Nightbeast (1982)

The opening twenty minutes of Nightbeast may very well be my favorite movie ever made. The other hour is pretty decent too. This $14k regional cheapie wastes no time trying to win its audience over, immediately flooding the screen with gorgeous D.I.Y. nightbeast action in a way that promises a nonstop low-fi special effects showcase. An incredible combo of collage animations & hand-built miniatures stage a spaceship crash in the forested wilderness outside Baltimore. The titular alien beast emerges from his wrecked ship with a raygun in hand and commences vaporizing all cops & townies in his path, revealing Looney Tunes body outlines where their corpses should be. Crosscuts between disembodied handguns firing and nightbeast reaction shots alternate at a strobelight pace. When not vaporizing victims in The Arrival-style animation effects, the nightbeast tears open their torsos with his giant claw, leaving a trail of post-Romero intestinal gore. It’s an incredible opening that’s extremely light on dialogue and extremely heavy on nightbeast. Then the creature loses his raygun and the movie loses its immediacy, slipping into a much more familiar mode of microbudget genre storytelling.

Once Nightbeast settles into constructing a plot, it isn’t sure what to do with itself, so it instead opts out in a way many late-70s, early-80s creature features did: lifting its story wholesale from Jaws. Despite protests from the town sheriff and the local science community, the grandstanding mayor of the small town the where the nightbeast crashed refuses to cancel a fundraising party & evacuate the city, putting his citizenry at unnecessary risk. There’s also a local, unrelated threat from a misogynist biker who strangles women who reject his sexual advances. Oh yeah, and the sheriff makes sensual love with one of his deputies. That’s it, at least until the nightbeast re-emerges for one final outburst of explosions & gore in the third “act.” It’s clear that local microbudget legend Don Dohler and his crew at the aptly titled Amazing Film Productions (including an early “music by” co-credit for a teenage J.J. Abrams) poured almost all of their money & effort into that bewildering first reel, gambling that the opening spectacle would be enough to carry the hour of comedown filler that follows. They weren’t wrong! There’s plenty of typical B-movie charm to the concluding hour of Nightbeast to maintain a goodwill for the cheap-o production on the whole, and then its final outburst of D.I.Y. practical effects spectacle is just enough to freshen your memory that it started off as an all-timer of a creature feature.

I’m a habitual sucker for this kind of communal “Let’s put on a show!” D.I.Y. filmmaking, and that enthusiasm for no-budget genre films may be required at the door to love this frontloaded frivolity for what it is. Despite featuring more sexual sleaze & gross-out gore than either camp (not to mention frequent John Waters player George Stover), this plays as a very wholesome middle ground between 1950s drive-in filler and Matt Farley’s regional horror comedies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!. The titular nightbeast spills a lot of blood & viscera in this small Maryland town, but in lingering close-ups he’s so charmingly quaint that I can’t help but think of him as a harmless cutie (especially in comparison with the grotesque serial-strangler subplot). Most audiences would be understandably frustrated with the way the film slips into Jaws-riffing tedium after the alien beast loses his spectacular cop-melting raygun, but I personally didn’t mind the cooldown too, too much. If anything, the go-nowhere melodrama in the second act and the final-minutes return to the initial spectacle provided context as to just how cheap this production really was, only making those opening twenty minutes more incredible in retrospect. The ambition of that opening is must-see trash cinema excellence, whether or not you find the more pedestrian hour that follows as charming as I do.

-Brandon Ledet

Not of this Earth. Not Now, Not Ever.

One of my favorite recurring themes in Roger Corman’s career as a producer is his self-cannibalization. Never one to waste a dime, Corman would often pilfer his own back-catalog of hundreds of B-pictures to help the next cheap-o production across the finish line. Sets, footage, dialogue, premises, talent: nothing was sacred from Corman’s shrewdly frugal tactics of recycling his own work. If shooting wrapped early on a production in an interesting enough locale, an entire new film would be staged there over the course of a weekend. If a major Hollywood studio took direct influence from his work (Jaws, Jurassic Park, Gremlins), he would shrug it off by making his own mockbuster version of that big budget knockoff (Piranha, Carnosaur, Munchies). Of course, Corman also liked to borrow Hollywood’s own favorite form of self-cannibalization as well: the needless remake. There have been multiple television series over the years specifically created so that Roger Corman The Producer could pilfer Roger Corman The Director’s back-catalog for remake fodder, squeezing new money & new audiences out of old work. Usually, these remakes would be of minor throwaway titles that never made a splash to begin with, such as the 1990s Rebel Highway TV series that reimagined his 1950s road-to-ruin teen pictures with an updated soap opera sheen. Corman has been much more careful with his unimpeachable classics – especially in his reluctance to remake titles from his much-beloved Poe Cycle in fear of zapping them of their Vincent Price magic. That reluctance makes me wonder if Corman really knew how special his 1957 space-invasion cheapie Not of This Earth truly was, as it’s been inferiorly remade twice under the Corman production umbrella despite quietly premiering one of his best directorial works.

The original Not of This Earth falls squarely in the microbudget end of Corman’s career, one of the earliest sci-fi pictures in his gloriously imperfect oeuvre. At only 67 minutes in length, the film was sold as the bottom half of a 1957 double bill with Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters, which has a far more enduring legacy thanks to its memorable creature design. The central villain of Not of This Earth has a killer hook as a bloodthirsty vampire from outer space, but everything about his design is squarely milquetoast – intentionally so. Dressed like a G-Man (or a Blues Brother) in a fedora & sunglasses business-suit combo, the space-vampire of Not of This Earth speaks in emotionless monotone. Robbing the traditional vampire myth of its sexuality, he drains his victims of their blood via a briefcase device instead of sucking their necks. The flashiest onscreen threat arrives in a brief sequence where the space-vamp deploys a flying umbrella-shaped alien face-sucker to dispose of a victim, the only bizarre-o creature effect on display. Everything else onscreen is a lowkey creepout that borders on ineffective kitsch: whiteout eye contacts, voiceover hypnotism, and a menacing briefcase lined with blood. What’s most impressive about Not of This Earth is how entertaining it still manages to be as a B-picture without relying on a rubber monster costume or prurient sexuality (not that those can’t be fun for their own sake). Corman’s better respected as a producer than a director in most circles, but it really is remarkable how much he was able to squeeze out of this limited budget & shooting schedule. Not of This Earth is little more than a thinly veiled Communist Invasion allegory (the space-vampire’s G-Man appearance & description as “some kind of foreigner” make that metaphor as blatant as possible) made to feel larger in scale thanks to sci-fi babble about alien planets & evaporated blood, yet it’s a solid B-picture through & through. If its not one of Corman’s best directorial efforts, it’s at least an early telegraph of the excellent work that was to come (especially X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).

