Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Thing Below

Dir: Jim Wynorski [as Jay Andrews]
Stars: Billy Warlock, Kurt Max Runte, Catherine Lough Haggquist, Peter Graham-Gaudreau

I have a lot of time for Wynorski who, along with Fred Olen Ray, is one of the most enthusiastically active B-movie directors in Hollywood, with a career going back to 1985’s The Lost Empire, and which has resulted in such classics – at least in TC Towers – as Deathstalker 2, Chopping Mall and The Bare Wench Project [ok, Chris would disagree with me over the merits of the last-named]. He operates under a range of pseudonyms, including H.R. Blueberry for soft-porn spoofs such as The Da Vinci Coed, with other names including Arch Stanton, Noble Henry, Tom Popatopolous and Jamie Wagner. But the one you have to watch out for, and operating here, is Jay Andrews. This tends to be attached to poverty-row SF/action flicks, often appearing on the SciFi Channel: Komodo vs. Cobra or Gargoyle. Now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you The Thing Below.

You’ll notice that the trailer provides only brief glimpses of the titular Thing, and that would be for very good reason: it is total crap, being entirely CGI, and apparently constructed using the full computer power offered by a top of the line Sinclair Spectrum [without the 48 Kb RAM expansion pack] A host will open their mouth, a tentacle will shoot out and wrap itself around the victim’s throat. Except, the use of the words “shoot out” and “wrap itself” implies that the tentacle and the actors interact in some way. Please be under no illusions there: you could achieve a better semblance of visual trickery by getting your six-year old nephew to draw on the TV with Crayolas.

The film starts on an US warship in the Gulf of Mexico, where a sample, dug up from an oil-platform, is being returned to shore in a ferocious storm. The scientists in charge, rather dumbly, wait until the height of the gale to try and move the sample – described as so radioactive, it could tan an elephant’s hide, though this is never mentioned again – to a secure location, from the lab counter on which it is currently sitting. Do they, oh, use a dolly or cart of some kind to move it, as the ship heaves through the waves? No: a bunch of guys each grab a corner, and stagger around for a bit, before the inevitable happens. They drop the container, which shatters and the contents starts shooting tentacles out, as if auditioning for the cosplay at a Legend of the Overfiend convention.

Then the ship blows up. Quite why, I’m not sure, but they probably had used up all of their stock footage, and needed to divert elsewhere. Such as the CGI oil-rig where the bulk of the film actually takes place; this does explain the movie’s alternate title, Ghost Rig 2: The Legend of the Sea Ghost. In case you’re wondering, the original Ghost Rig was a retitling of a British film, The Devil’s Tattoo, about an evil spirit haunting a North Sea platform. It was, presumably, successful enough to merit this pseudo-sequel, though since they seem to have abandoned the title, you’d never know.

Heading towards the rig is a supply ship, under the steely gaze of Capt. Jack Griffin (Warlock), along with a scientist, Anna Davis (Haggquist), and company man Rieser (Graham-Gaudreau) – the latter may be a nod to Paul Reiser, who played basically the same role in Aliens. When they arrive, the find the place almost deserted, and soon find out that a creature is roaming the corridors here. It’s never quite made clear whether this is the same one which was on the ship or not; I think it’s probably a second one, but if that’s the case, how it escaped too isn’t explained. As Oscar Wilde once said, “To lose one many-tentacled beast from the depths may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Or something like that.

Here, we discover the creature’s other ability: it can project visions into the minds of those near it, to lure them within tentacle strike range. I’m pretty sure this was used in a Star Trek episode. And, say what you like about the monster, it doesn’t lack ambition. The crewman who wants to be a cowboy, for example, gets a whole Western town, complete with an opposing gunfighter. Never mind that this is actually a storm-tossed oil-platform, so any normal person might go “Hang on a moment…”, when they stumble through a door into Tombstone (or a semi-convincing facsimile thereof), instead of the expected store-room. Similarly, another crew member gets a visit from his favourite porn starlet, played by Glori-Anne Gilbert, whose breasts have previously been discussed on this site. A third lost her husband and son in a train crash, so – yep, you guessed it – the entire accident scene gets re-created. Hell, if you’re going to go big, go big.

