Category Archives: 1990s

Absolute Power (1997)

*. Clint Eastwood has a long and well deserved reputation for bringing his productions in on time and on budget (the two being very closely related). Even given his own professional standards, however, I was surprised to hear that Absolute Power was completed more than three weeks ahead of schedule. Three weeks! That’s incredible.
*. Unfortunately, the downside of such a streamlined production can be a mechanical film. This is certainly the feeling I got from Absolute Power. Part of that may be due to the story itself. Based on a David Baldacci novel and adapted by William Goldman, it’s a pure piece of genre hack work. Indeed, it doesn’t even seem to take its own basic premise seriously, giving us a cartoonishly evil president and a comically bumbling chief of staff (Gene Hackman and Judy Davis, respectively, both utterly wasted in their parts).
*. That we can’t believe anything so improbable isn’t the problem though. Or that it steadily becomes more improbable as the story goes along. In a pinch I suppose we could all shrug at the idea of the president’s secret service consisting of exactly two people, the same two people, on duty all the time. Harder to abide are the formulaic plot elements and their mechanical handling.
*. I’ll mention three such points in the story, in order. The film begins with Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood), a break-and-enter art thief, sneaking into a mansion and its secret vault room. A vault room with a one-way mirror that lets him see out of it. Once in there he witnesses the rape and murder of a woman by the president of the United States. Watching this scene play out, and it takes a very long time, I thought of Hitchcock. Not because it was done in the manner of Hitchcock but because it took a Hitchcockian idea, with an innocent man being drawn into a crime through an act of voyeurism (one might also think of the scene in Blue Velvet where Kyle MacLachlan watches Isabella Rossellini being raped).
*. But thinking of Hitchcock just underlines how pedestrian and unsuspenseful this scene is. Absolutely nothing interesting is done with it, and the viewer’s only sympathy with Luther is that we are, with him, being made to just sit through a necessary bit of action in order to set the plot in motion. The idea itself isn’t new or interesting, but just the opposite, and it’s presented in a dull, unremarkable way.
*. The other two scenes are much the same. The first has a pair of snipers setting up to assassinate Luther out on the street in broad daylight during a police stakeout. Improbable? Yes. Formulaic? Yes. How many times have we seen these professional killers assembling their high-powered rifles, followed by views through the scopes with their prospective victims in the crosshairs, only to be undone at the last moment by some flaky accident? I don’t see how the fact that there are two killers working independently here changes very much, and again there is nothing creative done with the presentation.
*. Finally I’ll just mention the attempted murder of Luther’s daughter in the hospital. Again we have the conjunction of formula with improbability. I even found myself wondering how easy it really is to walk around a hospital unnoticed, going anywhere you want unquestioned, just by donning a white coat. Can anyone do this? At any hospital? Because it seems to happen a lot.
*. I think it’s the combination of scenes like this that allowed Eastwood to complete filming so quickly, but which also left critics and audiences cold. This is a movie that never ignites, and it wasn’t long before I started to feel as impatient as Eastwood must have been for it to end.

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998)

