Monday, July 25, 2016
Screenplay by George Goldsmith; based on the short story by Stephen King
Directed by Fritz Kiersch
Peter Horton: Burt
Linda Hamilton: Vicky
R. G. Armstrong: Diehl
Courtney Gains: Malachai
Anne Marie McEvoy: Sarah
Robby Kiger: Job
It's rare that a writer gets to become a brand name. I'm reminded of the doofus editor of the Baltimore Sun talking about "the Dickensian aspect" of a story in The Wire. And, of course, H. P. Lovecraft won immortality when his last name got turned into an adjective. But in the 1980s, there was one name that got used more than any other to describe ordinary days falling into madness and terror, and that's the dude who got his name above the title on that movie poster. We're all used to seeing George Clooney or Matt Damon getting listed before the actual name of the movie, and John Carpenter or George Romero usually have their names in a movie title as a selling point, but how many people got their names attached to a film because they wrote the source material that was adapted? Even J. K. Rowling doesn't have that happen with her movies. King is the top name on what has to be a very, very short list of writers who are expected to sell tickets based on their name alone (literally, in the case of The Lawnmower Man; the short story was about a weird Druid cultist trimming a man's yard in a supernatural and impossible manner, not about virtual reality turning a dumb guy into a genius monster. King sued the production company to get his name off the movie posters because he sure as hell didn't write whatever source material they had for that movie). Speaking of posters, that one up there is a beaut. Red and black, a menacingly raised sickle, and that Stephen King font that's being used for Stranger Things over on Netflix. I bet that poster sold a lot of movie tickets (and the film was a huge success, earning more than fourteen times its budget back during its theatrical release).
And I'm taking time today to watch a movie that I never actually saw before, even though I'm a giant horror nerd and I've read about eighty percent of Stephen King's literary output. It came out when I was nine years old, and my parents figured it was "too scary" for me sight unseen. I'm wondering if they heard it was about religious psychosis (which would have been much more plausible of a horror to encounter in my home town in the brass buckle of the Bible Belt than, say, werewolves). Or they might have heard it was about homicidal children and didn't want to give me any ideas. They may not have wanted to waste their hard-earned money on a VHS rental of a movie that critics ignored or beat to death with shovels. There's plenty of different reasons why I never got around to seeing this flick until I was 41 years old. Maybe by the time I'm ninety I'll have seen all the sequels as well as the inevitable remake.
Creepy children's chorus under the opening credits? Check. Establishing shots of drought in a cornfield? Check. Idle machinery and dusty streets? Check. Oh, hey, it turns out that the movie takes place in Gatlin, Nebraska (exposition delivered via a "Grace Baptist Church of Gatlin" sign as well as a caption on the screen; the opening takes place "three years ago", by the way). The sermon for the day is "Corn Drought and the Lord", according to that same sign. And OH SHIT IT'S NARRATED BY A CHILD THIS IS BAD NEWS. I don't want to listen to a lisping child actor explain the shit that's going on while I watch it. I really don't.
The voiceover tells us that Job the narrator just got out of church, and that he was the only child at the service (the others were with some kid named Isaac in a cornfield, which certainly sounds like the kind of thing a rural Baptist town in 1981 would allow to happen). While the narrator's dad calls home from a diner to see how his daughter is doing (the answer: 104 degree fever) a bunch of local youths file into the restaurant and lock the door. The teenage waitress spikes the coffee pot with some kind of white powder and there's an unintentionally funny ominous shot of her refilling someone's cup. Within seconds every adult who had coffee with their breakfast is down and the ones who didn't are getting shanked by all the kids in the restaurant. Some semi-competent editing means that Job's dad either had his throat cut with a grain sickle or he was hacked to death with a meat cleaver. The dangling pay phone receiver broadcasts Job's mom as she gets murdered as well, which lets the viewer know that the kids of Gatlin don't just have a grudge against everyone at the diner. It also looks like the budget on this one didn't stretch too terribly far: for the big startling murder scene at the beginning, it's mostly just fake blood on people's clothes and getting speckled on actors' faces. This was two years after John Carpenter's The Thing showed exactly what a gifted animatronics guy could do to horrify an audience and depict terrible things happening to the human form, but all we get here is ketchup on the back of someone's shirt.
Job's sister, by the way, drew pictures of the massacre while semi-conscious with a 104 degree fever, which suggests that one of those Stephen King style psychic kids is in this movie. That makes sense, because the short story was only a few pages long and they're trying to make a 91 minute movie out of it. Of course, the filmmakers also started off by emptying a gun into their left foot because the plot of the short story is two people finding out what happened in the deserted Nebraska town they're in when their car breaks down and the horror develops from what happened there. But creepy drawings of smiling kids murdering their parents plays out nicely under the credits and I'm willing to bet that this extremely budget-friendly depiction of the Gatlin Massacre is going to be the most effective thing in the movie. I also suspect that burning all the TVs and radios in town wouldn't be a plot point in a hypothetical 2016 remake because kids will put up with a hell of a lot but if you take away the internet, it's a matter of seconds before Isaac's head is on the ground as a Pokemon Go landmark.
According to the psychic(?) drawings under the credits, the kids grow corn in the fields around Gatlin and occasionally sacrifice one of their own to ensure a bountiful harvest. Not sure exactly what they're going to do with all that corn, and how they're going to maintain any standard of living once the power goes out and the water gets turned off for non-payment (and, for that matter, I'm not sure how the murders are going to go unnoticed for three years since someone in Gatlin had to have relatives from someplace who start to wonder why they never heard back from their cousin and there had to be banks that sent people in to foreclose on the houses where people stopped paying their mortgages--and even if the Gatlin kids murdered everyone who came into town, that just means more and more people would be known as having gone to Gatlin and then vanishing).
In the present day, Vicky startles her boyfriend Burt awake with a party favor to the ear while he's sleeping in a hotel room. I know I'd hate that, but Vicky is played by The Terminator-vintage Linda Hamilton, and she gets to do whatever she wants and the rest of the world can just deal. Burt blows out a candle on a doughnut and says he wished to live happily ever after. Alas, he has told what his wish was, and now it will not come true. Vicky also gave her dude an engraved cigarette lighter as a birthday present and we learn that his full name is the ungainly mouthful "Burton Stanton". And that Burton's a medical doctor, which is probably going to come into play later. Even though this sequence is nowhere to be found in the story, it's a pretty accurate pastiche of Stephen King's work, especially when Vicky cues up Gary U. S. Bonds on a tape deck and sings along to "School Is Out". That's exactly the kind of song King references in his prose.
This is apparently the tail end of a road trip vacation for Burt and Vicky; he's starting an internship when he gets to wherever they're going and there's plenty of driving through the most boring scenery in America before they get there. A knock on the door from the maid means that it's just a song and some exposition before hitting the road rather than the more interesting and amorous fun that Vicky wanted to have. In the next scene, the couple is on the road (with a paperback of Night Shift, the short story collection that contains the short story Children of the Corn, on the dashboard). Burt's having an argument with Vicky that sounds like it's been going on in a loop for quite some time--he's focused more on his schooling and career than on the relationship. Vicky, proving that she's a better person than Burt, does genuinely understand his focus on the job after going to Extra College for years in order to do it, but still would like some time with her guy. (Well, I know who I'm rooting for and who I hope gets on the business end of a sickle now.)
Meanwhile, in Gatlin, three kids are involve in some kind of plan to make a break for it out of Gatlin. One, Joseph, has got a suitcase and the other two are Job (the narrator) and Sarah. Joseph's plan is to get out of town, find an adult, tell that person about the killings in Gatlin, and hopefully bring in the Nebraska National Guard to put things right. Sarah is the one drawing the pictures (and, in the hyperfundamentalist murder cult that Isaac and Malachai run, that's forbidden, as is listening to music). Joseph has to get through the cornfields of Gatlin to escape, which certainly do loom impressively and fill the screen while he's putting on his boogie shoes. From the way that Job and Sarah talk about the cornfields, one would suspect that there's something more menacing than a kid preacher in there. And when he trips and falls in the field the movie sure does want us to think something supernatural happened, but extreme closeups of corn stalks are, like giant killer rabbits, not inherently scary.
Meanwhile, in the car, Burt and Vicky are learning how uninteresting the back roads of Nebraska are (SPOILER: They are really, really uninteresting). The only thing their car's radio can pick up is an AM radio preacher condemning drug use, fornication and homosexuality. If he was also a busybody about what bathroom transgendered people use, he could have gotten a speaking slot at the Republican National Convention last week.
Joseph gets blindsided by Malachai in the cornfield and comes down with a nasty case of slit throat. He stumbles out into the road just in time for Burt to run him over (right after Grand Island, where the Micro-Brewed Reviews mastermind Chad Plambeck lives, gets a shout-out). Also, just as a safety tip, don't read a map and drive when you're on a road trip. One person out of the two in the car should be a navigator and one the driver--and the driver gets to pick the radio station. But that's a minor concern right now, because Burt figures out that the kid he hit was dead or just about to die before the car hit him (he's a doctor with a degree and everything, so he can tell the difference between a slashed throat and the series of injuries a speeding motor vehicle will cause). He tells Vicky to go back to the car and lock herself in, because even though he didn't kill the poor kid, someone else did and they're almost certainly looking at him, his girlfriend, the dead kid and the car right this second. Also, the dummy car hit and ragdoll rolling were nasty in a way I'd tend to associate with horror movies of the Seventies, not the Reagan years. It was enthusiastically wince-inducing.
