Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Alien 3

Alien 3, the most underrated of underrated SciFi movies, is probably where the Alien franchise should have drawn to a close. Script problems, David Fincher's disavowal of the final product, and poor box office combined to taint it so badly that talented upstarts like Neil Blomkamp feel perfectly justified in bypassing it all together, winning Sigourney Weaver around to the idea of a mad alternate timeline project - some kind of deformed, cloned, 'other' Alien 3.

Well, it could work. Some evidently feel there was more in Ripley than the 'Laurie Stode in Space - Action Mother - Saint Ripley' trinity of the first three movies. But Alien 3 fans will feel there is simply no need to find out. Fincher's movie provided Ripley with a bountiful new world  - with the magnetic supporting cast, claustrophobic location and creature itself realised through a startling new vision. Plus, for a story about a dragon stalking double Y chromosome prisoners about the plumbing of a vast lead furnace, it is an incredibly sensuous film.


Fincher is obsessed with his cast's eyes - those of Newt's corpse, reflecting Ripley; Charles Dance's famous bulging orbs; Charles S Dutton's thick, black-rimmed specs, and of course Weaver's bruised, discoloured pupil after the EEV crash.

Painted in orange and black, you squint through half the film, which is shrouded in a dim "pilot light", shed by rows of candles, flickering bulbs, industrial flares. The Alien reveals itself behind plastic curtains, reflected in surgical instruments, coiled around rotting pipes.

Once again this is rumour control

It's a movie with incredibly diverse sounds: the silence of the med lab; the boom of the furnaces and the roar of the gales outside; echoing, half-heard conversations between prisoners; the ill fated Murphy shrieking a song while he scrapes the ducts clean.

Even the voices are powerful character elements: Clemens' stilted tones speak of affronted dignity, while Superintendent Andrews' piercing Yorkshire bellowing is the personification of the tyrant jobsworth. It's like the cast are trying to outdo each other for vocal performance: Dutton's voice rings with belief; McGann's Golic whispers with trembling madness. In the best Alien tradition even the small parts have magnificent lines (Morse emits surely the best "FUCK!" in cinema history).

It's alright to say 'shit'. It ain't against God


For a slasher movie it's full of surprisingly subtle physical moments: Ripley wiping condensation from the mirror, running her hand over her bald head, touching at her bleeding nose; Clemens dabbing her vein, preparing it for an injection; The whole movie is bruised and bloodied, even the set, where you can almost reach out and feel the grime coating the prison walls, jamming up the works. It's smothered too in seeping fluids; blood from the torn-apart host dog; Alien drool on boots. Interestingly it's also the only movie that allows Ripley a sex life; even if it's with a criminally negligent medical officer who's only just told her to shave her private parts to ward off lice.

we ain't got no entertainment center, no climate control, no video system, no surveillance, no freezers, no fucking ice cream, no rubbers, no women, no guns. All we got here is *shit*! 

Yes, there's a baggy old fifteen minutes in there -an aberration for an Alien movie; one or two gaping plot holes; and one of the worst "ass on the line" exchanges in cinema - but there much to admire here, and on repeat viewing some themes come out that remind us of Fincher's amazing talent.

Principally it's interesting because writers David Giler and Walter Hill seemed to feel that if Ripley's story were to move forward at all, it must also draw to a close. Let's see if Blomkamp can prove them wrong.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

They Live (1988)

Google John Carpenter's They Live and worrying indications of a remake surface. You can understand why someone might think about it. The '10s' (or whatever) have passed much like a replayed 1980s - a time of rampant, exploitative capitalism; of oblivious, ostentatious greed; of 'masters of the universe' lording it over a docile, hypnotised mass.

Yet there are striking differences, not least of which is the quality of the most successful films: for big budget 1980s Hollywood absolutely fizzed with creativity - of a kind that we've only recently begun to appreciate. 1988 alone serves as a useful illustration: the top ten grossing films contained only one sequel (Crocodile Dundee 2) and were mainly original comedies (Roger Rabbit, Coming to America, The Naked Gun, Beetlejuice), original dramas (Rain Man) and the original action movie, Die Hard.

A look at last year's top ten makes grisly reading in comparison. It contains only two entirely original movies, the rest being sequels, spin-offs, and franchises - with the top two being both remakes and sequels. This is escapist, and really quite dumb, output. However one interprets the reasons for this slide in creativity - whether Hollywood chasing international markets or the will of our alien overlords - its not hard to imagine observing a Jurassic World poster through the right sunglasses, and seeing the legend:

On that basis alone, the remake is sunk before it begins. The recycling of great ideas encompasses the capitalist skull-creature's attitude to entertainment: People will pay for what they know. They don't want to be challenged, they want a brand they trust. This would make a They Live remake a joke played on itself. And worse. It could only ever be much worse, for some fundamental reasons.

