Saturday, June 07, 2014
My new article is up at Anorak, and it gazes at some of the best knock-offs of Ridley Scott's horror watershed: Alien (1979).
Here's a snippet:
RIDLEY Scott’s Alien (1979) dramatically altered the template for horror films set in outer space. For example, the blockbuster film was among the first (after Dark Star  to suggest that travel in the final frontier would be the purview of “work-a-day” space truckers rather than noble explorers or adventurous astronauts.
And instead of intrepid space travelers fighting men-in-rubber suits inside idealized white-on-white space station environs (as was the case in The Green Slime ) Alien suggested a technological space age marked by endless industrial corridors and aliens of constantly shifting dimension.
The Scott film’s central alien — a bio-mechanoid horror created by H.R. Giger — could also gestate inside a living human host, and this fact ushered in a new era of cinematic “body horror.”
As with any genre blockbuster, Alien almost immediately spawned a host of knock-offs, some terrible and some quite good. These films found much material to imitate and emulate, from the diverse make-up of Alien’s victim pool, to bloody variations on Alien’s famous chest-burster birth scene. Many Alien knock-off films also involved long forgotten derelicts or other structures on alien planetary surfaces, for instance. Inevitably, human crews would discover these Lovecraftian edifices and wake up age-old horrors.
Among the Alien knock-offs of the 1980s were Scared to Death (1981), Forbidden World(1982), The Beast Within (1982), Parasite (1982), The Being (1983), and Biohazard(1985), to name just a handful.
The list below represents five of the best — or at least the most memorable– of the Alien knock-off breed. As is often the case regarding knock-offs, the best such films are invariably those that re-purpose not merely the clichés from one source – in this case — Alien — but also from other literary or cinematic works as well.
Last Saturday morning, I posted my review of the final episode of Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982), but somehow I managed to miss the episode “Fortress of Fear,” and am circling back to include it now.
In “Fortress of Fear,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel ride through an inhospitable canyon and find a human on the verge of death. He warns them about an evil wizard, Argot. Before Thundarr and his friends can learn more, Argot attacks with a high-tech aircraft and an army of flying robot-men.
Thundarr and his friends are captured. Ookla and the Barbarian are promptly put to work in a factory, on an assembly line creating more robots. Meanwhile, Ariel is to become the bride of Argot, a wizard with a “thousand eyes.”
Thundarr escapes his shackles and frees all the human slaves of Argot’s citadel. They flee for the Forbidden Jungle, a place where magic cannot function. Argot sends a giant Cyclops after the refugees, and then travels to the Forbidden Jungle himself, formerly the site of La Brea Tar Pits.
In addition to its use of a great location -- the aforementioned Tar Pits -- “Fortress of Fear” impresses because it includes some interesting clues about Thundarr’s past, and even states his mission outright.
Furthermore, the episode treads into some adult imagery, as Ariel is captured and deposited on Argot’s wedding bed, apparently for a conjugal visit.
In terms of Thundarr himself, the barbarian is perhaps the least-well-developed regular character on the series. We don’t really know what drives him or why.
By contrast, we have learned of Ariel’s past (and her knowledge of the pre-holocaust world), and we have met other Moks like Ookla.
In “Fortress of Fear,” this status quo changes a bit. Thundarr makes cryptic mention of having escaped “a citadel” like Argot’s before, an allusion perhaps, to his past as a slave. Later, Thundarr notes that no one enslaves Thundarr and implores the humans to “follow me to freedom.”
Finally, Thundarr tells his friends that his battle will continue until all men “are free” of the tyranny of wizards. That’s as close to a mission statement as we ever get during the series and it helps to explain why Thundarr lives as he does.
Without going into too much detail on the second point, “Fortress of Fear” also promises a very unhappy fate for Ariel. She is taken to Argot’s bed chamber and made to wait there. She doesn’t just wait standing-up either…she is deposited on a king-sized bed. There’s absolutely no doubt about what is happening here, and so this qualifies as a legitimately “adult” or “mature” moment on a Saturday morning kid’s show. With Argot bellowing “You will be my bride,” “Fortress of fear” qualifies as rather kinky.
