining that Bob (oh, and everyone else in the building) is locked inside. Schmidt, one of the scientists, fixes a malfunctioning piece of equipment in the bowels of the building that he thinks is the problem, then calls Joanie to tell her it's safe to open all the doors and let everyone out because it's "a non-event event". Joanie, however, wants to stick to the procedures as they are in the manuals--and that Schmidt trained her on personally. Schmidt says he'll take full responsibility for Joanie circumventing the usual protocols and her phone rings about a second and a half before she can start undoing all the things she's done; it's Dr. Nielsen, the head of the facility, telling her to seal the entire building because there's been an accident and nobody can be permitted to enter or leave the BioTek headquarters.

Also, this is the point where we learn that Nielsen was the guy who wound up with the plague vial stuck to his sleeve in the very beginning of the movie; being the head dude in charge doesn't mean you're going to notice everything that goes wrong, even when you're at the center of the disaster. Nielsen tells Joanie to open the safe at her security station and follow the instructions that she finds there. It's a measure of how serious things are that she gets a major on the line less than half a second after going through the first step on her computer; according to him, there's a few things that have to be done in order to keep everyone safe. First up, get in touch with the civil authorities and have the three people who had left the building before everything locked down detained.

While Joanie's taking care of things from the security station, the lab animals have all gone into a homicidal frenzy and one scientist goes from cage to cage with a pistol to put them down; all the lab animals' remains are incinerated to prevent the spread of the pathogen any further (which works every time someone tries it, of course). Dr. Nielsen's got an untested antitoxin that's everyone's going to shoot up in order to slow or halt the infection, and we learn that the virus or germ or whatever it is causes the sweat of an infected carrier to fluoresce under ultraviolet light. After Nielsen injects a recalcitrant doctor with the serum he says it's his turn next; one may safely assume everyone in the labs is getting a dose of potential cure until they run out of the stuff.

Meanwhile, Joanie and her husband are still in communication; Cal and the knot of people waiting outside the lab apparently think it's an equipment malfunction or false alarm that's got everyone trapped in the room while Joanie knows much, much better. She tells her husband to go look for a former employee of the company named Dan Fairchild; Cal says the guy's a drunk and got fired from BioTek, so what good can he do? Before the conversation can progress a local yahoo with a pistol breaks his way into the vestibule and tries to shoot through the foot-thick security door in order to get inside. Sheriff Morse has to intervene now, pretty much effortlessly disarming the guy (who says his son is stuck inside the building, so I can see why he's concerned--but he's still an idiot). Just as another local asks what the sheriff's going to do about the situation a helicopter flies up, its searchlights blinding white against the darkness outside the building. 

Well, that major from Joanie's phone call shows up and since Yaphet Kotto has a hugely distinctive voice it's not much of a surprise to the viewer that the authority figure on the scene is played by him. But the townspeople (as white as a Sarah Palin rally) look at him with disgust and distrust from about the first second he stepped out of the chopper. Dana gets her body shrinkwrapped in a big inflatable body suit and hauled off for an exam. Then Major Connolly starts to tell everyone gathered outside the building how sorry he is that they're all out there in the dark waiting for word on their relatives and spouses stuck inside the building. While he's talking, though, a fleet of semis and RVs are being guided to the BioTek site by one of the Major's flunkies.

The cover site is that "a batch of experimental yeast" was spilled at BioTek, which is a perfectly normal agricultural research station. Then a bunch of soldiers hop out of their transports, toting M-16s, and move towards the people gathered outside the building. Antennae are deployed from the semi trucks and various pieces of equipment are hooked up the generator trucks. One of Cal's deputies brings back the two other people that left BioTek early and they wind up inside the inflatable plastic shells "for their own protection" just like Dana did. Major Connolly confides in Cal that the yeast story is one of the things that gets put into action when PROTOCOL ONE is initiated; given that Connolly also recommended that Cal say a prayer for his wife and everyone else stuck in the BioTek facility, it can be safely assumed that the shit is rocketing towards the fan at this very moment.

Cal gets a call from his wife and Connolly tries to get her to patch Dr. Nielsen through to him via the sheriff's department truck radio, but the facility head's been incommunicado for hours. Before he can spill any beans about what exactly got spilled from that vial at five, Connolly gets an update from a flunky and literally runs off to look at what's been found. Majors don't run unless it's serious business, right? At the command semi, a bunch of orange-jumpsuited technicians have a bank of monitors set up and they're patched in to the closed circuit monitoring system inside BioTek. So far people are grumbling and working their way through the food in the cafeteria, which is probably to be expected.

But when they get a look at the biohazard lab instead of the cafeteria, nobody's moving. They're huddled together on the floor, sleeping (or at least that's the official government story). When Cal asks what the hell is going on, Major Connolly sees that there's an intruder in his command semi and starts to lose his cool (which is great, because Yaphet Kotto blowing his top is one of the golden highlights of world cinema). Cal, as the civil authority for the county, wants to know what's going on in what he thinks of as a local business--the one where his wife works, and is currently trapped. Connolly doesn't give him any specifics about anything, but says that he's trying to protect everyone on the site (including himself, which is refreshingly honest).

Schmidt finds a phone and calls outside, talking to Major Connolly like they've been familiar with each other for a long time. He still thinks it's a pump malfunction that he cleared up hours before, but Connolly shuts him down by saying it's a real-deal PROTOCOL ONE situation (Schmidt sinks to the ground and asks how many people have died as soon as he realizes what's going on). And while Connolly is trying to determine if everyone exposed to the pathogen has already died, Joanie's on the radio to her husband looking at the bodies in the P-4 lab and trying to tell how many have succumbed to either the germ or that untested cure shot that they took earlier. Joanie is just starting to panic at her station and Sheriff Cal drives off to track down that Dr. Fairchild dude that was mentioned earlier. Before they break the connection off, Cal does a little information control with his wife, keeping her from panicking by telling her that it's just an agricultural research station and that what happened in the lab, even if it did kill some people, is just the equivalent of an on-the-job fatality.

So off Cal drives, looking for someone that might be able to tell him more about what's going on than either his wife (who is on the scene but ignorant of what's happening) or Major Connolly (who knows what's going on but doesn't want to tell him) is willing or able to do. Dr. Fairchild is asleep--or perhaps "passed out" would be more accurate--when Cal shows up, breaks into the house and wakes the man up; understandably confused, he says he doesn't need a ride home because he's already there. Then, once the fog clears a little bit, he asks "Somebody spill something?" and ridicules the idea that yeast is behind whatever happened that brought the sheriff to his house. He accurately predicts that Ed Connolly will be at the BioTek building and refuses to go back to the site (and, watching him wandering around in his boxer shorts, I am stunned by the fact that Jeffrey DeMunn used to be in quite good shape. And, although balding, he's still got dark brown hair in 1985 as well).

While whipping up a stack of zucchini pancakes for a got-woken-up-and-now-it's-time-to-nosh snack, Dr. Fairchild confirms that BioTek is a Department of Defense facility and not an agricultural research company, as everyone in the county was told. The sheriff figures out that the "Blue Harvest" program isn't about making food crops metabolize salt water, but rather that it has to be some kind of germ warfare intiative. Dr. Fairchild doesn't deny that, but he does say that international treaties forbid the development of disease weapons. Cal tries to get Fairchild to go to the BioTek building with him and the man refuses; he does say that he made a cure for whatever Blue Harvest is, and that Major Connolly should inoculate everyone for their own safety. Then the sheriff drops the bomb on Fairchild--his wife is trapped in that building along with seven dozen other people who may or may not have been exposed to the germ.

It's the next morning when Sheriff Morse and Dr. Fairchild set off for the BioTek building; meanwhile, Schmidt has an ultraviolet scanner and is checking to see if anyone he's been trapped with has fluorescent spit or sweat. And soldiers from the containment group are using a jackhammer to chip into the outside wall to break in; it's probably easier to bust through concrete than those security doors. Major Connolly, talking to one of the body-suited men who will be checking things out in the lab, lets it slip in passing that four out of five people exposed to the pathogen will die. While a couple of nameless flunkies get ready to go inside the building, the sheriff and Dr. Fairchild confront the major about what's going on with BioTek.