*. Of all the modern horror franchises I think the Halloween films constitute the most chaotic.
*. On a strict accounting, Halloween H20 (usually pronounced H-2-Oh and not H-Twenty), is the seventh film in the series, and indeed the original working title was Halloween 7: The Revenge of Laurie Strode. We got here by a very long and winding road. To make a long story short, H20 picks up where Halloween II left off. Halloween III remains an aberration, while the events of Halloweens 4-6 are now assumed to have never happened. Just in case you’re keeping score.
*. My initial response here was badly mistaken. I saw the kid in the hockey mask being used for a jump scare. I saw Janet Leigh talking to Laurie about “We’ve all had bad things happen to us,” before getting into a very familiar-looking vintage car. I was thinking to myself that this was maybe a lead-up to Scream.
*. But like I say, this was badly mistaken. In fact, Scream had come out two years earlier. And at one point the kids are even watching Scream 2 in their dorm room. So this wasn’t a step moving the genre toward Scream but a way of nudging the Halloween franchise in the Scream direction.
*. Though uncredited, the story was based on a Kevin Williamson idea and he apparently worked quite a bit on the script. So I’m guessing that’s where the whole Scream vibe was coming from. Not that it’s totally unwelcome, but it does seem like a not very necessary echo. You can think of the genre as swallowing its own tail, with the Halloween franchise now ripping off the film that was ripping it off.
*. As for the movie itself, I found it strangely uninvolving. It’s not too bad once it gets going, and I didn’t mind that it took a long time to get going. Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an interesting character, even if she’s surrounded by the usual collection of stereotypes (a list headed by her indestructible brother, who struck me as even more blank than usual). They go to the well far too often with the fake jump scares, but there are still a couple of decent scary scenes. I just found myself not caring very much about what was going on.
*. It’s not that I care very much about what’s going on in any slasher movie, but H20 left me feeling particularly out of it. Maybe it had something to do with the Scream influence I mentioned, that sense that nothing here is to be taken seriously. I don’t know. In most respects this is far above average when it comes to slasher movies, but it seems caught between different worlds. Is it an attempt at providing closure, or is it setting us up for a new beginning? Given the producer’s refusal to let Michael die, you can guess what the answer would be to that one, but it’s not clear just based on what this film presents, where the ending is quite definitive. It also seems like a step in a new direction, but it’s not as clever as later “postmodern” slashers, or as dark and violent as the various reboots that were coming down the pipe (including Rob Zombie’s Halloween).
*. As I began by saying, the Halloween franchise is a bit of a mess. The pieces don’t really fit together that well, and not just in terms of any larger narrative continuity. For what it’s worth, I’d rate H20 one of the best in the series, even if it’s also one of the least engaging.

Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (1990)

*. I don’t imagine there are a lot of people who miss, or for that matter even remember, the low-budget, free-wheeling horror comedies that played alongside all the slasher, dead-teenager flicks in the 1980s and ’90s. Though I suppose titles like Saturday the 14th (1981) and The Silence of the Hams (1994) were about as lasting in their own day as the Scary Movie franchise entries. And, like the Scary Movie movies, they mainly worked by sending up what had become horror clichés. But parody has a short shelf life, entangled as it is with the notoriety of whatever inspired it.
*. Which brings us to Prom Night III: The Last Kiss, another movie I think few people miss or remember or even were aware of at the time. It’s a bit different than the usual horror parody though in having its own story to tell, which does follow, loosely if more-or-less directly, from the end of Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II. It’s both part of the Prom Night franchise and a parody of the same.
*. I had very mixed feelings watching this one. This may in part be because I watched half of it before giving up, then went back and watched the rest of it months later. I started out not thinking much of it at all — aside from the terrific opening, which has Mary Lou Maloney (Courtney Taylor) doing some lingerie line-dancing in hell before cutting through her ankle shackles with a nail file — but when I finished watching it I wound up liking it, just a bit. Maybe I was in a better mood. Or at least a different mood. You really have to be in the right mood to enjoy a movie like this.
*. Taking a step back and trying to be fair minded, it’s an enjoyably creative romp. With little in the way of resources they have to make do with imagination. After Mary Lou slips her chains in hell she returns to Hamilton High and hooks up with a Ferris Bueller type named Alex (Tim Conlon), for whom she can do certain favours. Alex already has a girlfriend, Sarah (Cynthia Preston), and basically the movie comes down to these two having to fight it out over who’s going to get their man. As Mary Lou says, it’s not who you take to the prom, it’s who you go home with.
*. The kills aren’t particularly well done, but at least they’re different. A janitor is electrocuted by a jukebox. Canadian boxing legend (this was a Canadian production) George Chuvalo is stabbed to death with ice cream cones. A guidance counselor is dissolved in battery acid. A jock is speared by a football that turns into a drill. It’s all good. And the final vision of a demonic Hamilton High when Alex and Sarah go down the rabbit hole is actually pretty neat.
*. I’ve often thought that a real sign of a director’s ability is how easy they can make something difficult look, so that a display of real skill may not even be noticed. (This is something, by the way, that holds true across the arts in general.) With that said, here’s a bit from director Ron Oliver as quoted in Caelum Vatnsdal’s They Came from Within, when asked about a shot that takes us across an auditorium to a close-up of the principal cutting his own finger off: “All in one shot . . . It was my Dario Argento homage because I wanted the audience to be shocked by it — no cutaways, nothing. It just happens. But nobody ever mentioned it! Kinda makes a director feel like a putz for even bothering!”
*. I’ll confess I didn’t catch the homage to Argento either. So a belated hats off. Oliver didn’t need to make the effort of doing that in one shot, but he did anyway.
*. I began by talking about how few, if any, of these horror comedies from the period have lasted. Prom Night III has disappeared into near oblivion along with most of its peers, but I think judged alongside them it’s a bit above average. With more money it might even have been ahead of its time. I’d certainly rather watch it again than the awful 2008 franchise reset.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

