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Thursday, October 23, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 18: [REC] (2007)


Written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo and Paco Plaza
Directed by Jaume Balaguero and Paco Plaza

Manuela Velasco:  Angela Vidal
Pablo Rosso:  Pablo
Ferran Terraza:  Manu
David Vert:  Alex

Sometimes my plans are not so good. I stuck this movie and Quarantine on the list for HubrisWeen because I thought it'd be interesting to review an original and a remake in the same marathon. But they're in the wrong order--at least when the reviews first go live, people are going to read my take on the metaphorical Ventures cover version of the song before the Tornados' original. At least that state of affairs is only going to last for two days. It's also kind of a grind to watch two found-footage horror movies with the same plot in a row for the marathon.

Sometimes, as I stated previously, my plans are not so good. At least it's a hell of a movie so I got a lot of enjoyment out of it for R day. And when I watch the remake it won't have subtitles (not that I mind 'em, but reading a horror movie sometimes takes the edge off it).

Like all found-footage horrors, this one needs a conceit to justify the narrative, and it's a great idea. The film is presented as the raw footage for an episode of a show called "While You're Asleep", a sort of human-interest reality series where the host, Angela Vidal, finds people who work at night and shows her audience what a typical overnight shift is for, say, the fire department in Barcelona. Her constant companion for this is Pablo the cameraman (who remains almost entirely unseen through the movie). There's the expected "trying on a fireman's coat, boots and helmet" vignette that emphasizes Angela's rather petite frame. She says hi to all the firemen on duty in the dining hall and there's footage of her miking the two firemen she'll be spending most of her time with--Alex and Manu.

Alex gets an interview segment where he mentions all the mundane things that firemen do--pet rescues, shutting off broken water mains, and other necessary but not adrenaline-soaked duties. Angela, proper journalist that she is, wishes for an alarm while Alex corrects her and says nobody should be hoping for a disaster just for good footage. There's also a blip of an outtake where Angela says things are a little dull so far (one assumes that she's hoping for shots of a burning building or something because more viewers would tune in for that than want to watch her playing a late-night game of basketball in the firehouse gym or tiptoeing past the bunk room where a bunch of firemen are sleeping).

She gets her wish during the sportsball contest--there's someone trapped in their apartment in need of rescue. Bravo 128 (the call sign for Manu and Alex as a pair, I think) are dispatched to respond to the call (with a brief moment of levity provided when Pablo says he can't slide down the pole while carrying the camera. Angel and Pablo get on the truck and try to just stay out of the way. Angela is a little disappointed that non-emergency calls don't get the full lights-and-sirens response (it would make great footage). One of the firemen asks who watches the show if it's "While You're Asleep", which is a valid question if the footage is all going out live--but it isn't, so I think he's just razzing the people doing a ride-along. The truck arrives at a several-story apartment building and Alex takes the lock-busting toolkit out of its storage panel.

Inside the apartment building we meet this evening's Spam in a Cabin, though to change things up they're in the middle of a city instead of out in the woods. There's a trio of older people in the lobby as well as a family. Someone heard screaming and called the police--and when the cop sees Angela and her cameraman he's a little nonplussed. He decides that the fireman can be responsible for whatever happens to the journalists and a knot of people go upstairs while the civilians stay in the lobby. A guy with glasses and another cop are on an upper floor by an apartment door. Apparently the woman who lives there is a crazy cat lady who never goes out (is that even an archetype in Spain?), and while Angela is doing a report she gets startled by the firemen smashing the woman's door in with a big mallet.

Inside the apartment there's an older woman who seems to be spaced out, standing at the end of a hallway. As everyone gets closer to her (Pablo bonking into a couple things on the way) it becomes apparent that the woman is splattered with blood. When Pablo turns on the camera light, everyone gets all up in his grill to turn it off, which he immediately does. The police say to stop taping, and Angela lies openly when she says the camera's turned off. She seems charming and nice enough, but the viewer can also tell she thinks she's hit the jackpot with the events in this apartment. An ambulance is called and Pablo gets a great shot of the old woman biting one of the cops on the neck, as well as Angela, Manu and the other policeman carrying the wounded man out of the apartment. The officer is bleeding to death and then, just because things weren't going badly enough, the power goes out.

Guillem, one of the tenants, turns out to be a medical intern and does what he can to help the bitten cop. He also tells the fireman, journalists and uninjured cop (and the audience) that the outside authorities aren't letting anyone leave the apartment building. A loudspeaker voice from outside tells everyone that the health department has quarantined the building. Angela (who is now down to a white tank top that's going to get pretty grimy over the rest of the film) takes in the scene and gives the still-ambulatory cop a piece of her mind when he slaps the camera. Manu wants to open a steel shutter door and get the bitten cop outside via that exit. Meanwhile a woman with a young daughter gets a cell phone call from her husband--the entire street's shut down outside and the police aren't letting anyone in. The husband was making a pharmacy run for some antibiotics because his daughter is sick, and that doesn't seem like a very good sign in a movie like this...

Before much of anything else can happen, Alex the fireman plummets down the central stairwell and thuds to the floor. He's bleeding but alive, and Guillem starts to treat his injuries. Angela and Pablo run back upstairs to document what's happening and go to the crazy cat lady's apartment. Pablo takes point and gets charged by a bitten teenager who collapses in the hallway and then the blood-splattered woman. The second cop shoots the woman (and the audio gets blown out by the gun going off next to the mike; this movie does an amazing job of making the footage seem like it's being captured in the raw by a professional-grade video camera; as things get hairier later in the movie, the images degrade--also a great way to get creepy effects looking better than they otherwise might on a tight budget).

Down in the lobby, Manu wants to get the injured men outside and talks the cop into helping. The young girl, already feverish with what her mother keeps insisting is just tonsilitis, is getting worse. The voice from outside says--over the bullhorn, which makes it even less comforting--that a "BNC protocol" is in effect. One of the lobby denizens clarifies what those letters stand for--either a nuclear, chemical or bioweapon incident. Given that radiation doesn't turn people into brain-wiped cannibals it's most likely one of the other two causes at work. Guillem has done what he can for the two bitten men, but he's an intern used to taking blood pressure and medical history from hospital patients, not a trauma surgeon. And even if he was a brilliant surgeon, there's only so many supplies he has access to in the apartment. Those two need help if they're going to survive. The intern breaks into the concierge office--he's got a plan to jump from the window in that office to a patio outside and flag down an ambulance. There's a riot squad wearing gas masks outside waiting for someone to try that. He backs down immediately as the building gets sealed behind plastic sheets.

Inside, Joven the cop says he's in charge. Nobody challenges him, so he's in charge (this is how democracy works). Manu tells him that being a cop and in charge of the situation doesn't make him any less trapped or expendable than anyone else--that and a bus pass will get him a ride on a bus, if he can get out of the building without getting shot. In response, Joven goes for the George Romero movie Authority Figure Maneuver #6, and pulls his gun on the group, demanding that they try to get out of the building via a textile workshop off to the side of the lobby. The loudspeaker takes that moment to tell everyone to remain calm (maybe it's Alanis Morrissette out there). The voice of authority says there's an agent in the building with them and Joven apologizes to everyone. Guillem goes to his apartment to retrieve some medical supplies.

Angela starts doing a live report, the kind of thing that would play after a commercial break to catch viewers up to developments they'd missed (and she's a consummate professional). The injured men are in critical condition and their bite wounds are going septic. Meanwhile, Angela interviews the various people in the building about what's going on to mixed results. The girl, Jennifer, has part of her segment ruined when her mother interjects--Angela explains that the camera's just on her and Jennifer at that moment so voices from outside will mess up the scene. And a balding man primps and poses for his interview before blaming "the Chinese" for the crisis.

Manu takes a headcount of everyone in the lobby and tries to get organizes so that when the health inspector arrives things can go smoothly. The authorities plan to administer a blood test to everyone i the building and let the uncontaminated people leave, so getting organized for it is a pretty good idea and also will keep people occupied while they wait. Manu has a floor plan of the building and asks who's in each apartment. It turns out that the Asian family on one of the upper floors has a bedridden old man in their apartment, and that the penthouse is owned by a guy from Madrid who's never around.

The health inspector actually arrives, and enters the building in a hazmat suit and gas mask. He locks the door behind him and immediately shuts Pablo's camera off (although a little while later Jennifer, while goofing with it, accidentally turns it back on to catch Angela theorizing to Pablo that the two bitten men are getting sick from whatever the old woman had. While Pablo tries to get a shot of Manu and Joven talking in a side room, the cop closes the door before continuing the conversation. Pablo winds up climbing up on a shelf and opening a transom window to get the next shot, which is the doctor handcuffing Alex to the table he's lying on before shooting him up with...something. Before the bitten cop can be restrained he gets up and bites Guillem; the others run out of the room and close the door, trying to quarantine the infected in there. The hazmat-suited doctor says it's too dangerous to let the infected out. Angela wants to know exactly what the infection is but Guillem breaks out of confinement before she can get an answer; everyone flees and shuts the shutter door. Everyone left is now stuck in the lobby. Jennifer's mom gets handcuffed to the stair railing as a precautionary measure (over her considerable protests).

Manu demands some kind of explanation from the doctor, who first says that he's not authorized to hear it and then takes his gas mask off and explains that there was a sick dog at a vet's office that attacked all the other animals; it turns out to have been little Jennifer's pet. The doctor wants to give Jennifer a blood test but before anything can proceed on that front the girl bites her monther and flees upstairs (panicking the Asian family who are terrified for their patriarch, stuck in his bed with a monster on the loose). Pablo and Angela run upstairs with Manu and Joven to get film of them catching Jennifer (who appears in the shot behind Manu in a great bit of blocking). The capture attempt goes awry when Joven turns away from the girl for a second and she bites him--by now Joven knows what that means and he sequesters himself in a room with Jennifer to protect everyone else.

Downstairs, Guillem opens the shutter gate but the doctor and Manu force him away for the time being. When the gate opens again the doctor flees upstairs and Jennifer's mother is fatally injured when Guillem and the infected cop get into the lobby. Everyone else has to abandon her to her fate (Joven has the handcuff keys) and upstairs, tempers are running extremely hot. The balding guy says that the outside authorities don't care about anyone in the building, but they probably want their doctor back and maybe they can use him as a hostage. It turns out the hazmat-suited doctor ran away from the attack because he was bitten, and wants to lock himself up to protect the others. When the bald guy walks near a window he gets told by the loudspeaker voice to back away or "drastic measures" will be taken. He complies, but only because he's got a better plan--there's a floor panel in the textile workshop covering a tunnel that leads to the sewer--if they can't go out the doors or windows they'll get out under the ground. The incredibly bad news:  Guillem has the key to that floor hatch. The worse news:  The doctor goes rabid and bites the balding guy; it's down to Manu, Pablo and Angela now.