Major Connolly points out that Hudd County had 38% unemployment when the germ warfare station came to town--they never did tell anyone working there outside of the really, really dangerous levels what was going on but everyone was happy to have a source of jobs show up and build something. Connolly also says that "deterrence in kind" is the reason for the illegal biowarfare lab they're standing next to--if the Soviets (who have their own germ warfare facilities, because we have ours) infected the United States, not having a germ warfare program to respond with would mean nuclear war. It makes sense, honestly--the ghastly kind of pitch-black humorous sense that the Cold War traded in. You needed the weaponized germs to protect against the weaponized germs that the USSR had to protect themselves from you. And if either side wanted to make a first strike, they had to know that the retaliatory strike would wipe them off the fucking map. Which is why they needed better germ bombs, so that if they were ever attacked they could counterattack brutally. The problem with that system, as a group of people in Utah are now learning, is that when mistakes are made it's one's own country that suffers from them.

Meanwhile, back at BioTek, Schmidt gets in touch with Joanie and tries to get her to open the doors to let everyone still alive out. She won't do it, though, not without someone from the chain of command (and who is not in the building and exposed to the bug) telling her that it's copacetic. It's probably not a good sign that people with Schmidt are toting fire axes, but Joanie rips the page with the unlock codes out of her manual and burns it before the technicians chop through the door and grab her. After being shocked with a lamp cord (which even Schmidt thinks is way, way over the top) Joanie gives up the sequence to get out of the building. But when the torturer puts it in, the computer notifies him that the code has expired and there isn't a new one. Apparently PROTOCOL ONE takes a whole lot of possibilities into account, including the code books getting compromised.

In the security station, Bob starts spasming and collapses; the UV light shows that he's good and infected, which causes panic in everyone stuck in that room. When a dishwasher from the cafeteria brings news of the outside rescue attempt Schmidt tells everyone they can't leave because of the risk of infecting people from the outside (he's only tried to subvert the protocols when he thought nobody had the bug, and I like that he tries to keep things secure when everyone else just wants to leave). Everyone bullrushes past him, of course, and eventually Schmidt flees as well. When the hazard-suited soldiers cut open an interior door they almost get bums-rushed by the fleeing BioTek workers, and one of them gets shot in an attempt to get past everyone. It's the guy who used lamp-cord wires to torture the day's exit code from Joanie, though, so "son of a bitch had it coming" fully applies here.

It turns out that the rescue party doesn't know where they are; the only person who knows the layout of the base up on the surface (and in radio contact with them) is Dr. Fairchild. He guides them through an access tunnel towards the lab that's supposed to have the cure that Fairchild developed. While that's going on, Schmidt and the other infected technicians are rapidly going from bad to worse; Bob has succumbed to the virus, although I seem to remember all the lab animals going berserk when they caught the bug. Schmidt tries to apologize to Joanie for everything he and his group did to her--he realizes that the Reaper just grabbed a checklist with all the BioTek employees' names on it and his car keys.

Then that "bad to worse" kicks up another notch. The lab where Dr. Nielsen and everyone else got infected, took the cure and then died? They're not in there any more. And the glass door has been smashed. The working hypothesis is that someone broke into the lab and moved the bodies until the pustule-covered hand flops into the camera's view. Right before Nielsen's voice is heard complaining about how bright the lights are in the lab and how much they hurt his eyes, and a fire axe smashes into the circuit breakers. So, uh, horribly infectious plague zombies in the dark. That's a good sign. It's also about goddamned time, because it's forty-five minutes into a hundred minute long film before the hell finishes breaking loose.

Nielsen makes his way into the service tunnel and signals to the soldiers; up in the command center everyone but Dr. Fairchild thinks that's great news, but the former BioTek worker quietly instructs the soldiers in the safest way to flee from the scientist in their field of vision. Everyone shuffles away, leaving the poor son of a bitch with the video link to the surface (and no gun) closest to Nielsen. As they try to leave, the suited soldiers encounter a mob of about six or eight infected scientists, one of whom is toting a fire axe. All of them have massive pustules and sores on their faces and hands, and the UV light seems to cause one physical pain when they scan him.

The video of the scientist soldiers getting overwhelmed might well have influenced James Cameron when making Aliens the next year, but he did it a hell of a lot better than this movie did. Right after Connolly remarks that Fairchild led his men into an ambush we go back to Joanie and Schmidt in the sickroom. Schmidt says if they can get to the P-4 weapons lab there might be a dose of antitoxin they can use to fight off the effects of the germ (although right now Joanie appears to either be naturally immune or just an asymptomatic carrier). It's when she starts unlocking the door to get out of the room they're in that Bob's corpse spasms its way back to life and he Evil Dead stands up to advance on her. Mindlessly aggressive as he is, Bob's no match for Joanie wielding a piece of metal equipment and they shuffle off to the lab.

Up on the surface, Major Connolly realizes that things have gone so apocalyptically bad that he has to confirm "some cases of low-level human infection", though he doesn't say what that infection is. USA Today has a front-page story about the quarantine, but it's the cover story about experimental yeast rather than the zombie virus that's actually in the air. Fairchild says that nobody's getting out of the BioTek building alive (perhaps forgetting that Cal's wife is down there), and that the cover story's going to hold. Major Connolly does tell everyone to offer their thoughts and prayers to the trapped people, and we all know how much good those things do.

That yahoo who tried to shoot his way into the building riles up the crowd a bit but Connolly gets away with his bullshit story; Fairchild says the plan is for the building to be sealed and everyone to die of the disease; then, presumably, a team of guys in hazmat suits will scrub every square inch of the facility down with bleach, and the "agricultural research station" will reopen under a new name some time later.

Joanie finds a room where everyone's doing all right, but the elderly white-haired scientist won't open the locked door to let her in because she might bring contamination with her. That turns out to be the break room / cafeteria, and if people just sit tight and play the arcade games in there they'll die peacefully when the air runs out. As she and Schmidt walk off (with Joanie doing pretty much all the work) they encounter Dr. Nielsen, who says that he was sick for a short while but now he's better. But when Joanie asks him why his clothes are spattered with blood he flips out and sics another plague zombie with an axe on the pair of refugees. Turns out that undead or not, rage zombie or not, a face full of fire extinguisher fluid will slow a man down and Joanie drags Schmidt away, down an elevator (which she blocks open) and into the P-4 lab to look for that antitoxin that was supposed to be there.

In the command trailer, Major Connolly tells the sheriff that everyone in the facility is doomed; Cal says he'll go in alone and find the antitoxin to cure everyone. And that's when Connolly drops another bomb:  the antitoxin is ineffective. If it were me setting things up there, I'd have probably had a fatal dose of barbituates in every syringe of "cure"; I mean, it's already a bioweapons lab so the morality of lying to people and having them peacefully drift off to sleep after being infected with something horrible and fatal isn't anything I'd be worried about. Plus, in this case, it means there wouldn't be infected rage-fueled psychotics wandering around with axes.

The "you're a law enforcement official and I need your cooperation here" speech goes so well that the sheriff tries to ram through the security gates with his department truck; it does not work. He just gets a concussion against the steering wheel for his troubles. That's not the best time in the world for Joanie to get in touch with him on the walkie-talkie, but it's when she does. Joanie isn't sick, and lets Connolly and her husband know. Which leads to the sheriff commandeering a cop car and tracking down Dr. Fairchild as he tries to hitchhike back to his place--another tiny morsel of exposition is parceled out here, in that the Blue Harvest weapon was meant to kill people, but turn them into raging psychotics until they died (which would lead to chaos and confusion in Moscow or East Berlin as hundreds of thousands of infected people started killing anyone and everyone around them). Even if Joanie wasn't infected, she'd have to avoid everyone else in the building for twelve hours until the germ killed them.

Dr. Fairchild gets in touch with Joanie over the cop car radio, and determines that she really isn't infected (the UV scanner shows Schmidt lit up like a Christmas tree, though, and he's out cold next to her in the P-4 lab). Fairchild tells her what the antitoxin bottles in the fridge are going to look like and tells her to stay there (which is going to be a tall order once the rage zombies figure out a way down there). Time to go back to BioTek (it's hours later when they arrive, Night Two of the disaster). Tensions are very high in the parking lot, and the sheriff's arrival nearly sparks a mini riot when he joins the soldiers instead of the townspeople. Fairchild sabotages the generator truck with a cup full of sugar with a little coffee and the men sneak into the field lab where the three BioTek employees are being held for observation in their bubble suits. The pair suits up in a pair of commandeered white suits and sneak in through the greenhouse air shaft to get into the lab (the movie takes pains to show the audience that it's an intake shaft rather than one that will spray germs out into the air, because otherwise our heroes would be germ-spreading assholes). Fielding and the sheriff slide down the air shaft with seconds to go as Connolly and his men see what's been going on at the breach site; they weld the shaft shut so nobody can sneak in again that way--which is a textbook example of shutting the barn door after the horses are out, because nobody would be able to climb up the shaft to get out that way.

