FIVE FILMS FROM...1993
(Directed by Abel Ferrara)
When you think of sci-fi horror, the filmmaker who gave us The Driller Killer (1979) and Bad Lieutenant (1992) isn't the first person you'd think of to helm a new version of a classic story. But Jack Finney's great 1955 novel (The Body Snatchers) had already inspired two superlative movies: Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956 and the identically titled chiller in 1978. Both had great success with their differing outlooks on paranoia and dehumanisation. In comparison, the 50's version focuses on the fears of the McCarthy era and small-town isolation, the 70s locks in on big-city loneliness and the loss of individualism. And the concept also led to other evil doppelganger stories like The Man who Haunted Himself (1970) and even I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958), not to mention John Carpenter's nightmarish take on The Thing (1982). The 70s version also proved that a fresh update on the story could be just as unsettling as the original. So, a new version in the 90s with a fresh visionary needn't be another failed horror "remake". Originally the director chosen to helm this update was Stuart Gordon, who was one of the co-writers along with four (!?) others, which also included the great Larry Cohen. The number of writers is a possible indication of this film's troubled journey to the big screen, which would affect the distribution of the project once it wrapped. Nevertheless, the intriguing appointment of the edgy Ferrara as director was an interesting choice. There was also some promising names in the cast, including Gabrielle Anwar (in her first appearance after Scent of a Woman), Meg Tilly (Psycho II, Forest Whitaker (just after The Crying Game) and shouty R. Lee Ermey (Full Metal Jacket).
Rather than taking place in a small town or a big city, the plot is based in a remote US military base in Alabama. That might seem initially strange and (perhaps) a decision to cut down the location budget, but it's actually a brilliant idea that heavily incorporates the concept of loss of identity and the pressure to conform (whether it's in the US Army, or society itself). The story sees Steve Malone (Terry Kinney) and his family travel to the base, as his environmental knowledge is needed to explore possible ecological damage caused by the Army. Ironically, this is seen as being the likely cause for strange behaviour as witnessed by worried Medical Officer Major Collins (Whitaker). Of course, it isn't; it's bloody big alien pods that have drifted into the nearby swampland from outer space. These are now being harvested by the multiplying "pod people", that have been duplicated from the Army staff, via tendrils to the body as they slumber. You get the picture. What follows is a surprisingly thrilling ride that sees Steve and (more prominently) his daughter Marti (Anwar), attempt to either escape or alert others to the invasion. That bare outline enables a lean and mean experience to take place onscreen. It also allows for some fantastic scenes to take place, which have since gone on to become genre favourites.
The best sequence sees a (*slight spoiler*) pod version of Carol Malone (Tilly) infiltrate the family and confront the patriarch. In a spine-tingling moment, Carol launches into a monologue explaining that there is no use trying to escape ("Where you gonna go, where you gonna run, where you gonna hide? Nowhere... 'cause there's no one like you left."). It's a brilliant moment, highlighted by Tilly's calm and intentionally emotionless performance (with some alleged improvisation). Then the cherry on top of the scare-cake comes with THAT pod-person scream, directly lifted from the 70s film. Breath-taking. There are a few choice moments like this; little Andy realising that all the kids in his class have drawn the same picture apart from him, a nude pod version of a lead character attempting seduction to survive, and the duplicitous attempts by pod people to force emotional responses from the protagonists. It works as a straight thriller but also layers plenty of metaphors in there as well. One character is brazenly told that humanity's best choice is to embrace the invasion, as conformity will save it from destruction. The character chooses to shoot himself instead, of course. It's a good deal more commercial than practically all of Ferrara's other work, but it's no less interesting. The ending is a bit of a cop-out, being ambiguous and non-committal. But it does at least suggest that a person may have to sacrifice humanitarianism to keep their social identity. Or maybe we're over-thinking it. Bar that, and one very sub-par FX shot showing a character falling from a height, this is simply great and highly recommended.
Which makes it such a shame that it never got its day at the cinema. Despite a stellar review from Roger Ebert and a successful showing at the London Film Festival (where this writer first saw it), it was barely promoted by Warners Bros. and got a ludicrously paltry release at US cinemas. Possibly due to a perceived "overabundance" of genre pics at the time (as if!!) and financial reasoning, the studio just didn't bother. It was also saddled with one of those annoying sub-headings in the title, where you're never sure if it's official or not ("The Invasion Continues…", like d'uh!). However, it did get a second life of sorts on video rental and is generally highly thought of by most genre fans these days. Far, far, FAR better than the misguided 2007 adaptation (The Invasion), which reduced the alien pods to a bacterial virus (and THAT’S a subject best left alone at this moment in history!!)