It’s understandable, then, why fellow schlockteur Jim Wynorski might be tempted to repeat that early-career success while working under Corman’s tutelage in the 1980s. Wynorski himself is known for directing over a hundred films as cheaply & quickly as humanly possible, so it’s no surprise that he got his start under the Corman brand. Wynorski happened to watch a print of Not of This Earth while working for Corman, which delighted him enough to inspire a bet among friends: that he cold remake the same film on the same schedule & budget – two weeks and $100,000. He satisfied that bet admirably in that he did direct a Not of This Earth remake under the original’s same constraints, but by doing so he delivered a far inferior product. Wynorski was exactly the wrong man for the job. Something of a softcore pornographer, he robs Not of This Earth of its barebones, asexual alien invasion thrills by recreating the earlier film’s exact plot & dialogue but padding out its runtime with basic cable boobies-ogling. The 1988 Not of This Earth is the exact same film as the 1950s version except in color, bloated with unsexy softcore titilation, and sorely missing the flying umbrella monster. Whereas Corman’s film proudly worked within its means to entertain on a B-picture budget, Wynorski’s remake continually apologizes for its own blatant cheapness. Not only does it needlessly pad its runtime with Skinemax-level strip-teases, it also self-cannibalizes Corman’s back-catalog in the most egregious manner possible: showing a highlight reel of better-funded movies with amazing creature effects in its opening credits so that the audience is duped into expecting a much more substantial picture than what ultimately arrives. I’ve seen that kind of false advertising on posters & VHS covers before but doing it in the actual movie itself feels like some next-level hucksterism. The only truly brilliant decision Wynorski made was hiring Traci Lords for her first mainstream role after leaving porn to study method acting at The Lee Strasberg Institute. Unfortunately, Lords provides the film’s only entertaining performance and, since her presence made for good press, boosted the remake’s notoriety above the superior original’s – which is a total shame.

Shockingly, the made-for-Showtime remake of Not of This Earth wasn’t half-bad, at least by comparison. This time the decision to remake the film came from Corman himself. Desperate for titles to fill out the slate for the Showtime series Roger Corman Presents (a horror anthology comprised of standalone features), Corman decided to throw in a few remakes of his lesser-known works, careful not to tarnish the classics. Roger Corman Presents started filming in January of 1992 and wrapped production of 13 feature films by June of that same year, so there wasn’t much room for mind-blowing quality or ingenuity on the slate. Still, the series’ Not of This Earth remake at least indicates that it’s one of the better examples of its ilk – surpassing similar series like Rebel Highway, Masters of Horror, Fear Itself, etc. Director Terence H. Winkless (best known for the gross-out creature feature The Nest and the original Americanized run of The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers) takes a much more interesting approach in his remake than Wynorski – keeping the dialogue overlap much looser in its exactness and padding out the runtime with practical monster effects instead of basic cable stripteases. I don’t know that 1992’s Not of This Earth is a great movie, at least not when compared to the original, but it at least leans into its strengths as an alien invasion cheapie. Winkless’s interpretation of the film is less akin to classic Corman than it is a dime store knockoff of Cronenberg or an even cheaper version of Brian Yuzna’s aesthetic. Pulsating alien brains throb & light up in coital moans; sensual tentacles creep through the walls to suck on victims’ necks; the lead space-vamp writhes orgasmically while masturbating his own intestinal protrusions. It’s a gross-out horror cheapie in just the right way. It may mistakenly believe that the only reason the Corman original didn’t rely on over-the-top creature designs & nightmarish sexuality was budgetary, but at least its hideous monsters and even more hideous sex are more compelling than Wynorski’s eyeroll-worthy attempts at nudie-cutie titillation. Neither remake was necessary or revelatory, but this one delivers the genre goods.

I hope I’m not coming off as a prude here in my suggestion that the Not of This Earth remakes ruined the original’s entertainment value by flooding it with sex & gore. I wouldn’t watch dirt-cheap genre films like this in the first place if I were averse to sex & gore. I just find it illustrative of Corman’s creative talents when working under the mania of a tight schedule & budget that he can deliver something so memorable without relying on that prurience & bloodlust for cheap thrills. Both of the Not of This Earth remakes feel compelled to include throwaway touchstones from the original that have nothing to do with the plot: a side-character alien vampire becoming infected with rabies, a door-to-door vacuum salesman victim (who was so obviously written for Dick Miller that anyone else in the role can’t help but disappoint), a rambling monologue within which the space-vamp pontificates the cure for cancer as a casual musing, etc. Those throwaway gags would not have been echoed in both remakes if Corman weren’t onto something and I felt like we too often undervalue that creative voice while praising him for funding & supporting “better” directors. The original Not of This Earth is an excellent example of Corman at his most efficient & compelling in the 1950 drive-in era, but it isn’t until you see how much less satisfying that film’s modern-update remakes became that you truly understand how special he is. Few schlockteurs on his budget level could make such an entertaining horror cheapie out of a mysterious G-man carrying a briefcase around an unsuspecting town; the two directors who followed in those exact footsteps in these remakes didn’t even try – instead relying on monster effects & naked breasts for cheap-thrills convenience.

