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Friday, November 20, 2015

RoboCop (1987)

Checkpoint Telstar is proud to take part in the 180-member Criterion Blogathon, celebrating the 30th birthday of the coolest and best media release company of ever (sorry, Rhino Records). Click on that banner to go to the main Blogathon page and read some fantastic film criticism looking at gems of world cinema from the silents to today.


Written by Ed Neumeier & Michael Miner
Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Peter Weller:  Officer Alex J. Murphy
Nancy Allen:  Officer Anne Lewis
Robert DoQui:  Sergeant Warren Reed

Kurtwood Smith:  Clarence Boddicker
Ray Wise:  Leon Nash
Paul McCrane:  Emil Antonowsky
Jesse Goins:  Joe Cox
Calvin Jung:  Steve Minh

Miguel Ferrer:  Bob Morton
Ronny Cox:  Dick Jones
Dan O'Herlihy:  The Old Man

The Criterion collection turns 30 years old this month. For everyone who followed a link here about the blogathon celebrating this event, skip to the next paragraph if you want. You already know what I'm going to say here. Criterion dedicated themselves to the preservation of world cinema and the easy access of film as art to home audiences back when VHS was the preferred home viewing technology for most audiences. Back when they were pressing laserdiscs they pioneered things like widescreen presentation at home as well as mini-documentaries and commentary tracks to show the process by which films were made; basically, what is standard on a DVD release for virtually anything exists because the Criterion people came up with it. Through their efforts, American audiences are able to watch mind-blowingly great movies from Japan, India, Iran, Hong Kong, Mexico, Italy, France...the world is a Criterion fan's oyster. They've done more than anyone except possibly Michael Moore to get documentaries out in the public consciousness and seen by mass audiences. Next time you're at the library trying to decide on a movie (and if you're not hitting your local library for free DVDs, you are a fool) you're guaranteed a good time if you just look for that C logo on the spine or cover. If you're a Hulu subscriber you can stream dozens of selections from their archives as well; streaming video makes it possible for Criterion to get masterpieces of the cinematic art to you without anything more complicated that fiddling with a remote control for a moment. They've been working for three decades to raise the awareness and availability of cinema as legitimate art in the mass market.

Which raises the question of why exactly the fuck they put RoboCop out on DVD, in a cut even gorier and more violent than the already blood-soaked R rated version. In a nutshell:  Because the movie is legitimately brilliant and a work of razor-edged satire aimed straight at the beating heart of the Reagan years--culturally and cinematically. Similar to something like Airplane! or Black Dynamite, the makers of RoboCop realized the best way to satirize the action movies of the 1980s was to make one that was only about ten percent more ridiculous than the ones that were already being made. At the same time they were also poking holes in the cliches inherent to superhero origin stories twenty years before American audiences knew who Tony Stark was. There's a lot more going on in this flick than just the old story of "boy meets girl, boy loses life, boy gets turned into unstoppable killing machine to seek vengeance on his killers". And the craft of filmmaking is on display in this movie almost embarrassingly well. Verhoeven gives the impression of knowing exactly what he was doing from the first images to the last, down to the design of the props and costumes and the pounding orchestral-industrial score courtesy of Basil Poledouris.

The film starts (after the logo pops up) with a commercial break that does a deft job of sketching out exactly what's going on in the science fiction world where murdered policemen can become titanium-kevlar avatars of justice. First up is a news bulletin with the slogan "You give us three minutes and we'll give you the world". Which, if anything, is optimistic now (here in the real world, CNN can take ninety days and just keep talking about one missing airplane or vanished blonde woman). The future as presented here is 1987, but worse and funnier. The apartheid regime in "the besieged city-state" of South Africa is planning to use a neutron bomb to kill people if they have to as a final defensive measure. The "Star Wars orbiting peace platform" had a technical glitch before the (unnamed) President could give a press conference, turning off the gravity and making everyone flail around in zero G. Then there's a commercial for the Family Heart Center, which I'm pretty sure was meant to poke fun at the dental clinics that were opening in Sears department stores around that time. But it's also a way to show the technological and medical progress that has been made in the movie's future society. If getting an artificial heart is something that can be done so routinely that there's a chintzy shot-on-video commercial telling people where to go to get one, medicine has advanced in this society far beyond where it is here on Earth-Prime in 1987.

Then it's time to prove that if it bleeds, it leads. A cop killer is operating essentially with total impunity in Detroit; Clarence Boddicker, a middle-aged white dude with eyeglasses, has been fingered as the man killing police by the dozens in "Old Detroit", which--in the film, of course, not in real life--is a crime-ridden shithole where good men die every day. There's a sound bite from Dick Jones, the department head of the corporation running the Detroit PD, telling the police essentially that life sucks and they need to stop whining. The cheery newscaster's "Good luck, Frank!" sent out to a hospitalized cop in critical condition sets the tone even more than the artificial heart commercial. This is going to be a film full of life-threatening injuries and poorly conceived responses. And it's going to be queasily humorous, with the viewer perhaps not certain if they should be finding this stuff funny since there's a grotesque human cost behind each joke.

Setting handily introduced, it's time to meet the protagonist and his supporting cast. "Detroit -- Police Precinct, Metro West" is the caption, and a mid-20th-century brick building in the shadows of glass and steel skyscrapers is the place. Inside there's everything the viewer would expect from an action movie--a scummy lawyer, massive crowds, outdated office equipment (and the furniture is wood rather than the sleek glass and metal on display in all the corporate offices), and there's no way the coffee in that building tastes anything like the actual drink. Desk sergeant Warren Reed is the breathing avatar of harassed, underfunded authority figures in action films. Of course he's hot-tempered enough to grab the aforementioned lawyer and physically shove him out of the station. And of course he's not thrilled that some newbie from the cushy "Metro South" posting has been transferred over to join his jolly crew ("We work for a living here, Murphy," is how he makes his opinion known). Given that the first thing he hands Officer Alex J. Murphy is a requisition ticket for body armor, one assumes he knows what he's talking about.

In the police locker room, Murphy mentions that Omni Consumer Products has been transferring lots of newer officers to Metro West lately, so perhaps Dick Jones is just blustering for the news cameras and he's at least trying to make things a little better in Old Detroit (SPOILER:  Nope. And that spoiler gets dropped mere seconds into the sequence in the police locker room, when a litany of complaints from several officers are mentioned ranging from bad radios to the lack of available helicopter flights when people have been shot in the line of duty).

The gripe session is interrupted by the desk sergeant coming in to clean out the fatally injured cop's locker (this sequence ends with a closeup on Murphy's name plate on his own locker, in some not-very-subtle foreshadowing). The sarge also says striking isn't an option--yes, the police have a union, but if they weren't out on the street at least keeping a lid on the most flagrant street crime, Old Detroit would be on fire in a matter of minutes. Murphy gets suited up (uniform, helmet, armor, gun) and goes out to meet his new partner, Officer Anne Lewis--who gets introduced beating the piss out of a handcuffed perp that threw a punch at him. Murphy gets to the car first and takes the drivers' seat, and the newly paired officers go out into the day to fight crime and hopefully not become two new casualties on the news.

Elsewhere, Bob Morton (project manager, Omni Consumer Products) is on his way to a meeting where something big is going to be announced. One executive thinks it's the long-promised "Delta City" initiative being greenlit but it's something less impressive than tearing down and rebuilding Detroit. It's a crime-fighting robot with military and crowd control applications, the nine foot tall, bulletproof, machine-gun-toting Enforcement Droid 209. ED-209 has a sophisticated artificial intelligence and a pre-programmed series of behaviors meant to guide it through any commonly encountered situations in its somewhat narrowly-defined task list. The ED-209 is going to be needed to clean up the crime-ridden slums of Old Detroit before the hundreds of thousands of construction workers come in to give the city a complete makeover, of course. What this means in theory is that criminals toting submachine guns outnumber and outgun police who have pistols but the ED-209 would make short work of them.

What it means in practice is a scene that plays out like a ghastly joke. An executive named Mr. Kenny gets blasted into hamburger thanks to a software glitch (he throws his gun down during a simulated crime but the robot doesn't hear it). The assault droid tells him to put down his weapon, counts down the time left for Kenny to submit without noticing that he did so, and then says "I am authorized to use physical force" before opening up with four .50 caliber machine guns at the same time. This is terrible news--not just for the junior executive who's got a family that will be cashing in his accidental death and dismemberment plan, but for OCP. After all, having to make something that actually works is far more expensive and time-consuming that making something that can be placed on the market. Ask anyone who owned a Ford Pinto. The Old Man, the CEO of the whole damn company, is less than impressed by this product rollout. At least was in a closed setting rather than, say, on national television.

But, as business gurus in the Eighties were fond of saying, the Japanese characters for "crisis" and "opportunity" were identical. While the stink of cordite and blood is still hazy in the boardroom air, Bob Morton makes his move and tells The Old Man that he's got a project that might be able to help OCP in this time of crisis. Dick Jones, the man in charge of the ED-209 project (and second-in-command of all of OCP) doesn't want to give Morton the opportunity to speak to the CEO, but there's only so much a gentle suggestion can do in the face of something as disastrous as the product demo that's dripping into the boardroom carpet. Morton gets the go-ahead to make something of the RoboCop initiative, since the alternative would mean delaying the Delta City project at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars at the least. Oh, and as part of his sales pitch, Bob Morton says that he's been sending unprepared police officers into hot spots, which is why Alex Murphy got transferred from a nice precinct to a hellhole.

A moment here, by the way, to praise Phil Tippett for his animation of the ED-209 stop-motion prop. He manages to imbue a sense of menace into the machine, making it lunge forward towards Mr. Kenny while playing a tape of a lion's roar to provoke fear and intimidation but also moving like a device and not like a creature. The actual stop-motion model was likely the size of a big action figure, and there's a full-sized mockup that was built for scenes where someone has to interact with a non-moving ED-209. But it's the animation sequences that bring the creation to life. This movie is nearly thirty years old, but the effects when the ED killbot is moving around don't look dated whatsoever.

So, back to the narrative:  That whole put-inexperienced-cops-in-horrific precincts plan bears some fruit when, as Bob Morton puts it in an elevator ride, "some poor schmuck volunteers". Guess who that's going to be? It turns out that, inexperienced or not, Officer Murphy is a showoff (he's practicing his gun-spinning tricks because his son watches a TV cop that does the same thing, and he doesn't want to disappoint his kid by not being able to do the same thing). There's some very appealing earnestness to Murphy's character here; he's square and a little embarrassed to be talking about whether or not he's spinning his Glock like a Wild West gunfighter because his son likes that or if he does. It's about the only chance we get to know Alex Murphy before everything goes to hell. The radio mentions a robbery that just happened and the silver panel van full of criminals that's on "Industrial Way" right this moment. Officer Lewis hops into the drivers' seat and the two cops speed off in pursuit of the criminals.

