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Monday, August 25, 2014

Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976)

Story by Stephen Manes and Tom Mankiewicz; Screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz
Directed by Peter Yates

Bill Cosby:  Mother
Raquel Welch:  Jugs
Harvey Keitel:  Anthony "Speed" Malatesta
Allen Garfield:  Harry Fishbine
Bruce Davison:  Leroy Watkins
And Larry Hagman as Murdoch

Man, I don't think this one could have been made at any other point than the mid-Seventies. The American movie industry follows trends, and I'd say there were two specific movies one could peg as this film's fossil ancestors:  M*A*S*H (dark medical comedy about people trying to save lives in an uncaring world) and Easy Rider (in which the protagonist refuses to sell out and join square society). Right around the time this movie was made the youth audience and the counterculture were driving Hollywood's business decisions, and that would change pretty drastically over the next couple of years as Jaws and Star Wars showed just how much money could be made by throwing A budgets and talent at B movies. The ripple effect from those two blockbusters hasn't really faded away forty years later--this summer alone the big releases were based on comics (X-Men and some Marvel C-listers), a Godzilla movie, a Hercules flick, and two different Michael Bay-produced feature adaptations of toy lines from the late 1980s. Yes, there are still small independent original movies being made, but they don't play in theaters for very long and they don't tend to get released in smaller markets. Which makes Mother, Jugs and Speed an example of the kind of movie they just don't make any more. And that's a real shame.

The film starts with a paunchy, jowly middle-aged man directly addressing the camera. He talks about how horrible the economy is and how society views the sick and the old as worthless, but to the employees of the F + B Ambulance company they're worth cold hard American cash. A camera pan shows that he's also addressing the F + B drivers, shifting the viewer's attention from the man giving the speech to the men listening to it. The white-coated employees sitting on a ratty old couch in the cavernous garage are paying varying but low levels of attention to the boss's speech, which is interrupted by siren blasts from one ambulance. An object lesson in what PG could mean in 1976 shows up as Harry Fishbine yells "Goddamn it, Mother!" at the man working on the siren and the speech eventually wraps up. By the way, Fishbine has the worst pants I've seen outside of Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things in this scene. I'm not sure if horizontal zigzag stripes were ever popular in the Decade that Taste Forgot or if Fishbine's supposed to look ridiculous even by the nearly nonexistent standards of the time. I'm guessing the filmmakers want him to look like a shmuck, though.

Fishbine is the owner and boss of this tiny Los Angeles private ambulance company; I'm shaky on exactly how they collect fees but they charge $42.50 plus half a buck per mile to transport injured people to hospitals. Even four decades ago forty bucks wasn't all that much money, so part of Fishbine's speech stresses the need to be the first wagon to the scene of an accident once they get a call. Their rivals at the Unity Ambulance Company cover some of the same territory and are a similarly fly-by-night operation. And since they're on such a shoestring budget, F + B can't afford the best and the brightest as their employees; they're stuck with whoever has an EMT certification and can't find a job somewhere better.

The first time we see anyone from F + B on the job it's Murdoch, an incredibly creepy man who uses his job as a way to get his hands on women. He tries giving a pelvic exam to a professional wrestler with a broken leg in the back of the ambulance and immediately shows the general caliber of Fishbine's employees. Bill Cosby as "Mother", in a performance I genuinely did not expect him to have in him, is far and away the best driver and EMT that Fishbine could have hoped for. His first scene in action is carting away a dead heroin addict sprawled out in his jockey shorts in a dingy pit of an apartment. A character that I presume is his girlfriend just wants the body taken away and is prepared to pay the $42.50 up front, but Mother gently breaks the news to her that until a doctor or someone from the LA fire department officially declares the OD victim to be dead he can't legally move the body to his ambulance. The woman displays more regret over finding out that there's going to be consequences with the law than she is over the dead man less than ten feet from her. And it's apparent from the way Mother deals with her quickly and gently that he's seen this happen many, many, many times before.

But he's still got enough of his soul left uncorroded that he's treating the other addict as a human being rather than just an inconvenience in doing his job. He gets called away from that body removal to go to another one where an alcoholic woman died mid-bender at a tavern; he throws the policeman who called F + B a five dollar kickback for getting the job and grumbles that he's not used to paying more than three for this sort of thing. He and his assistant Leroy return to the first apartment and cart away the overdosed man, poaching the body back from the Unity drivers who got there while they were attending to the dead alcoholic (and showing that he outsmarted the heroin-addicted woman by hiding the case with the lethal needle and drugs in it after she tried stashing it somewhere else). Leroy has kept himself busy outside the apartment letting the air out of two of the Unity ambulance's tires while Mother's been talking to the cops, the Unity crew and the junkie so even if the police were likely to let the Unity crew take the body away and collect the fee they wouldn't be able to. The whole movie has that weird semi-tragic tone, with one-lung ambulance companies using dirty tricks and kickbacks in order to outmaneuver each other for jobs like carting away dead alcoholics.

The next vignette involves a middle-aged black woman who falls and breaks her hip at a card game; she has the bad luck to get Murdoch as the primary EMT. He's not strong enough to lift her onto the board (or her and the board onto the stretcher); he needs help from two of the other women at the card game just to get her on the stretcher and the stairway in the apartment building is so narrow that getting her down to the ground floor is a struggle. The second EMT breaks through the rotten stairs in the apartment building and poor Helen, strapped to a gurney with a broken hip, takes a ride down two and a half flights of stairs and a hill in San Francisco before smacking into a car headfirst and coming to a stop. (Her friend at the card game:  "I think you just blew that $42.50, baby." Yeah, that's a safer bet than anything that was likely to happen playing poker.) Just to put one more layer on the day's shitcake, the second EMT gets bitten by a rat while stuck waist-deep in the stairwell and Murdoch isn't strong enough to pull him out of there either. They wind up having to call a completely different ambulance to get themselves out of there.

We return to another F + B crew and Mother criticizing Leroy for smoking pot on duty because it's illegal and because it makes you look stupid. He tries to convince him that drinking (and driving) is much better, and sips from a beer while having a one-sided conversation with his co-pilot about the hazards of marijuana. Again, this movie was rated PG. I can't imagine that a movie made in the current decade would let even an antihero drive drunk while running an ambulance. In this same scene, Mother guns the engine, lights and sirens while charging a group of nuns trying to cross the street--Leroy warns him that the nuns have complained to Fishbine repeatedly and that he's going to go to Hell when he dies for teasing them every time he drives by and sees them. Mother replies--seriously, as far as I can tell--that they love it when he scares the hell out of them because they don't have any kind of sexual outlet and this is the closest they'll ever get.

The next morning at the F + B offices, Murdoch tries to get Jugs to go to a Cat Stevens concert with him and is just as successful as you'd think at that. She tells him that her name is actually Jennifer and when he switches to that she says the answer is still no. Mother comes in and calls her Jugs, but she doesn't mind--possibly because he's a weirdo to everyone and because his "harassment" is more a sign of mutual fondness than actually trying to get into her pants. Fishbine chews Mother out for bothering the nuns the previous night ("They eat it up, Harry, believe me.") and gives his boss and the ambulance-chasing lawyer in the office a great deal of shit before going out on his rounds. And outside waiting to see the boss is Anthony Malatesta, a young police officer who drove an ambulance in Vietnam for three years. Fishbine praises the fine young men who fought in the war and runs down the hippies who protested it back in the States while Malatesta says he hated being there and thought the war was stupid and immoral. The blowhard backs down--sort of--on the war conversation. Malatesta also says that he's on suspension from the LAPD because he's suspected of selling cocaine to children; of course he says he didn't do it because nobody would admit to that but Fishbine pretty transparently doesn't buy it. The boss man hires him on the spot and assigns Malatesta to Murdoch's ambulance, since the other EMT that would be working with him is in the hospital with a broken leg and rabies. One gets the feeling that all the other drivers for F + B were also the first warm bodies that walked in when a position was open.

Malatesta winds up going on a regular trip to bring an old sick man to a hospital--according to Murdoch's astonishingly callous and wrong-headed running commentary he's worth a great deal of money to F + B because of the dozen or so times every month that he needs emergency treatment for whatever it is that he's got. Mr. Klein dies in the back of the ambulance during Murdoch's speech, and during the rest of the shift the unfortunate new guy has to listen to Murdoch's casual misogyny and horrifically inflated sense of self worth. Malatesta also declines to join in on that night's betting pool; throwing in a fiver lets you pick a number, and if the F + B crews bring that many dead bodies in by midnight you get the pot.

Back at the station he goes for one of those walk-on-the-city-streets-at-night-while-a-ballad-plays scenes and tries to figure out just what the hell he's doing on this job; Mother sneaked a look at his paperwork earlier and told everyone that he sold speed to kids (resulting in his nickname; Malatesta is the third person in the titular trio). He happens to walk by a bar where Jennifer is drinking alone and goes in to strike up a conversation with her. There's actually something of a spark when they talk somewhere other than work and we learn that Speed took the job because he isn't getting paid while he's on suspension and isn't qualified to do anything else. Their conversation gets interrupted by Murdoch showing up and saying they have a Code Three at the university; I'm pretty sure that ambulance drivers and their friends get used to conversations getting cut off by the job.

The Code Three turns out to be a drug overdose at a dorm room; the young woman is fading quickly after taking a handful of Seconal. Murdoch lets Speed drive to the hospital after being a jerk about wanting to have the wheel on the way to the university. It turns out he really just wanted some quality time alone in the back of the ambulance with an attractive college student too zoned out to know what he's doing. Speed figures out what's up early enough to prevent a rape and Murdoch manages to act like he's the victim when Speed stops the ambulance and hauls him out.

Mother and Leroy stop for some street meat at Barney's burger shack (located next to a McDonalds; Mother's authenticity is shown by rejecting the mass-produced garbage food for a hand-prepared meal of garbage food). He bullshits Leroy into paying for his dinner and they have a heart-to-heart interrupted by a call to get a dope addict in for voluntary psychiatric committal. Leroy wonders if he's ever going to make anything for himself carting bodies for Harry Fishbine while Mother tells him that there's an unprecedented amount of freedom working for F + B that he considers a tradeoff for the low pay and series of microaggressions and degradations that comprise every working day. Fishbine calls them over the ambulance radio and screams at them to get moving to pick up the dope addict.

One of those aggressions shows up when Leroy knocks on the door--there's no doctor waiting with the addict, like they were told would be, but there is Toni Basil with a shotgun robbing the EMTs for either morphine or Demerol. She knows what she wants, at least. Leroy finds out that honesty isn't all that great a policy when he tells the addict that the ambulance doesn't have any of the stuff she wants because they can't legally have it in the rig and he takes both barrels to the chest. Mother pulls a revolver out of the ambulance and fires a warning shot at the jonesing addict, who reloads the shotgun, misses Mother and hears the police sirens closing in. She takes the direct way out of the film, which I again note with some amazement was rated PG.