As is the case with many episodes of Thundarr, “Fortress of Fear” is impressive from a visual standpoint. In particular, the opening shots are quite memorable. We look up from the floor of a canyon at the cracked-moon, two high, jagged canyon walls bracketing it. Not long after this view, we get another shot of the craggy landscape, and the two sides blanketing the chasm look a little like the teeth of a crocodile or other “monster.” These scenes are nicely rendered and express well the danger of Thundarr’s world.
The final battle in “Fortress of Fear” is also the kind of set-piece I always look forward to on Thundarr. It is one in which the post-holocaust landscape plays a crucial role in the fisticuffs. Here, the skeletons of the animals trapped in La Brea’s Tar Pit are evident in the close combat between Thundarr and Argot.
Although I watched this episode out of continuity/order, it’s actually a perfect one to end the series on (and far preferable to “Prophecy of Peril,” which is all about establishing new characters as a kind of back-door pilot). Here, we come to understand Thundarr’s past, his present and his goal for the future. He has never put his slavery fully behind him, and now lives to avenge that wrong, and prevent humans like him from enduring the same suffering.
Next Saturday: I’ll take a quick look at Big John, Little John (1976), a Saturday morning live-action comedy about the fountain of youth.
In “Ultra Witch,” Walt (Fred Grandy) and the Monsters are alarmed by a world-wide emergency. All the cows in the world have spontaneously stopped producing milk! This event could ruin the global economy, and deprive children of cookies for its duration.
The Monster Squad discovers that an evil witch (Julie Newmar) has cast a powerful spell to affect the cows in the fashion. But when Dracula, The Werewolf and Frankenstein confront her, Ultra Witch uses a ray-gun on them that transforms the trio into life-sized black-and-white cardboard statues.
Walt swoops in to help, and realizes that the only way to restore his friends is to steal Ultra-Witch's ray gun and reverse the beam…
“Ultra Witch” is a good bit better than last week’s entry of Monster Squad (1976), the god-awful “The Astrologer.” The episode owes its comparative success to two significant factors: Julie Newmar, and some adult-themed jokes.
On the former front, Julie Newmar -- Catwoman on Batman (1966 – 1969) -- clearly understands how to do high camp: with a sense of grace and restraint. Newmar doesn’t shout her lines in an attempt to make them play funnier.
Also, she doesn’t deliver her dialogue in such arch and knowing fashion that the audience wants to cringe at the wink-wink/nudge-nudge approach, either. Instead, more often than not Newmar is soft and melodic. She lets the material -- such as it is -- speak for itself. She is a very graceful performer, and in a low-budget, slap-dash production like this one, that grace matters.
The jokes are also better this week on Monster Squad.
Although the premise of magic (!) being used to brainwash cows into not providing humans milk is patently absurd, some of the comedy nonetheless hits the mark.
For instance, early in the episode it is noted that all cows in the world are refusing to give milk. Except one specific cow. It’s from the Middle East, you see, and has instead placed an embargo on its milk.
Yes, it’s silly, but for a country living through the OPEC oil embargoes of the 1970s, the joke hits the mark. Would kids get it? Probably not. But the adults of 1976 certainly would have.
Another joke, delivered by Dracula (Henry Polic II) involves his taste for blood and the fact that he is now “on the wagon.”
Again, the lingo there -- on the wagon -- is not something that a kid watching Saturday morning TV would necessarily understand (or relate to) though the adults in his or her life would.
Before it ends, “Ultra Witch” also takes shots at “bleeding heart liberals,” and “census takers,” again creating the impression of an episode that is pitched just a bit higher than the norm. It’s as if the writer actually had the parents in mind for this one. And that's a relief.
So this episode isn’t great -- none of the Monster Squad episodes are, frankly -- but “Ultra Witch” is watchable and tolerable, and that combination has been a high reach for the program thus far.
Next week: "The Wizard."
Friday, June 06, 2014
In the 21st century, virtually every film lover with a good movie IQ knows the secret of Soylent Green.
It's a punch-line that is surpassed only by the climactic revelation of another Charlton Heston sci-fi film, 1968's Planet of the Apes.
Still, our familiarity with the movie's final narrative "twist" does Soylent Green, directed ably by Richard Fleischer, little disservice, for the film is a brilliantly-crafted example of dystopian futurism; a daring vision second only, perhaps, to Blade Runner.
And like that 1982 Ridley Scott classic, Soylent Green utilizes the parameters of a familiar genre -- the police procedural -- to weave its caustic story of a future world gone awry.