Gradually, the team is whittled down to the small band of survivors, who are exactly the characters you would expect to survive. They locate a couple of survivors, including Captain Jack’s brother, and there’s a tussle over a floppy disk which contains information on how to defeat the creature. This is questionable in a couple of ways. Firstly, when was the last time you saw anyone copy information onto a floppy disk? And secondly, the method actually used by Jack, seems far more inspired by a recent viewing of Die Hard than anything remotely technological. Sadly, the film lacks the guts to have him intone “”Come out off the coast, we’ll get together with a many-tentacled telepathic fiend, have a few laughs.”

The ending is both eminently predictable, and a complete cop-out in that the creature suddenly decides to develop a hitherto-unmentioned skill – one which, if applied earlier, would likely have resulted in a rapid end to the film. No such luck, however, and we are left to contemplate the horrific possibility of The Thing Below 2 – or, possibly, Ghost Rig 3. So far, however, even Wynorski has not seen fit to go back to that particular well, despite having made 23 features in the four or so years since. Perhaps even he knows when it’s best to let sleeping, ah, things lie.

Despite the copious use of stock footage [some of which is, admittedly, fairly impressive], the film’s cheapjack nature continually shines through. The entire US government is represented by two guys and a Dell computer in a largely-empty warehouse, supposedly in Washington. This is enough to get you the direct-dial number of the President; well, I guess Bush hasn’t got much to do since the election.

If Warlock looks somewhat familiar, it’s because he was the lead in Brian Yuzna’s Society, where he also found himself on the wrong end of an alien species, and I have to say, the acting is probably the least of the film’s problems. While no-one stands out, they all do what they can with the crappy material, especially since one suspects they were acting under false pretenses. Specifically, being unaware that the special FX to be inserted later, were using the term “special” in much the same way as the “Special Olympics.” I can only sympathize with them, so here’s a quick plug for Haggquist’s theatrical and film bookshop in Vancouver. It’s the least she deserves.

Regardless of how you look at this film, there are better entries sitting on the shelves. Alien paranoia? Go for The Thing, which the movie’s title is shamefully invoking. Want tentacles on the ocean? Try Deep Rising instead – which also had far better effects, despite being made six years previously, practically an age in CGI terms. Deserted vessel? Even the crappy Ghost Ship had one good scene. Which would be one more than this manages. But ask yourself a question, folks: how cheap and rushed does a film have to be, before Jim Wynorski won’t use his real name on it?

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TV Dinners: The Best TV of 2008

We spent most of the week emptying TV off the Tivo – hence the lack of movie reviews on the site this week. We don’t watch much television, generally. Well, actually we do, but in terms of series we actively follow, rather than randomly pausing on while channel-surfing, there aren’t that many. [A fondness for Discovery Channel’s Destroyed in Seconds – a title presumably used because “Shit Getting Blown Up” was deemed inappropriate – hardly counts] Here are the five shows which were put on permanent record as far as our Tivo was concerned in 2008.

5. The Unit. I am not quite sure how we managed to miss the first three series, but then, we managed to ignore 24 on its initial screening. Life’s too short to watch everything, I guess. It was the realization that David Mamet was the creator which finally lured, first Chris and then me, in: while somewhat variable in the quality of the individual episodes, it has a good enough hit-rate to keep us interested. It’s centered on a special forces group under Col. Ryan (Robert Patric), which engage on covert missions of counter-terrorism, etc. around the world, with all knowledge officially disavowed.