Perhaps it might be considered for a remake if it had dated; but the simple fact is that it hasn't. Sure, there are some mullets, but that's not enough to prompt disbelief. The city is anonymous. There are no landmarks, only timeless oil age settings: shanties, abandoned churches, sound stages, alleys, supermarkets. It looks gorgeous . Cinematographer Garry Kibbe (who also worked on Alien 3 and Stand By Me), has produced a beautiful, rich palette to contrast with the black and white sequences. There is one of those tremendous, throbbing, insistent Carpenter original scores; the 'others' in the film are given life through a simple mask, made more powerful than any CGI by stark, other-worldy monochrome.

They ain't from Cleveland
Slavoj Zizek calls They Live one of the great forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left, for the way it gives flesh to the most creeping paranoiac fantasies of 80s American society; of a secretive, exploitative caste of overlords hiding in plain sight, laughing at our struggles.

Most importantly, Carpenter's film is one of those most powerful kinds of idea - the 'so damn simple I should have thought of it' type. It explored the notion of life as a mass illusion a full decade before The Matrix, and without chosen ones and naff shiny leather, favouring dispossessed construction workers instead - people who say they "believe in America", that they want to "follow the rules", and only reluctantly choose to rebel. It's an exciting, action-packed drama with a big heart and a sense of humour, that seems as bright and fresh now as it did almost thirty years ago.

For now, that seems enough to keep the remake slumbering. But how long before the skull-creatures push it through the system, take the lead roles for themselves: create a horrible parody of a great man's work, made to break our hearts and crush our spirits.

How long? JC alone knows.

Monday, 22 February 2016

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)

With a creepy-crawly themed column to write for The Engineer, but brain drained of power, watching a trashy bug movie too easily became justified as 'research'.

Spiders stars Bill Shatner, and with higher than expected reviews on the internet - not great, you understand,  but not as abysmal as the same year's similarly titled Empire of the Ants - a viewing turned out to be worth the time. It's a Tremors-esque tale of an isolated town falling prey to unnatural nature, with Jaws overtones thrown in for good measure (complete with 'we can't close down the county fair!' mayor). Sure, watched through modern eyes there is not a single effective scare to be found in the thing, but there are other pleasures.

Kingdom of the Shatners

Bill is fun to watch in just about anything, but it is particularly pleasing to see him decked out in cowboy hat and jeans as lead Rack Hansen (Rack?). Shatner chugs beer, rides horses and sleazes onto his dead brother's wife before spider proceedings even get started, sporting Gillet and lab coat with equal aplomb.

There's also a nice bit of writing around his relationship with Tiffany Bolling's Diane Ashley - his dimwitted efforts at midwestern seduction see her shoot him down again and again, and while this sadly can't last, it helps make Ashley likeable. It helps Shatner too - his desperation is a hoot, even abandoning his own car at one point (along with his dignity) in pursuit of blonde satisfaction.

Kingdom of the Screamers

There's a scene where Bolling is showering and dressing in her motel room; the camera pans away to reveal an arachnid creeping into the drawer of her dressing table. The seasoned viewer expects her to discover the spider, scream, and run for Bill's arms. Instead she shows only detached curiosity, even affection for the twitching, furry, eight legged freak, handling it with calm interest. It is a surprising moment and elevates proceedings.

Besides, the movie provides plenty of other howls to make up for it - probably some of the best is achieved by the crop dusting flyer, who must at least have a claim to the most prolonged screaming sequence in cinema history. The camera just sits there and watches him let rip, as crafty spiders send him spinning into a fatal prang.

The Colby family have one shitty week in this movie

Kingdom of the Stampers

Things only really crumble in the final third, as Shatner and co hole up in a cabin, discover various parties cocooned in silk, and plug holes by which their crawling tormentors come tumbling in. The energy is rather sucked out of proceedings the longer we're in there, and the ridiculousness becomes harder to live with: the spiders cut the phones; a spider is crazy glued to Shatner's cheek. Then the whole narrative descends into a lot of stamping, which is farcical at first, then (worse) a little dull.

Kingdom of the seventies

Apparently there are plans for a remake afoot. Thingaboutchickens will not be seeking it out. Instead the plan is to source more of Shatner's 70s TV movie output, and see what cobwebbed treasures might be found. Stay tuned.