And it's Clarence Boddicker and his gang in that van, which was inevitable as he's the only criminal mentioned in the screenplay so far. He's got a gang that's all white except for one token Asian and one token black dude and the action sequence that follows shows his ability to think on his feet and his utter ruthlessness. When his driver Emil spots the cop car behind them, Clarence is smart enough to realize that they won't be able to outrun the law, so they slow down for a gunfight. Officer Lewis, however, is smart enough not to stay behind the van when the back doors open to reveal everyone firing shotguns at the surprisingly empty road. A running gunfight ensues, with Murphy hanging out of the passengers' window with a pistol in each hand and the criminals getting away for the moment when Clarence throws a wounded gang member out of the van as a distraction.

But hey, considering the number of dead cops that Boddicker and his crew are responsible for, a draw is a moral victory. The police follow the van to an abandoned steel mill, and once inside manage to get the upper hand for a moment before Lewis is knocked unconscious by one of the gang members and Murphy gets captured by Boddicker himself. The crime boss takes a little time to psychologically torture his captive before his men literally shoot him to pieces (it plays out like a hyperviolent take on the sufferings of Christ with a balding crime boss toting a shotgun standing in place of a Roman with a mallet). He screams and twitches as the gang fires until they're out of shells, and then Clarence Boddicker administers the coup de grace with a point-blank pistol shot. I think it's with Murphy's own gun, which he lost to Emil when he got surrounded.

Back in 1987 I remember a friend's mother being disgusted with the movie--without having seen it--for its multiple scenes of graphic violence. She claimed it had been cut down from an X to an R rating, which I have absolutely no problem believing. I also happen to think that showing violence as something horrific and painful is better for an audience than showing it as something casual; think of all the post-killing quips that action stars tended to dispense after brutalizing someone. If I have to make a choice, I'll go with the Pulp Fiction style of violence where something that takes less than a second has to be addressed for the next fifteen minutes of film rather than just watching an extra's shirt puff out and he collapses in a heap.

Officer Lewis sees this all happening but she's powerless to stop it. The best she can do is call in a medevac when she realizes that even though one of his arms is completely gone and the rest of his body is riddled with shotgun pellets, Murphy is somehow still alive (and, given the previous cops' complaints about slow response from medical services as well as Bob Morton's statements about needing a volunteer for the RoboCop project, it seems likely that there was some high-level OCP interference that guaranteed Murphy would get a priority ride to a nearby trauma center).

The next sequence is shot simultaneously from close in to watch the surgical team at work and from Murphy's point of view as he dies--either showing what he sees as the doctors lean in to inject him with drugs or use the defibrillators that every medical scene where a life needs to be saved get called into service (as well as his memories of his wife and son, which is the first time we've seen them in the film). The trauma team does everything they can think of (apparently Verhoeven's direction to the real-life doctors was "just do what you would normally do in this situation" and he filmed it), but there's just too much damage to Murphy's body and brain to keep him alive. Which would make for a very short movie, but remember that commercial earlier for the Family Heart Center? They're an example of what medicine and engineering can do in this brave new world with enough money. Or, to put it another way that science-fiction fans of 1987 would probably recognize:  We can rebuild him. We have the technology.

So yeah, that screen's going to go black and silent, but it won't stay that way for long. However, as the news bulletin of the malfunctioning gravity on the space station showed showed (and as the disastrous ED-209 rollout confirmed) the technology isn't quite perfected yet. Static and a rolling picture fill the camera's point of view as people dart into the frame and whatever is left of Officer Alex J. Murphy's body. It would appear that he's completely paralyzed at the start since the camera never moves, regardless of what's happening in his field of vision. And considering that nobody that shows up explains anything to "Murphy" as he lies there in some kind of life-support coffin there's a remarkable amount of exposition that gets delivered. Among other things, Bob Morton himself stops by to complain that the engineering and medical teams worked some kind of miracle and preserved Murphy's left arm ("I thought we agreed on total body prosthesis,"). Morton then realizes that the slab of meat underneath him is still alive and is assured that they're going to wipe Murphy's memory before installing the RoboCop programming. They disconnect the gear that lets Murphy (and the audience) see what's going on and everything goes black--for how long, nobody can say. It's at least possible that every time the picture goes out there's a delay of hours, days, or even months before it comes back up. Time does pass (there's a snippet of a party where one of the project heads is smashed and gives "Murphy" a kiss to ring in the new year) and eventually all the bits and pieces of "titanium laminated with Kevlar" are attached to the new metal body for the few remaining organic pieces of Officer Murphy.

This scene, while demonstrating all the various things that are being done to Murphy's body, also trains the audience to understand that when the horizontal scanning lines and superimposed green computer text are on screen, they're seeing things from RoboCop's point of view. It's also used to demonstrate the superpowers he's picked up as part of the compensation for the total loss of his body and perhaps his soul. Among other things, he's got perfect recall thanks to an onboard camera and taping system and an advanced targeting computer that means he's superhumanly gifted with the ten-pound pistol stored in his right hip. And don't forget the massively increased strength and immunity to conventional weapons. If he could jump a couple hundred feet in the air he'd have the same powers as the original-model Superman in 1938, more or less.

Metro West precinct, the fortress in the worst neighborhood of Old Detroit, turns out to be the place where OCP installs the monitoring and tech-support equipment so that RoboCop has a place to go inert from time to time (Sergeant Reed starts with a tirade about OCP interfering with his station house but goes silent when he sees the seven-foot-tall blue steel cyborg walking down a hallway--and so far, the audience hasn't gotten a good look at the RoboCop suit yet thanks to only seeing it on a video monitor and through a pebbled-glass window, which means they're now really interested in seeing how Officer Murphy survived, and what's left of him). And think about how fast this narrative moves--thirty minutes into the film and the world has been introduced, the villain and his gang have demonstrated their evil nature and psychopathy, the hero gets a brief moment to show he's a decent guy, and then he's been blasted to pieces and resurrected as a walking tank. Oh, and I love the shot of the various police running down a hallway at the station house to get a better look at the new guy.

Bob Morton and his technicians, talking to each other, drop more exposition on the audience. There's enough of Alex Murphy's organic body left that he does have to eat; there's a gloppy brown "rudimentary paste" extruded from a machine that keeps whatever parts of him are still left alive and ticking. According to Morton's second in command, it's essentially baby food and it tastes pretty decent. We also get a look at RoboCop's onboard tracking system from his point of view and a better look at the robot suit during the shots not shown from his point of view. Morton asks him what his Prime Directives are (the software commands running his actions), and RoboCop recites them:  Serve the public trust. Protect the innocent. Uphold the law. Fans of Asimov's laws of robotics will note that there's nothing at all about the preservation of human life in this list. And Bob Morton doesn't know--but the audience does, thanks to a RoboCop POV shot with the text laid over it--that there's a fourth, classified, fourth directive that hasn't come into play yet.

The next we see of RoboCop he's qualifying for duty at the precinct firing range. All the other police eventually stop shooting when they hear the staccato bark of his gigantic phallic symbol, er, duty weapon, and crowd around him as he sets a new high score at the target range. There's also a budget-conscious effect here. First we see the neat round holes blown in the plywood targets when Officer  Lewis is working through a clip of ammunition, and then jagged, splintered craters blasted out of the targets from RoboCop's portable WMD. Watching the wooden targets getting softball-sized holes blown in them lets the audience know just what's going to happen to any criminals that come across the bad side of the titanium-kevlar cybernetically enhanced long arm of the law.

And though the audience knows it's the remaining eight or ten pounds of Alex Murphy inside the "total body prosthesis", nobody else in the film does. But Officer Lewis puts two and two together and immediately gets the square root of 16 when she sees the newly unveiled supercop spin the gun around his index finger and re-holster it just like her recently deceased partner did on their first and last day together on patrol. (Seeing the gun get tucked into the inside-the-thigh holster is another effect that helps sell the illusion that there's nothing human left inside that robot body, by the way.)

The hardware works, the software checks out and RoboCop has just overqualified at the pistol range, so it's time for it--him--to go out on patrol. Thankfully, Old Detroit being the open sore that it is, he's not out for more than a couple minutes before the people living there get a look at what he can do. A man in a duster coat with a submachine gun wants to rob a liquor store. Check out the comics rack he walks by--there's issues of ROM:  Spaceknight prominently shown, which was a Marvel title about a warrior sealed inside a suit of armor he could never escape to fight evil--someone knew enough to stick that in the front rack of the comics as a tip of the hat to another property about a cyborg with a gun (for that matter, there's some Iron Man comics in the rack as well, another character who needed cybernetics to keep himself alive while doing superheroic stuff). When the shop owner's wife hits the silent alarm button, it happens that RoboCop is nearby, so he just walks in and scares the crap out of the robber, who empties the gun at him to absolutely no effect. Turns out one punch from RoboCop is enough to flatten the dude. One assumes other patrol officers collect the criminal and book him, because during this sequence we never see the hero of the film doing any police paperwork--just handing The Fear out to the criminal element to the delight of the audience.

The second incident where RoboCop intervenes is a woman, pursued by two giggling psychopaths, cornered in an alley and about to be raped at knifepoint. Like every good guy does, RoboCop gives the criminals a chance to surrender and like every Escape from New York refugee in movies like this they don't take it. The guy with the knife escalates the situation and RoboCop shoots him in the balls (through his hostage's skirt, and without inflicting so much as a scratch on the woman). And audiences who just saw the massive damage done to the shooting-range cutouts wince (or cheer) at the thought of the rapist's junk getting blown into chunky salsa in his jeans. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the second guy surrenders without a second's hesitation.

Hell yeah there's a Criterion disc where a criminal gets shot in the groin with a bullet the size of your thumb. That's because it's a brilliant scene where that happens. Filmmaking is an art but it's also a craft, and the set design, props, costuming, sound effects and bullet squibs are all used brilliantly in this sequence to make the audience cheer when the creep with a knife gets a .50 caliber vasectomy. It takes a skilled craftsman indeed to sell a groin injury to the audience as well as Verhoeven does here. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker it would have turned out to be something like Death Wish 3, which is the same "one man cleans up the crime-ridden city" narrative but without a twentieth of the wit and ability that went into this film. Without Paul Verhoeven's guiding hand at the till, the satire in the script could have been backgrounded and this film would have wound up just like any other Weightlifter with a Machine Gun film that clogged the cineplexes of the mid-Eighties.

Speaking of satire, the next crime that RoboCop spots on patrol is a hostage situation at City Hall, where Old Detroit's mayor is staring down the barrel of a gun. About a dozen cameramen and reporters are there to interview the negotiator until they see a literally shiny object in their field of vision and run over to RoboCop. I love the petulance from the negotiator when people stop paying attention to him. During this sequence we learn that RoboCop can see through walls (X-ray vision, more or less...sound like any other bulletproof, super-strong crimefighters you know?). Punching the hostage-taker through a window in view of the cameras leads to another media break, where the talking-head newscasters can't find enough good things to say about the masked man that's cleaning up Old Detroit and also finding time to talk to children at an elementary school and give sound bite level interviews ("Any special message for the kids watching at home?" "Stay out of trouble.").