The LA County sheriffs show up (including the officer that told Mother about the dead alcoholic from earlier in the film), and a young by-the-book deputy says that when the slug from the addict's door frame is matched to Mother's gun he'll lose his ambulance drivers' license. The older cop immediately says the bullet is the biggest piece of buckshot he's ever seen and shuts the investigation down; I'm sure he figured Mother is in a bad enough place as things are. Mother, for his part, takes Leroy's body to the morgue himself as a way to salve his conscience--he told the other man to talk to the "doctor" at the addict's house while he got the gurney out of the back of the rig. On his way back to the F + B garage, he passes by the nuns without scaring the heck out of them, and as they cross the road in front of his ambulance the viewer can tell they're actually worried about him because he's not acting like a lunatic. It's strangely touching.

Murdoch is scooping up the dead pool money when Mother comes back in; it's midnight and he picked 8 as his number. One of the drivers who plans to go on to med school points out that Leroy makes nine dead bodies and that nobody picked nine. Murdoch says that Leroy doesn't count, which is exactly the wrong thing to say in Mother's presence at that precise moment in time.

I didn't know I always needed to see a movie where Bill Cosby throws a two-fisted beatdown on Larry Hagman until I watched this movie. And now that you know that exists I bet you're going to watch it too. In the aftermath of the fight and Leroy's death, everyone gets shuffled around a bit. Speed gets assigned to Mother's rig (over Mother's protests, and it's the one time in the film Fishbine doesn't let him do what he wants to do). And at the same time Jennifer's come in with her own EMT certification and ambulance drivers' license--solving the mystery of what she did with her nights after work. None of the speculation from her coworkers was even remotely on target for that, naturally.

Fishbine is desperate for drivers and doesn't need any more stress; Jennifer has already proven herself to be an invaluable member of the F + B team answering the phones and running dispatch. So of course he refuses outright to upgrade her to EMT and driver--and the scenes where he gripes about women are some of the most contemporary-sounding dialogue in the film, I'm sad to say. Jennifer drives off in an ambulance in a fit of pique; it turns out Speed was in the back lying on the gurney reading up on the state requirements for the job. Jennifer turns on the lights and sirens in order to fully experience the ambulance driving lifestyle and gets an unwelcome offer of help from a pair of police officers who see her driving alone and want to help out. Unfortunately she didn't have a destination in mind and needs to find a person in need of medical attention very quickly or she's looking at the loss of her EMT certification and ambulance drivers' license at the very least. A call back to the office is no help (Mrs. Fishbine refuses to believe that there are any phony patients that F + B uses in order to scam money from Los Angeles county) and Jennifer continues to drive on in the hope that something will turn up. She manages to escape the police "helping" her long enough to pull into an alley and some quick thinking from Speed means that 1) she doesn't get arrested and 2) we see Harvey Keitel in his underwear before Raquel Welch. The start of a workplace romance blossoms (and we get to see the ambulance parked by the beach alongside all the other romantic couples' cars).

The next day, Mother and Speed are out doing their rounds when the ambulance radio picks up a Unity call--Mother's bone-deep deviousness is revealed once again as the F + B rig speeds to (and over) a golf course to pick up a concussed golfer. At least one of the golfers is a doctor, and his inexpert treatment of the man who got smacked in the head with a line drive sends him into shock. Mother berates the doctor and improvises a way to keep the accident victim's head immobilized on the stretcher, but the Unity ambulance shows up (and that company's drivers show just as much care for the greens as Mother did, of course). The doctors ("Christ, it's Wednesday. You must all be doctors.") are useless and need to be yelled at before they can help treat the stricken man as he goes into a seizure; Albert the Unity driver helps stabilize him--both the F + B and Unity crews know that they're there to help the guy, and besides, nobody gets paid if he dies on the scene. And while Albert, Mother and Speed are busy saving a life the second crewman from Unity is letting the air out of two of Mother's tires. Turnabout is fair play, but it's also irritating as hell when you have it happen to you.

Back at the office, Fishbine harangues Jennifer about when she plans to return to the switchboard since he has no plans to let her drive a rig. She says she talked to the crooked lawyer from the first act and that if Fishbine won't let her drive, she'll sue him and bankrupt the company--although it doesn't look like that would be much of a change for F + B. Mother thinks that she should be allowed to drive and recommends that Speed be partnered with her. Fishbine says she needs training and Mother is the best person in the county for that, though Mother doesn't want any women in his ambulance unless they're in the back on the gurney. The logistics are eventually worked out where all three of the title characters are in the ambulance so that Jennifer and Speed get a crash course in emergency medical care and Mother isn't driving alone, which is illegal. He's also pretty sulky about having to have three people in his ambulance, but he's got a good point about running out of room for the patient.

The trio's first emergency call is a doughy older man who caught his junk in his zipper. Mother takes great delight in telling Jennifer she's the one who has to get him unstuck, but also makes the extremely valid point that an EMT doesn't get to pick and choose which people they're going to treat. Then we get one more "how in the hell was this rated PG" moment where Mother visits a sleazy massage parlor to get a backrub with a pair of vibrators and give the working girls shots of vitamin B. The third act plot points all pile together here--while they're waiting outside the Institute for Sexual Awareness, Jennifer and Speed make small talk and Jennifer sees that Speed has a telegram in his shirt pocket. He's been reinstated by the LAPD and hasn't decided whether or not to go back. Then a call comes in that a woman at a supermarket is going into labor and the duo decides to let Mother continue getting his backrub and take care of it themselves.

Jennifer knows the closest hospital to the supermarket, but she doesn't know that they aren't equipped to deliver a child in their emergency room; they put her back in the ambulance and speed off to the county hospital. Before they can get there, the woman delivers her child. Something goes wrong and she hemorrhages to death in the back of the rig; she speaks Spanish so Speed and Jennifer can't even talk to her as they try to treat her and fail. And it's down to Mother to show why he's the best EMT in the county--he tells Jennifer, truthfully, that there's nothing anyone could have done with the equipment in the back of that ambulance to save the woman's life. If Speed drove an ambulance for the army for three years in a war zone he can't be a stranger to death (even if he isn't expecting it in the civilian world), but it's a completely new and devastating experience for Jennifer to deal with. And it's obviously a lesson that Mother had to learn on his own, but giving the benefit of his experience to the newest driver is the only gift he can give. And she decides to stick with the job, so it worked.

And finally we get to the big city council meeting that's been teased through the movie--where we find out whether Unity or F + B are going to get their contract renewed and be allowed to continue serving Los Angeles County. Plenty of trash talk and mutual disparagement of both firms takes place, and then the councilman lowers the boom--neither company is capable of serving the area so neither one will get the contract, which means both of them are going to go under. The head of Unity proposes a merger so that both companies can survive and the clearly unprepared city official says that should work after a probationary period to make sure that the new ambulance company can actually do the work. The meeting is interrupted when an emergency call comes in at a familiar-sounding address. It's the headquarters for F + B; Murdoch is there drunk out of his mind, marinating in self-pity and waving a revolver around. He threatens to kill Mrs. Fishbine and even takes a shot at her, but misses from less than five feet away.

The police who show up happen to be the sheriff and deputy that have been at the fringes of the story for the whole dang movie; either they're the bottom feeders of the LA County sheriff's department or they're just stationed near the F + B headquarters. Walker (the EMT who got a broken leg, rat bites and rabies) somehow manages to light the office on fire while attempting to enjoy a cigar. Everything gets confused and noisy, Speed gets shot in the shoulder and Murdoch winds up with Mother dead in his sights but out of bullets. And then the deputy shoots him in the back, just after the audience learns that he's no longer a threat. A dozen and a half SWAT officers surround the perimeter just after they might have been needed. They trudge back to their deployment van sullenly and drive off.

Time--at least a little of it--passes. The Fishbine + Unity Ambulance Company is trying to make a go of it; Mother and Jennifer are in one rig. Speed is back as a detective and the head of Unity and Fishbine plow through the paperwork--and Harry's making a good-faith effort to be nice (even offering to make coffee for his new partner). And showing that he's got his groove back, Mother takes the opportunity to scare the crap out of some perfectly innocent nuns again. Roll credits over the same song that played over the opening. The beat goes on.

Hollywood films in the blockbuster era are all about winners. Rocky Balboa went from being someone proud just to go the distance in his first movie to singlehandedly winning the Cold War in the fourth one. With studios trying to make huge returns on huge expenses there isn't really room for stories about desperate blue-collar people just trying not to lose. The movie's also tonally all over the place, sometimes within a single scene. But I enjoy that aspect of the film. I think it reflects what an EMT's job would have to be like. Some times you're cleaning up after a traffic accident and some times you're helping someone get unglued from a vase. The film's a little slice-of-bottom-feeding life drama, with all the characters shifting allegiance when trying to needle each other and with Mother acting as a sarcastic weirdo to everyone. They don't make 'em like this any more, even if there's an audience for films that don't fit into a neat little category (and this film was successful enough that a pilot was shot; ABC showed it as a special but it never went to series). Despite the wall-to-wall sexism--the element that will make viewers in 2014 shake their heads sadly, over and over, it's got plenty of merit. You could do a lot worse, even if the employees of the ambulance companies probably can't.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Pontypool (2008)

Written by Tony Burgess, adapted from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything
Directed by Bruce McDonald

Stephen McHattie:  Grant Mazzy
Lisa Houle:  Sydney Briar
Georgina Riley:  Laurel-Ann Drummond

I like being able to find connections between various pieces of art in the B movie world--it's fun to see the ways things are connected and to be able to tell if a director you like has read some of the same books you have (I strongly suspect that a young James Cameron read the Colossus novels as well as Harry Harrison's Deathworld books, and if you've read them you probably do too). So when I saw the oscilloscope wave in the middle of a black screen at the start of this movie I figured the filmmakers were tipping their hat to "The Outer Limits". Then the speaker began talking about someone denting their car on a bridge while swerving to avoid hitting a missing cat and I became certain in my own mind that the people behind "Welcome to Night Vale" have seen this movie. The tone of voice is quite similar, and the disparate facts being drawn together and explained, the irrational made rational for just a moment by describing it so flatly? That's Night Vale all over, with maybe just a touch of Professor Hess in the mix for a little variety.

