Tuesday, October 25, 2016

HubrisWeen 2016, Day 20: There's Nothing Out There (1991)

In the grand scheme of things, Scream was nothing new. Horror comedies had been a sub-genre since before Abbott and Costello met Frankenstein, and horror movies that played off of audience knowledge and expectations of the genre were nothing new, either. Hell, one could argue that Jane Austen beat Kevin Williamson to the punch when you consider that horror films often owe a lot to gothic fiction, and Austen's Northanger Abbey was a blatant parody of the gothic genre right down to a heroine who is obsessed with The Mysteries of Udolpho.

So while I might, in my youth, have uncharitably decided that Scream somehow took its ideas from today's horror movie parody--simply because I enjoy it far more than Scream--that would be ignoring the fact that this film was far from original. And Kevin Williamson probably never even heard of it, but that's neither here nor there.

That being said, these days I can also understand the people who enjoy Scream more than this film. I actively avoided slasher films until I was just about done with high school, while even at 14 I would have absolutely been the target audience for this film. I mean, the core concept is a group of young people going out to a cabin in the woods for a fun weekend of nudity and laughs, while ignoring their token horror nerd's warnings that they are all doomed because they have accidentally wandered into a horror movie where there is a killer alien mudskipper waiting to pick them off.

I mean, already you may be thinking this is a bit more Cabin in the Woods than it is Scream, and you would not be far from the mark.

The film opens in a forgotten relic of the past, and rockets me back to a world that no longer exists. What do I speak of? Why, my friends, I speak of a video store where the VHS tapes in their rental clamshell cases are behind the counter and you have to bring your empty VHS box to the counter in order to rent your movie!

I know that I would never trade the world I live in now just to go back to this experience, but...I'd like to visit it occasionally.

Before I know it, my son is going to ask me what those things on the shelf are, and my bones will crumble to dust.
Okay, now that we've established that I am old, the young lady behind the counter is named Sally (Lisa Grant), but we won't learn that until much later. What's important now is that, while she stands absentmindedly behind the counter, someone comes into the store and tosses a VHS box onto the counter. She doesn't see them, but goes to get their tape--only for a black-gloved hand to lunge through the VHS tapes to grab her.

Sally falls down and crabwalks backwards as the black-clad menace advances on her, her terror emphasized by close-ups on various horror movie VHS covers. (My girlfriend could only roll her eyes at me every time I recognized a movie) More VHS tapes suddenly fall on her with bowling sound effects and she finds herself wrapped in the guts of several of them. Tangled in tape, she makes her way out the back door onto a raised porch and loses her balance. The tape catches in the door and it's implied she essentially hangs herself...

...only for Sally to wake up at the wheel of her car as she goes careening off the road into the woods. Yep, she was dreaming because she dozed off behind the wheel. As she takes stock of the fact she is awake and alive, she realizes her father is going to kill her for wrecking the car. As she tries to get the car started again, she doesn't see the strange glowing object floating down from the sky, nor does she see the green shape that falls past her window, but she does hear it splash into a puddle of water.

"Oh my gosh! A fallen cloud," she says, and I begin to wonder if anyone has ever said that. Perhaps the alien creature is annoyed by her stupidity as well, since it lunges at her then. We don't get a good look at it at this point but it clearly has two tentacles that terminate in a vague spade-shape, similar to a squid, and it uses them to bash in her windows. Then it throws itself at her windshield and she screams as it slithers inside to get her...

"Peanuts for Kiwanis?"
The opening credits then play over what the filmmakers probably thought was an awesome CGI tunnel effect, but obviously seems a bit kitschy now. We then join a high school classroom as an exasperated teacher realizes her class only cares about the fact that Spring Break starts in less than a minute. As we see Mike (Craig Peck) steal the sunglasses off of a sleeping fellow student, the teacher assigns them all an essay assignment on what they did for their Spring Break. That seems unlikely for a high school assignment, but okay.

Once out of the classroom, Mike proves to be the odd man out in a trio of couples preparing to head to a cabin for the break: Nick (John Carhart III) and Stacy (Bonnie Bowers), Jim (Mark Collver) and Doreen (Wendy Bednarz), and David (Jeff Dachis) and Janet (Claudia Flores). Naturally, they all fall into expected tropes. Nick is the one with the cabin, Jim is the big dumb jock, and David is the guy who's stereotypically nerdy enough to make Nick and Mike look less so. Stacy is the level-headed brunette, Doreen is the ditzy blonde, and Janet is a foreign exchange student. Janet is also the one David is sure will be a hold out because of her host family, but when the others invite her she says she can absolutely come along.

Meet your victims and T&A protagonists!
On the way, they pass by the police investigating the wreck of Sally's car, which is now turned on its side and Sally is nowhere to be found. Mike insists this is a warning and they should turn back now, because he has seen enough horror movies to know that they're doomed if they ignore it. The others, obviously, do not listen to him and so everyone disembarks at the cabin--especially after Jim threatens to fart if they don't all get out of the car.