A POV shot from the cornfield shows that yes, the guy with the knife was out there watching the aftermath of the car accident. Like a total chump, Burt goes into the cornfield and finds Joseph's blood-spattered suitcase. And since Malachai saw him go into the field, he knows that Vicky's alone in the car right now. Speaking of Vicky, she gets out of the car after hearing something, I think, and the editing in that sequence cheats like hell to keep her from seeing Malachai, who was inches away from her window seconds before she got out of the vehicle. I don't care if he went to the other side of the car, glass is transparent and she should have seen him. Actually, it was a nightmare sequence so 1) Malachai shouldn't have even been in it, and Vicky-in-the-dream should have sensed his presence by the car because it doesn't make sense to dream something you don't notice, and 2) I call bullshit on the editing even more because of that, especially if the viewer was supposed to realize Malachai was in the real world outside the car while Vicky was dreaming of getting out of it. There was no change in the cinematography to clue the audience in to it being a dream.
Anyway. Burt puts Joseph's body and suitcase in the trunk and drives off to look for an authority figure. Meanwhile, Job and Sarah are back at their old house, defying the cornfed Taliban under Isaac's control by dressing up like grownups, playing Monopoly and listening to records. I assume that's a battery powered turntable, because I'd rather think about that than listen to the kids cheat at the board game and act cute. Malachai interrupts by throwing a knife into the game board and the scene goes back to Burt and Vicky in the car talking about what they just saw and whether or not the killer saw them (thankfully the road is open enough that they'd see any pursuit coming from literally miles away).
We get a little glimpse into the town's setup when Malachai takes his two captives to Isaac; music, games and play are forbidden (although it's the Malachai the enforcer rather than the cult's leader who's bent out of shape over what Job and Sarah were doing). Sarah's got a drawing of Burt and Vicky's car approaching Gatlin, and Isaac tells his right-hand adolescent to make sure "the old man" doesn't tell the occupants of that car what's going on in Gatlin. And then it's back to the car, where Vicky rifles through Joseph's suitcase (getting her fingerprints all over potentially vital clues). There's a corncob crucifix in there that looks like the world's creepiest piece of folk art--and some clothes. I think the crucifix was the important thing.
Hey, remember the scene in The Cabin in the Woods where a creepy run-down gas station provides menace and weirdness as a prelude to all the shit jumping off in the main narrative? Well, there's one of those in this movie too. I'm reasonably sure the first Creepy Gas Station In the Middle of Nowhere was in the original The Hills Have Eyes back at the end of the Seventies. There was a creepy gas station in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, but I don't think it had a Harbinger parked inside it to be creepy at the main characters before they went off to get killed. Whereas this movie, Wrong Turn, Urban Legend, and a few other spam-in-a-cabin flicks had the same type of location in it performing the same function in the narrative (and Tucker and Dale Versus Evil also parodied the trope). To be fair, this movie's gas station owner has a dog that he's trained to bring tools to him, so it's got a little bit of ramshackle charm to it (and the mechanic is another character not in any canonical Stephen King story but one that could have fit in to any of his novels pretty easily).
At the gas station, Burt gets told pre-emptively that there's no gas at the station and that he can't use the bathroom without buying gas. When he tells the owner he just needs to make a phone call, the old man tells him there's no phone either. He gives directions to the considerably-far-away Hemingford as a consolation prize and says there's no phones at all in Gatlin (which is supposed to be a lot closer)--he also says the Gatlin folks don't like outsiders, which is a bit of an understatement. His dog Sarge barks nervously at the omnipresent cornfields as the wind starts to pick up. Burt leaves, following the instructions that are supposed to get him to Hemingford as nasty storm clouds roll in (twice!) and Malachai eventually shows up with some assistants to shank the gas station owner with a meat hook, chisel and butcher knife for essentially no reason (he also kills the man's dog to establish a threat, which is the mark of a true asshole--both for the character and filmmakers).
On the road, the sign for Gatlin from Sarah's drawing shows up; looks like the corn flakes in Gatlin have interfered with them in order to misdirect travelers. During the increasingly rough drive, Burt's car bumps and thumps over lots of obstacles in the dirt roads before circling back to the gas station (complete with reveal to the audience, but not Burt or Vicky, that the owner's deader than disco). Back in Gatlin, Isaac is giving a sermon (complete with a handheld corncob Jesus prop) about "He Who Walks Behind the Rows", the new god they worship in lieu of the old one from the Bible. The new deity apparently is just as fond of bloodshed as the one that ended the life of everyone on Earth except for Noah and his family, so the sermon's about properly serving He Who Walks Behind the Rows through the deaths of properly chosen victims. In the background of this scene is a crucified skeleton wearing a police uniform. Either He Who Walks Behind the Rows likes cops, or he really doesn't like cops.
The sermon continues; He Who Walks Behind the Rows has summoned outsiders that need to be bled dry for His satisfaction. I think that's supposed to be Burt and Vicky. It better be, since they're the only other characters in the movie. An interminable sequence of creepy kids spying on the Burt-and-Vickymobile as it drives through the town ensues. The diner from that opening murder sequence is deserted and the pay phone doesn't work. There's a rat on the diner counter, so rat enthusiasts will enjoy at least a couple seconds out of the tedium and perfunctory scares in the film. After seeing three kids goofing with his car Burt and Vicky pursue and lose them and decide to take off for Hemingford since there weren't any people willing to talk to or help them in Gatlin. Fatefully, though, Burt sees someone in a house and leave Vicky in the car like an idiot when he goes to see if there is a person willing to let him use a telephone in the house. He goes inside and finds it to be just as deserted as every other building that he's seen in Gatlin. There's only so much I can say about scenes where two people walk through an empty house, and I think I've already said all of it. Though there's a noticeably non-creepy scene where Burt sees a bunch of Sarah's psychic crayon drawings on the wall and a false scare where he and Vicky bump into each other (complete with musical sting).
Then they find Sarah in a room listening to Del Shannon's "Runaway", so at least something happened in this part of the movie. Vicky tries to establish rapport with Sarah and find out what the heck is going on in Gatlin. The first piece of useful information Sarah gives out is that all the grownups in town are "in the cornfield", which Burt and Vicky probably take to mean that they're farming instead of fertilizing until Sarah starts to clarify things. I don't know how much of Sarah's unwillingness to talk about Isaac and what's going on in the town is the character doing it and how much is the script keeping things vague to pad the running time, but I'm suspecting it's a lot more from Column B than it is from Column A.
Like a complete dipshit, Burt goes off to look for a working phone and leaves Vicky alone in the deserted house full of creepy drawings. At least he gives Vicky the car keys before taking off. Vicky asks Sarah to draw her a picture (and promises not to tell Malachai or Isaac, both of whom get a mention for being in charge and dangerous if crossed. While Burt walks around not noticing some pretty obvious goddamned danger signs, Malachai and some of his young thugs surround the house while holding sickles and baling hooks. The kids advance on the house, and break in quietly, but en masse. Burt keeps looking for a working phone (and disregards all the dried cornstalks all over everything far past the point where it makes sense, or even looks sane).
Back at the house / art gallery, Sarah draws a picture of Vicky that we don't get to see; there's plenty of ominous creaking floorboards but the homicidal kids take a good long while to reveal their presence. They eventually take Vicky away (unharmed, at least for now, because He Who Walks Behind the Rows doesn't like damaged goods when it's sacrificin' time. Burt has a psychic flash, I guess, that Vicky's in danger and runs back to the house where they found Sarah (and we belatedly see that Sarah's picture was of Vicky being sacrificed in the cornfield). Burt questions Sarah at great length about where his girlfriend was taken, and we join our sacrifice ritual in the cornfield, already in progress.
Isaac's chewing out Malachai in the field; the knife-happy teen didn't make a proper offering when he killed Joseph. On top of that, he didn't make a proper offering when he killed Sarge the dog or the gas station owner. He Who Walks Behind the Rows is apparently sick of Malachai's shit and Isaac delivers this message (or Isaac uses his religion as a convenient cudgel to verbally beat someone bigger and stronger than him--and who also is very good at stabbing).
After getting a look at the psychic spooky kid drawing Burt heads off to the cornfield, where a row of stalks parts so he can enter. Back in the cornfield, an indeterminate distance and direction from where Burt ran off (thanks to indifferent editing we have no idea whether or not Burt's running in the right direction or how long it'll take him to get to the sacrifice), Vicky's been tied to a cross and anointed with cornstalks. The kids are all chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!" but at least at this point nobody's doing anything more that that.
At the church, Amos (a true believer that I don't think we've seen in the movie yet) is slicing a pentagram in his chest and gathering the resulting blood flow in a corn-kernel lined bowl. There's a lot of corn and corn-based handicrafts in this film, making it look like the worlds least safe state fair exhibit. Burt kicks in the church door and asks what the heck is going on; Amos says it's his birthday so it's his turn to get sacrificed to He Who Walks Behind the Rows (which makes me wonder what kind of special revelation Isaac is going to have to pull out of his ass when he turns old enough to smoke, vote, and buy Penthouse in order to avoid getting sacrificed).
We get a little bit of exposition when Burt asks Amos what's going on, but only a little bit until the kid who was going to drink some of Amos' blood in an unexplained ritual shanks him with a corncob-handled switchblade. Yes, it's as goofy-looking as it sounds. Also, I guess maybe that girl was just really thirsty. Burt pulls the knife out of his chest and escapes the church, virtually every child in the building running after him in hot pursuit. For once it's the guy in a horror movie that trips and falls for no reason when the menace is after him. Surrounded by the Kellogg Youth, he makes a second run for it and hides out in a garage until Malachai sees him and enters. Burt wallops the kid with a crowbar and dashes off a third time. Job the narrator leads Burt to the fallout shelter that Job and Sarah's dad built as a hideout for when the Soviets took over Nebraska. Burt patches himself up with a first-aid kit while Job explains that Isaac used to be a child preacher of the holy rolling Old Testament type until he picked a new and slightly more bloodthirsty deity.
Back at the cornfield, Malachai decides that he's bigger, stronger, carrying a knife and tired of putting up with Isaac's ceremonial speechifying when there's so much killing to be done (and, at least to my mind, setting up a Reformation in time for him to live longer than one day past his 18th birthday). He orders the other kids to cut Vicky down from her cross and tie Isaac up as the night's other sacrifice to He Who Walks Behind the Rows. As another part of his takeover of the Gatlin Corn Shuck Satanic Youth Cult and Pottery Workshop he hauls Vicky out to an indeterminate part of downtown (all those parking lots look the same, and we don't get an establishing shot of, say, the diner so we know that he's at a place the viewer would know about). After some preliminary yelling for Burt to give himself up he slices Vicky's cheek so she'll scream and draw her boyfriend out of hiding.
