Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Creature (William Malone, 1985)

Shortly after Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979) exploded onto the screen, via John Hurt’s delicate rib cage of course, a range of knock-offs and homages flooded the market.  Works such as Galaxy of Terror (Bruce D. Clark, 1981), Xtro (Harry Bromley Davenport, 1983) and Forbidden World (Allan Holzman, 1982) are all arguabley influenced by Alien’s particular blend of industrial sci-fi and icky body invasion horror.  Of course horror and sci-fi are nothing new as the science fiction of the 1950s was almost entirely about the terrors found in space or said terrors finding their way to Earth.  Then there is Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965) which mixes gothic horror with science-fiction to a create an aesthetic that Alien built on considerably. Yet Alien’s popularity made producer’s realise there was gold to be mined here and so, like afterbirth, once Alien had entered the world out plopped the extra-terrestrial sci-fi horror knock-off.

In most cases these films riff on just elements of Alien (a similar plot device here, a creature design there) while generally upping the nudity/sleaze. Creature, on the other hand, pretty much scavanges everything it can. It looks, feels and plays like Alien far more than the others. This is not a bad thing.

Firstly, in order to mimic Alien, it actually required some production value. The opening explosion is a weak and the monster, when finally revealed, is a little bit shit.  But the film has some nice model work, an orchestral score, the sets are effective and the atmosphere created works really well.   

There is not one gore shot that looks cheap nor does the camera cut away denying us some satisfying gunge because it might stretch the budget. We get a decapitation, an exploding head, plenty of red wall splatter, a nice melty zombie and a whole face pulled off.

The performers are for the most part okay for this kind film, possibly even good. At least you think that is the case until an arse-grabbing Klaus Kinski turns up and shows them all how you really command the screen. Not only that, but it’s a rare example of Kinski being in a b-movie and actually having his own voice. His introduction livens the film up at a point that things could have started to become tiresome.

A lot of charm lies in the fact that the film is a budget version of Alien and, more importantly, knows it and as such it is not afraid to have a little fun. The opening three minutes telegraph the demise of two characters so much it is almost parodying the poor stupid monster fodder that get it so early on in these films.

It is also apparent that in order to save some money they raided Ben Burtt’s audio library. A very recognisable Star Wars blaster effect is used for spaceship engines, doors opening and closing and in one scene just sounds off in the background a couple of times for the sheer hell of it.  

There is a scene near the end that convinces me that not only did the film-makers know damn well they were capitalising on Alien's popularising of sci-fi horror, but that they didn’t really care because they knew that, as I said earlier, the sub-genre was at this point nothing new. The scene in question is where the surviving characters come up with their plan to destroy the monster. The plan itself is a direct lift from the third act of The Thing From Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). This is acknowledged, but not in a subtle way. Oh no, the way this plan is introduced is by the lead saying “Did anyone see that old film…”.  Yep, the character literally nicks the plan from another movie.

If you are looking for a version of Alien that isn’t quite as cheap as many of it’s imitators, but that still ups the gore and, more importantly, the fun, then I really recommend scouring the coolant filled service tunnels of the internet (well, Netflix) to hunt down Creature yourself.

Total Cults Podcast #58: Michael Winner

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Icons of the Overlooked #6: Kolchak: The Night Stalker

Kolchak: The Night Stalker shares similar conventions with most of the American detective shows of the seventies and eighties. Our lead character, Karl Kolchak, is a bit of an oddball with a unique fashion sense who drives an iconic car. Despite being a reporter for a small Chigaco newspaper he finds himself not only investigating murders but doing so more effectively than the Police. He often visits sources and high-flying suspects on their tennis courts, by their pools and in there stately homes, ruffling feathers and appearing dim-witted and bumbling but really digging out all the clues he needs with great efficiency. The show even had a catchy theme. It's all very Murder She Wrote/Columbo/Father Dowling Investigates.

Except for one minor detail: Kolchak investigates the supernatural. More specifically ghosts, demons, vampires, robots, aliens... you name it. The show essentially had a monster-of-the-week format and used it to its fullest.

Each week Kolchak is assigned a light fluffy story but uncovers anomalies that lead him to discovering the existence of some evil creature. His colleagues roll their eyes and the authorities want him out of the way (sometimes permanently) and so it falls to Kolchak to dispose of the beastie himself.

The main cast are superb with Darren McGavin excelling as Kolchak. Though not quite as disheveled and quirky as Columbo, McGavin's bow-legged Kolchak, ill-fitting blue suit draped in clattering recording equipment, stumbles and bullshits his way into all manner of dangerous situations pretty much pissing off everyone he meets. Kolchak strays off every story he is assigned much to the increasing annoyance of his boss, Tony Vincenzo (played by Simons Oakland). The friction between these two keeps the shows light but also warm as it becomes clear that Vincenzo doesn't hate Kolchak quite as much as he lets on.

Curiously, each episode featured a different Police official for Kolchak to annoy. This could have easily been a re-occurring character yet with one exception none of the Police chiefs return for a second episode. This is never referenced or explained and although the show boasted some impressive guest starts including Tom Bosley, Richard Kiel, Tom Skerritt and Phil Silvers, none of them took on this role. It is an odd creative choice but one that leads to some increasingly quirky authoritative characters for Kolchak to bounce off of.

If your show has a monster-of the week format you'll live or die on the quality of the monsters. The show was fairly ambitious at times although this occasionally outstretched the shows production as the dinosaur from The Sentry and the headless, samurai sword swinging biker from The Chopper (based on a story by Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale) can testify.

Yet for a TV show made in the mid-seventies the creatures were generally good, the Zombie being a particularly effective monster.

But it was not always the monster that made the episode. The Werewolf, for example, had a great contained set-up as a singles holiday cruise is besieged by an angry lycanthrope and although both the make-up and athletic performance of the actor are fine, the way in which the monster is shot becomes an issue. It's hard to take talk of how the creature “tore them limb from limb” seriously when all we see is a lot of wide shots of the creature just shoving stuntmen into nice stage falls. Yet the episode is crammed with the snappy dialogue and, most importantly, the balancing of contrasting tones the show managed so well.

The Ripper is also an episode I rate quite highly. Kolchak stumbles across Jack the Ripper in modern day Chicago. This ripper, however, is no mere English gentleman. He possess superhuman strength and near invulnerability showcased in a scene where the Ripper leaps from a rooftop into a squad of police officers and beats the crap out of them. Unlike The Werewolf, the action here is handled superbly managing to make the scene seem violent without showing a drop of blood.

My favourite episode is the Jimmy Sangster scripted Horror in the Heights. In a Jewish part of town hapless victims are being killed, seemingly by people they know, swastikas are being spray painted on the streets all coinciding with the opening of an Indian restaurant. It's an intriguing story with a proper monster.

Originally two TV movies, the show then went onto become a full series, yet it was cancelled after only twenty episodes. Its influence, however, has been significant primarily as it was the source of inspiration for the X-Files. It doesn't get repeated much and it's not hard to see why. This is a proper horror series that goes to some dark places pretty much excluding it from daytime viewing yet it's still too light to make a splash in any post-watershed slot. A new version of the show aired in 2005 but was cancelled after only six episodes.

The original, however, is well worth your time. Don't get me wrong, it's not a lot more than good fun but as a work of genre television it deserves a little more attention. So if you're at home during the day and are a little bored with watching Angela Landsbury bumble her way through another vanilla murder then get yourself a copy of Kolchak: The Night Stalker and watch a day-time detective take on a swamp monster.