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The Blob (1988)

by Steve Habrat

If the 1958 Cold War science-fiction film The Blob wasn’t gory enough for you, then you need to seek out the spiffed up 1988 remake immediately. Yes, there is a remake of The Blob and you’ll be surprised to know that this version goes right for the throat. Director and co-writer Chuck Russell and writer Frank “The Walking Dead” Darabont scrub away some of the innocence that could be found in the playing-it-straight ’58 version and makes things nice and gruesome for the crowd hungry for entrails. While it may not have as much on its mind as the original film did, the film still makes a compelling statement about how the American people could be expendable to their own government in the name of science, making the film worthwhile for those seeking out a heady experience. To me, The Blob ’88 is more concerned about updating the technical side of things and in the process, making our stomachs a little queasy. The Blob ’88 does hold up surprisingly well and the film is a wickedly self-aware little horror offering, but the climax ends up getting tangled in action excess that stalls the film.

After a meteorite crashes to earth and lands out in the secluded woods of Arborville, California, an elderly man begins snooping around the crash site. The elderly man ends up discovering a strange, jelly-like substance that suddenly attaches to his hand and slowly begins devouring the limb. Three high school students, bad-boy Brian (Played by Kevin Dillon), cheerleader Meg (Played by Shawnee Smith), and jock Paul (Played by Donovan Leitch), stumble upon the elderly man and rush him to the hospital. Paul soon discovers that the strange goo has gruesomely devoured the man’s stomach and then finds himself getting attacked by the substance. Meg narrowly escapes the hospital and meets back up with the skeptical Brian, who soon sees the blob in all its horrific action. The two begin trying to warn the local sheriff, Herb Geller (Played by Jeffery DeMunn), who refuses to take their story seriously and instead blames outcast Brian. As the body count racks up, a shadowy government organization led by Dr. Christopher Meddows (Played by Joe Seneca) appears in Arborville, looking to find the blob so they can trap it and study it. Brian and Meg soon discover that the government may not be there to protect them and that there is more to the horrifying organism than they could have ever imagined.

The Blob ’88 has an undeniably effective build-up that erupts in brutal encounters with the alien organism. You see arms eaten off, torsos dissolved, and other revolting injuries from the destructive force. While some of the effects may be showing their age, the gorier aspects of the film are still pretty well done. When the film is keeping the blob largely off screen, with only slight glimpses of it, Darabont and Russell manage to create a seriously creepy B-movie. Naturally, the ending of the film sees the organism in all its goofy glory, causing this shapeless terror to become unintentionally hilarious. The Blob ’88 is also aware of its teen appeal, having the viewer root for two teen heroes who, naturally, morph into barely legal superheroes by the last stand. This is what ends up throwing The Blob ’88 off, the typical 80’s staple of molding the protagonists into unstoppable heroes that can make it out of any situation thrown at them. Yet this teenage perspective also has a number of shining moments, especially an awkward encounter in a drugstore that involves condoms and the local reverend.

The Blob ’88 does have some mighty fine acting for a drive-in update, mostly from stars Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith. Dillon, who wears a magnificent mullet, is the stereotypical bad-boy who wears a leather jacket, works on motorcycles, and apparently never attends any school functions. It takes him some time to gain some momentum with Smith, who gets to have some fun as a tough cheerleader. They are a blast to watch in the final crazed moments of this romp. I also enjoyed Jeffery DeMunn as the local sheriff who has a crush on a waitress on the town diner. Things perk up even more when Joe Seneca takes to the screen as Dr. Meddows, who isn’t concerned with helping the townsfolk at all, instead hungry for personal gain. He ends up stealing the movie as a secondary villain who is willing to allow innocent people to perish so he can claim the ultimate prize: A new discovery. The final moments of the film belong to Del Close as the unstable Reverend Meeker, who gets his hands on a frozen sample of the blob and then threatens to use it to end the world.