This bears some resemblance to 24, not least the presence of President Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) as the sergeant-major in charge of one of the squads. While some of the stories are rather silly [the one about escorting an Afghani bride to her wedding was not the writers’ finest hour], when they get a good topic, they can generate a degree of tension rarely seen on television. It does an admirable job of generally avoiding stereotypes for ‘the enemy,’ even if there is little or no doubt who the good guys are. If you’re looking for hidden depths, this is probably not the show, yet as straightforward action-adventure in a post-9/11 world, it’s well put-together and executed.

4. Life on Mars. I never saw any of the British version, so I can’t say whether the American remake is better, worse or basically the same. On its own merits, however, it works very nicely, though it did take a couple of episodes for me to warm to the show. Cop Sam Tyler (Jason O’Mara) is in an accident, and wakens to find himself apparently back in 1973 – he’s still a policeman, but it’s a very different world under his new boss, played by Harvey Keitel, in an interesting echo of his Bad Lieutenant role. Tyler has the chance to revisit his own childhood, and address some unresolved issues from his past, but is he really alive in the 70’s or is it all just some kind of hallucination?

Initially, this seemed not much more than an exercise in unabashed 70’s nostalgia, with a soundtrack apparently designed to sell CDs as much as anything. However, Tyler is an endearing character, and it’s easy to see why he behaves the way he does – he loyally refuses to deny the future, causing his colleagues to regard him as eccentric, at best. It’s an interesting study in how much our society has changed over 35 years, in almost every way, and one suspects this holds true for Britain, just as much as America.

3. Fringe. JJ Abrams has a somewhat spotty track record: Alias used to be a favorite, before imploding spectacularly in the last couple of seasons, and we never got into Lost at all. However, with Fringe, he seems to have returned to form, with a nicely-layered tale of conspiracy, which owes more than a little to early X Files. FBI agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) is assigned to a special group investigating a series of unexplained events, apparently connected in what’s called “The Pattern.” This brings her into contact with mad scientist Dr. Walter Bishop (John Noble) – and I mean ‘mad’ literally, since he has to get bailed out of the mental hospital by his son. There’s also a mega-corporation, Massive Dynamic, who may be responsible for The Pattern, and certainly know more than they’re admitting.

This kind of thing is better suited for a TV series than a movie, where everything has to be wrapped up in two hours. The authors can dole out information more slowly, keeping the paranoia bubbling. Of course, this can’t be sustained forever: eventually, they have to resolve things – that’s where Chris Carter went wrong in The X-Files, and he’s never really recovered. Fringe is no different, but if anyone can pull it off, Abrams probably can. We’ll cross that when we come to it, and in the meantime, just enjoy the show [while looking over our shoulders] and Dr. Bishop’s endearing line in comments: after two decades in the loony-bin, he’s fascinated by the most everyday things, and has little sense of the social niceties. Here’s a typical example: “Oh! I just got an erection… Don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with your state of undress. I simply need to urinate.”

2. Primeval. Ah, BBC America, how do we love thee. Well, actually, the bulk of the programming appear to involve interior decoration, antiques or Monty Python re-runs [not that there’s anything wrong with the last mentioned, of course], but occasionally there’s a gem, such as this Stargate-like show, in which portals open up, allowing creatures from other times to enter the modern world. Curiously – and presumably due to budgetary restrictions – these only ever seem to appear around the Home Counties of England, but such artifice aside, you can hardly do anything but love a show in which an ancient elephant rampages its way up and down a motorway. Gives new meaning to the phrase “mammoth traffic jam”, I guess…

The idea is broad enough to give an almost infinite range of possibilities, with the animals covering a range from the cute [a flying lizard called Rex, and a flock of dodos] through to the seriously nasty, perhaps most memorably a predator from the future, though the carnivorous worms that appeared in a tower-block also merit consideration there. The creator has compared the show to The A-Team – a curious parallel, yet one I can see, based on the disparate backgrounds of the characters. We particularly love Sir James Lester (Ben Miller) who may be the most sarcastic git on television.