*. I had a bad first experience with this movie. I’d heard all the buzz — it was hard to escape at the time — and gone to see it with about five or six other people. Afterwards we stood together in the parking lot of the multiplex staring at our shoes. To say we were underwhelmed would probably be an understatement. Finally one of us (it wasn’t me) confessed he had a headache.
*. I think I felt even worse than that. I felt like I’d been had. The Blair Witch Project is often described both as the first found-footage horror film (it wasn’t, though it was pretty much solely responsible for establishing the genre) and as the first film to fully exploit an Internet marketing campaign. I can forgive the first, but not the second claim to fame.
*. The Blair Witch Project went on to become one of the most profitable movies ever made. The shooting budget was around $50,000 but post production was ten times that (it took eight days to film and eight months to edit). Box office was $250 million. Imitators looking to cash in were legion. But for the most part they didn’t because so much of that initial success was the result of the marketing, which struck me as largely a trick played on the public.
*. In short, the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. In the twenty-plus years since, however, I’ve mellowed a bit. Leaving aside the marketing and cultural impact, I think Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez (writers, directors, editors) made a decent little movie out of nothing. It has some genuinely scary moments, which are achieved without gore, effects of any kind, or even a witch.
*. As with the best of such indie ventures it triumphs in making a virtue out of its limitations. It’s not a movie that tries to do too much, but stays grounded in its basic premise, resulting in a film that is, in Kim Newman’s expert judgment, “naturally messy, but surprisingly consistent and to the point.” Throw in some serendipitous grace notes in the filming and you have what I think every low-budget filmmaker privately prays for: a happy accident of art.
*. Another big boost comes from Heather Donahue. On the DVD commentary track one of the voices (I believe it’s Sanchez) says “the single best decision we made in the whole thing was casting Heather.” Originally I think there were to be three male characters lost in the woods but Donahue was so impressive in her audition they decided to put her in. I don’t believe this changed the script (insofar as there was a script). It sounds sort of like the casting of Duane Jones in Night of the Living Dead or Sigourney Weaver in Alien in parts that weren’t specifically written for a black man or a woman. I think it’s wonderful when that kind of blind casting happens, and as such cases show you can get great results.
*. Still, after twenty years I do think it’s a film that’s getting smaller in hindsight. Of course there have been many more shaky-cam horror movies, some of them not only more expensively produced and more sophisticated but better than this. But there are other reasons for its diminishment as well.
*. In my notes on Man Bites Dog I wondered how much it mattered that the creators never went on to do much of anything else. In that case I don’t think it did, as one of them committed suicide and in any event the film was a creative one-off as well as a bit of a succès de scandale with legs. Here, however, the subsequent disappearance of the filmmakers does raise some doubts.
*. In brief, the project had a limited afterlife. There were a pair of sequels, the most immediate, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, doing so poorly with critics and audiences that plans for a third movie were quickly scrapped. Then they tried again with Blair Witch in 2016, which only performed marginally better.
*. But then the found-footage genre was soon played out as well. And how many great movies did it give us? I’d rate Rec as probably the pick of the crop. And even that franchise gave up on the gimmick before the series finished.
*. Playing “Where are they now?”, I think it’s fair to say Myrick and Sanchez haven’t done much else that’s noteworthy. Sanchez directed one of the segments in V/H/S/2 (not the best) and has worked in TV. Heather Donahue apparently retired, at least for a while, claiming that she had trouble finding work because of backlash for having done Blair Witch. This doesn’t sound right but I don’t know the details. Joshua Leonard seems to have kept working the most. He played the heavy in Unsane, where he was pretty good. But I didn’t recognize him, and that’s the only other thing I’ve seen him in.
*. More than a movie, I look back on The Blair Witch Project today as a kind of cultural moment. Like a lot of things that the Internet made popular it went viral and then sort of vanished because there really wasn’t much there in the first place. I remember it well, which is to its credit. But I don’t think I’ll be watching it again. It’s not a movie I see anything more in today than I did at the multiplex.