This is a future noir; a detective story that boasts a devilish but cunning endgame: to lead the viewer, bread-crumb by bread-crumb to a commentary on the "path" mankind is currently on; and to a grim destiny it may not be able to evade if humanity doesn't change its ways.
In the crowded, over-populated, global-warming ravaged year of 2022, Detective Thorn (Charlton Heston) and his researcher, Sol (Edward G. Robinson) must solve the murder of a Soylent Corporation executive, Simonson (Joseph Cotton) at the ritzy Chelsea West.
As Thorn questions Simonson’s body guard, Tab (Chuck Connors) and mistress, Shirl (Leigh Taylor Young), he comes to suspect that the murder was no simply break-in, as was believed. Rather, it was an assassination.
In particular, Simonson knew a secret about the popular protein food wafer, Soylent Green…one that could up-end the very social order of life in over-stressed New York City.
When Sol learns the horrible secret of Soylent Green, he chooses to “go home,” a euphemism for being euthanized by the State. Thorn witnesses Sol’s going “home” ceremony, and gets a look at the beautiful Earth as it once was, before man soiled it.
Based on the novel "Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison, Soylent Green evidences an authentic apocalypse mentality. It is a gloomy vision of the year 2022. New York City is populated by some forty million people; twenty million of them out of work. The city streets are bathed constantly in a nausea-provoking yellow haze, a result of "the greenhouse effect" of global warming.
Meanwhile, the innumerable homeless denizens of this urban blight sleep on staircases, in parked cars, and street corners, all-the-while suffering in roasting temperatures (the average daily temperature according to the film is 90 degrees.) The Big Apple experiences numerous power black-outs in the film, yet it isn't just the city where things have turned bad.
We also learn from the dialogue that the oceans "are dying," "polluted," and that there is very little good farmland remaining in America. As for Gramercy Park, all that's left of the foliage there is a pitiful sanctuary where a few anemic trees grow in relative safety. Food supplies are incredible tight, and there is strict rationing of supplies.
And in what is perhaps its most visually-stunning sequence, Soylent Green escorts the viewers to an outdoor urban market on a typical Tuesday ("Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!") and reveals what happens when supplies of food are exhausted.
There's a riot, and then a violent confrontation between helmeted police forces and the throngs of starving people. It looks like a contemporary WTO riot multiplied by a factor of a hundred.
In 2007, the Associated Press reported that 50% percent of the world's population now lives in cities, so Soylent Green's phantasm of a stressed-out, overpopulated City-State, run by a craven politician, Governor Santini, looks markedly more plausible today than it did in 1973. And certainly the climate-change apocalypse feels more relevant in the Zeitgeist of the 21st century too. But where Soylent Green truly acquires psychic frisson as cinematic prophecy is in the depiction of "Two New Yorks.”
To wit, there is no middle-class remaining in New York City. It's extinct.
In this U.S. imagined here, you're either part of the teeming, homeless, starving masses that inhabit every nook and cranny in the metropolis or separated from the poor and the unpleasant squalor of street life in glorious and luxurious apartment complexes.
There, in spacious air-conditioned quarters, the super-rich play video games on home consoles (another nice bit of prophecy for 1973...), enjoy hot and cold running water (another luxury denied the masses), purchase black market items like real vegetables and beef, and are protected by security systems.
The rich also get another perk with their fancy domiciles: “furniture.” But in this case, “furniture” is the name for prostitutes, gorgeous young women who perform sexual acts for their masters in return for food, water, and the other luxuries of life.
So in this world, the Haves and the Have Mores have separated themselves from the rest of humanity, and ignore their plight. It's easy to do, what with the video games, the TVs, the air-conditioning and the refrigerators...
Charlton Heston, again fronts what is undeniably a leftist science-fiction vision, and does so as only Heston can: with swaggering charm, arrogance, and unswerving intelligence.
In this case, he plays Detective Thorn of the 14th Precinct; a man who is a product of his time; meaning that he is mostly ignorant of history and just trying to survive and do "his job." Thorn is just one among many corrupt cops. For instance, when he's assigned to investigate the murder (actually an assassination) of a rich man, William R. Simonson (Joseph Cotten) of the Soylent Corporate Board, Thorn steals as much as he can from the crime scene. He takes a bottle of bourbon, some refrigerated beef (a rare commodity), and a few reference books about Soylent Green, a tightly-rationed "miracle food" that is ostensibly based on Plankton and other sea life.