1. Dexter. I read the book on which the series was based a little while back; it’s radically different, with Dexter being a much colder and distant character. I don’t think they could really do the show that way, and the lovable guy we see here perhaps makes things even more subversive. He’s charming, witty, personable… and just happens to have this overwhelming need to kill people occasionally, though has successfully channeled this so that he only kills those who have slipped through the nets of justice. Michael C. Hall is perfect in the title role – I can’t imagine anyone else playing Dexter – and the raft of supporting characters behind them help craft the most unmissable show of the year.

The second season did veer off into some questionable territory, but its third year has returned to full strength. There’s an intriguing premise of a partner in crime for Dexter – and it’s the Assistant DA Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits), whose brother Dexter killed, albeit in self-defense. While Dexter operates strictly under his self-imposed code, only targeting those where evidence of their crimes is impeccable, Prado doesn’t have the necessary restraint, and is much more volatile, inevitably transforming him gradually from an ally into a threat. The last episode of the series is on Sunday night, and as Showtime have already contracted for the fourth and fifth seasons, it looks like we’ll be following this for some time to come.

Speed Kills: But It’s Extremely Profitable

This is something that I touched upon last week, but was brought back to the forefront of consciousness with the news that, in the first two months of operation, more than 40,000 tickets were issued, purely as a result of the cameras being triggered. Equally staggering, the cameras actually went off more than four times as often – a total of 166,176 times on freeways. Three out of four photos have to be discarded because they don’t clearly show the driver or the number-plate, necessary in order to begin the citation process.

That’s based on sixty cameras [forty mobile, twenty fixed], and would lead to an income of about $6.6 million for the state, if everyone were to pay up at the average rate of $165 per ticket. A nice windfall, especially in a state that is facing a serious budget deficit this year. The system is being run by a for-profit corporation, and the idea that this is about “safety” is given the lie by the fact that anyone caught speeding does not incur any penalty points on their license – they simply have to pay the fine, and nothing else will happen to them. It’s basically a speed tax, and one you can largely bypass if you know whereabout the fixed cameras are located.

As noted previously, the concept of a fixed speed-limit on any highway is entirely ridiculous, because the safe speed on a road is subject to a wide range of variables: time of day, volume of traffic, weather conditions, etc. There are times – and I’m thinking particularly of rain, which seems like an foreign concept to Arizona drivers – when even 55 mph is too fast. But there are others, where the road is entirely empty, when you can go a lot faster without putting anyone else [or even yourself] in jeopardy. Speed cameras have no concept of this; they offer a “one size fits all” approach to justice, which makes as much sense as the laughable ‘zero tolerance’ policy schools have for violence, that results in idiotic concepts such as kids being suspended for playing with a water-gun.

Any inflexible or automated process of law-enforcement is always going to result in this kind of idiocy, because of the difference between enforcing the letter of the law and enforcing justice. The latter is, naturally, harder and requires the presence of actual human to assess the situation and take appropriate action. I am reminded of Demolition Man, where Sly Stallone’s retro-cop is automatically fined every time he uses bad language – which happens about once every five seconds. It also makes me fear that the United States is going the same way as the United Kingdom, which I was fortunate enough to leave before the closed-circuit cameras became omnipresent.

Inevitably, the same arguments are being used here: “If you don’t break the law, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Of course, you can extend the concept as far as you want to go. Hey, let’s put a camera in your bedroom, shall we? After all – all together! – “If you don’t break the law, you’ve got nothing to worry about.” Once the basic principle has become established, and the public has become comfortable with it, then it becomes a lot easier to take the next step. We’ve already seen this with GPS devices being placed in cars, in case of an accident or theft. However, you can now get the same thing for your kids, or elderly relatives who might be liable to wander off. How long before they become [at first, anyway] optional accessories for all adults, just to be safe?

