On ALIEN: COVENANT

Another look at Ridley Scott’s visionary science fiction film

It’s appropriate that Ridley Scott’s mutated ALIEN prequel/PROMETHEUS sequel ALIEN: COVENANT begins (and ends) with the mention and music of Richard Wagner. The wildly influential German composer’s life, writings and operas were an early and steady influence on Adolph Hitler and it’s thought that the future Fuhrer’s skewed, sociopathic philosophies on “racial purity” and his festering anti-semetism stemmed from this obsession.

“Wagner’s line of thought is intimately familiar to me,” the Nazi party leader once said.

“At every stage of my life I come back to him.”

It is important to mention this, because Scott and screenwriter John Logan’s remarkable, high-minded and misunderstood blend of splatter-show and cerebral science fiction is about these very themes, of ego, narcissism, spite and jealousy propelling a quest to alter the path of creation to suit a singular agenda. Fueled by these things, Hitler inexplicably rose to power and in his quest to dominate, also murdered millions of innocent men, women and children. All in the name of a psychotic desire to meddle with natural order, to “play God” for no other real reason than to appease his obsessions.

And so it goes with David, the “synthetic” played by Michael Fassbender who we first met in PROMETHEUS and who we are re-introduced to here, in the prologue for ALIEN:COVENANT. The film begins with David opening his eyes and meeting his “father” Weyland (Guy Pearce).

“Am I your son?” asks David.

“You are my creation,” responds the aging, weary inventor.

As David sits down at the provided piano, Weyland tells him to randomly pick one of the no-doubt thousands of pre-programmed pieces of music that have been hard-wired into his being by his makers. He picks something from Wagner’s Das Rheingold, “Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla,” and he plays the theme perfectly. And yet he is chastised for his performance by Weyland, who notes that without the full orchestra, the piece is weak, skeletal… unfinished. As David considers this and persists with questions about his “birth” and the origins of his creator and of man, we see the seeds planted for the horror that is to come. And it becomes clear that what Scott and company are doing with this movie is something both ambitious and elemental and far from the simple ALIEN sequel that 20th Century Fox tried to market the movie as.

Because ultimately what ALIEN: COVENANT is, is an exploration of the myth first etched by Mary Shelley in her oft-adapted novel “Frankenstein.” The subtitle for that novel was “The Modern Prometheus,” after all. And so it goes…

When I first saw ALIEN: COVENANT, I went alone, on opening night. Many of the people in that screening were families, parents and teenage children, elderly men and their middle-aged sons. The ALIEN franchise is iconic and for many film fans, it’s a rite of passage. It was an event to have a new ALIEN film scream into theaters. It had meaning. And yet I knew that many of those people purchasing tickets and expecting to see a film that revels in chest-bursting and men in Xenomorph costumes crawling around Giger-esque sets, menacing gun-happy humans in deep space, were bound to be disappointed. Some were angry. Certainly, many “purists” indeed recoiled at PROMETHEUS, a film I admired and loved because Scott knew he couldn’t go back and just repeat the formula he invented, and instead dialed the story back and explored new themes and ideas in a sort of sister ALIEN universe. That film is a bit of a marvel and I’m happy to see that many of the initial confused detractors of PROMETHEUS are now slowly, surely becoming reluctant fans.

ALIEN: COVENANT sees Scott trying to please both camps, once more using that companion universe to explore ideas and philosophy and probing psychology, while still providing the frissons and gory geek-show tropes that the hardcore ALIEN fans demand. It’s all here and things burst out of bodies and cause much mayhem. But for every exploding torso, Scott drags us into another world, introducing another element that takes us deeper into the mythology of the franchise and tunnels into completely new terrain.

Indeed, with both ALIEN: COVENANT and PROMETHEUS, we see an auteur filmmaker exploiting his most popular creation to mutate it and evolve it into an entirely new species.

Kind of what like David does. Life mirroring art mirroring life, repeated like a fun house mirror ad nauseum.

The plot of ALIEN: COVENANT is familiar. A ship — the Covenant — jets through space looking for a planet to settle its 2000 strong, cryogenically preserved army of colonists, to find a new world to blaze new trails far from their own dying terrain. Among the various heroes (all essayed by a strong cast of players) is a “synthetic” named Walter (again, played by Fassbender) who has been programmed to do his duty and protect “his” humans and keep the mission on track. When they receive a phantom signal from an uncharted planet, they land and explore and of course encounter death and alien infection. But the real story begins when the humans are “rescued” by David, who has been stranded on this planet for a decade and has built a one-man (“man” being a questionable word) society where he has indulged his desire to create art….and other things.