The Specialist (1994)

*. A wonderfully bad movie with a pair of exemplary turns by two typecast stars.
*. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking I’m talking about Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone. He’s the very strong, very silent type. And very muscular. Even his chest has bulging veins. She’s the leggy, sexy type, showcasing an ensemble of minidresses and lingerie while swaying her hips like an ocean liner on rough seas. And yes, they do hop into bed, and more notably the shower, together. Lots of glistening curves are exposed, though apparently Stallone had to get his co-star drunk to do the shower scene.
*. But I’m not talking about those two. Together they are every bit as dull as they sound. They’re less actors than models. As Hal Hinson wrote in his review: “with all the preening, posing and stretching, it’s hard to know if The Specialist is an action movie or an exercise video. Or a porn movie without the sex. Fit, trim and tanned to a luscious shade of gold, the stars offer their bodies to the camera as if they were contestants in a bodybuilding competition.”
*. During their shower scene I was reminded of the famous quip from Groucho Marx: “I never go to movies where the hero’s tits are bigger than the heroine’s.” I guess he wouldn’t have gone to see The Specialist. But he would have missed something because even though Stallone’s tits are ginormous, Stone’s are just as impressive.
*. But no, instead of these two plastic figures what I want to talk about are the other two typecast stars: Eric Roberts as the sleazy son of a Cuban-American drug lord in Miami (Rod Steiger, apparently having gone to the same voice coach as trained Al Pacino to do Tony Montana in Scarface), and James Woods as the even sleazier ex-CIA bad guy (the “trigger” to Stallone’s “rigger”) who is now a hired gun for Steiger.
*. How many times has Roberts played this part? Is it something about his look? Whatever the reason, he fits the bill here, and his wardrobe is even more remarkable than Stone’s, in a way that hasn’t dated nearly as well. You know, there was a time (I can still remember it) when Miami Vice was the coolest thing on TV. And it may be again. Meanwhile, I just felt bad that Tomas disappeared from the final act of the movie completely, and quite unexpectedly. It almost seemed as though whatever number of days-on-set Roberts had contracted for had run out and they just had to get rid of him. That’s too bad, especially since he’d obviously been hitting the gym pretty hard for the part.
*. And what (more) can we say about James Woods? His cynical smartassery is the movie’s only spark, and given Stallone’s inexplicably dour performance he takes the film over without a fight. Or almost. I’ve read that Stallone insisted some of Woods’s scenes be cut and for some of his own scenes to be re-shot in order for Stallone to have more screen time. He was concerned that Woods would steal the movie (which he did anyway). Apparently Stallone also cut out some of Rutger Hauer’s scenes from Nighthawks (1981) because of similar concerns. Stars have to protect their turf, I guess.
*. But even Woods doing his thing — and I defy anyone to watch his meltdown at the police station and not laugh out loud — isn’t enough to save The Specialist. This movie is bad. The premise is hard to provide a synopsis for because it fails to make any sense. Basically Stone is looking to avenge the murder of her father years earlier by Roberts. This is when Stone’s character was just a little girl and Roberts, who is only two years older than Stone, looked just the same. Anyway, Stone gets in touch with Stallone to see if he’ll help, seducing him with her sexy telephone voice. But she’s also working with Woods in some way that isn’t at all clear. I couldn’t figure it out.
*. Right from the get-go you know it’s going to be bad. Stallone’s character is apparently involved in some kind of CIA black ops but he’s a good guy. You may have heard of a “pat the dog” scene, which is something that gets slipped into a movie to let you know that the hero, whatever his faults, is one of the good guys. In The Specialist there are three such ham-handed declarations, as Stallone tries to abort an assassination attempt in order to save the life of a little girl, then adopts a stray cat, and then gives up his seat on a city bus to a pregnant lady. He sure is nice.
*. A tidbit I picked up from the Internet: “In January, 1993 the Los Angeles Times listed The Specialist as the best unproduced thriller script in Hollywood, based on a poll of forty agents, producers and studio executives.” God help us, or at least save us from these morons.
*. After the prologue we head to Miami and a long tracking shot that I should have been impressed by but which just left me wondering why, in a movie such as this, they were bothering. You know you’re watching a bad movie when you’re left questioning why they’re even trying to do something good.
*. Because Stallone and Woods are specialists in explosives we get to see things being blown up. A lot of things, being blown up real good. And some of the explosions are kind of neat. I particularly like the way the body of the first target is blown away from the booby-trapped door, and the guy, still strapped into his car seat, flying into the air when his car explodes. But I think that, in general, blowing things up is rarely very interesting. If you’ve seen one building or vehicle turn into a fireball you’ve pretty much seen them all.
*. Well, I began by calling this a wonderfully bad movie and I’ll stick with that. This is one of those few total cheeseburgers that’s actually so bad it is kind of good. It’s trash of a particular vintage, a very bad year, but I had a smile on my face nearly the whole time I was watching it. It’s a ’90s turkey, right down to Gloria Estefan’s hit single playing over the end credits. You didn’t have to be there in 1994 to love this kind of crap, but it probably helps.