Burt doesn't hear the yelling from either character in the bomb shelter, but Job decides that it's an opportune time to tell the grownup from the outside world that "the lady" has been taken to He Who Walks Behind the Rows' preferred snack spot. So as night falls and there's a corn-stalk-thumping procession that demands a singalong of the chorus to "Have I the Right?". Isaac is already strung up on a cross and yelling at everyone for their blasphemy in their choice of victim (this time) but Amos is really chill about getting to be eaten by whatever monster is hanging out in the cornfield. In this scene, by the way, Isaac sounds like a furious prepubescent Joe Pesci.
Burt and the two heretic siblings run to a barn so the kids can hide and Burt can try to charge in like the cavalry to save his girlfriend. Night falls instantaneously and Burt grabs a lead pipe, one of many preferred weapons for doomed last charges in horror movies. Amos, in the clearing, senses the approach of He Who Walks Behind the Rows while some pretty boss matted-in storm clouds fill the sky. And, to be fair, the burrowing shape under the soil that shows where He Who Walks Behind the Rows is moving is quite cool. I'm sure if this story was adapted today it'd be an indifferent-to-shitty CGI effect but at the time this film was made they just rigged up a trench with some sort of thing in it, covered it loosely with dirt, and pulled it along via a rope or chain to make the presence of the monster known. The sound design as it tunnels through the earth is also great, but the glowing cartoon effect that shows up seconds later pisses away all the good will that the admittedly cool practical gag brought to the audience. Then Isaac's cross gets launched into the air like a Stomp Rocket(TM) and the movie's cheese has slipped well and truly off the cracker.
Then, as the movie staggers and lurches to its ending, Burt gives one of those Captain Kirk speeches about how wrong everyone around him is. Sadly, the kids don't bum-rush him and poke him full of holes (although Malachai beats on him with a chain briefly before Burt slaps him stupid). There's still too much movie to go before the actual ending, so a possessed Isaac comes back and says "He wants you too, Malachai". Which is nonsensical--if He Who Walks Behind the Rows was speaking through His prophet, He should have said "I want you," instead. If Isaac isn't possessed he shouldn't be speaking in Constipated Batman Voice, and if there's more than one demon, halfway through the third act of the film is a dogshit time to introduce that concept after having a sole supernatural threat established since the fifteen minute mark or so.
Anyway, Malachai gets necksnapped by Possessed Isaac, lighting from a storm out of nowhere strikes the barn (to absolutely no effect), and Sarah says all the weird shit going on is He Who Walks Behind the Rows manifesting in person. After a goddamned hour and change Job is a fountain of exposition, telling Burt that a Bible passage (helpfully underlined) is the secret weapon against the monster, and that the cop we saw crucified earlier was goofing with the still when he got taken and sacrificed. So...Bible verse, engraved lighter from the first scene, 7-Up bottle and still full of flammable liquid in the middle of a dry cornfield hooked up to the irrigation sprayers. I think we all know how this is going to end up. Okay, the corn stalks and leaves wrapping around Burt shows that the director saw The Evil Dead, but it turns out that a pocket knife can get Burt out of that hazard.
When He Who Walks Behind the Rows finally does show up, it's an orange cloud rolling in from the horizon. I know that nothing a cheap movie from 1984 was going to live up to the demonic potential of that idea, but it's like the filmmakers didn't even try. Anyway, the cornfield catches on fire and we get to see a mushroom cloud with an evil face screaming when the demon finally checks out. Less than fifty seconds onscreen for a ninety minute movie? I feel ripped off, and I watched this on Netflix.
One final "hey the killer kid is after you" popup scare and everyone walks off to Hemingford to summon police and wrap up whatever dangling plot threads nobody even cares about at this point. Theend.
What a piece of shit. The sequel rights to this one must have been traded away for a hot lunch and a pint of off-brand paint thinner; that's the only way I can imagine a movie this rote and uninspired could have inspired a remake and more than half a dozen sequels. It was tame (other than the transgressive shock value of showing killer kids) to the point where it could likely be shown on TV without having to bleep more than a couple words of profanity. The gore was minimal, and the cinematography ranged from uninspired to confusing. Well, I finally got around to seeing this one, so I guess I can scratch another Eighties franchise startup flick off the list, but that's literally the only positive I've got out of the experience.
That's not entirely true. I've got the best excuse imaginable to throw a link up about a chainsaw sculpture of Ronald McDonald that some friends of mine stumbled across in Iowa.
Sunday, July 10, 2016
Written and directed by Ken Sanzel
Ryan Kwanten: John
Freida Pinto: Colt
I've known my friend Scott since we were thirteen years old (we're both 41 as of this writing, if my math can be trusted). I'd give him a kidney if he wanted it. Not even if he needed one, just wanted one. He's had my back since I was a skinny bespectacled science fiction dork in the brass buckle of the Bible belt, and I've had his for the same period of time. We have known each other long enough that we've got a private slanguage made up of movie quotes and ridiculous things we've said in each others' presence for the last quarter century and change. It's possible that he's playing some kind of horrible prank on me for my self-declared July 10 holiday, but I'm not entirely sure yet. He did tell me to pick either "You're welcome" or
He told me about this movie, knowing my weakness for Stoic Fighting Guy movies. In fact, he started his sales pitch by saying "It doesn't say anything that Hard Times or Robot Jox didn't already say about people who find themselves compelled to commit to personal combat for reasons of their own," and I immediately perked up. As you can tell by the underlining and different color for those movie titles, I've already reviewed both of them. Ryan Kwanten, the lead, was one of the stars of Knights of Badassdom, another flick that's shown up here at the Checkpoint.
So for my own private irreligious observance this year I'm forgoing a movie about satellites and instead watching one about a sport so stupid that I can't believe it's not on ESPN 5 already. Dumber than competition level face slapping, it's time to delve into a film about the underground pistol dueling scene. I really miss the days where movies with this kind of plot could get a theatrical release (I remember seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme's Lionheart in a second-run theater, which is another "stoic guy fights people in squalid surroundings" movies). Hell, since it was filmed in Bogota, it's a cinch that an old-school director like Roger Corman or someone a rung or two below him on the Hierarchy of Exploitation Cinema to revive the tagline for Snuff ("Made in South America...Where LIFE is CHEAP!"). It'd make a moderate to large profit in theaters and become fondly remembered on VHS for being "that one fight movie where dudes empty clips at each other three times". Unfortunately that isn't the way they distribute B movies any more, so what we got is something that will be available on Netflix and other streaming services until it isn't.
The film starts with someone chalking a circle about three feet across on the cement floor of an industrial space while an audience gathers and a Joss Whedon impersonator gets a brief closeup. Bundles of currency are laid down and a pair of people put guns down for inspection, then suit up with bulletproof vests. This first time that we witness whatever's going on, there's a scarred South American competitor and a white guy with Action Flick Stubble(TM) on his jawline. There's also rings of seats less than two feet from each person who will be shooting at each other from about twenty feet away--I wonder if this is the only sport where the most expensive seats are farther away from the action.
While the credits run, the two gunfighters strap holsters to their bodies and step into their respective circles. They're not even bothering to make much of a Hate Face at each other--the audience surmises that it's a business proposition for them, not a personal vendetta going on. And there's a slate with odds chalked on it, but so far there hasn't been a single syllable of intelligible dialogue (just some crowd muttering as people file in to take their seats). The guy who isn't Ryan Kwanten has seven chalk marks on his vest, which makes me think he's won--or at least competed--more than half a dozen times. A woman on the sidelines throws a large metal bolt onto the dingy metal floor between the two men and when it clinks on the ground they draw. The white guy's faster and shoots his opponent, who staggers back but raises his gun anyway; the second shot staggers him to the point where he sits down on the cement barrier behind him until the referee gives him a really, really long count of five to get back up and get shot again. When he declines (and who could really blame him?) "North" is declared the winner of the match. I'm not sure if the positions in the arena were north and south or if that's the nickname of the gringo who competes in this sport at this point, but I'm sure the filmmakers will get around to telling me before too terribly long.
"North" sticks around to watch the next match, which is apparently using the Andy Kaufman Inter-Gender rules. A towering shaven-headed guy faces off against a Hispanic woman, and takes six shots to the torso in a matter of seconds, and "South" wins her match. Guess that the circles are North and South, then. Oh, and the sparse crowd boos the winner, who gives them the finger and walks off to sit next to North and insult the technique and assumed genital size of her opponent (turns out that the Desert Eagle is the mid-life-crisis sports car of handgun dueling; it's also heavy enough that trying to pull one quickly before the other person shoots you is really, really tough). The woman then introduces herself as Colt and the previous winner gives his name as John. The pair of victors look at the next match, and notice an attractive woman in a black dress observing the proceedings. Colt says she's the one who picks Zorringer's fights, and that guy is probably really good at this because he has a name with more than one syllable.
North (another gringo) fucks up and shoots South in the leg; that turns out to be a forfeit. I expect it's also a "South's friends kick the shit out of you in an alley when they track you down" offense too, or at least it should be. Colt asks John if he knows someone named Red Dolan, but he's already leaving the arena and following Zorringer's manninger out the dooringer and doesn't have time to talk. The scout says she's not here for John and wants to see him with his shirt off when he asks what he's got to do in order to get a shot (aheh) at what I assume is the big league of competitive fast-draw pistol dueling. He doesn't have cauliflower torso (or whatever the long term injuries you get from being shot multiple times would be called), so the mystery woman just declares him not ready for Zorringer. John just looks at it as him being fast and accurate enough that he hasn't been shot yet in the competition. The woman tells John that she'll be in "the old city" in a week, and it's up to him to see if anything's different by then.
