Friendly neighborhood pimp: A critical review of “Beyond Atlantis” (1973)

What did you do for Thanksgiving, tonstant weader? I run this blog, so I spent the holiday watching the low budget thriller “Beyond Atlantis.” The film is often remembered for its unusual approach to production. Actor/producer John Ashley wanted a grindhouse film, perhaps akin to “Woman Hunt,” a previous collaboration he did with this film’s director, Eddie Romero. However, the production company thought they could court star Patrick Wayne with a more family friendly film. Or else Wayne requested no naughty stuff. He gets blamed either way. The point is, things were toned down, and we don’t get no topless ladies.

Topless ladies is nice, but what drew me to this film was the promise of fishmen. I will watch anything with fishmen because fishmen can have the distinct aroma of H. P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror. However, the concern this Thanksgiving is that “Beyond Atlantis” smells less like fish and more like turkey.

What lies beyond Atlantis is some port town in the Philippines, which is lorded over by East Eddie (Sid Haig), arguably the most affable pimp and petty mob boss in cinema. Eddie catches wind of a treasure trove of pearls somewhere over yonder, so he enlists the aid of down on his luck gambler/fence Logan (Ashley) and presumably slightly less crooked boat captain Vic (Wayne). They eventually learn that the pearls in question are coming from an island populated by a bug-eyed sorta Stone Age tribe. The tribe’s comely princess (Leigh Christian) sets her normal-sized eyes on the treasure hunters. Her reasons for doing so are enigmatic at best, and might have something to do with the sacrificial temple at the center of the island.

In a neat trick, the first thing to stick out about “Beyond Atlantis” is its thoughtful shot composition and blocking. I mean that literally; the images running behind the opening credits are simple, clean and quite deft. Considering this film’s reputation, it’s a pleasant surprise for the start. Unfortunately, while the quality of the composition remains consistent through the movie, there is often not much point to what’s being posed.

Still, there is Sig Haig. He plays the cigar chomping, jive talking, purple silk shirt wearing East Eddie, who honestly fascinates me. Part of it is Haig’s performance, since the actor throws himself utterly into the role. It’s also the lopsided writing, which has Eddie forgive indebted gamblers and wannabe mutineers with astonishing ease, and not beat the crap out of a potential informant, at least not right away. He wants to put his share of the treasure into a brothel, a classy one, so his girls don’t have to walk around outside all day. What a guy. He also has no qualms about shooting people, strangles a Rudyard Kipling quote and has a shrieking vendetta against crabs, but that’s another story.

The unbalanced script, which permits Eddie to be such a sleazy charmer (a charming sleaze?), is not nearly as successful with every other aspect of the film. The characters are paper thin. Logan the gambler is there because we are told he likes money, so he wants pearls. Captain Vic seems less interested in pearls, so he’s there because someone has to drive the boat. Then there’s Dr. Vernon (Lenore Stevens), an anthropologist, I guess. Her motivation is ostensibly to study the tribe, but it kind of boils down to how many midriff-bearing outfits she can wear while conducting field research.

I’m not even going to touch the tribe. It would be generous to say that their intentions, customs and backstory are left vague on purpose. It seems more likely that the film has no idea what do with them. The script is a collection of questions that can’t even be called unanswered; they seem to get halfway raised and then discarded rather than asked. It’s baffling rather than frustrating, and it leads to some bizarre moments.

When the princess returns home to the island from a swim, she witnesses a sudden and unexplained execution. Later, her father says she must mate with an outsider because she is not the same species as the other members of the tribe. Elsewhere, Dr. Vernon corners a tribesman and asks him if he’s seen a certain idol. He responds by throwing a baby goat into a pond that contains some stock footage of piranhas.

Disconnects abound. Sudden flashes of danger or intrigue are swiftly and conveniently forgotten by the characters onscreen, and underwater chase scenes that should be tense feel light and playful (it doesn’t help that the editing is so brisk it makes all the action seem like it happens two seconds ago). Dingy bars and gambling halls are brightly lit. This blog’s favorite moment might be a massage scene where Eddie asks the massage girl to go lower on his back, and she flips him over. He tells Logan her hands are a gold mine, and she starts using her feet. Why not?