Here, Walter and David begin having conversations which lead to new plot revelations and that’s the real power of the picture. These dialogues and the actions that spring from them that are dark, frightening and fascinating. Where science, faith, humanity and horror intersect in beautiful, challenging passages of imagination and intellect that are perverse, allegorical and cautionary. And, expertly, every time Scott gets too heady, he flips the switch and one of those gorgeous Xenomorphs jumps out and spits its teeth out, marauding across nightmarish sets that seem ripped from the recesses of the Freudian ID. And yes, sure, the monsters are now mostly CGI-tweaked creatures but set in the design of this modern film, it makes sense.

Ardent fans of Scott’s important filmography will notice that concepts explored in his groundbreaking and influential 1982 Phillip K. Dick adaptation BLADE RUNNER, are also woven into this film. Like that movie, ALIEN: COVENANT trades in ideas and prefers to break ground as opposed to just crassly regurgitating formulas. It’s a majestic, horrifying study in mad science gone wild in the absence of God. You can come for the face-huggers, but you must stay for the cerebellum (some of which ends up splattered on the walls, but hey, that’s okay too).

On NIGHTWING

A look at the underrated 1979 evil bat thriller

Director Arthur Hiller’s NIGHTWING is one of a handful of films that trade in the terror of killer, disease-ridden bats, a loose, unofficial subgenre that seemingly doesn’t command much fan enthusiasm.  And while 1974’s future-shock chiller CHOSEN SURVIVORS remains my winged-rodent romp of choice, NIGHTWING flies not too far behind.

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On MANDY

Acclaimed hallucinatory horror drama is now on Blu-ray

There’s a primal, animal power that propels director Panos Cosmatos’s acclaimed experimental horror head-trip MANDY. A kind of danger pulsing beneath its arcane imagery, bubbling-forth from its moaning electronic music and arch, hissing dialogue. The film just feels alien. It feels evil.  It courses with a sort of seething darkness and descends into such brain-swelling madness that you can almost smell it.

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On GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS

A look at the legendary 1973 killer sheep cult movie

It’s not easy reviewing a film as singularly fucking insane as Fredric C. Hobbs’ jaw-dropping 1973 freak-out GODMONSTER OF INDIAN FLATS.  So much has been written and spoken about the picture, mostly by people saddling it with the dreaded “so bad it’s good” handle and certainly, it would be easy to dismiss this Something Weird Video favorite as a slab of inept trash made by desert-touched madmen who lapped up too much LSD in the late ’60s. But GODMONSTER is anything but a bad film (more like a baaaaaaad film). Rather it’s an almost experimental, totally unpredictable and fever-pitched horror-western that seems beamed-in from another dimension and it simply refuses to behave by any conventional film structure standards. It leaks a kind of authentic, hard-wired weirdness that so many other phony baloney “cult” filmmakers have forever tried hard to capture, but that’s impossible to fabricate. And while it often feels like a forgotten Alejandro Jodorowsky movie, I’d much rather watch GODMONSTER than THE HOLY MOUNTAIN any day of the week.

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Interview: Nicky Henson on PSYCHOMANIA

A conversation with the star of the classic British exploitation movie

From its first dreamy frames, as a gang of leather clad, skull faced bikers poured into black leather come charging over a mist drenched hill in slow motion, to its final surreal wind down, with men, women and motorcycles morphing into massive tombstones, to all its cheeky, wonderfully lunatic mayhem in the middle, cinema history has never, ever seen the likes of a picture quite like Don Sharp’s unapologetically mental PSYCHOMANIA.

Released in 1971 (in some markets on a double bill with the equally nuts WEREWOLVES ON WHEELS) and made to crassly ride the coattails of EASY RIDER, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD with perhaps a dash of ROSEMARY’S BABY added for supernatural spice, PSYCHOMANIA (filmed as THE LIVING DEAD and also known as THE DEATH WHEELERS) is an artifact of post-mod, British kitsch, admired with irony and worshiped by millions, perhaps thousands, even dozens of cult movie fans around the globe.

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Interview: Celeste Yarnall on THE VELVET VAMPIRE

An interview with the late actress about her seminal horror film

On Sunday, October 7th, the planet lost one if its prettier souls. The lovely, kind, brave and talented Celeste Yarnall passed away after a long, torturous battle with ovarian cancer, a condition she and her beloved husband, Nazim, raged against both in private and public. Pop culture will remember Celeste best as THE VELVET VAMPIRE in Stephanie Rothman’s same-named masterpiece and as one of Elvis’ girls in the 1968 musical LIVE A LITTLE, LOVE A LITTLE as well as for her appearances in STAR TREK, HOGAN’S HEROES and a myriad other programs. I knew her enough to know that she truly was a warm, lovely woman and she fought tooth and claw to beat the disease that eventually got the upper hand, though even at her darkest,Celeste lived a great, open and positive life.

Here then, is an interview I conducted with Celeste back in 2013 for DELIRIUM Magazine #1.

RIP beautiful Celeste.