-Brandon Ledet

The Arrival (1980)

Lately, I’ve been finding myself increasingly fascinated with self-published outsider art. Discovering the insular communities of Matt Farley, Doris Wishman, Justin Decloux, and Don Dohler – each with their own endless back catalogs & stables of recurring players – is a thrilling alternative to the franchise filmmaking behemoths of modern mainstream cinema, where months of publicity & advertising can often make a film feel overly familiar before it even arrives to theaters. Finding something new that hasn’t already been talked to death in your online social circle takes a little obsessive crate-digging but can be intensely rewarding when you unearth something far out & exceptional. I daresay The Unarius Academy of Science is the most niche filmmaking community I’ve tapped into so far in this pursuit, something that worries me that I may have wandered off the ledge of our Flat Earth and fallen into the deep end of cult cinema. That’s not to say that I’ve personally discovered anything previously unseen or unexplored in Unarius. The Californian UFO cult has been publicly broadcasting their films to the world at large for nearly four decades solid now, something I discovered myself through one of many online articles detailing the history of their self-published propagandist cinema. Even if it was well-charted territory, though, something many Californians discovered themselves through public access broadcasts, there was something truly perverse & transgressive about ordering a Blu-ray copy of the cult’s most popular title directly from them that made me question whether this crate-digging impulse of hunting down niche outsider art was ultimately a healthy one. I feel like I’ve finally crossed a line here, not least of all because I was genuinely pleased by the product that arrived at my doorstep (accompanied by propaganda literature attempting to recruit me into the cult, naturally).

The first and most widely discussed film in the Unarius canon, The Arrival, is a brief hour-long religious manifesto that feels as if it lasts for a thousand past lives. As the film operates more as a meditative religious indoctrination piece than a traditional narrative entertainment, its sense of pacing is cosmically glacial – to the point where it almost triggers a genuinely psychedelic response. According to the Blu-ray cover, “A true story of the first contact with another world is reenacted by individuals reliving their past lives on the continent of Lemuria, 162,000 years ago.” We get no introductory establishment of what life in the fabled Lemuria was like before space alien contact the way we would in a more traditional narrative feature; instead we meet our caveman protagonist in the exact moment he confronts the crew of a UFO that lands before him in 160,000 B.C. It’s like the space alien equivalent of a Christian Passion play in that way, assuming the backstory & context of the event is well-known mythology for anyone who would be watching. The Arrival also subverts typical alien invasion narratives we’re used to in science fiction by making the alien force a calm, consciousness-raising source of enlightenment for the Lumerian caveman rather than evil, Earth-conquering warmongers. Dressed in bald caps & colorful religious robes, they trigger a spiritual epiphany within the caveman that allows him to recall “the past lives recorded in his spiritual body” that he cannot normally access in his physical form. From there, he confronts humanity’s follies of “ego, lust, and materialism” in a backwards trip through his soul’s thousands of years’ journey in various past lives. A brief detour into a past life where the caveman was a militaristic combatant on a Star Wars-type spaceship feels like a glimpse at more narratively traditional sci-fi story, but for the most part The Arrival is a meditative search for philosophical “truths.” It places much more emphasis on its walk & talk conversations with cult-leader Archangel Uriel than the caveman’s deep space laser battles, for instance, and it’s all the more fascinating for it.

If you’re not a member of the Unarius Academy of Science (and perhaps even if you are), the most immediately rewarding aspect of The Arrival is going to be the visual splendor of its handmade costumes & sets. The 2D-animated patchwork of the UFO, the regal space alien garb of Archangel Uriel, and the psychedelic screensaver flashes of its visualized spiritual awakening are the exact kind of high-ambition D.I.Y. effects work you’d most want to see from a sci-fi oddity on this scale & budget. Just don’t go into the film expecting to laugh at its camp value or to recoil in horror at its cult indoctrination tactics. This is an overall calming, meditative piece from what appears to be a relatively harmless UFO cult who claim to have achieved a supernatural level of spiritual enlightenment and have accidentally stumbled into making primo outsider cinema as a result. The serene, enlightened tone of the piece is alarmingly convincing; I could easily see myself being lured into its extratextual philosophy if I were stoned & lonely enough in the early 80s and caught this picture on late-night public access. As is, I already feel like I’m allowing The Uranius Academy of Science too much space in my head & wallet, as I’m tempted to order more of their films from their online store to get a better sense of their far-out filmmaking niche. I doubt one of these propaganda films will trigger a genuine trip into a spiritually recorded past life for me, but I took enough pleasure in its D.I.Y. microbudget craft & meditative energy that I’d like to further explore their back catalog anyway. Rarely does being lured into a hidden corner of “cult cinema” feel so literal & potentially unhealthy. It’s an impulse that’s making me question past decisions & current gluttony in my pop culture consumption, which in a roundabout way was The Arrival’s exact stated intent, so I suppose it’s a total success.

-Brandon Ledet

Captive State (2019)

I don’t know what the production or distribution history of the mid-budget alien invasion thriller Captive State indicates, but this seems to be a movie that no one really wants. Director Rupert Wyatt’s only major credit is a Planet of the Apes reboot released nearly a decade ago. The film itself feels like it wrapped production so long ago that it missed an opportunity to boost the screentime of single-scene actors who’ve blown up in the years since – Madeline Brewer (Cam) & KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) to be specific. Most damningly, it’s a film that’s near-impossible to market, as it’s an alien invasion thriller that’s more interested in the political machinations of humans surviving under intergalactic rule than it is in exploiting the commercial potential of its creature-feature payoffs. A smarter, artier movie like Arrival can get away with that kind of obfuscation, but cheap nerd-ass sci-fi like this generally needs to be more accommodating to wide audiences in its minute-to-minute payoffs. As a result, both pro-critic reviews and box office numbers have been tepid for this underdog sci-fi pic, which has essentially been orphaned by its marketing & distributor. It’s a shame too, since Captive Sate is actually a solid little sci-fi thriller for anyone with an enthusiastic interest in the alien invasion genre.