After a commercial for a board game called "Nukem" it's back to the news, where the newly safe streets of Old Detroit mean that the planned construction of Delta City looks like it's going on after several delays. Bob Morton, the man of the hour, tells the assembled news reporters that he's predicting the end of street crime in Old Detroit in six weeks--and that has to be thanks entirely to RoboCop, since every other police officer we've seen so far is only human and outgunned by all the really dangerous criminals. The interview with Morton leads to a scene where another executive congratulates him on a promotion to Vice-President of his division at OCP. One assumes The Old Man rewards people who get results, and scraping the accumulated human filth off an entire city in under two months certainly counts for results. During a pit stop at the executive bathroom, Morton talks smack about Dick Jones, and all the other people inside flee when it becomes apparent that Jones was there all along in a toilet stall and heard everything. Jones vows to destroy Morton and the RoboCop project, because it's one thing to clean up the city and make the million-job construction project possible, but it's quite another to make the ED-209 look bad (and make Jones look bad at the same time). Open disrespect in the world of OCP could well be a capital offense.

After that, we see RoboCop at rest in his brain-monitoring chair back at the precinct station. While the technicians fail to notice the memories showing up on the video screens it becomes clear that whatever process the OCP mad scientists used to blank Alex Murphy's memory out, it didn't take. The EEG readings go insane while RoboCop has a dream where he's a human, shot dozens of times by criminals, and executed by the balding glasses-wearing ringleader. His reaction is strong enough and obvious enough that eventually the techs notice something's going on and he strides out into the night partway through his rest period, not obeying any of the OCP personnel that try to stop him. A panicked call gets sent out to Bob Morton and Officer Lewis happens to pass the cyborg in the hallway, calling him "Murphy" when it becomes apparent that RoboCop doesn't know his own name. He staggers a step back when he hears that name and leaves, his voice even deader than it was after his technological resurrection.

Old Detroit's a big city, but with all the small-time criminals suddenly figuring out that they'd rather go to barber college than get their entrails blown out from a Desert Eagle on steroids, it's only the real psychos out at night causing trouble now. Which means that RoboCop encounters one of the men who murdered Alex Murphy some time ago while foiling a gas station robbery. Emil, the driver of the gang's van, is apparently a gearhead because he's out riding his motorcycle and threatening to shoot the gas station clerk just for fun when the cyborg shows up to stop him. When RoboCop tells the criminal something he heard from Alex Murphy the gun-toting psycho freaks out and declares "You're dead--we killed you!" while firing his Uzi ineffectively at RoboCop. As is required in Eighties action cinema, the gas station goes up in a gargantuan fireball (and the Shell sign reads HELL as the place blows, but somehow they don't put in a closeup of that). Emil isn't dead but he's in no shape to be questioned at the end of the sequence. Oh, and the shot of the RoboCop suit striding through the flames is instantly iconic.

Emil might not able to talk, but somewhere in that titanium skull along with the remaining pieces of Alex Murphy's brain is a powerful computer. And in his right fist, RoboCop has a USB spike that he can use to interface with the mainframe in the Detroit PD records room. The criminal records have a section for "Pol Affiliation", incidentally, which means that in the future, cops are likely to keep tabs on people for hanging out with the wrong crowd. Something that I'm certain wouldn't happen now, of course. Using a frame capture from his own memory, RoboCop finds Emil Antonowsky's rap sheet and his remaining accomplices. All of the various criminals are familiar from the dream that he had earlier, but it's Clarence Boddicker that RoboCop takes the most interest in. Going through Boddicker's jacket, RoboCop finds that name that Officer Lewis mentioned before and calls up the address and info for Officer Alex J. Murphy, Deceased.

That address leads to a quiet house in a non-hellhole section of the city and RoboCop wanders inside, his digital vision fuzzing out as he remembers some of the things he saw in his home when he was still a human being and not a metal monster that got pointed at socially appropriate targets. Watch Peter Weller's body language as the emotions start to overwhelm him; his usually controlled and mechanical movements start to get more chaotic when he realizes on some level just how much he's lost with his resurrection.

And now it's time for revenge, not justice. RoboCop finds his way to one of those Eighties dance clubs with neon on the walls and everybody jammed shoulder-to-shoulder, coked up and stupid. It's one of Leon Nash's known hangouts, and Nash is in Clarence Boddicker's gang. He's less openly stupid than some of the other criminals, but still thinks it's a good idea to kick a cyborg in the crotch (there's a great hollow "bong" sound effect here). He gets dragged off by his hair for a little conversation about Boddicker's whereabouts.

Which we the viewer find out before RoboCop does--he's at Bob Morton's place, working for Dick Jones to wipe out a corporate rival. Morton goes from tough guy to sniveling coward once he's shot in the legs a few times (I would probably just wet myself and die of shock in the same circumstances, so there's that). Boddicker's brought two things to the coke-and-models party that Morton wasn't expecting other than his pistol. The first is a DVD (from 1987! This movie was eleven years ahead of its time!) where it is revealed that he's working under Dick Jones' orders. The video message is really just a way for Jones to gloat about the murder while at a safe distance and with his hands clean. Yeah, that's a Christmas present for the prosecution if it gets found, but considering the other thing Boddicker brought is a hand grenade capable of blowing up Morton's entire house I doubt it's gonna be a factor in the homicide investigation.

Boddicker's path crosses the cyborg's a little later, when the gang boss is making an offer on the output from a cocaine refinery somewhere in the Old Detroit city limits (hey, at least there's a few manufacturing jobs left in the city). Boddicker and his gang are all heavily armed, as are the coke dealers and their security goons. Which doesn't do anyone even the slightest good when RoboCop hammers down the door. The massacre here is similar to the police station scene in The Terminator, except that you're supposed to be cheering the unstoppable juggernaut as it mows down dozens of people in a firefight. And it is a thrilling sequence, to be sure. Heck, I tend to root for the robot even when it's the villain so it's nice to see just what RoboCop can do against normal opponents. If every gunfight goes like that one, it's no wonder that Morton was predicting forty days till the end of street crime in Old Detroit. It's also worth noting that RoboCop gives everyone the option to surrender before he opens fire. That third directive is "uphold the law", not "shoot first". Once it's go time, though, he is utterly implacable until only Clarence Boddicker is still on his feet. Then it's time to read the criminal his rights, punctuating each Miranda right by throwing the man through a window. After three trips through a windowpane, Boddicker says he works for Dick Jones, and should be protected from police interference. And Directive 3 won't let RoboCop crush Boddicker's trachea with one hand because Alex Murphy was a good cop and so is the thing he's been turned into.

Which means we get to see Sergeant Reed yelling at everyone back at the precinct headquarters again when RoboCop brings his captive in and says to book him as a cop killer. Then it's time to take Dick Jones into custody, who has been expecting company (he's got a little tracking device that lets him know where RoboCop is in Detroit, and that blinking dot is getting closer and closer to OCP headquarters). Once the cyborg is in his office, Jones drops two surprises on him. The first is that the secret Directive 4 is one that won't allow OCP property to act against members of the board of directors (RoboCop spasms and twitches as he tries to carry out his other directives, fighting forward towards Jones and losing in a scene that's almost as painful to watch as Murphy's execution was). The second surprise is an ED-209 unit waiting in an alcove to destroy the mechanical man.

And for all that RoboCop outclasses the usual street scum of Old Detroit, he's completely out of his league against the ED-209. There's a shot of a terrified eye staring out of the bullet hole in the visor that shows just how much of Alex Murphy's humanity has come back--machines aren't afraid to die, of course, but RoboCop is. Only a little quick thinking and a design flaw that means ED-209 and a Dalek handle stairs about equally well let RoboCop escape with his existence (the screaming-baby noise the assault robot makes while trying to get up is another one of those queasily amusing scenes that show the wit behind the carnage).

That escape goes straight into an ambush from dozens of ordinary police who have been given orders to destroy the "rampaging" police cyborg. And it's the hostage negotiator who got passed over by the camera crews who gives the order to destroy RoboCop, which some of the police refuse to do. But enough try to cut him down that it's an open question as to his survival until Officer Lewis shows up with a getaway car. Like other vigilante movies, the police force has to be shown as ineffective and corrupt (although in this case the corruption comes from the very top of the Detroit PD's command structure rather than from the street-level police or from criminals throwing bribe money around). But the city's going to hell on its own quite handily and one escaped robot isn't a huge priority with everything else going on.

But before we get to the third act there's a car commercial for the 6000 SUX and a news report that tells the audience about a gigantic wildfire that was set by a malfunctioning laser cannon on that orbiting "peace platform" mentioned all the way back in the first media break. In this film, all technology fails to work the way its users intend it to. And hey, speaking of Detroit going to hell, the police are planning to go on strike at midnight and leave Old Detroit to its own devices. Unfortunately for everyone still living there, Darkman and the Crow aren't around to team up and keep people safe so things certainly look like they're going from bad to worse. It's also something I sure didn't notice when I was twelve watching this movie for the first time, but this is the whitest Detroit imaginable. All the reporters, all the people on the street and even about ninety percent of the police and criminals are all as white as a Sarah Palin campaign rally.

While the city gets ready to burn, Clarence Boddicker pays a visit to Dick Jones at his office (janitors are busy sweeping up all the debris from the ED-209 / RoboCop fight, which is a nice touch). He gets the unenviable job of destroying RoboCop as a security risk; the cyborg's memory is admissible in court, according to Jones. Wipe his hard drive for good and all the evidence linking Jones and Boddicker together are gone. As an added incentive, Jones points out that with RoboCop gone and Delta City still planned to go, all those construction workers and all that new turf is going to wind up needing a crime lord overseeing the various types of vice and grift that will show up. Destroy the machine and you get the job, Clarence.

Meanwhile, RoboCop's trying to fix himself with the tools he's got available at that abandoned steel mill where Alex Murphy was killed. He pulls a pair of six-inch bolts out of his head to take his helmet off and reveals that there's just the skin of Alex Murphy's face stretched over the metal that makes up almost all of his head (and once the helmet comes off, the distorting effect on Peter Weller's voice isn't used any more--once you see his face again, the other signifier of Alex Murphy's humanity comes back). It's unbearably sad when you have to look into his eyes as he says he can feel his family's absence but he can't remember them.

Time passes--after night falls, crowds of looters and psychos are taking everything that isn't nailed down on a Detroit street. Emil's hanging out watching the same Benny-Hill-but-stupider sitcom that's popped up every time someone's watching TV in the movie and waiting for the rest of the Boddicker crew to get back together. Boddicker's got a "Cobra Assault Cannon" for everyone in the gang courtesy of his connections with Dick Jones, and they know where Murphy is recuperating so it's time to go there and kill him for a second time.