The survivors flee for the lobby so they can find out which apartment is Guillen's and ransack it for the building keys. There's roaring from the upper floors and Manu is attacked by an Asian tenant who got bitten; he snaps the man's neck. When another tenant attacks Pablo and Manu garrotte her and Angela is convinced she was bitten in one of those attacks, but turns out to be all right. When they get to Guillen's apartment, Manu stays outside and the two journalists search frantically through Guillen's stuff until they find a gigantic keyring full of unlabeled keys. They go out to the stairwell and look for Manu, but he's been turned--along with every other character in the movie so far. There's an amazing continuous shot running up the big square stairwell where every turn reveals another screaming rabid infected person running towards the pair of survivors and Angela finds the right key just as the zombies get to the top floor. She and Pablo are safe inside a locked room but it's pitch-black and they don't know where the light switch is.

The movie takes a little breather here after the building catastrophic horror and the application of the Cast Thinner over the last twenty minutes. Pablo turns on his camera light and it turns out that the penthouse apartment has some kind of medical torture dungeon / amateur chemistry lab in it, along with dozens of newspaper clippings about a possessed Portuguese girl tacked to every wall. And it's just not comforting to see so many religious icons and crucifixes in that room. Hell, I wouldn't want to see posters for romantic comedies taped up in that room, for that matter. There's some rooms that no amount of decor accessorizing can help.

The pair look around and dig through the assorted medical files and sheaves of notes but nothing really makes sense to them. They also don't have the weeks that it would take to go through them properly and figure things out. They do find a huge clunky reel-to-reel tape player, but the fragments of notes they hear don't clarify anything for them (people in the audience, however, when hearing about a contagious enzyme spread through saliva and the potential development of a vaccine, as well as the unnamed speaker fearing disaster when he performs a rite to cleanse the soul of a possession victim...well, we get nervous). The man on the tape got a telegram from Rome saying that the girl must be killed, one assumes in order to prevent something like the events in the apartment building over the last few hours.

When a trap door falls down from the ceiling, Pablo gets a shot up there because it's his job (and this movie came up with a great premise for a found-footage horror movie, because the guy with the camera has actual reasons to keep filming when a sane person would already be running away). He scans the room in a slow circle and is just as surprised as the audience when a child screams and swats at his camera, knocking him down and breaking the light. Angela and Pablo have a brief hushed conversation about trying to escape--Pablo can see through the camera with the night vision turned on, and Angela will just have to follow behind him as best she can.

And then the impossibly slender shape in another room starts to come towards them. It's just as blind as they are, groping around for the victims it can't see (but we can, and can see it--this seen will make you squirm like nothing else in the film). The journalists try to escape quietly, but it's a cluttered apartment and they're terrified. Something gets knocked over and the next thing Angela knows she's tripped over Pablo's body, facing the camera as she gets dragged screaming into the darkness. Turns out George A. Romero had at least two fans making movies in Spain--not a single person in the apartment building survives the movie.

And what an incredible job the filmmakers did in realizing their premise. The screenplay had to have been written with the various shots in mind that they could get in their location and heavily revised during filming; the scene where Pablo films through a four-inch gap in the transom window is too perfectly realized to give and obscure information at the same time to be anything but deliberate and carefully planned. The secondary characters don't have a lot to do but panic, get bitten and turn into rage zombies but they do a fine job (and I did like the preening on display from the balding racist; it's a memorable turn and some character-based comic relief in the middle of the crisis that I really appreciated). The exposition dump at the end (with a tape player that reminds the viewer of the first two Evil Dead movies without belaboring the reference) gives just enough hints to what's going on for the viewer to realize just how bad things have gotten without slowing the narrative down or breaking the suspense.

Special kudos to the effects team as well--I'm sure the damage to the camera was all simulated but as the image goes grainier and distortions creep in it helps the tension build in the second and third acts; all their hard work in postproduction meant that the movie is more effective while it's running, and the best praise I can give to their effects are that they don't appear to be effects at all. They're instantly and totally convincing and pull the viewer farther in to the film instead of being a distraction and drawing them out of it.

Lastly, upon reflection, it's the story of a zombie outbreak that didn't happen. Yes, everyone in the building got infected and died (and I don't even want to think about what that creepy ghoulish figure was going to do with Angela when she got pulled away from the camera), but Barcelona is fine and Spain is fine. The authorities, by sealing the building off and condemning the unlucky people inside to an agonizing death, unquestionably did the right thing. You can't argue with results and by the calculus of lives saved versus lives lost, the dozen-plus casualties in the sealed building would have to be considered perfectly acceptable losses.


This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Rogue

Yes, I Know:  Return of the Blind Dead

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 17: Quarantine (2008)



Screenplay by John Erick Dowdle & Drew Dowdle, based on the movie [REC] written by Jaume Balaguero, Luiso Berdejo and Paco Plaza
Directed by John Erick Dowdle

Jennifer Carpenter:  Angela Vidal
Steve Harris:  Scott Percival
Jay Hernandez:  Jake
Johnathon Schaech:  Fletcher

I decided to review an original and a remake for HubrisWeen this year, but never considered what it would mean to pick two movies next to each other in the alphabet (SPOILER:  It's hard to pay attention to the same plot two movies in a row and I didn't want to get to this one until the last minute). But on top of that I went with a remake that shows up before the original. So you're looking at my thoughts on the cover song before the original track, at least if you're reading my reviews in order in October. If you've just come to this review from an archive link, I'm going to assume you've already seen [REC] and want to know how this one compares to it.

It starts out without opening credits and with journalist Angela Vidal in front of a fire station, ready to do a segment on the Los Angeles fire department for a television show called The Night Shift. The movie establishes its found-footage bona fides by having Angela go through several takes for her intro segment, and shows what would appear to be a larger budget than its Spanish predecessor by having two fire engines leave, lights and sirens on, while she's off to the side of the frame saying that if she and her cameraman had gotten there sooner they could be doing a ride-along.

She does an interview with Bob, a firefighter who explains that about six out of seven fire department responses are for medical issues, not burning buildings. Anything from chest pains to serious injuries are par for the course. He also says that almost every ambulance out on the street is affiliated with a fire department, which makes me think that Fishbine & Unity went under some time in the last thirty-plus years or so. Bob's a really good sport, especially when Angela asks him for tips about sliding down the pole to get to the garage while wearing a skirt ("...Well, pantyhose help."). At the dining hall, Bob introduces Angela to Jake and Fletcher, the two firemen assigned to public relations detail this evening.

The artifice peeks around the corners in this movie just as much as it does in [REC]; both films feature a quick moment where Angela clips a battery-powered microphone to a fireman (and the cameraman says he's gotten complaints about how he never provides enough B-roll footage, so he's going to shoot everything that happens). This is vital for the illusion to be maintained--the dialogue will be audible even if a character is off-screen, and by acknowledging that effort has been taken to make the characters' voices legible the viewer can stop thinking about it and just enjoy the show. Jake's endearingly bad at being on camera, too, which is nice. Why would a fireman necessarily be polished and engaging in a media appearance? It's also nice that Scott the cameraman occasionally mentions that footage won't be usable; while setting up the first act of a horror movie, the more convincing and grounded everything is, the more shocking things will be later when stuff gets crazy.

Fletcher appears to be a grimmer and more sour person (maybe it's just the truly impressive 70s moustache he's rocking; maybe he really is a jerk). He's got at least a little bit of a sense of humor as he tests the profanity limits of the show he's on in the most immediate and practical way he can think of. But he's game enough to show off a hook ladder and explain how it used to be used to climb up the sides of buildings in the 20s and 30s, to be eventually replaced with extending ladders that did not have a wicked three-foot metal hook on the end. There's also the requisite bit with a dog, where Fletcher introduces Angela to the station mascot, Wilshire, and explains that dalmatians were firehouse dogs because that breed got along well with horses (which was an important consideration prior to the internal combustion engine was developed). It also turns out that firehouse dogs were trained to stop traffic at intersections back in the horse-drawn wagon days, which I would assume meant that they went through a lot of dogs. One assumes Wilshire is also used for school talks and things, because he's trained to stop, drop and roll on command.

Jake and Fletcher give Angela a tour of a few other parts of the station, including a quick run through the locker room to surprise one of the firemen singing in the shower (the camerawork is blocked amazingly well here to keep from actually seeing anything) and the testosterone-poisoned atmosphere starts to get to Angela a little bit. (There's also dialogue taken from the original film about how Angela wants there to be a call that night so she can get good footage for the show, while the firefighter points out that the good nights are ones where nobody's in danger). Something added for the American remake--Fletcher, not realizing that his mike is transmitting to the camera, betting another firefighter a hundred dollars that he'll have sex with Angela before the end of the shoot.

While Angela is checking out the tiny sleeping quarters for one fireman ("It's like my college dorm room without the pink,), an alarm goes off and Jake tells Angela she got her call. And similar to the Spanish original, the cameraman can't slide down the pole with his gear so he's got to take the stairs. They jump in the truck (with some excellent use of the camera's movement to let the viewer know what's going on even when it's not immediately clear) and off they go to the emergency call. It's the louder, more EXTREME! American version so they use the lights and sirens. During the drive, Fletcher calls out numbers and directions; he's not navigating, as it turns out. He's signaling where the attractive women are on the route ("There's an eight at three o'clock,") so that the other firemen know which way to turn their heads en route. Angela is lightly appalled and at least Fletcher fully owns his situation, admitting that he's a jerk.

They pull up in front of a four-story apartment building; Jake and Fletcher and two other firemen hop out of the truck, as do Angela and Scott. The firemen bring their door-opening tools out. An older white guy in a bathrobe meets them on the street and guides them into the building, where two police (one white, one black) have already arrived. A cop brings everyone up to speed:  An old woman in one apartment needs help; the neighbors don't remember Mrs. Espinoza ever really talking to anyone in the building before. Some of the dialogue from the original is repeated re:  what the heck a cameraman and journalist are doing following the firemen and cops around. The man in the bathrobe is the building superintendent and he's got the keys, so nobody has to smash any doors in--or at least that's his sincere hope. Mrs. Espinoza has locks on the inside that he can't open, so one smack with a sledgehammer is used in lieu of more subtle ways of gaining entry.

