Jeff Bridges returns to the game grid, Harry Potter faces down some deathly hallows — whatever the hell those are — and Jacques Tati gets animated as CHRONIC RIFT producer/host John Drew and I pick up our discussion of the cinematic goodness that will be greeting us as the year raps up. And if TRON: LEGACY, HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS, and THE ILLUSIONIST (the latter by the wickedly idiosyncratic animator Sylvain Chomet and based on an unfilmed script by the legendary Tati) don’t give you the tingles, hang on kid, cause that’s just the smallest fraction of what’s coming up in November and December.
Click on the player to discover how much you’ve got to look forward to.
And if you somehow missed the first part of this discussion, you can hear it here.
Debased franchise yields a startlingly brilliant gem
With all the artificial hype designed to sell PIRANHA 3D as the horror hit that delivered for audiences (despite a sixth place bow that barely topped $10-million), now is a good time to pay homage to the film that truly delivered for fans of cinefantastique: PREDATORS. Thought the film has not been universally hailed by critics (it rates 64% at Rotten Tomatoes, compared to PIRANHA 3D’s 81%), it did find a bigger audience, earning over $50-million in American theatres and over $109-million worldwide. This is one of those interesting examples of popular taste proving more accurate than critical consensus: PREDATORS is, in my humble opinion, the summer’s best sci-fi, action, horror flick. Not only that: it’s the most entertaining genre film released so far this year.
That’s more praise than I ever expected to lavish on a PREDATOR sequel. I don’t expect much from the franchise: the first PREDATOR is the only good movie; the sequel PREDATOR 2 was just more of the same, and the crossover films (ALIENS VS. PREDATORS and ALIENS VS. PREDATOR: REQUIEM) were even worse – just mindless junk.
PREDATORS reverses the trend. Not only does it match the original; this is the first PREDATOR movie that is good enough to be considered more than just a fun popcorn film. Rather like the first ALIEN (1979) PREDATORS is good enough to stand on its own as a piece of cinema, not just a genre film. Or to put it another way, I would recommend PREDATORS to people who are not into monster movies, because it has some good qualities that will pull in an “outside” audience of non-fans.
What makes me go so far out on a limb for a film that seems as if it were made only for the geeks? My joke response it to call PREDATORS the “Feel Good Movie of the Year.” Despite – or because of – the bloodshed, death, and terror, this film presents a scenario that is ultimately optimistic, with a surprisingly humane point of view toward its characters (and by extension its audience).
This interesting attitude toward humanity is about the last thing one would expect in a film that seems all about using humans as target practice for some bad-ass alien hunters. However, PREDATORS takes characters who are in many cases the worst of the worst – assassins and mercenaries, thugs and murderers – people whom the planet Earth is better off without – and the script and the performances combine makes the this despicable crew engaging, even likable.
These are people who talk tough, seem to be out for themselves, and at least initially are as likely to kill each other as team up against the common enemy. But as the story proceeds, that changes in ways that are entertaining and even uplifting without every descending into bathos. PREDATORS pulls this off by presenting its story in hard-boiled terms that hide the sentiment beneath a flinty veneer that applies to both the individual characters and the film as a whole. (In one of the film’s funnier moments, convicted killer Stans (Walton Goggins)”s objection to the death of Mombasa (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) is brushed aside by Adrien Brody’s character* with a casual “You wanted to kill him this morning,” to which Stans angrily replies, “This ain’t this f-cking morning!“) Of course, we expect the characters to bond after initially disliking each other; that’s a standard plot development. But PREDATORS is going after bigger game. The characters are going through their process of recovery that ultimately leads to – dare I say it? -redemption. Although this theme is expressed mostly in secular terms, the religious allegory lurks just beneath the surface. The familiar scenario (trap a group of characters in an isolated location and bump them off one by one) recalls TEN LITTLE INDIANS – but in more than just plot mechanics. The underlying point of the original Agatha Christie novel (mostly abandoned in the film adaptations) is that the victims deserve what they get: they are all killers who have escaped the law. The same is true here; however, these characters – at least a few – will have a chance not merely to survive but to earn expiation for their sins.
