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Creature Features in Review: The Stuff (1985)

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Tonight’s showing has to be one of the strangest selections within the sub-genre Creature Features. And it because it technically is very much a creature feature, its makes the very in your face metaphor all the more brilliant. Of course, I’m talking about The Stuff. Filmed with a 50’s sci fi B-movie in mind and with voice-overs worse than a Kung movie, we’re guided through a fairly simply story structure with a much complex core. Its a creature flick that begs the question, if we are consumers of the creature are we not in fact monsters ourselves? The Stuff, for all purposes, has lasted the test of time and remains one of the best 1980’s anti-consumerist flick. If you haven’t seen the movie, check out a trailer on YouTube and give it a chance. I’m not promising you’ll like it, The Stuff will require some patience, but if you’re a fan of horrible 80’s horror, or horrible horror in general, you might just enjoy yourself.

Are you eating it…or is it eating you? During the summer of 1985, director Larry Cohen introduced America to the discovery of a mysterious, yet delicious, white gooey treat. Found by a group of miners bubbling up from the earth, the Stuff quickly sweeps across the nation. Soon after, conglomerates pick up the Stuff and break record sales. Former FBI agent Mo Rutherford remarks, with some disbelief, that folks are willing to stand in line at two in the morning, just to buy some Stuff.  Another protagonist, a young boy  named Jason, refuses to eat the Stuff as he watches his family become addicted, turning into mindless drones– craving nothing to eat but the Stuff. In one of the oddest scenes (yes, there are a few) Jason is forced to watch his family slowly slip away from rationality and into…something else entirely. When an attempt to fool his folks into thinking he’s eaten some of the Stuff fails, Jason scarcely escapes, his father yelling out in the middle of the street, chasing after him, “It’s good for us, Jason…it kills the bad things inside us.”

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What…you’ve never heard of this movie, The Stuff? I’m not shocked; unless you’re a connoisseur (see what I did there?) of obscure horror, The Stuff is by far one of the most obscure-ee horror movies I’ve ever seen. This very low-budget does take on, as other classic horror flicks such as Dawn of the Dead (78), American consumerism and consumption during the 1980’s. Some of the other films during this era, and some of my personal favorites of glorified 80’s consumerism, include Evil Dead 2, Friday the 13th part 8, and Videodrome.

Film critic Brian Dillard had this to say regarding The Stuff:

“…another 1980’s horror flick… mixed wit and gore with anti-consumerist ideology. On the surface, The Stuff is just an exploitation flick — a jumble of The Blob [and] Invasion of the Body Snatchers… full of amateurish special effects and hammy performances.”

If that’s what’s on the surface of the movie, cheesy effects and a hammy attempt at saying something, is there anything beneath? I’d point out all the random commercials that pop up during the movie which I think are brilliant parodies to everyday life. It almost calls out the audience (we) and asks if we can tell the difference. Are we that conformed to commercials that even fake ones seem real to us? This aspect really reminds of the appeal in Invasion of the Body Snatches, more especially the 1978 version as it focused more on the characters and their doppelgangers. Its about paranoia, almost, and The Stuff really brings that paranoia into focus. Can we trust anyone to be objective regarding a product that they are bought into? Can we trust a representative or legislator to be unbiased toward a private sector entity when (s)he get’s campaign donations from private corporations? Not to get political, but…have we become like Jason, being told to “eat it” because its good for us?

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As the movie comes to an end, following the efforts of a few good men and women, and a boy, the public becomes aware of the vile intentions of the conglomerates pushing the fluffy white alien goo. People “wake up” and see how The Stuff is actually a living thing. Yet, as the credits roll, we (the audience) are left with the feeling that the profligate has been set back up as the company executives comment that “the Stuff seeps out from many places in the ground.” We are given a true nihilistic ending as anyone can get, that there will always be more Stuff.

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If you’re screening The Stuff for the first time, it will time some getting used to the low quality in which the film was shot, unless you are already a member of the 80s splatter zombie corp and uber-obscure VHS demon flick rentals from Italy club. If that’s the case, then the low budget shouldn’t throw you off. The story is there if you’re willing to follow it. Low budget doesn’t necessarily mean low quality. Just look at Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead as an example of how low budget films can become The Stuff of legend (oh man, I kill myself). 

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Thomas S. Flowers creates character-driven stories of dark fiction ranging from Shakespearean gore feasts to paranormal thrillers. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His veteran focused paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served three tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books and hosts a gambit of guest writers who discuss a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can follow Thomas at a safe distance by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): Movie in Review

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Read the following quote: “They’re already here! Help! You’re next! They’re coming! They’re coming!” Disturbed? Bothered? Maybe a little scared? Well, you should be. This quote is meant to knock you off kilter. In this 1978 remake of the classic 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” there are no pulled punches. With a surprised PG rating, the fear is turned up high, not with over-the-top gore or practical effects (though there are some really haunting scenes) or naughty language, but with an idea, a very real idea of not knowing the people around you. Who are they? We don’t know. You don’t know. But they’re odd. They talk without speaking. They look cold and calculated. The city is as it always has been, but slowly and surly those unknown faces are being replaced with even stranger ones. Stoic. Everywhere. And always watching.