After getting turned down for the big time, John walks out of the arena to see that Colt is waiting for him. He gets off on the mother of all conversational wrong feet by assuming Red Dolan knocked Colt up and she's looking for support or a wedding ring. It's not Sex that motivates Colt, but rather Violence (Dolan killed her brother by using an armor-piercing round, so she's in the dueling game so she can fight him and probably foul out by either doing the same to him or just blowing his head off). It's interesting to see a female character with a relative in the fridge; most of the time in action movies it's the hero who loses a wife, girlfriend, daughter or sister to the threat in order to motivate him to get to the third act (Death Wish 3 kills off the love interest less than three minutes after she and the vigilante sleep together--the woman's role in the story is to be avenged, so there's no point in giving her any screen time past the bare minimum or characterization past "is willing to have sex with Chuck Bronson despite a multiple-decade age difference"). We're never going to meet Colt's brother outside of a flashback or possibly a seance, though, so her motivation's good and established before the narrative of this film even starts.
Colt's search for Red has taken several months (or possibly more than a year); turns out that he shot Colt's brother in a Mexican fight, but that the Mexican authorities shut the whole circuit down. Not being a professional investigator or duelist, it took her a while to figure out where everyone moved on after Mexico stopped hosting gunfights. According to John, Red got beat and decided not to get back into the circle, but vague rumors put him back in the game after a certain amount of wound-licking time. Colt, however, doesn't have any idea what the guy actually looks like and needs John to point him out. She's got a car, he does not, and he's got to get to that old city in seven days. Looks like both people can do something for the other. I like me a nice mercenary relationship in movies. Maybe the pair of 'em will do something as cliched as fall for each other, but so far the film hasn't been hackneyed enough to make me think that it's inevitable. For her part, Colt just wants to know when she's actually found Red Dolan and isn't thinking any farther than that.
Speaking of people with plans that end sharply, John drops a little exposition of his own during a night drive from Here to There; Zorringer used to compete openly and now just waits for competitors to come to him. Nobody who claimed there were going to challenge him ever come back from those duels, so it looks like either he's absolutely the best of ever at shooting people who stand there and take it or he's got the longest Monopoly game in history going on at his swingin' bachelor pad.
John and Colt make their way to a railway terminal full of rusting old trains; like the aforementioned Hard Times, this is a movie that doesn't make the underground fighting circuit look glamorous. It's dingy, the competitors risk piles of cash doing something terminally stupid and hideously dangerous, and the reward is getting a chance to do it again with somebody more practiced. I guess there's some kind of attraction to this life for John, but damned if I can tell what it is at this point (though being good enough at the sport that he hasn't been shot yet is probably an ego stroke the likes of which I can scarcely imagine).
While John's match is set up, a gringo in the audience asks Colt who she knows in the sport; she just says her partner knows Red Dolan and the random dude next to her turns out to know Red, or at least know what the rumor mill is saying about the guy. He knows some vengeance-fixated woman is tracking him down and that can't help Colt's plan in the least. The second arena, by the way, is a maintenance trench in the rail yard that makes it impossible for either man to even think about dodging. The blaze orange spray paint marking their positions on the grime looks really evocative. The cinematographer in this flick really manages to give a lot of filthy character to the shooting locations.
The second match sees John pull his gun before the other man, but hesitates so that he knows what it's like to actually get hit. It's just a shoulder shot (action movie shorthand for "the lightest gunshot wound available with or without a prescription", rather than massive trauma to ribs and shoulder blades that make bones look like a double handful of cornflakes worked over with a hammer). It still staggers him, but not enough to lose the fight to a hulking Colombian dude with one blind eye. I felt really bad for the stuntman who had to fall backwords into the Filth Trench that they were shooting in.
Speaking of feeling bad for people in this movie, the random guy talking to Colt earlier in this part of the film turns out to be shooting against her; he sets up a side bet with her before the fight. If she wins, he'll give her Red Dolan's last known whereabouts. If she loses, she's got to suck his dick. She agrees to the bet, because vengeance doesn't allow for much in the way of dignity. It turns out that pissing off your "shooting me from less than ten yards away" competition is a bad idea, incidentally; Colt empties her gun at the other man so fast that the referee forgets to start the count. Or perhaps "forgets" it. At this point in the movie I don't know what one of the fighters would do when they run out of bullets and the second person's still committed to participating in the match.
Colt doesn't do the “it's funny to hit someone in the groin” thing here, thank goodness, and presumably when the other guy can get up and move again he'll be telling her where to find the elusive Red Dolan. That night Colt and John are sharing a motel room and Colt wonders why John waited for his opponent to get around to shooting him when he drew fast enough that the match could have been his in a handful of seconds. Our young protagonist wanted to know what getting shot felt like, and says it was comparable to taking a punch, which not might be true but it's certainly appropriate--the name of the film, after all, is Blunt Force Trauma and not Horrible Gaping Bullet Wound.
Colt wants to take a look at the bruise, which means there's a second scene with a little something for the ladies (and some of the men, I'm sure) as Ryan Kwanten takes his shirt off. This time there's a really gnarly looking bruise with a raised impact point in the center--bright red and extremely painful looking. But now at least the guy knows what it felt like for someone to shoot him. We also get a title drop from Colt as she explains several of the awful things that blunt force trauma does to the human body--more to the audience than to John, who already knew about all that kind of thing academically. This scene avoids to worst of the "as you know, Bob," style of expository dialogue since both characters are just confirming something they both already knew while talking about it (and the movie knows this). But it's still kinda clunky. Speaking of clunky obligatory scenes, moments after John takes his shirt off to display his injury Colt takes him to bed, since he's got a nice body over the parts that aren't currently bruised and scarring.
The next day the pair are driving off to the next plot point and / or gunfight and Colt's speeding. She decides to make a run for it but instead of a movie-padding chase scene she gives up almost immediately when John points out that people who make car chase videos on YouTube don't get away, and she's probably not going to either. Yes, it's true that they have a bunch of guns and money in the car, but running won't make that problem go away. The cops shove John around violently and slam him down on the hood of the police car, while the one searching Colt decides to grope her while he's doing it. Oh, and then one of the officers finds the bag full of cash and John's pistol in the trunk. It's when the bulletproof vest gets discovered that things get kinda interesting--the cop who didn't grab Colt's ass wants to know if John's any good at the sport (neither officer even conceptualizes that a woman could compete on the circuit as far as I can tell).
The cops take John and another guy that was already cuffed in the back of their SUV to a derelict courtyard where one of them starts scuffing a pair of circles in the dirt (the subtitled dialogue right before they get there is meant to make the other criminal relax and let him know that he's not going to get executed out of hand, which is a pretty damning indictment of the Colombian law enforcement system). The police setting up their own private gladiatorial competition doesn't make 'em look any better, although it does look like one of the police thinks it's a bad idea and eye-fucks his partner. John puts on his old vest and tells the cops (and us, the viewers) that after a Kevlar vest has been shot, the fibers tear and it's not bulletproof any more. Interesting that we only hear about that roughly half an hour into the film, and bully for Ken Sanzel for not front-loading all the details about the equipment in the first scenes.
The petty thief almost gets himself ventilated when he pokes at the gun on his holster because the cops want him to draw at the end of the countdown, not before. Both officers also have their own guns pointed at the two unwilling combatants when the one who came up with this plan starts counting down from five (the shot of four armed men standing in a square is brief but rather impressive). Also, if I'm understanding it right, the underground dueling circuit is something that is common knowledge to the police but not to the really low-level criminals. That's interesting.
Before the ringleader cop can count down for the fight, John draws and shoots both police (hitting the Kevlar each time); the petty thief takes a pot shot at him and gets him in the bicep because he's not accurate enough to know what he's doing. John knocks that guy down too--and owes Colt a new vest because shooting hers twice probably made it useless. He scoops up his gear and walks off; the policeman who instigated the whole thing is actually really impressed with how fast and accurate John's shooting was. When he gets back to unlock Colt's handcuffs, she's worried that the pair of them are now cop killers--bad news in a country where the police appear to be the biggest gang around. Even worse news if the officers radioed in details about Colt's car before the whole thing went down. John assures her that they're merely cop wounders, but that's not great news either.
While getting his wounds treated at a clinic, John gets his shirt off again. The doctor dresses him down and points to some X-rays that show mild damage to his ribs, but tells him the next time he gets hit like he just did it could break his ribs and send bone splinters into his lungs. I hadn't really considered that kind of thing, but it makes a lot of sense that repeated massive shocks to the system would have negative effects. It also makes me wonder what kind of horrific damage was done to everyone in the earlier duels--especially every time someone emptied their gun at an opponent. Sure, nobody's dead, but there's only so much stress bones can take before they're irrevocably damaged. John figures that's not a big deal because he's not going to get hit again, and it's time to go to the old city. There's still an hour to go in the film, though, so he's probably got a life lesson or two to pick up before the big showdown with Zorringer.
The next duel plays out in silence over a generic alt-rock track; John wins that one easily against a twitchy grinning dude who takes multiple hits before stumbling down and losing. John doesn't seem to take much satisfaction in the win, and Colt watches silently as he takes off his vest and accosts the mysterious woman. She notes (without approval or disapproval) that he's got some battle scars now, and tells him that he doesn't want the fight, per se, but rather the adrenaline hit he gets right before the fight. Which could probably be addictive, and which has to be stronger now that John knows the consequences of getting shot--even with a vest on.
Whatever Zorringer's assistant sees in John, it's enough to tell him there's a $20,000 entrance fee to get a match with the mysterious Zorringer and that the official odds are five to one. Assuming he lives, that's not a bad nest egg for John but given that he's one of those Stoic Fight Guys, it's not like he's going to develop a taste for the finer things and stop dueling (or retire and open a used book store). There's still a week to go until the fight, though, and that means it's time for the vengeance plot to take over the narrative for a while. Red was in "the flats" a few days ago, wherever they are, and Colt wants to see if he's still there. John wants to know if Colt's planning to fight Red or just kill him, and she can't give a straight answer.