Mike doesn't give up, however, but nobody wants to listen to him. However, we know that the rustling in the bushes that terrifies him belongs to a roving POV cam, which can only mean the thing that attacked Sally has found their cabin. Mike gets even more insistent when a van full of horny teenagers appears and goes skinny-dipping in the pond behind the cabin. (This is definitely a movie that cleaves to the philosophy that naked breasts are the cheapest special effect) When Mike calls Nick out to show him, Nick demands to know what the mostly naked people are doing in his pond. they apologize, as they were headed to the camp by the lake to be summer counselors and take their leave.

Mike points out that the group of people they just saw exist solely to be fodder for a slasher villain and that proves that they have somehow literally ended up inside a horror movie, but Nick isn't convinced and Mike's schtick is beginning to really annoy the others, especially Stacy. And I do have to give the movie credit here because, if you look past the fact that our cast are all moderately to very attractive adults pretending to be teens, you can actually see some clear hints as to why the hell these people are friends. Part of the dialogue between Nick and Stacy is him begging her to give getting to know Mike a chance, as he's a good guy. Clearly Nick is the geeky kid who became popular enough to hang with cool kids and keeps trying to bring his old friend along, even though he doesn't fit in.

I'm not really sure how David fits that narrative, though, but we need to fulfill our tropes, right?

Doreen takes a shower while Stacy prepares dinner for everyone. Doreen then ambushes Jim, who is wearing a vest ensemble that is painfully early 90s, so she can talk him into having sex in the shower. He objects at first until she drops her towel, then he's all about trying to bang in a small enclosed space. At dinner, the group discusses various topics but Mike brings it back to horror movies, insisting that there's either a masked killer or an alien out in the woods. Someone suggests a bear, which freaks Doreen out, but even Mike laughs that off since there are no bears in the area and if one was around surely it would have escaped from a circus on a unicycle.

However, it's not so funny when they hear a noise in the house. Going into the kitchen, they find the pan that had the rest of the chicken in it is on the floor--and it's not only empty but covered in green slime. The others make a joke about food poisoning, which Stacy just loves, while Doreen briefly wonders if it was a bear despite nothing about this suggesting such a thing. To Mike's horror, David and Janet decide to go for a walk in the woods with nothing but a pen flashlight.

Unfortunately for David and Janet, they're about to find out that Mike is not full of it. Janet tells David a ridiculous story about a couple so caught up in trying to have sex that they didn't notice a monster about to eat them, which of course is exactly what they're doing while laughing about it. We get our first good looks at the monster here and it looks rather like a mudskipper, as I said before, but with giant toothy mouth that has two long tentacles on either side of it, and then tiny insect-like legs behind that, with a fin on its back down its tadpole-like tail. Well, David promptly steps on one of those tentacles and the monster pounces on him, oddly it manages to pull Janet's skirt off (!) with one tentacle at the same time. Janet immediately leaves David to die, running headlong into the woods pantsless and all. David almost frees himself from the monster by tossing it away, but it catches up with him as he tries to flee and eats his spine out. Janet, for her part, runs headfirst into a tree in her panic and knocks herself out.

Tragically, David learned too late that the fish he'd bought came from Monsanto.
Jim and Doreen also decide to go out for a "walk," too. Mike tries to stop them, but eventually they go out anyway, though their actual intent is to go skinny-dipping. And then Nick and Stacy go upstairs to have sex (in front of a poster of The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey!), whereupon Mike realizes he is alone. Mike quickly rectifies this by barricading himself in his room and gathering up everything he can find to arm himself against possible attack.

Meanwhile, Jim and Doreen actually get naked (unlike the earlier skinny-dippers who only got topless) before jumping into the freezing pond. However, the roving POV cam is lurking around the water and makes itself known when the alien creature manages to pull the old Sideshow Bob and hit itself in the face with a rake. Hearing its angry growl terrifies the couple and they decide to head back in after Jim assures Doreen it's not a bear. They picked a good time, too, because the bubbles heading toward them indicate the alien had intended to attack them. The creature pulls itself out of the pond with its tentacles and we watch its POV cam head toward the house--snarling at the rake as it goes.

However, the glass breaking that Mike hears is Doreen and Jim because they had to force their way in with the front door locked. Mike dresses himself in a thick jacket, catcher's mask, and as many heavy protective items of clothing as he can find before heading downstairs with a baseball bat. Unfortunately, he has rotten timing--for Jim and Doreen are trying to have an intimate moment in front of the fireplace and when Doreen sees the alien looking at her with glowing green eyes she freaks out and accidentally kicks Jim in the crotch. Mike appears and gets a brief glimpse of the creature, but Jim sees Mike and assumes that Doreen was freaked out by Mike and assumes Mike deliberately dressed up to scare them.

Green eyed lady, lovely lady
The resulting scuffle between Mike and Jim brings Nick and Stacy downstairs. Meanwhile, Doreen has decided to wander off in search of her pants and when she gets to the basement door, a tentacle grabs her leg and pulls her down the stairs. Hearing her scream, the others rush to her side. Mike tries to take Doreen's explanation that something grabbed her as proof, but Stacy has had enough and screams at him that there is nothing in the house--before a cat drops into her arms. The cat has green eyes, so Stacy smugly asserts that the green-eyed thing that Doreen saw was the cat and she tripped over it and fell down the stairs. Mike, hilariously, goes on a rant to the heavens because he wants to know where the cat came from since it had to have been hanging from the ceiling waiting for the right moment to jump down.