Mrs. Espinoza is at the end of a long, dimly lit hallway and the cameraman is stuck behind more than half a dozen people trying to get a look at what's going on. Mrs. Espinoza's dog shows up for a quick jump scare, and when she's finally on camera she's got wounds to her chest and neck, quite a bit of blood on her housecoat and appears to be foaming at the mouth. But she's also able to talk to the cops, so she isn't mindless at this point. When the cameraman turns on his portable spotlight Mrs. Espinoza screams and everyone yells at him to turn the light off, which he does. As a nod to American procedures, all the cops and firemen put on latex gloves before proceeding. Not that it helps--when the white cop turns away for a moment Mrs. Espinoza jumps on him and bites a chunk out of his neck (captured in closeup by Scott, who knows that when something bleeds, it leads a newscast). One of the firemen and the remaining police officer hustle the bite victim downstairs while the other firemen stay up in Mrs. Espinoza's apartment and restrain her.

And down in the lobby, when they try to get the bitten cop outside for treatment, the two authority figures find that the door has been locked from the outside--and nobody in the lobby quite knows why. One of the firemen actually asks if there's a doctor in the house. Best they have inside it a veterinarian. Tempers flare inside as everyone naturally wants to know what's going on and neither the police, the cops or the journalists have any answers. The "Please remain calm" bullhorn guy shows up and says they're working hard to get everyone out of the building--but assuming the people outside are the ones who locked the doors in the first place, why can't they just unlock them and open up?

There's a fabric workshop in the lobby of the apartment building (sounds legit), and the super says there's a back door they can use to get the bite victim outside for treatment. Just like the original, there's a little girl whose father ran out for antibiotics and whose mother is on the phone with him; the news from outside is that there are police everywhere outside. And a fireman falls from the second floor to impact on the lobby floor in the middle of this status update. Fletcher's injured badly and bleeding heavily from his neck. The remaining cop and fireman run upstairs to see what's going on and order Angela and her cameraman to stay in the lobby; of course they don't do that.

Scott takes point walking down a long hallway, looking for whoever is making noise and breaking glass things. A woman charges out at him, collapses and dies (and then Jake comes on the scene, knowing no more than the other characters or the audience). Mrs. Espinoza walks into the frame again with a distressing amount of blood on her mouth and all over the front of her clothes. When she screams and charges at the cop he shoots her three times; both Jake and the officer are adrenaline-poisoned and react badly to the camera in their faces. Angela seems pretty traumatized herself; be careful what you wish for when you want good footage for your ride-along show...

Jake tries to take command of the rapidly deteriorating situation and tells everyone still in their apartments to go down to the atrium (hampered by some of the tenants not speaking English). One woman on the fourth floor is semiconscious at best, and foaming from the mouth. Angela and Jake lift her up to get her downstairs as well. Her breathing would sound better if it was tubercular and she vomits on the floor. While Jake and Angela are getting the sick woman out of her apartment a rat skitters across the floor to attack Scott, who stomps it to death and seems stunned that a rat would decide to come after him.

Down in the fabric workshop Jake goes for the back door, armed with his door-pummeling sledgehammer. There's already soldiers in desert camo and gas masks waiting for him; he backs off rather than getting shot. The loudspeaker voice thanks everyone for their cooperation after politely informing them that all the exits are sealed and telling them not to try and get out of the building. One of the tenants wants to know why the military is calling their situation a "BNC", and then everyone's cell phones die simultaneously. Neither do the televisions or radios, for that matter. After being pressed a few times, Jake defines the term as a potential biological, nuclear or chemical threat and then tries to play it off like it's nothing particularly to be worried about, since they're a lot more common than people think. This does not actually calm anyone down.

The super tells Jake there's an upstairs office that has a window above a ledge; the fireman could jump out the window and get to the ground. There's already a pair of troops on the roof by that window, and they keep Angela and Jake back while someone else seals off the building with sheets of plastic. Angela tells them there's a camera crew inside and that their tactics are going to come to light; in the most realistic part of the movie, the soldiers don't even waste breath responding to her.

The uninjured cop has a patented George Romero Authority Figure Breakdown, pulling his gun on Jake and shouting threats; the fireman tells him that the outside forces don't care about him any more than they do anyone else in the sealed-shut building. The moment passes and Angela's the last to leave the room, the blurry figures of the soldiers still visible outside through the plastic sheeting.

Angela does a report segment from the lobby just as the vet tries to treat the nasty fracture of Fletcher's shin and stabilize the bitten cop; one of the tenants makes a cheerful offer to bring down some of the Vicodin from his massive drug stash upstairs (and then tells the policeman he can't be forced to incriminate himself right after saying he's got his own pharmacy stash). The vet explains that he can't really do anything other than the most basic care for the two injured men, and that Fletcher has multiple broken bones and internal bleeding that needs actual medical treatment.

The next scene is Angela interviewing Briana, the little girl whose father went out to get antibiotics for (and can't get back in the building). She's been sick for weeks and mentions that her dog got sick first, a plot detail repeated from the original film. The next interview (an opera teacher and his prize student) gets cut short when Fletcher is back on his feet and shambling into the lobby--and I dare you not to cringe when you see him putting weight on his broken shin and watching it bend. He's also foaming from the mouth and goes down like a ton of bricks when the veterinarian sedates him. The vet also is a natural to figure out what's happening--he gives a checklist of everything wrong with the woman who's also in the workshop with the cop and Fletcher, and says every single thing happening to the trio of infected people are rabies symptoms. He's never seen a person with the disease but he's familiar with it from his veterinary practice. Although he says it takes months for symptoms to become apparent and both bite victims developed them in minutes. He also gives a crash course in avoiding infection--if the infected person's blood gets in your mouth, eyes, other mucous membranes or into an open cut you're going to get it.

Oh, and there's even better news--once symptoms show up in a person, rabies is invariably lethal.

A drunken tenant has an argument about whether or not it's safe for everyone to be in a big group in the lobby with an infectious disease present, and while he's arguing with the cop the music teacher and student sneak up a back staircase to their apartment, hoping that their rabbit-ears TV will pick up a broadcast and let everyone know what's going on. Angela and Scott follow along discreetly and get up one floor to find a rabid dog growling at them. They're saved when the drunken belligerent guy takes the elevator to his floor and he gets attacked; his screams from inside the elevator are more unnerving than seeing a CGI dog bite him would be, so kudos to the filmmakers for showing a little bit of subtlety in their rabid dog attack scene.

In the opera teacher's apartment, the TV crackles and spits to the point where only a little bit of the news reports are coming through, but the official statement from the CDC is that everyone inside the building was already evacuated and the people going inside are just carrying out precautionary measures. And then the power goes out completely (which means the rabid dog is stuck in the elevator, at least. While the power's out, the infected woman from earlier attacks the group and Scott beats her to death with the camera in a scene that's fatal to my suspension of disbelief, I'm sorry to say. Sure, lots of blood gets on the lens and there's a legitimately well-done scene where you see Scott clean it off at length, but that glass should be shattered and completely opaque from the damage. There's some great "barely holding it together" dialogue from everyone after the scene too, so I'm just going to nod, smile and forget this happened. This is also the scene where Angela takes off her bloodied shirt and is down to the white tank top that the other Angela Vidal had in the Spanish original.

Everyone winds up in the textile workshop on the ground floor as the cop tells everyone that the CDC has informed him that a doctor will come in to give a blood test, and the people who are cleared will be able to leave. The vet earns his Not Helping Right Now merit badge by telling everyone that a blood test doesn't reveal the presence of rabies. Oh, and that the bitten people have rabies. And that in order to actually test for the disease doctors need a sample of brain tissue. The cop tries to gloss over all this distressing new information and kinda succeeds. He and Jake take roll with a checklist of the apartments in the building, another scene duplicated from the original. And just like the original, there's an attic apartment that nobody's been in for months and a paralyzed old man bedridden in an apartment owned by immigrants (African instead of Asian in this version).

Night falls, and a hazmat-suited doctor and a trio of bodyguards walk in from the outside (and Angela does a quick segment explaining to her future viewers what's going on). The cop inside points out the bloodstains from the two injured men in the lobby and a gun-toting CDC guy demands that the camera be turned off. Scott claims that it's shut off and keeps taping; the feds go to the workshop room and examine the two infected men. Angela opens a door wide enough for Scott to get a shot, but Jake notices and they get the door shut in their faces. There's a remade "shoot through the transom widow" scene where Scott sees that Fletcher gets handcuffed to the table and injected with something that--from Jake's reaction--was supposed to euthanize him so the CDC doctor can drill into his head and take a sample of his brain tissue. Fletcher wakes up and bites one of the hazmat-suited doctors, and in the rush to escape the room the vet is locked inside.

The vet says he's fine and hasn't been bitten, but while he's talking calmly and rationally about how they need to let him out he vomits a half pint of blood on the pebbled-glass window set into the door and then punches through it. The uninfected cop demands that the CDC doctor explain what the hell is going on. The doctor first says nobody has the proper security clearance to hear about it, which implies some really bad news, but almost immediately he drops the information bomb. A sick dog at a vet's office had something in its bloodstream that nobody recognized, and attacked other animals. The other animals went berserk an hour or so after being bitten by Puppy Zero, and the dog's owner was traced back to the apartment building. And it's not a good sign that little Briana is flinching away from the camera's light when everyone's attention turns to her. She bites her mother and runs upstairs; Briana's mom gets handcuffed to the stair railing.

The CDC guy gives Jake a syringe and says to inject the girl with it, but not what's in there. And it's a moot point because the officer gets bitten when the kid moves faster than he was expecting. He holds the girl back and tells everyone else to flee, knowing that he's been infected with a bite. Mrs. Espinoza attacks Jake and he beats her to death with his sledgehammer, and while everyone's running downstairs to the lobby the hear the tenants screaming as the infected have gotten to them. Everyone runs upstairs, except for Briana's mother (who is still handcuffed to the railing and is immediately attacked by a screaming rabid plague victim).

