Paradox revisited: A critical review of “The Time Machine” (2002)

One of the neat things about doing this for an occupation is the opportunity to go back in time, if you’ll allow the metaphorical indulgence, to reevaluate old pieces of media. That includes both classics to see how good they were and stinkers to see how bad they actually smelled.

“The Time Machine” turns 20 this year (give or take a couple months, thanks to this blog’s lax posting schedule… I mean, thanks to the quirks of temporal travel), and it is still remembered as a splashy sci fi bomb, which didn’t break even in its native land and fell far short of expectations abroad. Compare that to 2003’s steampunker “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,” which also underwhelmed but later found a playfully appreciative audience on DVD. Why didn’t “The Time Machine” get the same treatment?

Probably because it’s a different kind of picture, one that is both better and worse. This “Time Machine” is the story of Dr. Alexander Hartdegan (Guy Pearce), who proposes to his galpal (Sienna Guillory) only to watch her get killed the very same night (this should be troubling because it indicates a lot of what will make this time machine tick: convenience). Since Alexander is a Victorian-era gentleman scientist, he figures time travel is the best coping mechanism. His eventual invention and subsequent attempt to prevent her death in the past fails, so he travels into the future to search for answers. What he finds is the human civilization he knew destroyed, replaced by a symbiotic war between two humanoid races: the playful, naive Eloi and the sinister, secretive Morlocks.

The original “Time Machine” novel was a critique of class structure, and the 1960 film was a timely antiwar tale. This “Time Machine” distinguishes itself by being based on a question instead: What if? The discussion is carried on over the centuries by Alexander himself, engaging with equally offbeat thinkers like an eccentric public library AI (Orlando Jones) and the melancholy chief Morlock (Jeremy Irons). This is probably the film’s strongest element, partly because Pearce, Jones and Irons are the film’s most charismatic performers, and partly because it actually covers some interesting territory, getting into things like metaphysics, cause and effect, how tragedy creates identity and destiny, and the morality of evolution.

Beyond that, there’s not much else to hang onto. Any part of the script that is not light philosophical debate is painfully contrived. As previously mentioned, Alexander proposes to his 19th century waifu and watches her die in the same night, thus setting off the whole thing. When he travels to the future, every single time he stops he’s next to something significant – the info dump that is the New York Public Library, the moon exploding, whatever – and he’s always in and out so quick. Alexander’s future waifu (Samantha Mumba, occasionally lapsing into an Irish accent) tells him he has to get her brother back to the past. The second he asks why, Morlocks attack, almost like the script is answering his question. In the ensuing scuffle, a 19th century engineer proves to be an effective fighter in a future war. Later, a burst of… time energy stuff from the time machine only kills Morlocks and leaves Alexander and his pals unharmed.

At least the explosion looks OK, as OK as 2002 could look. The special effects were called a mixed bag even at the time. It’s true that not everything lands, but this blog feels that’s because the movie tried everything it could think of to make things pop. Both Stan Winston Studio and Industrial Light & Magic worked on the practical and CGI effects respectively, so it’s not there was a lack of talent. There are time lapses (natch), explosions, Morlocks bursting from the ground and bounding over things, skeletal ironwork monuments that belch smoke and fire. It is a bit much, and the film never quite finds an individual visual identity – you can tell we’re going farther into the future because everything is more orange each time – but again, it’s OK. Do you like steampunk and Predator? You’ll probably appreciate what’s onscreen.

It feels like contemporary critics picked on the explode-y parts because they were so prominent. Almost every part of the film seems to be in service of selling it as an action-adventure extravaganza, and a shallow one at that. The rushed performances, the convenient plot, the time traveler as a shoot-first-ask-questions-later hero, everything orange. Not only does it leave the film out of breath, it leaves the audience out of a serious reason to be here. Roll up and see the time machine! Even the action-packed poster asks: “Where would you go?”

You know where I’d go? To a movie that kept some of the steampunk Predator style but pushed the philosophical debate more. Don’t get rid of the spooky Morlocks and pretty time lapses, just give me more carefully spaced conversations about guilt and causality. Amp up the Morlocks as utilitarians. Play up the Eloi as Daoists. They accept fate. Is that so bad? Maybe it is, but since the movie never got into it, I’ll never know. It would have been more interesting than “Avatar,” that’s for sure.

The problem there is that no one probably would have funded a movie like that. The film itself is a paradox. It’s a big budget sci fi flick that occasionally makes some intriguing observations. Those observations can get lost in the budget, but the only reason it had the budget it did is because it sold itself as a slick, and ultimately soulless, sci fi adventure flick. Remove the slick soullessness, and you risk losing the budget that got you Stan Winston and Guy Pearce. But lose them to focus on a quieter movie, and the film becomes less financed, so likely less talented and less interesting to look at.

There is a somewhat infamous moment in the film when Alexander is briefly detained by 22nd century rent-a-cops trying to get him into a shelter. New York City is in stereotypical apocalyptic ruins, and klaxons abound. When Alexander demands to know what’s going on, one of the cops asks if he’s been living on a rock. “Yes,” he cries. “I’ve been living under a rock.” The cop looks to his partner, then calmly explains that the moon has exploded.

That scene took some Internet flak for its “bad science” (check out the artistic license entries on the film’s TVTropes page – moons don’t explode that way!). While that seems like an odd hill to die on – we’re dealing with the paradoxes of time travel and the limitations of Victorian technology, and you’re really complaining about six seconds of burst moon? – it misses the point. The vehicle by which we get this information is another convenience, but it’s also arguably the most human moment in the film. Who else but a human being would be foolish and curious enough to ask a question in the middle of catastrophe? Who else but another human being would be foolish and kind enough to indulge them with an answer? The charm of this film is that it also stops to ask these questions; the pity is that it doesn’t do it often enough.

I don’t love sand planet: Best/worst films of 2021

Another year, another awards season that has passed this blog by. Oh well. I doubt there was anything particularly important to comment on that happened. Even if there was, you likely wouldn’t want to hear my thoughts on it, tonstant weader. Let’s get slapping.

