Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SPACE CAMP VOL. 2: ALIEN RIPS


When Ridley Scott's Alien first burst onto movie screens in May of 1979, adult cinema goers finally had their R-rated answer to Star Wars, a heady sci-fi-horror hybrid thick with atmosphere, sexual tension and a host of strange bodily secretions. Its template was the haunted house movie, the twist that the house was now an orbiting spacecraft. The monster at its center was a not a ghost rattling chains. It was an extraterrestrial that clung to your face and laid eggs down your throat only to have its embryos violently pop out while you were eating dinner, the worst kind of acid reflux. Finally, a space movie even Grandpa could get behind.

The Nostromo's crew was less than action figure ready, a mixed race, mixed gender assortment of surly professionals. No star-gazing farmboys named Skywalker. No charming rogue smugglers named Han. No cute bickering droids, unless you count the "skin job" (Ian Holm) secretly sent by the company to do them all in. The closest thing to a Wookie on this ship? Harry Dean Stanton. For most of Alien's run-time, there is no single protagonist. But as the creature begins picking the crew off one by one, a hero finally emerges...better yet, a heroine. Not a princess per se, but a practical, resourceful warrant officer who doesn't want to save the planet or preserve a new alien species. She just wants to get home in one piece.

Much like Star Wars, the critical and commercial success of Alien spawned many modestly budgeted imitators. Some of them were good, some not so good. A few took the narrative lessons learned aboard the Nostromo and expanded them. A few even borrowed key creatives from the Alien franchise (Dan O'Bannon, James Cameron). Most, of course, squandered their teachable moments with chinsy Giger-monster knockoffs and extra helpings of space sex. Though none of these Xeroxed xenomorphs could match the shock of the original or duplicate Scott's knack for atmosphere, a few of them do still entertain. I watched a handful of Alien "rips" over the last few weekends and lived to tell the tale, Ellen Ripley-style. In space, no one can hear you scream. But they can certainly hear you thieve.

CONTAMINATION (1980) - Luigi Cozzi πŸš€πŸš€1/2


aka Alien Contamination. aka Toxic Spawn. aka Contamination: Alien on Earth, directed by "Lewis Coates." When the title and director of a movie are this up for grabs, you know it has to be terrific, yes?

Actually, it's not a total stinker, though the movie itself revolves entirely around rotten eggs. When an abandoned Colombian coffee barge in the New York harbor becomes a delivery system for alien pods instead of Juan Valdez, a female government spook and male NYPD beat cop team up to trace the source of the pulsating, green lactating orbs. First, this takes them to the South American plantation that shipped the eggs, then to the aborted Mars space mission that brought them back to Earth. They uncover a plot to hide the eggs in the New York sewer system (the place where all '70s-'80s horror movie conspiracies begin and end), an unsettling prospect in that the eggs when touched tend to scramble people's insides and expel them violently through their chests.

If you're looking for a tried and true space movie, Contamination will disappoint. The movie is mostly landlocked, the only space scenes told in flashback on cheap miniatures where the alien pods appear to be un-shelled edamame. But if you're looking for an agreeable Alien rip with frequent chest-bursting, laughable dubbing and a one-eyed Cyclops monster that looks like an inbred version of the Giger xenomorph, you could do far worse. Also, if you're a fan of the Italian prog rockers Goblin (not their best score, but still...Goblin!). I hadn't planned on watching this movie originally, but Cozzi's Star Wars rip, Starcrash, was so good I figured why not give his Alien cash-in a try. If only there was a Caroline Munro cameo...

GALAXY OF TERROR (1981) - Bruce D. Clark πŸš€πŸš€1/2


It never takes long for Roger Corman to hop aboard the blockbuster rip-off bandwagon. Less than two years after Alien hit screens, he'd already dropped his own space-horror hybrid. Galaxy of Terror sticks closer to the Ridley Scott playbook than Contamination, keeping its characters in space for the duration and having the source of their extraterrestrial woes also come from a previously crashed vessel. There are slimy creatures that attach to heads, wrap tentacles around necks, sometimes eat you whole, especially if you are an adult female who, for specious reasons, happens to already be undressed. There's also some hoodoo about empaths, telepathy and a pyramid structure on the planet that used to house extinct races. But I'm pretty sure the only pyramids the writers were interested in here were those on the backs of U.S. currency (with a movie like this, yes, I assume they were paid in cash).

Galaxy of Terror's heavily borrowed plot is definitely nothing new and definitely not its most interesting aspect. For me, the joy was delighting in its wildly diverse astronaut cast. Joanie from Happy Days. Laura Palmer's mom from Twin Peaks. Zalman King, the softcore Red Shoe Diaries producer. The guy who played Freddy Krueger. A glowing Mr. Hand from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The ubiquitous Sid Haig from just about everything else. This is a spacecraft I wouldn't mind being trapped in...or at least a craft services table I would've loved to loiter around. As for the movie itself, it's fun in fits and starts. Go ahead, take a peek.

FORBIDDEN WORLD (1982) - Allan Holzman πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€1/2


One year later, Roger Corman produced a knockoff of his own Alien knockoff, repurposing some of the James Cameron sets from Galaxy of Terror and recycling a few scenes from his 1980 Star Wars rip Battle Beyond the Stars. Common knowledge says that a copy degrades the integrity of the original, but in this instance-- a copy of a copy-- somehow the results were better. 

