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.

YouTube video

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: 9 Deaths of the Ninja

Dir: Emmett Alston
Star: Sho Kosugi, Brent Huff, Blackie Dammett, Vijay Amritraj

Vijay Amritraj. Good tennis player. Top Asian for 14 years, reached the Wimbledon doubles semis with his brother. But an actor? That he has a supporting role here tells you something. That he doesn’t stand out as particularly awful tells you more about this semi-Bond wannabe, that wavers between jaw-dropping incompetence and incoherence. We know we’re in trouble from the opening credits, featuring Kosugi (a low-rent Sonny Chiba at the best of times) doing kata surrounded by leotarded ladies, in a bizarre yet chaste 007 ripoff. It even has a strikingly crap song, strangely comparable to All Time High.

Set in the Phillipines (another reason for bad movie fans to sit up), it starts with a busload of tourists being kidnapped by terrorists, having missed subtle warning signs such as a man in dark glasses by the road-side muttering into a walkie-talkie with a three-foot antenna. Mind you, given the stultifyingly banal tour guide, I’d be grateful for the diversion: once the native dancers appear, capture by sadistic goons would seem a welcome alternative. This is especially so, when the leader of the gang is named – and we rewound the film to check this – Colonel Honey Hump. She is a lesbian, naturally, though one for whom English does not appear to be a familiar tongue, going by her performance.

She is, however, a model of restraint and understated acting, compared to her boss, Alby the Cruel. He is German (why he is in the Philippines is never made clear), in a wheelchair, and has a monkey with a diaper in lieu of the traditional white Persian. Played by the wonderfully-named Blackie Dammett – let’s just say that again: Blackie Dammett (in real life, the father of Red Hot Chilli Pepper Anthony Kiedis!) – he has kidnapped the group in order to force the release of Arab terrorist Rahji the Butcher, a character whose dialogue consists almost exclusively of “BWAH-HAH-HAH…”

To rescue the hostages, the government call in the DART team, a threesome led by Spike Shinobi (Kosugi), although not until he has a flashback on a sun-lounger (why does he take his samurai sword with him poolside?) during which we learn he was expelled from Ninja Academy for letting his emotions get the better of him. You may be excused for thinking this is an Important Plot Point. Don’t bother: it is never referred to again. Chief sidekick, Steve Gordon, is played by Brent Huff – with his roles here and in Gwendoline, he is the first man to have starred in multiple Incredibly Bad Films, alongside actresses Sybil Danning and Yukari Oshima. [Michelle Bauer has managed three, but two were minor roles]

Our heroic trio end up in a museum, where they are attacked by midgets. It’s sentences like that one, which keep me going through all the long, dark dull movies, y’know. Despite having all his dialogue dubbed, Kosugi looks suitably flummoxed by this. Well he might, as a fall of perhaps a yard, tops, kills the guy they’re after, even though he lands on his feet. They don’t make villains like they used to. “That was his last jump,” adds Shinobi cryptically.

Despite the presence of an international hostage crists, the good guys take time out for a few drinks, and seduction in Gordon’s case. But Alby and his henchmen have turned the Phillipine jungle into a Bavarian drinking hall too, so they’re not exactly losing ground. The government, however, is left with no option but to release Rahji. Who, in keeping with fundamentalist terrorist tradition, heads straight for the nearest whorehouse, pausing only to exchange his car for a horse and buggy.

Tracking the manic laughter, Shinobi follows Rahji, clings to the escape ‘copter, throws him from it, visits a floating brothel, leaps overboard, is chased by scuba divers (clearly always on standby) and finds the terrorists. Thus passes the middle 1/3. We know we are heading towards the final, climactic, all-out assault but get two classic lines first: “It would take a tougher man than you to pull apart industrial epoxy” and, “Do you understand? PIG HEADSSSS!” from Colonel Hump.

The end battle has an almost Zen-like approach. Witness the following sequence:

  • Medium shot of waterfall
  • Sound-effect of shuriken flying through air
  • Close-up of guy holding shuriken unconvincingly to eye
  • Medium shot of waterfall.