In the hideout room, everyone panics--it turns out the CDC doctor was bitten, as was Sadie the music student. When her teacher cuts through the plastic sheeting over a window and waves to get the attention of the outside forces, a sniper caps him within seconds (which, honestly, is what I think is the likeliest actual response to a building full of contagious-disease victims). Angela realizes that the official plan of action requires the death of everyone who might have been exposed to the disease, and the camera starts going into the Saving Private Ryan handheld effect later beaten to death in movies like Gladiator. And that's really too bad, because it yanks the viewer right out of the film when a new effect gets used. For all the well-handled ways the movie is and isn't like its inspiration, there's a couple of jarringly awful artistic decisions that don't work at all.

The super tells everyone about a drain cover in the basement that goes to the sewers, but seconds after he says the key to the floor panel is in his apartment the now-rabid CDC doctor breaks through the glass door he's confined behind and bites him. The super's wife refuses to abandon her husband and gets attacked by Sadie; everyone else flees up one floor to ransack the superintendent's apartment and get the key. They don't remember which apartment they need to find and run downstairs to check the mailboxes; Jake kills the immigrant man on the stairwell in self-defense. They figure out the apartment they need to find (it's on the third floor, of course) and Briana's mom has gone full-bore rabid by this time. Jake gets by her and calls the elevator, killing the rabid dog inside with the sledgehammer. Everyone's in a full-on panic as the elevator goes up a floor and when it opens, Sadie attacks Jake, who beats her down and then breaks her neck with Scott's help (this killing, along with the immigrant guy getting stomped on the stairwell, are blocked to suggest more of what's happening than show it, which is a neat choice--there's plenty of blood and screaming already, so leaving a little bit to the imagination here is commendable).

Angela thinks she was bitten and Scott tries to talk her out of thinking it; when they run up to the third floor the immigrant woman attacks and gets pitched over the railing in a scene that either uses a great bait-and-switch cut to a dummy, plenty of CGI or a stunt performer really earning a bonus that day. When they find the keys and flee, Jake gets attacked and bitten by a rabid infectee on the stairs and Scott sees the staircase swarming with plague victims. Angela and Scott, the only remaining characters without super rabies in their bloodstreams, run the other way and get to the attic apartment. They get inside with less than a second to spare and the damaged light on Scott's camera flickers on and off; the cameraman figures that since the room was locked there won't be anyone in there and it might be possible to find a way to escape.

But first they've got to walk past hundreds of cages with rats inside them, and the "crazy person stuck newspaper articles on the wall" wall has the headline CULT DEFECTOR TALKS OF ARMAGEDDON VIRUS. That's an even less good sign than the rabid tenants, cops and firemen outside. Another clipping refers to a bioweapons lab break-in, which just puts another layer on the shitcake. In another room they find stacks of medical files and news clippings and a bunch of chemistry equipment; it's one hell of a scoop if there was any way for either of them to get out alive. They also find a reel-to-reel tape player that works even though there's no power in the building, but it plays so slowly they can't understand anything on it.

The ceiling trap door falls down, provoking more screams from Angela and an eventual plan:  Scott will do a pan with the camera up in the attic so they can see if it's safe to go up there; when he does, a screaming child figure swats the camera and breaks the light. Scott turns on the night vision as a way to try and see where they're going to get out, and someone--or something--hears them moving around. And it's about time, considering how much screaming and arguing was going on before. It's what I guess is the cultist or Patient Zero of the plague, emaciated and walking around in his tighty whites (actualy, at this point they're his crusty rusties). He's got a hammer in one hand and is just as hampered as Angela is by the lack of light. Scott figures this out and they try to sneak by the figure but he makes a noise, and winds up getting beaten to death. Angela fumbles around, finds the camera, and tries to make her way out but screams when she sees the plague man eating flesh ripped from Scott's neck; it beats her and loses her, and when she tries to crawl along the floor it grabs her and yanks her back impossibly far and fast into the dark.

Alas.

This one's a competent cover version done by a group that's obviously well-versed in what made the original work, and who tried to put their own stamp on the material. There's lots of little touches that make the story more American (I'm thinking of the sniper kill specifically here, but it's not the only thing that helped ground the remake in our society rather than in Spain--and that shows a commendable amount of forethought and consideration on the filmmakers' part). But it comes across as a second-tier copy rather than the original, I'm sorry to say. The performances are all quite good (and it's nice to see someone from Ally McBeal getting a horror movie on his resume), but there's a lot of it that doesn't quite jell. I wondered who was feeding and watering the rats in the meth lab / disease warfare apartment, among other things. There's a couple of really serious missteps with the way the handheld camera is used to provide a point of view for the action as well. There's a lot that went right with the film but plenty that could have done better as well. The original is the way to go with this one. Sorta like listening to a decent but not great cover of "Sheena is a Punk Rocker". It's nice to see someone else is a fan of something I liked, but there's no reason not to go with the original if you have the chance.

Which, if you're reading these reviews on the days they go live, you can do tomorrow. See you then.


This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Quatermass and the Pit

Yes, I Know:  The Queen of Black Magic

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 16: ParaNorman (2012)


Written by Chris Butler
Directed by Chris Butler and Sam Fell

Featuring the voices of:
Kodi Smit-McPhee:  Norman Babcock
Tucker Albrizi:  Neil
Christopher Mintz-Plasse:  Alvin
John Goodman:  Mr. Prenderghast
Jodelle Ferland:  Aggie

Stop-motion. Man. It's a nearly inconceivable amount of effort to take a little model, infuse it with personality, and take twenty-four shots of it per second of movie time. Ray Harryhausen was the undisputed master of the technique (proof, if it is needed, can be found here), and he spent months working on the creatures and effects that were then matted into the live-action portions of the film. How much more effort must it take, then, when every single character in the film has to be hand-crafted and posed? Not just the characters, but every prop and location as well. Then, just because the job isn't insanely difficult enough, all of the characters need to speak--and to have their words synch up to a pre-recorded soundtrack.

It took Laika Studios two and a half years to make this film, and it's essentially a stop motion comedy version of Evil Dead 2. You know, for kids! It's also a movie I desperately wish I could have seen when I was a ten-year-old weirdo watching monster flicks on Saturday afternoon (with all the social standing that being a skinny nerd who has an opinion on which Doctor is the best one* would give you). But even more than that, it's a movie that actually has something to say about human nature and how people should act towards each other--and how they do, and what a gulf there is between those two things. And it's the first time I can remember seeing a movie where the hero is someone like me.

The movie immediately shows its heart is in the right place by starting with the grindhouse zombie movie that Norman Babcock is watching on television (oh, if only Svengoolie had the rights to Italian gut-munchers! I could have been warped far more as a child than I actually was...); I can tell the directors love a lot of the same things I do, and for a lot of the same reasons. They also undercut the horror immediately by making the zombie so slow that the actress in the film has to keep screaming for an absurdly long time in order for it to catch up to her. Like just about everyone's parents, Norman's mom and dad aren't too thrilled that he's watching horror movies all the time but they like it even less when he asks his father to turn up the thermostat because his grandmother, watching the movie with him, is complaining about cold feet.

Well, there are two problems with Norman telling his parents about this. One is that his grandmother is dead, and has been for a while. The second is that he's not lying--he's able to see and communicate with ghosts. When he tries to convince his family that he really is getting information from beyond the grave, his parents ground him for spying on his family (which does honestly make sense). Among the salvos lobbed in his parents' ensuing argument that Norman overhears, his father makes a reference to Norman's mother's weird brother--and we get a jump cut to a muttering, coughing fat old man dressed like a bum and talking to himself about how there isn't much time left. He's got a stalker wall covered with pictures of Norman, which is not a good sign.

The next morning, Norman goes to school and says hello to all the various ghosts that have stacked up in Blithe Hollow over the years; all of them are friendly to the kid and there's some cartoonishly gruesome sight gags (a Mafia goon in cement shoes, an aviatrix impaled on a tree branch) that remind the viewer that Norman's seeing dead people, not just inconvenienced ones. There's a kitschy "Welcome to Blithe Hollow!" sign showing happy cartoon people hanging a cartoon witch and plenty of campy tourist-bait shops featuring a general theme of witchiness. There's a 300th anniversary festival banner hanging in the town square and FREAK written on Norman's locker when he gets to school. Ahh, memories. (Norman has a bottle of Windex in his locker to take care of the graffiti, which means he's very, very used to dealing with it). A bigger kid named Alvin appears to be his chief bully but everyone around him is perfectly content to stare and whisper when he's near them.

After school, there's a pageant rehearsal run by a bellowing tyrant of a teacher who tells the students and who seems to genuinely dislike the kids she's overseeing. Norman is the narrator of the pageant and when he goes over his lines it's also a way for the audience to get clued in to the story. 300 years ago, the Puritans who founded Blithe Hollow held a trial and hanged a witch. The witch cursed her accusers and said they'd rise from the grave as punishment for killing her. While coaching the students (one of whom wonders why she has to have a big warty green nose and pointy hat as the accused witch) the drama teacher goes super over the top. The teacher also says that selling an image for the town is more important than actually showing what really happened.

During the rehearsal, Norman has some kind of precognitive flash-forward and sees the gym burning down as well as a pack of ghostly Puritans. During his ensuing freakout a fat kid in a hard-to-move-in tree costume knocks some students down (leading to general hilarity from everyone else) and more yelling from the drama teacher. Neal, the fat kid, tries to make friends with Norman and reveals a fatalistic acceptance of bullies everywhere. He even tells Norman "if you were bigger and stupider, you'd probably be a bully too". Then the pair is accosted by Norman's weird uncle mr. Prenderghast, who says that the witch's curse is real and Norman is the one who has to stop it. Unfortunately he has a series of coughing fits while trying to explain exactly what Norman has to do, so no actual information is conveyed.

Neal asks Norman if he really can see ghosts, and wants to find his dog (which was run over by an animal rescue van). Neal thinks that being Kid Necroscope would be awesome, and introduces Norman to his musclehead brother Mitch (who offers a "tip" to Norman that he shouldn't act weird). They play for a while with Neal's dead dog, who is happy for the company. They start to forge a quick friendship, possibly the first for both of them. Meanwhile, across town, Mr. Prenderghast has a non-fatal heart attack, followed immediately by a fatal one. He dies holding a book--that's gonna be important later.

