Sunday, April 18, 2010

#83: The Sender (Roger Christian, 1982)

The Sender begins with a young man (Zeljko Ivanek) sleeping in the wilderness near the side of a road. A truck drives by, waking him up. He's startled and begins walking to a nearby public park with a lake. His face is intense, and he's walking like someone is guiding him. He picks up a huge rock and wraps his jacket around it, hugging it to himself. I anticipated him smashing someone over the head with the rock, but that didn't happen. Instead, he walks into the lake and tries to drown himself. He's rescued and placed in a state mental institution, but his amnesia and lack of identification forces the staff to name him John Doe 83. He's assigned a friendly psychologist, Dr. Farmer (Kathryn Harrold), but soon she's seeing strange things. Then, everybody's seeing them, and sometimes feeling them. John Doe 83 is a sender, someone who can project his own dreams and nightmares to other people, who feel them as if they're actually happening. But, who is he? And why did he try to kill himself?

The Sender is an understated, effective little horror/thriller with a couple of spectacular setpieces, quality special effects, believable performances, and confident directing. There is some silly bullshit you just have to ignore. For example, the Southern accents in the film are inconsistent, probably due to the majority of this Georgia-set film being shot in Shepperton, England, and two professional psychologists would never have a conversation like this: "I think John Doe 83 is projecting his dreams onto me, in some form of telepathy." "Why, yes, you could be right." Also, the state hospital is just too damn fancy to be a public institution. But if these kinds of things are enough to ruin your enjoyment of a film, you should probably take up croquet or competitive hot-dog eating instead. The film would be worse if the head of the institution didn't immediately accept the telepathy hypothesis because the audience would then be saddled with several cliched scenes about the guy slowly coming around to the truth, and we've seen that too many times before. It's dullsville.
What this film does right is create a palpable tone of dread and suspense as well as a slow building of tension that never feels cheap or easy. Also, the dream sequences are kick-ass. In most movies, dream sequences are stupid. They're filmed with gauzy, hazy lenses or cheap black and white or they end with a close-up of someone sitting bolt upright in bed, sweaty and hyperventilating. These dreams are projected into the waking lives of the characters, so they're filmed as big horror/action setpieces that just wind down when John Doe wakes up. After this happens several times, the hospital staff become used to the weird freakiness of it, and have to grin and bear it when things go cuckoo-bananas, for example, infestations of roaches and rats, crazy flickering lights, decapitations, fiery infernos, and probably the best electro-shock therapy scene ever filmed.

I'm not going to make any claims that this is some sort of lost classic, but The Sender is a well made, solid, stylish yet subtle horror movie. I love the convincing, handmade effects. (I consider the 1980s to be the decade in which special effects were at their best, when the handmade stuff looked as good as it was going to get before computer effects came in and fucked everything up. Now, every special effects scene in a Hollywood movie looks the same. The fun and invention of handmade, elbow-grease effects is gone forever. It makes me sad.) By the way, this film is not to be confused with a 1998 film of the same name about aliens, the military, and the Bermuda Triangle starring Michael Madsen, R. Lee Ermey, and Dyan Cannon. If you do confuse them, get back to me and let me know how that one is.

The Sender was director Roger Christian's feature debut. He started out as a set decorator, for which he won an Academy Award for his work on Star Wars. He moved on to art direction, his notable work here including Alien and Monty Python's Life of Brian. As a director, he's most (in)famous for the John Travolta Scientology disaster Battlefield Earth. I haven't seen that, or any of his other directorial work, which includes a sci-fi film, Starship, a bio-pic of Nostradamus, and several low-budget action movies and comedic crime thrillers. He actually worked again after the Battlefield Earth fiasco, making an indie romance and another low-budget action film. Judging by The Sender, I would mostly blame Travolta. Christian knows how to make a movie. Or, at least, he used to. Anyone seen Battlefield Earth out there?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

#82: Screamers (Christian Duguay, 1995)

Many elements were in place for Screamers to be something other than an ordinary sci-fi/horror movie, yet that's exactly what it is. It's based on a Philip K. Dick story ("Second Variety"), it was co-written by the late, great Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead, Total Recall), and it stars Mr. Robocop himself, Peter Weller. (You may also know the other screenwriter, Miguel Tejada-Flores, as the guy who wrote the original Revenge of the Nerds.) That's a fine bunch of people. The results should be dynamite, baby, but are more like a string of Black Cats. Why? I blame director Christian Duguay, the curiously tanned mastermind behind many straight-to-video films and TV movies. His CV is far less impressive than those other guys, and, as an auteurist bastard who believes that the director is the primary author of a film, I have to blame him. This is one of those movies that starts with written exposition in hard-to-read font scrolling down a black background while a solemnly dull narrator reads the stuff aloud.

I'm being a little hard on the guy, and his movie. Duguay is never going to be in the pantheon of filmmaking greats, but Screamers is far from horrible. The movie is visually pedestrian, and the characters are all types we've seen before, but the story is a good one, the special effects are mostly solid (with a few dated exceptions), and the screamers themselves are nifty little movie villains that combine the awesome forces of swords, killer robots, pod people, the ball from Phantasm, and the sandworms from Tremors.

The film is set in the relatively near future of 2078 on the distant planet of Sirius 6B. (I haven't read it yet, but the Dick story takes place on Earth during the Cold War.) The energy crisis has reached catastrophic proportions, so the people of Earth (as in most future-set American films, planet Earth just means Americans) have taken to the stars to find new energy sources. Sirius 6B turns out to be the answer to all the Earth's energy problems, but the mining of the energy source causes massive radiation. This leads to a civil war between the mining interests (the New Economic Block, or N.E.B.) and the workers who don't want to be radiated (the Alliance). The movie begins a decade into the war. Both sides are in a kind of desolate stalemate, holed up in their respective headquarters because they're both using sophisticated robotic killing machines that destroy any lifeforms that get in their way. These weapons, called screamers, are tiny robots equipped with blades. These robots have been placed underground, but burrow to the surface when they detect human life, making high-pitched screaming noises and flying through the air toward their target. The Alliance has developed wearable safety devices that block the robots from detecting their pulses, so they're currently sitting back at HQ and waiting for enough ass to get kicked for the war to stop. Unfortunately for everyone, the robots start to evolve on their own, scavenging anything they can find to upgrade their powers.

Thanks to some underhanded political machinations that fuck everybody over and are too boring to go into in detail, Alliance leader Peter Weller and another soldier must trek off into the desolate, screamer-infested planet to N.E.B. HQ. They meet a few people on their travels, including Roy Dupuis, who makes the bizarre acting choice of delivering his lines in a ridiculously affected gravelly tone that is more suited to a professional wrestling villain. Most of the stuff you expect to happen in sci-fi/horror/action/post-apocalypse/killer-robot movies happens. All of it is watchable, entertaining, and fun, but very little of it is distinctive, except for the screamers. Duguay is just not a very interesting filmmaker.
I usually have more to say, and if I'd read "Second Variety" I would write about the differences and similarities between the movie and Dick's story, but I haven't read it yet, so I'll refrain from spouting off about it. This is the kind of movie that probably works best if you're home sick and need something diverting to zone out to while you recover.

Fun facts about the future, according to this movie: You will be able to buy giant sunglasses that play music and project images of naked girls in the lenses. The music of the future is tepid, overproduced, commercial blues-pop that sounds suspiciously like it was recorded in the early 1990s. I can't wait for the future.