4444444444 (1998)

*. This is the second of two very short films that began, in embryo, Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-on franchise. I don’t think it’s quite right to see them as laying the foundation for Ju-on (as Shimizu claims they did) because all they really do is introduce the two main characters of Kayako (in Katasumi) and Toshio (here), without any narrative context. Context being admittedly hard to provide in three minutes.
*. J-horror deserves a lot of credit for injecting supernatural horror into modern technology, but I wouldn’t want to overstate this. Creepy telephone calls have long been a staple of scary movies. The jump with cell phones is that the scare can reach out and touch you anywhere, anytime. So no more “the caller is inside the house!” (Black Christmas) or standing just outside, watching you (Scream). The caller may be sitting right next to you! It’s a more intimate device in that way.
*. What this portability and ubiquity allows for is this movie’s jump ending. This is a version of the sudden radical collapsing-of-distance jump. Think of the gremlin on the wing of the plane in the Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (also included in Twilight Zone: The Movie). You don’t expect the creature to suddenly be so close, literally right in your face, when the passenger raises the blind of the window.
*. The appearance of Toshio works the same way. Anyone on a phone must be some distance away, we think. But then all of a sudden he’s right there, invading our personal space in a creepy way.
*. I say creepy because on the surface he doesn’t seem like an immediate threat. He’s just a kid. He doesn’t have a weapon. In fact I don’t know if he even has any clothes on. His mouth opens and some black tar comes out, but is that supposed to be dangerous?
*. As the series would later develop Toshio actually wouldn’t be much of a threat. He’s more like Kayako’s familiar, tying into his association with a black cat. If anything he’s a warning. Something bad is about to happen. And when you think about it, isn’t a warning delivered by an imp like this even scarier than what’s actually coming? We have to imagine it’s going to be something really bad.