While the pair of men sneak into the lab, Dr. Fairchild explains how the weaponized  germ came to be--there was a virus that supercharged the rage centers of the brain, but it wasn't easy to catch. Dr. Nielsen spent several years working on a way to splice the viral DNA that had the effect that was wanted into a germ that was easier to catch, and eventually got what he was looking for. When Fairchild opens the door to get into the main facility Bob's there with an axe, ready to charge. But since this is 1985 and rage zombies weren't sprinting pain-ignoring pack animals yet, a single shot from the sheriff puts him down for good.

In the P-4 lab, Joanie looks for a syringe so she can administer the antitoxin to Schmidt, whose face is now covered with pus-filled blisters. He tells Joanie to leave before he turns, and when she tries to do that she finds that the crazies are climbing down the elevator shaft to get to her; when she gets back to the lab to try and cure Schmidt he's not where he was. It's real devil and the deep blue sea territory, but Schmidt at least points himself in the direction of the attacking plague victims and makes it possible for Joanie to make a break for it. She slips and falls while running down a hallway, because it's a horror movie and she's a woman. The infected almost grab Dr. Fairchild and hack him to pieces but the sheriff takes out the one with the axe (and I think that's three out of a possible six bullets used up now) and the non-zombie characters get away at least for the moment. The people in the break room see all hell breaking loose in the hallway and realize they're screwed if anyone busts the shatterproof glass in the door, but then the film goes back to following Joanie, the sheriff and Dr. Fairchild.

Speaking of Dr. Fairchild, he figures out how the germ got out of the P-4 quarantine; it hitched a ride on Dr. Schmidt's contact lenses, which weren't subjected to the same sterilization procedures as everything else he was wearing. And then he spots the two-foot-long tear in his own hazard suit and decides he's rocket-fucked so he might as well take his helmet off and be able to actually see or hear things around him. Time to see if the antitoxin works, I guess. Time for more science as Fairchild takes a blood sample from Joanie, wondering why Blue Harvest hasn't given her so much as a tickle in her throat when everyone else went psychotic, blistered and homicidal. Fairchild starts working against the clock, realizing that he's infected when he gets a look at himself in a mirror while the UV scanner is shining on him. Under his own orders, Fairchild gets tied to a chair and giving orders on how to do science to Cal, who is handicapped by being untrained and also wearing his still-intact biohazard suit.

Cal finds a slide where the germ in that blood sample is dead and feeds the material into a gas chromatograph to see what's so different about that one; while he's dictating procedures to Cal about what to do next to try and make a cure he has a flash of insight and realizes that the Blue Harvest disease can't take hold in Joanie's system because she's pregnant. The progesterone in her blood is killing the disease; it could be possible to give the infected a megadose of those hormones and wipe out the bug. Before they can do anything about that, a pair of infected scientists try to get into the P-4 lab and fall prey to a booby trap that sets them on fire; the next set of infected manage to tear Cal's protective suit. And at the same time Dr. Fairchild hauls himself out of the chair he was tied to. He types up a recipe for something that might just work to cure the bug and passes out on the floor of hte lab; the untrained Cal and Joanie whip up a test batch of potential cure and shoot Dr. Fairchild up with it.

Well, when things are going well in the lowest level of the BioTek facility, it's time for the rug to get pulled out up topside. Angry locals storm the command trailer and threaten Major Connolly in order to get the keys to get inside and rescue their loved ones. Which means that at long last the major has to tell them that anyone who goes into the building is as dead as disco. That earns him a beating from a pissed-off farmer, and honestly I'd have to say he's got it coming. The locals disarm the soldiers and start using a welding torch to cut through the foot-thick steel security door and free their relatives--which means everyone in Utah's going to be insane and homicidal in about 96 hours.

Back in the lab, Cal hands his gun to Joanie and tells her to put him down if he starts to lose his mind; they're watching Dr. Fairchild to see if the cure takes hold with him. Because with his protective suit useless, Cal's got a couple hours before he starts growing face blisters and trying to kill his wife. But Dr. Fairchild wakes up and a UV scan shows that he's not infectious or infected any more. Time to mix up a huge batch of cure and get it into the bloodstreams of everyone who's still alive in the Biotek building. There's a gas gun that will help with that, which is good news because the crazies have figured out how to get in through the sealed security door. They charge into the lab and the trio of survivors have to work together to operate the injector (which works magically fast to knock out the infected). Not all the disease victims are in the P-4 lab, though; Dr. Nielsen and a dozen or so plague zombies are trying to smash their way into the break room.

Cal and company make it to the break room and inject several of the attackers there, but Dr. Nielsen runs away before they can dose him (as befits his end-boss status). He swipes Cal's temporarily forgotten gun and holds the sheriff and Dr. Fairchild hostage for a monologue about what a great scientist he turned out to be, and then takes the easy way out rather than be subjected to the cure. Joanie feeds a jug of cure into the ventilation system at the facility and everyone in the break room gets a nice deep breath full of antitoxin (and whatever Blue Harvest is still alive in the BioTek building presumably dies, but the cure isn't a disinfectant, so maybe it didn't?). Joanie then goes to her security desk and opens the outside doors as Dr. Fairchild gives the sheriff his booster shot.

The surviving BioTek people stagger out into the morning light past the guy with the welding torch, who is probably irritated that he was't needed after all. All the command-center trucks pull away without so much as a half-hearted apology (Major Connolly does shake Dr. Fairchild's hand before he takes off, so there's that). Cal nails a CONDEMNED sign to the front of the building. Fairchild invites the Morses over to his place for a vegetarian breakfast, and the world is saved (although Fairchild says it's just a matter of time before another facility in another little mapspeck town gets set up, and who knows how lucky everyone will be the next time?).

Well, maybe it's the natural fatigue that sets in as movie 23 of 26 gets watched and reviewed, but I can't find a hell of a lot to say about this one that would be all that complimentary. The cast all do a great job with what they're given, but it's five to ten minute stretches of talk and buildup between set pieces, and the Good Stuff is few and far between till the last third of the movie. The sets in BioTek are pretty bland to look at, and all the lab coat wearing psychos start to look identical after a while.

The only thing I can really find remarkable about it is that the military-industrial complex is the cause of the problems and a Lone Science Guy Who Left The Project is the one who fixes anything. That's not a pair of plot developments I would have expected in the second half of the Reagan years. Like C.H.U.D., this is a horror film with a left-wing sensibility and there's some significant curiosity value attached to it for that reason. But I can also easily see why it took forever to come out on DVD and didn't stay in print all that long in that format. A single exposure to this one will cover me for a lifetime, I think.

"Rest assured that this laboratory and the virulent diseases inside it are meant for purely peaceful uses. Unlike the ones our enemies have, which are for threatening the security and stability of the world."

Thursday, October 27, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 22: The Vampire Beast Craves Blood (1968)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Screenplay by Peter Bryan
Directed by Vernon Sewell

Peter Cushing:  Detective Inspector Quennell
Robert Flemyng:  Dr. Carl Mallinger
Wanda Ventham:  Clare Mallinger

It was bound to happen sooner or later. Someone was going to make a movie about a were-moth. All the other monsters had been used. City-wrecking atomic behemoth? Done. Oozing horror from outer space? Seen it. Patchwork of corpses given unholy life by an obsessed scientist? Shoot, Peter Cushing himself did that multiple times. And so we're here, looking at a poster with a goddamned googly-eyed were-moth on it. Of course, much like Night of the Lepus was called that because nobody was going to see a movie called Giant Killer Bunny Rabbits, this one was released under two titles:  The Blood Beast Terror and The Vampire Beast Craves Blood. Imagine how those poor suckers felt who paid to see the same film twice under two different titles.

Ah well. It starts with a V, and I'm hoping to extract some fun from this one based on Cushing's opinion of it--in a film career that spanned nearly half a century, this is the movie Peter Cushing thought was the worst that he'd ever made. Well, heck. Now I have to watch it, don't I?