Before we delve into this review, here’s a quick fire synopsis to jog your memory:

“This ‘remake’ of the classic horror film is set in San Francisco. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) assumes that when a friend (Brooke Adams) complains of her husband’s strange mood, it’s a marital issue. However, he begins to worry as more people report similar observations. His concern is confirmed when writer Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife (Veronica Cartwright) discover a mutated corpse. Besieged by an invisible enemy, Bennell must work quickly before the city is consumed” -Wiki
Due to the paranoia built incredibly with shots filmed directly on the streets of San Fran, director Philip Kaufman was heralded as an iconoclast, breaking the walls of normalcy and showing us a world we no longer recognize, our own non-fictionalized world. Kaufman didn’t take us into a small California town where everyone knows your name, as in the original Don Siegel film, no, he took us into a sprawling city where recognition is hard to come by. In San Francisco, people are too busy to stop and listen to Harry “Jerry Garcia” play the banjo or to pet his bulldog and drop of few cents into his jar. A man can get run down in the street and people crowd with looks of disinterest. Vandalism can occur and witnesses simply pull the blinds close. Bizarre folds of webbed dust, as if something had been shredded, molted, or decayed, are being collected throughout the city in truck fulls, yet no one seems the wiser. Kaufman is brilliant in the way he adds his brand of creeping horror throughout the movie, building tension until we cannot help but run with the band of friends as they do whatever it takes to survive, to remain who they are, to not fall asleep. Another brilliant aspect of the film that needs to be mentioned (as it plays on our fears), the systematization of the camera, the shaky cam, putting us, the audience, right smack inside the movie, was wonderfully done. This is a remake worthy as a successor to the 1956 black and white commie-fearing original. But if we stop and ponder a moment, is Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers really a true remake or even a reboot as we know them today, or is this movie more of a continuation of the first?
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Let me back up.

Remember the quote at the beginning of our discussion? That quote comes from a very odd character, one you may recognize, if you’ve got a good eye. At the end of the 1956 film, producers felt on edge to leave the movie with the writer’s original script as Doctor Bennell walks down the freeway, shouting, “They’re here already! You’re next!” Instead, they added the scene which implied the FBI rescuing America, rushing in and destroying the invaders. The quote at the beginning is from the 1978 version, with notions of 1956, where we find the leading cast members driving in the city and theorizing. Matthew Bennell is attempting to calm his love interest, Elizabeth, who is convinced something is terribly wrong with her live-in boyfriend, Geoffrey. “He’s just…different,” she says. All of a sudden, a man dashes out and lands on the hood of Matthew’s car. He’s grey haired with wide bloodshot eyes and looks eerily like Dr. Miles Bennell from that small town in California. Panicked, he begs for help. Realizing, no help will be given, he warns Matthew and Elizabeth…”They’re here,” he shouts. “They’re coming!” And he dashes off, only to be run down in the middle of the street. This little scene is the most genius one in the film. Not saying there aren’t other more jarring scenes, because there are, but this one is superb because it ties together the past to the present.

The scene also implies that the events of 1956 did not end with the salvation from the hands of the FBI, but the invasion has continued to grow, slowly, and now, those “pods” have set sights on the budding metropolis of San Francisco, and as we see during the dockside events in the 1978 Invasion movie, as the “pods” are being loaded into the ships docked at port, the world seems to be their game. While in 1956, the invasion event was isolated to the small town… that’s simply not the case anymore.

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There are so few remakes nowadays that are as brilliant as this one, if we can even call Invasion of the Body Snatchers a remake, just as it is difficult to call John Carpenter’s The Thing a remake as well, though he has testified, calling his work as such. One would think, given the way remakes and reboots are the norm today, someone within the echelons of Hollywood would remember the key elements from classic remakes of original films. To make a remake great, or even attempt to create something even more grandiose than the original, as we’ve seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there must be a balance between disassembling what made the original great, understanding those themes and nuances, and then reassembling the components into something new. And of course we would hope the remake was thoroughly thought-out and warranted as well.  If the balance is done right, the remake shouldn’t feel like a remake at all, but another “title” movie. Personally, I don’t even like using the term “remake” for films like these. If the balance is done right, I’d rather call them “continuations.” But I know I am in the minority with such notions.

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Originality, of course, is the name of the game, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers has it in spades. The relationships are what sold me. Donald Sutherland as the hardnosed Health Inspector, who is as sharp as a razor with snobby overpriced restaurant owners, always with a keen eye for rat turds, but is soft as rose petals and somewhat blinded with his love interest, and unavailable by the way, Elisabeth Driscoll, played by the fantastic Brooke Adams. Watching them on screen is mesmerizing. How he loves her, yet understands he cannot have her, but still wants to protect her. And how can we forget the dynamic between pop-psychologist Dr. David Kibner, played by late-great Leonard Nimoy and Jack Bellcec, a not-so-popular (or even published writer for that matter) philosopher who scoffs at how easily Kibner pumps outs books; also one of Jeff Goldblum’s earlier roles by the way. I found it very interesting how the first of the friends to put the mystery together, though perhaps she went a bit far in her “Worlds in Collision” and “Flowers in Space” paranoia, was Nancy Bellcec (played by Alien star Veronica Cartwright), Jake’s wife, who at the end (SPOILERS!) is the sole survivor of the small party of friends. And it gives me even more pause in how she survived. Every time she is swallowed up by the crowd and separated from Matthew and Elizabeth, we assume she was “taken.” However, there she is, she turns up unscathed because she has learned to “act” like one of the “pods.” Though how much of that is really an act, I wonder. When Matthew and Elizabeth are discovered, unable to hid their humanity and doing a poor job “blending in,” Nancy quietly disappears into the mob as they turn on her friends only to turn up again at the end. What does her character tell us? What questions does she raise? Perhaps, that to survive a world in which individuality has faded into a common core one must assimilate similar behavior of the so-called “hive mind…” It certainly begs the question of what the original writers were thinking (be it fear of Communism or fear of Conservatism), and of course what was Kaufman thinking as well.

To all of these questions, I imagine, we must answer for ourselves.

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With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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