PREDATORS cleverly lays the foundation for this interpretation in an early scene, when one character guesses that they might be in Hell. The suggestion is quickly contradicted by the facts of their situation (they have all been mysteriously parachuted onto an alien planet, which turns out to be a game preserve for the Predator species), but metaphorically speaking the initial assumption is not quite so far off: the characters may not literally be in Hell, but they figuratively seem to be in Purgatory. On this strange distant world, these inhumane humans come face to face with the crimes they committed on Earth. Time and again, individuals are able to guess what the Predators are doing to them, because these terrible actions remind them of atrocities they themselves perpetrated on others. In effect, their kharma has come back to bite them on their collective ass.
The Predators of course are not demons, but they fulfill a similar narrative function, forcing the human characters to make stark moral choices they may have avoided before. It is as if the actions of the Predators reflect the characters’ failings back upon themselves. Putting this in psychological terms, the humans are being faced with their Jungian shadow, which they must confront in an externalized form and destroy – and in the process, destroy that evil part of themselves, thus emerging at the other end as better people. Thus, PREDATORS says that, even in the worst of us, there is something good that is not beyond hope, something worthwhile that can emerge. It’s a positive message that is quite unexpected in what could have been just another action-packed bloodbath.
There are parallels here with THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (the 1932 movie rather than the original short story), which also featured a doppleganger theme in which the hunter reflected the hunted, and our hero realized the errors of his ways – even while those violent ways provided him the means to survive when the tables were turned. One of the fews ways in which PREDATORS may be deemed deficient is that it lacks the sort of overt philosophical conflict that gave THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME its kick. By virtue of its set-up, PREDATORS cannot have Adrien Brody and his alien counterpart engage each other via dialogue in order to debate the morality versus the aesthetics of hunting (as Rainsford and Count Zaroff do in the 1932 film). But in a way, this fault has some small virtue, to the extent that it leaves viewers to mine the thematic ore without having it laid out in the open.
This hard-boiled thematic approach to showing the sensitive soul beneath the cynical exterior may seem generic, but director Antal and screenwriters Litvak and Finch make it work in a spectacularly satisfying way. Ironically, their achievement surpasses the more superficial approach seen in the directorial efforts of producer Robert Rodriguez, who tends to depict cartoony violence lacking in any real resonance (with the exception of the hard-boiled SIN CITY). The result – a wonderful distillation of the macho ethos, of characters lost in the existential universe who must define themselves by the actions they take, without any assurance of a God in heaven to tell them whether they are right or wrong – stands comfortably alongside work by the most famous practitioners in the field: John Woo, Michael Mann, Beat Takashi, Christpher Nolan (at least the Nolan of THE DARK KNIGHT if not INCEPTION). It’s as if Jean-Pierre Melville had directed a PREDATOR movie.
Redemption is an old-fashioned, cornball concept that many modern filmmakers would not touch with a ten-foot cattle prod (I’m talking to you, Alexandre Aja). To traffic in this kind of story, you run the risk that cynical viewers may laugh at your sincerity; after all, the audience has paid to see predation, not redemption. So I think that producer Roberto Rodriguez, director Nimrod Antal, and especially writers Alex Litvak and Michael Finch deserve credit for not taking the easy “it’s only a movie” approach.
To be honest, the filmmakers do hedge their bets but in a way that adds a nice edge of credibility. When Edwin (Topher Grace) mocks Brody’s character for a last-minute change of heart, ironically calling him a “good man,” the reluctant hero replies, “I’m not good – but I’m fast” while dodging a sneak attack from behind. The emphasis on professionalism rather than morality sounds in-character, but we in the audience still see that, in the end, the avowedly anti-social mercenary did the right thing. Only then can he finally reveal his name, Royce, signaling the return of the humanity kept well hidden beneath the cynical survivor’s metaphoric armor throughout the rest of the film.
Of course, thematic analysis can be deceptive: films can be filled with great ideas without being particularly well executed. Fortunately, PREDATORS delivers on the gut level. The music score effectively enhances the beautiful location shooting. Special effects are not over-abundant (or at least not visibly so), instead paying off at key moments, such as a wonderful matte painting of the sky that finally proves to the characters beyond any doubt that they are indeed no longer on Earth.