The film starts off with one of those Great White Colonial British Explorer Guys being rowed down a river by two shirtless black dudes. You can tell this isn't an American film because the Australian Kookaburra isn't anywhere to be found on the soundtrack. The Hunter Dude walks past some stock footage of a lemur and a parrot toting his shotgun and a tiny little lunch pail. He turns out to be gathering what look like seed pods from a plant rather than seeking out a lion to shoot and mount for the foyer back in Basingstokeramtopshireingtonhempstead, but before the movie can make any sense on that score there's a jarring cut to a man on a horse-drawn coach riding through the English twilight. The credits reveal that it's a Tigon film, which means that this year's HubrisWeen has taken a distinct turn for the second-tier and Anglican. Maybe for 2018 I'll try for fewer period pieces. There's got to be a slasher flick I can talk about for a few thousand words.

The coach driver hears a blood-curdling scream, as you do in these movies, just as night falls and the darkness becomes impenetrable. Also as you do in these movies, the man halts his carriage and goes to look for whoever just shattered the night with a cry of mortal terror. He finds the body of a young man with his throat torn out (and quite a bit of stage blood for a movie of this vintage and origin) and then he hears the flapping of great leathery wings. He draws breath for his own scream of utter panic but the movie discreetly cuts away to an entomological slide show given by Professor Mallinger before we can see our Threat-Establishing Casualty get messed up. The viewer will learn a little about Potters' Wasps as the lecturer drones on and a police inspector arrives to politely invite himself to the end of the lecture so he can talk with Mallinger afterwards. Fans of period detail should really dig the way one of the students in the lecture audience turns the lights on in the room; it's a gas lamp with a chain to pull that regulates the amount of gas going into the lamp, and therefore the intensity of the light.

While refreshments are served post-lecture and small talk is made between the scientist and the detective; it turns out that Inspector Quennell wants to discuss the death of one of Mallinger's more promising students. The police know it's a murder but that's about it, "person or persons unknown" are the official killer(s) but that's not saying a heck of a lot. One of the entomology students puts a Reasonably Big Damn Spider on Mallinger's daughter Claire's dress sleeve while she isn't looking and she faints when she sees it, as women do in these sorts of films. To be fair, if I noticed an arachnid that big on my arm I probably would have set myself on fire to get rid of it. Mallinger slaps the offending student and orders him out of the manor, and before Quennell can pursue his line of questioning a police sergeant drives up with a not-quite-dead body in the back of his own carriage and Mallinger is asked to attend to the poor lad. It's the guy we saw (and assumed was dead) from the very beginning of the narrative, about two paragraphs up from here.

Mallinger asks the sergeant to fetch his medical bag but the poor young man expires before medical assistance can be rendered. Oh, and Mallinger also strangles the doomed man in the carriage so that there's no chance he'll pull through. Although I don't know for sure why that is, the woman turning into a weremoth in the poster up there makes me thing Mallinger's daughter has a slight case of homicidal lycanthropy going on. Back at the police station, Quennell sends his sergeant out to search for something I didn't quite catch, and we learn that the cab driver survived his meeting with the monster around the time the credits rolled, but has been driven hopelessly insane by the experience. Inspector Quennell says the cab driver is the first witness to any of the murders, which means there must have been a few other people getting found with a nasty case of throat torn open in the area. The cab driver says he saw some kind of creature with immense wings and eyes that flew away from him.

Next is an interlude in the morgue with an Odious Comic Relief attendant having dinner among the bodies. It's 1880, dude, you're going to catch all kinds of plague. Plus there's a body with uncovered feet in front of you so your meal's gonna smell and taste rotten as hell. He's also well fortified with ale, which is probably to be expected around this time. But the attendant does let us know that the torn-open body sporting all those claw wounds to the face and neck is the sixth one to have been killed in such a manner, and a doctor (other than Mallinger) helping the police says the body's almost completely drained of blood. All six of the victims were men sporting similar injuries to the upper body and all were almost totally exsanguinated. After some more over-broad ACTING! from the morgue attendant we are permitted to go elsewhere.

The next day the police are combing the forest and fields near the crime scene looking for a weapon or other evidence, but the only thing anyone finds are strange shimmery flakes of some type of material scattered all over the place. The inspector goes to talk to Mallinger and see if science can shed any light on what the heck is going on. Quennell uses the politeness that is expected of Mallinger's social class to talk his way into the man's private chemistry lab / greenhouse and asks if there's any possibility of a rogue bird of prey in the area; he thinks the cab driver's ravings about huge wings mean something other than a humanoid moth monster. Honestly, that sounds like it's a pretty solid idea. Mallinger puts on his best "I am totally guilty of something" face and says eagles don't live in forests, but rather mountains. So it's probably not one of them--especially since there have been no reported eagle escapes from the London Zoo.

 There's a pretty wonderful exchange between the two men as they look at a taxidermy eagle in Mallinger's home and the inspector says those claws could probably hurt someone rather badly. "Why do you pay so much attention to the ravings of a maniac?" "It's all I have to work on." Quite. Although it turns out that isn't exactly the case. Quennell has an envelope full of those flaky fragments of something, and Mallinger immediately (and suspiciously) asks where he found them. When he hears they were found at the most recent murder scene by the dozens, he tries to snag the entire envelope so he can study them; Quennell gives him a single flake to work with.

As soon as the inspector leaves, we get a bizarre interlude where Mallinger's butler pokes a captive eagle with a stick and taunts it instead of feeding the poor thing. I hope he gets bitten or clawed. Turns out that Mallinger has no patience for his servant irritating the bird (so he's not completely irredeemable), but one must wonder exactly what kind of household he's got here. Even more so when he puts on a leather fencing mask or beekeeper's helmet and goes to a locked chamber in his basement to confront whatever shrieking thing lives in there...

Meanwhile, the police brass are in a meeting talking about how they can tell newspapers that they think it's a bird of prey attacking people so that 1) people stop panicking about a mad killer on the loose and 2) the real mad killer on the loose will think he is safe and get careless. Shortly thereafter, a young man in gentleman's attire arrives at the police station asking for directions to Professor Mallinger's place. The sergeant gets gruff with him about how they're not keen on strangers showing up with a backlog of unsolved murders, and the man says he's just returned from Africa, where he captured some live specimens that Mallinger contracted with him to procure. Once it turns out that the guy isn't a maniacal killer he gets a police escort to the manor, where we finally get a look at his face and determine that he's that pith-helmet wearing adventurer from the start of the film.

Claire arrives to make small talk with the man, who gives his name as Frederick Britewell. Claire, never having been far from the manor, has possibly inaccurate daydreams about how much she'd enjoy the pestilential heat and miasmic humidity of Africa as well as the profuse availability of moths there; Frederick dashes her dreams as gently as he can in an understated manner one can only describe by calling it "English as fuck". Claire invites the dashing young naturalist to the dress rehearsal for a play that will be put on at the manor; some of the college students are amateur dramatists as well as entomologists in training. Which is all well and good, but weren't we getting a Vampire Beast in this movie at some point? 

Professor Mallinger bombards Britewell with questions about the specimens he found in Africa, but his daughter guides the explorer to his guest bedroom instead of letting her dad bother him ceaselessly about pupal gestation periods in the insects he's brought with him. Later that night Britewell shows off the really big moth cocoons, which Mallinger is quite taken with. When Britewell asks if the professor is trying to breed a larger moth species he gets a guilty look from the older man that would have seemed obvious even to the people living in Black Rock. There's also a terrarium in Mallinger's lab that he goes ripshit furious over when the explorer tries to lift the lid and peek inside; the professor says opening the lid for a single second could wreck a year-long experiment. Well, I'd be touchy too. But damn, the mad scientist in this flick is coming across as an abrasive jerk with a baker's dozen skeletons in his closet. I'm kind of amazed none of the other characters are calling him on it. And of course when Britewell asks him what's in that incubator that's so important to the scientist, the older man starts talking about the weather as the world's most obvious subject change.

Which leads to a pretty nifty segue, because the thunderstorm that Mallinger predicts is provided by a stagehand off to the side of the am-dram production of Frankenstein being staged at his manor. The audience seems to be interested, but possibly that's because it's their friends and classmates on stage more than the actors' inherent talent. The Burke and Hare style anatomy murderers that provide the fresh cadaver for the resurrection scene call back to another Cushing movie, for that matter. Claire plays the part of the mad doctor's recently killed daughter who is resurrected only to strangle him, so it's a play that takes more than a few liberties with the source text. But it might also be foreshadowing that Claire plays the part of a mad scientist's experiment. There's bound to be some tampering in God's domain going on in this story.

