Friday, April 26, 2019

Worth Mentioning - No One Can Hear You Scream

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Alien creatures, zombies, and Rothrock.

ALIEN (1979)

Star Wars changed the course of Ridley Scott's career in the entertainment industry, and he didn't even have anything to do with that movie. The filmmaker had just made his feature debut with the 19th century period piece The Duellists, which had been very well received by critics despite casting the very 20th century New York Harvey Keitel as a 19th century Frenchman, and Scott was planning to make his next feature an adaptation of the 12th century romance Tristan and Isolde... But when he saw Star Wars, he decided to ditch Tristan and Isolde and instead sought out a science fiction project. That turned out to be Alien, a sci-fi project where he could also draw inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while making it.

Alien started out as a screenplay written by Ronald Shusett and The Return of the Living Dead's Dan O'Bannon, who at one point planned to direct the film as well. O'Bannon basically wanted to make a serious version of the beach ball alien stuff in his college collaboration with John Carpenter, Dark Star. The project slipped out of his hands as it made its way toward production, with producers Walter Hill and David Giler doing multiple drafts of uncredited rewrites on the script - which initially had the title Memory on it, and was then called Star Beast, before O'Bannon and Shusett settled on Alien.

The influence of films like The Thing from Another World, Forbidden Planet, and Planet of the Vampires has been acknowledged, but someone along the way must have been familiar with the film It! The Terror from Beyond Space as well, as It! plays very much like a simplistic version of Alien, and that movie beat Alien to theatres by twenty-one years.

The story of Alien begins with the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo making its way back to Earth with a haul of 20,000,000 tons of mineral ore. The vehicle's long journey through space is disrupted when it picks up a transmission of unknown origin and the computer system automatically re-routes the ship to check out the source, waking the Nostromo's seven person crew from their cryostasis. Most members of the crew are disappointed to find that they're being sent on a detour when they're only halfway home, but they're forced to investigate any transmissions that might have come from intelligent life. It's in their contract; if they don't do this, they don't get paid.

That's one of Alien's greatest charms, the fact that its characters aren't astronauts or adventurers. These characters could just as easily be the crew of a ship at sea in 1979. They're concerned about getting paid, they have signed contracts, they like their coffee. Scott assembled a fantastic cast to play this bunch. Tom Skerritt plays the captain, and filling various crew positions are Yaphet Kotto, Harry Dean Stanton, Veronica Cartwright, Ian Holm, John Hurt, and of course Sigourney Weaver - whose character Ripley will emerge as the "final girl" as she makes sensible decisions and the cast gets whittled down around her.

Actually, there are eight crew members if you count the ship cat Jonesy.

Landing on a moon called LV-426 in the Zeta Reticuli system (a couple in our reality claimed they had been abducted by aliens from Zeta Reticuli in the 1960s, so this is a nod to their story), the Nostromo crew discovers that the transmission was emanating from an alien ship, and the massive creature that was piloting the ship is long dead. It has fossilized in its chair, and it looks like it died from something bursting out of its chest. That's all creepy enough, stumbling across a dead alien, but that thing isn't the alien of the title.

Descending into what appears to be a large cargo hold, crew member Kane (Hurt) finds several mysterious, disgusting eggs. One of those eggs opens up, and a crab-like character launches itself out of the egg to attach itself to Kane's face and wrap its long tail around his throat. This ugly little thing would become known as the facehugger, and it remains attached to Kane's face for quite a while. Ripley wisely doesn't want to let him back on board the Nostromo with that thing on him, he needs to be quarantined, but science officer Ash (Holm) breaks protocol to go ahead and let him on board anyway.

Kane is unconscious while the facehugger is attached to him, and it appears to have stuck an appendage down his throat, but his fellow crew members can't take it off of him because when they pierce its flesh it bleeds an acid that burns through several floors of the ship. Eventually it detaches from him and dies... and Kane seems to be fine when he regains consciousness.