This is cinematic genius on a par with Welles or Lean – the midgets earlier suggest Alston may be a pseudonym for Fellini. I note that “Alston” has not apparently worked on anything since Fellini died…By now, we are deep into “Eh?” territory, with Shinobi fighting evil ninjas for no readily apparent reason – between Germans, Japanese, Arabs and the locals, it is truly a terrorist United Nations. Rahji is dispatched with a detonator in the mouth, while Alby is trampled to death by a herd of stampeding polo ponies. At the risk of repeating myself, sentences like that sum up the reasons we lurk in the “under $10” section of less-discerning movie outlets: an unfettered imagination is a good thing, and when it goes utterly berserk, it’s even better. One can only wonder at the script meeting where they came up with this ending for the villain.

In keeping with traditional badmovie ethics, the title is meaningless, as far as I can tell, since at no point in the film do nine ninjas die. The German title translates as Nine Lives of the Ninja, which might make more sense. But what else would you expect from a film where Shane and Kane Kosugi play characters called Shane and Kane, while Vijay Amritraj plays one called…yep, you guessed it, Vijay. There’s one extraordinary appropriate line from the film that sums up the whole surreal experience: “Too many drugs this time, boys, too many drugs.” For the makers, perhaps – for Chris and I, not even a 151-proof rum-soaked pineapple proved sufficient to mask all of this film’s delicious flaws.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: Battlefield Earth

Dir: Roger Christian
Star: John Travolta, Barry Pepper, Forest Whitaker, Kim Coates

It doesn’t actually begin too badly, though I don’t know about man being an endangered species, as the opening text claims – it’s John Travolta’s career that’s about to be put in extreme peril. In the year 3000, humanity has been reduced to a primeval state, harbouring vague memories of civilization, gods and demons. We can tell it’s primeval, because all the men look like Swampy. Hell, all the women look like Swampy. Our hero, Jonnie (Pepper, in his last starring role – trust me on this one) leaves the sanctuary of the mountains to find these mythical gods in a ruined city. I have to say, the effects and sets are excellent, and I was wondering if this was perhaps more a misunderstood gem.

How wrong I was. For then the invading alien race, the Psychlos, turn up and start firing. For some reason, the movie suddenly acquires a virulent green tint, the first of many totally gratuitous filters director Christian puts in front of the camera. Green, blue, orange – even more than one in the same shot. And when he hasn’t got out his Crayolas, he’s tilting the camera: initially, it didn’t make much difference since, hey, mountains are kind of tilty anyway, but this gets old fast on any level playing-field. The drinking game for this movie should involve taking a swig each time the camera moves off the horizontal: should ensure oblivion is reached by about 30 minutes, a best-case scenario for any viewer.

All  together now...  LEAN...
Roger Christian’s direction: “Tilt the camera MORE! Put another filter on!”

Anyway, Jonnie gets captured, pausing only to crash through a succession of plate-glass windows, all remarkably intact, despite the passage of enough time for cities to crumble. His attempts to escape bring him into contact – literally – with Terl (Travolta), the Psychlo security officer who is mean and grumpy even when he isn’t stuck on Earth “with endless options for renewal”, after being caught shagging a senator’s daughter. Bizarrely, there’s much in the film that revolves around office politics of the most banal sort, which is wildly out of place in a supposed SF-action pic.

“In order to feel safer on his private jet, John Travolta has purchased a bomb-sniffing dog. Unfortunately for the actor, the dog came six movies too late”
Tina Fey, Saturday Night Live

Hard to say which is worse, Travolta’s appearance or his acting. Things the movies teach us, #391: it is hard to exude menace, when you have tubes stuck up both your nostrils. And that’s excluding Terl’s funky dreads and the platform soles, clearly intended to increase his stature, but which actually make him resemble a former member of Slade as he clomps around. Travolta’s performance is no more comfortable, and would be barely acceptable as a pantomime villain at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon.

Forrest  Whitaker wonders,  'Does my bum look big in this?'