Thorn also partakes of another luxury in Simonson's apartment, the aforementioned “furniture." In this case, said furniture is a woman, Shirl, who comes with the apartment, regardless of tenant. She’s just looking for a way to survive too.
Investigating the death of Simonson, Thorn is assisted by an assistant or colleague called a "Police Book." Since electric power routinely goes out, there are no longer any reliable police information databases, Google searches, or other electronic systems to rely on. Instead, every detective has an assistant or partner, a "book," a researcher who marshals what resources he can (including an elaborate “Book Exchange" – a kind of person-to-person Internet) to learn about relevant suspects and perpetrators.
Thorn's "book" is named Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson), an elderly man who remembers how things used to be: wide open spaces; beautiful oceans; untouched fields, and food aplenty. He recalls a world of hot/cold running water, "real" butter and strawberry jam that didn't cost $150.00 per jar. In one of Soylent Green's finest and most memorable scenes, Sol prepares for Thorn a dinner like the ones he used to eat years earlier; one that includes crisp apples, beef stew, and other lost delicacies.
The time and attention spent on what viewers today would consider a normal meal -- but which to these characters is a once-in-a-lifetime extravagance -- makes a cogent point about a life of limited resources; and a booming population's overtaxing of the planet.
These little things that we take for granted are suddenly big things. Suddenly, the engaged viewer realizes how "lucky" we are in America; how we live in a world of plenty. We also realize how fragile that status of “lucky” might be.
A later scene involves Thorn taking his first hot shower in months (with Shirl as his companion) and again, Soylent Green deploys simple imagery to make its point. The movie focuses on the small, human things to establish a truly miserable future. The quiet, intimate nature of the dinner scene and later the shower scene not only establish much in terms of character relationships (for instance, Thorn doesn't know how to eat an apple...), but also reinforce that recurring idea of those things lost in this future; in the hustle-bustle of so-called "progress."
It's all extremely touching and yet markedly unromantic and unsentimental too. There's no candy-coating in Soylent Green about days that were better in the past; when the human animal was a better species.
"People were always rotten," establishes Sol. "But the world was beautiful." In other words, man was just as bad in the past, but he had some environmental leeway, at least. In this world of 2022, he has none.
Stylistically, Soylent Green is a much more accomplished film than it has often been credit for. It begins impressively with sepia tone images from American history joined together in a tightly-edited montage. We see in old photographs the advancement of technology during the American century; the rapid progression from a rural, agricultural country to an industrialized one.
The movie escorts us in this montage from Huckleberry Finn-style views of wide open spaces and serenity to -- over just a few seconds of screen time -- overpopulated, bustling modernity. As the montage continues, the images come at the viewer faster and faster; form echoing content. The world of the cities, of airplanes, of cars, moves faster than the world of covered wagons and farmers so it's natural the images would move quicker too.
Again, it's a touching and surprisingly effective way to commence a science fiction film, and it puts a larger context upon the story. This montage reminds the viewer where we've been, before taking us where we're going; into the uncertain future. It also connects explicitly our behavior in the past to the results that behavior creates in the present and future.
Later, the film's most often discussed scene occurs. A depressed and hopeless Sol Roth goes "home," to a place in the middle of the city (which resembles a sports arena...) where he can be quickly and cleanly euthanized by the State.
In this location, he's provided a twenty-minute death ceremony in what looks like an I-Max theater and comfort salon, with the images of his youthful world projected all around him. Sol sees beautiful oceans, wild deer, endless fields of flowers and so forth, all while bathed in a light of his favorite color (orange) and to the tune of his favorite genre of music (classical; or “make that light classical”).
This death montage, like the montage presented at the beginning of the film, reminds audiences of the past; of what has been lost in the modern technological age. It's important in the film not just as a tender goodbye to Sol. On the contrary, Thorn witnesses these amazing scenes too...and weeps at the power of them. He is a man who has grown up in the "ugly" future world -- a place literally devoid of nature -- and come to accept the limitations of his world. He didn't know, nay "couldn't have known" what the world once was.
And so his mentor, Sol, has passed on one final bit of wisdom to him; to the next generation: a natural vision of what human existence COULD be. Until Thorn sees this pastoral montage, he didn't really know that there was an option; didn't really understand what had been lost in the crush of industrialization and over-population.
