Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Brain Eaters

The Brain Eaters (1958)

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A mysterious cone is found outside of a sleepy Illinois town, prompting a UFO investigation by a senator (Jack Hill) and some type of scientist (Edwin Nelson). Meanwhile, small, fuzzy-looking parasites are attaching themselves to prominent people in the town, such as the mayor (Orville Sherman), the sheriff (Greigh Phillips), and the mayor's secretary (Joanna Lee).

I was concerned that, because this movie's run time is only 60 minutes, I wouldn't have enough to say about it for a full review, but its perplexing incompetence yields more than enough material. It was like they wanted to make a rip-off of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but they totally missed the point of that movie.

I'm pretty sure the filmmakers were trying to make, if not a good movie, at least an interesting movie because there are a couple scenes which looked like they were trying to do something different. For example, there's one scene where every single shot is a dutch angle which, while not at all aesthetically pleasing, is at least experimental? There's another scene that's shot from the point-of-view of one of the parasites, which again, isn't good per se but suggests that maybe the filmmakers thought that they were being artistic.

There's a couple of weird, shady looking dudes walking around with a big ol' Loc-Nar glowing orb through the middle of the movie that I guess that they're using to transport brain parasites to put on people. It doesn't seem like it belongs in this movie because it's actually pretty cool and creepy.  The only function they serve is to infect the sheriff and the secretary because they don't do anything else and their existence is never addressed (or even resolved) by the other characters.

The other thing that was cool was that towards the end of the movie it turns out that the parasites are not actually from space, as they appear to be, but from deep within the Earth, having lain dormant since the Carboniferous. That's different, I can dig that. Although they don't give an adequate explanation for why they're there, how they survived, what the giant metal cone that they used to access the surface is, or how the old professor guy figured out that the parasites are prehistoric.

Most of the movie is narrated, I think by the mayor's son (Alan Frost) although I also think one part is narrated by somebody else, which just screams incompetence. They clearly didn't film enough material to adequately explain who the characters were because a lot of the narration is just telling the viewer who people are, what they're doing, where they came from, and where they went. It's also apparent that the sound was bad or non-existent for a few scenes because the narration switches from providing background information to describing what is happening on screen and what the characters were saying to each other, making it feel somewhat like a children's program.

The narration is particularly heavy early in the movie, and the scenes that do have dialogue are weird and arbitrary. Like there's a shot where the senator guy tells somebody unseen to turn on a light. That was important enough to be in the movie and have dialogue. This strengthens my argument that they recorded shit audio for a lot of stuff and the scenes that did have decent audio ended up in the movie with audible dialogue for whatever reason.

Not only were the people on set useless, so were the people in charge of post-production. The editing is extremely sloppy - there's one jarring scene where the two angles of the same guy are obviously from two different rooms and haphazardly jammed together in a godless mockery of coherence. There's also the classic outdoor scene containing shots taken during the day and night, the twist in this movie is that they didn't even try to hide it whatsoever.

Basically vampire tribbles (Source)
The monsters (and I use that term very loosely in this context) are little spongey fuzzy pompoms with giant fangs on them. They're often referred to as being attached to their victims neck, controlling their central nervous system for reasons unknown, but are never shown doing so.I assume this has less to do with the artistic decision to leave them a mystery and more to do with either straight up forgetting to film close-ups, or having whatever happened to the sound happen to the footage on a few occasions.

So the movie was technically incompetent, but what about the writing and story? Was that any good? If you're in a hurry and want a short answer to that question, it's "no".

The dialogue crosses into the so-bad-it's-good territory. One of the scientist characters says "I don't know" in response to every question which I honestly feel like is the the motto of the whole movie. The science dude explains that the parasites are like snakes in that if you "cut a snake in half, the two pieces go off in different directions" which I am here to tell you is 100% not true, please do not do this.