At the pageant, the kids are working their way through Donovan's "Season of the Witch", each in their own key. The witch curses everyone and Norman has another hallucination / vision. This time he sees fire damage on the stage before finding himself in a dark ominous forest, pursued by the Puritans he saw the last time reality dissolved around him. He gets picked up by an animated tree that grows a face and says "THE DEAD ARE COMING" with the Sam Raimi vocal distorter (the first, but nowhere near the last, tip of the hat from the filmmakers to the second Evil Dead movie). Norman caps his evening by flipping out on stage, running off of it and frightening the audience. His dad grounds him for being weird in public; later, his mother explains that his father is afraid for Norman, not of him; he knows how people treat anyone who's different. And of course Alvin and the backup jerks at school take time out of their day to make Norman feel more like a pariah.

There's a telekinetic disturbance in the bathroom later (a sentence that gives me great joy to write). Norman's in a stall when the ghost of Mr. Prenderghast shows up and tells him that he's got a task ahead of him--he has to retrieve the book from Prenderghast's house (and his body, for that matter) and read from it at the witch's gravesite before the sun goes down or the dead will rise. Alvin, one stall over, is terrified by the ectoplasmic blast created when Prenderghast's spirit departs for the higher realm. It turns out that when ghosts wrap up their earthly business they get to leave.

At home, Norman is still grounded but Neal comes by to visit. Norman says he has to stop the curse; Neal leaves and Norman sneaks out to try and get the book from Prenderghast's house even though he's terrified. His grandmother--who turns out to have stayed on the Earthly realm to watch over Norman--tells him that fear is natural, but that people can get past it if not over it. When he gets to Prenderghast's house he literally stumbles over the man's body and there's a slapstick scene where he can't pry the book from the man's cold dead hands (this culminates with a recreation of the polar bear falling on Tinker from the end of Road House; I smiled when I spotted the expected run of references to George Romero, Sam Raimi, Lucio Fulci and even Manos:  Hands of Fate in background sight gags but seeing a visual quote from Patrick Swayze's stupidest and most entertaining movie made my jaw drop).

Norman goes through a forest (with a special appearance from that stock audio owl hoot that is in more movies than the Wilhelm scream) and finds a circle of seven gravestones for the seven Puritans that accused the witch 300 years ago. He starts reading from the rather grimoire-looking volume and finds that it's just a kids' storybook. Alvin shows up just in time to snatch the book out of Norman's hands and the sun sets. A gigantic evil laughing cloud face forms in the sky and zombies rise up from the seven graves. Also, it is immensely rewarding to see Alvin leap behind Norman and hide when the shit jumps off. The lead zombie--the judge that pronounced a death sentence on the witch three centuries ago--points to Norman and intones "You must stop!" before the two kids run away. Alvin bolts first, of course.

Norman's sister Courtney is out looking for him, and goes to Neal's house as her first and only lead. Mitch answers the door wearing only a towel and she's instantly in lust with Neal's older brother. Mitch, Neal and Courtney go out in search of Norman and find him (Mitch almost hits Alvin and Norman with his van, and does smash into one of the zombies). Norman figures out that he wouldn't have been able to break the curse because he was reading the story at the wrong location--the seven accusers' graves were not where the witch's body was buried after she was hanged. Norman doesn't know where that is and Mr. Prenderghast never told him. A quick phone call to his smartest classmate gives Norman a clue--the town hall might have records on where the gravesite is.

The drive to the town hall results in a colossal van wreck; everyone's okay but Mitch nearly goes into shock when his ride falls apart like the Bluesmobile. The zombies reach the town and are horrified by how degenerate and occult-obsessed Blithe Hollow has become in 2012 (liquor for sale! Women in pants! A sexy witch on a casino billboard! Cats and dogs living together!) and the townsfolk, used to hearing about the curse for generations, pull guns and improvised bashing weapons out to take out the zombies.

At the hall of records, Alvin proves to be a valuable member of the team by picking the lock on the front door (by throwing a "Crime Prevention Seminar" sign through the window and reaching in to the deadbolt). Norman and crew barricade themselves in the hall of records and start the Herculean task of finding one specific piece of paper in a gigantic warehouse space full of unfiled record boxes. The zombies lurch off to the town hall, pursued by the town vigilantes after the drama teacher notices where they went. Norman and his Scooby gang are inside the hall of records pursued by the zombies while his neighbors hammer on the outside and try to break in (which means that the normal people are the besieging mob in this zombie film--a great reversal of the way things usually go).

It's actually a little worse than things usually get in a zombie siege because the townies outside start a plan to burn the building down. Norman runs up to the roof and then to the top of a tower, trying to read the story to the scary witch cloud face. It isn't listening, and zaps Norman with a lightning bolt. Norman has another flashback, this time to a courtroom three centuries ago where Agatha Prenderghast is sentenced to death for witchcraft. She's a ten year old girl who has the same ability that Norman (and presumably Mr. Prenderghast) have, and she never hurt anyone with it. But six people from town and a judge decide that they're going to execute a terrified child to make themselves feel better. When Norman wakes up he's surrounded by the living dead and furious. When he gives the zombies a piece of his mind, they actually agree with him (three hundred years in limbo apparently giving them time to think over how badly they mistreated Aggie). It also turns out that when the judge was saying "You must stop," to Norman earlier he was actually charging the boy with the responsibility of ending the curse. I did not expect that.

Norman does a little thinking of his own and deduces that the story only puts Agatha's vengeful spirit to sleep for another year, but doesn't affect the curse. The judge confesses to Norman that he was scared of Agatha and begs Norman to break the curse--only he can talk to the dead, so only he can go to Aggie's grave and try to put things right instead of kicking the can down the road for one more year.

He's got to start soon, because the town hall is burning down; Norman and his friends and relatives, as well as the seven zombies, flee outside and a cop pulls a gun on the judge. But Norman stands in the way of the bullet and tries to use reason and empathy as a way to make sure everyone gets out of this all right and without doing anything they'd later regret. He fails, because it's a mob made up of people who already view him as a dangerous freak. But his sister, Alvin, Neal and Mitch stand with him--possibly the first time anyone's been on his side in Norman's life. After some soul-searching from the mob (who are reacting stupidly out of fear, just like the Puritans did and caused the curse in the first place) Norman's dad drives (very very slowly) to the epicenter of the witchstorm. Norman realizes he's the one who has to go into the dark scary woods to try and fix things, and gets separated from his family by tree roots spiking up through the ground in the film's most obvious nod to Sam Raimi.

Things don't go really well at first. Norman tells the "witch" that he's just like her, and the spirit replies "You're not dead, and you're a boy!"; she has a point there, and not the one on her hat. She doesn't want to go back to sleep for another year and she's too angry and scared to listen to reason--so Norman tries telling her the story of her own life, even as Aggie tries to kill him. It's only when he points out that she's acting just like her accusers that the girl breaks down and cries. The forest becomes less evil and Norman gets one brief vision of himself and Agatha walking in the forest in daylight, talking like two kids instead of a vengeful spirit and reluctant psychic. It turns out in the end that Aggie really just wants her mother to make things all right, and Norman tells her that she does get to write the end of her story. He sits down by a tree and Aggie puts her head on his shoulder, relaxing and going to sleep, then fades away. As do the Puritan zombies, first fading to ghosts and then vanishing completely. The town's seen better decades, though.

Courtney sidles up to Mitch and asks if he wants to catch a non-scary movie some time and Mitch says it sounds like a lot of fun--his boyfriend loves chick flicks. And so it seems that the "tip" to Norman earlier about not acting weird for his own protection is something the musclehead knew more about than anyone would have guessed. A+ to the filmmakers for putting in another statement in favor of tolerance and inclusion for everyone.

And speaking of inclusion for everyone, the last scene is Norman parked in front of the television watching another zombie flick, but this time with his parents, sister and grandmother watching along with him (and his father makes a point to ask if his own mother is there as well, saying hello to her even though he can't see her--after all the things he's seen in Blithe Hollow, a single ghost on the couch is something he's willing to take on faith).

This is a completely charming movie, if somewhat heavier than its PG rating would lead one to expect. Sure, nobody dies but there's plenty of Evil Forest action, zombies, scary ghost clouds, a cackling witch face, lightning blasts aimed at the hero and yelling teachers. Any one of those things could freak out a child, I'm sure, and coming in one huge mob probably doesn't help anything either. But underneath it all the movie's got heart to spare, and it's charmingly off-kilter (all the handmade props look childish and semi-finished, which helps the world of the film immensely). And the filmmakers have written a love letter to the horror movies they undoubtedly grew up on while simultaneously putting a message of tolerance and acceptance deep in the marrow of the narrative. When Norman tells the zombies that they should be ashamed of themselves for treating Agatha the way they did, he's completely right and the movie's absolutely on his side. As well it should be.

And it's about goddamned time someone made a movie about a weird kid who gets to stay weird through the whole film. The soul of the film can be found in the shot where Norman tries to comb his hair so it lies flat and it just spikes itself up in seconds. He sees it in the mirror and sighs, because there's no way he can change who he is. The film says that nobody should ever have to do that; even better, it says that the things that make people weird are the things that make them valuable and needed. That makes ParaNorman worth five dozen "you'd be so pretty if you just took off your glasses and got a different haircut" movies any day of the week.

*Jon Pertwee is my homeboy.


This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Please Don't Eat My Mother!

Monday, October 20, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 15: The Omen (1976)


Written by David Seltzer
Directed by Richard Donner

Gregory Peck:  Robert Thorn
Lee Remick:  Katherine Thorn
Billie Whitelaw:  Mrs. Blaylock
Harvey Stephens:  Damien
With David Warner  Jennings and Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan

One of the best things about watching two dozen-plus horror movies in alphabetical order is that I get to catch up on some of the influential hits of decades past. Believe it or not, I'd never actually seen The Omen before HubrisWeen 2014 rolled around. I'm glad I saw it because I like to tell myself I'm well-informed about pop culture but really it's a pretty ridiculous movie and for the most part failed to raise any goosebumps, hackles or hairs on the back of my neck.

Much like the same year's God Told Me To, this is a horror movie that knows how awesome it is to start with a bunch of chanting Catholic monks busting out the Latin. A child's form is outlined in red, with his shadow taking the form of an inverted cross (which looks great until you realize that by moving the light source around you could turn the kid from Antichrist to Second Coming). Robert Thorn is being driven to a hospital in Rome while a voiceover skips around in time, informing Thorn that "the child is dead". Thorn says that it's going to kill his wife when they notify her, out of sheer despair, and wonders what he can tell her. The priest says that adoption is always a possibility but Thorn says his wife was invested in having her own child. The priest turns out to have a spare baby that looks more than a little like Thorn, and that nobody has to tell Katherine Thorn anything if they don't want to.

