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

The Space Children (1958)

There’s nothing more admirable in genre film production than basic efficiency. Cheaply made sci-fi and horror can often transcend its limited means by way of an over the top premise or an inspired knack for production design, but those virtues can be dulled so easily by a labored pace or runtime. At just under 70 minutes, the sci-fi cheapie The Space Children never had time to outlive the novelty of its basic premise. Although director Jack Arnold had previously made a fine example of artful prestige horror with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (which is stunning in its moments of underwater cinematography), The Space Children is nothing but a bare bones sci-fi yarn made to fill out a double bill with the similarly slight, but impressive The Colossus of New York. Those limiting factors of microscopic budget & necessity for a brief runtime only amplify & enhance its charms as a scrappy little horror oddity with a strange plot & an even stranger alien menace. Whenever catching up with these efficient examples of bizarre, but slight genre films from the drive-in era, it’s tempting to wish that our modern PG-13 horrors & superhero epics would stick to that exact kind of length & scale.

The Space Children is a message movie about the horrors of nuclear war, nakedly so. While its heavy-handed lesson about how it’s probably not super cool to get into a worldwide arms race that could very quickly destroy the planet isn’t exactly a revolutionary thought for a 1950s genre picture, it is handled in a way that somewhat subverts its genre expectations. This is an alien invasion picture where neither the Thing From Another World that challenges our military, nor the army of creepy children it hypnotizes are the villain. In a variation from the Children of the Damned standard, it’s the parents, adult humans, who are the enemy. Scientists & military families are contracted by the American military to live in an isolated community while developing The Thunderer, a hydrogen bomb that can be readily launched from an orbiting satellite instead of a fixed physical location. Concerned, a glowing, telepathic brain from outer space lands on a beach nearby the military base and hypnotizes the scientists’ children to do its evil bidding: preventing nuclear holocaust by dismantling The Thunderer. Short story shorter, its galactic mission is a success and the evil space brain (with a little help from its ragtag group if telepathic juvenile slaves) saves Earth from blowing itself apart.

The Space Children never had a chance to be as iconic or as memorable as other nuclear horrors of its time like Them! or The Day The Earth Stood Still, even though it concludes with the exact same kind of moralizing rant about the dangers of nuclear war (this time with a Bible verse printed over an outer space backdrop to drive the point home). It was too cheap & lean of a production to aspire to those genre film heights. The movie does a great job of working within the boundaries of its scale & budget, though, suggesting worldwide implications of its central crisis despite never leaving its artificial studio lot locations. Although not likely a conscious choice, the artificiality of those sets, which are supposed to feel like natural outdoors environments, only adds to the movie’s charming surreality. Seemingly, the entire budget of The Space Children was sunk into the look of its space alien brain, which was a smart choice. When the alien first arrives, it appears to be a glowing jellyfish that washed up on the beach. As it pulsates, expands, and glows brighter while psychically linking to its child mind-slaves that same brain gradually grows to be the size of a small, glowing hippo. The logistics of constructing such a thing seemingly zapped most of the production money, leaving only room for cheap-to-film horror movie touches like telepathy, teleportation, telekinesis, and (scariest of all) Disney Channel levels of goofy child acting. It’s an expense that pays off nicely, though, and the brain is just as memorable for its physical presence as it is for somehow not being the villain.

The Space Children is a cheap, goofy sci-fi horror with nothing especially novel to say about the perils of nuclear war, bit still manages to feel like a fairly rewarding entry in its genre. Its efficiency in delivering the goods of its space alien brain special effects & its anti-war morality play in just over an hour of drive-in era absurdist fun is an impressive feat in itself. Backing up that efficiency is another excellent score from Twilight Zone vet Van Cleave (who also scored The Colossus of New York). As soon as the opening credits, which superimposes children’s heads over telescopic photos of outer space, Van Cleave’s organ & theremin arrangement elevates the material considerably. That Twilight Zone connection feels true to this movie’s overall spirit too, as that show was excellent at delivering the goods in a similarly lean time & budget. Something you won’t see on many Twilight Zone episodes, though, is a hippo-sized brain that glows, pulsates, hypnotizes children, and forces them to rebel against their war hungry parents. The Space Children wasn’t even the best movie on its own double bill at the drive-in (The Colossus of New York is so good), but it knew exactly how to milk its few saving virtues for all they were worth and, in some cases, how to make them glow.