In the requisite dive bar, John finds out that there's a local match every Thursday by a dam, but he's got enough of a name for himself that the local guys won't fight him (one of the promoters mentions video of John from a previous match, but nobody in the film has used a cell phone camera or anything that I remember; the technology on display tends to be from the 1980s or so, which is another reason why I think of this flick as the kind of thing they tend not to make any more). So unless he offers odds that mean he's making less money from a win, John's just going to be a spectator at those duels.
While they're delivering exposition, the two fight promoters at the bar tell Colt that Red Dolan is dead; I honestly didn't see that coming. John and Colt bribe or sweet-talk their way into a morgue to view the body and John confirms that Colt's vengeance quest is officially futile without a Ghostbusters backpack. We learn a little bit about the back stories of the dueling circuit and Sonny (Colt's brother) during a "talking about stuff while on a swing set" scene; there used to be an underground pistol fighting scene in the States, and Sonny wanted to be as American as he could so he learned to shoot and turned out not to be fast enough to face Red (who, apparently, wasn't a cheater--the blunt force impact from his fight gave Sonny fatal kidney damage from a colossally unlucky shot). Colt isn't even sure if killing Red would have done anything and gets some rather on-the-nose dialogue about not grieving for her brother because her vengeance kept him alive.
Then she asks John about what's on the other side of his match with Zorringer, and he says there isn't another side to that. He also says the fight is "a moment of unambiguous perfection", which means that if we don't know anything about John's past or where he learned to fight, one thing is true: He owns a word-a-day calendar. After their heart-to-heart Colt takes the vests and gun rigs out of the trunk of her car and says she's going to "achieve intimacy" with John--apparently the sex didn't quite do it earlier. (Some fun dialogue here, too: "Don't tell me you haven't wondered." "Not really. I'd win.") Colt puts down a hundred bucks, since the code of the people who shoot each other for fun requires financial stakes before a match. John gets face-to-face to Colt, who pushes him back and they take their places for the duel. Incidentally, at least one of them is going to need to buy a new vest after this. I'm also not sure how they're going to decide when to draw with no referee, but they'll figure it out.
Oh, John just draws first and shoots Colt in the torso (she responds by nicking his ear, and then reholstering her gun out of recognition that she fouled out). John shoots her again but she refuses to fall, and the match result is ambiguous (as is their relationship status). Colt says she's heading home, and John's on his own getting to the old city now. Before she goes, John tells her that she was fast enough to beat Red Dolan, not that it actually matters at this point. She drives away and leaves John on the playground to figure out how he's going to get to the next waypoint on his journey (turns out it's in the back of one of those old pickup trucks carrying passengers that I've never actually seen in real life). John sees another truck on the road with a bulletproof vest in the bed and hops off to see what kind of action is going down. The first thing he sees at the grounds is a hipster looking guy getting carried to a pickup truck by his friends and carried off for medical treatment and the second thing he sees is another duelist who notices his particular gun rig and says nobody's going to offer decent odds for the match.
Then, inevitably, the tout tells John that there is one guy that he might be able to get decent odds on, and it's a huge black dude "slow as justice", who hasn't ever been knocked down before regardless of how many times he was shot. John decides to take the chance and the two men square off in a dusty, dirt-floored horse pen (the circle is a bunch of knives stuck in the ground this time--I like how each arena has its own particular way of handling that). The guy who isn't John offers a ten-count to get back up instead of the customary five as a gesture of good will (and also says that John's going to need it). When the match starts, John shoots the guy six times and his opponent doesn't even move his feet. Then you get to see a really nice "oh shit" face on Ryan Kwanten when the other guy draws his gun. And then empties the clip at him (ten shots versus John's six), hitting his vest each time. And now we learn that duelists are allowed to reload after expending all their shots as John tries to get more bullets in his revolver and get back into the circle before he loses. John takes a second full clip from the other guy and gets back on his feet with one second to go before losing the match, reloads and empties his own gun a third time at the previously unstoppable guy whose name we never actually learn. he wins (even with massive favoritism from the officiator and the audience, who go so far as to throw another magazine to the huge dude when he needs more bullets) and staggers off to feel more pain than he ever has in his life.
He wakes up in the middle of the night when someone walks up to the stable where he's sleeping off his ass-whooping and it inevitably turns out to be Colt (who agrees that he won't get taken to a doctor). Colt is still following "the boards" online, and there was video of the cross-draw Colt Python guy and a huge dude killing each other. Well, it's the internet. People exaggerate (but I don't have to, because Checkpoint Telstar gets more traffic than Google and PornHub put together). As John recovers ("I'm pissing less blood" is a good sign, right?) he and Colt go for brief walks and talk a little bit, but they're still rather distant from each other. Apparently whoever owns the horse farm is willing to let John recover there, or it's an abandoned place that just gets used for duels because it's a convenient spot.
John finally reveals a piece of his past while sitting out at night watching Colt's improper meat grilling technique. He worked at a big-box appliance store selling TVs and computers (which means that the Forty Year Old Virgin and he share a secret origin). Colt's not interested in that any more, though, so they just wind up in bed together and John charts his recovery over the next couple of days by finding out whether he's experiencing agony or just pain when he lifts his arms or tries to exercise. John also started out watching the matches (I presume in the American matches before they got shut down) and bought his gun and holster from a guy who found out he couldn't hack it during a match where he got shot twice. After getting in the circle and finding out he was born for back-alley close range pistol duels, John just sorta fell into the life. Even though he's got days of painful recovery and nights of Colt sharing his bed, it looks like he still wants to go back into the circuit (and he only has a few days to make up his mind unless he can get an extension on his application with Zorringer's HR manager). There's the inevitable cleaning-the-gun-and-target-shooting montage as he tries to determine if he's lost his nerve, of course.
Colt drives John to the designated meeting spot and there's already a few gunfighters waiting there having lunch (including the first Asian guy in the cast). Everyone's waiting for Zorringer to come by, which could be any day now. But it isn't today, so everyone can just wait and get nervous and psych themselves out if they feel like it--which is a pretty solid tactic for Zorringer if he wants to stay on top of things. There's zero conversation among the duelists at the cafe, and John decides on coffee and eggs rather than a beer for breakfast (solid thinking!). But everyone at Zorringer's threshold is in hurry-up-and-wait mode, and time stretches on. Then his manager / talent scout drives up in a bright red Humvee, picks up the Asian guy (who hasn't had a single syllable of dialogue) and drives off to parts unknown. The various remaining fighters and their girlfriends just wait at the cafe looking at the rain. Colt goes off for a walk, not that there's a hell of a lot to see around the cafe, just for something to do. Turns out that if proving you're good at getting shot is all that there is in your life, there's not a heck of a lot else going on (and the psych-out theory gains a little credence when John reveals that he's had trouble sleeping).
He wakes up quick enough when Colt discovers that another contestant who hasn't had any dialogue got his throat cut and his buy-in money swiped. Better yet, there's a few more criminals lurking around seeing what else they can get. But Colt and John turn out to be fast and accurate shots, as we in the audience already knew. Of course, this event was more freestyle than regimented, but none of the criminals even get a shot off before they're all dead. The cafe owner says everything's fine, it's just that some times people waiting for an audience with Zorringer get murdered for their cash. The police won't be a problem (and isn't that reassuring?). Colt fires up a spliff to mellow out after the attack and decides to leave so that John can face his destiny (and get killed by Zorringer) without further distractions.
But the movie's not going to have John decide not to get shot at this point, so it's just too bad for Colt if she wants him to stay safe. Or even to stay a winner, because losing to Zorringer means that John won't be the same person he was before. That's presuming that Zorringer's conquests don't all kick the oxygen habit when they lose, of course. The henchwoman drives up, as she inevitably was going to, and takes John off to his match just as Colt drives away. There's probably something here about how Colt and the unnamed woman scouting fighters for Zorringer are both driving bright red vehicles (one gas-huffing SUV and one sports car), but I'm not entirely sure what that would be.
John is escorted into the palatial "south of the border rich eccentric action movie antagonist" villa and sees Zorringer (Mickey Rourke! He's occupying the "star that the movie could afford for a couple of days" role here), feeding his pet parrot Joe (which will make most of the people watching this flick think of Mickey Rourke in the second Iron Man movie and his pet cockatoo. Maybe Mickey Rourke really just likes pet birds). Zorringer turns out to have a classical education (speaking a Latin motto as he looks out the view from his deck) and describing a ladder to heaven that Saint Perpetua climbed after stepping on a dragon. John doesn't quite get the point of the story (Zorringer: "I don't want to be no fucking dragon"). And we finally get an origin story for the sport (which has never been named anything by any of the characters in the film so far; they just do it, they don't give it a clever name). Turns out the drug cartels had a vested interest in knowing whether or not any of their bulletproof armor was actually worth a damn. They paid desperate poor people 100 pesos to strap on different manufacturers' vests and shoot at each other; eventually there were standardized rules to prevent things from being too dangerous and reckless. Yeah, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me either.
John says he was never playing for stakes, but rather for "the moment of form and grace". I can't tell if Zorringer is impressed or not, but he sets dawn the next day for the match instead of just shutting John down completely. The mystery woman lets herself into John's room wearing lingerie in a shot that was destined to be in the trailer if this movie came out in 1988 theatrically, and although he says he doesn't want her, it certainly appears that he gets her. Maybe this whole Zorringer dueling thing is a way to feed her fetish for doomed masculinity. That makes Zorringer a really good boyfriend if I'm right. At any rate, his hands aren't quite shaking when he picks up his pistol for the morning's duel, but even without using his face or voice Mickey Rourke is a skilled enough actor to communicate his character's apprehension in the face of another duel. You're only the greatest in the world at something for so long. Then you're the guy who used to be the greatest. And if you're doing gunfights from twenty feet away there's an excellent chance that you're going to die right after you find out you're the guy who used to be the greatest.