This probably seems like paranoid thinking, but I recall thinking much the same about those who predicted that cameras would be observing our every act. George Orwell probably got the much the same reaction for 1984, and I suspect he was exaggerating what seemed plausible to him for literary effect. Seems that reality has done a very effective job of catching up on speculative fiction.

Repo! The Genetic Opera

“Is this movie for everyone? Absolutely not. Will there be people that hate it? Absolutely. But the fact is – what I can say is we didn’t sell out… This movie was made triple fold not only because I love the story and I wanted to do a musical but to basically show people that you can make something different. You don’t have to regurgitate the same ideas over and over again. There are original ideas out there. You just have to fight for them and get the audience out.”
Darren Lynn Bousman

Zdunich (left) and Bousman field Repo! questions
Zdunich (left) and Bousman field Repo! questions

Some things seem doomed to fail. High on the list would be a horror musical with no advertising budget, buried by its distributor, whose stars include Paris Hilton, the lead singer from industrial pioneers Skinny Puppy and that guy off Buffy. But 500 people came to Chandler Cinemas late on a weekday night, paying $15 each to watch Repo! The Genetic Opera. Mainstream Hollywood would kill for that level of viral buzz. What the hell is going on?

Repo started as a ten-minute opera called The Necromerchant’s Debt, written and composed by Darren Smith and Terrance Zdunich in Newport Beach. It grew from there, with additional songs and characters being bolted on, and eventually developed into a full-length 2002 stage-play, which ran at Hollywood’s John Raitt Theatre. That was directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, then 23 and, at that point, with no feature experience at all. However, after he helmed Saw II and Saw III, he used some of the cast and crew to make a 10-minute promo reel.

Twisted Pictures, the producers behind the Saw franchise, took the idea up and the movie was green-lit with an $8.3 million budget and an eclectic cast. Shooting begain September 2007 in Toronto, with a release date originally scheduled for April this year, as shown on the image, top-left. Post-production delays – an opera proving significantly harder to edit, etc. than a regular movie – pushed this back to November. However, Lionsgate – and I can certainly see their point, though the arrival of new head Joe Drake probably didn’t help – simply didn’t believe there was a market for the film. They basically dropped out of promotion and released Repo on just eight screens [even worse than Lionsgate’s dump of Midnight Meat Train in August]. Matters weren’t helped by some particularly vicious reviews.

  • “Misery is enduring this Rocky Horror Paris Show” — Rolling Stone
  • “Excruciating new torture” — New York Times
  • “Unfunny, unscary, preposterous… Self-indulgent misfire” — USA Today
  • “Appears to have been shot with a cell phone” — Village Voice
  • “Plain awful and nearly unwatchable” — LA Times

It’s hard to find much disagreement among the mainstream press: the movie currently has a 17% Fresh rating among the top critics at RottenTomatoes.com. Zdunich and Bousman were undaunted, inspired by the better reaction on blogs and indie sites that there was an audience for their film out there – if only they could find it. The warm reception it had received at film festivals also helped convince them Lionsgate were wrong, and with the help of a dedicated Internet following, they took their movie on a tour across North America in November. Sold-out screenings followed, with the creators somewhat bemused to find fans turning up in costume as characters – to watch a film they’d never seen before.

The creators deny having deliberately set out to create a “cult movie.” I think it’s probably true, though the obvious potential inherent in the concept is clear – if you can capture the singing goths of the Rocky Horror fanbase, and the Whedonites, attracted by the casting of Anthony Stewart Head, you’ve got a fiercely loyal audience. Said Zdunich, “I think we appeal to a group of people who are hungry for more than just your typical moviegoing experience. They’re hungry for something that feels like an event, that feels like a community.” There’s no doubt, based on the reaction and attendance on Thurday night in Phoenix, that this sense of community is no mirage.