I think this blog did both better and worse than expected on movies the last year. There are some holes both as a general moviegoer (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”; “The French Dispatch”; “Godzilla vs. Kong”) and a thriller fan (“In the Earth”; The Night House”; “The Little Things”; “Antlers”). I haven’t seen “Nobody,” a film that would complete a triptych of alternative views on the John Wick narrative this year (the other two are obviously below). I also started but did not finish – due to unforeseen circumstances – the Danish black comedy “Another Round.” So far, it seemed to be a very indie affair, from the delightfully inappropriate sense of humor and hints at emotional complexity, to the earnest performances (including Mads Mikkelsen) and crappy handheld camerawork. Ya get whatcha pay for.

Still, in reviewing my list, I was surprised by how much and what I’d watched. Find that list below. As always, the better films are at the top, and the order was gauged by both perceived quality, narrative and visual, and whether I’d watch them again:

Dune – Two quick caveats: I did not see this on a big screen, and I watched it in two rounds, so make of that what you will. And yet, absurdly well photographed, engagingly scored, sumptuously costumed, wondrously designed, smartly written and smoothly acted, “Dune” is likely my favorite film of the year. Is it half an hour too long? Possibly. But even its moments of downtime usually felt important and typically had some kind of payoff. The film does not shy away from the heady themes of the franchise: destiny, duty, identity, the role of mysticism in society, the paradox of the sacred the violent. Even small flourishes, like House Atreides bull imagery, felt organic and world building. Denis Villeneuve’s theatrical, sprawling sci fi epic of space intrigue, monochrome lighting and sand worms feels very worthy, and I am looking forward to its baked in sequel.

A Quiet Place Part II – “A Quiet Place” was an unexpected horror hit about monsters that hunted by sound and the family that had to silently sneak around them, and the sequel is little different. That’s a good thing, since it picks up its predecessor’s gorgeous photography, excellent score and earthy acting. It also picks up a few of its narrative conveniences – the film goes a little nutty with parallelisms sometimes, particularly in the climax – but it’s a small price to pay. The CGI critters look pretty good, and there’s some solid tension and genuine shocks. Plus, can you believe that’s Cillian Murphy as a survivalist? I couldn’t at first.

Riders of Justice – This is a fairly successful action dark comedy flick about an off-the-clock soldier on the hunt in modern Denmark for the radicals who blew up his wife, the nerds that are helping him, and his traumatized daughter who is trying to make sense of it all. The humor is cottonmouth dry, but it works well for those who don’t mind. The film is also surprisingly thoughtful, although it never forgets to have some cool explosions along with its musing about loss, culpability and comprehension. Performances are strong across the board, with Mads Mikkelsen taking the lead (the man could elevate a KFC commercial to art).

Coming Home in the Dark – You know the drill: Drifters come out of the New Zealand brush and take a family of school teachers hostage. They go for a road trip. They’re not going anywhere good. The constantly bleak mood will no doubt be called gritty and real by some, and a chore to watch by others; still, you can’t ignore how uncompromising it all is. If you can stomach it, you’ll find sensitive photography, some great acting, thoughtful editing and pacing, and a literate script.

Pig – This is listed as an unconventional thriller, which is accurate, although it’s more unconventional than thrilling. Nevertheless, the story of angry backwoods truffle hunter stalking modern Portland to find his prized pig has some moment that will likely leave you thinking about purpose, possession and what it means to let go. It’s grittily shot, and not always easy on the eyes or narratively sensible, but it’s sensitively performed, particularly by lead Nicolas Cage.

The Delivered – Imagine a movie that’s one half home invasion thriller and one half conversation about the role of religion, particularly regarding homelife and gender politics. Now imagine it’s set in the aftermath of the English Civil War. “The Delivered” (original title “Fanny Lye Deliver’d”) sports intriguing camerawork, an always appropriate soundtrack and a dream-like atmosphere (the solid presence of Charles Dance don’t hurt neither). It feels a bit long at nearly two hours and finishes with a slightly unearned ending, but whatever. Maybe a brisker pace would have helped.

Willy’s Wonderland – I made my review, and I’m sticking to it. This pulp horror comedy featuring Nic Cage duking it out with animatronic pizza parlor creatures is pretty much what it says on the tin. If you want a thoughtful narrative, you’d be far better off looking somewhere yonder. If you want goofball action, all in a stylish somewhat 1980s sheen, it’ll get the job done. Cage is great, obvs, as is the supporting cast. Just don’t expect too much from the script, slasher-ready teens or photography in general.

Nightmare Alley – I should honestly love this movie, but I don’t. It’s a gritty period crime drama, perfectly cast and wonderful to look upon. Guillermo del Toro is a great choice for a noir director, since he so effectively captures the grotesque that lurks under much genre. He doesn’t shy away from carnivals, mind readers and all manner of the strange that lurks just outside of normal society. Still, it definitely feels like it’s based on a novel, with a certain meandering nature that would be more comfortable in a episodic format. Perhaps that length and pacing combined with characters that are hard to root for and a classic plot make this feel less than rewarding.

Censor – A sorta meta media mystery about a woman who cuts horror flicks for a living and thinks she sees clues to her sister’s disappearance in the latest project. Cleverly lit and shot, it’s fine for genre fans. Performances are smooth across the board, with Niamh Algar believable as the lead and Michael Smiley having fun as a sleazy producer. The film is not shy about asking whether horror flicks make us crazy or moral guardians keep us safe – it could be a little shier, honestly – but it’s an organic vehicle for that conversation. I’m not actually English, so I can’t speak as to how well the film captures the video nasty era, but titles like “Don’t Go in the Church” sound right. The gore gets a little goofy at the end. Maybe that was the point.

Boss Level- You could do worse with a pulpy sci fi action thriller, but you could do better as well. It’s actually pretty fun when it focuses on the crazy killers stalking a downtrodden ex-solider who’s caught in a “Groundhog Day” loop. It’s violent and eccentric and has a dark sense of humor, exciting in its pacing and making good use of a bright cast. Then it slows down and tries to get serious with some bits about making time for family. A lower key film probably could have pulled it off, but the mood whiplash is a bit too much for this blog.