Also, the butler has a wicked gash on his forehead in this sequence; I bet the eagle got him. Good.

Britewell sneaks out onto the manor grounds for an assignation with Claire, who leads him off into the forest for some G-rated snuggling. As the clouds pull away from the moon Claire runs off for a romantic game of hide and seek. And since this is about a lycanthrope of a particular kind, I wonder if Britewell is not long for this world. SPOILER:  Yeah, he gets mothed up pretty good, and also the eyes on the monster costume remind me quite a bit of Kamen Rider. If they were blue instead of red they'd be making me think of Infra-Man.

Inspector Quennell hears Britewell's screams and finds him bleeding profusely on the ground. The man manages to choke out the phrase "Death's head" before falling unconscious and the inspector shuffle-walks the dying man back to Mallinger's place for treatment. Mallinger declares that Britewell's dead and also claims that he'd never seen the man before. The inspector goes back to the police station to be told that he's not quite off the case yet, but he will be soon for reasons that the chief doesn't really articulate. It turns out that the inspector has a daughter named Meg and the two of them were planning to go on holiday together, although the screenwriter probably could have mentioned Quennell's kid earlier than halfway through the damned movie.

After covering all the furniture with dust cloths (looks like the Mallingers are about to leave for some time) the professor's butler gets himself fatally clawed by that eagle or falcon or whatever it was. This is why you should not poke birds of prey with a stick for your own amusement. Don't they teach animal safety at butler school? Anyway,that's one dose of Cast Thinner applied without the moth creature taking anyone out of the narrative.

Back at the police station, Inspector Quennell asks the sergeant to find out everything he can about the Slasher's latest victim; of course the man already knows quite a bit, having learned Britewell's name and having personally granted him a police escort to the Mallinger place earlier. Which sets Quennell's Detective Sense off pretty thoroughly. His daughter will have to wait for the start of their vacation--he's got a professor to question! Of course, by the time he gets to the manor, everyone but the deader-than-a-doornail butler has cleared out. Since it's the late 1800s and he's the protagonist, Quennell jimmies a window open and looks around for the maid, butler, Claire or Professor Mallinger. He doesn't find any of them, but he does make his way into a cellar room with a dirt floor covered in picked-clean human bones, and festooned with huge webs everywhere. At this point the inspector likely just thinks Mallinger or someone in his household is the Slasher, although when he finds one of those oddball scales on the cellar floor he figures that's got to be significant as well. (Why are there webs everywhere? I'm not sure. There's no Big Damn Spider to be seen, and as far as I know moths are known for their web-spinning abilities exactly as much as pumas are renowned for their ability to fly.)

For some reason, Mallinger stuffed his butler's body in a crate in the kitchen before beating feet back to the police station, telling his daughter that they're catching tomorrow's train. Oh, shit, that means we're going to spend time with the Odious Comic Relief morgue attendant again. Well, the butler's bird-inflicted injuries turned out to be non-fatal, but there was a sharp spike that cut his spinal cord. Quennell doesn't quite know what to make of it, other than that whatever's going on at Mallinger's place is fishier and fishier. When the cook and maid show up at the station, the inspector finds out that Professor Mallinger gave his staff a month's wages and told them to leave, since he was going out of town indefinitely.

Using his mad detective skills, Inspector Quennell finds out where the professor (and his giant luggage trunk, which he insisted travel in the carriage with him) have gone and enlists his daughter to accompany him, so he can have a working vacation while trying to track down the Slasher. Or a were-moth, you know. Since that's the real killer. His boss wishes him all the luck in the world and also tells him not to go too crazy with the expense accounts while tracking down an escaped killer. He and his daughter enjoy a carriage ride off to an inn while going to the Mallingers' destination, which he learned by questioning the baggage handlers who shipped all his stuff there.

So over in Outer Peatlingfeatheringstonehorselaughshire, where the Mallingers are hiding out, Claire has found a strapping young dimwitted groundskeeper to flirt with by day (and, inevitably, exsanguinate by night). And in his laboratory, Mallinger is using galvanic equipment to make a dead frog's legs twitch. Which, as we all know from our reading, is the first step in the development of gigantic moths that can turn into women. Because of reasons. When Claire stops by to ask when she and her father get to leave the less-than-one-horse town they're hiding in, he snaps at her and reminds her not to go outdoors while they're on the lam. 

At the local inn, Quennell chats with the innkeeper about the fishing season (he's there a little early for the really good angling), and asks if a someone he used to know might be found nearby; the chap lived around the area some time ago. But there's nobody named Mallinger around the village. Right after that exchange, the other guest at the inn finds his way to the common room and sips a glass of wine with Quennell while discussing the area and the inn. By lazy-ass screenwriting contrivance, the other vacationing fisherman's son is an entomologist studying science at a university level. The guests all decide to eat at the same table because they are friendly chaps all around.

From there we are treated to an interlude of the other guest from the inn not catching a very large fish before Quennell and his daughter stop by to chat. Meg goes off to pick blackberries while the son of the other holidaymaker goes off to catch butterflies (Meg's already got one, but lets it go free rather t than see it placed in a killing jar and then spiked to a board to be on display). The butterfly hunter runs off to go do something else, and then we go back to Claire in a greenhouse looking at a moth on the wall before she notices Meg and her new friend traipsing about the grounds looking for another butterfly. Claire frees a death's head moth from the kid's net and totally doesn't look suspicious at all when she confronts the two young people enjoying a day in the countryside.

In the lab, Mallinger spends some time working on some kind of hand-cranked generator that he hooks up to a Leyden jar. which he then pokes at a massive cocooned form with big red bug eyes in an attempt to do some mad science to the enshrouded form. Electricity, in the 1880s, was as exotic and powerful as nuclear energy would be in the Fifties, don't you know. The bug zapper fails to do anything to the big cobwebbed creature, which apparently is going to be a mate for Claire once it wakes up. Since poking it with a battery didn't do anything, Claire immediately jumps to the conclusion that it needs to feed on human blood in order to complete its life cycle, which doesn't even make the slightest bit of sense.

Anyway, since Claire's been feeding off of young men, she decides to find a young woman to serve as a packaged meal for the moth-creature-to-be. Meg's the only one in the area, and after accepting a ride on Claire's carriage the next we see of Quennell's daughter is the needle-and-tube assembly sticking into her arm. She was apparently hypnotized by Mallinger into giving up her blood but this is the first we've heard of the scientist's mesmeric abilities. Meg's to return the following day to give up another pint or so in order to feed the developing monster, and to forget what happened to her until she goes back to the house for another teenage phlebotomy. Oh, and Claire drains that groundskeeper after guiding him away from a leaf fire, because she doesn't like open flames. Mallinger finds the man's body and probably grumbles about having to set up a room full of bones and cobwebs in his vacation house as he drags the corpse away for disposal. 

Back at the inn, the entomologist gives Inspector Quennell a look at moth wing scales under a magnifying glass and then a microscope, which clues the policeman in to the fact that those flake things he's been carrying around are incredibly massive wing scales from a death's head moth (though the brown and tan ones in the film don't look anything like the black and grey human-sized monsters). Over at Mallinger's laboratory-in-exile, he yells at Claire about how she's his creation and he's not going to let the male moth-creature live to be her mate because all she does is kill. Well, yeah, buddy, after a nearly double-digit body count, you're having a moment of clarity? Rock on with your bad self. He tosses some chemicals on the male in its coccoon to immolate it, and is rewarded for his belated good judgment by getting killed by Claire in were-moth mode (the switch between forms is just done with a single camera dissolve and the moth costume is singularly unimpressive when one gets a good look at it).

Over at the river, that other vacationer hooks the groundskeeper's body instead of a fish, which screws up his vacation because there's no way a human body can be taxidermied for display. The sergeant shows up at the inn, having been summoned by Quennell via telegraph (I hope he was paid mileage for the trip). The inspector tells the sergeant that they're looking to capture or kill a mammoth death's head moth and the copper is understandably worried that this is some sort of colossal mistake or prank. But a look at the body from the river shows the distinctive wounds from the Slasher's victims (which Inspector Quennell appears to have overlooked entirely). The innkeeper identifies the body and the place he was probably killed and the police charge off in a borrowed cab to Mallinger's hideout as Meg wanders there in a trance and the other vacationer's kid stops by to ask Claire if the moth he found is really a death's head--because he is awful at small talk, I guess.