Hard to say where the film goes from here. Bousman has vowed to keep touring, all the way through the release of the DVD in January, and beyond [we want to bring him back for our Phoenix Fear Film Festival next year]. However, it seems tough to create a theatrical cult in the DVD era, where home viewing is increasingly superior to the multiplex experience. Time will tell whether this current, undeniable phenomena is merely a short-lived curiosity, or develops into a lasting feature on the cinematic landscape.

And with that all said, is the movie any good?

Repo! The Genetic Opera

Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman
Star: Anthony Stewart Head, Alexa Vega, Paul Sorvino, Terrance Zdunich

The year is 2057. The world is dominated by GeneCo, the company under Rotti Largo (Sorvino) that helped defeat a wave of organ failure, by providing transplants – at a cost. And woe betide you, if you feel to keep up with the payments, for they’ll send repo man Nathan Wallace (Head) after you for a friendly chat and the foreclosed organ. However, both Largo nor Wallace have their own issues: the former discovers he is terminally ill and has to decide which of his three dreadful offspring will inherit GeneCo, while his employee has a teenage daughter (Vega) suffering from an incurable blood disease. The two have a connection that goes back a long way; Nathan’s now-dead wife had been engaged to Largo, back before he saved the world. I trust the potential for tragedy, of the Wagnerian kind, needs no emphasis.

I don’t think this is as original as has been claimed in some quarters. While the rock opera [note, not musical: that just contains songs, while this contains almost no spoken dialog] is a genre that’s not exactly been seen much, aspects of this come from – in chronological order of the movie versions – Phantom of the Paradise, The Rocky Horror Show, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The last-named may be the closest, for its mix of arterial spray and show-tunes. Add elements from the likes of Brazil and Blade Runner [while the central notion is close to Python’s Live Organ Donors] and the result is about as original as the average Tarantino film. Still, what emerges is unquestionably its own beast – albeit in much the same way as Frankenstein’s monster.

The movie’s strongest suit is its visual style, which is little short of breathtaking: a future world with a dreamlike atmosphere has been created, mostly using sets but with effective use of CGI to add scale. Much credit to cinematographer Joseph White and production designer David Hackl for their sterling work creating a backdrop, into which all the characters fit perfectly. Head is the standout performance, commanding the screen with a combination of pathos, presence and gallows humour; he is no slacker on the singing front either, though having seen him on the London stage as Frank N. Furter, back in the early 90’s, that’s not really a shock. Zdunich appears as a graverobbing drug-dealer, and gets one of the best songs, though his character seems peripheral – it may have served a greater purpose on-stage?

Paul Sorvino is a pleasant surprise [with some research, it seems shouldn’t be]; not so Vega, whose voice comes over as thin and reedy; it’s probably appropriate for her 17-year old character, but lacks anything to make it a pleasure to listen to. Sara Brightman, as an opera singer whose site was restored by GeneCo, also makes an impression, albeit probably as much for her enormous false eyelashes as anything else. Paris Hilton shows up as one of Rotti’s appalling children, and doesn’t suck as much as you might expect, though I’d still have welcomed it if her character’s fate had matched that suffered in House of Wax.

For an opera, it’s a major weakness that the tunes are eminently forgettable: less than 24 hours later, I can’t remember even a couple of notes of any of them. Being charitable, let’s assume they take a few hearings to sink in. Though mostly unremarkable, I liked the neo-industrial feel to most of them [the presence of Ogre from Skinny Puppy, playing another of Largo’s kids, makes a great deal of sense], and there’s enough variety to keep things interesting. Joan Jett shows up at one point, for reasons that escaped me.

Even if the results are wildly uneven, I have nothing but enormous respect for the creators: they clearly went into this with a vision of what they were trying to create, and they refused to compromise it one iota. In a world of increasingly-sterile entertainment, the love that went into this, both in front of and behind the camera, is a pleasure to see. The dedication to and passion for the film shown by Zdunich and Bousman is both obvious and infectious, and is likely a key part of the reason why fans of their work appear to be every bit as enthusiastic.

B-
[December 2008]

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