Things get off to a disorienting start as a middle-aged white dude is driving at night through whiteout snow conditions in the middle of nowhere. The audience hears his half of the conversation as he fires his agent (he's a performer of some kind, then) and snaps his cell phone shut, muttering about of that makes two of them. He stops his car at a stoplight and a woman comes out of nowhere and slaps his window with her ungloved hand; the man startles, as you would, and can't quite make out what the woman is saying through the window glass. By the time he recovers his composure enough to roll down the window she's gone into the night. And the sound design in this scene is interesting--half a phone conversation, a droning DJ reading obituaries on the radio and the muffled voice from the woman followed by the echoing voice from the man all sound slightly different, layered and overlapping. It's always nice to watch something and instantly realize that some care and effort were spent on it in post-production.

The man pulls into a reserved parking space (revealing that his name is Grant Mazzy) and turns out to be the morning disc jockey on AM 660, a radio station out past the middle of nowhere. He pulls up and walks inside the church building that houses the studio as a pretaped segment with his voice rolls out onto the airwaves, ironically stating that he's on the air just as he should be. He greets his technician, Laurel-Ann, who looks to be at least a decade younger than he is and who has a thermos full of nice strong coffee for him. He adulterates it with liquor and says good morning to Pontypool, the community that the radio station services. And he's got a fantastic voice for radio storytelling, to be sure. His producer Sydney Briar joins him for some early morning radio talk and we get a fragment of Laurel-Ann's backstory--she served in the military in Afghanistan before returning to Pontypool and working at the radio station. There's some neat gliding camera movements in this scene, keeping things from getting too visually uninteresting with the three characters stuck in one location.

The heavy snowfall outside is predicted to last the entire day; there's some banter with the traffic helicopter pilot that Sydney Briar cuts short (and another layer of communication--Grant Mazzy can hear his producer through his headphones and the movie audience can as well, but the radio audience listening to Grant in the film's universe cannot). He's got an awful working relationship with Briar, using big city, big-market talk radio language for a sleepy town that just requires sports, news, weather and school closings over its airwaves. Mazzy claims that angry listeners don't touch their dials in the middle of the show, and he might even be right. But his methods probably aren't right for sleepy towns in northern Canada. It's like imagining Glenn Beck on a full tears-and-divine-revelation-that-only-he-can-save-America bender while cutting the ribbon at a mall opening. With more than a little justification, Sydney tells him that he's coming across as an asshole. He is chastened and proud in equal measure, but in his next segment he does tone it down quite a bit (and tells the story of his drive in and the mystery woman, asking his listeners if he should have called 911).

There's a weird call in that Laurel-Ann can't interpret during this segment, and then the police scanner in the studio starts squawking about a hostage situation; Sydney tells the engineer not to send the story to Grant without more information (the wire services aren't talking about it and there's no corroboration at this point); unfortunately it's already been sent to the broadcast booth. After some exaggerated talk at first, Mazzy talks the situation down (claiming inebriation on the part of the hostage takers, the hostages and the police at the scene); during a commercial break Sydney gently lets him know that the police are actually alcoholics and trying to keep their jobs, and he's not helping. Oh, and one of the police is her ex-husband's brother.

Another commercial break, another segment interrupted. This time Ken Loney (whose "Sunshine Chopper" is really just him in his car or occasionally sitting on a hill to get a better view of the greater Pontypool metropolitan area) is watching a crowd of hundreds of people outside the office of a disgraced doctor, all of them trying to get into the building--at least, that's what it looks like until the outside wall of the building breaks, spilling hundreds more out into the crowd. Ken barely hangs on to his composure (and there's a blackly funny moment where Mazzy tries not to spoil the illusion of the Sunshine Chopper for the listening audience), and the traffic reporter stays at his post, describing the arrival of military vehicles and the certain death of people trampled by and in the surging crowd. Inevitably, his report is cut off in mid-exclamation.

And as he tries to get information out of the air, Grant actually drops the shtick and tries to report only what is known, working with his producer to reiterate that nothing much is known at the time and that further information is needed. While the production staff tries to figure out what's going on (there's nothing on the news wire services about the riot, either, and based on their reaction it should be getting mentioned), the cast of a community theater adaptation of Lawrence of Arabia has shown up for an already-scheduled publicity interview, in full costume. Sydney, over Grant's protests, tells him to interview the actors (plenty of great reaction shots from them during this scene) while she and Laurel-Ann frantically work to assemble a story that can be broadcast about what they think is just a big riot at this point.

The song from the local performers is pretty much what you'd expect from an amateur dramatic adaptation of a widescreen epic film; while the children in the chorus sing about the Bedouin desert, Sydney and Laurel-Ann work to gather information one way or another--and again, they notice that there's nothing coming in on the wire services, which doesn't make any sense because this is certainly a story that journalists would be reporting on.

They get plenty to report on soon enough--right after the performance concludes, one of the children complains that she can't remember the end of the play and that for some reason she thinks it's called The Lawrence and the Table, which she knows can't be right. Then she starts repeating the nonsense syllable "prah" over and over while her face goes blank. The troupe leaves and it turns out that the show's producer was so busy gathering information for Grant to broadcast that she missed the weirdness completely. An attempt to get listeners to call in doesn't work out--either the calls get dropped or the people calling in aren't making any sense. Sydney starts to assume that it's some kind of inexplicable prank being played on the station.

A live call-in from Constable Roseland (one of the police mentioned earlier from the "hostage situation" that turned out to be nothing) doesn't impart much more information, but it's another official source declaring that things in Pontypool are getting weirder by the hour. More calls come in and the trio of station employees try to piece things together--among other things, there's a massive gathering of people surrounding a car between Pontypool and the nearest other Ontario map speck town; the crowd is so large that police report the car they're mobbing hasn't been visible for over an hour. Whatever's going on outside is big and getting bigger, and the film's tight focus on the three broadcasters in a church basement is a fantastic way to heighten suspense and keep the viewer off balance. It's a nice chilling moment when BBC World calls in to the Pontypool radio station to talk to Grant for "breaking the story". Plus you get to see the utterly baffled look on Mazzy's face as he realizes how serious things must be getting.

The BBC wants to know if French-Canadian troops have set up roadblocks to stop people from getting in and out of Pontypool and blames Quebecois separatists for the disturbances. And wonder of wonders, Grant Mazzy decides to keep from fueling the rumors; he tells the BBC that as far as he knows there's nothing political or organized about the mobs, and that police are responding but he's only heard rumors of military involvement. And when he tells Nigel Healing--and I just bet that name was "Nigel Knealing" in the book--that he just doesn't know what's going on in the absence of official commentary, the BBC runs with the story anyway, claiming that there are a series of violent mob attacks in rural Canada without any explanation. He also calls it an "insurgency" without a scrap of corroboration.

A terrified Ken Loney calls in next, crying and talking about what he's seen--the herds of people have been degenerating into savagery. He says they've been eating people and that the look in their eyes is no longer remotely human. As he continues his live report two people are attacked and consumed by the mob; one of the attackers hears him and crashes through the wall of the grain silo that Ken's hiding in. And, realistically enough, his assailant breaks enough bones that he can't get back up and go after the Sunshine Chopper reporter. Ken, more curious than sensible, edges closer to the injured attacker so that he can hear what it's whispering. And then the signal gets washed out, with a broadcast in French overwhelming the signal.

Laurel-Ann translates the message on the fly (Canada being a bilingual country, it's safe to assume she'd know French) while Grant and Sydney try to figure out what the heck just happened. Grant throws a stack of disclaimers out on the air before reading the message to his audience:  "For your safety, please avoid contact with close family members and restrain from the following:  all terms of endearment, such as hugging; avoid talking with young children and rhetorical discourse. For greater safety, please avoid the English language. Please do not translate this message." Nice job, guys. While that message is going out, Sydney gets a personal call from Constable Roseland; they've been ordered to stay indoors at the studio because Pontypool is under quarantine.

Ken Loney calls back in, and things get weirder. He recognizes the person who attacked him--it's a teenaged boy who is calling for his mommy to help him in a tiny babylike voice. Grant has some kind of breakdown shortly thereafter and Sydney goes to an unscheduled commercial break to try and talk him down. Grant wonders if this is all some kind of weird prank on him, but that seems more like a psychological defense mechanism than anything else at this point. He decides that he needs to take a look outside and see if anything is actually going on in the world; this is also the first time in about forty minutes that the film has gone out of the basement studio. He doesn't even make it a full step out the front door when Laurel-Ann yanks him back inside and several people start slapping at the church door, each one repeating something from the conversation Grant just had with the show's producer.

Grant rises to the occasion, distracting Sydney from the danger they're in by telling her that her children are with her ex-husband 100 kilometers away in another city and they have a radio show to do. There's a surreal interlude where Grant does the list of morning obituaries, the sheer number of names becoming frightening, and euphemisms for people killing their family members playing over black and white footage of the victims standing, staring at the camera. A conversation between Sydney and Laurel-Ann turns ominous when the sound board engineer starts repeating the word "missing" over and over, but before Sydney can follow up on that she notices someone crawling into the station through an open window on his hands and knees. The man introduces himself as Dr. John Mendez.

Mendez got there just in time to save Grant and Sydney's lives, apparently. He refers to the soundproofed booth in the studio as a life boat and hides in there with the broadcasters, leaving Laurel-Ann outside protesting that she's not missing any more and can't they let her in? Shortly after this she starts running at the booth, smashing her face into the thick soundproof glass. Another live call from Ken Loney deteriorates into rambling and he starts repeating the word "simple" endlessly. Stephen McHattie's performance during the final signoff makes this movie better; you can perceive the layers of meaning and regret and fear while he says his last goodbye to the field reporter in the Sunshine Chopper and hangs up on Loney.

Right after this, Dr. Mendez makes an intuitive leap and figures out that the syndrome overrunning Pontypool is some kind of communicable disease, but one that isn't spread through any normal vector. Instead, it appears that speaking the English language is the way to transmit the infection. During the conversation where Grant, Dr. Mendez and Sydney all put it together there's also a darkly funny moment where they all agree that broadcasting over the radio is probably very dangerous while doing just that. They go to canned instrumental music over the air just in time for Laurel-Ann to resume beating herself to death against the sound booth glass like a trapped bird.

It turns out that the syndrome burns the victim out if they can't transmit it to someone else (which we find out in the nastiest shot in the movie). The shuffling mob of infected that were outside the building make their way indoors, and start pressing against the glass of the sound booth as Mazzy turns off the lights and the three survivors huddle down against the wall silently, hoping the zombies--and it's fair to call them that, I think--will lose interest and go away. A hurried "conversation" written in marker on note pads (and kudos to the filmmakers for making sure the words all show up in bold black letters on white paper for this scene so the audience doesn't get pulled out of the film trying to figure out what's being "said") follows, with a clever plan being hatched:  They'll talk through the loudspeakers on the outside of the building and draw the infected away from the sound booth so they can try to escape. It does seem to work, though Mendez makes another deductive leap that only English is working as the disease vector as he starts to succumb.