Our hero, meanwhile, is stuck with the other “man-animals” and fed something green and lumpy; it must be good, as a fight breaks out over its distribution, albeit only so Jonnie can give the “we humans have to stick together” speech. Terl, meanwhile, has his own plans. The Psychlos came to Earth in search of gold (coincidentally, also a rare element on their planet), and he wants to use humans to operate the mining machinery, which would be a breach of the rules. He also lets Jonnie and two colleagues out, purely in order to find out what humans like most to eat – I guess asking them would have been too much trouble – and comes to the conclusion that it’s rat.

He plugs Jonnie into a learning machine, force-feeding him, not just the knowledge necessary to work the machinery, but the entire Encyclopedia Galactica, including the bits on military technology. Oops. If Terl is supposed to be one of the elite, you wonder how such a dumb species ever discovered the wheel, never mind interstellar teleportation. He then brings Jonnie to the destroyed Denver public library, just to emphasise that knowledge is useless. Jonnie picks up from the rubble…well, for one glorious moment, I thought it was going to be a copy of L.Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics, but it’s even more cliched – the Declaration of Independence.

Terl can’t survive outdoors because radiation makes the atmosphere the Psychlos breath explode [This an Important Plot Point, once you can get past wondering about the dubious physics involved]. So he leaves Jonnie and his crew to mine for two weeks and wanders off. Jonnie uses his new-found knowledge instead to sprint around the United States, dropping off local cavemen at flight simulators so they can learn to fly fighter jets [miraculously still in working order after a thousand years or so], picking up nuclear bombs, oh, and looting gold from Fort Knox. Terl, of course, barely questions why his gold mine is miraculously producing bullion bars, probably stamped, “Property of US Government”.

Jonnie kicks off the revolt, and then…to be honest, I’m not sure what happens, exactly, as the story is edited in such a way as to border on the incoherent. Must have been damn fine flight simulators though, as the cavemen are now flying like Tom Cruise on amphetamines. The nuclear bomb is snuck through the teleportation gateway to the Psychlos home planet, where it blows up, causing the entire atmosphere to go with it. Kinda lucky such an unstable planet had survived the four billion years necessary to evolve intelligent life.

A potential  Scientologist tries to evade recruitment

Terl meanwhile, gets his arm blown off – reacting with much the same depth of emotion you’d get if someone told him there was a thread on his suit jacket – and is kept hostage by Jonnie for reasons which remain unclear to this day. Estimated cost: $73m. American box-office: $21m. Watching John Travolta’s smug Scientologist face as his career goes down the plughole: priceless.

It’s impossible to list all the ways in which this film is jaw-droppingly awful. The plot makes no sense, the acting is awful, the direction woeful. I’ve read the original novel (hey, so shoot me) and it’s actually not bad, or at least not disastrous, in a pulp SF kinda way. Its miserable box-office doesn’t tell the whole tale, since it’s widely known that Scientologists were asked to go and see the movie multiple times on the first weekend. About the only thing in its favour is that, while I’ve no doubt Hubbard’s name is largely what got Travolta interested, it surely is too bad to contain any kind of cult-indoctrination message. lists the final critical score at 69-4 against, an unprecedented tidal wave of hate. The Battlefield Earth FAQ goes even further, cherrypicking the bad ones. Believe the hype on this one: it’s every bit as poor as you imagined, and then some.

Incredibly Bad Film Show: The Story of Ricky

Dir: Nam Nai Choi
Star: Fan Siu Wong, Fan Mui Sang, Cheng Chuen Yam, Yukari Oshima

“Ricky is sent to prison. In the jail, he sees the prisoners being exploited and tortured by chief warden Cobra. Ricky decides to stand up against them. After many setbacks, Ricky gets the support of the other prisoners…”
— DVD synopsis

It is perhaps fitting that a film such as this, should come with a synopsis which is wildly inaccurate in just about every way e.g. the chief warden doesn’t so much as appear until more than fifty minutes in. And it also curiously underplays things: as you’ll see, describing what happens to Ricky as “minor setbacks” is one of the greatest understatements of all time. The film is based on the 12-volume Riki-Oh manga by Tetsuya Saruwatari and Takajo Masuhiko, and also spawned two anime OAVs. But it is in this live-action incarnation that it has become most infamous, largely because it may well be the second-goriest movie ever, surpassed only by Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead. And, after a few beers, it could also be the finest film in cinema history.