Once Claire finds out that he killed the moth for his collection she offers to walk him to the edge of the property; inside the house while that's happening, Meg finds Mallinger's body, screams, and runs out (tripping because she's in a horror movie and dropping an oil lamp for no readily apparent reason). At least someone in the film finally moved faster than a walk. As soon as they get out of the house, Quennell and the sergeant hear the holidaymaker getting attacked by the moth creature; he's not injured by the police officer wastes all his bullets trying to shoot a black moving target in the middle of the night. But Quennell starts a fire with a lantern and the creature dives into it, the monstrous body turning back into Claire (but still on fire) until it evaporates completely. Which means the cops can't report what really happened, because they have no proof. Neither one of them seems particularly perturbed by this; maybe they'll pin the Slasher murders on Mallinger, whose body is conveniently still corporeal. At this point, any ending is a good ending.

My friend Bryan used the word "trudgy" to describe British horror films of this vintage, and good grief, that's the best word for this one. Everyone meanders when they could walk. The score doesn't seem to find anything particularly urgent either, and it's more sedate woodwinds and mildly plucked strings than the "HOLY SHIT EVERYTHING IS GOING CRAZY" brass that the Universal monster flicks were using fifteen years earlier. The film isn't ever clear on whether or not Claire is Mallinger's real daughter turned into a were-moth or if she's a creation of his that looks like a woman most of the time (and everyone around him doesn't find it weird that he has a kid without a wife). Either way, there's some explaining to do that the movie isn't slightly interested in supplying.

So, yeah, other than the typically committed performance from Cushing, this one has virtually nothing to recommend it other than the title forms a full sentence.

"I've been saving my giant insect costume for a special occasion, but this will have to do. Time for a vacation in Britain, perhaps."

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 21: Uzumaki (2000)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Written by Kengo Kaji (supervising screenwriter), Takao Nitta and Chika Yasuo, based on the manga Uzumaki by Junji Ito
Directed by Higuchinsky

Eriko Hatsune:  Kirie Goshima
Taro Suwa:  Yasuo Goshima
Fhi Fan:  Shuichi Saito
Keiko Takahashi:  Yukie Saito
Ren Osugi:  Toshio Saito

If you're an American moviegoer, you're pretty much guaranteed to think of one thing if you hear "comic book movie":  tights and fights. Superhero characters from either Marvel or DC Comics gaining their abilities, fighting a nemesis (frequently but not always to the death), and the current trend with the various universes of characters is to have them show up in each others' movies so that, say, the people who dig Spider-Man might buy a ticket to a Captain America movie. Sometimes this works out astonishingly well, balancing five main characters and their story arcs with a massive alien threat unlocked by a beam of energy that punches a hole in the sky (The Avengers) and sometimes it's a hastily introduced team made up of four guys with guns, a dude who throws a stick and Hot Topic Mallet Clown versus a massive interdimensional threat unlocked by a beam of energy that punches a hole in the sky (Suicide Squad). Sure, once in a while you get something like Scott Pilgrim Versus the World made that isn't specifically a superhero film, but even that one--a romantic comedy--is full of video-game-style martial arts fight scenes.

Either way, if it's based on a comic book American audiences have been primed to expect certain things from a given movie, because generally, the comic books that are available in America are superhero comics. Marvel and DC (and their competitors that are no longer around) have, in various corporate guises, been telling stories about superhumanly strong characters fighting to protect the helpless since 1939. At least in the States, those stories are the ones that are getting told in four-color ink. Now, there used to be romance, Western, war, crime, and horror comics sold at newsstands and drugstores; when comic books became a consumer good sold almost entirely at specialty stores, most of those other genres faded away (though something like Archie has been around about as long as Batman has, and is a hugely successful non-superhero title--but I'm overgeneralizing to make a point here).

Over in Japan, however, there are manga about virtually any subject (my favorite is undoubtedly Lone Wolf and Cub, the story of a disgraced samurai's four-year-long quest to avenge himself against the corrupt noble who killed his wife and framed him for treason). And over there in the Land of the Rising Sun, horror comics are big business. Junji Ito is a crossover success, with his Tomie, Flesh-Colored Horror, Gyo and Uzumaki all getting English translations and reprints at one time or another here in Americaland. Well, he's a huge success in his native land as well, with nine different movies being produced based on his Tomie property (featuring a supernaturally seductive young woman who spells doom for anyone who falls for her, anyone who rejects her, or anyone who tries to hurt her--lots of luck, characters in a Tomie story). Today's film is an adaptation of a different one of Ito's works, a horror series about horrible things happening in a small coastal Japanese town, all of which are prefigured by the appearance of a spiral in some way. The film, by the way, is only an adaptation of the first third or so of the full story, partly because it was in production before the comic was finished and partly because it would cost half a billion dollars to film the full story of Uzumaki and it would be banned in every country in the world. There's also the distinct possibility that your eyes would spontaneously catch on fire if you watched the full story unprepared.

I loved the comic, by the way. It seemed to me that it was influenced by the beginning of 2001:  A Space Odyssey. In the Kubrick film, there is an obvious influence from aliens that are working with the primates that will one day become human. The way you can tell they're there is from the presence of that smooth, glossy black monolith--a perfect rectangle, obviously shaped and crafted, in the rocky desert full of eroded stone and spindly trees. That monolith didn't belong in the place that it was set, and without ever seeing someone in an alien costume it became obvious to the viewer that there was something working its will in the world, as represented by those ninety-degree angles in a place where nothing had been shaped or built by the hands of proto-men.

Well, all the weirdness in Uzumaki is signified by the presence of spirals (the word "uzumaki" translates as "spiral", so in Japan the comic and movie are just called Spiral. Here, let me give you a few panels of something going horribly, impossibly wrong with a spiral on display:

Why did Junji Ito use spirals as his "everything is fucked" signifier? Well, for me to answer that I'd have to give some half-baked analysis about Japanese culture that I'm horribly unqualified to offer (and about which anyone who genuinely knows about the culture in Japan is welcome to correct me). But it's my blog so I'm going ahead with it. The logo of the production company is shown over a shot of waves gently crashing on a shore; near the end of Lone Wolf and Cub, the protagonist tells his four-year-old son that their lives are like waves breaking on the shore. They live, they die, the reincarnate and come back. (In that sequence, the ronin tells his son that neither one of them is likely to survive the coming final battle, but in all the worlds that ever existed they are father and son, which broke my heart and gave me goosebumps at the same time.) Assuming that's a metaphor that is used for life and death and rebirth in Japan pretty commonly, then existence is cyclical. A person is born, lives, dies, and the soul returns in a new body to live again and die again. Like the surf breaking gently on the shore, existence is continual.

Well, a spiral is a different pattern than that, isn't it? A spiral just deteriorates until it winks out of existence, like water going down a drain or a beetle tied to a nail struggling to free itself and just getting trapped. If your society views existence as cyclical, a spiral is a slow trip to Hell that speeds up horribly the closer you get to that final destination.

Like I said, people who actually know things about Japanese culture are free to poke all the holes they like into my ignorant and probably wack-ass analysis, but that's where I'm coming from on this one.

The first shot of the actual movie, however, is a closeup of protagonist schoolgirl Kirie Goshima's eye as she speaks in voiceover about the strange events that happened in her home town Kurozu-cho. That name, by the way, can be translated as "Dark Town", "Closed Town" and "Black Spiral Town". Not a lot of hope there regardless of which one you pick as the English meaning. Then the shot changes, showing the grey-faced corpse of a man with blood coming out of its mouth and its brains dashed out on the floor in the center of a painted spiral pattern. The camera itself moves in a spiral, pulling back from the body. Then it's time to check in with Kirie again. She's running late from school when a strange gust of wind blows by her, making her feel weird without a definite reason; making her way back to Kurozu-cho she runs past scenes that I assume are meant to be archetypal and idyllic small-coastal-town images in Japan. Yamaguchi, a nerdy goofball fellow student jumps out at her to try and startle her, because that's how he shows affection. Kirie gets past him without coming into physical contact and rests after her run, noticing her boyfriend Shuichi Saito's father crouched down in an alleyway.