The Nostromo leaves LV-246, and from then on the film has been referred to as a "haunted house in space" movie. When Kane sits down for a meal with his fellow crew members, and the most iconic moment in the film occurs: Kane begins spasming in pain, falls back on the table, and a small alien creature comes bursting out of his chest. Which is how this iteration of the titular alien, the xenomorph, came to be called the chestburster.

The alien is small at first, but once it runs off and starts making its way around through the shadows and air ducts of the ship it grows rapidly. Soon enough it's being portrayed by a man in a costume, 7'2" Bolaji Badejo. The creature, like all of the creature and alien objects in the film, was designed by artist H.R. Giger, and it's unique and terrifying. There's a reason audiences have wanted to see more and more of this thing, and the costume was certainly a step up from the creature costume in It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

This thing is so deadly that it even has a second mouth on the end of its tongue, which it uses to punch into human bodies. The death scenes beyond the chestburster moment are quite tame, though. Most of the time Scott chooses to cut away as soon as the xenomorph grabs somebody.

The crew of the Nostromo have quite an issue on their hands now. The xenomorph proceeds to pick them off one-by-one while they try to figure out a way to get rid of the thing without puncturing its skin - since it bleeds acid just like the facehugger.

Alien has deservedly been considered a classic pretty much since the day it came out. It's an exceptionally well made film with some awesome sequences of suspense and horror... and those moments of horror aren't always caused by the alien. One of the freakiest scenes involves the discovery that Ash is an android who has been working against the crew's best interests so he can study the alien, on the orders of the company the crew works for. When he's found out, Ash attacks. And when he gets bashed around, we're shown that injured androids spew a substance that looks a lot like milk. It's quite gross.

Despite my admiration of Alien, it's not a movie I can just watch at any time. I have to be in a very specific mood when I revisit it, otherwise I can find it a slog to get through. It's not a quickly paced movie, and as awesome as the sets and props look, I'm not as fascinated by them as Scott was. Inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey, Scott takes some long, lingering looks at the things that were on his set, resulting in scenes that go on for a while. It's 6 minutes into the movie before any of the characters even wake up. It's 34 minutes before the facehugger latches on to Kane's face - and those 34 minutes are not packed with a lot happening. The chestburster finally makes its appearance 56 minutes into the 116 minute running time. For the remaining hour, the xenomorph livens things up while making crew members dead.


Six years after playing a member of the Cobra Kai dojo in The Karate Kid, Chad McQueen showed off his martial arts skills again in director Steve Cohen's straight-to-video action flick Martial Law, in which he plays ass-kicking police officer Sean Thompson. But even though McQueen is the son of Steve McQueen and was trained in martial arts by Chuck Norris, the true draw of this movie is the presence of action heroine Cynthia Rothrock as Sean's girlfriend and fellow police officer Billie Blake.

For the most part, Martial Law takes itself way too seriously, crawling through a story that was scripted by Richard Brandes and is about Sean's troubled younger brother Michael (Andy McCutcheon) getting mixed up with criminal kingpin, Dalton Rhodes (David Carradine). This adds a lot of drama into the film, as Sean struggles to help his sibling while the kid spirals deeper into the underworld, and it's not likely that many viewers over the years have been surprised when Michael dies. It's pretty much expected that this tragedy is going to happen and send Sean on a mission of vengeance against Rhodes, but it is surprising that it takes the 89 minute film over an hour to get to that plot point. That's how overly padded and slow Martial Law is.


Thankfully, when the fights break out - and they do with some frequency - the film comes alive. McQueen does display an ability to punch and kick with the best of them, but he's also so intense during the fight scenes that you kind of just want to tell the guy to calm down and take it easy. Rothrock was a martial arts movie veteran at this point, so she had this stuff down. Carradine was also a skilled screen fighter, and he first gets to show that off during a fight with a character played by Professor Toru Tanaka of The Running Man and The Perfect Weapon.