Ricky Ho (Fan Siu Wong) is sent to prison – he should know he’s in trouble as soon as the transfer bus pulls in, for the courtyard is awash with what looks like tomato juice, but probably isn’t. Such are the choice of a free economy, for as a title-card informs us: “By 2001 AD, capitalistic countries have privatised all government organisations. Prisons, like car-parks, have become franchised business…”. This may explain the lack of guards, but those that are seem not be over-taxed – one guard’s duties solely seem to consist of yelling “Go over there!” at prisoners. Ricky Ho sets off the metal-detectors but an X-ray (carried out with an cheerfully complete lack of safety precautions) reveals he carries five bullets in his chest.

Elsewhere Samuel is bullying an elderly prisoner, Ma. Cue the first appearance of the Chorus – a group of inmates whose role is to forward the plot without getting in the way:

“Samuel is at it again.”
“He’s a gang leader, and the captain of his cell-block.”
“He’s friends with the guards.”
“Well, what can you do…”

Before they, as one, turn to urinate. Such apathy extends to the staff too – “He fell and whined like a pig. What a nuisance!”, says a guard on seeing the results of Ma’s nose meeting DIY equipment. But Ricky won’t stand for this, and trips Samuel, who falls face-first onto spikes – it feels more like a public service announcement warning against the dangers of leaving large pieces of nailed wood carelessly around the bathroom.

Samuel hires the uber-fat Zorro to kill Ricky, for 30lbs of rice. He doesn’t, though the neat wound Ricky inflicts on him bears no resemblance to the torso-wide gash seen in the next shot. “Another move and I’ll…hit you!” says a guard, not exactly causing Ricky to quake in terror, as he encounters the head of the North Cell, Oscar. While locked in his cell, we get a flashback to Ricky’s training. This was from his uncle Shan Kuei, in a cemetery with the gravestones as fodder for smashing – the families of the buried must have been a bit miffed at this. Ricky makes for an entirely unconvincing student, in collar, tie and preppy look, even if the training causes his body to glow like a poster child for Chernobyl.

Back in jail, we meet the assistant warden. He keeps porno vids on the shelf in his office, and has a glass eye, which he keeps in a water glass. Oh, and he keeps mints inside the eye. While on the missing body-part front, he also has a hook for his hand, which acts both as a fork and a tool to drag dead prisoners away, so I hope he washes it between times. And it spikes Ricky when he won’t talk, but he won’t rise to the bait, so the assistant warden hands him to Oscar for a duel. Oscar blinds our hero with powdered glass and slices up his tendons but Ricky is so tough, he just ties them up himself, in a move not found in my First Aid manual. His opponent is no less tough: in a last-ditch move, he commits seppuku, and tries to use his own intestines to strangle Ricky; one bone-crunching punch (as seen in The Street Fighter) settles his hash for good. The other block heads turn up: West Cell’s Rogan (Oshima), East Cell’s Tarzan, and South Cell’s Brendan. Ricky discovers they’re growing poppies for opium in the jail, so sets fire to the crop, bringing down the wrath of Rogan. This time, he is caught by being buried in concrete – is that what they mean by a hardened criminal?

The real warden returns: he’s even tougher than his assistant, gouging out a prisoner’s eye for unrolling a red carpet badly, and is especially keen to see Ricky punished. Tarzan charges through the cell wall and goes to work on Ricky, but three punches make his elbow, jaw and hand explode, Fist of the North Star style. Time for Plan B: the roof starts to descend. Tarzan, abandoned by his mentors, assists Ricky to escape, at the cost of his own life – the lack of “squish” here is about the only moment of restraint in the entire film. Ricky falls through a trapdoor instead, and is buried alive for a week underground; it barely bothers him, even when Rogan uses some dismembered dog to block the breathing tube. There’s a flashback to why Ricky is in prison; it’s not important. Ricky’s next torture is having razor-blades crammed into his mouth, before Rogan beats him across the face, till the blades poke through his cheeks. His reaction? Spray a mouthful of blood and flesh into the warden’s face.