She approaches Shuichi's dad and finds that he's obsessively staring at and videotaping a snail climbing the alley wall (complete with extreme closeup of the spiral pattern in the snail's shell). She waits at an underground tunnel for Shuichi to ride his bike up and give her a ride home. Kirie's an attractive girl, as one expects in a horror flick (Asian or otherwise), but her boyfriend looks like a teenaged Japanese Jeffrey Combs. I'm wondering if he got the part because he looks like Herbert West's long-long-long-lost relative. As the pair rides past the local police station, the equally local Barney Fife cop runs out to yell at them for doubling up on a single bicycle, which is another way to inform the audience that Kurozu-cho is one of those quiet little places where nothing much happens (when the officer turns back to the police station there's a wanted poster of Junji Ito himself; it's a neat little author cameo). Shuichi doesn't find it in himself to smile, even when biking along with his girlfriend and the soundtrack plays soothing harp music. Poor dude. If he's not having a good time seven minutes into the film, he's certainly not going to like what happens for the next hour and change.

Kirie and Shuichi hang out at a playground on the swingset and talk about school (while there's a baffling shot of someone walking backwards down the street; it's funny to watch two characters not notice or disregard the importance of odd little things before reality breaks down completely). Shuichi says his father's been acting strange lately, but in the history of horror cinema, I'm at a loss to think of a single film where someone listens to the kid in the first act when he notices oddball things are happening. Shuichi asks Kirie to elope with him, at least partly as an excuse to get the hell out of town before the weirdness strikes. He's so undemonstrative with his emotions, though, that Kirie (and the viewers) don't imagine that marriage would be such a great choice--at least not before they get out of high school.

Making her way home (eventually), Kirie stops by a man selling produce out of a van, who gives her a melon as a gift to celebrate her father winning a competition for pottery designs (and, of course, throwing pottery on a wheel means repeated spinning motions, which could have made Goshima-san susceptible to the spirals' influence earlier than other people. Goshima says that it was luck more than talent that got him the prize, as he is self-effacing and humble, but Shuichi's dad is there filming a bowl being constructed and he says pottery is the art that exposes the true uzumaki. Kirie's dad looks down at the bowl as he works on it and sees the spiral pattern swirling in the wet clay. Shuichi's father says he wants to commission a platter with an eternal spiral pattern--one that goes on and on and on. Goshima-san agrees to make one, which leads to a bit more weirdness from Saito-san while he tries to film and stare at the slowly spinning pattern in the wet clay bowl. Japanese society prizes politeness, so Goshima-san just nods and smiles while Saito-san has the video camera about half an inch from his face. Then it's time for the videographer to leave and for the Goshimas to have dinner (Dad thinks the melon is too extravagant until he finds out it was a celebratory gift from the greengrocer) while ultra-sappy flute music melts over the soundtrack. The score in this film, by the way, has to be a parody of "think about the happy times" music from other Japanese movies. It's so on-the-nose it recalls the super-direct dialogue in Streets of Fire. Similarly, many of the shots in the movie have a sickly green pallor; that's another thing that's got to be the result of the director and cinematographers making decisions on how things are going to look for effect (although if it's a reference to anything in Japanese media, I don't know what that would be).

After a couple hours of homework it's time for Kirie to go to bed, though she takes a moment to look through a scrapbook first (she was a cute baby, as it turns out). The film shows her memories as a series of snapshots that come together like crude stop-motion animation, and also shows that Shuichi has been her friend who is a boy for years before becoming her boyfriend. He always had those glasses and that Herbert West hair, as it turns out. Looking over the photos again, Kirie starts to wonder if eloping with Shuichi wouldn't be a good idea after all. Then it's time to go to school again, where audience identification figure Kirie is greeted by friends and hassled by the inevitable clique of Mean Girls and startled by Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi gets shut down by Kirie's friend and the pair walk down a hallway talking about how to avoid the boy and fail to notice a dozen or so of their classmates standing at reverse attention (staring down at the ground silently) on the sides of the hallway before going to a staircase--a spiral one, of course. 

Then that shot from the beginning of the movie of a corpse with its head split open comes back around--one of the students either slipped while screwing around on the railings or decided to opt out of his final exams by jumping from the topmost level of the school and plummeting past Kirie and her friend before dashing his brains out on the floor. The camera pulls up several stories to show the suicide's body occupying the lowest point of the spiral on the floor and the spiral formed by the staircase rising up above him. Japan being Japan, one assumes suicides are not the rarest thing in the world over the course of a schoolyear but everyone's still rather shaken up. The leader of the Mean Girl clique points out that in dying, the student was finally noticed by everyone and that without people paying attention, none of her gang feels alive.

After school. Shuichi intuits that it had to be a spiral staircase that was the site of the student's death, since so many other weird things are going on related to the uzumaki shape. Kirie thinks it was merely an accident, as most rational people probably would. Shuichi goes to school in another town, so he leaves Kurozu-cho every day (and also comes back to it); biking through that tunnel twice a day gives him an opportunity to perceive the background weirdness in town twice--when he leaves it and when he returns. He tries to tell Kirie how strange things have gotten at his own home (his father's stopped going to work, preferring to wander around scavenging anything he finds with a spiral appearance, and has painted spirals on every surface in his den at home), but Kirie doesn't think things have gotten that bad--partially because she doesn't see how odd Saito-san is acting in private. Yamaguchi, watching the pair talk from a distance, is so distraught that he gouges marks in a tree with his bare hand and is shaking badly enough that he appears to be having a seizure.

But Shuichi has someone else at home to talk to--unlike Kirie, his mother is still alive (and at home preparing narutomaki for dinner when Shuichi tries to talk to her about what's happening to her husband). But before they can get anywhere in the conversation the man in question returns home, having stolen the electrical marquee sign for a beauty parlor that features a moving spiral). He chuckles gleefully over this latest acquisition and adds it to the spiral things in his hoarder room before settling down for a dinner where he admires the spiral pattern on the fish cakes in his soup before eating them in the most repellent manner you'll see outside of that Monty Python sketch about Mr. Creosote. Having eaten all of the slices of narutomaki in the house (looks like his wife and son got one apiece) he gets angry before stirring the leftover broth in his soup bowl and watching it spin around, which calms him down (Kirie, hearing about it later, finds it amusing but there's nothing at all funny about wondering what's going to set a parent off or cool them down in the middle of an ordinary situation--the sensation is somewhat like walking through a minefield with a handful of notes that might not be accurate one day to the next).

When Shuichi (and Kirie) go to the Saito residence, they arrive just in time to see Shuichi's father slap his mother to the ground, accusing her of throwing away his "collection". Shuichi says he did it (which may or may not even be true; the film hasn't shown either character cleaning out the house) and his dad shifts gears, claiming that he doesn't need to look at all the spirals he'd gathered up because the idea's enough for him now. He then demonstrates that he can generate his own uzumaki at will by rolling his eyes impossibly fast and independently of each other; the film burns through and Kirie faints as she witnesses this act (and thus this film has something in common with The Legend of Hillbilly John--disruption in the natural order is represented by the film breaking).

At school the next day, Kirie's friend is daydreaming and getting mocked by the teacher for doing so when Katayama, a slow-moving student, shows up with a wide, placid smile and makes his way to his seat. It's a measure of how strange things must be in everyone's life that nobody freaks out too much over the way he's sweating out a gallon or two of clear slimy ooze. The student says he left at the usual time but just doesn't seem to be able to move very quickly and the class bullying jerkoff declares a snail could leave Katayama standing. Katayama makes his way to his seat and gets tripped by a bully; he even falls slowly, if that's possible. After he hits the ground and the chief bully starts kicking him for splashing slime, Katayama's back starts to hunch and swell and a spiral shell grows out of it, somewhat hidden by his shirt (which was white when he put it on but is now clear with all the goop that's saturated it).

Shuichi and his mother go to talk to a psychologist about what might be possible to help his father with the man's delusions and strange behavior, but from the looks on their faces that person told them nothing can be done. Around the same time Kirie gets startled by Yamaguchi, who offers her a gift box and won't leave her alone till she opens it. It's a jack-in-the-box on a spiral spring, and Kirie swats Yamaguchi to the ground in irritation. He says to himself that he won't give up and then busts out a creepy horror movie grin, so Kirie's got some non-supernatural bullshit to worry about in her life as well. Shuichi isn't there to give her a bike ride home after school and his father's too obsessive to answer the phone at the Saito household so as far as Kirie knows she's just being ignored. 