The Vault – A pretty boilerplate heist thriller about cracking into the secret illuminati vault of the Bank of Spain. You’ve got your Sir Francis Drake treasure, your putting-the-team-together montage, your old-dude-young-dude dynamic, a third act betrayal. The very capable cast is likely the film’s strongest element, with the presumed highlight Freddie Highmore playing the same quasi-intellectual weirdo he’s been playing since at least “Bates Motel.” I mean, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City- It’s been established that this blog was quietly a fan of the loud Milla Jovovich led/Paul W. S. Anderson helmed Resident Evil films, so it was with both concern and intrigue that we watched the reboot. The plot is trying to splice together the first two games: Special forces types investigate a haunted house while the Umbrella Corporation’s microwavable zombies stalk the city nearby. There’s an interesting moment at the start of this film where it looks like it might be taking more cues from psychological horror than body horror, but that’s out pretty quick. Despite shades of John Carpenter in the photography and pacing, the film betrays the atmosphere it builds with a cartoonish script, unfocused direction and odd stylistic flourishes. I don’t mind the video game Easter eggs scattered around, but the speech that tries to cram as many 90s references as possible? Jennifer Paige? It’s an odd mix. The cast is mostly dull, although Donal Logue seems to be having fun as Chief Irons and Neal McDonough was almost sympathetic before he turned into hamburger. Focus on Mark Korven’s punching-above-its-weight score rather than the inconsistent sound mixing.

Spiral: From the Book of Saw – I had high hopes for this film, although I don’t know why. It was a sort of soft reboot of the series, a not quite but still distinct cutting off from the source material. I’m not the biggest Saw fan, but if you’re gonna reboot, the way I see it is this: Either lean into the pulp detective stuff, and make it gritty and low-key, or lean into the murder traps and make them over-the-top. This film tried to have both ways and backwards: low-key traps and over-the-top detective action. The traps are all acceptable, if not particularly creative, and will sometimes satisfy the gore hounds. The detective stuff comes courtesy of a script that relies on cliches and conveniences, and is delivered by a cast that need a little reeling in (Rock in particular, who is enthusiastic to an alarming degree). I understand that franchise fans conclude this film is not good but at least better than what came immediately before; for my own part, I’m still looking for the right scratch to satisfy my horror/detective itch.

The Deep House – It’s an interesting concept – YouTuber haunted house explorers investigate a property that’s completely underwater – but there’s a little too much going on for its own good. Lovecraft, found footage, Nosferatu, plague doctors. Make up your mind, movie. Too bad. The result is a muddled narrative and an unsatisfying conclusion. Some pretty water and landscape shots, and a few moments of claustrophobia, but I don’t care enough about the characters on screen to feel any real dread.

A House on the Bayou – Urban family undergoing a crisis of marriage takes a week at a swamp mansion to unwind, cos that makes sense, where they encounter a boy and his pappy who are more than they seem. A perfectly fine murder thriller with supernatural suggestions that leans pretty hard on the supernatural, then tries to backtrack and have it both ways. It can’t. The film blows its credibility on its premise and remains unfocused throughout, leading up to its unsatisfying ending. The cast is pretty meh, but Angela Sarafyan is always watchable and I’d like to see more thrillers with her.

H. P. Lovecraft’s The Deep Ones – “Shadow Over Innsmouth” by way of “Rosemary’s Baby,” this is certainly an intriguing setup. It’s too bad the result is illogical and unattractive. I’m not even blaming the budget. The film gets away with a couple of interesting effects – the sequence at the end with the expectant mother is fine, even if the atmosphere is spoiled by the appearance of the father. To call the acting over-the-top would be assuming that was intentional. To say the script lacks subtlety would be generous. There’s a cool fire dancer scene in the center of the film. Focus on that instead.

Chaos Walking – Based on a novel, and boy does it feel it, since there are a ton of questions I never felt were satisfactorily answered. It’s a story of man-can-hear-man’s-thoughts-on-hostile-colony-world, but few of those components ever feel particularly necessary. Maybe the ever-present CGI effects and sprawling forest locations are meant to impress, but they kind of blurred together around a lackluster coming of age story at the center. At least we have Mads, again, riding around in a sweet hat and furry jacket. Maybe not the worst film of the year, but I always like circular framing. Start with an overproduced sci fi flick, end with… well, you get the idea.

Something’s not lining up: A critical review of “Intersect” (2020)

We’ve been through a lot lately, haven’t we? Weird old Chinese cartoons, not quite cult classics, Sig Haig. But after watching those somewhat awful cosmic horror films, upon returning to the one that I initially thought was the worst of the worst, it did not seem quite as bad. Maybe that’s maturing, tonstant Weader. Alternatively, maybe my brain is starting to rot. Still, 2020’s “Intersect” feels to e like it still has a unique place in the halls cosmic horror, science thriller and tales of time travel, if only for how many half-baked ideas it manages to cram into its span.

“Intersect” is sort of a story about three childhood friends turned Miskatonic University scientists trying to unlock the secrets of time. They’ve got it pretty good when it comes to launching jars of marbles approximately 40 seconds into the future (I’m not sure how they’re gauging that the marbles have gone through time, actually; are they older than when they started?); however, all the mice they send through the Stargate-style time machine keep vomiting blood and melting. It’s probably not a good sign that the temporal portal looks like a angry cloud of black sick. In addition to figuring that out, they’ll also ponder the motivations of a mob of religious protesters; one of the scientist’s mysterious childhood; the similarly mysterious death of another; the nature of strange creatures that may or may not be connected to their experiments; a pendant, I think; that little box with the brown paper and string. There are so many dangling threads that the film has no interest in tying up, so neither do I.