The reason I say a little sci-fi nerd cred is required to fully engage with the film is that Captive Sate is much more adept at action set pieces & world-building lore than it is at dialogue or meaningful pathos. Set nearly a decade after first contact with invading alien species, the film is set in a post-apocalypse Chicago that’s politically torn between acceptance & resistance. Few characters are allowed any nuance as the film sketches out the two warring factions: a marshal law surveillance state government (represented mostly through John Goodman as a fascist brute) and an underground resistance aiming to topple it (represented by Moonlight’s Ashton Sanders as a low-level street hustler). The movie isn’t especially interested in the emotions or political maneuvers of their personal struggle, though, despite their unlikely social bond that bridges the gap between both sides of the civil war. It’s much more interested in establishing a larger “off-the-grid” future defined by analog equipment like wiretaps, reel to reel recorders, vinyl records, polaroid cameras, in-print newspapers, and carrier pigeons. Nothing typifies this old-world future better than the bird-swarm murmurations of surveillance drones that flutter throughout the city, keeping citizens in line with the threat of facial recognition tech. So much thought went into that establishment of a lived-in world and the political clash & chase scenes staged within it that very little time was left for establishing fleshed-out characters, which is something you just have to be okay with to get on its wavelength,

So what, exactly, is Captive State trying to say with all of this world-building & freshman-year Poli Sci pontification? Its major theme seems to be a contrast between active political resistance & mindless cooperation. Although the roach-like alien beasts (who feel like cousins to the space-bugs of Starship Troopers) are largely off-screen, their presence is felt in the submission & cooperation of a human government that cows to their intergalactic authority. As the film focuses on real-world issues like facial recognition software and exponential wealth disparity over defining the players in that conflict, it does appear to have a “Silence is complicity” ethos when it comes to living under the fascist rule of modern ills like The Trump Administration. It establishes a world where “You must pick a side,” having no patience for the cowardice of political apathy. More practically, the world it establishes is essentially just a playground where it can execute carefully-considered thriller sequences: the surgical body horror of tracking device removal, the heist-planning rhythms of a political assassination, a few spare moments of creature-feature confrontation, endless police chases, etc. I may have a few minor quibbles with its paper-thin characterizations (mainly, how it manages to have immensely talented women like KiKi Layne, Madeline Brewer, and Vera Farmiga on staff, but for some reason affords much more dialogue & screentime to dudes as lowly & uninteresting as Machine Gun Heckin’ Kelly than all of them combined), but I was mostly on board with the picture as a nerd-ass, overly serious sci-fi thriller. It’s just a shame it couldn’t also inspire that enthusiasm in its own distributor.

-Brandon Ledet

Imitation Girl (2018)

I knew I was in trouble with Imitation Girl just a few minutes in, when an alien species crash-lands on Earth through a hole in the atmosphere. I’m usually very forgiving when it comes to effects work in small budget independent films, but there was just something clumsy & unsatisfying about the CGI space hole that opens in that moment. A movie about a shapeshifting space alien that takes the form of an actress it discovers on a magazine cover, Imitation Girl should be an eerie sci-fi creep-out, but the functional flatness of the way its crash-landing is rendered has all the atmospheric dread of a Sharknado sequel. Given that the actress the alien mirrors is a porn star, the film also suggests that it might have something substantial to say about identity & sex work, but it shies away from that topic in an almost bashful manner. In fact, Imitation Girl comes across super squeamish about depicting sex at all, almost to the point where it seems sex-negative about mainstream pornography as an industry. It’s a sci-fi horror film that’s reluctant to horrify, a movie about sex that’s afraid of eroticism. A more tonally intense, better crafted film could get away with those withholding impulses, but this one’s student-film flatness is too lacking in sensory pleasures to also lack those genre-specific payoffs.

What imitation Girl lacks in sexual courage & tonal intensity, it somewhat makes up for in the unpredictability of its storytelling. Not being in tune with the typical payoffs of the sci-fi horror genre allows for some surprising turns in the narrative. The doppelganger space alien does not immediately seek a confrontation with the woman whose image it cloned. It instead stumbles through the desert like an intergalactic Nell until it’s rescued by an Iranian family, who attempt to communicate with it in both Persian & English until it learns enough social skills to be able to navigate the world on its own. Meanwhile, the porn star struggles with her own confidence in independence – unsure of her profession, her choice in lovers, and her under-the-table involvement in low-level drug deals. As the audience alternates between the porn star & her space alien doppelganger, there’s sometimes a few seconds’ lag in being able to tell which version of actress ­­ we’re currently watching. It establishes a calm, unrushed rhythm in fluctuating between these two identities that’s sometimes broken by a jolting shift in reality – whether though a mirror functioning as a window or a kaleidoscopic return to the alien’s outer space roots. That’s a unique approach to genre filmmaking, although one that invites the mind to wander.

There are a couple stray elements of pure-horror at play that suggest Imitation Girl is attempting to function as an eerie sci-fi creep-out – especially in its arrhythmic strings score & early scenes of the alien doppelganger stumbling through the desert in jerky, inhuman contortions. Mostly, though, it’s a film about an identity crisis that’s having an identity crisis of its own. It wants to generate terror in the mysterious arrival of its space-alien double, but mostly leaves that journey on the backburner as the porn star goes about her daily business – stalling the alien’s story with the Iranian family for an overwhelming portion of the movie. The film wants to evoke the specificity of the mainstream porn industry to provide its central identity crisis some texture, but it’s too timid to evoke the eroticism (or terror) monetized by that trade. Its engagement with pornography as a topic comes across as remarkably old-fashioned as a result – both in its assumption that the audience finds it inherently demeaning & evil and, on a more practical level, in how it resembles a version of porno production that’s mostly faded from practice in the latest two decades. Most of the reason Imitation Girl is open for the occasional jarring surprise (Lewis Black appears in a single-scene cameo as a drug kingpin?!) is that it’s too delicately handled in its central topics for the audience to not be distracted by stray, incongruous details.