On a plot level, the film follows a well worn track, but it’s the right track, one that leads where the narrative needs to go. Although not loaded with surprises, the script works in a nice twist with one character who turns out to be not what he seems (he wants to embrace the predators as brothers in spirit). There is also an interesting bit with with Adrien Brody’s character trying to forge a brief alliance with a “Classic Predator” (who is victimized by a different type of Predator introduced here). Something similar happened in ALIENS VS. PREDATORS, but the idea is executed to much better effect here. Despite its virtues, PREDATORS is not perfect; there are some missteps. The exciting shot in the trailer, suggesting that Brody’s character will be targeted by multiple Predators, shows only one laser sight on his torso in the movie – a terrible disappointment thanks to unmet expectations. The low point arrives via Laurence Fishburne’s appearance as Nolan, a survivor from a previous group transported to the planet. Dramatic convention necessitates a brief respite, which allows the audience to catch its collective breath before heading into the big finish, but this lull is a little too lulling, breaking the tension that suffuses the rest of the film. And as fun as it is to see Fishburne show up in a PREDATOR movie, the sequence gives him little to do except act as an obvious “Johnny Explainer” who provides exposition; his only noteworthy personality trait is a tendency to talk to himself. At least this provides one bright moment: when Nolan, still babbling as if to an unseen other, tries to kill his new friends, Brody’s character fires a gun at him, while delivering a quip that cleverly paraphrases SCARFACE: “Say goodbye to your little friend!” Fortunately, it is easy to overlook the occasional stumbling when the film delivers beautifully choreographed action built upon a solid dramatic foundation. One memorable highlight is a great set-piece that deftly combines Kurosawa with Tarantino: Hanzo (the Yakusa character played by Louis Ozawa Changchien) remains behind to cover the escape of his comrades. On the one hand, the scene is pure cinematic contrivance – an excuse to stage a fight scene between a Predator and a man armed with a samurai sword.
But it becomes something larger, almost mythic. When Hanzo sheds his suit, it is as if he is attaining archetypal status, becoming a larger than life character (like Will Munny at the end of UNFORGIVEN). He is shedding the man he was – the Yakusa assassin – and becoming the samurai warrior of legend, no longer a killer for hire but a soldier laying down his life for others. It’s an awesome transformation, and though it may be hokey, it is the kind of trascendant melodramatic moment that makes movies worth seeing. It’s the rapturous ecstasy of of losing oneself – and perhaps one’s better judgment – inside the land of cinematic make-believe. And the beauty of it is that it is utterly predictable, in the sense that the perfect outcome – the only satisfying outcome – is the outcome that had to be. This leads to a nicely staged finale that deliberately echoes the ending of PREDATOR: Isabelle (Alice Braga) has earlier delivered exposition based on a debriefing of the character that Arnold Schwarzenegger played in the previous film, and Brody’s character puts the information to good use. The interesting thing is that, despite the repetition, the sequence works because we are now seeing the action performed not by an action star but by an actual actor. PREDATORS is all about transformation, about becoming something better, and nowhere is it visualized more perfectly. You cannot watch Brody on screen without remember his Oscar-winning turn in THE PIANIST (2002). If Adrien Brody – man who ran away from Nazis for two hours, the man who was a useless wimp in KING KONG (2005) and was completely pussy-whipped in SPLICE earlier this year – can suddenly morph into a muscle-bound sinewy titan with the speed, agility and strength to take out a Predator, then truly there is hope for all of us.
In conclusion, I want to admit that, in a summer that contains Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster INCEPTION, which is immensely popular with both audiences and critics, I may be exposing myself to potential scorn by raving about PREDATORS. But the simple fact is that I found INCEPTION to be a technically astounding but emotionally empty exercise in visual effects; as much as I wanted to enjoy the ride, the film lacked the underlying substance that made Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT so great.
PREDATORS, by virtue of its franchise association, is not the sort of film that earns respect; the fans just want to have fun, and most critics probably don’t even want to know about it. And yet, for me, the film worked in ways I did not anticipate. That sense of surprise might have overwhelmed my better judgement; I will have to see the film again to determine whether it holds up to a second viewing. But for now I am willing to risk derision and stand by my declaration. In case, the heavy-handed analysis above leaves you in any doubt, I think that PREDATORS offers viewers a great time, fulfilling the basic requirements while offering something more; and judging by the justly awarded audience applause that concluded Hanzo’s duel with the Predator, I don’t think I’m the only one. UPDATE: My designation of PREDATORS as the year’s “most entertaining genre film” may seem confusing in light of my having called SPLICE “the season’s best filmed science fiction.” Let me clarify: I see the relationship between the two films roughly the way I saw the relationship between MOON and STAR TREK last year. MOON was the best cinematic science fiction, because it carefully examined a science fiction concept in a fascinating way; however, STAR TREK was the most entertaining science fiction film, because it provided a joyously good time at the movies. In the same way, I may rank SPLICE slightly higher as an artistic achievement, but I find PREDATORS to be the more thoroughly satisfying piece of entertainment. Making distinctions between art and entertainment may be a dubious business, but in this case I think it makes sense. FOOTNOTE:
The character played by Adrien Brody does have a name (Royce), but since he reveals it only at the very end of the film, it seems misleading to use it throughout this article. Hence the awkward use of phrases like “Brody’s character.”