Return of the Living Dead 3
(Directed by Brian Yuzna)
Despite Sophie Turner's snarky and (unfortunately self-referential) riposte in X-Men: Apocalypse ("Well, at least we can all agree the third one's always the worst"), that's not always the case. For every Jaws: 3D (or even The Godfather: Part III), there is a Halloween III: Season of the Witch and Nightmare on Elm St 3: Dream Warriors, that does something new or refreshing for a franchise. One such entry came with this unexpectedly good threequel during this cinematic year. It basically ignored the tone and structure of the first two films in the franchise, and to be honest functions perfectly well as a standalone film. In fact, it could be renamed as such, and some European territories did rename it to "Mortal Zombie". Anyway, the plot relies on the established set-up that an experimental substance called "Trioxin" exists and that the US Army just can't stop messing about with it, even though it creates brain-craving zombies out of corpses. From that point, it spins away from the splat-stick excesses and humour of the first two films. Not surprising, given the awful reception that "Part 2" had, as it veered towards becoming the "Police Academy" of horror! Yuzna gives it a darker take on the humour, as well as "romance". The film is most notable for a career-boosting performance from Melinda (then Mindy) Clarke as the lead female, before becoming better known for continuing roles in TV fare such as "CSI", "The OC", and "Entourage".
This time the action starts at a US Army base, which will become central to much of the plot. Army brat Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond) sneaks into the base with his sparky girlfriend Julie Walker (Clarke) for… reasons. His father (Kent McCord as Col. John Reynolds) works there, as commander of the Trioxin testing project. The loved-up pair unexpectedly see the reanimation of a cadaver and the subsequent chaos. Col. Reynolds is removed from the project, and Curt storms off sulkily when it becomes apparent that he will be separated from Julie. Unfortunately, as the two "teenage" rebels bike off into the night, a cheeky goolie-grab causes an accident and Julie promptly carks it. End of a tragic romance… or is it? Of course not. Curt sneaks dead Julie back into the base (Worst. Security. Ever) and exposes her to Trioxin. She revives in surprisingly good shape with all her faculties apparently unaffected. That doesn't last long though, as Curt has to see if there is love after death. If this had continued the trend of ROTLD2, it probably would have had actors James Karen and Thom Mathews as clumsy soldiers, re-releasing "Tarman"… or something. But luckily Yuzna takes it on a much more imaginative and blacker path. There's still plenty of gore (meaning plenty of cuts for an "R" rating), but the "humour" is limited to stuff like the grotesque zombie with its spine elongated and similar situational depravities, rather than quick-fire gags or visual japes.
Much of the promotional images and posters centre around Julie's transformation, which is where the heart of the story lies. For no good discernible reason, she retains much of her humanity after her Trioxin-trip. But this descent into flesh-eating and self-mutilation is winningly portrayed by Clarke and gives a good opportunity to give a different slant to the zombie lore. Several ingenious ideas are explored within the plot; the army uses cryogenic ammo to "subdue" the zombies, exoskeletons are expected to "control" the Living Dead during battle exercises, Julie can temporarily dull her hunger for brains with pain, etc. Admittedly that last point is a vague excuse for some vaguely S&M/Cenobite imagery, where Julie becomes a slave to piercings in order to retain her humanity. But at least, it's an atypical approach for an exploitation film, especially in a franchise. There are some neat (if not entirely believable) animatronics for some of the zombie effects, and there's also some pretty graphic flesh-ripping and brain-baring as everything goes to hell. It all culminates in a surprisingly bittersweet ending as well. Despite mediocre reviews and RT scores, this stands alongside the original ROTLD as being a worthy entry in the franchise and a great standalone zombie flick with some cool twists. Which is a damn sight more than you can say about the other sequels…
(Directed by Guillermo Del Toro)
Seemingly forgotten in some genre quarters but still startlingly brilliant, this off-kilter vampire yarn is well worth discovering on its own merits… let alone for the fact that it was the feature-length debut by the prolific del Toro. A Mexican Indie genre film, it takes a highly original spin on Vampire tropes, grounding it in a "realistic" setting, and mixing it with del Toro's fantasy-based mythology. In that respect, it is very much a forerunner to some of his future projects like Pan's Labyrinth. Also written by him, it contains some excellent performances from actors Federico Luppi and Ron Perlman. Perlman forged a friendship with the filmmaker in the production, that would lead to them working together again in Blade 2 and the Hellboy movies. Cronos would go on to win Ariel Awards (the Mexican version of the Oscars), acclaim at Cannes, and be nominated for a foreign language award at the US Oscars. Del Toro then followed it up with his American film, the underrated Mimic in 1997.