It must take hours for them to get from the street where Joe and Emil are busy shooting everything in sight to the steel mill, because it's morning again when the final sequence commences. RoboCop is trying to compensate for the damage to his targeting system (being shot dozens of times by a military assault droid turns out not to be good for his software); he gets himself squared away seconds before Boddicker (in his 6000 SUX) and Emil (driving the van) drop off the crew and go hunting for their quarry. The criminals are better armed but Officer Murphy is far beyond fear at this point in his second life and Joe goes down first.

Emil tries to hit Murphy with the van and winds up driving into a storage tank for toxic waste. This is another one of those sick-joke sequences, because getting exposed to hazardous chemicals or radiation is one of the standard ways superheroes get their powers (think of the Hulk and gamma radiation or Spider-Man and the genetically engineered spider that bit him). Of course, in the world of RoboCop, taking a bath in industrial waste just gives you hideous acid burns over your entire body and drives you nearly insane with agony while your flesh liquefies. A wrong turn from Boddicker's SUX takes Emil out of the game with a spray of vile-looking liquid.

It's down to Boddicker and Joe Nash at the end, with the second-in-command of the gang dropping a crane load of scrap metal on RoboCop while Clarence stalls for time. With the cyborg trapped, Boddicker tries to break something vital inside him with a sharp chunk of rebar (Nash misses this, having been on the wrong end of a Cobra Assault Cannon round courtesy of Officer Lewis). The spear in RoboCop's side is another example of the hyperviolent American-Christ imagery the movie's been using (right before the scrap metal hits him, Alex Murphy is filmed in a way that makes it look like he's walking on the water in a huge rain puddle at the steel mill; it's as if Paul Verhoeven wanted to take the mythic elements of the Christ story and recycle them in a Judge Dredd comic). Boddicker has to get right up close to use that spear, though, and that puts his jugular in range of that data spike that we saw right around the second act.

And now that Boddicker and the other criminals in his gang are out of the picture it's time for RoboCop to go to OCP headquarters and get Dick Jones (after taking out the ED-209 guarding the front door with a spare assault cannon). He makes his way into the boardroom and informs The Old Man about that fourth directive, then plays Dick Jones' computer-recorded gloating confession on the in-room video conferencing system. That gun from the disastrous ED-209 rollout is still in the board room and Jones takes the CEO hostage. But The Old Man didn't get to be head of a multinational conglomerate by being stupid or slow-witted. After he's had a gun pointed at his head he figures he can find a new second in command, and summarily fires Jones. Which means that he's no longer a member of OCP's board of directors, and that means that Directive 4 no longer applies to his situation. It's a long, long fall from the boardroom windows and Jones winds up screaming all the way down after RoboCop shoots him half a dozen times.

But that's not the denoument. That comes when the Old Man asks who that mysterious stranger who saved the day is, and the mechanical construct with a soul of a man tells him it's Murphy.

Man...some times everything just comes together to make a classic. RoboCop is unquestionably one of those times. A production plagued with problems from small (one of the skyscrapers in Dallas standing in for Future Hellhole Detroit had neon lights on the outside that were out of commission during the entire shooting schedule) to major (the RoboCop suit was so large and bulky that production was shut down for three days while Peter Weller learned to move in it) wound up making something genuinely unique--a hyperviolent action movie with the soul of a Tom Lehrer song. It's hard to call a movie with Cobra Assault Cannons in it "subtle" but there are dozens of little subtextual glimpses of the film Verhoeven knew he was making peeking out from the grotesquely violent text. There's even a director cameo in the nightclub scene when Leon gets snagged--at one point Paul Verhoeven was waving his hands around and screaming to help amp up the extras and wound up on film; the editors cut that into the sequence as a joke and it fits perfectly with the rest of the film.

Of course Criterion had to put this out--it's a thoughtful and considered film in a genre not known for either quality and it's got a script that's constructed perfectly. Every setup in the first act pays off in the third and even the three-line characters in the cop station or the board room get their moments of dignity and humanity. It's a humanist film, oddly enough, about a character who is simultaneously more and less than human.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 26: Zontar, The Thing from Venus (1966)

Screenplay by Hillman Taylor and Larry Buchanan
Directed by Larry Buchanan

John Agar:  Dr. Curt Taylor
Susan Bjurman:  Ann Taylor
Tony Huston:  Keith Ritchie
Pat Delaney:  Martha Ritchie
Neil Fletcher:  General Matt Young

I think I should have gone with zombies instead. See, there's this thing about doing HubrisWeen--when you get to the last letter of the alphabet, you just kinda want things to be over. And you don't want to watch a zombie movie around this time, because they tend to be pretty similar to each other and after 25 movies in a row you'd prefer not to see stuff you're really familiar with. Which all makes a lot of sense, I hope, and you can see why I'd want to keep things as fresh as I could when I'm in the home stretch and wrapping the project up for another year.

On the other hand, that means watching a Larry Buchanan movie in lieu of something that might have been made by more talented directors, and I only have myself to blame for that one. And while I'm talking about blame, let me put this out before I kick the film around:  I understand that Larry Buchanan was working under ludicrous constraints while making this film--he got stuck remaking the Roger Corman alien-invasion movie It Conquered the World as a syndication-package TV movie in the mid-Sixties. That's not a recipe for greatness to start with (and the main reason he got the job is that American-International Pictures wanted to be able to sell color movies to TV networks as 4 AM time filler). But beyond the rushed shooting schedule and lack of reason for the movie to exist beyond "we can sell this to television stations just barely picky enough to want the movies to look newer" there's another problem. I can't remember where I heard this (though I expect it was from El Santo of 1000 Misspent Hours and Counting), but Buchanan was given lower budgets for his TV-movie remakes than Roger Corman spent a decade earlier making his movies. That figure isn't adjusted for inflation or anything--the budget for Zontar was lower, in absolute dollars, then the previous decade's black-and-white cheapie from notorious skinflint Roger Corman. How's it all work out in the end under such handicaps? Not particularly well...

Can I stop now? No? Okay, it's eighty minutes of pure delight, then. Here we go:

Stock footage of some radar dishes is captioned

United States orbital 
rocket control and 
tracking station.

It's almost a haiku. Inside, a woman at a radar screen reports a UFO in the "launch area" and a really thin guy in a lab coat says that area should have been cleared out earlier. Turns out to be a false alarm; a passenger plane wandered into the no-fly zone accidentally and the launch of whatever it is that's supposed to go up into orbit can proceed. 

Dr. Curt Taylor, the man in charge of the "laser satellite" launch, muses that their project is finally going to be ready in less than three minutes when the rocket goes up when a secretary says there's someone to see him. It's got to be important to interrupt him now, Another scientist, Keith Ritchie, tells Dr. Taylor that the launch can't proceed and that he's warned the government about that several times. Nice job waiting until two minutes till go time to come back and flip out about everything now, man.

Ritchie says he knows why the previous laser satellite blew up in orbit; the other civilizations of the universe didn't want the people of Earth to have one. He is apparently waiting till this second to tell anyone about the actual reason that satellite exploded and doesn't have any proof that his version of events is what actually went down. According to Ritchie the other planets don't want Earth communicating because that would make us too advanced and that they'd prefer us ignorant and more easily controlled. While he's ranting about this the rocket he was trying to abort gets launched, and the main title fills the screen over flickering stock footage of the spacecraft going up.

B movie stalwart John Agar gets first billing, so it looks like his name was still big enough for it to be a selling point for a film. That's got to be neat, even if the film is a cheap and shoddy-looking affair like this one (where Mission Control for NASA is four people in a room full of cardboard mainframes). And it looks like those aliens are minding their own business for the time being, because the satellite doesn't explode--at least not during the opening credits. There is a flying saucer moving over the face of the Earth right before we go back to the narrative, though (or that's supposed to be the laser satellite), but it doesn't do anything.

Three months later, over dinner, Keith and Dr. Taylor have a conversation that proceeds to drop exposition on the audience like a dump truck full of Jell-O. The satellite is working, hasn't been blown up by alien forces, and the two men's wives are tired of them talking shop all the time. Hey, if I had the opportunity to talk about laser satellites I'd never turn it down. Sorry, honey, you're going to be hearing about them for a long time. Keith says that he knows something secret and hugely important, and he's breaking a promise (made to someone, I guess) not to talk about it when he spills it to Dr. Taylor. Turns out he's got a space radio that fills an entire closet, and it's picking up "laser communication" from Venus without a satellite. Which, uh, doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me. A satellite around Earth wouldn't be necessary to communicate with Venus (or maybe Keith is saying that he doesn't need a gigantic receiving station in order to get static directly from the second planet in the solar system).

Keith says there's a voice underneath the static, and Dr. Taylor can't make anything out. So either there's a big communications rig in the Ritchies' closet that is in psychic contact with Keith or he's just listening to random noise and thinking that he's able to talk to some kind of life on Venus. To hear Keith say it, he's been hypnotised by the Venusian intelligence (which he says is masculine, and that the closest Terran equivalent to his name is "Zontar"). Why are the aliens in these things never named Steve? The phone rings seconds after Keith drops the name Zontar and the space facility calls Dr. Taylor to say that the laser satellite has disappeared. He's got to bail on the after-dinner conversation and go back to work.

Once Keith's alone, he talks to himself about Zontar's imminent arrival on Earth--apparently he's hijacked the laser satellite to use as a vehicle to get here. Which doesn't make a huge amount of sense, Earth and Venus are different distances from each other at various times (both planets' orbits are ellipses instead of perfect circles), but a rough estimate of the average distance between the two planets is 93,500,000 miles. The typical satellite orbits 22,500 miles up. So whatever Zontar's using for transportation, it gets him 99.9999 percent of the way to Earth and then he's got to thumb a ride with a communications satellite to make it the rest of the way down. I'm not saying that's a stupid way to do things, but...okay, I am saying that's a stupid way to do things. The satellite's not designed to come back to Earth. I'm not sure exactly what Zontar's supposed to be doing with it in order to ride it down to where he can talk to Keith face-to-pseudopod but that's his plan.

Back at the space facility, General Matt Young drives up in a blue-for-night scene so he can harangue the scientists about how the laser satellite is lost, and they need to find that sucker now. Back at his place, Keith is listening to some public-domain piano chords on his gigantic hi-fi and telling his wife that everything's going to be all right once Zontar puts in an appearance. While Dr. Taylor is there at Mission Control the satellite gets back into communications with the computers, and Taylor says they have to bring it down in order to diagnose the problems (!), which shouldn't be a problem because it's not like the Earth's atmosphere would turn it into glowing slag and vapor on the way down or anything. If the alien's using that to hitch a ride to Keith's place I hope he's actually Zontar, the Thing from Krypton. It also beggars my imagination to think that people could pull a satellite down in order to take it to the garage and do a quick repair job, then put it back up into orbit. It stopped working in 1963, but Telstar I is still in orbit right now. It's just not cost effective to take them back down to Earth and fix 'em; instead, they put new satellites in orbit when the old ones need to be replaced.