I think I know what’s wrong, though. Writer-producer-director Gus Holwerda likes a bunch of trippy thrillers – “12 Monkeys,” “The Time Machine,” “Memento,” “Call of Cthulhu,” “Event Horizon,” maybe even “Vertigo” and “The Fountain.” I get it. I like all of those too. The problem is, I don’t think they should all be crammed into the same movie.

You can’t keep excitedly adding random plot elements into a script and, instead of completing, explaining or linking any of them together, just call it “nonlinear storytelling”… I mean, you can, clearly, this film exists, but it’s not good. There is no sense of togetherness to “Intersect.” Nothing ever gets done. Watching it is a chore.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so tough if the film was intelligently shot or performed by a talented cast, but none of that exists here either. The camerawork is nothing to write home about. It’s very jumpy, with a fondness for wandering, bobbing up and down and close-ups. Sometimes it’s almost interesting; other times it’s jarring; usually it’s just annoying. There’s also something curiously unnerving about the look and sound of the film, as if everything was photographed in front of a green screen, dubbed in post, or both.

As for the actors, they aren’t even up to being a mixed bag. They either look bored or are behaving so broadly they border on parody. One scientist with a penchant for the drink constantly acts like a teenager getting plastered for the first time. Later, when paranormal phenomena start popping up, the collective response is a barely concerned shrug. I don’t know. Maybe the actors couldn’t understand the script either. Curiously, the children (in the time travel flashbacks) tend to be more convincing, possibly because one expects kids to be sulky or enthusiastic to the point of irritation.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bashing indie horror. This kind of thing can be done in a satisfying way. Two auteur driven no budget thrillers are the early Mike Flanagan effort “Absentia” and Shawn Linden’s “Nobody” (which this blog raved about not too long ago). Both of those films have loopy grasps on time and attempted something mythic. They are both arguably as ambitious as “Intersect.” What they have that it lacks is an attention span.

Still, if you’re into that sort of thing, “Intersect’s” lack of focus can lead to some unintentionally comic moments. My favorite was a schoolyard bully who is heard grunting in awful pain off camera, like he’s passing a kidney stone. We cut to him to see him standing up. Is his back out? He’s pretty young for it, but it can happen.

Elsewhere, scientist Nate stumbles into the lab after a night on the town. A coupe of lab techs are still working. They seem surprised. “It’s late,” one says. It is, so why are they there too? I also notice the science gentlemen tend to have casual wear under their white coats, but the science ladies tend to have heels and above the knee skirts. Is that industry standard? I’m not a science lady, so I’m the wrong person to ask. None of this is mentioning the characters that are brought up like we’ve always known them, the blended family drama that appears halfway through the narrative, the last second twist that’s so disconnected I don’t even think it qualifies as a twist…

In fact, “Intersect” is so distracted and irrational, I would heartily recommend it to people who like bad thrillers except for its two hour run time. That’s a tall commitment. This blog is willing to take that hit for the team, but it’s understandable if you aren’t.

Don’t worry though. Someone does watch the original “Night of the Living Dead” on screen, so we’ve got that indie horror trope covered. I don’t know why they’re never watching one of the myriad other public domain thrillers, but whatever. At least that film is only 96 minutes long.

Familiar scratches: A critical review of “Lily C.A.T.” (1987)

Is it just me, or does the idea of sleeper ships seems like a monetary sinkhole? The corporation funding the operation has to be pretty confident they’ll be around in the 20 years it takes to get to the salvage site or mining world or whatever. The crew members, meanwhile, have to hope that their hazard pay will keep up with inflation. That’s 20 years both ways, remember. I can’t imagine Adam Smith would approve.

Still, that sort of value was probably not in the heads of the producers of 1987 OVA “Lily C.A.T.” They did have another value in mind, which was a kind of economy of narrative. When it comes to bad cosmic horror flicks, “C.A.T.” is another example of a mediocre film brought low by blatantly borrowing from other media.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A motley crew of blue-collar workers, space jockeys and company wage slaves is pulled out of suspended animation to explore a mining world, somewhere and when in the distant future. Naturally people start disappearing, their bodies later found contorted in terror and dripping with alien bacteria, while other times only their discarded clothes remain. To figure out what’s going on, the dwindling crew has to investigate the connection between the disappearances and deaths, a monstrous presence on board, and an all too human murderer in their midst.

“C.A.T.” could establish some interesting mystery except for two things. The first is that it reveals some of its mysteries right off the bat – as in, during the title sequence. We see a prehistoric space rock strike the ship, so there’s nothing to discover with the crew when they start freaking out about a damaged hull and alien bacteria. They’re just catching up with us, and that’s no fun.

To be fair, the intro theme that plays under the credits is pretty good. It’s a combination of stirring orchestral cues and sinister electronic flourishes. And the animation – sweeping robot arms and hurtling space junk – is detailed and smooth. It’s a pity that’s about as good as audio or visuals will ever get. The soundtrack mostly utilizes boilerplate thriller synthesizers – not bad but not outstanding – and the visuals… we’ll get there.

The other reason there’s no real mystery here is because “C.A.T.” is painfully obvious about its influences. There’s no question the OVA lacks originality; the only question is what it’s ripping off more: “Alien” or “The Thing”? And the answer is: “yes.”

On one hand you have: the cargo ship of a ruthless corporation for the setting; an alien entity bothering the ship’s cat; an AI called Mother; robotic revelations; a tense moment when the hanger door blows open; blocky white sci fi furniture; geometric hallways lined with ropy braids of wires and lit by slatted windows; space chains.

On the other hand you have: an alien organism that appears to infect via blood; a forensic hunt for someone who is not what they appear to be; civilian scientists in an isolated setting with more curiosity than sense; a computer flashing cryptic messages about an invasive life-form taking over Earth; a human face splitting in half; a dead body on a gurney that subtly moves when no one’s looking; tentacles.

There’s also flamethrowers, cos while one can probably have cosmic horror with them, do we really want to take that chance?