Robert does the wrong thing for a very good reason, and is at least a good and considerate enough person to ask the priest if the substitute infant has any relatives, because he's willing to do just about anything in order to keep his wife's heart from breaking (and he's got to be feeling more than a little stunned and raw himself at this point). The priest says the new baby's mother died at the same time as the Thorn infant that didn't make it, which is a sign from God. Robert adopts the child and brings it to his wife, who was kept secluded in the maternity ward and never informed of any of what's going on.

Time leaps forward three or four years, and Robert Thorn has been appointed the ambassador to Great Britain, which retroactively informs the viewer that he must have been some kind of diplomat when he was in Italy. Their new residence is a massive estate and Katherine's in love with it to the point where Robert Thorn is also won over. They both refer to Robert as a future President, so his posting in England must be a stepping stone on his political career path. And since Robert's former college roommate is the President now, it can be safely assumed that this posting is a way for an old friend to try and help Thorn move forward on that path. Lucky him--my old college roommate Andy helped me move to a new apartment once but never got me appointed to an ambassadorship.

They go for a walk on the vast, forested grounds of the estate and briefly panic when they lose sight of their little boy, Damien; it's one way the movie demonstrates the genuine love that both of the Thorns have for their child. We get a montage of happy times together that terminates at Damien's fifth birthday party, which is being held on the vast front lawns of their estate. The Thorns are influential enough that there are several news photographers at the party (and the guests include military officers in full dress uniforms, which looks pretty incongruous next to the children having fun on carnival rides on the lawn). Oh, and one of those paparazzi? DAVID WARNER, playing vastly against type by not being the Antichrist. But he is a sleazy tabloid photographer named Jennings, so there's that.

Jennings sure as hell has a newsworthy photo soon enough--while the kids are playing on the lawn (in, among other things, a bounce castle with no walls--I cannot imagine the insurance hassle with letting someone on that for even a minute) strange things are afoot. First, a large black dog starts prowling around the edges of the party. Second, the score gets all weird and electro-skronky--I wondered if Goblin had followed the Thorns from Italy or something. Third, Damien's nanny walks out onto a roof ledge and tells the boy "It's all for you!" before hanging herself. The suicide is filmed from a long shot and without slow motion or a massively overdubbed neck break, which makes it nastier for its realism than it would have been if things were overamped. The kids at the party are fascinated and traumatized in equal measure and Jennings makes sure to get plenty of photos.

The next day, Robert Thorn has to walk a gauntlet of paparazzi as he goes to work. He accidentally bumps into Jennings and breaks the man's camera. He apologizes--genuinely, I might add--and offers to reimburse the journalist for the damages. Instead we get to see David Warner's greasiest smile and he tells the ambassador he'll just assume that he's owed a favor now.

Around the same time a priest arrives at Thorn's office to talk to him; the ambassador assumes that it's some kind of charity putting the touch on him. Instead it's a stream of near-gibberish coming from Father Brennan, where he tells Thorn that he must immediately take communion and accept Jesus as his savior in order to defeat Satan. If he doesn't, the priest warns, the Antichrist will kill his family and take control of his considerable wealth. As anyone would do in these circumstances, Thorn calls for security. Brennan, knowing he's about to get thrown out of the building, gets even more desperate but no more clear. He tells Thorn that he was at the hospital when Damien was born (but since it's the first act still, he's vague about what exactly that means). Although when he says "I saw its mother," to Thorn it's probably telling that he calls Damien "it" instead of "him". Thorn decides that he's being blackmailed and the embassy guards haul Brennan out in mid-rant. He says that Damien's mother was a ja(cut off by the guards), by the way. No way that isn't coming in to play later.

Jennings happens to be outside the embassy and snaps a few photos of Brennan as he's being escorted out under guard. Later, when he's developing the shots in his own darkroom he sees a flaw in one of the pictures--a dark shadowy line going through Brennan. Oh, and in the second picture he took. And the third. Whatever it is, it'd have to be affecting three frames of film exactly the same way but positioned slightly differently each time. And that's impossible, isn't it? But it's happening nonetheless.

Back at the Thorn estate, Mrs. Blaylock has shown up. She's from "the agency", a replacement nanny for Damien sent in quietly to avoid all the fuss after the previous nanny's very public suicide. In a blackly funny sequence, both Robert and Katherine find out that they thought the other person hired Mrs. Blaylock--and they find it out seconds after she leaves to see Damien alone. She seems almost hurt by the Thorns' understandable freakout when they ask where exactly she came from, and offers written references if it'll put their minds at ease. Then, after Damien's parents relax and leave, Mrs. Blaylock goes into her charge's bedroom and says "Have no fear, little one. I am here to protect thee," which is not quite what one expects a nanny to say.

The Thorns are going to a wedding, with Damien dressed in a suit for the occasion. Mrs. Blaylock issued several protests, saying that the child would be bored and wouldn't understand the ceremony, but it seems likely that she has another reason for wanting to keep Damien at home. And the audience gets to see what that is when the Thorns' car comes into sight of the church. Damien gets fixated on the angel statue on top of the building and throws a screaming fit. He refuses to go into the building and the Thorns return home. It's the first time either parent can remember anything like this happening--Damien's never had so much as a cold or an earache before, let alone a full-on panicky breakdown. While they're back home, Robert sees that creepy dog that was skulking around outside. It's sitting outside Damien's door and growling when Thorn walks by. Mrs. Blaylock says that she saw the dog outside and figured it would be a perfect addition to the household. Thorn disagrees and says to get rid of it.

In a creepy interlude, Katherine and Damien go to a drive-through safari park (in England, where I assume most of the African animals would find it cold, damp and irritating). The herbivores flee from Damien's presence while the baboons first flee, and then mob the car in a frenzy. That night, both Robert and Katherine discuss feelings that something is wrong with their son. Katherine thinks that she needs to see a psychiatrist (and Robert chooses to continue keeping her in the dark about what happened the night Damien joined their family).

Father Brennan makes another attempt to contact Robert and he's switched to the hard sell. He says that if Robert doesn't talk with him, Katherine will die (although not at Brennan's hands). He also sweetens the deal by saying that after one meeting, he will leave the Thorn family alone forever. Thorn decides to go ahead with the meeting and gets directions to a place to meet the priest. When he gets there, Brennan starts with a poetry recital about the Antichrist taking power to rule the world and then tells Robert where to go in order to meet a person who can give him a specific weapon that will kill Damien. He also drops another bombshell:  Somehow, he knows that Katherine is pregnant and predicts that Damien will kill his sibling in the womb. The boy will follow that murder up by killing his adoptive mother, then his "father", and inherit the Thorn fortune. He mentions a man named Bugenhagen at Megiddo and wraps things up. Robert tells him never to contact him again and leaves (and there's a fantastic shot of Thorn walking away as a storm brews, leaves blowing over about a quarter mile of space behind him in the frame).

During the storm, lightning hits a tree that Father Brennan is walking by; he runs away as lightning strikes closer and closer. He tries to get inside a nearby church but the door is locked and nobody's inside. When one more bolt hits the lightning rod on top of the church, the metal piece is knocked loose from the roof of the church and falls to the ground, impaling Brennan--watch the totally boss closeups on Patrick Troughton's face in this sequence. There's some great editing in this film.

Back at home with the Thorns; Katherine is frazzled and says she doesn't want to have any more children. Robert says that's all right, and then she surprises him with the news that she's pregnant (and only found out that morning). She needs to have an abortion. At the same time, Robert sees a photo of Father Brennan's body, impaled with the lightning rod, on the cover of a British tabloid (it's the Daily Mail, notorious for being pro-Hitler during the 30s and 40s, and still known as the Daily Heil in the UK today). The gears start turning in his mind--too much weirdness, too many things happening that can't quite be coincidences.

The therapist, discussing Katherine's session with her husband (which seems SUPER UNETHICAL to me), says that she has "fantasies" that Damien is evil and not really her child. The shrink does say that a second child would be a terrible idea at this point and that Robert should agree to the abortion. Robert refuses--he's convinced that the end of Katherine's pregnancy was foretold and he wants to fight the prophecy (and almost certainly convinces the therapist that Katherine isn't the only one in the family who needs to spend some time on the couch). He bails on the therapist and returns home just after another "random" disaster befalls the family. Damien, riding his tricycle in the house, bumped into a table that Katherine was standing on while fussing with a hanging plant. She falls fifteen or twenty feet to a hardwood floor and is horribly injured.

There's more photographers at the hospital; understandably, Robert says nothing to them as he walks past. Katherine's badly hurt and a doctor informs Robert that his wife miscarried as a result of her injuries. When she wakes up in the hospital, the first thing Katherine says to her husband is "Don't let him kill me," which isn't quite what most husbands would expect to hear. When he returns home to a dark and empty house, the dog--which Mrs. Blaylock never did get rid of--growls at him menacingly. He gets a phone call from Jennings, who uses up that favor by having the ambassador meet him for another exposition drop.

Jennings shows Robert several photos that he'd taken and developed himself--ones from Damien's birthday party show odd flaws in the film around the neck of their first nanny and shots of Father Brennan have that flaw running through his body as well. It was as if an occult hand had drawn some kind of premonition of the two doomed peoples' deaths on the film when the photos were taken. Jennings also has photos of Father Brennan's tiny apartment, which was wallpapered over every surface--including the windows--with Bible pages; as an additional protective measure, four dozen crucifixes were hung on the walls. Brennan was keeping tabs on Robert Thorn and kept records of the ambassador's movements with a stalker diary and had a stack of old newspaper clippings that listed various signs and portents, all of which dated back to Damien's birth, which turned out to be at exactly 6:00 AM on June 6, or 6/6 if you prefer.

There are two other pieces of information that Jennings provides--first, Father Brennan had terminal cancer, and it had advanced to the point where the priest was using morphine to control the pain. There was no way the man didn't know he was dying when he contacted Thorn. The second piece of information shows why Jennings was so bent on contacting Robert--he accidentally wound up catching his own face in a mirror in one of the shots in Brennan's apartment, and there's a familiar flaw in the developed photo, a line about an inch under his chin and all the way to the back of his neck...