I'm guessing that anyone willing to watch this sucker in 1966 would realize that Zontar's plan would have to get smarter to just be idiotic, but it appears to be working. Keith is talking to his space radio telling Zontar that he's the alien's only friend on Earth and that nobody else believes in him. Or he's holding up his end of a hallucinatory conversation with nobody. His wife Martha asks him to come to bed and he says that Zontar's plan was even goofier than I thought--the Venusian hijacked the laser satellite, brought it to Venus, got on board, and set it back down right where it was supposed to be in orbit around the Earth in under sixty minutes. Any longer and Keith's Space Pizza would have been free. According the Keith, Zontar is going to save humanity from its own worst instincts (which should work out just fine, right?), and that the greatest day in history is about to dawn.

Martha says he's really got to snap out of his fantasy world (so she hasn't heard Zontar yet either) and that getting some sleep is really a good idea. She's a woman, though, so she's wrong. Zontar does totally exist and he's Keith's friend! Keith also says he's decided that Zontar's presence on Earth is going to be for good rather than ill, and that he was worried about what the first contact with alien life would wind up being for years. I'm sure no technologically superior entity would turn out to be evil, though, so the rest of the movie will just be about every nation learning to live in harmony with the new technological bounty supplied by Zontar.

Oh, right, Cold War. Can't trust the alien who says he's bringing gifts.

Turns out that flickering-light UFO thing from earlier is supposed to be the laser satellite, I guess, because they cut from it to Keith asleep in an easy chair listening to his atonal static jazz stuff on the Space Radio. Martha covers him with a blanket and goes back to bed herself. And back at Mission Control the general is there to supervise the retrieval of the laser satellite and give the final order to bring it down to Earth. I guess that means NASA is a military operation in this movie? I'm guessing that instead of doing research, Larry Buchanan had access to an Air Force general's uniform so the script was written to accommodate that. The scientists at Mission Control try to guide the satellite down to Earth but it's not responding to their commands (including the command to put it back in orbit rather than risk destroying it on the way back down). They lose contact with the satellite completely while trying to get it to work, which means someone's got to explain to the President that they broke their several-hundred-million-dollar piece of hardware while trying to bring it down so they could fix it.

Back at Keith's place he tells his wife that Zontar landed the, requisitioned...satellite in a nearby cave. Martha thinks he sounds like a lunatic when he talks about Zontar bringing a new era of peace and prosperity to Earth (perhaps talking to Martha on the Space Radio as well could have helped with that). And when Keith talks to his Venusian ham radio pal again he says the cave is a half a dozen miles away from his house. Looks like he's gonna splash on some Aqua Velva for a good first impression and go talk to the alien. Zontar picked a cave with hot springs in it so that he wouldn't get homesick for Venus' temperatures hot enough to boil lead on the planet's surface. Sounds legit.

A baffling montage of stock footage (a train stopping on a track, someone working an adding machine, power lines, a construction worker in a cherry-picker and Dr. Taylor's car stalling out) ensues. Back at Mission Control the same four or five people that are always there can't get the computer or phones to work. I assume Zontar's pulling some kind of "Day the Earth Stood Still" trick to announce his presence intentionally, but it could be an unintended side effect of his arrival on Earth. Ann Taylor says her watch and the clock in the car both stopped at the same time the engine stalled out; a couple of random dudes on the street somewhere else tell each other all kinds of electronic devices are now failling to work. When Martha walks into frame the two random dudes ask her what's going to happen next, since her husband predicted this was going to take place (which is news to the viewer); Martha says she just doesn't know and walks out of frame.

Back at his place, Keith is leading off a list of leaders that Zontar presumably will want to be taken to. He's starting small, with the mayor and police chief of Jackson, Texas. General Young and Dr. Taylor also make the list as well as all the various men's wives. According to Keith if those eight people are taken under Zontar's influence, the alien will have total control over the greater Jackson metropolitan area. And the ominous questions about "control devices" and "injectopods" that Keith asks the Space Radio make me think that Zontar's got to be one persuasive alien mental force in order to convince Keith that his intentions are benevolent.

Right after that Bob Newhart routine about the injectopods, we get a glimpse of Zontar (in the dark, filmed too close to make out any details) and then footage of crowds of people running in panic. Literally "footage" because the camera doesn't show anybody above the knee. I'm guessing it's panic on the streets of Jackson because of the power outages (including a woman who needs help operating her husband's iron lung) and Keith tells his wife Zontar's upgraded their ration card so their car will run while nobody else's will. Meanwhile (there's a lot of "meanwhile" in this film) Dr. Taylor and his wife are walking to the Ritchies' house and they see a flying lobsterbat looking creature that Dr. Taylor throws a stick at out of revulsion. I'm guessing that's the injectopod. 

Back at the Ritchie place, Keith tells his wife that all the various power sources in Jackson are shut down other than anything he's personally using--not just electricity, but running water as well! When Martha turns on the garden hose to prove that water is still flowing in the area her husband says Zontar likes him so much he can still water his lawn when nobody else can. It's good to be on the winning side, isn't it? The Taylors show up and ask for a ride to a garage so they can arrange a tow for their car, but Keith offers them a drink instead. He hints that there's plenty of time to explain what's going on and possibly even enough time for Dr. Taylor to understand things and see them his (and, by implication, Zontar's) way.

Back at the command center, some Odious Comic Relief gate guards are looking at some kind of pinup model Viewmaster thing when one of the scientists asks if they've heard anything from the military command structure. The general had to walk back to his own headquarters in order to start work on the response plan, and without telephones or radios working there's no way for him to tell anyone else what to do or what's going on. According to the scientist, even the hand crank for the generator won't work, which means Zontar can selectively overwrite the laws of physics rather than just setting up some kind of localized EMP field to screw up electronics. It also means that woman's husband in the iron lung is probably dead by now.

Hey, the general's out walking to the headquarters even as we speak! He sees one of those lobsterbat things and immediately draws his sidearm to shoot it (well, the movie does take place in Texas). He's a lousy shot and winds up getting bitten on the back of the neck by the creature. It appears to be some kind of alien lobsterbatbee thing because it dies as soon as it stings or bites the general; he kicks some dead leaves over its body and sets off on his walk again.

Back at the Ritchie household Dr. Taylor is telling his friend he doesn't believe any of this selective-power-failure stuff, and without hearing news reports of that happening, I guess I wouldn't believe it either. Two stopped clocks and a car stalling out don't exactly add up to a world-threatening power exerting its influence and that's all the Taylors have seen so far. In a way, Zontar making sure his Renfield is comfortable works against Keith's plausibility. Keith says he's not just Zontar's first underling on Earth, but that he was the one who first contacted Venus (which I don't think is too terribly likely). Keith thinks that mankind is too stupid to trust and too dangerous to leave alone; Zontar will be able to save humanity from its own worst impulses and bring about an era of peace and plenty for everyone.

Dr. Taylor says anyone offering that much for nothing might not be inherently trustworthy, and asks for a ride back to the lab so he can do some science. Keith won't drive him there because it's a waste of time going to a lab where none of the equipment is going to function, but is polite enough to drive Curt and Ann back home. Martha tries none-too-gently to break it to her husband that Dr. Taylor still doesn't believe any of this Zontar nonsense and Keith says that she really needs to get with the program before Zontar gets mad. Then he talks to the Venusian on his Space Radio and sets Dr. Taylor up for a meeting with an injectopod, warning Zontar that the scientist is hard-headed and they might need an extra-strength brain parasite to take him over. But it'll be worth it to have such a top-notch scientist under Zontar's influence.

The General comes back to Mission Control and tells the two gate guards that he's the new commander of the Jackson area, which is under martial law. I don't know how much two dudes with rifles that won't shoot (Zontar presumably can prevent the gunpowder from burning if he can stop a hand-cranked generator from providing power) are going to do, or even how the general is supposed to give orders to anyone if he's limited to the technology of yelling to get information out. He tells the gate guards that they'll be abandoning the facility and carrying stuff off to a new location via a forced march. That's going to make him popular with the boys.

When the general gets into the computer room he tells the scientists that there's a Communist uprising in Jackson, Texas and that it's some kind of Soviet superweapon that has prevented anything electronic from working. The general says there's a special courier that got to him since the phones and radios are down, and that all four of the scientists on staff will be confined to the base (andwon't even be allowed to leave the computer room!) until the emergency passes. For their own good, of course. Can't have Soviets taking advantage of their cleverness. Or letting them go to the bathroom, I guess.

At the Taylor place, nothing works--the phone's dead and the lamps don't work. Curt thinks that Keith is still talking nonsense with this Zontar stuff, and that just because their car stalled out doesn't mean there's an alien from Venus that turned off their refrigerator. He's honestly got a point. And hey, speaking of Keith, he's talking to Zontar again and finding out that there's going to be a twelve-hour delay before Zontar can grow eight more lobsterbats to go bite people and turn them into his mind slaves. So Keith's job is to hang out by the Space Radio and wait for further instructions. Meanwhile, everyone's trying to leave Jackson on foot (an excuse for more crowds-running-around footage). Fire engine sirens and bells play out over the footage, which might mean Zontar missed a spot or that Larry Buchanan doesn't know what he's doing. Curt tries to find out what's happening from a panicky guy running past but that guy would rather flee than explain.

Curt says he's got to go to the Mission Control center (and will be taking a bicycle, which shouldn't work if Zontar is shutting down strictly mechanical devices). Then a lobsterbat attacks the police chief while he's pushing a stalled car out of the street and one more mind slave joins the ranks (which doubles Zontar's forces, not counting Keith; he's a true believer rather than a forced convert). The first thing the chief does is pull a gun on the newspaper editor, saying that the Jackson Times-Herald-Star-Telegraph-Tribune-Daily-Enterprise-Review-Chronicle-Journal-Register-Gazette is no longer needed in the new world. The journalist stands his ground so the cop stands his ground according to Texas state law and shoots the dude in cold blood. 

Dr. Taylor happens to bicycle by and witness the crime. He demands to know why the police chief did what he did, and finds out that Zontar's giving the orders now. The cop says that Dr. Taylor needs to be taken into protective custody, just like that room full of rocket scientists on the base. Dr. Taylor punches the cop but doesn't get shot--turns out Zontar has him on the "convert" list rather than the "kill" one. The chief tells Curt that he can run but he won't get away, and lets him go. 

