Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Terror Within (1989)

So, the world ended.

It came as no great shock: I mean the world had a good run, but we all knew this was coming sooner or later, right?

Well, now all that's left for the measly remnants of the human race to do is to pick ourselves up and cling to the few places on earth not swamped with radiation and hunker down and try to survive as long as we can. It's a great time to try and hone your arts and crafts skills. Didn't you always want to learn how to crochet?

Of course, there are risks. Out in the wastelands there are other survivors who have decided it's better to be dicks to the only other humans on earth. And then there's the dinosaurs. Apparently they felt now was a swell time to come back and reclaim the Earth. Which is kind of awesome, in a way, but also--

What's that? No dinosaurs in this apocalypse? Are sure? I was pretty sure it was dinosaurs this time. Is it aliens? Dragons? Giant scorpions? Oh, please tell me it's at least not zombies because if it is I'll... Mutants, you say? Are we talking full monster mode or just a bunch of bald maniacs? Full on monster, you say? Eh, that's acceptable. I don't feel too cheated by fighting to the death with cool mutants.

I'd still prefer dinosaurs.

We open with two yahoos in military fatigues wandering in the desert by the Gorn Rock™. It is the future and humanity has been wiped out by some form of catastrophe. This pair of goombas is a scouting party, but as you can tell by my lack of interest in their names, they won't be around long. They're also shitty scouts, as they are apparently looking for food and supplies but walk right past a green iguana that's inexplicably wandering around in the desert and kill a rattlesnake instead. I'm pretty sure the iguana has just as much meat on it, if not more, and carries no risk of receiving a venomous bite when you kill it. But maybe one of them had an iguana as a kid and couldn't bear to kill one.

Or, you know, they're incompetent morons. Tomato, to-mah-to.

The two are scouting for supplies for the underground Mojave Lab facility (what the organization they belong to is is never made clear, but it may be a CDC lab based on the signage), and they radio back in to let Sue (Starr Andreeff) and David (Andrew Stevens), who are manning the radios, that they bagged some snake for supper but also spotted some vultures circling and are going to investigate to see if whatever has the vultures interested could still be fit for human consumption. The facility commander, Hal (George Kennedy!) wanders into the radio room as Sue and David are joking about the dire taste of their coffee substitute. After the three discuss the state of their supplies, David broaches the subject of heading for the Rocky Mountain Lab facility but Hal shoots him down, as they have not heard from the Rocky Mountains facility in weeks and it's 1800 miles away. This is clearly a conversation they've had before.

Before they can move on to the next part of this conversation, the two expendable idiots radio in about having run afoul of "gargoyles" before they're cut off in a series of screams and inhuman snarling. Hal orders David and Sue to rescue the other two, if possible. David stops to grab his adorable pit bull, Butch (Butch Stevens, which would suggest the dog actually belongs to Andrew Stevens), as backup. David, Sue, and Butch exit the facility's secret hatch hidden inside a shack on the surface. Hilariously, the hatch is at the top of a ladder and we never see how the hell they get Butch up. We see David and Sue exit the hatch on their own and Butch is suddenly with them in the next scene.

Well, pit bulls are magic.

Linda (Terri Treas) takes over the radio console with Hal to monitor David and Sue's progress. And I am instantly attracted to Linda, as I cannot resist a capable woman--especially not when she's a redhead with green eyes. We get our first hints here that David and Sue are a couple, but it's oddly played as if Hal doesn't know this, which seems unlikely. Hal splits his time between hovering over Linda and hovering over Brett--er, I mean Neil (Tommy Hinkley), one of the facility's repair technicians who is currently griping about the state of their equipment. Neil takes a break from his griping to drink some shine with Parker--er, I mean Andre (John Lafayette), while the two ponder whether it really was gargoyles and whether there's anybody left alive out there.

Sue and David kill time by referring to "the accident" that caused all this. Turns out it was some kind of genetically engineered virus that wiped out most of mankind, except those who received a vaccine. David and Sue find the mutilated bodies of the two scouts--and then the corpses of a group of human survivors, also mutilated. Curiously, while the group is composed of adults and children, the bodies are all males. Linda sees this as an opportunity to study the survivors' corpses and see how they managed to survive outside, with no vaccine. It's a bit unrealistic to expect Sue and David to lug bodies back across rocky desert terrain when the "gargoyles" that killed them are probably still around, so Linda volunteers to go out to study the bodies. Neil and Andre are pressured into accompanying her, as neither one has any interest in going outside.

However, Linda may get something better than an autopsy to find out how non-mutated humans have survived outside. Something lurking around the site of the massacre gets Butch's attention and he runs off after it. It turns out to be a woman (Yvonne Saa, who oddly resembles Gemma Arterton), who is scratched up and fleeing from a snarling, roving POV cam--which Butch helpfully waylays. David manages to almost kill the poor woman with his crossbow, but Sue is able to calm the survivor down and the trio hightail it back to the lab with Butch in tow. Back at the base, Linda starts to work examining the survivor immediately.

Unfortunately, multiple roving POV cams have followed them back to the base and take out the surveillance cams in the shack. David, Neil, and Andre rig up a periscope so they can go and manually assess the threat level and see if the cameras can be replaced--and during the making of the periscope, the film shamelessly copies the exchange about Brett being a parrot for Parker from Alien, which makes no real sense here. Well, they get their answer when a clawed hand wrenches the periscope from David's hands. With no hope of repairing the cameras, they lock the hatch and set up a microphone to monitor the gargoyles' activity.