The two men are in Rome, pursuing an investigation that is complicated by the fire that destroyed the records room in the hospital where Damien was born--in fact, that's where the building-wrecking blaze started. The head priest at the time did survive the conflagration and is in a monastery recovering from his injuries. Incidentally, there's a great visual pun in the hospital-investigation scenes. The continually-advancing open elevator in the background is called a paternoster, named because the cars are similar to a set of rosary beads on a string. This scene also displays Thorn's competence as a diplomat; he speaks perfect Italian and translates for Jennings while they're trying to figure out what's going on. The pair of men put together some "Bible prophecy" stuff that Hal Lindsay and other "experts" spun into multiple best-sellers (predicting the End of All Things is paradoxically a growth industry, even though every single person to do it has been demonstrably wrong).

At the monastery, the priest has a bad case of Harvey Dent face. He hasn't spoken since the fire but laboriously writes the word "Chervet" with a piece of charcoal before dying when Thorn and Jennings show up to question him. It turns out that there's an old Etruscan cemetery named Chervettia about thirty miles from the monastery. Jennings and Thorn set out for it immediately but get there at night. Of course. The film's atmosphere in the ruined old graveyard is ethereal and dreamlike; the crumbly old ruins look great on the screen. Jennings finds a flat stone on the ground covering a grave with the right date and Robert dreads what they're going to find as they pry up the massive slabs of stone. While a POV shot stalks the pair, the mother's grave reveals the skeleton of a jackal (which means Damien was born in some kind of Beastmaster ritual, but to a scavenger rather than a cow). And worse than that, the smaller grave has a tiny human skeleton with a crushed skull. Robert now realizes that his true son did die at birth, but not from medical complications; instead, he was killed in order to make a place for Damien to be adopted.

He doesn't have any time to grieve just yet, because a pack of snarling evil dogs attacks the pair; Jennings helps Robert get off a fence when he slips and spears his arm on an iron post. From the hotel room, Robert calls his wife in the hospital and won't explain exactly what's going on but tells her to leave London and flee to Rome as soon as humanly possible. Katherine believes him, but while she's getting dressed Mrs. Blaylock shows up in her room and pitches her out the window. Robert gets the news of his wife's "suicide" over the phone and is devastated, and when Jennings returns to the hotel room with news of an excavation at Meggido Thorn says that he has to kill his adopted son in order to save the world.

One jump cut later, we're watching the pair of allies talk with an uncredited Leo McKern in the Middle East--he says he was expecting Thorn and wondering if Father Brennan has been killed yet. He lays the last pieces of the puzzle out for Thorn--in order to kill the young Antichrist he has to use a particular set of sacred daggers (which get handed over to Thorn during the speech), and Damien must die on a church altar on consecrated ground. The archaeologist tells Robert that Damien is not a human child, and the proof of this will be a birthmark that looks like three sixes linked at the top. When Thorn finds that on Damien's body it'll be the last piece of proof he should need to do the deed. Thorn says he's bathed his son before and never spotted that mark; the other man says it'll be under the child's hair, then.

Walking away from the dig, Jennings and Thorn talk about their task, and wonder who can kill a child. R throws the bundle away, still not capable of committing such an evil act even if it's to save the world. When Jennings goes to pick up the pack from a building site, the final horror setpiece of the movie happens, and it's a doozy. Thanks to a careless construction worker bumping the parking brake accidentally, a bumpy downward slope and a poorly secured sheet of window glass in the bed of a truck, Jennings exits the film in one of the most unforgettable film deaths of the last half century.

And that's the last straw for Robert Thorn. He picks up the bundle of daggers and returns home to his estate. In a long silent sequence, the hellhound stalks him in his home but Thorn manages to trap it in a staircase under some heavy boards (and the hollow booms when they hit the floor is pretty wonderful). He sneaks into Damien's room and cuts the boy's hair, revealing a 666 birthmark, and well, that's just it. Time for the man who played Atticus Finch, the best dad in all of fiction, to ritualistically murder a child in order to save the world. First he must kill Mrs. Blaylock, who is utterly devoted to her mission (and it turns out that the humble olive fork, symbol of upper-crust cocktail mixing, is Thorn's improvised weapon in this scene).

He drives Damien to a church but blows past a traffic warden sent to monitor the road to the ambassador's estate. The policeman follows him to sacred ground and shoots Thorn just before he's able to sink the first dagger (of seven--this is one thorough ritual!) into Damien. Which is the first time in the movie that a secular authority does the inadvertent will of Satan; all the other bad guys were servants, Catholic priests or demonic familiars. Robert Thorn is laid to rest next to his wife, and the President of the United States steps in as a final favor to one of his best friends, adopting Damien. Who turns around and gives the camera a great big smile at the graveside of his "father", because everything's finally in place.

Well.

I wish I could say this one actually scared me, because everyone involved really does bring their A game and the talent in front of the camera is just as skilled as the people working behind it. But it's just so silly. The whole thing plays out like a multi-million dollar A-list adaptation of a Jack Chick tract. Especially when you consider the use of Catholic priests as the main conspiracy to bring the Antichrist to power--they aren't defrocked priests secretly working to serve Hell; they're all still in positions of authority in that church while working in the shadows. It's like the John Birch Society got script approval. It's a filmed slapfight over who has the best way to interpret a life manual for Bronze Age goatherders.

I just can't get scared about Bible prophecy horror movies because I've been hearing about how the world is in its End Times every week since I was five or six years old (NOTE:  Growing up somewhere other than Wheaton, Illinois might have led to me liking the movie more). I've heard that the signs and wonders are upon us and the end of the world will be happening any minute now since the time I could make my own PB&J sandwiches and it just never pans out. As I write this review now, the panic du jour is Ebola in Texas. There's a massive list of things people tell other people to be afraid of because it's the end of the world before that and there will be another one after it just as long if not longer.

And when I'm looking for something to raise my hackles, I guess I need something more realistic. Like a zombie apocalypse, or angry ghosts, or three film students looking for the unknown. If you're less of a feckless heathen, you'll like this one for the story, not just for the undeniable filmmaking skill on display.


This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  Oculus

Yes, I Know:  Orgy of the Dead

Sunday, October 19, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 14: Not of This Earth (1957)


Screenplay by Charles B. Griffith and Mark Hanna
Directed by Roger Corman

Paul Birch:  Paul Johnson
Beverly Garland:  Nadine Storey
Morgan Jones:  Harry Sherbourne
William Roerick:  Dr. F. W. Rochelle

And "Richard" Miller as the vacuum cleaner salesman, before he was Dick

It was the late Fifties, the age of Sputnik and the epoch of the TV dinner. A time when--in movies, at least--the monsters had to have some kind of scientific explanation for existing. Audiences expected to be thrilled by aliens and robots, not golems and werewolves. I'm guessing that ghost stories weren't particularly profitable at this point, and independent studios lived and died by the way they were able to respond to trends. They paid attention to what made money and what lost it, or they faded out of existence. But even if someone (like, say, Roger Corman) was making a movie about the vanguard of an alien invasion, they knew enough about the horror genre to take elements from something that was a smash hit a couple decades before when coming up with their story and grafting the old material on the new framework. Instead of a Hungarian-accented aristocrat we have a businessman in sunglasses. That's right--this movie is 50s sci-fi Dracula.

The film starts with the obligatory Threat-Establishing Casualty. You don't know there's a monster out there unless someone gets their ticket punched before the opening credits. In this case the sacrifice to the gods of narrative is a teenaged girl who hops out of a car after cutting short a necking session with her boyfriend. She's got a curfew, and is going to miss it because she gets ambushed by a stocky man wearing sunglasses at night. She gets taken out by his brain ray powers and he opens his briefcase, revealing a portable exsanguination kit. He takes off the shades to show super-creepy silvery milky eyes and the credits roll.

The story proper starts once we're done reading all the actors' names. The shades-wearing man parks his gigantic roadbeast of a car in a no-parking zone and goes into a medical clinic, where he requests an immediate transfusion and sets off the audience's warning bells immediately when his dialogue reveals a near-total lack of knowledge of basic postwar American society. He also refuses to get his blood tested before the transfusion and when the doctor's intercom goes off the buzzing seems to cause him physical pain. He uses "Paul Johnson" as his Earth name and expects the doctor to just take his word for it that he's type O. When he sees that just making demands of the doctor isn't going to pay off he picks up a scalpel and slices his hand, but there's no blood from the wound. The doctor is fascinated, but still won't go ahead with the transfusion without further tests.

"Johnson" decides his spent enough time making nice with the hairless pink monkey that won't put blood in his veins and uses mind-control powers on him in order to secure his help and keep him from telling anyone about his fascinating new patient. The doctor draws blood from his new patient and we get lots of somewhat convincing-sounding SCIENCE TALK! about the way Johnson's blood is decaying in his veins. Apparently thinking that he doesn't want to drive to the clinic whenever he's a pint low, the alien first hypnotizes his doctor into ordering the nurse to transfuse him (and the doctor can't explain why even while telling Nadine Story to hook Johnson up to the IV drip). Then he takes the pragmatic step of vastly overpaying Nadine to be his live-in transfusion nurse.

When he gets ready to leave, Johnson sees a motorcycle cop writing him a ticket for the four simultaneous traffic laws he broke while parking his behemoth car. Nadine says--truthfully--that Johnson was in imminent danger of death when he parked his car the wrong direction in a no-parking zone in front of a fire hydrant on the wrong side of the street and he doesn't get the ticket. Officer Sherbourne does take the opportunity to harass Nadine a bit at the scene, and then Johnson goes home with a police escort.

Every Dracula needs a Renfield, and Johnson has one to take care of his mundane affairs--a petty criminal named Jeremy Perrin. He spots the motorcycle cop instantly (and it turns out that Sherbourne recognizes him in return). Johnson orders his chauffeur to prepare a room for Nadine; when he catches his henchman spying on him as he puts blood in his fridge (and it's full of blood bottles), he paralyzes his lackey with his brain powers and then says the next time Perrin pokes his nose into Johnson's business it'll be a death sentence. Perrin lets Nadine into the house when she arrives and sleazes at her as only a Jonathan Haze character in the late Fifties can. And we get another "not from around here" clue when Johnson locks Nadine into her bedroom from the outside after she retires for the evening. He says that where he comes from--not that he names the place, of course--nobody would ever sleep in an unsecured room overnight.