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, and we should think of “C.A.T.” as a really, really slavish homage rather than a straight-up rip-off. The problem is that if we tear out all that, uh, adoration, we’re left with a second-rate slice of sci fi horror. The OVA needs to have both a large enough cast to properly murder and to tell its story in less than 70 minutes, so no character is given any breathing room to become interesting. That does explain why no one seems particularly upset about the rapidly growing pile of dead bodies on the ship. No one in the cast – or audience – cares about anyone on board.

Thematically there are some admirable attempts at philosophizing, with the most attention on considering what kinds of people would lose decades of their lives to long-distance space travel. There’s also some musing on the theme of “live life,” which could have been an opportunity for an interesting consideration of how both man and parasite just want to survive. Instead, that’s ignored in favor of a closing speech that shoots for rousing but hits “budget motivational speaker” instead – not to mention it’s delivered during the film’s most awkward editing. You might find it charming or mawkish depending on your mood, but it’s clumsy and goofy either way.

As previously discussed, if we’re skipping the borrowed aspects of design, we have to ignore spaceships and most of the creatures featured – even when it’s not overly familiar, the space critter ends up being a fairly unimaginative mass of tentacles. Not hentai tentacles though. Well, for the most part… How do the humans look? Ugly, like anemic playing cards rather than people. Surprisingly, creature designs were by Yoshitaka Amano and character designs were by Yasuomi Umetsu, who respectively worked on the inventive “Twilight of the Cockroaches” and the stunning “Robot Carnival” around this time.

There are some atmospheric lighting choices during the hallway crawls, and there is a kinda gory shot of a cat evisceration, so that’ll please old school anime weirdos. There’s even a flash of something that looks like early computer assisted animation, but I ain’t no expert on that. The film at least answers what looked like a big old plot hole at the beginning about a message from corporate HQ. Even the size of the cat, which changes depending on the shot, might have an in-universe explanation… or else someone in continuity just wasn’t doing their job. But that’s “Lily C.A.T.” in a nutshell. Between its influences and its quality, it’s a film that paradoxically tries too hard and doesn’t care at all.

Keeping connected: News January 2022

Hello there, tonstant weader. As usual around this blog, the year is getting off to a slow posting start. There is some more cosmic horror media in the pipeline – I wasn’t kidding when I said we hadn’t seen the worst of it – but most of our attention has been toward a certain “Serial Experiments Lain” research project. Expect to see that first. Hopefully there’ll be a 2021 roundup as well, but the future is unclear on that one. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, anyone who wants some insight into my love of gritty and gross old school web, I suggest this video by anituber MyCatHatesYou69. It’s anime focused, natch, but people of a similar age or outlook as me might find his review of YouTube from 2005 to 2009 nostalgic. Remember when YouTube had a charmingly clunky interface? or when one couldn’t upload more than 10 minutes of media? when Divix logos were in the corner of half the videos? when Newgrounds didn’t restrict adult content? Fan forums and YouTube poops were an integral part of my developing online identity and my ultimate interest in web arcana, so I do.

Special mention will also be thrown at Eddie Harrison of film-authority.com for a review of “The Last Broadcast.” I’ve always had a soft spot for this creaky found footage horror flick, which was understandably overshadowed by the media blitz that was “The Blair Witch Project.” The two movies came out months apart from each other, with “Broadcast” being older but, depending on your country, perhaps not available until after its witchy sibling. “Broadcast” certainly feels older, with a less dramatic stage presence and more bouts of melancholic monologuing. Basically, if “Blair Witch” was put together by community college drama students, then “Broadcast” came out of the philosophically-twinged wing of a media/communication studies department. Here’s to art projects either way.

Don’t say it: A critical review of “The Unnamable” (1988)

A look back at this year’s end cosmic horror experiment, and it can feel like this blog has been picking the low hanging fruit: cheesy old horror flicks, shoestring imports, cringy indies. You’ll have to trust me for the moment, tonstant weader, but we haven’t even hit the worst of it. Still, in the interest of fair play (it being the holidays and all), let’s go after something that approximates a sacred cow, at least within the realm of budget cosmic horror.

If anyone mentions 1988’s “The Unnamable,” it’s typically in the same paragraph as 1985’s “Re-Animator.” Not that “Unnamable” has anything like the “Re-Animator’s” cult appreciation, but rather that it is part of the 1980s and 90s wave of Lovecraft films that proved so profitable for both VHS manufacturers and Eastern European location scouts. “The Unnamable” was filmed in Southern California though, which probably explains why New England looks suspiciously like Topanga Canyon.

The film starts in American’s nascent past, when Arkham was just a blip on the cosmic map. Some old dude is keeping a yowling thing in his attic. He takes a break from his reading room – which comes with mysterious beakers for atmosphere – to let it out for a walk because he’s never seen a horror film before. We shouldn’t blame him. There weren’t a lot of movie theaters in 1706. Naturally the critter tears his still-beating heart out and tosses it on his chest. The next day, some Renaissance festival workers show up to clean the floor, and a clergyman wearing the world’s most outrageous Pilgrim costume (God, that collar! The socks! The socks!) has the old dude’s body buried in the world’s most conveniently located cemetery and the house sealed shut.

Fast forward 400 years or so and the house still stands, although it’s fallen into disrepair, at best a local legend and at worst a place where nearby Miskatonic University students go to perform stupid dares and make out. Guess what this movie is going to focus on? Naturally, when the 1988 remedial class stumbles onto the estate, they’ll learn that the creature that spilled out of the attic centuries ago hasn’t mellowed with age.

“The Unnamable” takes the cake for “films that probably should have known better.” It was clearly made with love, and there are genuinely reasons to watch it, but they’re buried under such a veneer of tedium that it becomes difficult to recommend it to anyone but Lovecraft completionists and haunted house horror junkies.

For starters, there a ton of problems that a budget could have cured, and while it feels unfair to single them out, they’re impossible to ignore. There are rather obviously only a handful of locations, photographed frequently to fill time. The sound effects seem to be coming out of a shoebox. The cast is blatantly inexperienced – for some members, this was their first or only credit on IMDb – and the crew is not too different.