Soylent Green is a film dominated by powerful, stunning imagery. One vision that struck me, and which I had forgotten about entirely before a recent re-watch, finds Thorn stumbling upon the corpse of a woman in an alley by dark of night. Strapped to her by a makeshift wire leash is her still-living -- and weeping -- child.
This image speaks of the film's narrative context in a manner that dialogue or exposition simply cannot. The child was strapped to her mother, no doubt, because Mom didn't want them to be separated from one another in the maddeningly overpopulated streets, perhaps at the outdoor food market.
So she jury-rigged this leash of sorts to keep them together.
What Mom couldn't have predicted was that she would die (either of starvation or perhaps she was murdered...) and that the child would still be anchored to her; trapped.
Good intentions have gone awry (likely another metaphor for the film's overriding theme: of something ostensibly good [technology and modernization] having unintended consequences…)
But what is so meaningful about this image is that it remains wholly un-sentimentalized. Nobody comments on the event or the tragedy at all. Heston's character "rescues" the child by taking the little moppet to a nearby church. But he says nothing and offers no commentary. The movie has no “words” for either the child or the dead parent. This scene is so "normal" in the world of Soylent Green that it isn't worth a passing remark, even an exclamatory curse. Instead, the filmmakers just silently observe a devastating moment.
In the cutthroat world of Soylent Green, there is no time to for self-aggrandizing hand-wringing. It’s too late for that. Life is too difficult. Millions of tragedies go unnoticed on the streets every day, no doubt. Why is this gruesome sight of a dead mother and trapped child any different?
The film's ending also speaks to this truth in some fashion. The film offers a tight zoom on Thorn's bloody arm and hand as he is carried away on a stretcher. He shouts the truth for all to hear ("Soylent Green is made out of people") but he goes, essentially, unheard.
We understand this because the film goes entirely black around his gnarled, dying hand, in essence restricting Thorn’s presence in the frame. The frame itself has shrunk. The association with this image is that the truth in Soylent Green's world can't be heard; it holds only a "sliver" of space in the overlapping, multitudinous dialogue of a City-State overrun and failing.
If you're so inclined, you can gaze at the things Soylent Green gets wrong and laugh at the picture, I guess. Charlton Heston wears neckerchiefs throughout the film, an odd and flamboyant fashion choice. There are rotary phones in evidence too, in 2022!
But on balance, Soylent Green gets more right about "the future" than it gets wrong. It accurately predicts the erosion of the middle class, the obsession with global climate change, and the ever-growing and corrupting nexus of politics with corporations.
Specifically, the Soylent Green Company and Governor Santini are in on a deep dark conspiracy. The specter of "illegal immigration" and a "third world invasion" that some pundits now fear so greatly is also bubbling just beneath the surface in the film. Just look at how many of the extras in the film are non-whites or non-Europeans.
In broad strokes, Soylent Green also addresses the danger and inevitability of a police state to regulate a rapidly increasing population. In some senses, Soylent Green even points to the ubiquitous nature of contemporary entertainment: we even watch TV when we're about to die. Death is rendered palatable through the comfort of zoning out; of being -- literally -- a couch potato. Instead of seeking comfort in death from family members, we seek it in enjoying our favorite “TV show.”
In addition to these still-relevant themes, Soylent Green is a handsome production. There are some remarkably effective matte paintings in the film; ones that still hold up well. And Fleischer makes good use of his "extras," filling every frame and every moment of the film, save those at the spacious apartment at Chelsea West, with unkempt, exhausted-looking, world-weary bodies.
Soylent Green presents an oppressive, dark future. There's no "out" for the characters as there is in Blade Runner, for instance, with the inclusion of the off-world colonies and other worlds to explore.
Indeed, Shirl suggests "running" at some point to Thorn, and he rightfully replies "where are we going to go?"
Every city in America is just like this city; and it is illegal to leave the country. In bringing forward this point, Soylent Green suggests that if we don't change our ways, we will all be living in a purgatory of our own making.
We can’t escape the planet Earth, but just look at the way we are treating our only home…
Thursday, June 05, 2014
The Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon is one that I have harbored a great interest in for some time now, especially because I live in Charlotte, NC…not that far from the Appalachian Mountains, the focal-point for the phenomenon.