One would expect the plot to be a meandering mess, a sort of “people wander around the haunted house except it’s an island,” but it’s too unfocused for all that. Much of the film is stitched together from what looks like someone’s vacation videos: people in wetsuits and bikinis struggling to stay underwater, exterior shots of maybe the American embassy, beaches that look suspiciously like murky rivers, casinos that looks suspiciously like someone’s living room, a cock fight. Yeah. There’s only one, but even one cock fight is more than this blog was expecting for something everyone was complaining about was too “family friendly.”

The audio is a mixed bag. Portions of dialogue in the same scene sound like they were recorded on different sets and different days, then spliced together in the editing room. It would matter more if the script was worth listening to, I guess. To be fair, the score is kind of charming. None of it is directly memorable, but it strikes a cute balance between goofy wannabe-eerie synthesizers and pleasant 19th century Romantic era orchestral/piano cues.

For this blog, a goofy and pleasant soundtrack, bizarre outbursts and pacing, and the presence of Sig Haig are enough to make a film watchable, but more discerning eyes might not be so generous. “Beyond Atlantis” is not really worth viewing for the cosmic horror elements. There are some whiffs of the subgenre: fishmen, ancient civilizations and mutations brought about by incest. But the fishmen are underpaid Filipino extras with ping pong balls covering their eyes, the ancient civilization is all talk and no atmosphere, and the incest is pure speculation courtesy of the anthropologist. “I’m just making guesses,” she tells Patrick Wayne. “I don’t know nearly enough.” You and me both.

It should have stayed in space: A critical review of “Almost Human” (2013)

It was my own fault. Someone says: Colin, go watch this movie, I want to hear your thoughts on it. Any movie upon which someone wants to hear my thoughts is probably pretty messed up.

Well, someone said they wanted to hear my thoughts on “Almost Human,” a sorta sci fi horror thriller. The film is equal parts road rage slasher and “Alien” ripoff, which itself is kind of an accomplishment. While that sounds like an interesting premise – a creature feature version of “And Then There Were None” on a derelict space cruiser perhaps? – that’s not quite this flick. Everything’s a bit squishier than that.

The current top review of “Almost Human” on IMDb begins with the line: “Nothing subtle occurs in this movie.” That single sentence is a better review than anything I could write, but here goes. Two years ago – in 1987 – chubby white dude Mark (Josh Ethier) went missing on an evening when mysterious lights were spotted in the skies above rural Maine (the film was really shot in Rhode Island, but we won’t hold that against it). Now it’s later, and Mark is back from beyond to bother his old pals Seth (Graham Skipper) and Jen (Vanessa Leigh). He’s using axes, chainsaws and a stolen SUV to build a pile of bodies, all in the service of some sinister alien agenda, because I guess just out-and-out murdering people isn’t sinister enough.

For those familiar with indie horror, looking at the cast and crew of “Almost Human” will result in seeing a few familiar names. Writer/director Joe Begos also wrote and directed “Bliss,” and actor/editor Ethier also acted in “Bliss” and edited “Gretel & Hansel.” I liked both those films. They were visually stylish and ultimately felt like they had something to say.

“Almost Human” is neither of those things. It’s not stylish, unless a bunch of medium close-ups and a lack of tripod counts as a visual style. It is gleefully gross, but if that is a visual style, then “8MM” and “Freaked” are cinematic cousins.

It also doesn’t have anything to say. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this blog will hastily attest. In fact, for the film’s first half, when it feels more like a slasher (or an adaptation of “Falling Down” that’s completely divorced from reality), it’s actually pretty fun. When you’re urging the film’s obvious villain to hurry up so he can murder more people, that’s a good sign. Are we running low on shotgun shells? Are we slitting too many throats with a hunting knife when we have a perfectly good chainsaw? Those are questions I’m happy to ask. They certainly seem more worthwhile than asking why the film sports all these eccentric affectations: nosebleeds, psychic transmissions and extraterrestrial visions. The breakneck pace makes those easy enough to gloss over or simply accept as goofy attempts at spooky atmosphere.

When the film dribbles into its second half, when it tries to lean hard into the “Alien” vibe, that’s when this blog starts to actually feel uneasy. At that point the buoyant murders are out of the way, and the film becomes a dreary attempt at cat-and-mouse stalking and shocks-for-the-sake-of-shocks trauma. The climax in particular – and the film’s rough treatment of Jen therein – becomes a bit much. Look, I’m typically insensitive toward any sort of cinematic violence, so I’m not sure why this stood out to me. Maybe I’m becoming more of a prude as I get older (says the person who also begged the antagonist to throw a bloody chainsaw through a car window). More likely I’m more frustrated by the bad script. Alien-haunted Mark has to shove his alien-haunted dick into people to turn them into gooey pod people… somehow. I get that. So how come everyone else got an alien wang to the face, but Jen gets one in the hoo-ha? That’s not even logical within the confines of the film’s own narrative.