Sydney and Grant make a slow and cautious break for it, agreeing to speak in French and ditching Dr. Mendez in the sound booth. And it works out pretty well, other than the "Bedouin" who's been sitting in the lobby by herself waiting to be a jump scare. And in keeping with the story so far, the two broadcasters stomp her to death out of frame, with just the sounds letting the viewer know what's happening. A whispered French conversation about whether or not they have to kill Dr. Mendez (and who will have to do it, specifically, since neither one particularly wants to be a murderer) gets interrupted by the station lights going out and coming back on, the reappearance of the infected zombies, and Mendez apparently fighting off the syndrome and rejoining the group before bailing out the window he used to gain entry to the studio and leading the infected away from Grant and Sydney.

Which doesn't help anything when it turns out that Sydney has been infected as well, and unless Grant can think of a way to deprogram the virus on the fly while it's eating through Sydney's brain there's a very good chance they're both going to die. He comes up with a way to stop her from understanding the word that's seized control of her mind and the pair of them go back on the air as an extremely budget-conscious military attack happens outside; while they're trying to cure their listeners (with the paradoxical idea that if you don't understand what you're hearing it will fix you, but without telling people that) bombs rain down and the military is apparently shooting the infected on sight. Grant makes his final signoff speech, defiant to the last, as a voice in French counts down from ten. He did everything he could do, and like the best efforts of beleaguered heroes in all good zombie apocalypses, it was too little and much too late, and the authority figures weren't listening anyway.

What a neat little flick! By narrowing the focus down to essentially three characters (note that when Dr. Mendez shows up, Laurel-Ann exits the story), none of whom really know what's going on outside the studio, the film manages to give the viewer an apocalyptic story on a tight budget and without expensive effects. I love the lived-in feel of the CLSY set (especially the clocks set to different times; they're all labeled with the names of other tiny towns in the region and set to the same time rather than London, Rome, Tokyo or Moscow). I really appreciate the way the three heroes rise to the occasion and the way that the weirdness creeps in from the first frame or so and doesn't let up till the ending. And the woman from the car window slapping sequence shows up again at the end, in the crowd of infected trying to get into the sound booth. It's a little thing, but it's always nice to see continuity in films like this. Any time you put thought into your project before you roll film, it saves so much effort later. Later.


Later. Later. Later.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Giant Claw (1957)

Written by Samuel Newman & Paul Gangelin
Directed by Fred F. Sears

Jeff Morrow:  Mitch MacAfee
Mara Corday:  Sally Caldwell
Morris Ankrum:  Lt. Gen. Edward Considine
Louis Merrill:  Pierre Broussard

This is a cautionary tale. The caution is "when you farm your movie's special effects out to a cut-rate Mexican effects company to save money, insist on a demo reel and regular progress updates or your movie is going to look incredibly stupid". Let that be a lesson to us all. Otherwise people will make fun of your movie for more than half a century, and you will deserve it because your predatory avian menace from beyond the stars will look like a homicidal buzzard muppet.

The film starts with one of those "droning narrator talks about SCIENCE! while the globe turns" prologues. This one is filmed with a fog machine working overtime and a bumpy camera rail, so already the movie's getting off to a start that could be charitably described as semi-competent. The narrator talks about advances in communications technology making the Earth smaller at the push of a button, so I'm gonna give him full marks because flattery will get you everywhere. Still, buckle in for the rush of stock footage of military bases and bulldozers and an explanation of the DEWline, the Distant Early Warning radar installations that were supposed to let America know if it was going to be incinerated within the next fifteen minutes or so. Of course it is important to figure out whether or not your brand new radar station is working properly, and the way to calibrate a radar station is a pretty simple one:  You get a pilot to fly a known path at a pre-determined speed and then check your radar screens to make sure that the results from the equipment match the results you were expecting. If you get significantly different results, it's time to break the glass housing an emergency Brooklyn Guy to go fix the radar wiring and schedule another test flight.

Today's test flight is being supervised by Mitch MacAfee, a civilian electronics engineer that borrowed some stock footage of three or four different jets to overfly the command bunker at an arctic DEWline station and irritate the hell out of Sally Caldwell, the mathematician that will be collating and computing the results of the test flights in order to figure out if the radar station is working accurately. Check out the smirks that the two (male) Air Force officers give each other when she complains about MacAfee flying like a jackass--it's the sweet, sweet return of Mad Men era casual sexism. The gender politics of this movie are even more mockable than the monster.

A brief moment here to point out that I really like scenes where people plot out flight paths with a grease pencil on a big glass vertical map in a room. At the time, this was the highest of high-tech options, with radio and radar giving instantly updated information to the guys with the protractors and slide rules. I kinda miss seeing stuff like that in our flatscreen world now. Even the narrator babbling about people having fun doing a job like he's trying out for the Beast of Yucca Flats voiceover job can't ruin it.

During the test flight, MacAfee sees something weird and blurry in the sky. He calls in a radio report of a UFO (which the narrator defines for the audience; I wonder when that acronym became general knowledge to American viewers?)--but the radar operator can't find anything in the sky but the plane that's supposed to be there. And he'd know. The whole point to the test flight and scan is the shake down the radar system and determine that it's working. The Air Force officials tell the pilot that there's nothing in the sky and MacAfee tells them his eyes work fine, thank you very much, and he needs to get a closer look. Amusingly enough, the narrator tells us that there was no mistaking the urgency in the pilot's voice during a scene with no dialogue--just the score and voiceover. According to the narrator, MacAfee describes the UFO as being "as big as a battleship", and I hope you like that comparison because it's going to be used quite a bit over the course of the film.

The major in charge of the base scrambles fighter jets to go look at the whatever-the-hell-it-is in the sky, and when MacAfee returns to the base he gets chewed out by the officer, who threatens to end his career over his "prank" of reporting something up there that the radar couldn't spot (which would be completely impossible). The engineer gets defensive and accuses Major Bergen of blowing things out of proportion until the Air Force man informs him that one of the five planes sent out to look for the UFO didn't come back. A phone call interrupts MacAfee's chewing out, and Bergen is informed that a commercial air flight with a full crew and five dozen passengers gave out a distress call and then vanished from radar and the airwaves; it appears that Mitch MacAfee really did see something up there in the sky, and that the most advanced technology that the American government has at its disposal is blind and useless while looking for it.

Oh, and the screenplay gets turbo-stupid at this point and will largely remain on this setting for the rest of the film--after hearing that at least two planes have been swatted out of the sky by the UFO as big as a battleship, MacAfee and Caldwell immediately make plans to take a plane to New York City. I'm pretty sure I'd ask for a jeep or something instead. A pair of roller skates. Train tickets. ANYTHING but a plane.

And hey, while flying over an unexpected rain cloud, the plane that the two protagonists are in gets overflown by a blurry birdlike effect; no sooner has the Expendable Meat pilot said that he lost sight of the UFO when it went overhead than one of the plane's engines gets destroyed. The pilot gets a face full of diluted chocolate syrup smeared on his face when he bonks into the control panel and MacAfee has to land the plane with one engine on fire (represented by one of the great Terrible Model Plane Effects of the decade). One crash landing and explosion later, the hero of the film lives through another encounter with the flying monster by sacrificing someone else. I don't know if the screenwriters noticed it, but being near Mitch MacAfee when the monster shows up is more hazardous than being a red-shirted drummer for Spinal Tap smoking weed at summer camp while knowing Charles Bronson.

Ragingly offensive Canadian stereotype Pierre Broussard shows up at the crash site and lets the two conscious protagonists drink up his home-brewed applejack at his farmhouse while a raging storm howls outside without getting any rain on his windows. Caldwell and MacAfee makes plans to get to a nearby airport and fly to New York City, which I cannot imagine any sane human being with a functioning brain planning to do after avoiding death by UFO twice in the same weekend. Caldwell tells the implausible truth that a flying battleship knocked them out of the sky in a manner calculated to be disbelieved when a local cop asks about the crash; during this viewing, I found myself wondering if Samuel L. Jackson needs to scrape a couple 50s fighter jets off the front grill of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s most expensive toys.

MacAfee takes a phone call from a General Van Buskirk while at Pierre's swinging bachelor pad. Apparently the military believes that MacAfee is playing some kind of prank since none of the radar stations tracking any of the doomed planes spotted anything; if they're right, crashing your plane for a gag shows levels of dedication that Andy Kaufman would find excessive.

Something flies over the cabin during the storm and frightens the heck out of Pierre's horse. When he goes outside into the storm to check on the animal he screams in terror, having seen something in the sky that he interprets as La Cacagne, a Quebecois flying monster banshee creature with the body of a woman and the head of a wolf. You might expect MacAfee to realize that this monster that Pierre saw moving fast at night illuminated only by lightning was actually also the killer UFO that he's encountered twice, but instead he gets all up in the poor farmer's grill, telling him he didn't see anything. If there was an Olympics for being an obtuse jackass, Mitch MacAfee would have to do a piss test every hour to prove he wasn't using performance enhancing drugs after this scene.

A pair of police in bone-dry uniforms walk in out of the storm to drive our heroes to the airport. The sergeant tells MacAfee that according to the legends of La Cacagne, seeing it means you're doomed to die very soon. His delivery of this pronouncement is a very solid entry in that Jackass Olympics from the previous paragraph; I bet he could go for bronze easily, and maybe a silver if the East German team is having an off year.

Caldwell and MacAfee fly to New York City, and the battleship-sized Cacagne leaves their flight alone for whatever reason. There's some classic late-fifties sexual harassment presented as romance (the guy sitting behind the pair who tells them to shut up speaks for the entire audience). One other thing gets accomplished in this interminable scene--the engineer makes a rough sketch of the five spots that planes have been attacked by the flying battleship bird creature thing monster and finds out that they all fit on a spiral pattern (or, for that matter, a line). There's now at least a wild-assed hypothesis to guess where the monster will strike next--although, being a woman, Caldwell scoffs at Mitch's guess because she's got to be wrong and he's got to be right.

The next thing we see is something that cracked me up when I was eight years old seeing it in It Came From Hollywood for the first time, and has only gotten more ridiculous in the intervening years. Five Expendable Meat investigators from the Civilian Aeronautics Board have their plane attacked by the monster and are all eaten as they try to parachute to safety. This could have been a horrifying scene if they were willing to spend a dollar or two on the sequence, but nobody involved in financing this movie could be bothered to do so. Which means we get this:

Wait till you see it move...