Back at the Ritchie place, Keith comes in from an afternoon's birdwatching (he was hoping to catch a glimpse of an injectopod, and his enthusiastic explanation of what they are and where they come from makes him sound like a complete goddamned lunatic). It's pretty amusing, and I'll take my enjoyment where I can get it with this movie. He also tells his wife that "victims" is not the preferred term for the people who get bitten by an injectopod and have Zontar overwrite their brains to turn them into his agents on Earth and extensions of his personality and will. Keith doesn't say what the preferred word is, mind you, but that Zontar's a little sensitive about calling his victims "victims". Martha gives one of those Fifties science fiction movie speeches about the need for human self-determination and the value of emotions rather as opposed to submitting to an authoritarian overlord (and kudos to Larry Buchanan for giving that comeback to a woman rather than shoehorning another male character in to give the political message). 

When Dr. Taylor gets to the base, General Young offers him a lift to the new location where everyone's been moved for their own safety. That's "lift", as in "this guy has a working Jeep when nothing else is moving that Zontar hasn't personally authorized". Taylor doesn't put two and two together on this until he's already in the passenger seat, though, because he is a Professor of Smartology. Then he spots the implant in the back of the general's neck, judo-chops him unconscious and steals the Jeep (which Zontar will be able to track by virtue of keeping it running, not that Taylor knows that). He drives to Keith's place and says he's decided that Zontar is real, and that Keith is an accessory to murder. Keith goes onto a rambling explanation about how Zontar's race used to live on Venus but the other Venusians that they used for bodies (apparently Zontar and his ilk were creatures of pure intellect) died out. Now they need a new planet full of host bodies and Earth is the next one over in the solar system, so they've decided to move in.

Keith thinks that humanity needs Zontar to keep its impulses in check, and that with Venusian intelligences running the show there won't be any more greed or hatred and science will be allowed to flourish. Taylor counters with the Truth Bomb that humanity has figured out some pretty boss stuff on its own like X-ray medicine and Tang, and that we did it completely without Zontar helping out. Then, proving his political acumen, Curt tells Keith that he'll fight against Zontar (and Keith, who is much closer) rather than submit to the new order. Considering he knows the penalty for getting in Zontar's way is death, that's very brave but perhaps not so smart. He also calls Keith the worst traitor in human history and storms out. Martha storms in and tells Keith in her big speech that she can't love him any more because he's become a monster, and then they hug (huh?).

Zontar picks that moment to call Keith up and the guy requests a face-to-face meeting with his overlord because he's starting to have second thoughts about this whole "willing accomplice to the takeover of humanity" thing. I'm sure that's going to work out fine for him. Curt bikes back home to find Ann waiting for him (she says she just took a shower, which might mean she's been Zontarred and feathered because nobody else has working water power). Yup, she's an alien mind slave, and chucks a dragonbat at her husband, who stabs it to death with a fireplace poker in a sequence too thrilling to show as anything other than closeups of John Agar as he flails around. His phone rings the second the injectopod kicks the oxygen habit, with Keith telling his friend that he's got the only working phone in town. Well, other than the one Dr. Taylor is speaking into, of course. 

Keith wants to try talking Dr. Taylor into joining Team Zontar willingly again (or at least that's what he says over the phone), cluing Curt into one of the Venusian's weaknesses--he can only grow and send out so many injectopods at one time, so Taylor's going to be safe for a little while until Zontar's able to make another attempt to ream his brain out via monster bite. Taylor, looking at the sidearm he got from General Young, says he'll be right over (driving his wife's car, with Zontar's permission). Keith gets his marching orders:  he's got to kill Dr. Taylor in order to protect Zontar's plan to take over the world. Back at the Taylor place, Curt shoots his wife rather than see her continue to exist as part of Zontar's overmind (which I did not see coming, and which is actually almost affecting thanks to John Agar's performance).

But enough of that shit involving the main characters, let's listen to soldiers sitting around griping about how they don't know what they're supposed to be doing while in a crappy blue-for-night scene! Then it's back to the Ritchie residence for Martha to chastise Keith again for voluntarily working with Zontar! Martha asks her husband what Zontar is really like, and we get the same exposition this time that we've already had before. Zontar lives in a cave by a hot spring; he grows eight injectopods at a time and uses them to mentally dominate four key men in an area and their wives (because that makes the men more tractable). We also learn that the mayor of Jackson and his wife were killed in the evacuation (how Martha knows this when no news has been broadcast to her, the newspaper publisher was shot dead, and she hasn't left the house at all is a mystery for the ages).

Meanwhile, back at Mission Control, the scientists are getting back to work at the office and Louise stumbles across the two dead lobsterbats used to take over her colleagues' minds. She winds up getting strangled by one of the rocket scientists (since there isn't a spare injectopod to take care of her). And back with the Ritchies, Keith tells his wife she might want to go for a walk while Curt comes over to get murdered. She gives Zontar a piece of her mind via Space Radio, telling the Venusian that she's going to kill it when she gets a chance. Then Curt shows up for his meeting with Keith and Martha takes the gun from her car's glove compartment (insert Texas joke here), then drives off to find Zontar's cave and turn him into a good Venusian.

Dr. Taylor shows up for his meeting with Keith and threatens to kill his friend, telling the other man that it's his very desires to help the world that Zontar took advantage of. Keith says he needs to think about it, but it's starting to sink in. Maybe. If we're lucky. While Martha drives off to try and pull a Jack Ruby on Zontar she passes by the soldiers who are complaining about being hungry (and who don't consider the one car they've seen all day to be one of those suspicious things they were supposed to watch out for).

Martha gets to the correct cave and wanders around, with her scene intercut briefly with Dr. Taylor threatening to kill Keith. Her scream when she sees the alien (which looks just as stupid in the film as it does on that poster) is broadcast via Space Radio to Keith, who finally realizes that throwing in with the alien mind-control parasite might not have been the best possible thing he could be doing for humanity. She makes a really lethargic escape attempt but somehow Zontar gets in front of her. It turns out that bullets don't hurt Zontar (or at least the handgun isn't powerful enough to do the job) and Keith listens to the Venusian overlord kill his wife. And now he's willing to take Zontar out and save the world.

Curt gets his mission to go back to Mission Control to do something with the mind-controlled scientists while Keith takes a light-up sex toy out of the Space Radio closet, claiming it's self-developed laser capable of killing Zontar. He also neatly sews up a dangling plot thread by telling Dr. Taylor that he's so good at laser physics that the goofball prop he's holding is the way he contacted Venus before building the Space Radio--it's how he originally got in touch with Zontar. Whatever. Any ending is a good ending at this point. One of the soldiers sees Zontar in the cave and shoots it to new effect, then tries to tell his sergeant what's up. The sergeant says he doesn't have any orders concerning monsters and they all leave. With bare moments left to the film's running time, suddenly things start happening. The general is taking a briefcase bomb to his meeting with the President to blow himself up and create a power vacuum in the nation for Zontar to exploit! (Why the plan wasn't for him to just wait a day and bring eight injectopods with him, I don't know, but this means there's time pressure for Dr. Taylor to do something). He shoots the scientists and General Young as soon as he walks in the door and the general sets the self-destruct for Mission Control off, I guess, because stuff starts smoking and sparking right as Dr. Taylor runs out.

Back at the cave, the soldiers get orders to fix bayonets and start poking holes in Zontar. Keith speeds to the cave and gets stopped by the police chief, who shoots first (but gets wiped out by Keith's laser gun / adult novelty). The soldiers kill the narrative by walking slowly through the cave and eventually get to Zontar so they can lose the fight and prove that it's impervious to bullets, but Keith zaps it to death with his Cosmic Rod at the cost of his own life. And John Agar doesn't do as well with the awesome wrapup speech from the original Corman movie that I was looking forward to from about the ten minute mark on. But hey, that means I don't have to watch this any more.

"Plodding" is the best term I think I could use to describe this film, though "padded" and "redundant" also fit. It''s just kinda there, taking up space on the screen, running through its time, which is exactly what it was meant to do when AIP had it made for its television syndication packages back in 1966. I doubt anyone involved with the film remembered it fondly and even among aficionados of B movies it's not got much of a reputation. Sure, it's a movie that starts with a Z and doesn't include zombies, but that's really all I can say about it. And after two bakers' dozens of movies to review in a single month that isn't enough to make it distinctive or interesting. I've barely got anything to say about it at all besides "it was in color and John Agar makes a decent Peter Graves substitute". It's enough to make you realize how much Roger Corman brought to even the cheapest and fastest-made films in his canon, and how little Larry Buchanan brought to the table when redoing the same concept.

We have reached the end of HubrisWeen 2015! Thank you all for reading my gibberish, and I hope you stick around for the next movies I review on the Checkpoint (after taking a couple weeks off, because the last thing I want to do right now is pop another disc into the PC and start critiquing). Click on that banner to see what the other four participants chose to watch for their final film in the marathon.

Friday, October 30, 2015

HubrisWeen 3, Day 25: Yellowbrickroad (2010)

Written and directed by Jesse Holland and Andy Mitton

Cassidy Freeman:  Erin Luger
Clark Freeman:  Daryl Luger
Anessa Ramsey:  Melissa Barnes
Michael Laurino:  Teddy Barnes
Sam Elmore:  Cy Bambridge
Tara Giordano:  Jill Bateman
Laura Heisler:  Liv McCann
Alex Draper:  Walter Myrick

Some times you just have to take the plunge for HubrisWeen. There aren't many movies that start with Y, and not all of them are horror, fantasy or science fiction (the same problem exists for J, Q and X). So when assembling the list for this year's reviews I poked through web sites that had alphabetical lists of horror movies and picked this one because it's recent--which I've been trying to cover more for this year's marathon--and because I'd heard nothing at all about it from any source. Color me intrigued. I don't really know what I'm going to get from this, and with a Larry Buchanan movie coming up for the finale (and I know exactly what I'm going to be getting from that one) it's time to hope for something interesting and out of left field. In this case it's a movie that's almost great, which in some ways is the most frustrating kind of thing to watch. A bunch of filmmakers I hadn't ever heard of came up with a neat premise and some great unsettling scares on a visibly low budget but it doesn't quite jell in the end. "Interesting misfire" is not the harshest verdict I've ever given a movie and this one does qualify on both counts.

The movie appears to be riffing on the Dyatlov Pass Incident one way or another, with an opening title card revealing that the entire population of a small town in New Hampshire left their homes and places of business to walk north on an unmarked trail into the woods surrounding the town of Friar. Some of the people were found frozen, and others were found "mysteriously slaughtered", which sounds like the caption writer was trying way too hard to sound scary. Anyway, most of the people who were living in Friar were never seen again and their bodies were never located.

The title captions (along with a third one saying that there was a lone survivor who was tape-recorded when found by investigators) play out on a black screen while film-projector noises rattle on the soundtrack. Which means maybe we're going to be watching a found-footage movie--although at least the opening captions don't necessarily mean that that's what we're getting. Or it could mean that the filmmakers didn't quite know what they were doing (which is a depressing realization to have before the opening credits).