PREDATORS (20th Century Fox, July 9, 2010). Produced by Roberto Rodriguez. Directed by Nimrod Antal. Written by Alex Litvak & Michael Finch, based on characters created by Jim Thomas & John Thomas. Cast: Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurenc Fishburne, Danny Trejo, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Mahershalalhashbaz Ali, Carey Jones, Brian Steele, Derek Mears.
This article has been clarified since its original posting.
In anticipation of my assuming the role of movie critic for THE CHRONIC RIFT — the legendary discussion show of all things science fiction, fantasy and horror that’s beginning its third year as a podcast — John Drew invited me on to discuss what genre fans should be looking forward to in the coming months. As you can expect, the conversation consists of equal parts reasoned insight, wild speculation, and geeky enthusiasm. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s also only half the conversation, since we went on at such length that the show had to be split into two parts. John notes at the end of this segment that part 2 will follow tomorrow. It may appear here as well, or it may be pushed back just a bit so we can bring you the CFQ POST-MORTEM (this week devoted to a discussion of the worlds of Ray Bradbury and William Castle), and the latest episode of MIGHTY MOVIE PODCAST, featuring Neil Marshall discussing his cojones-out historic adventure film, CENTURION, and Daniele Thompson on her wry comedy, CHANGE OF PLANS. We’re nothing if not eclectic here.
If you just can’t wait, we heartily commend you to www.chronicrift.com, where you can catch the thrilling conclusion as soon as it posts. (And hear lots of other good eps as well.)
Click on the player to hear Part One.
Here’s a trailer for MONSTERS, a low-budget SF-Horror thriller from writer-director Gareth Edwards.
Six years ago, NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples, but crashed upon re-entry over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear and grow. In an effort to stem the destruction that resulted, half of Mexico was quarantined as an Infected Zone. Today, the American and Mexican military still struggle to contain the massive creatures…
Our story begins when a jaded US journalist (“Scoot” McNairy) begrudgingly agrees to find his boss’ daughter, a shaken American tourist (Whitney Able) and escort her through the infected zone to the safety of the US border.
MONSTERS was shot with a Sony PMW-EX3 HD Video camera, a minimal crew and just two professional actors on location in South America. The UK-based Gareth Edwards has mainly done special effects (Emmy nominated and BAFTA award-winning) and some direction of re-creations for documentaries in the past. Magnolia Pictures is the U.S. distributor; following their usual approach, they will debut the film via VOD, then offer a platform theatrical release.
September 24: On Demand, Xbox Live, Playstation Marketplace, Amazon, and Vudu
San Diego Comic-Con International 2010 brought all kinds of news for movie fans and geeks the world over, not the least of which was the unveiling of the concept art for an updated version of Godzilla.
Almost 60 years after the fire-breathing monster first graced the screen, a modern-day rendition is supposed to once again thrill audiences in 2012. A booth at San Diego Comic-Con set up by Legendary Pictures included smoke machines and a shaking floor to immerse attendees in the experience as an animated Godzilla walked by on a nearby screen.
What do you think of the new look? Will 2012 be 1998 all over again for fans of the franchise? Sound off in the comments below!
THE WASP WOMAN was producer-director Roger Corman’s attempt to cash in on the success of THE FLY (1958), and although it looks cheap and chintzy, having been shot in five days on a $50,000 budget, it nevertheless has aspects of interest. Historically, it is significant because it is the first film Corman directed for Filmgroup, his then newly formed production and distribution company. Corman had been the primary supplier of films for American International Pictures, which had grown wealthy catering to the drive-in market across the country, and he realized that he needed to get into distribution if he hoped to gain a larger share of the spoils. (While Filmgroup was consistently profitable, it never had a big time success, and Corman wound up abandoning it by 1966).