The most damming thing about Imitation Girl’s ineffectiveness is how much better its basic themes are covered in other recent sci-fi horror films. Its femme space alien identity crisis recalls the gorgeous, bone-deep creep-out of Under the Skin. Its sex worker doppelganger crisis recalls the sexed-up cyberthriller vibes of Cam. All Imitation Girl can do is surprise in its deviations from the expectations set by those contemporaries. Unfortunately, those deviations mostly arrive in its tonal & sexual timidity and its deployment of SyFy Channel-level CGI.

-Brandon Ledet

Drive-in Era Genre Efficiency in The Earth Dies Screaming (1964)

Accessibility to a wide range of movie & television options in the online steaming era has made freedom of choice to be something of an overwhelming burden. There’s too much media to watch and not nearly enough time to even to distinguish which titles are worth the effort. This constant deluge of “content” has created a fascinating attention span phenomenon in the modern media consumer. We’ve reached a cultural paradox where audiences are reluctant to venture to the theater for a three hour film with a serious topic, but will happily binge dozens of hours of a mediocre television show on Netflix or Hulu merely for the convenience of its availability. Genre filmmakers & schlock peddlers of old have dealt with this exact attention span problem in the past, especially when they were catering to the teenage numbskulls who packed drive-in theaters to make out & party in the 1950s & 60s. In the modern streaming era, drive-in schlock has once again become a pertinent form of entertainment. Not only are many films of that era now available for easy (although frequently illegal) access on sites like YouTube; they’re also short & to the point. With over-the-top premises engineered to grab dumb teens’ attention in titles like Billy the Kid vs. Dracula & Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, these films would typically stretch out only to an hour in length a piece, so that they could easily be stacked in a drive-in double bill. The convenience of being able to watch a goofy, high concept horror in an hour’s time is just as appealing now as it is likely was for anxious-to-neck teens half a century ago. You could gobble down an entire feature in the same amount of time it would take to watch a single episode of Stranger Things (and one that would require about the same amount of brain power).

The problem with a lot of drive-in era schlock, of course, is that the films themselves are often far more dull than what’s promised in their advertising. Old school genre film promoters lived & died by the ethos that it was far more important to get eyes on the screen (and, thus, cash in the register) than it was to deliver a high quality product. Many films with an eye-catching title & a killer poster would stop short when it came to actually entertaining audiences, since their job was already done before the first reel spun. Much like the majority of modern straight-to-streaming movies & television, a lot of drive-in fare was lazy & disposable. Their sixty minute runtimes make them much easier to dig through for the gems than most other eras of genre film entertainment, however, and there were plenty of high quality schlock titles that fully delivered on the promise of their attention-grabbing advertising. I can’t think of a better example of efficient, attention-holding drive-in schlock than the 1964 British export The Earth Dies Screaming. At 62 minutes in length, The Earth Dies Screaming succinctly packs at least three sci-fi horror premises into a single genre picture. It’s a cheap production that effectively conveys the scale of a global threat to humanity while only staging its events in a small studio lot section of London. Without narration or montage, it barrels through a series of paranormal obstacles for its small cast of characters to overcome, only to move the goalposts for victory at every possible opportunity. Its violence is mostly implied, yet its effect is genuinely chilling. As convenient as the movies are to watch, most drive-in schlock admittedly doesn’t bother to deliver a decent picture that lives up to the strength of its advertising; The Earth Dies Screaming somehow delivers three in a single, succinct package.

The film opens similarly to 28 Days Later, with its main protagonist roaming London as seemingly the only human left alive. Lifeless bodies are strewn about city streets as planes, trains, and automobiles crash in stock footage spectacle without navigators. The camera pans up to the sky for a dramatic title reveal in enormous block letters: THE EARTH DIES SCREAMING. Eventually, our square-jawed American hero finds fellow British survivors emerging from the wreckage. As a group, they search TV & radio signals for answers, finding only static & the hum of a strange, menacing tone. There’s little dialogue in this earliest sequence, until the group deduces that the lifeless victims outside have suffered an attack of weaponized gas, the source of which they speculate on without much evidence. Just as they come to a conclusion on what knocked out the first wave of victims, space alien robots arrive to sweep the streets for survivors, whom they incapacitate with a single gentle touch. When the majority of the survivors escape the fate of the alien robots, the robots then raise their dead as zombie drones with whited-out eyes to complete the mission. These individual obstacles don’t even cover the off-screen aliens who are deploying these threats or the mysterious signals being broadcast over television & radio waves. The Earth Dies Screaming doesn’t even devote energy to explaining what happens next after its in-the-moment crisis is solved immediately before the end credits. It just keeps its head down & throws every monstrous evil it can conjure at the screen, any one of which could have been developed into its on individual double-bill filler.

The most impressive aspect of The Earth Dies Screaming‘s genre film efficiency is how it finds the space to allow its central mystery to breathe. Its hour-long runtime is packed tightly with a wide range of villainous monsters, yet its pace is not at all rushed. In the classic Twilight Zone tradition, characters are allowed plenty stage play dialogue to ponder the possibilities of what alien force is planning their doom. The movie is disinterested in these characters as individuals, saving time by boiling them down to archetypes: the American Hero, the pregnant damsel, the uptight aristocrat Brit, the common thief, etc. By skipping in-depth characterization, it allows for unsettling questions to linger between the physical threats of the robots & their zombies. Was it actually a gas that triggered this crisis? What is the signal being broadcast on the radio supposed to signify? Are the characters already dead & navigating some kind of purgatory? Who is their true enemy? It even telegraphs some of the paranoid in-fighting of John Carpenter’s The Thing; the characters viciously bicker in distrust of each other as they fight a common enemy they cannot see.