Then there are things that can’t be excused with a dollar sign. Writer-director Jean-Paul Ouellette’s script contains gratuitous amounts of filler that boils down to “teens wander around the old dark house.” When they bother speaking, they have little of interest to say. Philosophy or psychology students these ain’t. Likewise, the film’s attempts at college humor are somehow both old fashioned and juvenile at the same time (it doesn’t help that the students all look a little old to be freshmen). I imagine Ouellette was trying to reach a particular page count – not to mention offer an excuse for the inevitable sex scene – but his frequent solution was to throw someone into the house and have them stumble around in the dark. Likewise, editor Wendy Plump seems to equate mounting tension with jerky montage. The score, by David Bergeaud, is endless and uninspired runs on a synthesizer. These flaws do not arise from lapse of budget but from lack of vision.

The camerawork is typically solid but boring (the photography was by Tom Fraser, then a music video and budget thriller veteran); it’s best when it’s whimsical or inventive, seeking odd angles that suggest odder perspectives, but too frequently it’s stagnant and as sedate as the cast and sets it displays. The house itself is interestingly lit (I’ve said it before, I’m a sucker for offbeat monochromatic lighting), but unimaginatively dressed and clearly smaller than it’s playing.

The cast approaches being a mixed bag. The film’s hero is Mark Kinsey Stephenson as Randoph Carter, a role he was perhaps born to play (he has seven credits on IMDb, and two of them are Carter; you do the math). He looks thoroughly comfortable as the character, portrayed as a kind of king nerd who’s as at home in a mausoleum as a university library. Everyone else in the cast is never better than an overeager community theater player. I suppose Charles King as sidekick Howard has a kind of dorky charm, and Laura Albert as pouty bobby-soxer Wendy shows the most range, but everyone else is thoroughly replaceable, with one exception.

If there is a single spot where some cash was clearly dumped into “The Unnamable,” it was the costume design of the titular creature. It’s a practical costume, all layered latex and sheepskin, resulting in a kind of demonic gargoyle look. It’s not bad, and after a movie’s worth of playing coy, the final 10 minutes of the film are not shy about showing it off. There’s a thinness to it, as if it’s always threatening to reveal some blatant budgetary flaw, but it somehow works, giving the creature the feel of something caught between worlds. It doesn’t hurt that she’s portrayed effectively by Katrin Alexandre – notably her only film role as well, and no extra info this blog could dig up on a hurry – a captivating dance between animalistic rage and wounded tragedy.

Unless there never was an Alexandre, and that wasn’t latex at all. Hmm…

“Unnamable” does not lack interesting moments, but they are simply too few and far between. There are atmospheric shots – a flash of a dirty window, a suggestive shadow around a glowing blue corner – but they must be hunted down by wandering around the same three rooms. There are some choice lines, but they’re all directly from Lovecraft and delivered by Stephenson (“Well Joel, you’ve seen it. It’s right there”). Even the gore is done is weird bursts, relative anemia punctuated by excessive slasher splatter as if making up for lost time.

The film’s first 10 minutes look like utterly enjoyable cheese; then there are 70 minutes of disposable haunted house high jinks; then the final 10 are surprisingly competent budget surreal horror. Then we get played off the stage by “Up There,” credited to Mark Ryder and Phil Davies in some circles, which sounds like a more laid back version of the “Phantasm” theme. That pilgrim clergyman was portrayed by the delightfully named Colin Cox. What is this movie? Why does it toy with me? I suppose the title is accurate. There really is no name for a film like this.

The witch is back: A critical review of “Wicked City” (1987 or 1993)

In keeping with the notion that not all bad cosmic horror is terrible, 1987’s “Wicked City” is probably not the worst cosmic horror anime out there (it’s also not that “Wicked City,” not that you had asked). It is probably one of the most controversial though, still remembered for its over-the-top content even by old school anime standards. Contemporary reviewers noted the graphic violence, casual sexuality and atmosphere of self-seriousness. One reviewer also noted undercurrents of Aldous Huxley, which you’ll have to figure out for yourself, Tonstant Weader, cos this blog sure didn’t see it. What I saw instead was a story that bounced frequently between cliché and convoluted.

Five minutes in the future, Earth has been in a state of constant, albeit uncertain, peace with the mysterious Black World, presumably a kind of shadowy sister dimension to our own populated by demons that can take human form. The time has come to renew the treaty between the two realities, and a radical demonic faction has emerged to see that it doesn’t go through. The key to the treaty is Giuseppe Mayart, a soothsayer who has traversed the worlds. Tasked with guarding Mayart is Taki, a studly human enforcer, and Makie, his fey and fetching distaff counterpart from the demon world. The pair will have to learn to work together if they want to guard their charge, as well as learn the motivations of both the deadly radicals and their own mysterious handlers.

There is little that’s original in “Wicked City.” The film opens with some pulpy detective dialogue, like a junior Raymond Chandler penning dark fantasy fan fiction, describing: “A world of darkness out there, beyond time or space… Within that world, there things that run wild.” Stirring stuff. Full disclosure, I watched the 1993 dub because that what was what available to me. Purists may scoff, but, whatever. I’m an old-ish anime junkie, and awful dubbing is part of that experience.

To be fair, most of the voice acting is OK. Pretty much everyone in the cast is nice enough to not stand out, landing somewhere between acceptable and forgettable. If there is a positive exception, it’s Greg Snegoff as Taki, as he throws some character into his portrayal from time to time.

A performer who occasionally remembers to be human can do little to salvage a script that seldom does. After the pulp detective opening, we get the impression that Taki is a James Bond type, with god-like thighs and good reflexes in the bedroom. He works for the in-universe equivalent of Universal Exports, and he’s known around the office as a Lothario (a chance encounter with a demonic spider-woman hybrid is brushed off as a one-night stand gone awry). This does little to prepare us for later in the film when Taki gets labelled a hopeless romantic. And not a newly minted one, but an always has been. It’s strange, but it’s hardly the most vexing turnaround in the film, all in the service of the last second plot reveal.