Katasumi (1998)

*. It’s interesting to reflect on how stories begin. Often it’s only with an image. In the case of the Saw franchise things apparently got started with the “reverse bear trap” device, which provided Wan and Whannell with the hook for a short film that launched everything.
*. In the case of Saw 0.5, however, there are some aspects of the subsequent mythology present. Like Billy the puppet, and the notion that escaping from the killer’s trap was meant to teach some kind of life lesson.
*. With Katasumi (In a Corner) we’re given much less in the way of explanation and background for what would become the equally long-lived Ju-on franchise. All we really have here is the image of Kayako Saeki (with no clue as to this being her identity) doing her slow crawl toward her victims. But was this not just the initial germ of Ju-on, the gleam in Takashi Shimizu’s eye, but also everything that was essential about it?
*. I don’t say that as a way of deprecating Ju-on, a series of movies that I rate very highly. I just mean to suggest that behind a lot of franchise horror there’s usually a very simple idea. Perhaps nothing more than a man in a mask. The rest of the story really isn’t that important. In later films Kayako’s back story would be filled in, but I can’t say I ever really cared who she really was or what happened to her. She was never anything more to me than an angry ghost.
*. I think this is a fair way of looking at the Ju-on franchise. Subsequent movies would be episodic in nature, almost playing like a series of short films, all leading up to very similar climaxes. Victims falling down and scurrying on their bums away from Kayako would be a favourite motif. The kid Toshio would be added to the mix, though we may think of Kanna here as a forerunner. We’d never see much of Kayako in action, but only the horror of her victims at her approach. And that would be enough.
*. Still, I think it’s impressive how much Shimizu would milk out of such a simple concept. And is Kayako even that different from Sadako, with the same veil of hair falling over her face, and only crawling down stairways instead of out of television sets? I guess there must be something archetypal about a creeping terror, though I’m hard pressed to think of other movie monsters moving in quite the same way before this.
*. As a horror calling card I’m not sure I would have sat up and taken much notice of this. The POV stuff, with Kayako moving in for the kill like a kind of land shark, strikes me as kind of silly. With only a few minutes to play with there’s no chance to present any sense of what’s going on. Kayako might as well be some flesh-eating forest spirit (she comes out of the woods), only now moving on from preying on rabbits. But when we see Takako Fuji coming at us for the first time, and hear her ghastly death rattle, a hook is set. For the next several decades it would go on reeling us in.

Insomnia (1997)

*. I’ll confess that when I first saw Insomnia I felt a bit underwhelmed. I like it more today, in part because I think that being underwhelming is a big part of what it’s about. I mean, here’s a movie where the climax has the cop tracking down the bad guy only to have him fall and die by banging his head and then drowning. I was expecting something a little more cathartic.
*. But then you look a little closer and you realize this is a movie that denies release. The key point connecting detective Jonas Engström (Stellan Skarsgård) and crime novelist Jon Holt (Bjørn Floberg) is that they are loners. Specifically, they are men without women. And this bothers them.
*. Jonas is in trouble after getting caught in a dalliance with a witness in a previous case. He comes on, pretty hard, to a hotel clerk and a high school student (a fellow officer, who tries at one point to catch his eye, has less success in firing a response). Meanwhile, Holt is in hot water because he too has been tempted, disastrously since he turns out to be impotent and has to express his urges in violence. This is their common bond, what allows them to identify with one another in such a peculiar way.
*. When asked how he copes in such a job Jonas replies “You just have to avoid mixing your job and your personal life.” But what personal life does he have? We’re not given a glimpse of any and I suspect that’s partly to suggest that he doesn’t have one. Or at least any more of one than a hack writer who has escaped to the back of beyond so he can be alone and write. These two were made for each other. They are secret sharers.