From the design of its robot monsters to the eerie sounds of its ambient Elisabeth Lutyens score, The Earth Dies Screaming is shockingly well-made for a production of its scale & budget. What makes it a significant work, though, is its ability to cram three movies’ worth of entertainment into the space of an hour. Whether you’re a 1960s teen hoping for extra minutes of smooching after you leave the drive-in or a 2010s serial streamer pressed for time to take it all in, there’s a tremendous value to that kind of genre film efficiency. I’ve watched entire seasons of television with fewer ideas than this film conveys in its first half hour and I greatly appreciate that it doesn’t hang around for too much longer after it gets them across.

-Brandon Ledet

How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2018)

If asked in 2001 to envision what John Cameron Mitchell’s follow-up to his break-out debut Hedwig and the Angry Inch might look like, it’s doubtful anyone would have conjured the tender orgy of 2006’s Shortbus or the morbid melodrama of 2010’s Rabbit Hole. Most predictions of a John Cameron Mitchell career trajectory would likely have been closer to his fourth & most recent feature How to Talk to Girls at Parties: a jubilant, musically-charged mess of bisexual, youthful rebellion that’s half theatre-kid earnestness & half no-fucks-given punk. Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s (incredibly short) short story of the same name, How to Talk to Girls at Parties finds John Cameron Mitchell crafting his own Velvet Goldmine vision of pop excess, except set in England’s early-stages punk scene, years after the demise of the glam scene lauded in Todd Haynes’s film. Like with Velvet Goldmine, it’s proven critically divisive for its efforts, particularly in its wild tonal swings & willingness to indulge itself in the novelty joys of its setting as its whims dictate. That may not be an approach that earns unanimous praise form professional critics, who tend to overvalue logical storytelling & tonal control in assessments of films’ supposedly objective value & success. It is an approach that’s much more in line with Hedwig than any of Mitchell’s other subsequent works, however, and it feels great to have him back in his original role as a raucous, unapologetically queer prankster, a musical theatre provocateur.

Three idiotic teenage boys on the early British punk scene fail to balance their political ideals with their raging libidos. They preach anarcho, egalitarian sensibilities in their notebook doodles & fanzines, but also overcompensate for the embarrassment of their virginity by openly leering at their female comrades & grotesquely referring to them as “proper gash.” These juvenile punk scene fuckboys are shaken out of their sexual & ideological comfort zones by the arrival of body-snatching space aliens, who conveniently blend right in with the out-there weirdos who already populate their social circle. From there, the film evolves into a double-edged fish-out-of-water comedy. The boys learn sexual empathy & autonomy in their first meaningful interactions with the opposite end of the gender spectrum, not realizing that they’re fraternizing with beings from another planet. For their part, the aliens challenge their own sexual & autonomous norms by living like humans for a weekend, not realizing that the punk rock sample population they’ve chosen to emulate are far from the norm. This sci-fi culture clash can manifest in exchanges as profound as intergalactic fertilization & internal revelations of evolving sexual identity or in humor as minor as awkward phrases like “Do more punk to me,” & “How do I further access the punk?” The tone can alternate from absurdist comedy to sci-fi & sexual body horror and back again multiple times within a scene, even occasionally venturing off for a musical theatre emotional burst to break up its typical punk scene soundscapes. It’s a total mess but also a consistent, highly specific joy that’s even inaccurately conveyed by its inevitable 1:1 comparison with Velvet Goldmine. It’s a singular novelty worth cherishing both for and despite its faults.

As soon as the horned-up teen-virgin punks unwittingly invade the brightly-colored lair of the visiting alien colonies, it’s obvious they’re in way over their heads. Even if they find the sex they’re looking for, the aliens’ butt-plug high heels, glowing sphincter lights, sack-shaped hammocks, and high-tech sex swings suggest a dayglo S&M universe far beyond the naïve punks’ comprehension. How to Talk to Girls at Parties’s best quality is how well it replicates that same in-over-your-head pleasure in its audience. The film’s future-kink set design, punk needle drops, irreverent culture-clash humor, and performances by indie scene heavyweights Elle Fanning (as a babe-in-the woods alien rebel) & Nicole Kidman (as a parodic Vivienne Westwood knockoff) are all intoxicating pleasures that readily distract from the fact that Mitchell has greedily bitten off more than any human could possibly chew, only to spit the overflow into the air in defiance to tastefulness. The miracle is that the spell is only occasionally broken by a stray clunky punchline or choice in choppy music video frame-rate before you’re made to feel drunk by delirium-inducing indulgences all over again. All of John Cameron Mitchell’s films have merit, but they’re only ever this enjoyable when they’re clearly having fun. This is the filmmaking equivalent of bedroom-dancing; Mitchell’s best asset is his ability to amuse himself as if no one else is watching. I imagine this film will find the right 2010s teens and steal their hearts the way Hedwig stole minded in early aughts, critical consensus be damned. The earnestness, unashamed silliness, performative rebellion, and sexual id are all too potent for the film to not break through to someone. I’m jealous of whoever gets that experience with this film, as seeing it made me nostalgic for when I did the same back in ’01.

-Brandon Ledet

Evils of the Night (1985)

At the center of every early 80s slasher is a self-contradictory attitude towards sex. As a genre, slashers are obsessed with teenage horniness. However, they also reinforce old-fashioned values towards sexuality by punishing teen libidos with swift deaths, usually before the desire is consummated. The slasher is an evolution of the classic “road to ruin” exploitation picture in that way, allowing its audience to indulge in the thrill of young people (especially women) misbehaving, only to be brutally punished for the transgression. The 1985 sci-fi horror Evils of the Night starts as a brilliant subversion of that prudish, self-contradictory moralism. Evils of the Night begins the way most slashers do: gawking at teens as they make love in the woods, then are attacked by a mysterious, masked assailant. What’s different is how far the violence-inciting lovemaking goes. Implied cunnilingus & a young woman licking her male partner’s chest hairs immediately indicate that Evils of the Night is willing to push its prurient obsession with teenage horniness beyond the sheepish boundaries of the typical slasher. Then the young dummies start fucking, like, for real. The sex is likely simulated, but it is graphic, falling an insertion shot short of hardcore pornography. A dimwitted teen is still choked to death by an off-screen killer mid-coitus, so the movie easily qualifies as a genuine slasher specimen. It’s also a softcore porno, though, one where 80s pornstar Amber Lynn is joined by the likes of aged television personalities John Carradine, Julie Newmar (Catwoman), and Tina Louise (Ginger, of Gilligan’s Island). And as if that weren’t enough bizarro energy for a 74 minute horror cheapie, the movie is also overrun with 1950s-style space aliens, just because.