The critter that’s possessing or possibly taken over Mark acts like it has a plan, but whatever that plan is isn’t clear to me. He wants to take over the town, or so he says. So a barn-full of awkward pod people is going to do that? OK, why not. This clearly isn’t a big town, given how fast rumors travel (reports of a double homicide at a gas station take approximately six minutes to hit the hardware store). So then what, after you’re the mayor of pod-ville? Where is this going, Mark? What’s the big picture? Step one is pod people; is step three profit? Are you Pinky, Mark? Cos you sure as shit ain’t the Brain.

A meaningful cosmic horror sidestep of this would be that Mark doesn’t know what his plan is, but he’s compelled to do awful things by visions from beyond. That would be interesting, a commentary on human smallness in the big picture, and it would at least engage some of the film’s earlier eccentricities, but it would also require some thoughtful scripting, which the film does not have. Ultimately, the script isn’t meaningful; it’s just mean-spirited.

Whatever. I’m being that guy, the one I’m normally complaining about in these types of situations. Logic is to “Almost Human” as a cozy yule log is to survivors of a house fire. The first half, when nothing had to make more sense than shotgun vs. skull, works well. That’s all fine. Fast-paced, gory and eccentric is pulp horror I wanna watch. The second half of the film is when things slow down enough that I start to ask questions about why anything is going on. It’s also when I can’t figure out who precisely would want to watch this pulp horror. The title of “Almost Human” presumably refers to the antagonist of the film, but perhaps it’s better description of the target audience.

In space, no on can hear you steal: A critical review of “Breach” (2020)

This blog wouldn’t be attempting to finish the year by exclusively covering cosmic horror if we didn’t like the genre. You know who else likes cosmic horror? The writers of “Breach.” I can tell because they recycle every notable cosmic horror film, television show and video game since the Hoover administration that they can think of. Instead of more introduction, here’s the plot of the film, with a couple comparisons pointed out as we go:

A group of humanity’s best and brightest get onto a sleeper ship after Earth appears to be doomed (shades of “Pandorum”). Everything’s going soap opera smooth until an alien entity starts entering the mouths and bursting out of the chests of the blue collar skeleton crew tasked with running the ship (“Alien,” natch). The dwindling staff decides to reawaken the ship’s commander (“Pandorum” again). He and his squad of overly confident space marines (“Aliens”) find the threat has mutated, and they face human hosts turned into zombies with bleeding eyes and gooey black drool (“Helix”).

That’s far from the end of repurposed plot points. We haven’t mentioned even mentioned crawling through the vents while someone shouts directions (“Alien,” “Aliens,” “Alien: Isolation”). Or how the final creature design looks straight out of “Resident Evil 2.” Or how the crew speculates about its origin, and someone theorizes it’s older than the universe. Was that lifted from “Event Horizon”? Warhammer 40K? Something else? Even the name of the film is the same as a flash game from 10 years ago about, you guessed it, a parasitic organism that goes zombie-nutso (by way of “The King in Yellow”) on a space station.

But who cares. “Breach” doesn’t try to be anything more than a derivative pulpy sci fi thriller. There’s no problem with that. In fact, given some of the problems this film has with its mechanics and narrative, the lack of originality is downright endearing.

Bloody Disgusting theorized that the film drew inspiration from “The Thing,” but in this blog’s opinion, that’s one of the few sources that is not blatantly on-screen. Unlike “The Thing,” there’s never a sense of mystery – in “Breach,” it’s always pretty clear who’s infected and who isn’t. However, the first half of the film has the potential for a similar tension. When the skeleton crew fans out over the ship in pairs to hunt down the creature, it feels like maybe this is going to be a psychological thriller. Then the zombies hordes show up, and it becomes a zombie shooting movie in space. OK, I guess, but where are these hordes coming from? I thought the passengers were all asleep.

This change of genre might be fine for fans of “Doom,” but they will still likely wonder why all the security forces shake their guns when they shooting them, like little boys going pew-pew-pew while firing finger guns. Or why the bullet sprays look like lens flare effects. Or why both the people shooting and the zombies seem to change location from shot to shot. Or where everyone’s wounds disappear to when they tumble to the ground.