The recording plays out over still photos of the empty houses of Friar and other still photos of the investigators looking around at the empty houses and empty woods. There's a preface to the recording where an investigator says the person they found is the only one of the 258 people who lived in Friar that they have located. Everyone else has vanished, presumably into the woods. The unidentified survivor says he left everyone else on the path and asks if the people around him can hear whatever it is that he does (for the record, nobody else perceives whatever noises this guy is talking about). A quick montage of morgue paperwork and photos of dead bodies lying on a forest trail follow, and then the footage shifts to color.

And it looks like we are not in a found footage movie. Teddy Barnes requests a folder full of information about the Friar disappearances and actually gets them from the man in the archives, which takes Teddy a bit by surprise. Judging from his dialogue he's been researching the Friar event for some time, and is very used to being told that he can't access whatever it is he wants to take a look at. At any rate, the records clerk apologizes for the inconvenience and wishes Teddy the best of luck with his research.

Teddy returns to a gathering of friends with the case file, and the three other people there decide that they want to work on a book about the Friar event now (making sure to leave coffee cups on the irreplaceable photos and documents while going through them, because they are morons). One of the four goes through their accumulated voice mails and it turns out lots of people around Friar don't want to talk to anyone about some book project. Some are more polite than others, in that not every single one wraps up their message with "fuck you", but it doesn't look like there's going to be much research going on with the cooperation of anyone up there.

At a diner near Friar, the four people wrap up breakfast and introduce themselves in a circle before going out on their certainly-not-doomed expedition. Melissa Barnes is a co-author of the eventual book with Teddy (who is the official photographer of the expedition) and says she goes first with whatever gets discovered in the field. Cy Bambridge is the man from the Forestry Service, there because they need a guide but also looking forward to working on the Friar mystery. Daryl and Amy Luger are the cartography experts. Turns out that having a weird unsolved mystery with a three-figure body count in the area means that nobody wants to update the maps in the Friar region, which makes perfect sense to me. Jill Bateman is an intern working for college credit (I guess) with Teddy and Melissa. She's also got the first-aid kit, which means everyone should try to keep her from being eaten first. Lastly, Walter Myrick is a behavioral psychologist who want to try and make sure everyone's staying sane while they're out researching--he'd have the best chance out of any of them spotting anything odd affecting anyone in the group.

Teddy says he's been fascinated by the story of the Friar disappearances for years, and hopes that they can find out what's happened to all the missing people and what compelled them to go out on a doomed voyage; he says it's a chance to record history. And then the pancakes arrive so everyone turns their attention to that. The next thing we see is Walter Myrick taping a quick interview with Cy the forester, asking a few questions to see if his brain is working normally. Cy doesn't appear to be the sharpest arrow in God's quiver but goes along gamely. Then there's a gearing-up montage and the group parks like total douchebags in front of the local movie theater; according to Jill the intern and her portable GPS the first steps of the Friar trailhead are inside that theater. According to the slacker ticket-taker the group looks stupid and they need to pay eight bucks apiece if they want to go any farther into the building. Teddy springs for a ticket and goes to see something that (according to the soundtrack he hears) is a horror movie. There's a townie working as a projectionist in the theater who tells Teddy that she isn't one of the "angry ones" in town, but doesn't give him any more information.

The projectionist shows Teddy a few reels of film left behind in the theater from 1940 when everything went insane and tries to get a place on the expedition so she can move out of town--she's got no money, no family and no prospects for anything improving if she stays. Teddy, who must be some kind of Professor of Smartology, tells her that she can't go on the expedition because there's no trail (based on a single GPS reading that they looked at for about five or ten seconds). But she tells him there's a marker (reading "Yellowbrickroad", of course) at the start of the real trail, and if she can join the expedition she will show them where it is. It's an open secret in the town, but good luck finding it without a guide.

Well, the stone is there and the path is there when the group arrives. Off they go hiking after Teddy takes a picture of the entire expedition minus himself. Cy is driving some kind of go kart forestry vehicle on the trail and everyone else is stuck walking. There's also a pair of mental acuity tests from Dr. Myrick, shot so that the viewer sees a crystal-clear picture of the test subject in the display screen of a flip-camera while the person is a vague blur off in the background and to the left of the frame. I'm not sure what anyone thinks they're going to find on the trip, but so far it's just dirt and trees. They stop for the night in a convenient clearing and I'm betting everyone tries not to think about the Blair Witch while settling down for the night. Daryl leaps at everyone, yelling and wearing a hat he says he found in the woods when he wandered away from the camp to take a piss. The hat doesn't look like it's been out in the elements for seven decades and Daryl decides to keep wearing it as a token of something or other.

The second day on the trail, nothing supernatural seems to be taking place. The townie (who, if she had a name, I haven't heard it yet) gives some historical background on the Friar disappearances--her grandfather was a logger who traveled to the area back in 1940 and gave her some of the straight dope on the events before his death (unsurprisingly, he didn't think the official report was complete). The people who went walking out to their deaths supposedly had formal suits and hats with them--although Myrick points out that we're only hearing her say that after a hat in suspiciously great condition got picked up on the trail. Teddy doesn't think that they're being conned yet but Dr. Myrick couldn't agree with him less without special equipment.

Off the trail, Daryl and Erin start doing some kind of hideously complicated trigonometry to find where they are, and Jill the intern's got a GPS reading that states they're on located in Guam (Teddy wonders if she broke the thing, but she says she didn't). Everyone cheers in their version of Italian when the same device shows them as north of Florence that afternoon (but nobody thinks it's supernatural interference--just proof that they bought the wrong piece of crap to help determine their location). Jill starts wondering why nobody else is disconcerted by the number of different impossible results she's getting every time she checks the device (usually at Cy's bellowed insistence; she probably likes the way he calls her "Jill the intern" like that is her full name even less).

The third night, nothing continues to happen and everyone presses on down the trail (and I was rather impressed by the way the shooting locations looked genuinely overgrown--it can't be easy to scout out where you're going to go without leaving evidence that you've set up cameras and lights there). Teddy thinks he hears something and tells Cy to turn off the NatureKart he's driving. At first it seems that Teddy just heard some geese doing geese things, but then there's a faint sound on the wind that almost could be voices raised in song, but it's so faint that the words, if any, aren't intelligible. I might also be hearing some kind of woodwind instrument but that's far from certain. Whatever it is, everyone in the group heard it and spirits are high, considering that they're experiencing something unexplained and possibly unexplainable in a place where 250 people died or vanished under potentially similar circumstances.

Teddy rattles off a list of things they might be hearing (an intentional prank, a trick of acoustics, a shared hallucination) into his Dictaphone as the music starts to get louder. Dr. Myrick thinks there's at least the glimmer of a chance that it's actually something connected to the missing people from Friar. At that night's campfire Teddy holds a meeting and says they need to raise the possibility of all saying "NOPE NOPE NOPE NOPE" in unison and turning back. The music keeps playing through his discussion, which sounds even more impossible at night. Nobody in the group wants to go back (and Daryl, who I kind of hope gets slapped in the face a lot, sasses Jill the intern for thinking the music might be some kind of divine message). Teddy says there's at least a possibility that the people in Friar who presumably heard this music might have thought it was a message from some god, if not necessarily JHVH. Dr. Myrick says he's scared, doesn't know what's going on, and they should leave. Erin wonders if there really is a wish-granting Wizard at the end of the road they're on, and if so--what would people be wishing for? Teddy says all he really wants is proof that there's something there and nobody else is shown answering the question.

The following morning the compasses join the GPS on the Our Shit Isn't Working Any More list. Daryl says he knows which was is north and Erin doubts that he's actually got an inherent knowledge of direction that he's tapping into. I'm not sure exactly why they need to know this, because everyone's on the path. Sure, it's nice to know where you are when you're a week out from anywhere with a phone or a doctor's office, but they're following the trail. They go where it goes, north or otherwise. And if they decide to leave, they'll be following the trail back. And right after I thought this, the movie answered my question--Daryl thinks the music is coming from the exact center of the magnetic disturbance. If he can do decent enough math and the group has a little bit of luck, they'll be able to find where that spot is. Teddy wants that information, of course, because the answer to the 70 year old mystery might well be there too.

During the next mental checkup, we learn that the townie's name is Liv McCann. So there's that. Liv is apparently the coalmine canary for the group because she's the first one to not be able to answer one of Myrick's questions (she gets flustered and angry trying to recite the alphabet backwards, which might well be caused by the music or whatever influence the music is having on everyone). She skips O, but that may or may not mean something. There's another fork in the path where Daryl has to use his mad cartographic skills to plot a course, and the music now has a vocalist audible to the entire group. "Mexicali Rose" is the song that everyone hears at night, so at least it's something smooth and enjoyable. And it's obvious that something is playing that music. It's not likely to just be a gramophone somewhere in a clearing; instead, the music is coming from some entity or entities out there in the wilderness. Could it just be a lure to get the investigators close enough to destroy? Sure could, but there's not enough information yet.

Teddy is the next one to go through a mental diagnostic, and breaks down crying because he can't hear the music any more. He rejects an offer of sympathy from Myrick and wants to know if the other man misses hearing it (which he doesn't). He then asks the doctor what's going on with the various tests, and finds out that everyone else is displaying slight but increasing signs of mental breakdown. The doctor thinks there's plenty that they've already found for the future book and going back is a good idea. Teddy thinks they need to keep going because he wants to find out what's at the center of the pattern. (And I start to wonder if the music is a carrier for whatever is screwing with everyone's minds, or if the scraping and buzzing noises mixed in with it are, or if both things are two halves of the mind-eroding signal.)

And Cy thinks everyone needs to know about the incredibly poisonous berries that Daryl was fucking around with (although, thankfully, not eating yet). It's some sort of deadly nightshade thing that looks like a blueberry and people eating the wrong one are going to either be in a world of hurt or far beyond pain any more. Everyone takes a look at the berry and promises not to eat any of them. Daryl has a bottle of booze and Teddy thinks it's a good time for a party; he and Cy have a fire-building contest to see who does better at taming nature. This sequence is done as still black-and-white photos with voiceovers from the various characters. It's a little artsy and reminiscent of The American Astronaut, which is a heck of a thing to be influenced by.

Liv wakes Teddy up to confess that she never got any information from her grandfather about the Friar disappearances. She also says that if you live in town you understand the disappearances inherently and if you're not from there you can't really be told what's going on in a way you'd understand. That doesn't bode well for writing a book about anything. And it really doesn't bode well for Jill hearing singing and shouting as she pokes at the ashes of a campfire in the gray predawn light. Myrick's most recent test of Jill that day shows a near-total wipe of her memory. The doctor is willing to cut and run that minute, but Teddy's in charge and he says to give it just one more day and then they can go back if everyone deteriorates further.