So now the monster has done enough damage and killed enough people that the military has started to do something other than just point and laugh when MacAfee goes into his "giant killer bird thing" speech; he gets summoned to the Pentagon in order to brief Van Buskirk about what the heck is going on (and this scene also makes sure to have the men prove that the "spiral pattern of attacks" theory is right, more or less specifically so that Sally Caldwell has to show that she knows she was wrong in a reaction shot.

Dr. Caldwell turns out to have one of the keys to the problem--as part of her previous efforts for the Department of Defense she had cameras in balloons taking pictures of the Earth's curvature. As it turns out, the giant space buzzard flew past some of those cameras and there are photos of it, so at least everyone knows what to shoot at now (I am assuming they didn't want to take out a perfectly harmless space canary if they saw one). The shot of Air Force men looking serious while standing next to a slide projector will make any Mike Judge fan mutter "Jesus, Collins..." under their breath, by the way. I've seen it happen.

Van Buskirk and the two heroes get on a plane to Washington, D. C. (Why? Why would you do this?) in order to brief an even higher-ranking general played by B movie "hey, that guy is a general in everything" stalwart Morris Ankrum. He oversees the Air Force efforts to murder the space bird to death, listening in on the radio as the pilots report that their puny weapons are useless against the bird, which has no trouble at all killing the lot of them. Obviously, another tactic is needed.

The civilian heroes eventually figure three things out:  the bird is made of antimatter (so it doesn't show up on radar) and has some sort of invisible made-up bullshit force field that destroys all the weapons fired at it. It's come to Earth in order to lay an egg, which does not have a force field. And lastly, constructing a mu-meson projector that can be fired at the bird will somehow poke a hole in its force field so that conventional weapons can kill it.

Of course this plan will eventually succeed at the last minute, but before that we get shots of the bird attacking New York City (as well as stock footage of Earth Vs. the Flying Saucers standing in for either an attack on the nation's capitol or just more buildings getting damaged in New York City without any regard for the architecture that is actually there). There's a word salad science lecture from someone in a coat and tie to explain the way that the mu-meson projector will work (for a given value of "explain"). And there's a group of hot-rodding teenagers that have to get killed instead of MacAfee so that he gets away from one more encounter with the space buzzard. For that matter, Pierre buys the farm in the immediate aftermath of the successful attempt to destroy the gigantic egg; it's really dangerous to be anywhere near Mitch MacAfee in this movie.

The fact that a bunch of sufficiently talented working actors all sold their dialogue as best as they could makes the movie so much more entertaining than it would have been with better effects. They all commit to their gibberish lines with full fervor, and none of them allow the viewer to realize that they know how ludicrous their plans are. If the deadly antimatter predator looked like an actual bird of prey rather than something that wouldn't be allowed on set for "The Great Space Coaster" the conflict between expectation and actuality wouldn't fuel nearly as much laughter. It's one thing to have people look to the skies in terror when you've got a MUTO streaking overhead; it's quite another to have a googly-eyed, nostril-flaring vulture pick up an entire train like a string of sausages and fly away.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Grabbers (2012)

Written by Kevin Lehane
Directed by Jon Wright

Richard Coyle:  Garda Ciaran O'Shea
Ruth Bradley:  Garda Lisa Nolan
Russell Tovey:  Dr. Adam Smith
Lalor Roddy:  Paddy Barrett

I have to have seen more than a dozen movies that start with something going through Earth's atmosphere at night, a wink of flame in the sky above the planet. But this is the first time I've seen that standard opening shot where the descending object was hitting the skies above Ireland. I bet that actual Irish people who saw this really got a kick out of that opening shot--their country gets to be in the movies a lot, but most of the titles I'm aware of are social-realism dramas, not movies about hungry tentacled things from outer space. And it might well be the first time an invasion drama showed their country as the target. Representation is extraordinarily important in fiction--if you grow up seeing every superhero as a white man and you don't share those traits, you'll never see a superhero that looks like you. I hope the kids in Ireland getting away with watching this when they're too young can imagine themselves as monster slayers now, instead of Americans or Brits.

Also, while we're just on the opening credits, I see that the Irish Film Board and UK Film Council helped pay for this movie. I can't help but think of it as the Gaelic equivalent of the Canadian tax-shelter exploitation movies of the seventies, but even better because the government is paying for the monster effects directly. I'd pay an extra hundred bucks a year in taxes if it meant struggling young independent filmmakers could pinch stuff from Tremors and try to get their foot in the door in Hollywood.

The whatever-it-is that's plunging to Earth is bright blue, which suggests to me that it's either descending at least partially under its own power or possibly just supposed to look alien. It streaks through the night sky over the Sea Harvester, a fishing boat, in a blaze of radiance and splashes into the ocean--again, the water isn't boiling so I don't think it heated up all that much in the atmosphere, which suggests to me a controlled descent. A value-pack of three Threat-Establishing Casualties drive the boat over to investigate it and the viewer gets a look at the filmmakers' knowlege of invading-alien-menace filmmaking tropes.

The first unlucky bastard sees something in the water (though the audience does not) and gets time to scream before getting pulled in. The captain is shining a flashlight (sorry, it's the UK, so he's shining a torch) into the water when he gets impaled and pulled in--this is witnessed by the third casualty-to-be from the wheelhouse--and there's a Wilhelm scream on the soundtrack when he gets yanked into the ocean. The third doomed sailor gets a POV shot dropped on his head--three different ways to kill off a minor character in under a minute, and each one establishing that there's a massively lethal threat in the water, there's more than one, and that the audience doesn't get to see what they look like at this point in the movie. I'm guessing that the writer and director watched a lot of monster flicks when they were kids, and they've learned their lessons on how to tell this story the way the audience expects it. Maybe the Irish channels preferred showing old Universal flicks to old Hammer ones when they were growing up; maybe they picked the story beats of The Monolith Monsters for their film because that would be less recognizable to an Irish audience.

The next thing you do in a monster flick is introduce the people who are going to stop the monster, and our protagonists are a stubbly guy waking up after a bender literally snuggled up to a bottle of whisky (the dregs are his breakfast) and a young woman in a police uniform riding a ferry to the main location. Since I didn't know "garda sociana" was Gaelic for "guardian of the peace", I thought at first her name was going to be Officer Garda. It's on her uniform coat pocket. But it's also on the pocket of the hungover guy that picks her up at the dock next to the "Erin Island welcomes you" sign; he's sullen and makes a concerted effort to make sure that Garda Nolan feels unwelcome and foolish. Nice going, jerk.

After that it's time to show that things aren't quite right in the world, so a middle-aged man walking his dog out in some wonderful field and beach scenery comes across a dozen or so beached dead pilot whales and the peaceful Celtic music on the score gets swapped out for Bernard Herrmann-style minor key strings. Back at the police station Garda O'Shea continues to be a dick while their supervisor welcomes Nolan to the island, and it becomes apparent that the woman is a bit more cosmopolitan than anyone else in the station when coffee is being poured. (O'Shea:  "Milk?" Nolan:  "What kind?" O'Shea:  "...Cow's."). The other officer is leaving for two weeks, as it turns out, and Garda Nolan is there to help out with any rural island law enforcement that might need to get done. And a hissed-whisper conversation between the vacationing cop and O'Shea establishes that he's been letting himself go for a considerable time; Nolan's there at least in part because nobody thinks O'Shea would do any kind of respectable job on his own for two weeks.

Time to get another monster appearance, but this time it's one stuck in a lobster trap so we don't get a look at it when two lobstermen peer into the trap and try to figure out what the hell it is. Fishermen who set lobster traps on the ocean floor and catch lobsters, not bipedal crustaceans, I mean. It's a monster flick so it could have gone either way. Whatever's in the trap spits (or pisses) in one of the lobstermen's faces but other than the stench there doesn't appear to be any ill effects. The lobsterman who caught it--actually named Paddy, which may or may not be offensive--winds up putting the thing in his bathtub at home, still in the lobster trap. The creature makes some upsetting sounds, but we still don't get a look at it.

O'Shea is driving Nolan around on patrol and they're talking kind of like real people having a mutally involved conversation; it turns out Nolan is normally stationed in Dublin Central, which has a great deal more crime than Erin Isle. O'Shea says there won't be anything to worry about for the next two weeks; Nolan responds with "it's always the quiet places where the mad shit happens". It's a monster movie. She's right, of course. Half the fun in these things is hearing a first-act exchange like this and waiting to see how it'll play out when Garda Nolan gets the meager satisfaction of being correct.

The patrol takes the mismatched pair to the beach full of dead marine life; Dr. Smith the marine ecologist is examining the whale bodies there and strikes a bit of a spark with Garda Nolan (and there's a nice bit of business where they both realize it's not a good idea to shake hands in greeting till he takes his latex gloves off; he's been probing the wounds on the whales' bodies, so yeah, wait till he's not wearing those to say hi). Smith is able to determine that the whales died at sea and washed up on the Erin Island beach; O'Shea finds it weird that they all died at sea at the same time. Smith does too, but he can't really comment on it--there's too many variables that aren't accounted for yet.

Back on patrol, O'Shea has warmed up a little bit to Nolan (I'm guessing because he now doesn't see her as a threat to his job and because she might be from the big city on the mainland but she's still police). She's also quite a square, as it turns out, with O'Shea trying to break the ice with an endearingly terrible joke that goes right over Nolan's head. They wind up at a construction site, with O'Shea calling in a favor in order to borrow the heavy equipment at the site in order to move the beached whale carcasses--and kudos to the film for making O'Shea kind of a jerk but actually a pretty effective rural island cop. One of the construction workers strays off at the beach, finds some creature eggs, and gets dragged into the ocean by a still-not-depicted monster. That scene cannot have been any fun at all for the stuntman, but it's quite effective. The foreman goes looking for Danny the drowning / monster attack victim as the sun sinks down and fails to find him. He does pick up the stray shovel that Danny got sent back to retrieve, though. So at least he's not out a shovel.

Back at the local bar (also the only bar on the island), Garda O'Shea and the lobsterman from earlier in the film are weighing down a pair of stools. There's a little bit of "you like the new cop and you should go talk to her" stuff from the barkeep's wife; O'Shea isn't really having any of it. The lobsterman says he's got a sea monster in his bathtub; O'Shea and the bartender aren't really having any of it from him either.

That night, the lobsterman who got monster pee in his face is dozing in front of Night of the Living Dead on the telly--the requisite "we have seen other horror movies and liked them" moment in this one, plus it's in the public domain so using footage from it won't add so much as a Reul to the budget--and someone's thudding at the door. It turns out to be the construction foreman from earlier, who collapses on the front lawn. The lobsterman goes out to see what's the matter and a bone-spike impales him and yanks him on to the roof to die horribly. His wife freaks out and shuts every door in the house but the chimney is a perfectly serviceable point of entry; exeunt three more minor characters.