*. The two don’t actually spend a lot of time together, perhaps because they don’t have to. They understand each other well enough without having to say anything. Note how quickly Jonas picks up on the plot to frame the boyfriend. It’s almost as though he’s imagining Holt, and given his other visions that almost seems a possibility.
*. That reticence makes this part of the plot all the more mysterious. Why is Jonas trying so hard to cover up an accidental shooting? To the point where he feels he has to throw his lot in with Holt and frame the innocent kid. In Christopher Nolan’s inferior remake a lot more effort would be put into explaining all this, but it subtracts by addition.
*. It’s a stylish film, but not in a loud way. Which is surprising because it seems like it should be. All those windows blaring like banks of stadium lights into flaring dissolves. Jonas’s snappy suits. The stark interiors. Even the disturbed editing that upsets our sense of time and space by dropping characters into shots and scenes where we’re not expecting them. All of this should be too much, but that sense of understatement is maintained.
*. The cast is great. I like Gisken Armand as Hilde, tossing out a line to lure Jonas and getting nowhere and then advancing into a professionalism that could destroy him. But best of all are Skarsgård and Floberg, who manage to be weary, haunted, and excitable all at once. Bored men, men alone, and men on the edge. They have dead eyes, in the sense that they don’t provide any windows on a soul. We can sense calculations being made back there, but no feeling.
*. This makes it all the more fitting that we end with the gradual fade to Jonas’s eyes shining in the darkness. Though I though it was a mistake to freeze frame on them for the credit roll. That was a step too far. But it’s one of the few things about the movie I can fault. There was no point doing it over again because they could only make it worse. But they did and they did.

Species II (1998)

*. I didn’t much care for Species. It had a decent idea, and assembled some real talent, but the execution made it all seem very silly and it skimped on showing us very much of the alien Sil creature.
*. So I had low expectations for Species II, a movie that bombed at the box office and was savaged by critics. Even star Michael Madsen wrote it off as “a crock of shit.” But keeping an open mind, on balance I think I enjoyed this just as much if not more than the first film.
*. To be sure, it’s trash. But this time out it’s such loopy trash I got a kick out of it. My main regret was that they didn’t have more fun with the laughable premise: two lovesick aliens in heat trying to overcome all kinds of government obstacles to get it on. It’s almost Shakespearean comedy. When our two lovers strip down to action in the cabin where Patrick is stocking the Children of the Damned it’s a can’t-miss laugh line. Or at least it should be.
*. Peter Medak. A veteran name you might not have first associated with a project like this. According to his DVD commentary (which begins, inauspiciously, with his saying “I directed this thing called Species II“) he took the job so that he could learn more about the state of the art in effects, from CGI to animatronics to prosthetics. And apparently it was “a wonderful learning process.”
*. But though Medak had worked in horror before (he’d been an assistant director on some of the Hammer horrors and later did The Changeling) he seems not to have entered into the spirit of the thing, only considering it a “vacation”: a commercial project (his biggest budget yet) in-between more important dramatic work. He mentions laughing his way through the Hammer movies he did but I didn’t get the sense that he was playing as loose here. Which is a pity, because I think that’s what this material needed.
*. In addition to its silly storyline, which also borrows from The Manchurian Candidate, they ramp up the gore this time out. Now granted it’s that crappy ’90s CGI gore, but I still think this was the right direction to take things. We also get to see more of the alien critters at the end and they don’t look half bad.

*. I’m not sure what to think of the racial angle. The black astronaut is the only one not chosen by the alien to be infected because he’s a carrier of sickle cell anemia. OK, but Patrick also only selects white women to breed with (and he is shown as having a choice). There was also a scene that was cut when Patrick picks up a transvestite who he finds unsuitable. Which isn’t very PC either, but is also weird since we know the alien can sense conditions like diabetes (in the first movie) and sickle cell anemia, so you’d think it would be able to pick up something as basic as gender. “You had to know,” the transvestite tells him. Another scene that might have been good for a laugh, but which is played (sorry!) straight.
*. I think that’s an in-joke when the Colonel says “This isn’t the fucking X-files, god dammit!” Screenwriter Chris Brancato had written the X-Files episode “Eve.” But like a lot of the film’s jokes this is pretty obscure. How many people notice the Colonel filing his nails in the helicopter chasing after Eve? There are attempts at humour here, but they don’t come when you expect them, and I think they needed to be broader.
*. So, in sum, it should have been funnier, but isn’t. And it should have been sexier, and isn’t. But I don’t think it’s the total disaster everyone made it out to be, especially considering the fact the first film wasn’t much good to begin with. The ending is anticlimactic. Just a bit of bad blood kills the alien? That seems kind of easy. And of course there’s a twist ending (added at “the eleventh hour” according to Medak) that left the door open for a sequel. Which would not be long in coming.