Things are about to get worse, however. First, Linda determines that the survivor, who we now learn is named Karen, is pregnant. And that pregnancy goes from 3 months along to 7-8 in a single night. And David finally gets through to Rocky Mountain Lab, only to learn they're under gargoyle attack before the transmission cuts off. Hal orders Linda to terminate the pregnancy, but to keep the fetus alive for study if possible.

With Hal and Sue's help, Linda puts Karen under anesthesia. However, in the process of removing the fetus from Karen's womb, Linda discovers the fetus has teeth. And then the fetus--which does, admittedly, look like a gargoyle--rips its way out of Karen's body and escapes into the air vent. With no way to seal the air vents, except manually, the group rigs up a flamethrower and a portable laser. However, they have barely any fuel or battery, so there's little margin for error as they won't get more than three shots before the weapons are useless. David, Andre, and Butch search one level while Hal and Neil search another. Linda and Sue hole up in the control room, in the hopes that the gargoyle won't be able to use them for breeding purposes once it reaches its accelerated maturity.

As is typical of horror movies, the black guy gets it first when the fully mature gargoyle--an admittedly nifty man in a suit creation, though it is poorer for not taking more after the fetus it supposedly matured from--ambushes Andre and slashes his throat. David then gets slapped and clawed around for a bit, but Butch intervenes. Sue heard David's distress over the radio and quickly overpowers Linda and rushes to his level. Poor Butch has met his match with this gargoyle and is severely wounded--though not killed, which earns the film points with this pit bull lover--before the gargoyle takes off after David tries to call Butch with his dog whistle. Neil is ambushed by the gargoyle when he tries to take the elevator and killed. And then the gargoyle grabs Sue after she and David discover Neil's body.

Hal, Linda, and David track the gargoyle down to another level where they interrupt it in the process of raping Sue. Hal uses the laser to distract the beast while Linda and David rescue Sue. Unfortunately for Hal, he's the highest paid actor in the film, so the laser barely tickles the gargoyle. Exit Hal, in the slashing mutant claws of martyrdom.

When Linda examines Sue, she discovers that the poor woman is pregnant. Linda and David assume that it must be David's child, as there is no way the gargoyle could possibly have impregnated her that fast. They make the mistake of telling the still traumatized Sue the good news. Practically the moment Linda and David exit the room, Sue takes a set of surgical scissors to her own belly. The autopsy reveals that, impossibly, the fetus was a gargoyle--though, mercifully, this one didn't survive.

Now David and Linda are on their own. Butch is too weak to help them defend against the gargoyle, and the gargoyles topside are going to keep them from just fleeing the facility. They need to find a way to kill the beast before it kills them--or worse.

Well, this is surprisingly the first Roger Corman-produced film to grace this page. I feel rather ashamed. I will have to add more as soon as possible.

As I imagine I made clear already, this film is an Alien rip-off that showed up about ten years late to the party. It was by no means the first one that Corman produced, but it may be the one that most blatantly copies the plot of Alien. Now, obviously there are enough differences that it may not seem all that blatant. After all, the monsters are raping mutants, not parasitic aliens, and it's set in an underground base in a post-apocalyptic future instead of on a spaceship in the future. But the basic plot and even characters and elements of the story are right out of Ridley Scott's film.

As Corman-produced Alien rip-offs go, this is no Forbidden World. For one thing, it's rather less exploitative and your mileage may vary as to whether that's a mark for or against it. Sure, there's a rape scene--which Forbidden World doesn't really have--but it's played for horror rather than titillation. In fact there's no nudity anywhere in the film, which most certainly cannot be said of Forbidden World. And I have to say that, while I like this film's monster it has nothing on Forbidden World's bizarrely adorable monstrosity. This film also lacks the same sense of fun and sly humor as Forbidden World.

Oh, it tries--like having Linda say, "I'm a doctor, not an engineer"--but it's just ultimately lacking in comparison. So, then, that comparison is probably extremely unfair on my part. On its own terms, The Terror Within is a solid film. It's no classic, but it's an entertaining yarn. The actors all do solid work, even if their characters are mostly one-note. And Butch is adorable.

Ultimately, we go to see movies like this for the monster, though. And the film definitely delivers there. I find the fetuses--largely immobile as they are--to be much more effective than the full-grown gargoyle. However, it's a solid suit so I can see why it has been recycled in other low-budget monster movie efforts since. (Crystal Force and Watchers II, to name a few, as well as The Terror Within II) The only real problem with it is that the separation between the head and the body is glaringly obvious. I believe the creature's designer attempted to conceal this by adding a bunch of loose "flesh" to the beast's neck, but that somehow makes it worse. It looks like the monster is wearing an ascot.

But given we get a lot of good looks at the creature--including a great sequence where it demonstrates its incredibly powerful healing abilities--it holds up extremely well. And boy does it ever go out in a delightfully messy way.

Obviously, the film has its upsides (letting the dog live) and its downsides (being the umpteenth horror movie to kill off the black guy), but overall I'd say it's worth a spin. Don't expect anything on the level of the film it's aping and you won't be disappointed.

This has been part two of the TEOTWAWKI roundtable. We looked at how the world ended at the end of 2013, and now we're looking at the aftermath. Below you will find the other participants' entries. Go and check them out, won't you?

Checkpoint Telstar -- The Book of Eli
Cinemasochist Apocalypse -- Creepozoids
Micro-Brewed reviews -- Six-String Samurai

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