Back at the pub (which turns out to also be a hotel), O'Shea decides to invite Garda Nolan down for a drink--she refuses because she's got to work the next day and asks her colleague to recite the alphabet backwards as a sobriety test, which he abdicates, and while he's acting like a drunken jackass he also takes the opportunity to completely ignore his alcoholism, even when pretty directly confronted on it.

Back at Paddy's home, the lobster trap in his bathtub is broken open from the inside, there's an egg in it, and a writhing knot of mottled blue tentacles in a ceiling corner of the loo. Worse than a spider. The thing drinks some of his blood with a tentacle / tongue appendage and jumps on his face but he gets the better of it and stomps it to death on the floor of his bath.

The next morning, Garda Nolan pays for last night's hotel room and the barkeep's wife tells her there's a storm coming during their morning mercantile chitchat. ("Were the gulls flying low this morning?" "No, it was on the telly.") Nolan goes to pick O'Shea up in the morning--at the drunk tank at the station, since he was out cold before she could find his house and didn't really know what else to do with him. Kudos to the cinematographers for making daylight seeping into the drunk tank room look like a hangover, by the way. This might be just a "things from the stars are eating people in a small remote location" movie, but the craftsmen working on it know their stuff. Nolan is horrifyingly chipper as she answers the station house phone; I'm not honestly sure if she's trying to needle O'Shea or if she's always so square and enthusiastic.

Turns out they're paying a call on Dr. Smith, who has the dead alien blood-drinking monstrosity at his lab. The lobsterman wants to name it a "grabber", and the scientist refuses to even consider that because the name has to reflect the animal's genus, not the fact that it has lots of tentacles. Smith is low-key about the fact that he has absolutely no idea what it is, but it's completely unprecedented and foreign to the point that he's not even sure if it's actually dead or not. Which leads the pragmatic Paddy to whack it with a stick, because why not be careful about these things? Smith seems to be enjoying the chance to lecture an interested audience about what the monster is, and demonstrates that it has a bony spike on the tip of its tongue that is used to pierce the skin of its prey, then drains the prey's blood to feed. In the manner of scientists in these movies, Smith is the one who drops the exposition bomb in this scene, pointing out that the monster only needs blood and water to live. He also tries flirting with Garda Nolan a little bit here, and O'Shea is visibly irritated but doesn't act like an asshole about it.

O'Shea has pretty good cop instincts, too--he's the first one to connect the mystery creature to the dead whales and while they're driving past the beach, he spots the construction foreman's car, seemingly abandoned but with the keys still in the ignition. Neither O'Shea or Nolan are big believers in coincidence and check out the foreman's house--which has all the lights on, nobody home, and slates fallen from the roof. Nolan checks out the roof while O'Shea takes the edge off with a quick pull from his hip flask and cascading events result in him just about getting his nose broken from a headbutt when the severed head of a monster victim gets yanked out of the chimney and falls off the roof.

The doctor isn't having any of it when the two police ask him what killed the victim ("The fact that he's just a head?"); it's beyond his country-doctor experience and the best he can do on short notice is to suggest an animal mauling. While they're putting the pieces together, Paddy complains that something knocked a hole in his bathroom wall (and he doesn't seem to notice that the egg that was in the lobster trap in his bathtub is gone). The police and Paddy put their heads together and figure out that the monsters are probably territorial, can only move around on land when it's raining, and might well be living in the totally not ominously named "Black Rock Caves".

Paddy takes absolutely no convincing whatsoever to stay out of the caves while Nolan and O'Shea take a look around inside them. They find bloodstained clothing from the trio of pre-credits casualties while Paddy finds a clutch of eggs buried in the sand. Another sign that the filmmakers are paying homage to American monster movies of the 50s--he pokes them with a stick as soon as he sees them. Never, ever do this. He flinches away when the embryonic monster twitches in the egg. Meanwhile, in the caves, O'Shea shouts hello a couple of times--never, ever do this either--and the male monster drops down from the cave ceiling to terrify the cops and the audience. They get out just in time and O'Shea believes them to be safe because the monster can't get out of the cave the same way they did. Never, ever say anything like that.

Back at Smith's lab O'Shea makes a tactical decision to pour petrol on the dead(?) specimen and set it on fire, over Smith's protests. So the sprinklers go off and the two cops and the scientist quickly reenact one of those "the Three Stooges are plumbers" shorts for a little bit. And now the monster in the lab has been soaked with water, which means that if it was only torpid things are going to jump off. Which they do--O'Shea winds up being the lucky chosen as the thing jumps in his head and he staggers around the lab looking like Jerry Lewis wanted to adapt The Call of Cthulhu as a comedy. The other two manage to haul the monster off of him, and when they're getting ready to beat it to death with a chair it throws up the blood it drank and collapses to the floor. The trio beat the monster to death at some length.

Paddy wanders back in, apologizing for not being any help during the monster attack and O'Shea puts the pieces together further. He's a little bit drunk, since he's been trying to hold off the DTs while at work. Paddy was much more intoxicated when he was attacked, and the alcohol in his blood hurt the monster to the point where an elderly drunk could beat it into torpor by himself. Thus O'Shea figures out the secret weapon--drink enough and the creatures won't attack you. Or if they do, they'll stop because they're drinking poison blood.

Unfortunately nobody can call in the cavalry because of the oncoming storm. If they can survive through the night, everyone on Erin Island should wind up all right. But there won't be any help from the mainland and Smith points out that the "booze = monster poison" plan is an untested theory. But it's the best one they have at the moment. And speaking of best bad options, O'Shea decides to hold a lock-in at the pub, get the entire population of the island (that is still there, and not on the mainland for the festival mentioned for one line in the first act) in there, booze up and try not to get killed by the monsters. Oh, and they can't tell any of the other islanders about the monsters or there will be a panic, and panics can get people killed just as dead as a space octopus blood fiend thing can. O'Shea offers to be the one guy staying sober in order to protect everyone else, but Nolan points out, not unkindly, that he's "a dependent alcoholic organizing a piss-up in a brewery", which means that sobriety is not in the cards for him, even if he's got the best intentions in the world.

Right after O'Shea puts his foot down and says he'll be staying sober, Garda Nolan says she's a teetotaler who's never been drunk in her life (which means I have something in common with one of the protagonists of the film). So--in order to save everyone's lives the raging boozer has to stay try and the abstainer has to get lit up. I have every confidence in both of them.

Science comes in to play--Smith needs to know exactly how drunk everyone needs to be in order to repel the attacking monsters, so Garda Nolan is pressed into service. She's in good physical shape and doesn't have a drop of alcohol in her, so when she consumes the same amount of booze that Paddy had the previous night they'll be able to test her blood and find out how much everyone needs to put away in order to protect themselves from the space creatures. It turns out that a BAC of .20 is lethal to the hatchling space beast that Smith had in his lab; the bartender estimates that it'll be ten shots apiece for everyone in town in order to shield themselves (more or less, depending on body weight). And full marks to Ruth Bradley in this scene; she's not overplaying the drunken faces she pulls but she sells the idea that she's utterly hammered quite well. There's a bit where she goes through an inebriated rainbow of the emotional spectrum that lands perfectly.

The announcement at the end of Mass in the island's church goes spectacularly poorly, and there's some neat role-reversal comedy where O'Shea is forced to be the voice of reason and reconciliation while Nolan gets belligerent and can't stick to a story for exactly why there's going to be a party. Eventually O'Shea gives up and just says he's buying. That works, sure enough. And the party really does look like fun. Everyone not in on the "don't get killed by monsters" information is singing and having a great time together and the room is crowded, but not oppressively so. Meanwhile, in the back room, the conspirators are stockpiling their weapons, including a pellet gun with no pellets, a frying pan, a board with a nail in it (really), a flare gun, and a Super Soaker filled with petrol as an improvised flamethrower. Remember, everyone using these devices is going to be drunk twice over and in a room full of innocent civilians...

The party's in full swing when the doctor has to go outside for a piss, and the music gets good and ominous after Paddy points out that he's only had two pints and isn't nearly drunk enough to be safe. Which isn't good news when dozens of little baby space monsters start flopping and squirming up the lawn as he's outside, and the rain is coming down nice and heavy. They only need water and blood to live, and he's got at least one of those things. Intervention from the two police gets the doctor away from the hatchlings, but the towering daddy beast makes incredibly short work of him. At least he finds out exactly what killed the decapitated guy from before.

Inside the back room of the bar, everyone tries to work through their various combinations of alcoholic stupor and pants-shitting terror to get the flamethrower lit and the door barricaded. The barkeep goes out for a suicidally brave/stupid charge, and the pilot light of his weapon goes out in the rain. And now the gigantic monster knows where everyone is. Good plan, Brian. Also the taps are dry, and the spare kegs are outside. And when Smith goes out to get a photo of the monster it turns out that it can smell the toxins on his breath, and even if it's smart enough not to eat him he's not immune to every other form of damage (his exit from the film is nastily funny, a reminder that you just shouldn't trust a big killer space beast; it's also a callback to all the scientists that thought they could communicate with the space beings in movies going way the hell back to The Thing From Another World in 1951).

The party gets moved upstairs when the hatchlings get into the bar; they'd almost be cute if they weren't so maggoty. The sound designers deserve some credit for the goofiness and menace of the little boogers. O'Shea finally clues everyone in to what's going on, and the breathalyzer results show that they're sobering up and running out of time to deal with the monster. A quickly improvised plan (use the construction equipment that hauled the whale carcasses away to grab the monster and keep it out of the water so it'll die when the sun comes up) is put into practice, but only the single drunkest person in the room has any chance of getting away from the big Grabber outside in order to do it, and O'Shea isn't going to let his colleague take that risk. Which she insists on doing anyway. And while going on her mission, manages to take out the bar's fusebox with a stray nailgun shot and plunges the building into darkness. Then things get REALLY bad when a dropped lighter and a floor full of spilled liquor combine their powers to set the building on fire.

The two cops borrow the bartender's pickup truck and get to the construction company's headquarters, and after a series of cascading problems manage to shove the giant Grabber into a gravel pit and drop an earth-mover on top of it. So it's pissed off and hurt, but not dead. But they've got a flare gun, a pile of rusting chemical drums and Paddy's bottle of homebrew on their side and the monster doesn't stand a chance. And, in the manner of the old fifties monster flicks, the two leads fall in love as the morning breaks, having saved everyone's lives. And then the waves break over the shore, washing up against another clutch of Grabber eggs buried in the sand, ready to hatch. But if you read this blog, you knew that was the only possible final shot of this movie.

