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.

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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?

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Lifeforce

Dir: Tobe Hooper
Steve Railsback, Peter Firth, Mathilda May, Frank Finlay

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Lifeforce trailer [NSFW!] Never mind films,
they don’t even make trailers like this any more.

This 1987 adaptation of Colin Wilson’s The Space Vampires was famously disastrous, taking less than half its budget at the US box-office, even after being edited down by fifteen minutes, and was one of a series of flops that pushed Cannon Films to the brink of bankruptcy. At the time, Janet Maslin wrote in The New York Times, “About 30 seconds into Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, two things become clear: that this film is going to make no sense, and that Mr. Hooper’s directorial work on Poltergeist may indeed have been heavily influenced by Steven Spielberg.” And when Wilson saw what Cannon had done with his book, he was unimpressed, famously saying: “John Fowles had once told me that the film of The Magus was the worst movie ever made. After seeing Lifeforce I sent him a postcard telling him that I had gone one better.”

That’s being harsh: Lifeforce is by no means a disaster and time has been kind to it; you’ll find a lot of positive reviews online these days. The IMDB currently gives it a score of 5.8 out of ten, which ranks it third-best among the fifteen features Hooper has directed [trailing only Texas Chainsaw and Poltergeist, obviously enough]. Even allowing for Tobe’s often-wretched output, that isn’t bad. It is a classic B-movie romp of aliens, who inspired the vampire legend, and are brought back to the Earth to wreak further havoc on modern-day civilization. Steve Railsback, chewing scenery to good effect, is astronaut Steve Carlsen, the man responsible for bringing the menace back from Halley’s Comet on the spaceship Churchill, and it’s up to him and SAS Colonel Caine (Firth) to stop them, before NATO does a spot of nuclear sanitary work on London.

It feels much like a Hammer film with a budget ($25m, a huge amount at the time) increased enormously from that studio’s norm, and would have worked particularly well as a Professor Quatermass film. I can easily envisage Messrs. Cushing and Lee playing two central characters, albeit ones perhaps more academic and, in Carlsen’s case, less hysterical. It is terribly British in many aspects, with cups of tea and stiff upper lips abounding, even as the capital collapses into anarchy and chaos.

In this setting, Railsback is somewhat of a sore thumb; it may be that his unrestrained looniness, the only American character of significance, was in part responsible for the film’s failures at the box-office there. Firth is admirably tongue-in-cheek, even when faced with Carlsen beating up a nurse believed to be hosting one of the vampires: recommended to leave the room, his po-faced response is “I’m a natural voyeur.” Similarly, the supporting cast, as with Hammer, is full of faces you should recognize, for example Home Secretary Sir Percy Heseltine, played by Aubrey Morris – he was Alex’s parole officer in A Clockwork Orange. Chief among these is probably Patrick Stewart, in his pre-Picard days, as the head of an asylum for the criminally insane. It’s somewhat creepy to see Carlsen impelled to kiss him, though it probably would have been even worse had the role, as originally planned, gone to Sir John Gielgud. Nicholas (Hazell) Ball and Michael Gothard, a villainous henchman from For Your Eyes Only, can also be seen.

And then there’s Mathilda May, who was clearly no bother at all to the costume department for the entire first half of the film, being unencumbered by any clothes at all. This prompts Dr Fallada (Finlay, a role originally offered to Klaus Kinski) to proclaim, with what turns out to be misplaced confidence, “Don’t worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex.” She doesn’t so much perform as exist, and gives perhaps the finest portrayal of a nekkid space vampire in cinematic history: In a long ago printed edition of TC, I made a very complimentary comment about Ms. May’s breasts. Chris, with her superior breasts, has not let me forget this, and nor will I will make that same mistake twice. Though, for the curious, I will point out that if you click on the pic attached to this paragraph, you get the very NSFW version. And we’ll move rapidly on, shall we?

The special effects are a mixed bag. John Dykstra’s outer-space miniature work is impeccable, but some of the body casts on view are less than convincing. There’s one of Stewart which is so bad, it’s difficult to see how it could ever have passed muster, even more than twenty years ago. However, the epic scale of the film really works in its favour towards the finale, when London has been taken over. The feel here is more like a zombie film (co-writer O’Bannon helmed Return of the Living Dead the same year), with Hooper doing a fine job of capturing the anarchy and chaos as Carlsen and Caine try to track down the vampires’ lair. Though, it has to be said, the F-sized beam of light shooting into the sky should probably have given them something of a clue.