Well, Jim gets the brutal idea to punch Mike in the gut and lock him in the basement for the night. Nick objects but he's the only one who does. Well, aside from Mike, but he's quickly too busy trying not to be eaten by the alien that was waiting in the basement.

The next morning, Jim and Stacy are delightfully happy to have had a night without Mike as they make breakfast. Doreen is still sleeping but Nick comes down to join them. However, Mike broke a pipe in his attempt to not be devoured, so the others soon discover the water's not working and then find the basement is flooded. There's no sign of Mike, either, beyond a broken window. Nick heads into town to get a plumber while Stacy invites Jim to go swimming. Jim's down, but needs to go upstairs to get his trunks and check on Doreen. Stacy goes ahead and strips into the bikini she'll spend the rest of the movie in.

"Look, every video game ever made assured me this is perfect monster fighting attire!"
Well, while Stacy is swimming in the pond, she discovers some green slime on a rock. Meanwhile, Jim discovers that the alien was hiding under Doreen's bed when it pins him to the wall with a tentacle to the face. Hearing Doreen scream, Stacy runs inside, just missing the monster shooting eye lasers into Doreen's eyes that knock her out. However, Stacy enters the room in time to see the alien drop Jim's limp body to the floor and turn on her. She avoids its eye lasers and flees, but the creature pulls the doorknob off with its mouth when she tries to lock it out her bedroom, so she desperately jumps out a window. (This is not a terribly convincing stunt since the cut after her hitting the window was too early and thus we can tell the stuntwoman jumped off the roof of the house)

She bumps into Mike, luckily, who was not eaten after all. As they try and assess whether any of their friends are still alive and what to do next, the monster tries to attack them but the tree they're hiding behind gets in the way, so Mike ties its tentacles in a knot. Back in the house, they recover Doreen, but when Mike goes to check Jim's pulse he discovers that Jim's skin peels off, and then the poor dumb jock bastard's face melts off. Meanwhile, the monster is attacking Stacy while a shocked Doreen watches helplessly. Of course, it seems oddly more interested in diving at Stacy's crotch than killing her.

Mike arrives in time to bat the creature away after Stacy kicks it into the air. They slip into Mike's room and when Stacy mentions it can chew the lock off, he sprays shaving cream through the keyhole and demonstrates that the creature does not like a mouthful of shaving cream. Talking about what they know about the creature, Mike realizes that the slime must be a digestive aid like human saliva and when it attacked the girls it didn't use the slime so it must want them for, uh, other purposes. This seems to be backed up when Janet staggers out of the woods.

Mike is reluctant but Stacy and Doreen rush to her aid. Only Doreen leads the half-conscious Janet to the couch instead of upstairs. When Stacy tries to stop her, Doreen whirls and reveals that her eyes are glowing green. Seems those eye lasers are actually a mind control device. Doreen attacks Stacy with clear intent to kill her, while the monster uses the distraction to advance on Janet...

The little known side-effect of Visine is that it replaces the red with green.
It's true that this is a very low-budget film, The witer/director, Rolfe Kanefsky, was only about 20 when the film was made and virtually none of the actors were professionals in any capacity. I have tried to show this film to people who could not get past that, and that's a damn shame because despite the amateur nature of this film's production it is a delightful little flick.

For one thing, while it has some clunkers here and there the script has a lot of great lines--most of which are given to Mike--and it knows exactly the kind of movie it's trying to be. The direction is also pretty damn good, with a lot of great angles used brilliantly. My personal favorite being an angle that quickly turns out to be from the creature's point of view as it eats its way through a victim's torso.

The creature is also a brilliant bit of work for a low-budget creation. Sure, it never looks very convincing but it strikes the perfect balance for the menace in a horror comedy: equal parts adorable and creepy. It also has a nicely well-established personality that makes it just clumsy and dumb enough to give the heroes a fighting chance against it, without making it totally impossible to take seriously as a threat.

While Gallant treats his date with respect, Gleegork is all pseudopods.
The film also knows how to use its low-budget to its advantage as a horror comedy. This is a movie where a character escapes from monster attack by swinging to safety on a boom mic when it drifts into frame.

It also manages to strike the ideal balance of sleaziness to satisfy exploitation fans without disgusting others. Of the main characters only Mike and David never get naked. Also, while its monster wants to mate with women, it doesn't ever succeed--or at least if it does, it's not on screen. And there's just enough gore without being excessive.

It's not a perfect movie, of course. Like I said, not all the jokes land and at times it is definitely trying too hard. That said, I love it to pieces and am glad that it has an established cult following. It may be necessary to look past its limitations as a microbudget monster flick, but if a viewer can manage that minor allowance they'll find it's a damn good time.

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1 comment:

  1. After reading the intro, I skipped over to your final comments, and boy, do you know how to sell a movie! Once I track down a copy, I'll come back and read the rest of the review.