You can only push a man so far, and when the guy who brings Ricky food is slaughtered, it’s time to break out, using the old “hanging from the ceiling” ploy. There’s an excellent one-punch skull liquidation, and the assistant warden continues to lose body parts carelessly – first an eye, with an arm following shortly thereafter. The warden is busy grinding up the arm of a prisoner who complained about the food, when Ricky bursts in. After disposing of Rogan (though he doesn’t actually kill her…er, him), he has to take on the big boss, for after all: “The warden of any prison has to be the very best in kung-fu.” It helps that he turns, for no readily-apparent reason, into the Incredible Hulk, with much shirt ripping and crap hair – just orange rather than green. Even Ricky driving an entire arm through his stomach doesn’t slow him down. It’s only when he gets an up-close-and-personal look at the meat grinder, that justice prevails. With one punch, Ricky takes down the prison wall. “You’re all free now!”, he says, begging the question – why the hell didn’t he do that the day he arrived?

Ricky: minute-by-minute

Listing all the violence in the film would take far too long, but here are the highlights…

7:40Carpentry plane to the face
8:17Spiked wood through hand, into face
15:03Zorro opens up…
15:43…and Samuel does the same
30:58Really big bread-knife to head
34:21“You’ve got a lot of guts, Oscar”
37:32The exploding head scene
43:48Alan loses face – and the rest of his skin
59:26Tarzan goes to pieces
72:45Ricky gets the point(s)
75:50A stoolie loses his head
77:19Ricky makes a hole-in-one
78:29Don’t complain about the food
79:39Just one, wafer-thin mint?
84:50The warden goes for a spin.


  • Fan Siu Wong and Fan Mui Sang are a father-son combination – the former plays Ricky, while I think the latter is either the guy who trains him or the warden.
  • Yukari Oshima’s turn as Rogan is bizarre but effective. She’s probably the only name in the film familiar to most Western viewers, given her role in films like Angel and The Outlaw Brothers, so seeing her playing a man is something of a shock!
  • he DVD has both dub and subtitled versions; the above is based on the former, but the latter offers entirely new possibilities for amusement. All the characters have different names – “Zorro” is known as “Silly Lung”, which is hardly more appropriate – and there are any number of phrases to make you go, “Eh?”:
    • “Captain, we haven’t brushed our teeth yet.”
      “Use them as brushes.”
    • “You’ve even broken my sinus.”
    • “Ma’s hanging himself to death!”
    • “Your original name was Rick. But you were strong as a bull at 7 or 8 so I called you Ricky.”
    • “You’ll turn into a dried persimmon.”

Incredibly Bad Film Show – Apocalypse Soon: Left Behind and The Omega Code

Supernatural forces do not want me to review these movies. In the first three minutes, Emily (my step-daughter) came in to show me some Christmas cards, my mother-in-law asked for my help with a recalcitrant water-tap, and Emily then required help in taking her medicine. Given that she is the ultimate actress, capable not just of making a drama out of any crisis, but a three-part miniseries, this was quite a performance, involving weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth appropriate to the end of the world — and that was just me. I came back to find the power cord of my PC mysteriously unplugged. Is this the work of God or the Devil? And were they trying to stop me writing, or merely trying to protect me from a needlessly painful experience?