-Brandon Ledet

Evil Brain from Outer Space (1964)

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After the dispiriting slumps of the third title in the series, Attack from Space, I was starting to worry that I had already mined the Super Giant films for all of the entertainment value they could easily provide. The initial Saturday morning cartoon charm of the superhero Starman and his powers-providing wrist watch, the globe meter, had started to wear a little thin and without a worthwhile villain to thwart, the intergalactic buffoonery felt entirely flat. Thankfully, the concluding film in the series, Evil Brain from Outer Space returned the Starman saga to its batshit insane heights and reminded me of what I found so entertaining in the first place. Evil Brain from Outer Space repeated the formula that proved so effective in the Starman film Invaders from Space (the same formula that makes Batman such a consistently fresh property to adapt): providing Starman with such a wildly entertaining, chaotic villain that the audience is distracted from the fact that the hero is static & unchanging. Instead of Invaders from Space‘s Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman, Evil Brain from Outer Space complicates Starman’s eternal quest to prevent nuclear holocaust by pitting him against, well, an evil brain from outer space. What’s so brilliant about this evil brain is that, like so many Krangs to come, he commands an army of varied, subservient weirdos that keep the film interesting from scene to scene as Starman takes them out one by one.

There really isn’t much to convey here in terms of plot. A council of space alien peacekeepers on the Emerald Planet deploy Starman to prevent nuclear war on Earth . . . but every film in the series literally starts with that exact same premise, even that exact same footage. All that’s different here is the villain. Balazar is an evil genius from the planet Zomar, the most brilliant mind in the universe. He is promptly assassinated, but his brain is kept alive and operating in a transportable briefcase. This briefcase, of course, must be destroyed before the brain takes over Earth, presumably through some kind of nuclear threat. What’s great here is the way Balazar’s brain enlists a wide array of weirdos to exact his evil deeds. This includes eyebrowless alien men who try to throw knives at children, a bunker full of baddies dressed in matching Batman uniforms and constantly doing Nazi salutes, mutants who breathe radioactive vapor, some kind of a humanoid dragon who wears a fiant eyeball belt & multiplies like a Power Rangers villain, a Tom Waits-looking motherfucker with a hook for a hand, and a witch who haunts a ballet studio. Balazar is even so kind as to employ an Earthling in his evil army: a ludicrous-looking mad scientist with a hawk for a pet. Even this widespread of a treat is no match for the interplanetary heroics of Starman, of course, and each foe is dealt with in a tidy, 70+ minute romp. We even get to watch Balazar’s brain die, which is a fun treat, though it’s not nearly as gruesome as the similar conclusion to They Saved Hitler’s Brain. The film concludes as all Super Giant movies do, with Starman waving goodbye to his young child superfans as he flies back to his home planet. This time, however, he wouldn’t be returning to save them again, since the series had officially come to a close.

Evil Brain from Outer Space might be the most objectively entertaining of all the Super Giant films, since most movies in the series were edited down from two Japanese broadcasts in their American TV adaptations while this one was comprised of three: The Space Mutant Appears, The Devil’s Incarnation, and The Poison Moth Kingdom. Cramming three Starman films into a single, paired down vessel makes for an exciting episode in the series, one overstuffed with the one thing that keeps its rigid formula fresh: ridiculous villains. Evil Brain from Outer Space is the Super Giant title that most often winds up on large collections of horror & sci-fi films, despite the entire series being in the public domain, and that extra attention is honestly well deserved. Anyone who gets a kick out of the film should certainly track down Invaders from Space as well, as it boasts just as much cartoonish villainy in its interplanetary threats. Realistically speaking, the series never reaches any sort of mind-blowing heights of cult classic potential, but those two titles are delightfully inane oddities in their own way. Even the first film in the series, Atomic Rulers of the World, is entertaining in its own minor ways and only Attack from Space registers as a thoroughly mundane waste of time, which isn’t such a bad track record for an American superhero series cobbled together from scraps of Japanese television, all things considered.