In his living room that night, Johnson turns on his space Skype machine and talks to his leader, who informs him that their race is in danger of extinction and that they need more blood--all the races they've conquered to feed themselves are getting used up. We get a length-padding sequence where the five phases of Johnson's mission are told to him by the commander and then repeated back. He's to study humans, send more blood back to the planet Davanna, send a live human through the matter transmission beam to be vivisected on his home world, and test to see if human blood will kill him (if he dies during phase 4, it is considered a mission failure; I love weird dark jokes like this). Phase five will be one of two things--either the subjugation of humanity to serve as a food source for Davanna if our blood is nutritious to the aliens, or the destruction of the planet if we're of no further use to the Davannans. The entire conversation is done via telepathy, which means there's lots of shots of immobile faces with voiceovers throwing dialogue around and it looks kinda goofy.

Perrin's making breakfast the next morning (with a gun in a shoulder holster; personally, I prefer my chef to remain unarmed until the dishes are cleared away). Johnson doesn't eat a bite of the no doubt tasty breakfast, but puts some fizzies in a glass of water and makes the Davannan equivalent of Tang. When he delivers Nadine's breakfast, the pair talks for a little while about the sheer oddness of their mutual employer. Renfield is willing to put up with quite a lot of strangeness for $300 a week (which shakes out to $2,540 a week in 2014 dollars; I'd put up with a lot for that much myself). While talking about the things Johnson expects him to do for that salary, Perrin says one of his duties is taking little gold nuggets to pawn shops and jewelry stores to get them converted to American currency. Then he's an impertinent jackass to Nadine and she slaps him. Good.

Later on, Johnson is feeling much better after a transfusion and he gives Nadine the afternoon off. Which means that she's out back swimming in the in-ground pool when DICK MILLER! rings the doorbell and tries to sell Johnson a vacuum cleaner (door-to-door salesmen were the telemarketers of 1957). It's a neat little scene, as all Dick Miller performances are. He talks his way inside so that he can demonstrate the vacuum cleaner in the cellar. Johnson hypnotizes him, zaps him with his alien mind-blast powers and Miller's body gets stuffed in the furnace, completely drained of blood. Later on, out for a drive (Renfield's behind the wheel as Johnson is willing to admit he's not up to snuff driving in California), the car gets cut off and when Perrin hits the horn it hurts Johnson and he curtly reminds his driver never to do that.

And while they're out for a spin, Nadine notices there's smoke coming from the chimney and sneaks downstairs to see what's going on. She finds some empty jars that we the viewers know were Johnson's blood containers but the nurse doesn't get the significance at all. She happens to leave her bathing cap downstairs for Johnson to discover later. Doctor Rochelle and a friend of his (who is some kind of higher-ranking police officer than Sherbourne) stop by; Nadine and the cop talk while Johnson and Rochelle confer about the alien's condition. The doctor hasn't figured out why Johnson's blood is evaporating in his veins but has some promising avenues of research going; also, honestly, he's been working on this disease for less than a week. The transfusions appear to be keeping Johnson stable, which is something the invader needed to know for one of the phases of his plan.

The police start monitoring Johnson's house because they know he's got a small-time hood working for him, and somehow they miss Perrin inviting three Komedy Drunk homeless men over for dinner. Johnson kills all three of them with his mental powers and drains their blood while Nadine and Officer Sherbourne go for a walk in the park. Back at the house, the cop tells Nadine that he has a funny feeling that he can't quite articulate about Johnson and Perrin and whatever they're up to. And when we get a scene back at the police station, the viewer finds out that thirteen bodies have been found with puncture wounds in the neck and bled dry. They express relief that the newspapers aren't blaring that story yet (but it's got to be just a matter of time before someone finds out that there's a spree killer who thinks he's a vampire on the loose in the city). There's also a missing persons case that the police mention--a vacuum cleaner salesman vanished on his route.

Johnson asks Nadine about chemotherapy and cancer treatments; she's not qualified to answer the questions, so the invader switches to subtly (for him) trying to find out whether or not anyone will go looking for his nurse if she vanishes suddenly. He decides not to risk it and instead mentally compels a random Asian dude on the street to come home with him and walk into the teleporter beam in his hidden closet so he can get sent to Davanna and sliced to pieces while he's still alive. The mental conversation takes place in what I think is Mandarin Chinese, so either Johnson knows that language or his mind-control powers work as a universal translator--which I think is pretty neat. It makes sense that a purely mental command would be understood by the recipient, right?

During the "send a random innocent person to the alien homeworld to be vivisected" scene, Johnson has another conversation with his leader. Riots are everywhere on Davanna and Johsnon gets a three day deadline to establish whether or not Earth blood will kill him. Meanwhile, Nadine and Perrin are talking in the kitchen. Perrin shows that he's a cheap hood but not a completely conscienceless sociopath by mentioning the three winos and the Asian dude that entered the house and never left it--he knows something weird is up but I'm sure "actually the brusque asshole who pays my salary is a stealth vanguard for an alien race bent on planetary conquest" is not the first thing he's thinking. Maybe the fifth or sixth. Nadine takes a sample of the Science Drink that Johnson has every morning and sneaks it to the clinic to have it analyzed.

Johnson tells his Renfield that he found Nadine's bathing cap in the cellar, and is not happy about that at all. Meanwhile, at the clinic, Nadine asks the doctor to analyze the TrueBlood sample and another nurse brings in a sample of blood from a rabid dog that's kept in the fridge next to all the other blood samples, which is probably really safe (even if the nurse labeled it carefully that seems like quite a contamination risk to me). Nadine tells Dr. Rochelle that she's meeting Sherbourne at a local restaurant called the El Dorado for dinner, and the doctor says he'll bring the test results along that night.

Another alien shows up--this one's a woman moving hesitantly in the alien (to her) world. She meets up with Johnson at a newsstand and they have a telepathic conversation where she reveals that the planetwide war on Devanna is spasming to an end. The blood supply is very low and she fled to Earth during a riot via Zeta beam. Johnson says she'll be his assistant on Earth (which means Perrin's probably getting brain-zapped in the very near future). The newcomer also tells Johnson that they're stranded on earth; when the human vivisection victim made it to Davenna he was crushed to a pulp and compressed to the size of a paperback. Humans can't survive matter transmission to Davenna and there's some mumbo-jumbo about the aliens not being able to return for the same reason.

So now it's time to check in with the happy couple at the El Dorado along with Dr. Rochelle. He's figured out that the drink is some kind of superconcentrated nutrient that's far beyond anything on Earth and Nadine gets the following wonderful line that is even better out of context:  "Do you think it's possible to reproduce Johnson's unit?". When the doctor finds out that Johnson is the source of the wonder nutrient drink the telepathic geas that he's under won't let him talk about it any more and he gruffly orders dinner.

While everyone's out of the clinic, Johnson and the other alien sneak in for an unauthorized transfusion. Johnson figures out how to rig up the drip feed for his companion but hooks up the rabid dog blood, as everyone watching the movie has been waiting patiently to see. When the transfusion is done Johnson sends the alien woman to a hotel, correctly predicting that they'd be much more suspicious together than either one would be alone. She collapses outside the clinic and the doctor happens to see her freaky alien eyes as she expires. The doctor calls the police who notify Nadine to get the hell out of the house.

Being a feisty Fifties heroine in a Roger Corman movie, she sneaks around and tries to find out what's going on instead. She and Perrin find the space radio and transmat beam in Johnson's closet and when the alien returns home he listens in on a phone conversation that tells him he killed the other alien by accident and that everyone on Davanna would have to flee to another, less devastated world in order for the transfusion cure to work. But the good news is that a complete blood transfusion will cure Johnson's blood condition once and for all.

During a confrontation, Perrin pulls his gun on Johnson and finds that it's a bad idea to bring a pistol to a brain-destroying mental power fight. Johnson grabs Nadine but her piercing scream hurts him so badly that he lets her go. She flees on foot and the alien sends this goofy-ass octopus/bat/umbrella creature after the doctor before chasing her; the one-scene wonder monster lands on the doctor's head and kills him (and the blood that trickles out is the first blood actually spilled in the film; all the other blood was neatly collected and stored). Nadine calls the police station and a jerk cop blows her off until Sherbourne overhears the conversation and charges to the rescue on a police motorcycle (along with another cop who serves as backup and will inevitably get killed to increase the tension during the final chase).

Nadine, under hypnotic command, walks back to Johnson's house slowly while the chase proceeds at a much more rapid pace--and the crosscutting between the two differently paced sequences is a real treat. Sherbourne hits the siren on his motorcycle and the pain distracts Johnson enough to drive off the road, crash and burn. His secrets go up with the car, although his tombstone gives us the movie title:  "Here Lies a Man Who Was Not of This Earth". At the graveside, Sherbourne actually sympathizes with Johnson a little bit, while Nadine is happy he's dead and isn't going to manufacture a drop of sympathy for the guy who tried to kill her.

And the last shot, of course, is another man in a black suit and sunglasses, carrying a Ronco Pocket Blood-Drainer in a briefcase, walking towards the camera.

Man alive, Corman keeps his movies jam-packed with incident. This one's only an hour and seven minutes long but we get all kinds of things happening start to finish. A budget-minded alien invasion, mind control, comic relief winos, some fantastic "I am totally an alien" dialogue whenever Johnson talks to someone, a brief scene of Beverly Garland in a swimsuit, a dinner scene, and a floating monster that gets brought into the film for exactly one scene, never to be heard from again (I like to imagine the monster and Dick Miller getting lunch together and complaining about how little screen time they get in the film). He might have been making movies as quickly and cheaply as possible but he wrings adequate-to-great performances from his actors and it's great to see how he updates vampirism for a science fiction scenario rather than a supernatural horror one (Johnson shows up in mirrors and can walk around perfectly well in the daylight, for example, because the only thing Corman needs from the vampire legends is blood drinking. And for that matter they use needles and IV drips to feed the blood to their creature; "Paul Johnson" is a perfectly rational vampire for an age of science and rationality). And the human race gives the invader a decent burial and a headstone after he's gone, which shows that humanity isn't just the race of cattle to be dominated that the Davannans thought we were. It's the little touches that make the movie as entertaining and good as it is. There might not be as much spectacle or production values as you'd get in Forbidden Planet, but then again, this movie actually made money at the box office.


This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  The Nest

Yes, I Know:  Nosferatu, the Vampyre