I’m actually a big fan of religious apocalypse movies, which is a bit of a surprise since I’m certainly no fan of the church – indeed, any church. But the Book of Revelations is a fabulous piece of writing, even if you do have to wonder what the author was on when he wrote it – odds are it was significantly stronger than holy water. If it truly is the word of God, then God must be Timothy Leary. Movies like The Seventh Sign and The Rapture serve to demonstrate that religion is no bar to interesting and thought-provoking cinema, and if Paul Verhoeven ever gets the chance to make his long-planned film on the real life of Christ, I’ll be there for it too. That was originally scheduled to be released this year, but he did Hollow Man instead; perhaps he was thinking he’d signed up for Holy Man

Unfortunately – or perhaps fortunately, from an Incredibly Bad point of view – most of them fall short of this level of competence, perhaps because they are intended for true believers, rather than sceptics. They take the presence of God as a given, and thus the actions of characters which result from this faith, is usually completely inexplicable by secular standards. I’m pretty much with Sam Goldwyn with regard to the topic of messages in movies – if I want one, I’ll call Western Union – but in the case of religious films, I’m prepared to occasionally make an exception. Here are two samples, one bad, one good…

Left Behind

Dir: Vic Sarin
Star: Kirk Cameron, Brad Johnson, Chelsea Noble, Clarence Gilyard.

The Left Behind books are a publishing phenomena – the latest volume in the series sold 2.3 million in the first week, and the series as a whole is around 15 million. There’s clearly a market for this kind of thing, and it was perhaps inevitable that they would move across into the modern-day Sodom of Hollywood. The production company, Cloud Ten, have previously made a number of Christian-themed movies, with titles such as Tribulation, starring Gary Busey, but Left Behind is easily their biggest production, even at a moderate budget of around $17m. They’ve adopted a somewhat strange technique to promote its theatrical release – put it out on video first, in the hope of building word-of-mouth in advance of its February arrival in cinemas. This explains why there were two money-off coupons in the box. However, I should point out that the last movie with such a religion-inspired campaign was Battlefield Earth.

Left Behind begins in the expectedly po-faced style; even the logo is preachy, depicting a child hesitating before a road which goes in two directions. A man takes the kid’s hand and leads it along the right-hand path, while lighting flashes ominously over the other. Add in an opening voice-over including lines like “We should have known better. But we didn’t…In the end, there’s no denying the truth” and the pious tone is set.

The film proper starts with a surprise Arab attack on Israel, where journalist Buck Williams (Kirk Cameron) is interviewing a scientist in the middle of a wheat field. They take shelter in a nearby village which just happens to conceal the Israeli base of operations – yeah, like they’d really let a random Yankee journo in there without asking any questions – but the Arab planes are smote (smited? smut? smeet?) mysteriously from the sky to the bafflement of everyone. Or, at least, everyone who hasn’t read the video sleeve. Buck sends footage back to his company, beaming his hi-definition – albeit looking suspiciously like 35mm film – footage to his network using a dish the size of a cake-tin, manually perched on a dustbin, as a satellite uplink. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Williams gets a hot tip on the whole smiting thing from paranoid conspiracist Dirk Burton, who blames industrialists Cothran and Stonagal. Initially dismissing the claims as the rantings of a paranoid conspiracist, Williams is forced to re-evaluate them after Burton’s predictions come true (gasp!). So, it’s accurate rantings of a paranoid conspiracist then… At this point, the Rapture occurs, though it’s not until 74 mins in that anyone mentions the R word, which is weird in a supposedly religious movie. For those unfamiliar with Biblical eschatology: the Rapture is when the truest believers are swept up to heaven, thereby avoiding the Tribulation, a rather nasty period on Earth before the second coming.

Williams is on a plane when “dozens” of passengers vanish; this is pretty dodgy from a statistical point of view. The Bible is obscure on many things, but it’s damn clear about the number that get raptured: “and no man could learn that song but the hundred [and] forty [and] four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth” [Revelations 14:3]. That may seem like a lot, but it’s barely 0.01% of the Christians on Earth, so the odds are heavily against even a single person being raptured off a Jumbo. Perhaps a package tour of Israeli monks was on board, since the Bible also says those Raptured must be virginal Jews [Revelations 7:4 and 14:4], points strangely ignored here. The film at one stage claims 144 million have vanished i.e. the Bible is out by a factor of a thousand. Suddenly, the Feeding of the, er, Five doesn’t seem so impressive.