Species (1995)

*. I think this movie is most remembered today for a couple of things. Aside, that is, from the obvious appeal of Natasha Henstridge disrobing. In the first place there is the moment when the team of investigators trying to find the runaway alien Sil enter a railway carriage containing a corpse, with blood splattered all over the walls, and the empath character Dan (Forest Whitaker) tells us “Something bad happened here.”
*. I can tell you that audiences laughed out loud at that line in the theatre in 1995. But it’s worth noting that it’s immediately undercut in the film, as Michael Madsen’s character says “No shit.” Something similar is done later when Sil’s attempt to breed in a hot tub is broken up by the gang. “We interrupted her,” Dan says. “Yes,” Ben Kingsley replies impatiently, “I think we did.” There’s also an early scene where he says he knows something about predators because of a show he saw on the Discovery Channel. I’m not sure Dan is a character we’re meant to take very seriously.
*. The other thing that I think everyone remembers about Species is the Sil creature itself and its near kinship to the monster in Alien. Their resemblance is no surprise given that they were both designed by the same person, the artist H. R. Giger, but more than that they both embody a fear of reproduction. Both Sil and the Xenomorph are looking to breed, a process that involves the destruction of humans who are used either as sperm donors (Sil) or incubators (the Xenomorph).
*. Gender issues? Jonathan Rosenbaum: “in spite of all its unexplained and semiridiculous plot premises [Species] works surprisingly well as a genre exercise, perhaps because, like Alien, it knows how to exploit misogynist biological and sexual anxieties for all they’re worth.” Even Sil’s nipples shoot tentacles!
*. The problem I have with this isn’t the misogyny, if that’s what it is, so much as the fact that this had been done before by the Alien movies and didn’t really need to be introduced again here. Making matters even worse is the fact that the effects in Species aren’t nearly as good as they were in Alien.
*. To which you might well say, with Madsen, “No shit.” The creature effects and design work on Alien set the bar for the entire genre, and have never been surpassed. But still, this was fifteen years later, with a much larger budget (people often forget how low-budget a movie Alien was). They could have come up with something that looked better than this. But then the fact that Alien had to do its effects without CGI helped.
*. The premise actually makes some sense. Alien life has come to Earth by way of information in the form of a code for their DNA. But I had the sense that things got dumbed down as they went along, culminating in the idiotic pause Madsen has to take before blowing Sil’s head off so that he can get in a “Hasta la vista, baby” line (here it’s “Let go, motherfucker”).
*. It also seems like some interesting angles were left undeveloped. Take Alfred Molina’s observation that “Los Angeles is perfect for her. It’s the city of the future. Anything goes. Totally mobile population and everyone’s a stranger. Very little in this town is taboo or unacceptable. No matter what she does no one’s going to notice.” I’d say L.A. is perfect for Sil for other reasons, since she’s a beautiful young woman come to the city of sin to get ahead by sleeping around.
*. It’s also curious how Sil only kills the innocent. The nice lady on the train who lets her ride for half price. The guy who takes her to the hospital. Molina. Even the guy who picks her up (or who she picks up) at the club. He has every reason to expect he’s going to get some action, and the script even makes it clear that he’s not a junky but a diabetic (which is still enough to make him a “loser” for reproductive purposes).
*. This isn’t a bad little movie but I find it disappointing given some of the talent involved. In the end it settles for being something very formulaic, with a not very interesting monster that we hardly even see. The most memorable thing about it is the character of Dan, and that’s only because he’s so silly. For some reason, however, it was felt worthy of a sequel. Or two. Or three.