The plot operates on a lot of convenience, which bleeds into the design. This demon-haunted world looks a lot like 1980s Japan, except less populated. There are few people on the streets, cars on the road, that sort of thing, but what’s there looks suspiciously normal. The implication, if there is one, is that this nightmare is more bureaucratic than demonic. We’re told that the world is a dark and dangerous place, a powder keg in need of policing, but we’re almost never shown it.

We are shown that the world is sexually violent though, largely through the medium of demonic cop Makie. She’s apparently dated a third of the demonic realm’s population, and her exes keep popping up for revenge… and revenge sex. This is where that nonchalant misogyny pops up, which modern audiences might find problematic. There’s still debate about whether Makie is a damsel in distress or shows some agency. It’s hard to deny that she gets groped an awful lot and that the camera likes observing it from pleasing angles. This blog is firmly on team Makie though. I find she does show some agency, particularly during the finale, but my decision ultimately has more to do with Taki getting beat up almost as much as her. The film is somewhat egalitarian regarding assault, more so regarding shootings, stabbings, being smashed into walls, bitten in half, silk restraints.

Alternatively, I might just have a thing for handsome women in men’s fashion who have perfected an icy stare. I might be a failure as a human being, but I’m doing all right as a retro anime fan.

Better to focus on the action scenes perhaps. Those are often displayed in an intriguingly limited color palette: black, blue, pink. The framing and choreography of the shooting, kicking and monster-on-monster action is well executed, in part due to the fluid animation. Fight scenes tend to be notably smoother than the rest of the film, which is detailed but somewhat static. I’d like a smoother affair across the board, but if anything had to get the attention, probably best it was the combat and grotesque transformation sequences.

In truth, the monster design is surprisingly subdued, with most of the demons resembling buff dudes with overgrown fingernails. There’s a melting woman who’s likely the most infamous, but I prefer the exploding teeth and tentacles of one particular bad man. He looks like he’s drawn straight from John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” right down to a crawling head. It’s also a nice touch that his fight has the backdrop of an airport tarmac, but that’s about as artsy and out there as things get.

Actually, I’m going to go to make a (relatively) bold statement and say that, at least for a while, “Wicked City” is not all that wicked. Sure, we get anime titties, suggestions of violence and actual violence before the opening credits, but then it’s pretty tame for the next half an hour, when the film looks like it’s going to be about interdimensional diplomacy. Even after that, much of the action is bloodless and the sex is typically soft core (barring a somewhat infamous scene with tentacles).

Let’s talk music. It’s kinda diverse, with industrial, jazz and thriller soundtrack synthesizer runs, all passed through a 1980s filter. There are even a couple of erotic thriller ballads, cos it can’t all be hentai tentacles. While no single piece sticks around long enough to make an impression, but as a whole, it stands out.

The diversity of mood also sticks out, but not in a good way. Pulp detective drama, dark fantasy horror flick, late nite skin thriller, buddy cop picture, “Wicked City” wants to have it all, and it doesn’t care how it assembles the pieces. The film’s focus takes more turns than a lost traveller, and the end reveal is so from out of nowhere that it probably needed a passport. This is nowhere clearer than the character of Giuseppe Mayart, which is when the movie wants to also be a pervy comedy. In the middle of thrilling explosions, body horror transformations and grotesque sex, there’s still time for Mayart to make sleazy comments; despite everyone – including him – warning about the danger of the situation, he still finds time to sneak off to a brothel. It’s as if he’s been artificially inserted from another movie. Also, he wears a track suit the whole movie. Huh?

There are a ton of smaller “huh?” moments too, like Makie not recognizing a former lover until he removes his sunglasses. That Clark Kent disguise, I tells ya. Elsewhere, the gang watches an airplane explode. “Is the life of one person worth so much to have to kill so many?” Taki muses, without much regard for the English language. “It’s so cruel,” Makie responds. “That ain’t the half of it, sister,” Mayart adds unhelpfully.

For a cosmic horror fan, “Wicked City” has some interesting potential with its dark world, insignificant humanity and plenty of tentacles, but it’s a potential that the runtime never quite realizes. For the retro anime fan, “Wicked City” is a rite of passage, and while it is wild, it’s maybe not as wild as you’ve heard. For both, it threatens to be a bit of a slog. The images are detailed and little organic movements keep things from seeming like you’re watching a painting, but there’s an inescapable stiffness. Perhaps it’s the muted colors. Perhaps it’s the occasionally shattering slow motion. Either way, in another film, it might give the proceeds an atmosphere of grace or gravity. Unfortunately, there is little that’s gracious about “Wicked City.”

A war we can’t win: A critical review of “War-Gods of the Deep” (1965)

Maybe it’s a little unfair to review this film during a cycle of arguably the worst cosmic horror ever. The American-British thriller “War-Gods of the Deep” – that’s the Yankee title, by the way; the original UK title is the less bellicose “City Under the Sea,” not “in the sea” as IMDb would have you believe – is not one of the worst horror films ever made. It is, however, singularly disappointing. The setup is great: American International Pictures producing, Jacques Tourneur directing and Vincent Price starring in a dark fantasy thriller with hints of Lovecraft. You could not get me to watch that fast enough. Unfortunately, the film is much less excited about its own pacing, tone and purpose.

The film opens on a Cornish beach, where a body has been discovered in the shadow of a seaside mansion. Nervous fishermen surround it, debating whether it has any connection to legends of spectral bells and cities beneath the dark waves. American engineer Ben Harris (Tab Hunter) heads to the mansion – currently an electric power-deprived hotel – to inform the owner (Susan Hart) her lawyer is dead. When she disappears, Harris partners with an eccentric artist (David Tomlinson) to locate her. They discover a grotto beneath the mansion, and there a watery portal that leads to the crumbling ruins of an ancient civilization. Despite their age and seismic instability, the ruins are still inhabited by both men and monsters.