But when her father asks Kirie to take that platter he designed for Shuichi's dad over to their house, she gets to have a long walk in the dark holding a giant ceramic spiral and think about the strange behavior she saw from Saito-san the last time she was over at their house. Nobody answers the door buzzer at the Saito residence, and the audience is treated to a lengthy and suspenseful pullback with Kirie's face superimposed over it as the soundtrack starts to go in a more horror-film appropriate direction. When Kirie sneaks into the house to deliver the package she finds the body of Shuichi's father, who has crammed himself into the washing machine to turn his body into a spiral shape.

The spirals don't cease from that point--the smoke from the chimney at the crematorium when Saito-san's body is cremated drifts up into the sky to form the inevitable spiral shape, a funnel of smoke reaching down to the ground towards the nearby Dragonfly Pond. The shock of seeing the uzumaki shape in the sky puts Shuichi's mother in the hospital and while sitting in the hallway after visiting hours Shuichi again tells Kirie that they should leave town before whatever's going on takes them over or gets them killed. The conversation is disrupted by the arrival of a news reporter who wants to know what happened to the crackpot that came to the newspaper office asking about the history of Kurozu-cho. Specifically, why did the man kill himself in the way he had (the reporter even says he just wants to know; he's got no intention of publishing anything about it in the paper). What follows is the first-person video that Saito-san shot as he decided to cram his body into the washing machine. The sounds of his bones and tendons cracking is much worse than whatever the film could afford to show; it's also horrible to realize that Kirie calling inside the house to see if anyone is there makes it onto the tape--she had to be thirty feet away from the suicide as it was happening.

Kirie and the reporter talk for a little while as he drives her home from the hospital; she worries that there's nothing she can do to help Shuichi (though the reporter says her mere presence will be comforting to him). Numerous point-of-view shots through the car's windshield build up an ominous feeling until they see Kirie's father standing in the literal middle of the road, his clothes and skin covered with wet clay (and in the split-second shot of him standing there before the reporter hits the brakes, it looks like Goshima-san's tongue is sticking out of his mouth about a foot, curled up into a spiral). He says everything's fine; he just went for pottery clay over at Dragonfly Pond and heads back home. Kirie must be thinking that whatever curse or supernatural entity is affecting the town just drew a bead on her father, and also has to realize that so far nobody's been able to resist the effects of whatever it is that's manifesting itself in spirals.

At the hospital, Shuichi discovers too late that his mother has been obsessed with spirals herself. Realizing that she's bearing ten of them on her fingertips, she's terrified about having them on her body. But there's plenty of scissors and knives around her at the hospital, so she can make short work of them. What a relief (where "relief" is interpreted as "sign of encroaching madness"). At about the same time Kirie has a nightmare about finding Saito-san's body in the washing machine that turns into a view of her father covered in clay with a spiral tongue. And in the early morning she finds him argumentative and hostile when she expresses concern that he'll catch cold staring at his kiln at two in the morning in his shirtsleeves.

Well, everyone's got to keep a brave face on when things are going horribly wrong, so at school Kirie has to act like everything's copacetic. As far as anyone else knows, her big concern ought to be upcoming tests rather than creeping doom manifesting in her family. But during a gymnastics class, the pre-eminent Mean Girl starts to display her own symptoms; her hair is bouncy and curly far past what one would expect from even the most stylish hair and the most sumptuous of products applied to it. Oh, and that kid growing a snail shell out of his back spends the entire outside boys' gym period drinking water from the fountain. And as we all know, first it's just the little things that look strange at first but that's just like saying first you get a nagging cough and then your lungs are full of soot-spawned tumors.

Meanwhile, that reporter is going through a stack of books and trying to see what's going on in Kurozo-cho. As one would expect in a film about investigating supernatural horrors, the spirals and weirdness have been going on for a long, long time and he finds plenty of stuff that I don't understand because I can't read Japanese. And at the hospital, Shuichi and Kirie wind up having to dress in a manner that conceals any spirals on their bodies as well as anything that might look like that pattern on their clothes (it's the only time I've seen either one out of a school uniform, I believe). Shuichi gets called to the reception desk just after he and Kirie go into his mother's room and find out that she's not only sliced off her fingertips, but that somehow or other she's plucked out all her hairs. That's got to be awkward for Kirie, but she's stuck there smiling nervously while Shuichi returns that reporter's call (on a rotary phone, the sound effects of which are chilling because every viewer sees the dial spinning in their mind's eye). 

The reporter just tells Shuichi that he's found some important information and that he wants to check something out at Dragonfly Pond; Shuichi says he'll meet the man there but tears down a poster in the hospital hallway first (it shows the inner ear, which is spiral-shaped; if his mother sees the image, the best-case scenario is a permanent handicap). While going to Dragonfly Pond, the pair runs across Yamaguchi, who gives the standard Nice Guy complaints about how Kirie never returns his pure and noble love. To ensure that he stays in Kirie's memories, Yamaguchi runs into traffic, getting run down by the reporter's car (his body gets dragged into the wheel well, forming a spiral, of course) and killing the reporter when the man's head collides with the windshield. Just guess what pattern the cracks in the windshield forms.

So in the third act, when normally the fightback against the forces of evil would begin in earnest, the two protagonists of the film don't know what's going on or how to fight it. It's a daring move by the filmmakers that strands the two perfectly nice people who don't deserve anything that's been happening to or around them in Hell.

Then comes the final section of the movie, where things go from chaotic to utterly doomed. While she sleeps in her hospital bed, an eight-inch-long millipede crawls into Shuichi's mother's ear (eww eww eww eww eww). The sounds are worse than the visuals in that scene, but she is able to flick the thing to the ground and kill it with a pottery vase. But while looking to see if the bug is still alive, she has a hallucination telling her that there's a spiral in her inner ear; it's the first diegetic sense that the audience gets of what's happening to any of the victims of the spiral. The scream from Shuichi's mother as she tries to get rid of that last spiral in her body is one she won't be able to hear.

At her funeral, everyone watches the clouds over the crematorium to see them form a spiral; Shuichi also gets a good long look at his parents' faces in the clouds, both of them screaming in torment. Whatever the spirals are doing to people, it's at least a working hypothesis that death won't be an escape. And the effects are getting weirder and more noticeable--among other things, a Japanese "news of the weird" style television show comes to town in order to point out that a couple of the local high school students have turned into snail creatures that are climbing up the walls of the school (!). There's also a typhoon on the way, which is represented on the weather map as, of course, a spiral. 

Also, that Mean Girl at school's hair is now five feet long, waving like Medusa's tendrils above her head (and each lock curling into a spiral, of course). Shuichi decides (belatedly, if you ask me) that the town is doomed and he and Kirie have to try and escape before they wind up insane, mutilated, dead or turned into something inhuman. Back at the Goshima place Kirie finds that her father has been making spiral shaped pieces in his kiln by the dozens but he's nowhere to be found. When Shuichi walks in to see what's going on he gets trapped in a spiral himself, his body contorting and twisting like taffy as the effect takes hold. Kirie stays with him, deciding that they'd run together or not at all, and holds her lifelong friend as he dies.

And that's not the end of the horror, as the force that works through spirals animates Shuichi's corpse to embrace Kirie and turn her into a spiral as well. The final images of the film are of various people in Kurozu-cho dead or mutilated, spirals evident in every instance. The doomed protagonists are just the people the movie followed into oblivion, not the first or only or even the most significant ones to fall. Bodies are deformed (and a self-inflicted gunshot would leaves a neatly spiraled track into the police officer's eye socket and skull), the sky shows black spiral clouds over Dragonfly Pond, and the entire population of the town died or was warped into hideous new forms without ever comprehending what was going wrong. And then instead of a spiral, the film turns to a loop as Kirie's eye fills the screen, just as it did in the first shot as she tells the viewer that something happened to her home town. The spiral has corrupted even the finality of death, with no escape from its manifestations forever.

Which is, as I mentioned earlier, just a tiny fragment of the hellacious weirdness in the manga that this movie is an adaptation of (this flick never would have had the budget to show the entire town being rebuilt into a single massive row house in a spiral shape, packed with human bodies that press together wall to wall and floor to ceiling). But on its own it's a stark portrayal of influence from beyond destroying everything in its path, either out of malice or simply because being exposed to it causes insanity and death as surely as sinking underwater causes drowning. If you have a chance, check out the book as well as the movie. Both are horrifying in their own ways, but the book is enthusiastically disgusting in a way the filmmakers could never afford to be, either financially or artistically.

"Well, if I wear these sunglasses I won't be directly exposed to any spiral patterns that show up, and...oh. Oh, dang."