Tanaka's character apparently doesn't survive his fight with Carradine, yet when we see his body in the morgue later he's clearly breathing just fine.

Another notable fight before Sean and Billie's climactic battle with Rhodes and Philip Tan as his right hand man Wu Han occurs in a nightclub, where a hair metal band watches from the stage as McQueen and Rothrock fight a bunch of baddies, including Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Take Manhattan's V.C. Dupree as a fellow called Faster Brown.

I don't think Martial Law is a film I'll be revisiting with any regularity, as I was rarely interested in anything that was happening between the fights, but it did its job of being a relaxing evening viewing well enough.


I was very anti-remake when the horror remake boom hit in the early 2000s. I was appalled to see all these filmmakers and production companies daring to think they could live up to the genre classics of the 1970s and '80s they were attempting to put fresh spins on. I skipped seeing most of them in the theatre, and while I eventually lightened up on remakes and actually ended up enjoying several of them, rarely did I ever think they actually did live up to their predecessors.

The remake of George A. Romero's classic Dawn of the Dead is one I would have skipped, because I knew there was absolutely no way that it could come anywhere close to the quality of Romero's indie epic. Although my expectations were low, I did end up going to see the remake on opening weekend because I had reason to want to see it succeed: its success might help Romero. He wasn't involved with the making of the movie, but if the box office numbers were high enough to prove that movie-goers were interested in seeing zombies rampage across the screen it might convince someone to put some money into the zombie project Romero had been developing for years at that point but had never been able to get into production. And that's exactly how things worked out. The Dawn of the Dead remake was released by Universal in 2004, it was a hit, and just over a year later Universal was releasing Romero's Land of the Dead - set in the universe of Night of the Living Dead (and/or its remake, which Romero wrote), the original Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead.

So I was glad I saw the new Dawn just to do my part in making that happen for Romero. And thankfully the remake wasn't an offensive disaster, because it didn't even attempt to reach the same level Romero's Dawn was working on. Nor did it try to bring us new versions of Romero's characters. Everyone in the film is a newly created character, while there are nods to the original film with things like cameos by the original Dawn's stars Scott Reiniger and Ken Foree, and FX man Tom Savini. Appearing on a TV as a televangelist, Foree even gets to repeat his famous line, "When there's no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the Earth."

The set-up is the same as in Romero's film. The world has been hit by a zombie outbreak and a group of characters decide to take shelter in a large shopping mall. These are very different zombies than you'd see in a Romero movie, though. These growling, screeching, twitching things move quicker in death than most of them probably ever moved in life, running after victims with such speed that they'd leave the running zombies of The Return of the Living Dead in the dust. Oddly, these zombies have no interest in eating other species, they will ignore any animals. They just focus on humans.

The primary character in the film is a nurse named Ana (Sarah Polley), but once she makes her way through an apocalyptic nightmare to the mall she has a lot more company than the characters in the first Dawn of the Dead had. There were only four people living in the mall there, this time there are several more than that.

Moving on from the death of her husband, which occurs within the first 10 minutes of the film, Ana finds a love interest in the sensible Michael (Jake Weber). Ving Rhames plays police officer Kenneth Hall, who is just hoping to catch up with his brother somewhere. Mekhi Phifer (Andre) is a reformed criminal whose Russian wife Luda (Inna Korobkina) is pregnant... and has been bitten by a zombie. That's bad news. C.J. (Michael Kelly) and Bart (Michael Barry) are overzealous mall security guards, with C.J. being a standout "likeable douchebag" character. Ty Burrell's snarky Steve is another douchebag. Norma (Jayne Eastwood) is a pistol-packing granny, Glen (R.D. Reid) is an older gay man, Monica (Kim Poirier) is sleeping with Steve, Tucker (Boyd Banks) is just hanging around. Mall security guard Terry (Kevin Zegers) falls for a young woman named Nicole (Lindy Booth), who loses her father Frank (Matt Frewer) soon after we meet them. Coincidentally, Zegers and Booth had just played a couple in Wrong Turn the year before. And across the street, trapped in his gun store and communicating with the mall people with binoculars and dry erase boards, is sharpshooter Andy (Bruce Bohne).