What makes “War-Gods” such a letdown is what it could have been. Tourneur could do atmosphere like few others – need I mention “Cat People” “I Walked With a Zombie” “Out of the Past” and “Curse of the Demon”? – and Price could handle the weight of Lovecraftian moods and themes, as in AIP’s “The Haunted Palace,” which deserves its own review some day. Also, the two could collaborate effectively, as evidenced by 1963’s “The Comedy of Terrors.” Of course, “Terrors” also had the support of a stellar cast and Richard Matheson’s smart script, both of which are lacking in “War-Gods.”

For script, “War-Gods” is as thin and inconsistent as a dying flashlight. This blog tries not to listen to grumbling from the writers’ room, but here I’ll make an exception. The original screenplay was penned by Charles Bennett, who previously wrote thrillers for Alfred Hitchcock and Irwin Allen. There was tension between the production companies, and his draft was rewritten by Louis M. Heyward, who had mostly written for television up till then (Heyward would go on to doctor the script for “The Crimson Cult,” and we know how that turned out). Heyward is the one who added the comedy and the chicken, and I doubt I’m the only one to notice similarities between that bird and the duck from 1959’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

This blog has yet to find anyone who will defend “War-Gods” for its sense of humor. The first scene is a great example. The body on the beach instantly raises intrigue. Even as the script railroads us toward convenient solutions, the mood doesn’t. Tight camera angles ramp up the atmosphere while off kilter editing keeps us uneasy and at arm’s length. We still don’t know if we’re in for a murder mystery, ghost story or dark fantasy. Then we get David Tomlinson in a kilt straddling Tab Hunter’s shoulders searching for a chicken.

This blog will agree with… another blog, who slipped out of my notes, but I’ll try to give credit where it’s due eventually. That blogger said the script sans comedy would still have been pretty mediocre. That’s fair. Even without feathers, “War-Gods” lacks focus. For horror, the film’s strategy seems to be every time there’s a problem, just toss Price reading Edgar Allen Poe at it. That works to a degree, but you need more than one option. You can’t just throw Poe, Lovecraft and Jules Verne onto the floor and hope for the best. There has to be something to glue it all together.

There are no characters on which to pin anything. Harris is a pretty anemic detective. He falls into a puddle and tries to punch people while searching for his lady friend, and that’s about it. That lady friend is also kind of a drip. She mainly gets kidnapped so that Harris has something to do. There’s a point where she learns she might be the reincarnation of a 17th century noblewoman, but that’s given all the attention of a mosquito bite.

The only character worth your time – and this should surprise no one – is Vincent Price as a villainous pirate captain. It’s still a shallowly written part (and despite being credited above the title, it takes 25 minutes for him to show up), but Price has enough grace and gravity to make it compelling. He’s violent, guilt-ridden and delusional. The problem is, we’re simply told most of this, and we get no signs of who he was before his psychological fall. I’d much rather watch his descent into madness than any number of underwater chase scenes.

That said, John Le Mesurier as an old prisoner gets to look adequately haunted and be kind of helpful, smoothing the plot along at a moment that feels almost natural. It’s one of the few moments in the narrative that feels organic. Also, as a non-human character, the city itself is pretty good. The sets are arguably the film’s strongest cinematic element, all dusty statues of animal-human hybrids, drip-drip-dripping rocks and giant hands jutting out of jagged stone.

The monster design, that’s not so good. It could have been great, sort of creatures from the Black Lagoon with witch-like seaweed hair. It’s just that the costumes look like they were stitched together in three minutes. Tourneur does his best to hide them with smart lighting and camera angles, at least in the early parts of the film, but he could only do so much. By the time we’re in the city, the creatures are being photographed swimming around with pirates in broad daylight (how that daylight reaches the bottom of the sea is anyone’s guess). There is no sense of mystery or wonder here.

I keep coming back to those first 15 minutes, when the film could have been anything. I wouldn’t have minded more mystery, more investigation above the surface and more time to make us care about the central characters. Instead, we get whisked down to the water-logged city and pretty much never leave. The characters walk back and forth as everything is explained to them in unnatural exposition. The set is small, and it does very little of the narrative lifting. Actually relying on the city as the focus would have required a greater sense of wonder and discovery – meaning more patience and daring from the producers.

The last 20 minutes of the film are a particularly obnoxious crawl. The whole thing becomes an extended underwater chase scene, with plenty of shots of people gasping inside diving helmets. Tourneur tosses in some interesting angles, but there’s only so much the man can do. Even when the actors get out of the pool, it’s just for a second to avoid some falling statues, then we go back in the water again. Don’t worry though. Tomlinson keeps the chicken dry in his helmet.

I don’t want to spend much more time on the film, but there is something almost noble about its conclusion. Given it’s the last cinematic testament of Tourneur, it feels worth discussing. The designated heroes ascend to the surface to watch an undersea volcano blow up courtesy of some footage stolen from an Ishiro Honda movie. Parallel to that, Price’s pirate captain – wounded and alone – climbs a flight of stone steps toward the surface. He stumbles and reaches for a painted backdrop, before he himself freezes like an oil painting. Is it madness or time dilation? Either way, it’s slightly surreal, dream-like, and hints at the weird fiction this film could have been. Honestly, the mashup of 18th century pirates, Victorian explorers and ancient Atlantian fishmen is kinda of cool. I hope someone eventually gives it the attention it deserves.

This blog finds it hard to recommend “War-Gods of the Deep.” Proper horror fans, even those with a taste for retro, will likely be more impressed by cinema that’s either better or decidedly campier. I suppose I can suggest it to cosmic horror completionists. It doesn’t fare too bad on our cosmic horror keyword watch. It’s slightly “Dagon” rather than squarely “Shadow Over Innsmouth,” but we’re got a superstitious and xenophobic seaside town, ancient aquatic ruins, a portal that fucks with time and someone named Tregillis (get it?), as well as the fishmen, natch.

I shouldn’t have had my hopes up, I suppose. Just look at that title. I can’t figure out that hyphen, and neither can you. Anyway, that’s enough of sluggish underwater chase scenes for now. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll look at something more animated. Stay tuned.

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.