Man alive, I'm glad I saw this one. Grownup actors, high stakes, a fantastic looking monster (I especially like the rolling motion that the male Grabber used to get around on land), escalating threats and the heroes triumphant at the end. And the cinematography is fantastic--lots of shots of the natural beauty of the island and some great lone-cop-car-driving-on-a-lonely-road sequences that emphasize just how isolated everyone is when the trouble starts. Instead of a lonely house or a shot of the whole island from the air, it's the two protagonists in a Garda SUV as a tiny moving speck on the screen and it's a really cool way to suggest to the audience that they've got to depend on their own wits and whatever they've got with them to make it through the attack. And hey, nobody got yanked out a window like I was expecting, because that's really more of a seventies cliche and this movie was using monster flicks from two decades previous as its template.

It's amazing what you can do when you have directors and actors who don't feel superior to the material (check out the 1998 and 2014 American takes on Godzilla if you'd like a crash course in the difference between the two approaches). And the humor in the film arises from character, not from zany people yelling crazy crap. Thought and care went in to setting up the menace, setting up the people who had to respond to it, and setting up the solution. I thought the flare gun was going to be used to detonate the petrol-filled squirt gun, but I was wrong. Everything they did use to kill the main monster was set up earlier in the film; structure and dialogue and some indestructible old Irish drunks make the movie as enjoyable as it was. And since it's a movie from the 2010s rather than something from half a century ago, O'Shea's alcoholism is never the source of humor in the film (though it comes close a couple of times). If anything, he's the movie's tragic relief.

I wonder...I wonder if my friend who used to run the 3-B Theater site has seen this one, and how many cans out of a six-pack he'd rate it. I'm guessing it's a full six. Of Guinness, of course.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

Story by John Sayles & Anne Dyer
Screenplay by John Sayles
Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami

Richard Thomas:  Shad
Robert Vaughn:  Gelt
John Saxon:  Sador
Sybil Danning:  St. Exmin
George Peppard:  Cowboy

Back before the studios took over making B movies and threw hundred-million-dollar budgets at grindhouse ideas, there was room for the little guy to steal a little thunder and some box office money from larger prestige pictures. Sometimes it was an homage to a film that a director or screenwriter wanted to pay tribute to (Body Double is a Hitchcock-style "wrong guy" thriller on steroids, Viagra and cocaine); sometimes it was a bare-faced ripoff (Great White got yanked from American theaters when Universal sued its makers for copying the plot note-for-note and courts sided with the big studio; at least the people who made Grizzly, Alligator, Deadly Eyes, and The Car made sure to use a bear, a mutated sewer alligator, a swarm of giant rats and a devil car as the monsters in their Jaws ripoffs).

If I had to choose, I'd say that Spielberg's game-changing killer shark movie might be the most ripped-off plotline in the last half-century of motion picture production (although Halloween might be the champion; either way, whichever one of those two movies didn't get the gold medal for Most Ripoffs it had to have gotten the silver). All the parts are there for an intimate story of a man summoning up his courage to fight a seemingly unstoppable monster--throw in a greedy official, a scene where someone tries to cover up the existence of the killer whatever-it-is, and a plot point where a smaller killer whatever-it-is gets captured or killed by the heroes (setting up a false sense of confidence and a second-string character getting their ticket punched) and you've got the story beats for whatever Jaws ripoff you're constructing. Leave one out, double up on another, or change the order of the scenes and you can set your killer animal film apart from the pack, at least a little bit. And if audiences are fooled into thinking they haven't seen all the pieces of your movie before you can ride a bigger movie's coat tails far enough to make a significant profit.

And Jaws wasn't the only out-of-nowhere movie of the late 70s that got moviemakers to hastily write up plans for a similar project. In 1977 George Lucas made his own massively successful science-fiction film out of pieces taken from Flash Gordon serials, Kurosawa samurai dramas (most specifically The Hidden Fortress), the "Lensmen" pulp science fiction stories about intergalactic peacekeepers with mystic powers, Joseph Campbell's universal hero myth and The Dam Busters' story of a low-altitude raid to destroy a Nazi dam with a single well-placed torpedo bomb (if your movie makes over a hundred million at the box office, it's officially an homage to its various sources, not a ripoff). Oh, and while I'm talking about the origins of various recognizable things in Star Wars, there's a beeping robot whose head looks a hell of a lot like a communications satellite that someone named a cult movie blog after.

Anyway, the massive runaway success of the Star Wars franchise made imitation a foregone conclusion. My favorite joke about moviemaking is that everyone wants to be the second one to do something original, and at the end of the seventies that meant big spaceships, laser swords, comic-relief robots and usually someone in an alien costume that spoke in howls or grunts. What makes the movies worthwhile is what the filmmakers do with their inspirations. Star Crash had Caroline Munro in a series of revealing spacesuits and a cheap re-enactment of Ray Harryhausen's Talos scene from Jason and the Argonauts; Hawk the Slayer puts the ragtag-rebels-against-an-evil-empire plot in a Tolkien ripoff fantasy world. And today's movie aims as high as a small-budgeted drive-in movie can aim; it's a simultaneous homage to Star Wars and The Magnificent Seven (itself a credited remake of the Kurosawa masterpiece The Seven Samurai); it also wound up in theaters the same year as the official sequel to Lucas' film in an attempt to stay firmly planted on those coat tails I mentioned earlier.

Stop me if you've heard this one:  An agrarian community incapable of defending itself from outside attack is overrun by pillagers bent on taking their harvest away. In order to defend themselves, a peasant from the community goes out into the wider world to locate mercenaries that can to the community's fighting for them. A disparate group of combatants come together and defend the farmers with their lethal skills; at a high cost, the bandits are killed and the agricultural community can live in peace again, the pacifists determined to remember the high cost paid by their mercenary defenders. (I can remember blowing a friend's mind when I pointed out that A Bug's Life has this exact same plot, though I don't recall such a high mortality rate among the Magnificent Insecta in that retelling of the story.)

All right, stop me if you've heard this one as well:  A gigantic mobile space platform has a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. The leader of the evil forces threatens destruction on an innocent galaxy, smashing all resistance. A young farm boy, guided by an aged mentor figure, learns his own capabilities for war as he becomes part of a ragtag group of starship pilots that make a suicidally brave run on the planet-killing battle station, destroying it at the last moment and freeing the galaxy from tyranny--or at least this particular source of tyranny.

See what I mean? At this point in his production career, even Corman's ripoffs were aiming high. And this was the most expensive movie he'd produced, since he knew that you have to spend a little bit of cash on production values if you're making an epic. In keeping with his reputation as Hollywood's greatest talent scout, Corman also had a secret weapon--a young James Cameron used this film as his foot in the door to moviemaking; he was hired to build model spaceships and wound up more or less singlehandedly building all the spaceship sets and effects sequences (some of the other model makers on this movie have gone on to work for Cameron on his massive-budget spectacles; more Corman alumni working in A pictures).

On the planet Akir (its inhabitants are called the Akira, and I'm embarrassed to say I didn't notice that was a reference to Kurosawa the first three times I saw this movie), the peaceful farmers who till the only fertile soil on the globe get a hell of a shock when their manned weather-monitoring satellite is vaporized by a gigantic warship and a huge blue hologram of John Saxon's head gives them an ultimatum:  Join his planetary empire (he needs food for his troops, and Akir has crops) or he'll use a stellar converter to turn Akir into a dwarf sun--which would kill every living thing on the planet, down to and including bacteria. Sador, the tyrant, says he'll give them a week to think it over and laser-blasts a few Akira from orbit to show that they don't have a chance. He takes his gigantic spaceship and leaves for another planet that he's gonna go bully.

On Akir, a desperate plan is hatched. They have one spaceship, owned by the only Akira to have ever fought in a war--an old man named Zed who is too old and blind to pilot it any more. Shad, a farmboy turning into a farm man, says the AI that runs the ship's systems trusts him and that he's flown it before. He can go out into the universe and find warriors capable of putting up resistance against Sador's fleet and save Akir (and every other planet in Sador's nascent empire, while he's at it). The debate about what to do is guided by references to "the Varda", a collection of pacifist and Eastern-sounding philosophical commands. They eventually decide that capitulation is unacceptable and Shad will go find violent lifeforms to fight for them, hoping that when the present crisis has been resolved, their planet hasn't been turned into plasma and the mercenaries can be persuaded to leave (or, if they're going to stay, not to turn their violent natures on the Akira).

Shad has a brief talk with "Nell", the computer that controls Zed's ship, and they come to terms with the fact that Shad's young and inexperienced. He seems resolute when he mentions that if they don't make it, nobody else is going to either. At least he knows how high the stakes are, even if he's never done anything remotely like this before. We get one of those "the ship takes off for the first time as the soundtrack swells" moments, and the highly mockable design of Shad's borrowed spacecraft shows up for the first time, but not the last.

Inevitable joke:  You could call it the mother ship.

Sador left a patrol ship parked in orbit around Akir, and the dull-witted brutes piloting it decide to destroy Nell as a precaution--they don't have any orders, but on the other hand they don't want any of the Akira escaping the planet before Sador comes back. It turns out that being raised a lifelong pacifist makes for a terrible fighter pilot; Shad can't bring himself to shoot down the attacking ship. Luckily for him, he's a much better pilot than gunner so he avoids getting shot down himself. Also, it turns out that Sador's A team isn't the one that gets stuck on planetary guard duty. Nell flies off as Sador's goons decide not to pursue--they'd rather explain to their overlord that they lost the ship but obeyed orders to stay at Akir than go after Shad and risk a painful disciplinary lesson if they get found out.

Shad's first stop is a space station run by Doctor Hephaestus; it's a forbidding mass of spheres and tubes that's eerily silent and unresponsive as Shad pilots Nell into a docking bay. Zed knew Hephaestus back in his younger days and says he's a genius weapons designer. That's a good thing to have on your side when fighting a space tyrant, all right.

The station is crewed by robots, one of which is being repaired (and used as a tape deck) by Hephaestus' daughter Nanelia. A misunderstanding with a travel car and the fact that Nanelia didn't know there was another living creature on the station almost gets Shad disassembled, but thankfully Nanelia notices he's a living form before any of the welding tools get called into play. It turns out that she's the only living person on the station (which is one reason she assumed Shad was a busted robot), and that Hephaestus has about as many factory-original parts left as RoboCop did (he's immobilized in some kind of life-support cage full of Gilliam-esque tubing).