The mall may have more occupants, but Snyder devoted very little time to showing the "wish fulfillment" aspect of living inside that sort of place. There's really only a quick montage to show how the characters take advantage of the things they have at their disposal. Snyder shot the interior of the mall with fluorescent lights giving everything an ugly green tint, so no one would want to live in this place anyway. It'd be nauseating. Unlike Romero's characters, this bunch get anxious to leave the mall, and that's understandable here.

The escape plan isn't set into motion until the last 30 minutes of the movie, but that's my favorite idea in the film because it's something that's 100% apart from the original film. The mall dwellers get two shuttle buses from the parking garage, cover them in steel, add cow catchers to the front of them, put barbed wire along the top edges, and hit the road, armed with guns and chainsaws. I've said this before and it almost always holds true, the presence of a chainsaw in a horror movie or action scene will instantly raise my enjoyment of a film by a good percentage.

Directed by Zack Snyder, making his feature debut after years of directing commercials and music videos, and scripted by James Gunn, who at that point was just the guy who had written Scooby-Doo and Tromeo & Juliet (and with Michael Tolkin and Scott Frank doing uncredited revisions), Dawn '04 is just a piece of action-packed entertainment. They took only the basic concept of Dawn of the Dead and used it to make a movie that doesn't step on any toes or tarnish the title, it's nothing but a simple, fun zombie flick.

I very rarely feel the urge to revisit it, but I find that it's a fine time when I do.



The success of Alien spawned a slew of imitators that came out at a steady pace for more than a decade, and one of the most blatant Alien rip-offs was director William Malone's 1985 film Creature, which is also known as Titan Find, since it's about something being found on Saturn's moon Titan.

At the center of the story Malone crafted with co-writer Alan Reed is a rivalry between the American corporation NTI and the German corporation Richter Dynamics. When something goes wrong and NTI employees end up dead after discovering a 200,000 year old underground structure on Titan that's full of sarcophagi that contain various alien creatures, crew sent by both NTI and Richter race to Titan to find out what's going on there. What's going on is, of course, that one of those alien creatures has risen from its sarcophagus and set out to kill. More than twenty Richter employees are wiped out (we don't get to see that happen), leaving behind only Hans Rudy Hofner (Klaus Kinski). This creature then proceeds to knock off the crew of NTI ship Shenandoah.

Like the Nostromo in Alien, the Shenandoah has seven crew members, but unlike the Nostromo crew this bunch is not interesting enough to keep track of. Some of these people make no impression at all, while others only stand out because I recognize them from somewhere else - one of them is played by Lyman Ward, the dad from Ferris Bueller's Day Off - or because they have something quirky going on. One keeps re-reading a novelization of Malone's film Scared to Death, the mysterious female security officer looks intimidating and doesn't speak, another crew member has a premonition that she's not going to survive this trip to Titan and asks a co-worker to make love to her.

That's Marie Laurin as Delambre, who has two of the most memorable scenes in the movie. She's one of the first NTI crew members to fall prey to the alien creature, and we discover that this thing sheds parasites that can turn people into zombie-like drones. Delambre becomes a drone and causes the death of the man who made love to her earlier by luring him out of the ship and then stripping down completely naked. He stares in awe at this naked, blood-splattered woman standing on the surface of Titan. It's a sight too fascinating to run away from. Then she kills him and turns him into another parasite drone.

I don't find Creature to be very interesting overall, but Kinski's performance and those stray moments of weirdness make it worth sitting through at least once. It also starts throwing out some nice gore as it goes on, and eventually unveils a goofy-looking variation on the Alien xenomorph.

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