Secondly, THE WASP WOMAN, like some other early Corman films, raises feminist issues. The story concerns Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) who runs her own beauty products company. In a board meeting, Starlin asks for an explanation as to why her company’s sales have fallen. The film’s protagonist, Bill Lane (Anthony Eisley), who points out that sales fell after Starlin’s face was removed from the company product line (it is implied this occurred recently when Janice turned 40), and the public did not trust the face of the model selected to replace her. Starlin begins to feel desperate as she imagines her life’s work collapsing due to the loss of her looks.
The third significant aspect of THE WASP WOMAN is the fine performance by Susan Cabot (herself 32 at the time). She convincingly portrays the elder Janice by wearing glasses, her hair in a severely pinned back hairstyle, and expressing herself more slowly and deliberately. However, her deliverance seems at hand with the appearance of a scientist named Zinthrop (Michael Mark) who avers the rejuvenating properties of enzymes derived from a wasp’s royal jelly (there were similar beliefs about the property’s of royal jelly from bees at the time). Zinthrop proves his work by injecting a guinea pig with his serum so that it turns into a younger, slimmer guinea pig (actually, Corman used a white mouse which makes this aspect a bit less convincing).
The WASP WOMAN’s script is by actor-writer, and long-time Corman associate, Leo Gordon, based on an idea by Kinta Zettuche. Gordon makes Bill a bit of a cheapskate who tosses a coin to determine whether he or his date, Janice’s secretary Mary Dennison (Barboura Morris from THE DUNWICH HORROR), will pay for dinner; she winds up paying, another extension of the exploitation of women theme in the film. Gordon reprises this gag during a scene when the couple are dining out with Bill’s boss Arthur Cooper (William Roerick), whom we see lose the toss and pick up the check. Cooper at first thinks Zinthrop is a con man, but then decides he is something more dangerous—a quack. Mary again gets taken advantage of when she shows the pair Zinthrop’s journal of his experiments, which she has taken without permission from her boss’s desk. Cooper takes the journal with him to study, leaving her vulnerable to her boss’s wrath once the theft has been discovered.
When Zinthrop’s formula has transformed a cat back into a kitten, Starlin is anxious to try it on herself, but after three weeks she is disappointed that she only looks five years younger and suggests upping the dose to accelerate the process. Zinthrop warns her that this would be dangerous, and becomes even more concerned when the kitten changes back into a cat with odd lumps on its back and attacks him with such ferocity that he feels forced to finish off the feline.
Unaware of this, Starlin injects herself with the formula and appears startlingly youthful the next day. Cabot sells this rejuvenation not only by removing her glasses and wearing a more flattering hairstyle (some Hollywood clichés never disappear), but also by acting more youthful and zesty. She announces a plan for a new campaign, though Cooper warns her of the dangers of conflating make-up and medicine in the public’s mind.
Corman’s limited budget and approach shows particularly during a sequence in which Zinthrop is hit by a moving vehicle – which almost takes a page out of Ed Wood’s playbook. We see Zinthrop step off a curb and walk out of frame, followed by the sound of a screeching tires with Zinthrop falling back into frame with a bruise on his noggin. Corman was skilled at blocking his actors to keep his static visuals lively, but he keeps reusing the same few angles on the same few sets over and over again, giving the movie something of a claustrophobic feel. Naturally, since this was sold as a monster movie (with a highly misleading but delightfully outré poster), it’s time for the Wasp Woman to appear. Unfortunately, the make-up by Grant R. Keats proves grossly inadequate (a common failing in many of Corman’s early films). Corman wisely keeps the lighting level low to prevent giving the audience a really good look at the Wasp Woman, which consists of a black-furred mask with multi-faceted, bulging eyes and a pair of furry hands that have stingers on the thumbs. Cabot moves quickly and wears a black catsuit when wearing this outfit, but it is clear the transformation does not extend below her chin as her neck is normal. There is no explanation given why the formula sometimes makes her younger and more beautiful and at other times turns her into this monstrosity.
Her first victim is a night watchman played by Bruno Ve Sota (ATTACK OF THE GIANT LEECHES). As Cabot told Tom Weaver and John Brunas, “I was supposed to bite their necks and draw blood. Roger wanted to see blood. And so when I attacked everybody, I had Hershey’s Chocolate syrup in my mouth—which I proceeded to blurp, right on their necks! What we did for Roger Corman!” Her victims, once killed, are never seen again (and just what she did with the bodies is never established).