Zorringer and Joe hike off to a clearing where the woman is already waiting for them. The older man takes a moment to look back at his house while the woman inspects his gun, making sure the bullets are standard loads. And although neither character mentioned it, Zorringer neglected to bring hist vest along for this duel; John silently discards the one Colt bought for him. Both men holster their weapons and face each other, with John removing his shirt to have absolutely no protection whatsoever. The impact bruises he's sporting over his chest and back look hideous. He closes his eyes and waits for the signal; it's that moment of grace and form he was living for.
Sports movies only have two endings--either the protagonists win or they almost win. And the way that Blunt Force Trauma wraps up, I'm not entirely sure if John or Zorringer is the one who found what he was looking for, or if both of them did. And that's what makes this film, at the end, something much better than the B list programmer that I was anticipating or that I thought the movie was going to be over almost all of its run time. It's got room in its soul for a little meditation and a little reflection on exactly what it takes to become a person driven to succeed at a self-destructive task and I honestly would have expected Colt to stick around as the concerned girlfriend instead of taking off when it becomes obvious that John is utterly set on his path.
I see that Ken Salzel has directed two other movies (one about a Wild West show actor facing down a biker gang, which sounds like it's going to have a look at artifice and heroism that might fit in quite well with what I saw in this flick. It's rare to find a kinda thoughtful movie, and even less so to find one when it's about people getting into gunfights over and over again. It's like a Roger Corman movie, back when even his ripoffs were aiming high and he was trying to make sure the audience got full value for its ticket price.
So: Thank you, Scott. This was a heck of a Telstar Day present.
Thursday, June 30, 2016
Written by Mayo Simon
Directed by Saul Bass
Nigel Davenport: Dr. Ernest D. Hubbs
Michael Murphy: James R. Lesko
Lynne Frederick: Kendra Eldridge
One of the old workhorse plots of science fiction is the story of first contact between humanity and an intelligent alien race. You can tell virtually any kind of story you want with that premise--anything from monuments getting blowed up real good until the human race puts aside its cultural differences to kill a bunch of aliens right back to a shocked humanity learning that it has to shed its violent ways if it wants to join the community of civilizations out among the stars. Or, if you're John Wyndham, every time you tell that story you use the same general template: Two intelligent species that meet but are too different to communicate will fight to the total extermination of at least one side. It's evolution writ large, it's pitiless and it's inevitable (to Wyndam). Or to Mayo Simon and Saul Bass, who directed this entry for the June Bugs review event between Cinemasochist Apocalypse and Checkpoint Telstar as part of our continuing efforts to forge alliances between silly little B movie review blogs. Bryan and I are not too different to communicate, so if we fight to the death it's only because we really want to.
Saul Bass, of course, is known for creating instantly iconic title sequences for other directors' movies; this is his first and only feature film. I wonder how much more interesting and annoying he found the process when he was responsible for the entire narrative instead of just distilling another creator's film down to its intangible essence for an opening sequence that also has to list everyone who made the film (and was important enough to get their names in the credits). Mayo Simon was another moviemaker who didn't make all that many movies--he wrote three science fiction screenplays that got produced. Phase IV was the second of them (I haven't seen Marooned outside of a "Mystery Science Theater 3000" episode and I've never seen Futureworld, so I don't have an informed opinion of how atypical this film is for him).
Judging from the poster art up there, though, I'm willing to bet the studio didn't want a movie as contemplative and elliptical as they got. Their loss. I understand that slow and meditative are qualities that are hard to sell, but anyone who walked into a theater expecting to see THE DAY THE EARTH WAS TURNED INTO A CEMETARY! and got this was likely to wind up permanently angry unless the movie won them over. I hope that it did, but judging from the fact that Saul Bass never got to direct another movie, it's more likely that this one was influential to other artists and either ignored or disliked by the audience at large. Interestingly enough, the use of special microscopic lenses to capture insect behavior that was then used in a narrative context instead of a documentary one was the center of The Hellstrom Chronicle, a semi-documentary movie about insect life released six years earlier. Wildlife photographer Ken Middleham worked on both films, so at least he got to do something he was obviously interested in.
A droning chorus and / or electronic tone suffuses the soundtrack during PHASE I (according to a title in the corner of the screen that announces itself with a very 1971 kind of electronic beep). Some sort of Space Body Convergene Event happens as organ chords swell and fade out. Our narrator says that while mankind was looking at things happening in space, they missed out on what was happening right here on Earth, because nobody thought to look at the insignificant and tiny form of life that the Space Thingy affected. Oh, and I'm sure the images flooding the screen during the cosmic whatnot would look pretty great in a big theater while the viewer was drunk or stoned (or both). It's a bit like starting your movie with a budget-conscious recreation of the last act from 2001: A Space Odyssey. And hopefully the audience would wind up in the mood to watch a contemplative film after viewing those images. The first thing we see that isn't a planet or a screen full of solarized red lines is an ant, filmed up close at camera speeds that make it look like a stop-motion effect. The camera slowly tracks in towards an ant hill and the first of many remarkable shots of ants takes place.
The narrator turns out to be a mathematician named James Lesko; he and a biologist (Dr. Ernest Hubbs) are the two principal human characters in the film. Dr. Hubbs figured out something was weird with ants after the Cosmic Whatnot went off, and started studying them. Turns out that different species of ant tend to annihilate each other when they come into contact (like the way superheroes always fight when they come into each others' presence for the first time). Only now, it wasn't happening. In at least one hive, different kinds of ants were meeting and engaging in diplomacy instead of outright warfare. Considering that humans are outnumbered about 20 million to 1 by the ants--according to a statistic that I just made up right now--that's potentially very, very bad news for the shaved apes who developed to the point where they can wear shoes and complain about the government.
The ants, of course, are even less capable of taking direction than the lions did in Roar. Everything that we see from them that impresses the viewer is the result of Ken Middleham and his staff taking hours upon hours of footage of ants doing stuff and then finding the sequences that work best to convince the audience that the ants are acting intelligently rather than simply on instinct. I cannot praise the insertion of this footage enough; there's some material there that goes beyond entertaining and becomes downright eerie. I could believe in an intelligent hive mind watching this movie, although since it's a low budget movie I'm believing in one that bitches about craft services and wants higher billing than the human actors.
Lesko clues us in to one super-crucial detail during his voiceover--Dr. Hubbs was secretive and also probably worried that every single person in the world would laugh at him if he said ants were forming a superhive that also had some form of government. So, naturally, he keeps his results to himself. But all that means is that nobody else working with him (like, say, a mathematician named James Lesko) is on the same page as the biologist, and will be working to catch up to him via fragments of ideas that they encounter more or less by accident.
Deep in an ant hill in Arizona, there's signs of intelligence (the ants have put designs on one of the walls, and have organized tiny crystals of some kind in a pattern of stacked circles); just by putting those things in the film while real ants walk past them Bass manages to instantly create an otherworldly atmosphere. There's no exposition to tell the audience what those things are, but they look like they couldn't belong in nature less than a fully-formed Roman temple.
In the center of the hive, the queen ant (played by a wasp) endlessly births a tide of eggs that are carted away and cared for by drones. A series of shots and reverse shots make it look like a servitor ant of some kind has come up to tell the queen something, but like all the other human characters in the film the audience can't understand Formic. After this sequence there's more footage of ants doing Ant Stuff as a voiceover from Dr. Hubbs points out to his grant committee that the local ant hives appear to be cooperating--to the point that spiders and other ant-eating organisms are nowhere to be found in the area. We see footage of an ant swarm overrunning, killing, and eating a spider hundreds of times the size of any individual ant and I almost feel sorry for the arachnid, except that it is a spider so I don't.
Dr. Hubbs tells the men with the purse strings that he wants to construct a research station out in this section of Arizona where he can monitor the strange ant activity and do science about it. He also wants a mathematician to work for him, specifically one with code-construction and code-breaking skills in his background. He's also asking for chemical weapons strong enough to murder the entire anthill if he has to, operating on the theory that the ants could be horrifically dangerous to humankind if they genuinely are intelligent. He's hoping to control the situation, but...well...it's a science fiction movie from the early Seventies. Odds are not good. It doesn't help that the anthill is out in the middle of goddamned nowhere in the Arizona desert, where heat shimmer and scrubland are the only features other than a couple ironic billboards for the Paradise City subdivision that was never constructed (so there are no pretty girls or green grass to be found).
Hubbs and Lesko arrive at the spot where the research station is going to be built (and a gimmick shot from the POV of an ant shows the viewer that the two scientists who want to monitor the new situation are being monitored themselves from more or less the second they wandered near the hive). There's a towering monument in the desert near Paradise City, and it's something neither man has ever seen before; a huge rectangle of hard-packed soil that looks for all the world like a Mega-City One tower block for ants. Dr. Hubbs tells his assistant that his knowledge of game theory and mathematics is going to be called into use while he takes pictures of the hive towers (and while another POV shot watches him watching the ants) and then it's time to get cracking. The first sign of oddball ant activity is that the crops growing on a nearby farm have giant circles of dead crops in them (which Lesko figures out on his own after walking around, and which is revealed to the viewer as the camera zooms back). Incidentally, the first crop circles reported in England were made in 1978; perhaps the Brits who created them caught a showing of this film on BBC2 and decided to pretend to be hyperintelligent ants to screw with their neighbors. I appreciate that because my hobbies are stupid, too.
That farm that the two men are checking out? It's got a family farming it, even with the weirdness going on with the ants (and with the ants apparently killing the lambs that are being raised for wool or meat). The head of the family plans to go Full Leiningen on the ants if they make a move against him; he has one ditch around his homestead filled with water and another one inside that perimeter full of kerosene. If the water moat doesn't keep the insects out he'll light the second one and hope that teaches 'em a lesson to back the hell off. If they make it past the second ditch his whole family's going to be up shit creek surrounded by pissed off ants, but the middle-aged white guy running the show on his family farm has one vote for how to handle things and his wife and granddaughter have a combined total of zero votes between them. So that's just how things are going to go.