The love interest character gets taken over by a brain slug while she is sleeping (unlike the male characters who get possessed at work so they get to be in uniform) so she fills the "zombified woman in filmy nightgown" cliche. This particular trope always amuses me because I place myself in these movies and like to imagine roaming around the countryside wearing the oversized Alpine Lager t-shirt and pair of men's boxers I wear to bed.  Anyway, the whole point of even including this cliche in a movie is so that the character can White Zombie around at night and look really creepy and cool, which doesn't happen in this movie so what the fuck was the point of it.

Towards the end of the movie, a guy just appears out of the metal cone somehow which never really gets explained. They then say that the cone is attached to a tunnel, despite explaining earlier that the interior tube was empty and a loop, and then there's a wizard down there? I'm not even joking, there is a dude in a robe with a long white beard who barely gives the characters any information and then promptly disappears never to be seen or mentioned again.

The characters routinely use 50s Movie Logic (e.g., firing a hand gun into a hole in the cone to demonstrate that there is a spiral tube on the inside), and jump to some major conclusions about what is happening in the movie to make the plot move forward. For example, the scientist guy explains that the things are parasites which can control their hosts central nervous system after being told that one of them had two appendages lodged in the mayor's neck, and one of the characters deduces that the cone is the fuel tank of a space craft that's still orbiting the planet for no reason other than it just occurred to him - which interestingly turns out to be wrong in a rare example of a hunch not being right in a shitty old sci-fi movie.

Despite the characters jumping ahead to provide crucial information that they have no right to have access to, it's difficult to tell what is happening, and why. The plot is not difficult to follow and I guess the movie goes out of its way to explain the minutiae of what is happening, but the why is the big issue. I didn't feel like there was ever a substantial reason why anything in the movie happened. Why did the brain slugs come out of the earth? Why did they make the movie?

Honestly, at a certain point I was just watching to see if the "Leonard Nemoy" listed in the credits was Leonard Nimoy. Spoiler: it was, but he's basically unrecognizable in wizard get-up. I only recognized him by voice because a) I watch Star Trek a lot and b) I was waiting for him.

Subtle (Source)
I think the most laughable thing about the movie is that when the parasites are attached to humans, they create a large, pulsating lump on their back under their clothes which ought to be really easy to detect and yet people keep getting surprised when other people turn out to be controlled by the brain slugs.

Don't get me wrong, I actually enjoyed watching this movie. It's got the same endearing quality that Ed Wood movies have. It's also, somehow, better than some other 50s sci-fi flicks I've subjected myself to (Invasion of the Saucer Men in particular comes to mind). This at least was short enough that it wasn't incredibly boring. The story progressed unevenly, but mercifully quickly.

All in all I wouldn't recommend it by any means and I probably wouldn't watch it again but I'm not upset that I watched it this time. It's an interesting tribute to human incompetence, and it's equally interesting that it has survived to be consumed by me sixty years after it was released. Ultimately though, the most interesting part of the movie is the poster.

Merits
- A surgeon sparks up a dart in a hospital waiting room (+1)
- Leonard Nimoy appears in the film (+1)
- Parasites come from the Carboniferous (+1)
- A dude gets punched in the dick (+1)
- 50s Movie Logic (+1)
Total: (+5)



Demerits 

- Dog slaughter (-1)
- Narration needed to explain the action (-3)
- Shitty editing (-2)
- Character leaves a Bunsen burner just on (-1)
- Shortcuts in storytelling make the movie seem longer than it is (-1)
- Possessed woman in white filmy negligee doesn't get to do anything (-1)
- People and things appear out of nowhere (-3)
- The movie gets resolved at the last minute for no reason (-1)
Total: ( -13)
Final Score: -8

Directed by: Bruno VeSota.  Written by: Gordon Urquhart. Starring: Edwin Nelson, Alan Frost, Jack Hill, Joanna Lee, Jody Fair, Greigh Phillips, Orville Sherman, Leonard Nimoy.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Self Defense

Self Defense (1983) (AKA Siege, AKA The Night Warriors)


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Set during the Halifax police strike of 1981, Self Defense is about a guy (Terry-David Despres) who escapes a massacre at a gay bar and has to hide in a nearby apartment from a fascist gang. The gang members lay siege to the apartment, and the residents end up having to creatively and violently defend themselves.