The story logic does leave a little to be desired: as Chris pointed out, if vampire victims automatically resurrect themselves two hours after death, why did this apparently not happen in the month or more it took the Churchill to return to Earth? And I can’t say the vampires’ plan makes a great deal of sense, either, sending one of their number off up to Yorkshire, to hide out in the asylum mentioned above, for reasons best described as murky. Still, as a loony slice of eighties apocalyptic sci-fi horror, it’s probably among the best, and this has to go down as one of the masterpieces of Cannon Films – albeit that both of those are somewhat small fields in number. Hooper certainly hasn’t done anything better since, either. I’ll close with this immortal exchange between Col. Caine and Dr. Fallada:

Colonel Colin Caine: You mean life after death?
Dr. Hans Fallada
: Yes.
Colonel Colin Caine: Is there?
Dr. Hans Fallada
: What?
Colonel Colin Caine: Life after death?
Dr. Hans Fallada: Do you really want to know?
Colonel Colin Caine
: No.
Dr. Hans Fallada
: Well, to answer your question, yes…

Rating: B

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Lair of the White Worm

Dir: Ken Russell
Star: Hugh Grant, Amanda Donohoe, Peter Capaldi, Sammi Davis

In the late 1980’s, Russell teamed up with Vestron to make a series of cheap quickies, of which Lair of the White Worm was the second, following on from Gothic, with Salome’s Last Dance and The Rainbow to follow. While the others have their Incredibly Bad merits – particularly Salome, which includes future cabinet minister Glenda Jackson as well as Wolf from Gladiators – it is to Lair that we must turn to see Russell’s loopiness taking flight in its most fully-fledged form.

However, there was a fair bit of loopiness inherent in the source material, Bram Stoker’s last novel. While Stoker wrote a lot of books, he’s best known for Dracula – largely because the rest are pretty dire. This is especially true towards the end of his life, when he was suffering from nephritis, and spent a lot of his time doped up to his eyeballs. Lair of the White Worm was written shortly before his death in 1912, and represents a compelling argument for euthanasia. It’s available via Project Gutenberg, should any reader wish to wade through all 55,000 words of it. I did, and would suggest a Shaun Hutson book instead. But who better to film a book written by a certifiable loony than Ken Russell? And fortunately, his version is a great deal more entertaining. He ties it to folklore by bringing in the Dampton Worm, a genuine legend, and addresses all his usual obsessions: religion (and nuns in particular), class, and so much sexual symbolism it seems that every other scene has a phallic object in it. Snakes, garden hoses, cigarette holders, E-type Jaguars, pens – no Freudian opportunity is passed up.

Read this way, the opening shot is of an enormous twat – and I don’t mean Hugh Grant. It’s a huge, vaginal cave, which our heroes (and heroines) will later penetrate, and sets the tone for the entire movie. Viewers should thus permit themselves a snigger when the name of the cinematographer comes up – Dick Bush. Under other circumstances, I’d think this was Ken having a larf, but it’s a real person, one of Russell’s regular cronies.

The film starts with the discovery of an ancient skull by archaelogist Angus Flint (Peter Capaldi), digging in front of the B&B run by orphaned sisters Mary and Eve Trent (Sammi Davis & Catherine Oxenburg – the latter with a delightful dubbed Derbyshire drawl). When this comes to the attention of local land-owner Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe), she is keen to get her hands on it, being the immortal priestess of a pagan snake-worshipping cult dating back at least to Roman times, who tends a huge snake in tunnels below her manor, to which she feeds Boy Scouts. She is keen to get her hands (as well as a very pointy dildo – the second time in three Russell movies such a device appears) on the pure & innocent Eve, for the usual sacrificial purposes. Flint and the Trents must battle against Lady Sylvia and her venomous minions, ably assisted by another local land-owner, James Dampton (Hugh Grant).

There, that’s the plot out of the way, for most of the highlights are not to be found therein, but in the execution, such as the dream/hallucination sequences. Some of these are flashbacks to ancient times, with a convent (whose nuns include Linzi Drew) being desecrated by Roman soldiers, while a giant white snake mauls a crucified Christ-figure. These video sequences are classic 80’s pop-promo stuff, redefining “lurid” with extreme colours and gratuitous visial effects. Slightly more subtle – albeit in style, rather than content – is James Dampton’s dream sequence from which entire conventions of psychologists could be sourced. This sees him boarding Concorde, where he is tied up and watches Amanda Donohoe and Catherine Oxenburg roll around the floor, cat-fighting. Oh, and they’re both dressed as air-hostesses. Here somehow seems an appropriate point to mention that you’re watching neo-royalty: Oxenburg’s mother is Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia, second cousin to Prince Charles. [Appropriately enough, Oxenburg has played Princess Di on not one, but two occasions.]