Things go remarkably badly when Dr. Hubbs hands an evacuation order to the farmer; he says it's for the man's own protection to be gone when the experiment starts, and that might even be true. It's at least partly true that Hubbs doesn't want any extraneous complications when he starts trying to communicate with or destroy the ants, though, and ordering people to take off for a little while so he can science the shit out of the problem sounds pretty reasonable to me. Although "asking" might have gotten him better results than just handing over a letter with an evacuation order in it. At least the cover story they gave to the farmers involved developing a new pesticide, and telling people not to be near it when it gets used makes a great deal of sense.
After the scientists drive off (and Dr. Hubbs implies that it's possible that the farmers will never be allowed to return to their land if things go badly), we get a PHASE II title in the upper right corner of the screen. That phase entails a geodesic dome in the middle of the scrub desert with a bunch of scientific gear crammed into it; Dr. Hubbs and James Lesko live in there amongst the various pieces of equipment. The general idea is that Dr. Hubbs is going to study the ants and determine just what their new and weird behavior really entails while Lesko will work on deciphering the ants' language and determine if it's possible to talk to the hive on any level. If you like scenes of 70s science dudes flipping switches and adjusting dials there's a montage at this point that will be like manna from heaven for you. I'm grateful for the total lack of expository dialogue here; the scientists both know what they're doing and don't need to tell each other about it. And the audience doesn't need to be told the specifics of what the two men are doing--the generalities can be expressed as "trying to figure out what's up with the weird ant colony".
A time jump occurs (there's a counter on one of the computers that reads TIME ELAPSED 20950 MINUTES, which works out to fourteen and a half days after the experiment offically started). The grant committee or governmental organization that okayed Dr. Hubbs' plan is asking what's up with their lack of results so far. Apparently some bean counter at the state or federal level figured that making first contact with an alien intelligence of unprecedented abilities would take as long as binge-watching The Wire, Treme and Boardwalk Empire at the rate of one season per day and they want to shut things down now that it hasn't happened. Dr. Hubbs says it's likely that the ants are going to do something else soon, but there's no way to make them reveal their presence and capabilities on demand.
When it looks like the government is pulling the plug on the experiment rather than let it go Hubbs does something drastic. Those towers of dirt that hte ants put up? He destroys them with a grenade launcher (proving once and for all that science is amazing). As one can imagine, this provokes the ants into doing something. That "something" starts out as a bunch of Joe Meek sound effects on the monitoring microphones at the start, but the hive isn't content to mimic the RGM Sound for long. They attack the farm (floating across the water moat and the kerosene one on chips of wood; something that undoubtedly got helped along by a stagehand but still looks really ominous because without the ant wrangler's fingers in the shot it sure looks like the insects understand what they're doing). Lighting the flammable moat doesn't stop the bugs, who tear apart the concrete and wood in the farmhouse, collapsing it as the family (and Clete the previously unmentioned farmhand) drives away from the conflagration.
Back at the research station, Lesko is explaining the complicated steps it takes to determine if the ants are truly intelligent or not--he's monitoring one of the anthills, and seeing if the noises he's picking up on his mikes can be correlated with the things that are happening in the ant hill. His working hypothesis is that there's some kind of command being given by the queen of the hive (or perhaps a middle-management caste that's come into existence--the sergeants of the soldier ants). If there really are commands being given, he should be able to prove that a certain noise corresponds to a certain type of activity in the hive. All he's got for the last two weeks is a huge amount of data--possibly a haystack of noise, with a needle or two of signal buried deep into it. And given that ants communicate through scent and motion as well, he might only have a third of the data he'd need to put together an English-Formic phrasebook altogether (although his early results are extremely promising).
But while he's doing that the farmer's family is fleeing through the desert towards the research station (bailing out of the truck when the farmer's wife realizes they've got a bunch of tiny bitey hitchhikers), and the ants do something to the truck parked outside the dome that causes it to explode (and which knocks out the battery power to the research station until the backups come on). Dr. Hubbs retaliates to that probe by spraying one of the three color-coded insecticides that the station uses as a first line of defense (they have Red, Yellow and Blue flavors of poison and he starts with Yellow). It does a number on the ants, but the farmers wind up being soaked down with hundreds of gallons of poison as well. Lesko can tell that some of the ants that were attacking the dome are able to get away; Hubbs thinks that if they're capable of learning as well as communicating, they just learned something about what happens when the hive acts aggressively towards the research station.
The next morning the ground's covered with yellow crystals for dozens of yards around the research station--the poison that Hubbs used as his chemical warfare campaign against the ants. And also, inadvertently, against the farmers (the old man's granddaughter turns out to have survived by hiding in the cellar of an abandoned house but we aren't going to find this out just yet). Dr. Hubbs examines the wrecked truck and finds that the ants formed a chain of bodies to create a short circuit that ignited the gas tank, at least partly as a way to avoid looking at the dead human bodies outside the geodesic dome. But once Hubbs finds Clete the farmhands' body he opens its clenched fist and sees ants climbing out of holes in his palm; first of all, YAAAAAAAAAGH!; second of all, they seem to have figured out that they could hide from the toxic gunk raining down by burrowing into the man's body. Just as Hubbs is taking ants from the corpse to study, the farmer's granddaughter comes out into view from the cellar where she was hiding and promptly faints when she sees the two men in biohazard suits.
Back in the lab, Dr. Hubbs rhapsodizes at length about how ant society works out better than human societies, and compares the individual ants scrabbling around in their plastic home to cells in the body of a much larger organism. One of those cells, by the way, is a tan-colored ant with a green abdomen that's significantly larger than the regular black-carapaced drones it's hanging out with. Earlier in the film another ant with those characteristics was talking to the queen, so it appears by random chance that the scientists picked up a brain bug and took it back home with them.
Hubbs is planning to run the captive ants through a series of tests to see how they deal with lack of food, temperature extremes, isolation from the hive and other environmental pressures. He's also got a couple of praying mantises in a box and is planning to see how the ants respond to a predator in their midst (I am guessing that at least a couple of them respond by getting eaten). Lesko wants to call in a helicopter to get Kendra the surviving farmer out to safety; Dr. Hubbs is worried that the experiment will be cancelled if the money men find out he accidentally killed three people while flooding the area with pesticides. I am choosing to interpret his reticence in the best possible light; to wit, that the ants are good and pissed off right now and it will be necessary to respond to their next aggressive move quickly and intelligently. That, of course, will not be possible if there's nobody pushing the big blue or red "poison attack" buttons on the console in the station.
Tellingly, when Kendra is finally introduced to the scientists (and the audience), Lesko gives his name as "Jim" and tells their guest that the other man is "Dr. Hubbs". Hubbs says that he'll send a message for someone to come get Kendra the next day, and an unexpected factor arises when the girl decides to smash the glass maze / really big ant farm that the mantises and ants are being held in. Lesko hauls her out of the room before Dr. Hubbs walks out, seals the door to the lab, and floods the room with insecticide gas as a way to (hopefully) contain the escaped bugs. He doesn't escape without a bite, though; Lesko notices it before the biologist does.
What follows next is one of the justifiable famous sequences in the film; a living ant carries one of the dried yellow poison crystals back to its hive until it succumbs to the toxic morsel. Another ant takes the crystal into its mandibles and drags it down the tunnel until it, too, gives up its life. A third ant takes up its position in the relay, and so on and so on, until the poison fragment is in the queen's chamber. The queen samples a tiny dose of the poison and starts laying yellow eggs; when that generation of larvae matures, the yellow poison isn't going to work on them any more. Those scenes are genuinely fascinating, if unfortunately lethal for the "actors" that were hauling the poison around. I'm not particularly upset at the loss of a few ants in the making of this film (it's not like Cannibal Holocaust, where animal killings are used to suggest to the audience that the actors in the film are really in mortal danger). It's also just a few ants. If it was a colony of otters or dolphins getting murdered for a science fiction movie I'd be just as incensed as you would.
The scenes in the hive are intercut with Dr. Hubbs talking to the outside world and scratching at the rash on the back of his hand where the ant bit him (in a moment rich with dark humor, the government man suggests destroying a single one of the ant towers in an attempt to "get an interesting reaction" from the hive). Dr. Hubbs, visions of testimony in front of Congress likely dancing in his head, denies having met with any civilians living near the research station. That means he's not telling even the slightest bit of truth when he tells Lesko that the helicopter's coming real soon and that Kendra will be whisked away to safety. At this point, Lesko swallows that lie hook, line and sinker and shows off the visualization he's worked up on the station's computers--an endlessly shifting pattern of light that looks like curved lasers playing through fog. He doesn't know enough to interpret what the patterns mean yet, but they're not just random noise.
That night, the ants build a series of squat towers in a ring around the dome. Turns out that you can get a lot of construction done if you have hundreds of thousands of laborers following orders. The towers have a diamond-faced top that faces the research station, and that surface is covered with some kind of reflective substance. Which means that when the sun comes up, the research station is located in a massive heat sink. It also means that several of the factors Dr. Hubbs listed when he was talking about what he was going to do with the captured ants are now being inflicted on the research station (some of them because of the intelligent ants' activities and some of them because of his own efforts).
Kendra and Lesko talk when she wakes up; he tries to put the young woman at ease and tells her that she's going to be able to leave later that day. Before a breakfast made of the finest MRE-quality foods (the government didn't stock the lab with an eye towards comfort), Kendra asks Lesko what he does and he avoids the subject of studying the ants since he doesn't care to upset her any more than he has to. Dr. Hubbs summons him to look at the structures that the ants put together in the poisonous wasteland covered with the yellow toxins--literally overnight, the hive built the weapons that are being used against the researchers, and in a section of territory that should have killed every ant that set foot in it (any of its six feet). Whatever intelligence is manipulating the anthill has just revealed capabilities far beyond anything that humankind would be able to use in response.