THE WASP WOMAN’s score is by Fred Katz, who also did the score for Corman’s LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. But while his comical, jazzy score suited a film about a talking, carnivorous plant, it seems out of place here – jaunty and jovial at times that call for a more dark and exciting approach.
Zinthrop is discovered lying in a hospital bed, having suffered from brain damage. The scene provides a rare opportunity for Corman to have a cameo in one of his own productions, as Zinthrop’s doctor. Running out of the formula and planning the launch of her new line of rejuvenating cosmetics, a desperate Starlin arranges for Zinthrop to be taken to a bed at her business with an accompanying nurse, whom she attacks when she suddenly transforms right in front of the recovering Zinthrop.
The climax of THE WASP WOMAN proved particularly trying for Cabot. According to Mark McGee in his book Roger Corman, The Best of the Cheap Acts, Corman wanted to film the action climax of the film in a single take. Michael Mark was to pick up and throw a bottle marked carbolic acid at the wasp woman, and then Cabot was to duck down while a technician applied some smoke on her mask, after which she would pop up and then fall backwards through a window. Unfortunately for Cabot, Corman neglected to have Mark toss a break-away glass bottle; the real thing hit the actress like a rock, making her feel as if her lower teeth had been forced through her nose.* Trooper that she was, she kept on, but the technician applied too much smoke, which quickly went inside the only opening in the mask, Cabot’s breathing passageso that she inhaled it into her lungs. She clawed and scratched at the mask on the mattress on the other side of the broken window, finally tearing it off but taking some of her skin in the process.
THE WASP WOMAN marked Cabot’s final film in Hollywood. She had previously worked on such epics as CARNIVAL ROCK, SORORITY GIRL, WAR OF THE SATELLITES, MACHINE-GUN KELLY and the infamous THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN AND THEIR VOYAGE TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT. Sadly, she ended tragically when she was murdered by her own son, Timothy Scott Roman, at the age of 59. Her co-star Anthony Eisley would go on to star in Sam Fuller’s THE NAKED KISS, “The Brain of Colonel Barham” episode of THE OUTER LIMITS, NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS, JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF TIME, and THE MIGHTY GORGA.
When Allied Artists picked up Filmgroup films for television syndication, they wanted THE WASP WOMAN to run longer, so director Jack Hill was hired to shoot additional footage, including an opening in which Michael Mark, wearing a beekeeper outfit, picks up a branch with a wasp’s nest on it; a scene in which Mark shows his prior boss a full grown Doberman and a Doberman puppy, claiming both are the same age, which results in his getting fired; and a sequence in which a flunky searches town for the missing scientist. These scenes added another 7 minutes to the original 66 minute running time, and most public domain copies of the film are from this television version. Corman has been revered for both promoting women. Gale Anne Hurd has said that she didn’t know sexism existed in Hollywood until after she stopped working for Corman, and Roger has given many talented female writers and directors their first opportunities to make a movie. His wife Julie Corman has herself become a respected producer, many of whose films have a feminist message. At the same time, Corman also understands the exploitation market. THE WASP WOMAN reflects its maker with its combination of some cleverness and social consciousness with cost-cutting approach and meeting the basic needs of the marketplace. THE WASP WOMAN (1960). Director-producer: Roger Coman. Screenplay: Leo Gordon from a story by Kinuta Zertuche. Art direction: Daniel Haller. Photography: Harry C. Newman. Music: Fred Katz. Editor: Carlo Lodato. Make-up: Grant R. Keats. Cast: Susan Cabot, Anthony Eisley, Michael Mark, Barboura Morris, William Roerick, Frank Gerstle, Bruno Ve Sota, Roy Gordon, Frank Wolff, Carolyn Hughes, Lynn Cartwright, Lani Mars FOOTNOTE:
According to journalist Tom Weaver, who interviewed Susan Cabot, the bottle was made of break-away glass and would not have hurt Cabot if it had been empty. The problem was that the bottle was filled with water, which added mass to the impact when it hit her face.
In Volume 1, Episode 17 of the Cinefantastique Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction Podcast, Dan Persons Lawrence French, and Steve Biodrowski unravel the mysteries of genetic engineering and bad parenting as they analyze SPLICE, Vincenzo Natali’s thoughtful variation on the old “mad scientists create a monster” scenario. Also this week, the usual round-up of news, home video releases, and upcoming events.
Vincenzo Natali’s gene-splicing drama is this year’s MOON – a thoughtful little movie guaranteed to be the best filmed science fiction of the summer.