The dialogue is wonderfully ripe, littered with the sort of double-entendres beloved of the Carry On series. Some choice examples:
James Dampton: “I love Mr.Flint’s hole – it’s rather fascinating”
Lady Sylvia: “Are you into any sort of banging?”
Eve: “Me spotted dick!”
But there are also plenty of non-sexual lines to appreciate:
Lady Sylvia: “That sort of music freaks me out!”
James Dampton: “I think we probably have another reptile loose on the premises.”
Mary: “She doesn’t go to church or any of that stuff – but she’s quite religious.”
James Dampton: “Put your bicycle clips on, Peters – I’m expecting company.”
and my favourite exchange of all:
Angus: “Still playing happy families at your age?”
Mary: “Not since we lost Mam and Dad, no…”

The main saving grace is that everyone realises – to borrow a line from Russell favourite Oscar Wilde – the importance of being earnest, with material of this sort. The slightest snigger and it would topple over from trash into farce; no-one slips up here at all, even Hugh Grant who delivers what Russell reckons is the best performance of his career, and I’m inclined to agree. However, it’s Donohoe who is the key to the film, and is totally brilliant, especially when spitting out lines like “Poor little virgins, masturbating in the dark.” Do you want extra relish with that, Amanda?

This helps paper over some gaping holes in the script, which leaves a lot of things unexplained. For example, Angus manages to rustle up, in short order, not just antivenin, but also a hand-grenade and a mongoose – which is not (as far as I know) a commonly-encountered animal in rural Derbyshire. Up until the final monster, the effects are pretty good, with dismemberments, fangs and death-by-sundials all coming across well. However, when we get to see the worm, we wish we hadn’t: the front of a Volkswagen was used as the frame for it, and to be honest, they could have left it at that and the result would have been every bit as terrifying.

The main difficulty is trying to work out, how much it is all intended as a joke. That it’s a spoof is obvious, yet when Russell says, “I feel I’ve added a more believable realism by making sure it’s done straight”, it’s hard to be sure. While I don’t agree with one review which said it was “D-grade horror trash”, to quote Roger Ebert, “This is the sort of exercise [Russell] could film with one hand tied behind his back, and it looks like that was indeed more or less his approach.” Regardless, its IBFS status is certain, and let’s put it this way: at his age, Ken is old enough to know better.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Paradise

Dir: Stuart Gillard
Star: Phoebe Cates, Willie Aames

This takes almost all the best elements from The Blue Lagoon and Walkabout…and chucks them out of the window. Fortunately, the one that remains is Cates, following the footsteps of Brooke and Jenny into the “guilty pleasure” hall of fame. She teams up with Willie Aames, the straitlaced son of a preacher, as they wander across a desert conveniently supplied with a surprising number of oases, pursued by a feelthy Arab called The Jackal in lacklustre fashion (he seems to forget about them for months on end) who carries a British flag around with him for no readily apparent reason. It’s supposedly set in the 1820’s, but possesses absolutely no period atmosphere at all: going by the frequency with which Cates de-kits, it’s more like the late 1960’s.

Due to this, we’ll cut her some slack, and say she copes well with a role which would tax no-one’s acting ability. Aames, on the other hand is expected to be heroic, fighting off the Jackal, rescuing his pubescent squeeze and taking care of business. He is utterly unconvincing at any of this, admittedly hampered by direction so limp, you feel nothing at all when his parents are slaughtered (“Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord”, shouts his father – immediately before being kebabed. Oops). Since he also wrote the script, Gillard must also take blame for utterly laughable anachronisms. For example, there’s the totally fabulous house the pair knock up, complete with a verandah and all other mod cons. And if it really is “paradise”, why is no-one else living there – the Jackal and his gang know about it, since they visit repeatedly. There are also the long periods when nothing happens, save for the supposedly comedic antics of a pair of monkeys.

These are particularly irritating, since they’re a waste of perfectly good naked Phoebe time. The lack of head shots and some other strange quirks suggest that a body double was used for some of these. But that’s odd as it’s only some – other sequences are very obviously 100% for real, most notably a shower scene under a conveniently-warm waterfall that is both far too long, and not long enough, if you see what I mean. The scene appears on the sleeve of one British edition, with a little bra and panties painted onto her, which is kinda sweet. [I also don’t recall there being quite so much skin in that version…oh, dear, looks like I’ve just found an excuse to watch the film once more.] Moments like this are what provide the film with a reason for existing, crucial since we are left with no reason to care about the characters in the slightest.

So, where are the perpetrators of this waste of celluloid to be found now? Phoebe, as you should know, had a fine career, and made some 20-odd movies before retiring to becomes Mrs. Kevin Kline. Sadly, she was never again quite as revealing as here, save for one glorious moment in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. The director went on to do Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III – presumably, the one in which the turtles throw off their shells and frolic in the surf – while Willie Aames…

Ah, yes, Willie Aames. I was going to say that he vanished into obscurity, reaching the dizzy heights of voicing one of the characters in the Dungeons & Dragons cartoon show. But the story doesn’t end there. After a John Belushi-style binge, he found God, and he can now be seen playing Christian superhero Bibleman in a range of videos (click on the picture on the right for a beautifully straight-faced news story about him), as well as touring the States in a bizarre-sounding live shows designed to brainwash kids into accepting Christ as their Lord and Saviour. There’s something oddly satisfying about the way he has gone from playing the son of a preacher in a weird movie, to being a weird preacher himself.

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