Going back to Cronos, whose title refers to the clockwork theme that runs throughout the story, it starts with an alchemist tinkering with a bug-like contraption in the 16th Century. Scooting to the 1930s, the alchemist is still alive, only with bone-white skin and surrounded by bowls of human blood… you can probably guess why. After an accident claims the ancient entity, we're in modern times with kindly old antique dealer Jesús Gris (Luppi). He discovers a familiar-looking scarab-shaped device in an old statue, which he unadvisedly triggers. It pierces his skin and injects him with a mysterious substance, which starts to affect him almost immediately. The initially "Geppetto"-like old man becomes more vigorous and healthier, with youthful urges returning. Unfortunately, this is accompanied by an almost irresistible thirst for blood, which makes him fear for his beloved Granddaughter. Not only that, but the thuggish Angel (Perlman) is hunting down the device for this uncle Dieter (Claudio Brook), who has arcane knowledge of the insidious machine. All of that gives del Toro an excellent opportunity to present the moral and physical issues that would affect a nascent bloodsucker, with a choice between regained youth and outright murder. It is represented marvellously by Luppi, who is tremendously effective in both his "old-codger" persona and his rejuvenated self. His inner goodness is shown as he plays hopscotch and interacts with his Granddaughter, which makes his descent into primal desires somewhat more disturbing to see. This is visualised in the chilling scene where he stoops to gently lick a pool of blood in a public toilet. Ick.
Some of the storyline is viewed from the perspective of the Granddaughter Aurora (a nearly mute but sweet performance from Tamara Shanath). This is similar to the child perspectives that we get from The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth and allows for a "fairy tale" undercurrent to be present. It contrasts with the more visceral and unsettling moments, such as the moment where Jesus interacts with the device on the staircase like a drug addict. Vampiric tropes are evident (aversion to sunlight, etc.) but are shown in an offbeat and "realistic" manner. The idea that it's a (*slight spoiler*) unknown insect that lies enmeshed within the device and causes the bloodlust is an unusual one. As is the depiction of a fully formed vampire as a white-skinned immortal creature, as oppose to a fanged caped aristocrat. The whole film is a classy take on a familiar story, mixed in with moments of wonder and disgust. It really is a treat to behold, and certainly worth catching if you like any of del Toro's work. In fact, it would make an appropriate and compelling double-bill with the director's "The Shape of Water" for discerning horror fans. A fun fact: Most people aren't aware that a "standalone" sequel exists for Cronos, but it does. This is Jorge Michel Grau's cannibalistic We Are What We Are, which was later given the US remake treatment by Jim Mickle. Admittedly it is only a "sequel" because it shares a recurring character (Daniel Giménez Cacho reprising his role as Tito the Coroner) and takes place at the same time and setting, but it's an interesting wrinkle nonetheless.
(Directed by John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper)
Although anthology horror is making something of a comeback – what with the Creepshow reboot and Ghost Stories and Netflix's The Mortuary Collection – they arguably had their heyday several decades ago. Tales from the Crypt (1972), Creepshow (1982) and Asylum (1972) still retain their place at the top of this particular horror sub-genre but there are a few other notable entries that give them a run for their money. Dr Terror's House of Horrors (1962) is a lot of fun and Stephen King inspired Cat's Eye (1985) is really solid too. However there's another anthology flick that I think needs to get a little bit more love – and that's the 1993's Body Bags.
Body Bags is split into three sections, none of them connected in any way really. However, the wraparound is pretty cool so it doesn't really matter. The film opens inside a mortuary where a creepy looking coroner introduces the three stories – the first of which is called 'The Gas Station'. Set in Haddonfield Illinois (yep, that one!), Anne is starting her first shift at an all-night gas station and is reminded by the guy who is finishing his shift that a serial killer is on the loose, having broken out of the local mental hospital. He leaves and Anne is alone and as she deals with random late-night customers, you get the sense it's only a matter of time before you know who turns up. The second segments is called 'Hair', which is about a middle-aged dude called Richard who is down in the dumps because he is losing his hair (note, this isn't a story about me). After he sees a TV ad about a miracle hair transplant procedure, he books himself an appointment. He has the procedure and after removing the bandages is overjoyed to find that he has a full head of hair. However, he soon starts to feel rather unwell over the coming hours and soon discovers that he has hair growing from other places on his body. Places that he really shouldn't be able to grow any hair...
The last segment is 'Eye' – where a baseball players (played by Mark Hamill) suffers an eye injury after he has a car accident. He signs up for an experimental new surgical procedure (these never end well do they?) and it seems to be a success. However, the replacement eye that he now belonged to a deceased serial killer and necrophile and it isn't long before he starts to believe that this murderer is slowly beginning to take control of his body.