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On MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY

Words on the undervalued erotic vampire drama

Mexican horror filmmaker Juan Lopez Moctezuma’s 1975 American co-production MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY is a true anomaly. On one hand, it’s an obvious – if somewhat late-from-the-gate – entry into the “lesbian vampire” cycle of exploitation film that reigned throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. It certainly is kin to movies like Jess Franco’s VAMPYROS LESBOS, the Hammer Horror riff on Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Carmilla” THE VAMPIRE LOVERS and especially the Stephanie Rothman directed, Roger Corman produced Southern California sex-vamp oddity THE VELVET VAMPIRE. And yet there’s so much more going on within its meandering running time. And while it lacks the stylistic flourishes of earlier Moctezuma fever dreams like THE MANSION OF MADNESS and ALUCARDA, it is no less hypnotic and surreal, albeit in a much different, much more manic way. It often feels like a perversion of a 1970’s American prime time drama, complete with wonderfully tacky lounge music, eye-level framing and brightly-lit action.  Hell, even the fonts used for the opening titles feel like they’re ripped right out of FANTASY ISLAND.  But every time MARY, MARY, BLOODY MARY settles into some class of  clean, safe, even borderline banal groove, Moctezuma steers it into absolute insanity. There are plenty movies like it and yet…there’s nothing quite like it.

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On LET THE CORPSES TAN

Stylish, sun-soaked Italian-inspired thriller is an anti-genre film

Let the Corpses Tan, the most recent – as of this writing – style overload immersion into Eurotrash fetish excess from husband and wife filmmaker team Bruno Forzani and Helene Cattet is, aesthetically, more of the same sort of stuff they’ve been supplying fans for almost a decade. If you’ve seen their breakthrough film Amer and its follow-up The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, you know what we mean. Taking the motifs and moments and rhythms and iconography from European genre films of the 1970s and literally remixing them with new narratives and subtext, Cattet and Forzani are at this point untouchable. It’s not fair to lump them in with other filmmakers who mine and mimic the same period – people like Quentin Tarantino or Rob Zombie – because this duo are artists doing something different, something far more abstract, more elemental and organic and avant garde. Their films are admirably dedicated to being so focused on valuing style over story that they often become a challenge to stick with, especially for the average viewer simply seeking a bit of escapism. But like their first films, if you do stick with Let the Corpses Tan, you probably won’t ever forget it.

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On THE ULTIMATE THRILL

Long lost “ski-sploitation” thriller is ripe for rediscovery

In the pantheon of stories distressingly over adapted and ripped-off for cinema, Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game sits high on the list. The story tells the tale of a wealthy hunt-happy lunatic who shifts his interests into stalking humans to be his next trophies, setting his “guests” loose on his remote property to give them a sporting head start. It’s a great premise that has both an allegorical sting, a haunting anti-hunting soul and both hardcore action and blood-chilling horror.

And while there have been a handful of “legitimate” versions of the tome made (most impressively, the 1932 same-named Fay Wray riff), it’s the ripoffs that are the most fun, everything from 1982’s Turkey Shoot to 1993’s Hard Target to 1994’s Surviving the Game, movies that freely steal the premise and pervert it to their own ends. Lost amidst this slew of awesomely low-grade films is the totally bonkers 1974 sleaze-fest The Ultimate Thrill (aka The Ultimate Chase). The movie is directed by the late Robert Butler, a veteran TV hack (and we’re not saying that to be derogatory) who steered episodes of everything from the ’60s Batman show to Kung Fu to The Waltons to the small screen. But The Ultimate Thrill is one of his few feature film undertakings and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like a TV movie, albeit one armed with a bigger budget that presumably paid for the hospital bills for the myriad hot dogging skiing stuntman who fly off mountaintops like clockwork.

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On the Original PLANET OF THE APES Films

A brief look back at the original 1968 classic and its essential sequels

Recently, I took my three little boys to see a revival screening of what is still one of my all-time favorite motion pictures and a work of daring, groundbreaking popular science fiction that has long ago attained the status of myth. I’m speaking of Planet of the Apes, a picture I was obsessed with as a child and – thanks to the nurturing influence of my Uncle and his own passion for the movie – became part of the fabric of my life. The toys, the sequels, the short-lived television show, the mass-merchandising and most importantly, the dark, cerebral moralist spine of the series, one that was put in place by a draft of the script penned by my hero, The Twilight Zone architect Rod Serling. Sure, Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” was the source of the story, but that book trades in social satire while the resulting hybrid motion picture and the legacy of entertainment that followed, was most assuredly a byproduct of the late-60’s and early 70’s cultural fixation of future-shock tales of terror. Indeed Planet of the Apes was my first real taste of heady, grimly prophetic and sophisticated fantasy filmmaking, one that was charmingly washed down with those iconic make-up designs, lively dialogue, primal action and appealing – to a child – genre tropes. It was and remains a work of startling art and the films that followed both built on, fumbled and re-directed its messages in fascinating ways.

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