Back on the plane, the carefully-considered response of pilot Rayford Steele (Brad Johnson) to this catastrophe is…to drop the oxygen masks. This has a strange calming effect on the passengers – maybe they should try it on the ground, where the Soviet leader of the UN, Nicolae Carpathia (Gordon Currie), a pawn of Cothran and Stonagal, takes the reins over the panicking world populace. Steele and Williams team up: Steele’s wife and son have been raptured (repeat previous statistical discussion about how unlikely this is, and never mind the bit about being a virginal Jew), leading to a pitiful scene as he sobs over their belongings, though the most pitiful thing about it is the over-acting on view. Blaming his wife’s religious beliefs, he hurls a bible at the mirror. but then, of course, starts reading it…

Williams finds Dirk Smith murdered (yes, I know he was Dirk Burton earlier in the film, but the computer screen definitely says Dirk Smith – his email address is, if you want to send him some), and is shot at himself while examining computer files. Meanwhile the newly-born again Steele links up with the local priest, helping the latter to refind his faith. I drift on the edge of finding sleep, since it’s painfully obvious where this is all heading. When Chloe gets down her “Teen Devotional Bible” and starts reading it, my worst fears are confirmed – this is truly the stuff of nightmares, albeit perhaps not in the way that the makers intended.

Williams and Steele discover that Burton had decoded the prophecies in the Bible, revealing the Cothran-Stenagal plan. Williams gets into the UN, helped by a former air-hostess whom Steele had been screwing – obviously, before he found God and stopped doing that kind of thing. He reveals the conspiracy to Carpathia, and even turns to prayer. But, oops, Carpathia is the Anti-Christ: all lit from below (right) and with his Russian accent becoming thicker by the syllable. He shoots Cothran and Stenagal and takes over the world, simple as that. It’s a really weird and downbeat climax, despite a desperate attempt to make the ending uplifting, with a closing voice-over which goes, “Our only hope is to join together and trust God. I don’t have all the answers; but for now, faith is enough.” It doesn’t work. I know there’s another half-dozen books to go, but the impact on someone like me who hasn’t read the series, is that Satan has won, and God hates everyone, especially Christians – I don’t think this was the desired effect, but I confess to finding it oddly gratifying…

The Omega Code

Dir: Rob Marcarelli
Star: Casper Van Dien, Michael York, Catherine Oxenberg, Michael Ironside.

This didn’t exactly start in the most promising of ways: the DVD mis-spelled the leading man’s name on his bio, it’s a production of ‘Good Times Entertainment’ (wince), preceded by a trailer for – “the intersection of faith and life” – and the first scene (once again, in Jerusalem) has Michael Ironside looking utterly mortified, disguised as a Hassidic Jew assassin complete with hat and extremely fake beard. Meanwhile, motivational speaker Dr. Lane (Van Dien) gets the exposition out of the way on a TV show hosted by Cassandra Barris (Oxenberg). A code hidden in the Torah predicts the future – as well as, incidentally, Princess Diana’s death in a Paris tunnel. Guess God had a bit of space to fill at the bottom of a page. I presume Lane is supposed to be immensely irritating, like all motivational speakers, coming out with phrases like “we are the higher power,” early signs that he’ll undergo a conversion somewhere between here and Damascus.

Elsewhere, in a laboratory populated with whizzy graphics work-stations, some Russian-sounding dudes are decoding the Torah and coming up with convenient one-sentence summaries which punctuate much of the film like intertitles from the silent era. Stone Alexander (Michael York), a “media mogul turned political dynamo” is now leader of the European Union. Lane wants to speak to him, but is dissuaded by Stone’s personal assistant/bodyguard/part-time Hassidic hit-man Dominic (Ironside). Instead, he has a vision in which one of Alexander’s horses goes all glowy-eyed and berserk. This is just one in a series: as someone asks him, “What kind of visions?”, to which the reply is, “I dunno – weird ones.”. He’s undergoing a divorce, and given his separated and whiny wife, it’s no surprise his small daughter appears to have picked up the Immensely Irritating gene.