So onward they go, with Erin wanting to take another reading with a sextant and virtually everyone else collapsing for an impromptu break. Erin and Daryl have an argument that escalates to shouting and just about open sobbing after she drops her sextant--she wants Daryl to lose that hat he picked up and has been wearing for a week; he wants to know if their navigational aid has been scratched. The argument turns into a fight, which turns into Erin fleeing and Daryl tearing one of her legs off with his bare hands while the group watches numbly and then--far too late--tries to help. The music, which had been gone, flares up along with a weird metallic undertone of sound while Erin dies. The expedition (other than Daryl, who ran off into the forest) unanimously decides that it's officially Fleeing Time but there's some ambiguity about whether or not they will be able to find their way back to the trail's start because they've turned and forked a couple dozen times over the last week. Cy thinks he'll be able to navigate back and they nearly decide to abandon Daryl to the woods and get safely back to home.

Instead, Jill breaks down screaming about the ever-present music while Cy and Teddy try to find Daryl in the woods so he can get dragged back to civilization. Liv takes the go-kart and a red piece of clothing to mark Erin's body while off in the woods Teddy and Cy argue about the music and then catch a glimpse of Daryl running away. They try to sneak in pursuit and the walkie-talkie Teddy's carrying decides to beep and squeal, alerting Daryl to their presence. But Daryl doesn't sound like himself, near tears as he breaks through the denial and mental breakdown to understand what he did. Teddy tries to reason with him and eventually gets through to him, offering to take him back to civilization after tying his hands together as a precaution. Daryl agrees and approaches the pair with his hands out. But it's nighttime before they bring him back to the campsite.

That night, when Teddy's on watch, he asks Daryl about the trail-marking numbers in his notebook that they need to interpret correctly in order to get back home. But Daryl just wants to talk about how much he likes listening to that ever-present music. Then he says he hears "the people in the music" and gains a little bit of coherence to tell Teddy that the numbers walked (according to pedometers that people were wearing) and the distance traveled according to his math and measurements were off by twenty miles or more. I expect there'd be some variance, but not of that magnitude. The path everyone's been traveling on looks like it's not obeying the same physical laws that every other spot on Earth does--and it's also reminiscent of the three doomed filmmakers walking one direction all day and winding up back where they started in The Blair Witch Project. Though in that film, the threat was external as opposed to internal. According to Daryl, the road they're on can only be traveled forward. I don't know if he has more information than he's sharing or if he's losing his mind, and I'm not sure which implication is worse for the group.

But worse than that, he tells Teddy that there's a page of calculations in his book that will guide them to the end of the road. And under the fear and disquiet, Teddy still wants to solve the mystery. And that solution lies at the end of the Yellowbrickroad, if Daryl's largely coherent description is anything to go by. Then, in the middle of the night, the music starts to dissolve into static and silence, then return at painfully high volumes. Nobody can hear each other talking when the music's at high tide, but then it fades away completely (only to return in a blast of static that incapacitates the group out of sheer pain). Everyone covers their ears except Daryl, whose hands are tied behind his back.

They set out on the trail, trying to return home, but bursts of noise and chaos knock them to the ground at intervals. At this point the colors are bleached out of the film, leaving it dull and greyish as a way to reflect how badly everyone's dealing with this new assault. Then they hear laughter and see a pile of wood in the distance with a figure standing in front of it. It's Erin's body lashed to a crucifix with a big straw hat (and the gruesome effect when she slumps over from a sound blast is the most distressing thing in the film so far)--and yes, kids, that means they've found a scarecrow on the Yellowbrickroad.. Teddy climbs a hill and gets a look at the distance, where there's a flickering pillar of light beckoning him to the end of the trail (I couldn't help but think of bug zappers when I saw it). But while he's doing that (aided by wax earplugs, like Odysseus' crew avoiding the song of the sirens) Daryl gets his hands on the machete Cy was using to clear a path earlier, and cuts the ropes holding his hands behind his back. I'm not completely sure one person could do that on their own, but it makes a horrible kind of sense that he could.

Daryl drives off in the travel cart and leaves everyone else, but leaves his notebook behind as a way for everyone to get home (according to Jill) or lure them further into the cosmic pitcher plant they're walking on (according to Liv). Myrick and Cy get into an argument that turns physical about which direction everyone should go in for the best chance of escaping their predicament and it looks like we're seconds away from another killing in the group. Cy says he's going due west now, heading out on his own without being tied down by the concerns of keeping everyone else alive. And Teddy, having laid eyes on his goal, thinks they should keep going north ("I think we should go home with answers"). Cy and Liv are leaving in one direction (with Cy's knife) while everyone else goes another--and north is supposed to be completely off the table at this point. Cy splits up the gear as fairly as he can and heads off with Liv in the night. The music comes back to see him off, which is a nice touch.

That night, Teddy and Melissa make love in a rainstorm, trying to ignore the raving voice in the distance (Daryl? Cy?); in the morning Melissa worries that they're never going to be able to leave the road and that it's taken over their lives completely. She wakes up the other members of the group sobbing and screaming when Teddy leaves her tend to try and see the track they need to follow from higher ground. The film shifts to Cy and Liv in the woods working through their rations and progressing in the direction that Cy says is west. It can't be good news when Liv starts looking at a cluster of those "bad berries" he was talking about earlier. He says they get the eater high, but too many of them is poisonous. Liv thinks she's probably okay with one, and then Cy pops a single berry in his mouth as well.

The film switches gears for a moment, abruptly cutting to Daryl's point of view on the travel cart zooming along the trail while Cy and Liv lie on the ground giggling about how much they like the forest. Eventually they go off deeper into the forest, with Cy asking if it's okay to kiss Liv and her shutting him down (the berries haven't got her that high, I guess). Then the movie's focus switches back to Teddy and Melissa walking along, and Jill the intern slowing down and getting farther and farther behind from them on the trail. Back with Liv, she starts coming down from the berry high and mentions that everyone living in Friar knows the real reason all the walkers went on down the trail back in 1940 (but we're still about half an hour from the end of the film so the audience doesn't get a hint right now). She does say everyone in Friar thinks of the trial as "a way out", a last-resort way to pull the ripcord and escape from the stifling confines of small town existence with no real chance of doing any better for the next few decades. I can't help but wonder if this is the only group that's gone down the road in the last seventy years, or just the first one with outsiders tagging along with a townie on the way to their doom.

That night as the jazzy music plays in the distance Melissa reveals that she has the bag of lollipops and other candy left--it was overlooked when everyone divvied up the supplies and now there's a treat for everyone. Jill winds up eating a massive amount of the stuff overnight; it seems reasonable that if you thought you were going to die soon you wouldn't want to ration the chocolates for a later day. When the morning comes everyone trudges silently along, Jill in the back apologizing (tellingly, we don't see the scene where she gets found out or confesses to eating the bag full of sweets--the filmmakers assume we know that had to have happened in order for her to be apologizing). Then, with nobody but the audience looking to her, Jill steps off a ridge to her death without a sound. Teddy plods onward, either ignoring what happened or completely unaware of it.

She's not the only one who's struggling with her own brain; back with Cy and Liv, the forest ranger admits that for miles and miles of their walk, he's been imagining all kinds of horrific things to do to his traveling companion. And if he keeps hearing that music, he's going to try them sooner or later. Liv is too numb to run at this point, even after hearing that particular True Confession. Cy asks her to get the rope; apparently there's still enough hope in his heart that they might escape before he does something irredeemable that he'd rather take precautions so he won't hurt Liv and keep pressing onward.

And Teddy's walked off on his own, leaving Myrick and Melissa together in a clearing, listening to the woman's voice in the song and feeling it calling to them. Myrick promises he won't leave his friend alone and I think he even means it. They lean together wearily as we get another shot from the POV of the travel cart (and by this time I wonder what the eventual reveal is going to be about who's driving it because we haven't seen Daryl any of the last few times the shot's been from this point of view).

Cy, at his own request, has been tied up by Liv and asks her to break his neck (he doesn't want his blood on the knife). She can't bring herself to do it and leaves Cy on his knees struggling with the ropes by himself while she sits down beneath a tree. Night falls again, with nobody managing to achieve anything meaningful either to get away from the path or find their own death. Liv goes back to Cy that night and does manage to break his neck although he asked her to stop. And as dawn breaks (I think; it might just be blue-for-night) Melissa stumbles across Dr. Myrick's body, with a videotaped suicide note and slashed wrists. The note includes him referring to "clicking his heels" when he talks about killing himself to get away from the road and he runs through one of his own mental-acuity tests until he fades out. Melissa keeps replaying the last nonsense syllable he utters, trying not to let him go completely.

At the same time (and the lighting's changed so I guess it was dawn earlier) Teddy is staggering along following the instructions on one page of Daryl's notebook; when he gets close enough to Melissa his walkie-talkie makes hers crackle and squeal. Melissa try to communicate with her husband but nothing gets through but static. But the next voice she does hear is Daryl, in a cave behind her, telling her to run before he kills her with the machete that Cy brought along (and that Daryl swiped earlier). She sprints off while Teddy keeps listening to the cracking static on his walkie-talkie, and then the signal disappears. He tries to call her back and the film reveals that she didn't get far before Daryl caught up to her, with lethal results. Liv stumbles over the go-kart while Daryl's off murdering Melissa and while Teddy tries to call back to her; she's able to end Daryl's life because he was looking for Teddy and not watching his back. All that remains for Liv to do is eat as many of those berries as she can keep down. And then there was one, still looking for the enter of the maze.

There's a shot of a white-gloved hand pulling Melissa's body away intercut with shots of the two remaining people on the expedition, though, and I don't know what the hell that's got to do with anything right now. And Teddy continues to go onward, literally crawling now as he tries to get closer to the center of the mystery. He does eventually find something, but I don't think it's supposed to be making literal sense when he gets there. And the person he finds at that location is wearing bright white gloves...

I don't think the ending or the final images make any kind of literal sense, and I'm also confident I don't get the metaphor either. Whatever the filmmakers were trying for, I didn't get it. And I have to say that from a great premise and fine, naturalistic performances comes an eventual nothingburger of an ending. Which is quite fitting if you tend to look at travel as more about the journey than the destination. The road is there to be walked on, and the ending is just where things stop.

It's too bad, because there are some really neat unsettling moments as the story progresses, but it doesn't really wind up as anything. I'm not sure what kind of ending I would have accepted or enjoyed, so it may be that there was no way to wrap this one up in a satisfying way (and certainly it's not the only movie to stumble in the denouement). Which puts me in the curious position of recommending a movie--cautiously--because it's interesting until it isn't, and trying to warn people at the start that they aren't going to find out some of the things the film is supposed to be about.

Such are the hazards when you're selecting movies specifically because they start with a rare letter. Usually cinema and Scrabble don't work well together, and I would have to say that overall this is an exception to that general rule.

This is the penultimate review for this year's HubrisWeen, the blogging marathon where people review 26 movies in 26 days. Click on that banner to see what the other four participants went for this time.