The aged Hephaestus isn't willing to supply weapons to the resistance on Akir, believing in his old age that might makes right. The Varda teach the Akira otherwise, and they don't hassle anyone. Hephaestus thinks they're up shit creek, then. He's also planning to set Shad up with his daughter so they can repopulate the station themselves. It turns out that he didn't ask Shad about this ahead of time, or Nanelia, either (which is even less forgivable). This leads to the universe's most awkward first date (although Shad isn't a jerk or anything; it's just that Nanelia has never lived anywhere else but the station and Shad has a lot of other things on his mind). Also, let me just say I love that the sound effect used on this space station whenever the doors open or close is someone breathing through a SCUBA respirator, which is also what got used for Darth Vader's life-support mechanism. It's a cheeky salute from the filmmakers to one of their inspirations. Shad bails on the "get kept forever as Nanelia's husband" plan; she follows him a moment after. They didn't get any weapons, but she's got an analytical computer that might help with the planning of Akir's defense.

Meanwhile, Sador's got the response from another planet that he gave the "surrender or die" ultimatum to--they powdered his diplomatic officer and returned him in a Crown Royal bag. Sador takes this pretty badly, all things considered, and decides to incinerate the entire planet, erasing it and its civilization from the cosmos completely. Maybe the diplomatic officer owed him money.

Shad and Nell come across a spaceship that's the equivalent of a long-haul cargo semi (complete with a fucking Confederate flag bumper sticker on the cab!); it's Cowboy the cowboy from an obscure planet called Earth. He's broadcasting an SOS because he's got four space-pirate skyjackers on his tail. Shad makes pretty short work of the reavers once he gets over his aversion to shooting them in the back--ethics in a dogfight will get you killed pretty quickly. And the movie addresses the trauma that Shad feels at taking life; he isn't instantly turned into a Charles Bronson character because he won a space dogfight. Cowboy doesn't think picking a fight with Sador is a winning proposition, or even a survivable one. But he was ferrying a load of weapons to the planet that decided not to submit to him, and now that it's a mass of incandescent gas instead of a ball of rock with living forms on it, he's got a load of weapons that Akir can have free gratis that are already paid for, and which he doesn't have the fuel to haul anywhere else. He says he'll take charge of the ground defenses and train the Akira in using the beam rifles, but his ship is a cargo hauler, not a Spitfire.

Time for another "meanwhile"; Nanelia's ship gets attacked by a space-cloud creature, which gets destroyed by a conveniently arriving ship. The pilot of the rescue ship is a lizardman named Cayman (get it?), who plans to sell Nanelia to the highest bidder, either as a slave or to be cooked and eaten. It turns out that Cayman is the last of his species (who pissed Sador off one way or another), and is willing to sign on to defend Akir if it means getting a decent shot at the genocidal maniac that wiped out his species. He also has a pair of "Kelvin", bald mute creatures that communicate through giving off heat, in his crew. Looks like the motley band of ragtag rebels is getting a few aliens to go along with the human and human-looking members.

And hey, Shad gets tractor-beamed into a ship run by The Nestor, a race of three-eyed telepathic hiveminded clones. It turns out that they're looking for new experiences (if The Nestor isn't stimulated, its hive mind could literally be bored to death) and joining up on an attack on Sador's flagship would certainly be interesting, no matter what else it is. They also take a quick peek inside Shad's head without him noticing; they know he's not a violent person even if he tries to front as one.

The next place Shade winds up on is a tiny planetoid with a storm-wracked atmosphere, the home to uber-mercenary Gelt. Gelt, as it turns out, is one of the deadliest space-fighters in the universe. He's fought for or against every species there is and always came out on top. He's been paid hundreds of millions of currency units for his talents, and is so despised as a killer that there isn't a single planet he can spend any of that money on without someone shanking him. He's been in exile on Angry Blue Clouds World for years, and winds up joining Shad's team for the simple promise of a place to live where he doesn't have to be afraid of retaliation. The supreme killer volunteers for life on a planet of pacifists. Full points to John Sayles for that part of the plot, and full points to Robert Vaughn for revisiting his star-making turn in The Magnificent Seven for a quarter-century-later ripoff funded by Roger Corman. He's a real trouper, giving the movie a full-tilt performance. After all, mercenaries do a job for pay. And so do actors.

On the way back to Akir after securing Gelt's services, a fast and incredibly maneuverable ship engages Shad and Nell in a dogfight; they lose but the mystery ship hits them with the laser-blast equivalent of a blank round, showing that they would have lost if it was for real. Then Shad gets a call from the quick fighter; it's Saint Exmin of the Valkyrie race (and yet another significant name for a new character--we get it, John, we get it). Exmin is the hotshot kid character, the gunfighter who wants to prove that they're as good as anyone else. Shad tells her to get lost, possibly because the picture-phone in his ship didn't show the absoludicrous outfit that Sybil Danning wears in this scene.

The clones, Cowboy, Gelt and Shad head to the Lambda zone to rendezvous with the rest of their forces (and there's a neat little bit of business here--Shad asks Gelt over a private comline if he wants his name announced to the others in their makeshift fleet; he's a polite guy, and trying to respect the wishes of the fighter that wants obscurity and safety more than anything else). They meet up with Cayman, Nanelia and St. Exmin (who follows them to Akir, ignoring the kiss-off that she got from Shad earlier). It's neat to see all the different model ships flying along in formation--there's thought that went into the construction of each ship, planning that lets the audience know about the various characters. The Valkyrie's ship looks rather like a dragonfly and darts around; Nestor's got a slow glowing flying saucer and Gelt's ship is designed so he can run all the systems himself; he only trusts himself with his life, whether or not he's temporarily on a team.

Gelt makes very short work of the patrol ship that Sador's forces parked in orbit and the seven ships land on Akir in order to start working on Planetary Defense 101. The Akira are hiding when the mercenaries show up, and Zed the outsider is fittingly enough the first one to welcome them to the planet. Everyone else makes an appearance, and one of the Akira apologizes for making such a bad first impression on their rescuers. And, yes, this is one of the obligatory scenes if you're gonna be telling this story again. It's vital that the fighters have their feelings hurt by the people they're planning to defend, and vital that the people who need help swallow their pride and get over their trepidation in order to welcome the mercenaries to their village / planet / ant colony.

Nanelia sets up the computer she took from Hephaestus station and shows everyone the weak point on Sador's ship--like all the fighting craft, it needs to drop its shields in order to set off its weapons. When Sador is warming up the stellar converter it will be possible--but far from easy--to get a small craft up close and take out the flagship of his armada. But Sador only ever uses the stellar converter after all attacking ships have been destroyed, so the five combat-capable ships will have to destroy his entire fleet by themselves so that he has no choice but to use the planet-killing weapon in retaliation.

Cowboy multitasks (planning the ground defense on Akir as well as mixing drinks from his scotch-and-soda dispenser belt) and Nanelia tries to put the moves on Shad (interrupting a couple times to talk about other species' mating rituals while Shad tries to get his smoove on). Later that night Cowboy serenades everyone with a harmonica and they cook hot dogs on the radiant heat provided by the Kelvin (I am not making this up). Sybil Danning shows off another, even crazier outfit than her previous one. It's the moment of calm before the storm. We also get a moment where two Akira children talk to Gelt about whether or not he's a bad man. ("How do you feel?" "I don't."), and then the perimeter alarm goes off and it's go time.

The big space battle commences, and this is where the film's budget and rushed production schedule really becomes apparent. The ships all look neat and there's stuff blowing up and lasers going FREEM! and everything, but there's just about no geography established in the shots. We know there's the flagship, the planet, Sador's fighters and the ragtag rebels, but mostly it's just shots of those things going towards the camera by themselves, not in the same space as other craft and there's not really any way to tell how the battle is going with a series of closeups of spaceship models and stone-faced reaction shots from an actor or two. Especially considering the huge battle scenes at the end of The Empire Strikes Back (remember, it was released the same year as this movie), this one tends to disappoint. And that's really too bad, because even with the inexpensive sets and props, there was a lot of charm to be found in the script and performances.

There's not a heck of a lot I can say about the big end fight; the rebels get whittled down piece by piece in the sky, while the ground assault on Akir gets foiled when Sador's forces use a "sonic tank" against the rebels, but the Kelvin--who cannot perceive sound--heat it with their own bodily emanations till it breaks. Cayman makes a suicide run on Sador's flagship and damages it at the cost of his own life. Gelt is eventually shot down (and buried with honor, with an offering of food--Shad makes sure he gets his meal and a place to rest at last). Saint Exmin manages a beautiful death in battle, and a damaged Nell sets her own self-destruct and parks next to the stellar converter, destroying Sador's ship and empire as her final act.

And back on Akir, Shad has grown through his experiences in the wider universe. I'm guessing that he'll be boss of the settlement on his planet, and that he'll actually do a really good job now that he's seen a little bit of the wider verse out there and knows the value of the forms out there. It's the science-fictional equivalent of "and they all lived happily ever after", perhaps, but with Sador gone from the universe they've got a better chance at actually achieving that ending now.

What makes the Roger Corman-produced ripoffs so much more entertaining than the current B avatars like the inevitable Asylum Pictures mockbusters? Well, in a nutshell, Corman gave a damn. I'm not saying that the distribution channels in 1960, 1980 and 2010 are all the same (those would be, roughly, the eras of the drive-in, the VCR and Netflix) but even when there wasn't any money or time, Corman's proteges tried to make sure that every penny they could pry from his grip got spent to make an entertaining movie. Battle Beyond the Stars can't really compete with the A list space adventures in the Star Wars or Star Trek franchises, but you can tell they were trying. The name actor in this flick is someone who had a decades-long career in film and television, and is almost reprising his role from The Magnificent Seven to boot. That's quite a higher mark than getting a former sitcom actor or 80s pop singer to take on the Sharknado or Transmorphers. They did the best they could with what they had, rather than just filling up time between commercial breaks with a crappy movie that people will watch out of ironic non-enjoyment.

I miss the good old days when you could see something like this in an actual theater.

This review is part of the "Sincerest Form of Fraudulence" roundtable that my fellow celluloid zeroes are taking a shot at. We're not the B Masters' Cabal, but...well, they do review roundabouts all the time and we thought we'd do our own little homage to their group efforts. Or, since our reputations are hopefully grimy enough, we could perhaps be comfortable calling a ripoff a ripoff. Just this once.

The Terrible Claw Reviews gets in a scrap with the Corman-produced Carnosaur 2.

Cinemasochist Apocalypse...I can't think of a pun that won't make Bryan want to punch me. He's reviewing Inseminoid.

Tomb of Anubis gets into gear with Death Racers.

Micro-Brewed Reviews will plug in to Cyberjack.