Serious cinematic science fiction is such a rarity these days that it sometimes seems like an endangered species, replaced by big-budget blockbusters about robots from outer space blowing stuff up; however, every once in a while a film arrives in theatres to remind us that thoughtful, intelligent genre cinema has not gone the way of the dinosaur. Last year, it was Duncan Jones’ MOON; this year, it is Vincenzo Natali’s SPLICE. In fact, I am going to go so far as to bestow virtually the exact same praise I lavished on MOON last year: I won’t say that SPLICE is guaranteed to be the best science fiction film of the summer (there may be other, even more engaging entertainments on the way), but strictly speaking, there can be little doubt that it will be this season’s best filmed science fiction – a motion picture that uses its premise to raise intriguing questions about the moral implications of scientific progress, without resorting to a simplistic formula about mad scientists and monsters run amok.
The story follows a pair of scientistswho splice genetic material from different animals to create hybrids that may provide cures to livestock diseases. Confronted by their corporate master’s decision to give up gene-splicing in favor of producing a patentable medicine, Elsa (Sarah Polley) and Clive (Adrien Brody) secretly take their experiment to the next level by including humans DNA in the mix. The resulting embryo grows at an unexpectedly accelerated rate, emerging as a strange – but surprisingly cute – little creature with wickedly poisonous tail. Clive wants to destroys the monster, but Elsa overrules him. As the creature matures it takes on more human characteristics, engendering a paternalistic reaction (for both good and bad) in the two scientists. Named Dren (“nerd” spelled backwards, N.E.R.D. being the acronym for Elsa and Clive’s company), the creature continues to move quickly through its life-cycle, rapidly reaching what looks like the equivalence of adolescence, including a dawning sexual interest in Clive.
With scientists named Clive (after Colin Clive who played the titular mad scientist in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN) and Elsa (after Elsa Lanchester, who played the titular BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1935), Nataliand co-screenwriter Antoinette Terry Bryant are clearly tipping their hat to classic horror films, but the inspiration for SPLICE seems to extend father back, all the way to the literary source novel by Mary Shelly. Although often pegged as science fiction, Shelly’s Frankenstein is almost totally bereft of science; it’s really more a metaphor for the hubris of a careless parent who begets life without considering the consequences. In the same way, SPLICE portrays Elsa and Clive less as mad scientists than as a pair of parents who cannot quite come to terms with their “problem” child.
The problem that Dren represents hangs over the film like a cloud, raising troubling moral questions that cannot easily be answered. Her existence leads to the isolation of the wished-for livestock medicine, but is that enough to justify an experiment that creates a new life form? Is Dren simply an experimental subject, to be terminated when the experiment is complete, or does her quasi-human nature grant her the same right to life that everyone else enjoys? What is the greater obligation for Elsa and Clive – to their scientific progeny or to the human race?
This last question is perhaps the most disturbing, because Dren, in the tradition of Frankenstein’s creation, elicits our sympathy even while we realize that she is potentially dangerous. And not just on a person-to-person level because of her lethal tail: she represents a new and unknown species, one that grows at an alarming rate; unleashed upon the world at large, there is no way of knowing how catastrophic the consequences may be.
Fortunately, these issues provide a solid thematic foundation without weighing down the story, which remains focused on Elsa and Clive’s struggle to negotiate the mess they have created – a mess that is partly scientific but also largely personal. Elsa never wanted to give birth herself, so this is her alternate method of having a child; unfortunately, she is burdened with the residue of an unhappy mother-daughter relationship, which starts to surface in her dealings with Dren. Clive is initially hostile to Dren, but as she matures, and as Else becomes less sympathetic to her “daughter,” Clive swings to Dren’s side.
With scientific objectivity thrown out the window, Elsa and Clive plunge into a personal psycho-drama of their own, fraught with jealousy and a power struggle, culminating in a sequence that is certain to be much remembered: Clive finally succumbs to Dren’s seductive charms. The vague hints of incest and bestiality (she is in a sense his daughter, and she is not fully human) provide an underlying ick factor to a scene that is otherwise filled with a mondo bizarro sense of wonder (sprouting wings, Dren looks almost as angelic as orgasmic), and yet as incredible as the action is, it remains grounded in a believable reality (Elsa catches them in the act – a scene that could occur in any domestic drama).