Basically, travelers on the Blue Ridge Parkway have reported strange lights in the sky near Morgantown and Linville Falls going back a hundred-and-one-years to 1913.
A U.S. Geological Survey investigation conducted in 1922 determined that the strange lights were actually of normal terrestrial nature: merely the light emanating from locomotives.
Despite this official conclusion, the legends of strange lights in the night sky over Brown Mountain persist, and some locals will even insist that the phenomenon is much older, going back some 800 years.
Another possible answer for the Brown Mountain Lights mystery is that ubiquitous, all-purpose explanation: “swamp gas.”
The unimaginatively titled Alien Abduction (2014) -- a new found-footage horror movie from director Matty Beckerman -- is set against the backdrop of the Brown Mountain Lights phenomenon in North Carolina, and the film involves a normal American family that comes under attack from malevolent extra-terrestrials.
The footage compromising the film itself, according to the movie’s reality, is shot by an 11-year old autistic boy, Riley (Riley Polanski). The video-camera is part of Riley’s on-going therapy, and he obligingly never puts it down.
Alien Abduction features at least three startling and very effective jump scares, and on top of that virtue boasts a good feel for the North Carolina locations. Many individual visual compositions demonstrate tremendous ingenuity and a capacity to accomplish much on a small budget.
Unfortunately, the same small budget all-but-paralyzes the movie’s forward momentum so that the characters are limited to the same acts…and they repeat them over and over.
The imperiled family runs and hides, then loses someone. Then it runs and hides somewhere else, loses someone else, ad infinitum. Rinse and repeat.
Similarly, the performances are not particularly accomplished in Alien Abduction, and some events and lines of dialogue strain believability to the breaking point and beyond. The anthology V/H/S 2 (2103) features a tale “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” that gets in many of the same licks, and because of its brevity, doesn’t outstay its welcome to the degree that this film does.
Still, at less-than-ninety minutes, found-footage film admirers -- and you can resolutely count me in that camp -- will find the scares in Alien Abduction effective, and one anxiety-provoking scene set in a tunnel is worth the price of admission, or rental.
“We’re all going to stick together and be eaten as a family.”
The Morris family, which consists of Mom (Katherine Sigismund), Dad (Peter Holden) and children Corey (Corey Eid), Jillian (Jillian Clare) and autistic Riley (Riley Polanski) goes on a camping trip in the Appalachian Mountains.
The first night out, the campers see the unusual “Brown Mountain Lights,” bright points of light that seem to maneuver deliberately…like controlled craft.
On the second morning of the trip, the family car’s GPS leads the family astray, to an out-of-the-way and isolated mountain road. Low on gas and lost, the Morris family comes upon the Brown Mountain Tunnel, and the scene of some unknown catastrophe.
In particular, several vehicles are strewn across the road and have been left vacant. Seat belts have been ripped out of the cars and left on the asphalt.
Mr. Morris, Corey, and Riley investigate the interior of the tunnel, and are soon confronted with hostile otherworldly beings. One assaults Mr. Morris in close quarters, and Corey and Riley flee. They rejoin with their mother and Jillian and attempt to escape the vicinity in the car, but crows fall out of the sky and impact the vehicle.
On foot, the survivors of the Morris family reach a small home in the woods belonging to a redneck named Sean (Jeff Bowser). When the aliens arrive, he attempts to defend the family. After a spell of quiet, Sean goes out to find his missing brother, leaving the family in his house. When the aliens attack again, Corey confronts them heroically, while the others hide in a cellar.
After the aliens abduct Corey, Mrs. Morris, Riley and Jillian are rescued by Sean, whose brother has been abducted. He gets them into his pick-up truck, but aliens pursue. While Sean attempts to distract the aliens, he sends the family to a barn nearby, in the deep woods.
There, the family waits for daylight to come, but before long, the extra-terrestrials are back…
“The camera helps him. He needs it.”
It’s probably fair to state that Alien Abduction is a highly uneven film.
Some moments really work as intended, and others simply do not.
On the positive side, Beckerman reveals a nice feel for his N.C. environs. At one point, for instance, the family finds a yellow jacket nest on the inside of a portable grill. Living in NC, I am constantly clearing such yellow jacket nests out of my son’s playhouse, and screen door. Once I even found the underside of my old car covered in them (and I got stung on the ankle).