The Russians take action to make sure their latest decryption comes true. In another strange echo of Left Behind, a reporter is conveniently right on the scene for the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, as the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem (or a 1/12-scale model thereof) blows up. Lane assists Alexander’s efforts to keep the peace; “We need an archetypal figure to embody the message,” he says, and signs up as Alexander’s Minister of Information. Alexander proposes a global currency (another common cornerstone of the apocalyptic brigade, tying in with bar-codes as the Mark of the Beast), and Lane is contacted by a defector from the decryption program. Memo to self: if I ever become the Anti-Christ, instruct staff to shoot traitors before they hand over incriminating sheets of paper to my enemies, not just after.

From this point, you can pretty much tick off the Common or Garden Interpretations of Revelations: a seven-year peace treaty between Israel and Arabs; the rebuilding of King Solomon’s temple; miracle food and water technology from Alexander; a global government under ten heads. Skip forward three years, and Lane is still having visions, though he’s not mentioned them to anyone in the meantime. He discovers Alexander’s plotting, as he and Dominic prepare to initiate Phase 2. The latter is miffed to discover Lane is slated as the prophet for Alexander’s vision and tries in a fit of whiny pique to shoot Lane; Alexander takes the bullet, but Lane is blamed for the assassination and is forced on the run. However, Alexander comes back to life, to everyone’s surprise – not least, Dominic’s…

This is where the movie really kicks in; you’re used to seeing Michael Ironside as a bad guy, but Michael York as the Anti-Christ is so delightfully against type that it works completely, and is huge fun. Plagued by voices, “painful yet sweet”, he takes over as world leader. Lane links up with two prophets who have been causing trouble, and tries to spread the not-so-good word about Alexander, but is blocked at every turn. His helpful prophets give him the final code, which Cassandra steals from him – yes, Catherine Oxenburg is evil too! Is nothing sacred? As she says, “Even Satan comes as an angel of light.”

After Alexander’s coronation, he goes totally out into left field: “I have become king and God,” he says, which doesn’t go over very well. Oblivious, he shoots the prophets, following up with, “I want these reprobates put on display. And guarded.” This seems a little excessive, given they’re dead, but in this film, the scythe-wielder is more Slightly Inconvenient Reaper than anywhere near Grim, so you can see his point. Other omens start cropping up, and it turns out the code Lane got wasn’t the proper one. As digital planes fly overhead on their way to a nuclear strike, Lane has another vision, and finds that prayer makes the gates to his cell fly open. The prophets are indeed resurrected – score one for the Anti-Christ – and take their wrath on Dominic. Lane tries to shoot Alexander, but is forced to surrender the final code…

Which is where I’ll stop, less for fear of spoiling the end, more because I wouldn’t be prepared to swear to the veracity of my vision. Watching this on New Year’s Day 2001, the only thing I could think of was, “My God, it’s full of stars.” It certainly is an ending, but precisely what it means is something I leave to you. Still, it’s a damn sight better than Left Behind, on a number of levels. Firstly, and most importantly, the religious stuff is actually kept well in the background; the hero never really converts as I expected, and the writers eschew over-zealous attachment to the Bible. If it doesn’t fit in, it gets dumped – there is no mention of the Rapture at all, and it’s much more self-contained, whizzing through the entire Apocalypse in 100 minutes. The presence of decent actors like York and Ironside is an undeniable plus too, and overall, this is not a religious film. Nor is it even really a film about religion, because Christianity is never allowed to get in the way of entertainment, and that realisation by the producers may have been the most important code to crack of all.

It proved a surprising success at the box-office, despite only having a few hundred prints to cover all the cinemas. Opening the same week as Fight Club, The Omega Code grossed more per screen, and also outlasted Messrs. Pitt and Norton, inhabiting the top twenty for seven weeks to gross a respectable $12.6m. As a result of this success, a sequel, Megiddo, is now in post-production, and is due to open in autumn 2001. York and Ironside return, and are joined by cult heroes Udo Kier, Michael Biehn and Franco Nero. With Brian Trenchard-Smith (Leprechaun 4: In Space) directing, it’s safe to say that Incredibly Bad Film Show correspondents are keenly awaiting its arrival…