Body Bags is probably best known for the cast list – and it does indeed contain a plethora of famous names. The film's two Directors - John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper both make appearances, as do Wes Craven and Sam Raimi. Tom Arnold, David Carradine, David Warner, Stacy Keach, Greg Nicotero, Debbie Harry, Twiggy, Roger Corman, Mark Hamill and John Agar. It's like the Blues Brothers of anthology horror. However, that insanely cool cast list aside, the reason the film deserves your attention is mainly because it's just a lot of fun. You expect fluctuations in quality with this format and although the three segments vary in tone and style a little, they are all pretty entertaining. The first segment, 'The Gas Station', is probably the best out of the three. It may be a little derivative but it's definitely the most frightening out of the three. It feels a bit like vintage Carpenter and that's always a treat. I'm a bit biased because I prefer slashers to body horrors (which is what segments 2 and 3 are) but everyone is going to have their own personal favourite. Body Bags doesn't really concern itself too much with any real overarching message. There is no real moral education on offer. They are just a joyful mix of black comedy and horror with some gore and light titillation thrown in for good measure. Horror nerds will get an extra kick out of it admittedly as the film is littered with references and horror icons but at the end of the day you don't need to have a knowledge of this era of horror to have a good time with this. So next time you want something a bit campy and undemanding, try and track this one down.
Fire in the Sky
(Directed by Robert Lieberman)
Ok look, 1993 was not the best year for horror movies, let's be frank. There were some interesting releases and a handful of very good ones but with a limited pool of choice, invariably there is going to be one that's not going to be a lot of peoples cup of tea. On that note, let me announce our fifth pick – Fire in the Sky!
Alien abduction was all the rage in America in the 60s and 70s and there are a number of high profile cases from that era. One such incident was the Travis Walton case, where a forestry worker named Travis Walton (obvs), claimed that he was abducted by aliens and returned to earth five days later. Fire in the Sky is based on this novel, although it's a bit more flashy and dramatic (ha, as if an alien abduction isn't dramatic enough!). So the film opens with Travis and some of his worker chums heading home from work in the Arizona mountains. However when they encounter what appears to be a UFO, Walton decides to get out and take a closer look (there's always one isn't there?) and is knocked back by a bright beam of light that shoots out from the UFO. His mates do what we'd all do when one of our friends was in serious danger – they get the hell out of there! One of them does go back to see if Walton is still there but when they can find no trace of him the gang head into town and tell the local Sheriff what happened. Of course, he doesn't believe them (you can't blame him really) and he begins an investigation with the suspicion that the group have killed their co-worker and are trying to fabricate some bullshit story. However, it soon becomes clear that maybe there's more to the case than he thinks...
Although Fire in the Sky is perhaps best known for its alien abduction scenes, it's actually as much of a psychological thriller as it is a sci-fi movie. Most of the tension in fact is between the human characters of the story and how they try to deal the disappearance of Travis Walton. With a limited budget, the decision to focus on the mystery of the case rather than bombard us with substandard effects and visuals works in the films favour. It sort of feels like a low-key episode of The X-Files, and that isn't meant as a criticism. For the first hour or so it is a rather patient movie, content to let the human dramas gradually unfurl against the backdrop of something otherworldly. The ordeal of the men who are falsely accused is almost as bad as that purportedly suffered by Walton on the alien spacecraft. And like the best episodes of Unsolved Mysteries, after you've seen Fire in the Sky, you will probably feel a strong urge to do some further reading on the case online.
However, as mentioned earlier, the reason that Fire in the Sky lingers in the memory of a lot of the people that have seen it is due to the intensely frightening alien abduction sequences, which populate the last twenty minutes of the film – when the film takes a sharp turn into sci-fi horror. Whether you believe any of this is true and actually happened is irrelevant in a way. Although initially Travis cannot remember what happened to him during the missing five days, his memories gradually start to return and with rather terrifying results. The aliens themselves, oh boy. They are of the small grey variety, the ones that often pop up on screen but these ones are particularly unsettling. They look like a cross between E.T. and a creepy old bald man. The effects are decent too but most of the true scares are straight up body horror nightmare when Travis is poked and probed by his captors. This prolonged event undoubtedly led to many sleepless night back in 93 when unassuming minds first watched it and it still packs a punch even today.
It'd be criminal not to mention the central performances too, which go a long way to making this something a level above your standard science fiction TV movie fare. D.B. Sweeney, Robert Patrick and Henry Thomas (from E.T.!) are all quite excellent. The film does end a bit too abruptly for my liking but it doesn't take away from the fact that this is something of a hidden gem and deserves a bit more recognition.