But even more than being an accurate touch in terms of this region, the presence of the yellow jacket nest might be viewed as a kind of metaphor for the film’s harrowing events. The aliens are the predator -- like the yellow jackets -- that seem to have attached themselves to the Morris family, and to the environs of Brown Mountain itself.
Some of the dialogue is legitimately clever too.
When the Morris family gets lost and can’t cell phone reception, one character observes that the predicament is like Deliverance (1972), only “minus the anal rape.” Sean’s out-of-the-way rural home is also noted as being a place akin to “where the uni-bomber lives.” Such comments aren’t merely sharp and knowing, they showcase the family’s discomfort with being outside and in the woods, unprotected in nature.
And as it turns out, the Morris family has good reasons to feel afraid.
Alien Abduction’s most successful scene, however, is the one in which the family drives up to the Brown Mountain Tunnel, and most contend with a terrifying mystery. Abandoned cars litter the road by the dozen. The tunnel is filled with many such vehicles and all are parked at random angles…just like they are insects trapped in a spider’s web.
Then, Mr. Morris and his sons investigate the empty cars, and the film generates an authentic aura of suspense. The suspense is released masterfully with a jolt when a jump scare occurs. The hiding family is surprised by the close proximity of an alien invader…looking through an open car window at them.
Two other jump scares are just as effective. One involves the redneck’s cabin, Mrs. Morris, and a monster at the door.
And the other involves pitch black, impenetrable night, and Riley’s flashlight unexpectedly catching something…wrong perched unmoving on a craggy rock.
Once you get down to the details of the narrative, however, Alien Abduction doesn’t jell as nicely as one might hope it would. For instance, Sean’s house seems to be less than a mile down the road from the tunnel, where all the cars are littering the road and the aliens are on the prowl. Yet he hasn’t noticed them, or the fact that so many people have been driving down this out-of-the-way avenue.
By the same token, if the aliens are operating on Earth to this degree, it’s more aptly an invasion than a series of abductions. There are police cars, an ambulance and several other vehicles in the tunnel, for example.
Wouldn’t the authorities investigate sooner than we see in the film?
Some of the characters also change in baffling ways from scene to scene. The first scenes involving the family camping, shows Dad, Peter as a mellow, laid-back kind of guy. The next day on the road, however, his temperament changes radically and he’s a bully. I’m not show what accounts for his personality switch -- he goes from being very loving to his autistic son to being border-line abusive -- but it doesn’t play well at all.
By the same token, Riley doesn’t seem autistic. He is autistic only when the script demands that he act in a way that creates danger for the family.
Finally, however, Alien Abduction doesn’t cohere simply because there is too much time -- too much narrative and thematic desolation -- in which to think about the events, as characters mindlessly do the same things over and over. The family hides in Sean’s house. It hides in his cellar. It hides in a barn. And finally, survivors hide behind a rock. There’s entirely too much running, hiding and being discovered here. Sean shows up to rescue the family at least twice, and so one wonders why the aliens don’t nab him.
Alien Abduction also suffers a little bit in terms of its book-ends: the film’s opening and closing. These moments reveal Riley’s video camera in alien hands aboard a UFO. We prowl the ship’s corridors and hear dental drills whirring, and humans screaming in agony. These moments are all very effective, and recall, after a fashion, the final (harrowing) act of Fire in the Sky (1992). Then, however, the alien jettisons the video-camera, it plunges to Earth, lands in the Brown Mountain area, and is recovered by the government.
So…a video camera is ejected from an alien ship in Earth orbit, survives re-entry, and lands in almost the exact same spot where the abductions occurred?
And the camera (despite a broken lens) still works?
This is all a little difficult to believe. It might have been better if the camera got left on the ground when Riley and the others are abducted, or if aliens took it back to Earth on their next sojourn.
As my wife likes to remind me, I’m hard-wired to enjoy films such as Alien Abduction. I admire the immediacy and urgency of the found-footage format, and I’m fascinated by stories of alien abduction and the paranormal. In terms of pure film style, Alien Abduction also boasts the suspense and scares I noted above, even if it resolves into repetition and boredom at the end.
Like the dead crows and cars dotting the darker corners of the Blue Ridge Highway in the film, Alien Abduction is “all over the road,” which means you have to put up with the bad -- and the implausible -- to get to the good.