I had never heard of this movie until last week when my friend came up with it seemingly out of nowhere. I'm really glad that she did because this is definitely an underappreciated Canadian thriller, and still uncomfortably relevant now, thirty-five years after it was made.

It's very low budget, but the filmmakers obviously did the best they could with what was available to them. There's really only two complaints I have about the movie.

Complaint number one was the lighting quality. Sometimes the lighting was really cool, but most of the time it seemed altogether absent. Granted, I watched the movie on youtube so it's entirely possible that the transfer quality of that particular copy was really bad, but still, there were a few scenes that were incomprehensible due to not actually being able to see what was on the screen.

Complaint number two is that the two main characters (Tom Nardini and Brenda Bazinet) weren't that great. The secondary characters, including a weirdly well-armed greaser dude (Darel Haeny) and a legally blind dude with unusually good hearing (Jack Blum), were excellent and totally made the movie.

Everything else about the movie is great. It's really intense - there's an early scene where a bar full of people gets just fucking executed which, though minimalist, managed to be one of the most fucked up things I've seen in a movie recently. The pervasive sense of danger and uncertainty throughout the film broke through my usual apathy so that I was genuinely concerned about what was going to happen.

The setting was really clever, and I'm not just saying that because I have lived in Halifax for most of my life, although it was cool to see my home town in a movie, that doesn't happen very often. What's clever about it is that the police strike actually happened, it was a real thing, and the movie uses that as a backdrop to create tension and a sense of hopelessness. The reality of the setting makes the action much more immediate and believable - the characters have a legitimate reason to take things into their own hand because the police aren't going to come. This is something that legitimately could have happened.

The movie is reminiscent of a lot of siege/urban survival movies, like The Warriors, or Straw Dogs, or especially Assault on Precinct 13, having a lit, synthy, John Carpenter-esque soundtrack, it's different enough to be interesting in its own right and not feel derivative of those movies.

Furthermore, the ways that the protagonists defend themselves against the gang members are spectacularly inventive. They fashion a homemade rocket launcher at one point, which is just so fucking cool, they electrocute a guy, and set another guy on fire, there's a hunting bow involved. I'm a person who enjoys a certain amount of violence in movies and this was definitely satisfying on that front.

Normally I don't give a fuck about spoiling movies but I'm going to leave this one untold so you actually go watch this movie because the ending, holy shit, I have never been so shocked and devastated by a movie. The ending is perfectly appropriate for the movie but the fact that there weren't any objections to it, or if there were, not enough to get it cut from the film, boggles my mind.

It's fucking criminal that this movie isn't a Canadian cult classic, it has every right to be - according to my friend, it's getting a little bit of attention right now so hopefully it comes back and finally gets the recognition that it deserves.

It's up on youtube right now, although like I said, that quality isn't super. Apparently it can be bought on Amazon on VHS, which is something I will probably invest in whenever I get my VCR hooked up to something. 100% recommend for fans of home-defense thrillers, and low budget Canadian grease.

Merits
- Thematically dark (+1)
- Wicked soundtrack (+1)
- Actually thrilling (+1)
- Halifax! (+1)
- Reality! (+1)
- Fucking rocket launcher (+1)
- Good deaths (+2)
- The ending is seriously amazing (+1)
Total: (+9)

Demerits
- Visually dark (-1)
- Did Halifax have a gun problem in the 1980s? (-1)
Total: (-2)
Final Score: +7

Directed by: Paul Donovan, Maura O'Connell. Written by: Paul Donovan. Starring: Tom Nardini, Brenda Bazinet, Darel Haeny, Doug Lennox, Jack Blum, Terry-David Despr├ęs, Keith Knight.