In this 4th of July Weekend installment of An Alan Smithee Podcast, Andrew and I talk about the best movie to take place on July 3rd, 1984 – The Return of the Living Dead! Being my favorite film the commentary is not very scene-specific. We talk about O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure as applied to the film, his career relationships with contemporaries like John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper (who almost directed Return), plus the film’s monumental place in zombie movie history. As Clu Gulager says, “Fourth of July weekend buddy boy, gotta move!”
The ides of March are upon An Alan Smithee Podcast this month and we’ve got the madness! March is also, of course, the month of Mars, the Roman god of war who namesake is shared with our neighbor, the fourth rock the sun. This gives us a great excuse to pick from about a hundred movies set in, on or near Mars and do it twice. Check back in two weeks – the ides of March, the 15th – for another pair of Mars movies!
Our first pair of the month is a twofold evocation illustrating a generation of children’s terror regarding visits from the outside in shorthand as Martians. Ray Bradbury this twice-told tale is not. If the movies have taught us anything, it’s that any potential inhabitants of Mars wants to kill us.
Invaders From Mars (1953, William Cameron Menzies) is a real modern American folk legend, one of the earliest and craziest films about alien visitors as soulless conquering spies and murderers, all wrapped up in the hallucinatory imagination of terrified innocent. 1953 was also the year of The War of the Worlds and the images contained in these films would define the alien invader genre forever. Surreal, gripping and discreetly goofy in a low-budget way every so often.
After influencing a generation of genre filmmakers, the Invaders returned in Tobe Hooper’s 1986 remake of Invaders From Mars. Despite an eclectic, effective cast, slick direction and a wittily sardonic screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby it failed to find its audience. We, the martian ambassadors at Alan Smithee Podcast are only too glad to sing its neglected praises.
BEWARE THE IDES OF MARCH: MISSION TO MARS (2000, BRIAN DE PALMA) & RED PLANET (2000, ANTONY HOFFMAN)
The Alien – capital T, capital A “Alien” – has been the Mickey Mouse of sci-fi horror for over 30 years now. That’s because there wasn’t really a recognized hybrid genre of “Sci-Fi Horror” before screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and his partner Ronald Shusett conceived a version of O’Bannon’s early sci-fi comedy Dark Star (directed by John Carpenter) in which the goofy beach ball-looking alien would be a terrifying monster and another crew of astronauts would be stuck in the black void of the cosmos with nowhere to run. The famous tagline “In Space No One Can Hear You Scream” said it all. Selling the audience on both a realistic spaceship and a seemingly real, unprecedentedly bizarre looking space monster helped change the standards by which space movies were judged. The same can be said of Star Wars, which similarly combined a lot of endearing features from an escapist fantasy genre and portrayed their spaceships and aliens so vividly with state-of-the-art special effects that all around the world, the mainstream was reintroduced to those charms as adults.
The fun hypothetical question to ask of both films is, what if the sequels and multi-media franchise empires had never followed? Just one self-contained Star Wars adventure and one Alien? The impact on the rest of the movie business actually would have remained much the same. Mickey Mouse would have remained in the dark shadows of our imagination, that’s for certain. The most prominent features of Ridley Scott’s original film, compared to the later sequels of James Cameron, David Fincher et all, are the slow pace of the story and the way the alien is shown as little as possible. This was not a case of the effects being unconvincing and necessitating minimal view as with the shark in Jaws, but simply Scott’s preference as the director. He did not consider himself a horror film maker after all, and under the harsh light of a horror movie fan’s experience, the film really ceases to be suspenseful or scary after the first viewing lets you know when the monster is going to suddenly emerge. Coupled with loud noises on the soundtrack when said jack-in-the-box “jump” moments occur, the overall effect of Alien on the horror end of the equation is ultimately rather lacking. No wonder the sequels barely bothered trying to be scary after people had seen the Alien in full view by the end of Scott’s movie – a view which practically reveals the zipper running up it’s back. Whoops. So close.