Which the scientists find out as the temperature continues to climb in their lab. Lesko's less than thrilled about getting killed by ants when he thought he was just getting a working vacation with plenty of sunlight and fresh air; it also comes out that each scientist noticed the crop circle in the farmer's field but didn't tell the other because Lesko didn't think Dr. Hubbs was smart enough to see what was right in front of him and the biologist thought his colleague would panic and quit if he saw the ants were demonstrating some kind of intelligence. Hubbs makes a pitch for trying to educate the anthill about what it can and cannot do when faced with the humans' efforts to strike back at them--which the viewer realizes is a fool's errand, because the insects are already able to do more to affect the three humans in the geodesic dome than they people will be able to do in response.
Oh, and Lesko figures out that Dr. Hubbs never called for that helicopter, so he says he's going to do it. He's also resigning as soon as the flight out of Dodge gets there because he's been studying the ants' abilities since he got to the station and he does not like the odds that his boss has decided to play against without telling him. The point becomes moot when a group of ants burn out the radio by clustering over a crucial section of circuit board until it overheats and is destroyed. Dr. Hubbs thinks that's just another challenge to face and that he'll just have better war stories to talk about when he wins (and that bite on his hand has swollen up to the point where it's got to be painful and distracting, but he doesn't seem to have noticed it at all).
Hubbs plans a "counter-action" for Lesko to program and starts screwing with the air conditioner, because the computer systems are going to shut down when room temperature is 90 degrees or higher. Hopefully he'll be able to buy some time before everything falls apart. Lesko's response to the solar mirrors is to focus sound waves at them and pulverize the towers by matching their natural resonance (think of the Tacoma Narrows bridge as a rough comparison). Kendra flees from the noise and covers her ears while glass beakers break in the lab and some of the mirror towers start to crumble outside (filmed to look like shattering buildings rather than the two-foot-tall structures made of dirt that they are, which puts the viewer more in the perspective of the ants than it does the scientists). At the same time all that's going on, an escaped praying mantis tracks down an ant in the air conditioner module and eats it; one of the thinking-caste ants then pulls the mantis down into the guts of the machinery and the electrical arcs that kill the mantis also blows out the A/C. Lesko's efforts to destroy the towers are stopped prematurely and the equipment all shuts down with the exception of a single blinking red warning light. As if that wasn't enough on the humans' plate right now, Dr. Hubbs starts to feel feverish and achy from the single ant bite on his hand that he suffered some time back.
A pan over one of the destroyed mirror towers shows dozens or even hundreds of dead and dying ants, with somber music playing on the score as the sun goes down. The temperature in the dome had reached 115 degrees; even with the sun going down it's still way too warm to work in the research station (and Lesko wants to know how the ants figured out that the A/C was the one machine that could shut down everything else in the facility if it was taken out). Like all great science fiction or horror stories, this one contains moments of the impossible that is happening in front of the protagonists' faces. Meanwhile, unobserved by the human characters, worker ants bring the bodies of the casualties from the mirror towers back to a hive chamber, laying them out in orderly rows in some kind of ceremony. So at this point the viewer has seen the hyperintelligent ants plan out a murder (of the mantis), sacrifice their lives to produce an immunity to the yellow toxin, communicate with each other, and now grieve. Every new activity makes them seem more intelligent, and with a distinct personality. If each dead ant was truly just one cell in a larger organism, as Dr. Hubbs theorized earlier, there would be no need for the hive to try and recover their bodies. And if they were going to just be eaten by the hive as a no-fuss source of nutrients, there would be no need to arrange their bodies in orderly rows.
Over the course of the night, the temperature finally falls in the dome to the point where the computer equipment starts up again. Lesko thinks that the ants are letting the two scientists use their giant external brains for some unguessable reason; Dr. Hubbs doesn't agree, at least partially because he doesn't want to think about what it means for the ants to have taken control of the research station so completely, and in just a day. The mathematician tries to send a message to the hive; it's the instructions for the ants to move in a pattern that traces out a diamond shape. Lesko believes that a simple mathematical sequence like the one he sent will reveal to the hive (and whatever's in it making the ants as smart as they are) that there are intelligent beings in the research station and not just hostile creatures lashing out blindly at the colony.
That night one of the brain-caste ants crawls over Kendra's sleeping body (in a series of closeups, one of which threatens the PG rating of the film). She wakes to see it in front of her and tells it to leave her alone (which is at least an attempt to communicate--she could have just crushed it with a slap). Meanwhile, Dr. Hubbs is raving and feverish, sweating on a cot and barely realizing when someone else is near him. In a moment of semi-clarity he spots one of the thinking ants and tosses thousands of dollars' worth of equipment off the storage shelves while looking for a single ant that manages to escape him repeatedly until he smashes it (and cuts the crap out of his palm on some broken glass). The shots here that show the doctor's fingers in extreme closeup as he searches for the ant show just what kind of scale the two characters are working in but it's the green-bellied ant escaping a half a dozen times that makes the sequence really work. I'd believe it if someone told me the filmmakers trained an ant to do stunts.
After the doctor's freakout, night falls again (and we get a PHASE III caption; jeeze, considering how much more in control the ants have been all along, I half expect Phase IV to be 200,000 ants in a trench coat going door to door asking people for sugar cubes). Shots of nature lead to another look at the inside of the dome, with nothing working, Dr. Hubbs smoking and scratching at himself in semi-delirium and Lesko wondering why the ants haven't killed them yet. Unfortunately, none of his experience with mathematics give the scientist any insight as to what's going on. Quietly raving, Hubbs theorizes that killing the queen would lead to the hive falling apart; he thinks that whatever is organizing the ants to act in intelligent concert is centered on the queen. And he's pretty sure that he could find her in the hive and kill her if he really tried. The next time there's a burst of activity in the hive, he wants Lesko to try and track it with his computers so that the biologist can kill the queen (either with a massive burst of poison or just by stomping on her, I guess).
Even as Hubbs comes up with the plan, a closed-circuit camera shows a rodent out in the desert surrounding the station getting overrun by an ant swarm and reduced to fur and skeleton in a matter of (time-lapse sped up footage) seconds. Hubbs says they've got the biohazard suits to protect themselves and Lesko points out that there's two suits and three people in the dome. If the ants decide to go from zero to Marabunta on them, at least one person is going to die. The computer rattles off a picture sent to it by the hive; it's the diamond that Lesko sent earlier, but with a large circle in the center and a tiny dot inside the circle. Lesko's got no idea what that means, but it is unquestionably a message sent back to them with intent. Also, while I'm thinking about it, why didn't they try destroying more of the mirror towers in the night? It'd slow down the heating process even if they didn't get all of them, and only the air conditioner was destroyed by the ant / mantis sabotage as far as I can tell. I'm not certain who two extremely intelligent people would abandon the only plan that worked even partially to help them out. But so far they have.
Lesko realizes that the ants are testing him and Dr. Hubbs with their communications and actions, and starts to worry that he's going to fail it if he doesn't understand what the circle and dot really represent. He theorizes that the ants want to try and communicate with someone if the large circle represents the dome and the dot is a symbol for a person. But that's only one dot and there are three people in the research station; an agonizing and horrible death awaits whoever sets foot outside the dome if Lesko's wrong. And even if he's right, if the one person who goes out there isn't the one that the hive wishes to talk to. Kendra interprets that possibility as the hive wanting to kill the person that hurt it; she also thinks it might be her because of the shot she took at the ants in the glass anthill rather than thinking of the two scientists who spray poison all over Hell's creation a few days ago. She goes outside, barefoot, probably thinking that if she sacrifices herself the two researchers will be allowed to live. Singing a hymn, she makes her way towards the ants that scurry out of the earth and cries out when they swarm over her feet.
Kendra's absence is completely missed by the two scientists as they put together their plan to kill the queen. Dr. Hubbs is so racked up that he can't even pull his boots on, so the "wipe out the colony" plan gets put on hold while Lesko tries to write a new message to the colony. He thinks the dot inside that circle represented Dr. Hubbs (which it might, or it might not--perhaps the ants cannot tell the different between the humans). His plan to try and talk to the hive ends abruptly when he hears the door bang shut; Hubbs is outside, raving about which hill has the queen in it and he sets off toward it, only the fall into a ten foot deep pit trap dug by the patient labor of an inconceivable number of worker ants. They swarm over him by the thousands as Lesko watches helplessly from the top of the pit.
The next shot is of a solitary man in a biohazard suit spraying blue poison from a handheld fogger, walking towards that hill and musing that there just wasn't enough time for the human scientists to figure out a way to genuinely communicate with the ants. And given the colony's abilities as demonstrated against the research station and its stockpile of poisons as well as its rate of expansion over a short amount of time, if he doesn't get to the main hill and wipe out the queen now the world of man will inevitably be destroyed by trillions of intelligent ants. Dragging the tank of insecticide to the hole in the desert where the hive lies, Lesko charges down into the unknown and finds himself in an empty chamber sized for him to stand up in rather than one built to an ant's scale. Inside it, partially buried in sand, is Kendra (who is not nearly as dead as the film led the viewer to believe). The intelligence wanted to turn Lesko and Kendra into parts of its own unguessable schemes and brought them to that place; as the film ends and the sun rises on one of the last days of humanity's dominion over Earth. One assumes that whatever the intelligence did to the two humans was Phase IV of its master plan.
Man alive, that's a fascinating movie. It's also a slow one, where the audience has to pay a great deal of attention (and where there are only six human characters and one voice over the radio). And the film unfolds at a measured pace, with no definite answers to be found in its ending. Plus some people probably got a case of the raging fantods from all the massive closeups of the ants (there's a reason the poster has one bursting out of a hand, even though that doesn't quite happen the way the advertisement implies). If you can relax a bit and remember that not everything's going to get wrapped up in a tidy little bow at the end of the film, though, this is a movie that rewards every scrap of attention that you're willing to give it.