On Wikipedia, Evils of the Night is listed as a “science fiction/porno horror” hybrid. This is technically accurate, but it’s difficult to say if any one of the three genres listed in that descriptor are fully satisfied by the film as a finished product. The first half of Evils of the Night is a delightful novelty. Most cheap horror films are usually criticized for having porn-level acting & sets anyway, so it’s oddly refreshing to see one follow through on that (usually unintended) atmosphere. Suntanned idiots pound cheap beer & skinny-dip in a secluded campsite lake while an 80s pop music soundtrack inanely rattles, “Boys will be boys, that’s how they’ll always be.” The only thing that feels out of place is that the genre’s juvenile fixation on naked breasts is dragged out to an absurd length, to the point where two girls are sensually rubbing suntan lotion on each other’s areolas in a display of true, helpful friendship. This gaggle of horned-up teen idiots are incrementally thinned out by elderly garage mechanics in ski masks, who abduct them in small batches and sell them alive to a nearby “hospital” run by space aliens who trade gold coins for teen blood. The sci-fi costuming of the hospital nursing staff looks like an Atomic Age diner-themed strip club uniform, but the nurses themselves never get in on the lurid sex action enjoyed by the pre-abducted teens (outside some mild lesbian caresses). Instead, they shoot stun gun laser beams out of their space alien finger rings and await orders from the bombshell doctor in charge (Newmar), as if this were a colorized Ed Wood picture instead of a slasher-spoofing “porno horror.” Unfortunately, the two halves of the film, the sex slasher and the retro sci-throwback, never converge with any satisfaction. Instead, the movie is seemingly zapped of all its energy (and budget) midway through and wastes an alarming portion of its runtime in the wicked mechanics’ garage, patiently waiting for the credits to roll.

The first shot of Evils of the Night is an impressive special effects display of a UFO landing in the woods, teasing a grand sci-fi spectacle the movie has no intention to deliver. By the time you realize the entire third act is going to be staged in an unadorned garage, however, it becomes clear that special effects footage was lifted from a better-funded production. Had the sci-fi portion of the film led to the hospital staff’s grotesque practical effects transformations into alien beasts it could have made a substantial mark as a late-right cult film oddity. Instead, it drops the two things that make it notable as a variation on the slasher genre (the aliens and the sex) and concludes with two greasy creeps wielding phallic industrial drills, a display we’ve seen pulled off before (and better) in titles like Slumber Party Massacre & Body Double. It’s almost bizarre enough in that opening, pornographic stretch to make the third act’s doldrums worthwhile, though. Evils of the Night only becomes bland once it stops having sex and starts playing its straight-forward slasher beats as if they were inherently interesting on their own. With a more punched-up conclusion (either through space alien transformations or more lakeside skin-lotioning) it could have been a midnight movie classic. Instead, it’s the kind of midnight movie that starts as perversely thrilling, then puts you to sleep halfway through.

-Brandon Ledet

Evolution (2001)

Sometimes, your heroes let you down. And sometimes, you’re not really “let down” per se, and the person’s not really a hero, he just directed some of the most formative films of your childhood. Ivan Reitman has made a lot of films, from the classic (Ghostbusters, Stripes) to the mediocre (Ghostbusters II, Twins) to the well received but essentially forgotten (Dave, Legal Eagles) to the infamously bizarre (Junior) to the simply infamous (Six Days, Seven Nights) and the simply bad (My Super Ex-Girlfriend), and even a personal favorite (Kindergarten Cop). But the truth is, as he has aged, he hasn’t grown much or matured, and nowhere it that more evident than in the 2001 flop Evolution. It’s a piece of shit.

Starring David Duchovny as Dr. Ira Kane, a disgraced former military scientist reduced to teaching biology at an Arizona community college, Evolution concerns the arrival of a meteor bearing life forms which rapidly evolve from blue ooze to worms before branching out into monstrous versions of seals, dragons, primates, and such strange beings as carnivorous trees and giant insects. His best friend is Harry Block: professor of geology, women’s volleyball coach, and deliverer of painful one-liners. They arrive at the location of the meteor crash, bluff their way into taking over the site from the local police, and meet Wayne (Seann William Scott), a firefighting cadet whose car was destroyed by the falling space rock. Of course, then the real military shows up, led by General Woodman (Ted “Buffalo Bill” Levine), with scientific advisor Dr. Alison Reed (Julianne Moore). There’s rivalry between the two groups, revelations about Kane’s past failures that resulted in his discharge, and romance! It’s terrible!

Outside of Christian propaganda, I have never in my life seen a movie that was so out of touch with its era and so obviously trapped within the sensibilities of the past. This movie is so sexist and gross, y’all. When it first surfaces, one’s initial reaction is to kind of laugh at it in how dated it is. Like: Reed’s a lady doctor, but she has to be a fucking klutz so she doesn’t come off as threatening to the fragile male audience and their avatar Kane (supposedly this was Moore’s idea, but that smells of the shit of the bull to me). Block and Kane meet her for the first time, with little interaction at all, and then Block spends the rest of the movie egging Kane on to just hit that already, sometimes in non-consecutive scenes that do not feature her appearing between them at all. She’s even subjected to listening to Kane describe her over the radio as a frigid bitch in an overlong monologue as her male colleagues stand around and laugh and make faces at each other like, “He’s right though, eh?” That’s not even getting into the appearance of poor Sarah Silverman acting as Kane’s ex-girlfriend (she’s ten years younger) in a diner where Kane belittles her in front of her new boyfriend about the shirts she never returned (haha?) that is essentially an excuse for Silverman to have to take her top off in a restaurant. And let’s not forget Block’s student Nadine, a woman whose only goal is to pass Geology so that she can get into her nursing program, not because she wants to help people but because appearing to want to help people will give her an edge in some beauty pageant, or the suburban women who find a monster in a pantry and want to make it a pet. Women, am I right? It’s unbelievable how mean-spirited the whole thing feels.