The residual strength of Alien is ultimately in the science fiction department. While unmistakably drawn from the late 1970s, the film’s cast of characters live and work in their spaceship as if they were born there. Their descent onto the alien planet and discovery of an alien ship containing alien eggs is a masterpiece of wonder in the face of the unknown, a creation of mood helped by Jerry Goldsmith’s awe inspiring score. The methodical arguments between Sigourney Weaver, Ian Holm and Tom Skerritt over what actions to take grounds all the fantastic elements down to a practical level and makes the future seem all the more real. Culminating in the unforgettable sight of the mysterious alien “facehugger” wrapped around one of the astronauts, the first act of Alien is as engrossing and impressive an introduction to a possible future as Kubrick’s 2001.
Being a big studio, high profile, new post-Star Wars Summer blockbuster event picture, Alien contained a massive amount of gloss and polish which not every “Sci-Fi Horror” film produced in its wake could compete with when trying the experience. These Alien influenced horror films could, however, afford to imitate the most talked-about grossout moment of the movie: the infamous “Chestburster” scene where a penile hand puppet with teeth explodes out of John Hurt’s belly. Thus in the immediate wake of that infamous demise came a whole spate of fake heads and torsos being busted open from within by ugly sock puppets. Probably the worst among these is Alien 2: On Earth.
Alien 2: On Earth exists in the company of many other Italian knockoffs and unofficial sequels to American genre movies, such as 1983’s Escape From New York cash-in 2019: After the Fall of New York, previously featured on this very podcast. But where 2019 had some resources behind the production and ideas to add to the initial premise stolen from John Carpenter, Alien 2: On Earth appears to have been made for a handful of lira and adds absolutely nothing creative as a fake sequel to Alien. Following a team of modern day geologists on a doomed excursion into some Californian caves, the film does include blobby alien hatchlings which cling to and burst out of faces, but nothing else which could be confused for the original. The sole defense you could make of this film is that its producers did what fans of the real Alien movies waited decades to see – the aliens “on Earth” – but the incompetence of the filmmakers on every level makes any viewing an endurance test of pain.
Only sheer obscurity has kept 20th Century Fox from suing over the title, even after the recent Blu-Ray release by Midnight Legacy – who, like the film’s creators, are probably banking on the title and not the abominable film itself.
NEXT WEEK: NAZI HUNTING SPECIAL! BLACK BOOK (2006, PAUL VERHOEVEN) & BLOODRAYNE: THE THIRD REICH (2010, UWE BOLL)
This episode of An Alan Smithee Podcast is dedicated to the memory of Dan O’Bannon, the director and writer of our good movie The Return Of The Living Dead. O’Bannon was a true genre journeyman, whose ideas for Alien (1979) have been influencing our pop culture for decades now.
While attending USC he acted and co-wrote for John Carpenter in Dark Star (1974) then began contributing to Heavy Metal magazine. Some of his work would show up in the 1981 Heavy Metal movie. In 1977 he designed computer animation for Star Wars and was hired by Alejandro Jodorowsky to create the special effects for an unmade version Dune, during which time O’Bannon met the artist HR Giger. After the cancellation of Dune, O’Bannon co-wrote the Alien screenplay with Ronald Shusett and sold the screenplay it to 20th Century Fox, who then hired Giger to create the now-classic look that compliments O’Bannon’s slow, suspenseful story.
The 80s saw O’Bannon’s most prolific period, with many credits including Dead & Buried, Blue Thunder, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars remake, Total Recall (once again with Shusett,) and most importantly his sole directing and writing credit; the zombie film which encapsulated, satirized, and reestablished the “zombie movie” as a genre of horror as much as Alien created the Alien style horror movie.
It hurts to be dead. Let’s all applaud him at home during the Oscars death clap.
Shane Black is nothing like Dan O’Bannon, except that he’s a screenwriter by trade with one hallmark series to his name: Lethal Weapon. Black may have also been a tad nerdish, but inside him rages a misogynist streak a mile long. The Last Boy Scout is a healthy exercise in the degradation of women, and completely fails at pairing Bruce Willis with Damon Wayans with any kind of humorous buddy comedy chemistry.
Directed by Tony Scott, this film is shot through a thick cloud of LA smog and exists in the nether regions between the post-Cold War death of violent and homoerotic right wing action movies and the onset of big, dumb and slick action movies starring a pair of big dumb names in outrageous situations. This period was also known as George H.W. Bush’s single term.
NEXT WEEK: 2010: THE YEAR WE MAKE CONTACT (1984, PETER HYAMS) & THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958, AKIRA KUROSAWA)