How so? Because Forbidden World (aka Mutant) mostly dispenses with plot and revels in its exploitation movie roots. It goes all-in on the space scuzz. The genetics aboard this Xarbian research station are dicier than the norm, the monster in question a mutant with both human and alien DNA. The actors are unknowns and the air aboard the vessel thick with lust. It feels like a porno scenario could break out at any moment ("Ding dong! You ordered a pizza from the Sombrero Galaxy, ma'am?") and, for an R-rated early '80s movie, it at times comes kinda close. There's a sub-Carpenter minimalist electronica score that's kinda catchy and probably cost $2 but somehow works to the film's advantage. The effects are cheap but cheaply effective...goopy, bloody, lots of rubber cement, Karo syrup and spirit gum. It reminded me a bit of Cronenberg's The Fly, though not as philosophically inquisitive. Or maybe a daydream Paul Verhoeven had on the set of Starship Troopers directed by someone less talented than himself. 

Despite its sketchy heredity, Forbidden World is yummy, trashy fun, the forbidden fruit of Alien clones. See if you agree.

ANDROID (1982) - Aaron Lipstadt πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


If you've committed to watching a bunch of sci-fi/horror quickies from the early '80s, it's only a matter of time before you must contend with Werner Herzog's (and the world's) favorite wildman antagonist, Klaus Kinski. Kinski isn't the primary character in Android, but his disturbed presence looms over the entire film like a future Dr. Frankenstein. Also, a horny Dr. Frankenstein. He really wants to sleep with his half-human, half-robot creations it seems, not to mention anyone else so unlucky as to board his ship. 

The plot in a nutshell: Imagine Alien but from Ash the Android's POV. Imagine him as he grows more sentient, begins to question his creator's programming (Kinski, not Weyland Corp). Imagine him learning about human sex from in-flight instructional videos, then imagine what happens when a fully-human female space prisoner (Brie Howard) and her two male cohorts crash land and are forced to come aboard. Human-robot sexual power struggles ensue, and sorting the humans from the robots is not as easy as it would seem.

Still confused? OK, then just imagine Ex Machina from Ava's POV, if Alicia Vikander looked a bit more like Jackie Earle Haley. Android is nothing you haven't seen before or read in your high school Mary Shelley. But it's a mercifully brief and frequently amusing. And need I repeat...Kinski, Kinski, Kinski.

CREATURE: THE TITAN FIND (1985) - 
William Malone πŸš€πŸš€


Speaking of Klaus, his glorified cameo as the sole surviving German astronaut in Creature: The Titan Find is really, for me, the one and only reason to give this tired Alien rip a go. When he strolls aboard the downed American spacecraft on a Titan moon midway through the film, scenery chewing with glee, you realize immediately what a good actor can bring to even the most formulaic of movies, the gift his mere presence can be to the most humdrum of directors. All they really have to do is hit record, keep the boom mic out of frame. Fortunately, director Malone does that for this one scene. As for the rest of the movie...

To be kind, let's just say it's highly derivative of the original Alien and not in the most charming way. The movie is called Creature after all, the most vaguely generic version of the Alien title possible. It's like that can of no-name Budweiser everyone drinks from in Repo Man labeled simply "Beer." The story beats are nearly identical, minus Ridley Scott's flair for slow-burn suspense, interestingly lit interiors. This director bathes everything in blue gels instead, the scenes mostly under-lit as to hide the cheap effects. The scripting and staging are tone-deaf, and the "creature" looks like an ambulatory space lobster. It's got nothing on the Alien alien, not to mention the Aliens aliens. Probably the best thing that can be said for this 1985 knockoff is that it landed a few of the FX crew jobs on Cameron's fantastic sequel the following year in '86.

LIFEFORCE (1985) - Tobe Hooper πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€πŸš€


Can you even call the whacked-out, otherworldly thing of beauty that is Tobe Hooper's Lifeforce an Alien rip? Hard to say. It definitely shares some of '79 original's genre lineage and even one of its screenwriters (Dan O'Bannon). But its source material pre-dates the original Alien, a 1976 novel called The Space Vampires. Either way, Lifeforce is that singular, exceptional case: It tosses what, by then, had become formula (the haunted house in space) into the creativity blender and comes out with a glorious sci-fi/horror smoothie of a movie that is startlingly, refreshingly new.

The film begins in familiar enough outer space movie territory. A crew of astronauts discover a second starship stocked with specimens trapped in suspended animation. Instead of warty alien eggs, however, the specimens appear to be three nude humans housed in glass cases. In the case of one Mathilda May, they are very naked, very beautiful humans (see here for further pervy film nerd commentary). Then the film takes an interesting narrative turn. It jumps forward to the point where the specimens are already back on Earth in a London research laboratory and, for now, leaves us in the dark as to what happened during the rescue mission. An autopsy is about to be performed on the comatose female specimen until-- wouldn't you know it--a security guard saunters into the lab and is captivated by her beauty. She suddenly awakens and approaches him, seemingly for a kiss. Before you can shout "Look out, space vampire!" she's not just sucking the blood from his shriveling body but draining the "lifeforce" right out of him.

Sound like a bad relationship you've had in the past (definitely a few I've had)? Well, I promise it's more interesting than that. The space vampires turn out to be equal opportunity soul-suckers, with the ability to shape-shift and hopscotch bodies after they've drained them. The comely young Mathilda May not your bag? Then how about this older British redhead. Still not your preference? Then how about the body of Patrick Stewart. Eventually astronaut Steve Railsback (Charlie Manson from Helter Skelter) shows up in a crashed escape pod to fill us in on what happened in outer space. It turns out that when hypnotized he can psycho-sexually "tap into" the female alien (lucky sonofabitch). Things get wilder and weirder from there, and suddenly London is lousy with shape-shifting soul suckers and surprisingly great FX. I hereby refuse spoil the rest.

Surprisingly, this wonderful movie was a box-office dud when it came out. Or maybe not so surprisingly. Audiences were probably exhausted with space horror by that point. But thirty-one years later Lifeforce still holds up beautifully, aged like a fine extraterrestrial wine, Alien rip or not. Perhaps all it needed was a lengthy spate of hypersleep.

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