I can’t remember the first essay or article that first brought the underlying pro-Reaganomics anti-government themes of Ghostbusters to my attention; it’s been repeated and bandied about the internet for so long that it would be impossible to track down the originator of that reading (I’d wager it was someone over at Cracked though). But once you see it, you can’t unsee it. For the uninitiated: Ghostbusters can be read as a pro-capitalist text in which Our Heroes are underdogs providing a necessary service to the people of New York and collecting a fee, but the incompetent government (manifested in the goon from the EPA) won’t stop trying to keep the working man down. Also, Venkman won’t stop trying to get Dana to sleep with him, despite her repeatedly saying “no.” All of this is true, but Ghostbusters is also funny and of its time, two claims that cannot be made in defense of Evolution. Not to mention that in spite of Ghostbusters‘s contemporary mixture of misogyny and masculinity, it also had Janine, whose no-nonsense attitude served to counterbalance the boys club that she was surrounded by.

That same disdain for government is on full display here. This movie came out in the summer of 2001, making it not only probably one of the last American films to feature the military without alluding to the War on Terror but also the last American film to show the military as being full of incompetent blowhards (at least until that became one of the narratives of the War in Iraq). Every level of organized government in this film is full to brimming with nincompoops with itchy trigger fingers, from the judge who supports the ousting of Block and Kane from the meteor site, to Woodman and his cronies, to the local police, to the governor of Arizona (played by Dan Aykroyd, who had a line in Ghostbusters mocking the world of public academia in comparison to the “private sector,” which is echoed in Evolution when Reed gives up her posting with the Army to join Kane’s ragtag group of misfits citing that she “always knew the real money was in the private sector anyway”).

The jokes on display here are just so old and out of date, not just for 2018, but for 2001. Poor Orlando Jones has is anally invaded by one of the creatures and it has to be extracted using a scary-looking tool. This is a pretty good example of the level of comedy in this movie.

Doctor: It’s moving too fast! There’s no time for lubricant!

Block: There’s always time for lubricant!

Comedy!

Honestly, this movie is garbage. As with Ghostbusters, this film could have gotten some slack if it were funny, but it’s just so painful. A flying alien dragon monster ends up in a mall, where Seann William Scott sings off-key at a convenient mic stand to lure it back. Orlando Jones goes up a giant life form’s anus in a “clever” payoff to one burrowing up his own ass earlier in the film. Toward the end of the movie, Reed tells Kane that she’s going to “Rock [his] world” once this is all over, and Moore has this look on her face like she just realized that no paycheck in the world was worth the humiliation of being in this throwback. This one’s on Amazon Prime, but you’re better off just watching Ghostbusters. Or Kindergarten Cop.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Love and Saucers (2017)

There was an audible wave of giggling in my audience with the opening line of dialogue in the documentary Love and Saucers. The subject of the doc, visual artist David Huggins, explains directly to the camera, “When I was 17 I lost my virginity to a female extraterrestrial. That’s all I can say about it.” It’s somewhat understandable that an audience would titter at the outlandishness of that claim and the movie that parses out the details of David’s stories is often content to find humor in its absurdity, but I was personally more struck by the confession’s supernatural terror. David Huggins is entirely sincere about his reports of hundreds of encounters with space aliens, which are mostly sexual in nature. His impressionistic paintings that illustrate these encounters are more art therapy than ironic kitsch, and you could hear the terror & the sadness in his voice as he recounts the stories behind them. There’s inevitably going to be a contingent of viewers who view Lovers and Saucers as a “Get a load of this weirdo!” line of humor at David’s expense, but the truth is that both the movie and the artist are tragically, horrifyingly sincere.

Huggins lives a mostly solitary life, holed up in his Hoboken apartment/art studio with piles of sci-fi & horror themed VHS tapes & paper backs providing inspiration for his illustrations. He proudly displays titles like The Day of the Dolphin, Sssssss, Teenagers from Outer Space, The Thing From Another World, and Son of Frankenstein for the camera, explaining why the sci-fi genre and the VHS format are so important to him. At 72 years old, he’s stuck in his ways: working a menial job at a nearby deli, keeping his stories of alien abductions private outside his family & follow paranormal enthusiasts, and painting Impressionist illustrations of his memories interacting, erotically, with the space aliens that have targeted him throughout his life. There’s a wide variety of species within these alien tormentors’ ranks, including the classic “greys,” a bigfoot-type “hairy guy,” the humanoid aliens David fucks, their hybrid offspring, and a voyeur mantis who enjoys watching their copulation. Whether or not audiences cosign belief in the creatures’ existence, David has to live & cope with that reality daily and there’s a tragic sense of terror in that isolation & grief.

Love and Saucers follows the same approach to oral history documentary filmmaking that Rodney Ascher employs in his docs about sleep paralysis & The Shining-inspired conspiracy theories. David is allowed to tell his own story directly to the audience with no editorial judgement made on his personal account of the facts. He’s an endearing man with an unshakable smile, so this is far from a portrait of a Henry Darger-type recluse. Still, his stories of repeat sexual encounters with an alien species have a distinctly menacing tone underneath them, one the film accentuates by intercutting them with images from David’s illustrations, like a nightmare intruding a wandering thought. The matter of fact way David explains things like, “This is my other body,” and the fact that his illustrations are genuinely fascinating works on their own leave the film with a sincere sense of heartache & menace. I understand the temptation to treat Love and Saucers & David’s accounts of his personal history with alien sex as a goof or a lark, but much like its subject’s art this movie mostly functions like a strangely beautiful nightmare.

-Brandon Ledet