As a horror-thriller, SPLICE does not fully deliver on the promise of its trailers (which are cut together to suggest a more traditional monster-on-the-loose scenario). Dren is a fascinating character (a wonderful combination of CGI and Delphine Chaneac’s performance), but she is not as threatening as SIL in SPECIES. Natali does not build the tension to unbearable levels. Instead, he focuses on the drama, and the real horror of the piece is moral rather than visceral. The real triumph here is that, if you were to read about a real-life Elsa and Clive in a newspaper article, you would probably want them thrown in jail for life. By telling their story from the inside, Natali confronts you with some serious issues that are not easy to resolve. As we stride into the future, technology will force us to confront these same issues in real life. One of the important roles of the artist is to offer little signposts warning us of the future so that we may be prepared for when it arrives in reality. SPLICE does that better than any film since MOON.
SPLICE (2009). Directed by Vincenzo Natali. Written by Vincenzo Natali and Antoinette Terry Bryant and Doug Gaylor. Cast: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu.
Y’know, people probably shouldn’t be this gleeful about issues of mortality, but in the cases of the movies being discussed in this episode, we’re kinda glad they are. This episode features interviews with Jean-Pierre Jeunet and George A. Romero, both of whom have previously addressed matters of life-and-death in their own, unique ways, and have decided that there’s still more sport to be had from the subject.
Twisted Love: Dany Boon (left) and Julie Ferrier meet peculiar in MICMACS.
In MICMACS, Jeunet gives us a cockeyed protagonist in the person of Bazil (Dany Boon), a man who quite by chance winds up at the precipice of the eternal when a stray bullet gets lodged in his brain. This makes him not so charitably inclined towards the manufacturer of said bullet, a matter only exacerbated when he discovers that the land mine that killed his father in the Middle East was created by a neighboring company. His only recourse: Take down both corporations, with the help of a ragtag assortment of unusually talented junkyard misfits. For such a dire theme, the film turns out to be quite a lighthearted adventure, with Jeunet deploying all his powers of visual invention into the narrative, while also making copious nods to film history, particularly to the works of silent comedians and Sergio Leone.
Home on Deranged (Sorry): Joris Jarsky (left) wrangles Kathleen Munroe in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD.
George Romero is also taking a few pages from cinema history, most specifically from classic westerns. In SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, the group of renegade guardsmen we met in DIARY OF THE DEAD — led by Alan Van Sprang — decides they’ve had enough of zombies, and aim themselves for a respite on an island off the coast of Delaware. Problem is: Not only is the place already infested with the walking dead, but they’ve become a rather peculiar stake in a kind-of range war between waged between two feuding clans. As always, Romero mixes zombie assaults with some particularly vivid death scenes — for both living and dead — along with some trenchant observations of our current, fractious times. Turns out the departed still have something to say to their survivors, and it has nothing to do with moving into the light.
Have no doubt, I love bad movies. I still have fond memories of the first time I stumbled onto ROBOT MONSTER, back in the days when local broadcast television had afternoon movie shows, and one could serendipitously chance upon such inspired dreadfulness as a cheesy science fiction epic — with Hamlet-like ambitions — in which the titular monster was actually some guy in a gorilla suit wearing a toy diver’s helmet (check it out if you don’t believe me). Lemme tell ya, there’s nothing quite like sitting through ninety minutes of “What the frak is this?!” to put a spring in your step and reinvigorate your will to live.
Problem is that, these days, fortune has dictated I be late to this particular party, getting around to the legendarily awful long after their cults have formed. Which is by way of saying that I haven’t yet seen TROLL 2, the notoriously awful non-sequel (title notwithstanding), not-really-horror film that’s at the center of the documentary BEST WORST MOVIE. Not to worry, director Michael Paul Stephenson — who two decades ago was the child star of the movie — is less about celebrating the film than he is about exploring its impact on those involved, both before and after it had attained its midnight-movie status. To that end, he tracks down many of the project’s key players, including director Claudio Fragrasso — who expresses some well-justified discomfort with being embraced by this particular group of admirers — and co-star Dr. George Hardy, a dentist whose zeal for the spotlight first found him cast as Stephenson’s father, and then embracing his notoriety with perhaps a bit too much ardor.
The film is an intriguing examination of a certain, two-edged brand of fame and how the artists involved handle its effects. I got to explore the issue with Stephenson, amongst other topics — bottom line: He seems to have survived the trauma quite handily. Click on the player to hear the interview.