All right, so the film has poor direction, inadequate budget and bad continuity on top of its inconsistent and unoriginal narrative. Is there anything else to recommend?

There are a few positives. The first is Bruce Willis in a prominent role. He’s charismatic and knows how to handle the pulp dialogue in a fun way, so he’s always watchable even as he slogs through the same script as everyone else. He’s easily the best thing happening on screen. Thomas Jane doesn’t fare quite as well, but that might be because he’s only on-screen for a few minutes. He has the role of “guy who shows up long enough to growl some lines and get his name in the credits,” but at least he growls with the best of them, even if it is a thankless task.

There are also a few interesting lighting choices, with some of the industrial space station corners shot in various foggy monochrome: a green workroom, a red corridor, a blue docking station. It’s about as atmospheric as things get, and it utilizes the film’s limited budget well.

The final thing of note is the ending, which is so bonkers that the badness of the film might actually circle back in on itself and become good again. If you’re like me, you’ve watched a couple of thrillers, and you think you know all the tricks. I figured there was going to be a twist ending, and partway through the film, I saw the perfect moment to set it up. But the film kind of forgot about the set up when the ending rolled around, so I assumed it was going for a less twisty conclusion. But no, it introduced a new element in the last second, and the film changed genres again to become… a kaiju movie? I have to admit, I did not see it coming, so congrats on that. Unless it was taken from “The Cloverfield Paradox,” just in case you thought we were done borrowing. But if we are so desperate we resort to borrowing from “Cloverfield Paradox,” it really is time to stop.

This blog still doesn’t quite see “The Thing” comparison, but at one point (and in similar circumstances), “Breach” does repeat a line from that film. Bruce Willis’s space janitor sees the alien creature, thought to be destroyed, start to rise again. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he groans. I concur.

Actual news for a change: News November 2021

As was prophesied, this blog is going to shift into doing some film and TV reviews for the rest of the year, and we’ll keep up our focus on cosmic horror. We initially wanted to do a lineup of the most underrated cosmic horror media, but then we asked ourselves: How could we do a “most underrated” lineup when we hadn’t established what the best cosmic horror media was?

So our focus shifted to the best cosmic horror. But then the obvious question emerged: How could we do a “best of” lineup when we hadn’t established what the worst cosmic horror media was? You can probably see where this going.

Through this thoroughly backwards reasoning, this blog has settled on its year-end mission: track down, watch (or re-watch, as the case might be) and review the worst cosmic horror media ever. That sounds like something to look forward to, right?

Hey, no one ever said this was a smart blog. Or a good one.

Ah well, that’s not really news. I mean, the “worst ever” part might be, but then again, reviewing crappy pulp thrillers is hardly new for us. So how about this instead.

I actually thought of a useful purpose for these news posts. From now on, when I’ll try to include a roundup of links I found interesting over the last month. A sort of “in case you missed it” of my side of the web. Since we just came out of October, there was plenty of fodder for fans of thrillers and weird fiction. So much, in fact, that I had to narrow things down a peg by sticking to creature features broadly defined.

For the beekeeper in all of us, Little Red Horror blogger Kim Morrison reviewed “Royal Jelly.” I find bees terrifying, so anything that combines weird atmosphere and psychological horror with that buzzing sound will catch my interest. I haven’t actually watched it yet, but I have seen Roger Corman’s “Wasp Woman,” which got a nice retro write-up by Simon Jones over on Meathook Cinema.

Keeping things in the insect theme, Mandalore Gaming did a thoughtful video review of “No One Lives Under the Lighthouse,” a game I was initially introduced to via Oney Plays. Wait, is that giving something away? Eh, probably not. This is one of those weird ones where it’s hard to tell what is and isn’t a spoiler.

Let’s pivot to more complex organisms. At the online literary journal Coffin Bell, writer J. Campbell shares his short story “A Frog Died For This.” It’s hazy and uncanny, and, despite the animal symbols in its bookends, technologically flavored. For something a bit more straightforward, let’s return to Meathook Cinema for a quick review of “The Last Shark.” How could you not watch something with such a ridiculous-yet-compelling title? It’s apparently a splattery Italian creature feature, so that checks more than a couple of my thriller boxes.

So was there a significant amount of creepy crawlies and big critters circling this Halloween, or was it just me? You know how it goes. You notice a trend, then that’s all you can see.