The Super Giant movies were important when they were first broadcast because Ken Utsui’s portrayal of the interplanetary Superman knockoff Starman (a role he reportedly despised because of the snug costume & stuffed crotch) was the very first Japanese superhero to appear on celluloid. In the years since, after so many similar riffs on that same formula have come to pass, that significance has faded, but Starman has become relevant in a different way. In the era of post-Nolan superhero media “for adults,” I often need to return to a time when Saturday morning cartoon absurdism is the driving creative force in my comic book cinema. I find way more solace in stray properties like Roger Corman’s ill-received Fantastic Four adaptation and last year’s Ninja Turtles sequel Out of the Shadows than I probably should because of that yearning for a goofier time. Starman’s filmography fulfilled that niche nicely. I’d encourage anyone who similarly enjoys a goofy superhero movie with their morning cereal to at least check out Evil Brain from Outer Space or Invaders from Space the next time they’re looking to fill that void. The entire series might not be recommendable to binge on as I have, but Starman is charming & entertaining nonetheless, especially when he has enough goofy baddies to knock down in the face of nuclear destruction.

-Brandon Ledet

Invaders from Space (1965)

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The made for TV cheapie Atomic Rulers of the World introduced me to the inane, interplanetary wonders of Starman, a blatant Superman rip-off & star of the Japanese mini-series Super Giant. Super Giant was cut down & re-edited into several made-for-American-TV movies, starting with Atomic Rulers, which was mostly a standard atomic age plot about the alien council of the Emerald Planet deploying Starman to prevent an inevitable nuclear holocaust by disrupting the dangerous gangsterism of some shady arms dealers. Invaders form Space starts with the exact same introduction, a shot-for-shot copy of the Emerald Planet council’s scene in the first film as they choose to employ Starman to once more save Earth. This helpful preamble provides not only context for Starman’s origins, but also a concise overview of his powers, both the ones he was born with (he’s made of the strongest steel) and the ones afforded to him by his fancy “globe meter” wristwatch (flight, radio activity detection, language adaptability). Thankfully, though, Invaders from Space didn’t repeat much else from Atomic Rulers’s basic structure. Instead of fighting off evil nuclear warmongers in this case, Starman does away with an alien invasion of artsy theater types with a proclivity for witchcraft and the results are deliciously ridiculous.

The titular alien invaders in this film are known by name as the Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman. When undercover, they dress like mobster types with black surgical masks covering their hideous alien faces. When letting their freak flags fly, however, they’re alien-frog humanoids with steel-tearing claws and radioactive fire breath. Their uncovered, mutilated faces recall The Joker or a nameless Dick Tracy goon. They fly UFOs seemingly made entirely of light and hide among humanity as “an unusual dance troupe” who put on a “weird performance” at an arts theater that makes its entire audience sick with radiation poisoning. The one female Salamander is a witch that chases children around a suburban home; the salamander people’s temporary home on Earth is a phallic palace with a blatant dickhead on its tallest tower; their second life as an avant-garde dance troupe means that there’s tons of cartwheels & gymnastics included in their hand-to-hand combat styles. So much of Invaders form Space resembles the exact tone of Atomic Rulers of the World that it’s impossible to ever forget the series’ origins as a television property instead of proper cinema. The film still stands out on its own in comparison to Starman’s introductory title, Atomic Rulers, though, mostly because of the absurdity of the Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman are such a perfectly comic strip-oriented type of foe for our bargain bin Superman to thwart.  Another film where Starman bucks against arms-dealing G-men might’ve been a monotonous slog, as we’ll see in a future sequel, but the UFO attacks & interpretive dance combat of Invaders from Space make for a highly entertaining sequel, one that might even surpass the original film on the basic level of enjoyability.

Cobbled together from the 3rd & 4th entries in the Super Giant series, The Mysterious Spacemen’s Demonic Castle & Earth on the Verge of Destruction, Invaders from Space finds the Starman franchise hitting its full stride. The introduction of Ken Utsui’s spandex-clad space alien hero in Atomic Rulers was  a delightful novelty, but just like most superheroes, the strength of his world relies heavily on the shoulders of his villains. The Salamander Men of Planet Kuliman don’t exactly elevate Invaders from Space into a higher tier of cinematic quality above Atomic Rulers; this is still an even keel of made-for-TV schlock that the Super Giant series is operating on. They do, however, keep the series interesting after the initial charm of Starman & his atomic menace foes settles and the reality of watching four of these ventures becomes a potential chore. Starman’s introduction remains static & carbon copied at the top of each feature. There’s no room for him to grow or change as a character from movie to movie, so it’s up to the villains he defeats to provide a sense of variety & continual novelty. Modern dance fish people from outer space who exhale radiation and live in a dick castle are more than fascinating enough as villains to maintain that novelty and Invaders form Space is one of the most interesting entries in the Super Giant series thanks to their gloriously weird presence.

-Brandon Ledet