Director Russell and Darabont refuse to tinker with the handful of iconic moments that made the original film into the classic that it is today. Still firmly in place is the movie theater sequence that features beefed up special effects that swoop down on fleeing audience members. Also, they stage the hospital sequence marvelously and blindside us with a ghastly reveal. Russell and Darabont smartly go ahead and create a few new classic scenes (the sewer encounter is awesomely grim, the sink death is nice and bloody) all while putting their own spin on that question mark that was stamped on the final frame of the original film. The end of The Blob ‘88 descends into full-blown chaos that ended up throwing the pace of the film off, a pace that I thought was utterly perfect and effective. The Blob manages to find it’s footing in a world that isn’t gripped by communist fears and nuclear tension, instead using fear of our own government in its place. There is obvious care for the original film as well as an understanding that the original was silly even if it didn’t want to admit that it was. Overall, I prefer The Blob ’88 to the ’58 version, one of the few remakes I like a bit more than the original film. I’m a sucker for that self-aware grin and its tendency to dump fake blood and guts all over me when I least expect it.

Grader: B-

The Blob 1988 is available on DVD.

This Island Earth (1955)

by Steve Habrat

I really wish that more people out there were familiar with Universal Studio’s atomic age science-fiction film This Island Earth. It may not be the best science-fiction film from the 50’s but it sure is a cool and minor drive-in classic. Served with a heaping glob of cheese, This Island Earth overcomes its unintentionally hilarious moments with some seriously crisp color, icky monsters, and an egghead script that science-fiction fanatics will happily gobble up. A cult classic in its own right, you may be familiar with the grotesque aliens that inhabit this picture, as you will often see them included in collages of the other more famous Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolf-Man). This Island Earth also found itself released on June 1st, 1955, proving that even before the rise of the summer blockbuster in the late 70’s, there were still spectacles released to entertain kids who were on summer vacation. This Island Earth, however, does prove to be a smart spectacle.

This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham (Played by Rex Reason), a well-known scientist who receives instructions and parts to build a mysterious device called an interocitor. Along with his colleague, Joe Wilson (Played by Robert Nichols), the duo puts the interocitor together and suddenly receives a video transmission from a man who calls himself Exeter (Played by Jeff Morrow). Exeter tells Cal that building the interocitor was all a test and that he wants Cal to join him in special research project. Cal reluctantly accepts and is soon ushered off to a secluded research facility in a remote area of Georgia. Cal is reunited with an old love interest, Ruth Adams (Played by Faith Domergue), and together they begin to snoop around the facility, suspicious that they are not being told truth. After trying to escape, Cal and Ruth are abducted by a UFO and taken off to the war-torn planet of Metaluna. It is on Metaluna that Cal and Ruth learn why Exeter recruited them to work for him and after meeting the sinister head of the planet, they have to quickly devise a way to get back to earth.

This Island Earth is one of the rare science fiction films that doesn’t have the human race portrayed as the inferior beings. The alien race within the film wants to work directly with us and is in need of uranium deposits to aid Metaluna in their fight against the relentless Zagons, who attack with planetoids that are guided by spaceships. Heavy with nuclear willies and brimming with mentions of UFO sightings up in the clouds, This Island Earth is certainly and shamelessly a product of the Cold War. The film applies paranoia at its core, our protagonists convinced that they are not being told everything they need to know, suspiciously peaking around every corner they come to. When Cal boards an unmanned airplane, Joe begins pleading with Cal to not make the journey to Georgia, exclaiming that something stinks about the entire operation. With its use of color, the film is able to slip into pulp territory, resembling something that would have been printed on the pages of an EC Comic. The color also alleviates some of the heavier subtexts, allowing moments of This Island Earth to feel more like hot-weather escapism rather than chilling mushroom cloud reflection.

This Island Earth ends up being a slower moving film, one that takes its good old time getting to the staggering world of Metaluna. Director Joseph M. Newman uses the slower moments to allow us to get to know our protagonists and also send us into confusion over the character of Exeter. Cal quickly is established as the All-American guy, a brainy and thoughtful hero right up to the last frame. At first, Ruth sidesteps being the usual damsel in distress and she dashes right alongside Cal as they flee from destructive lasers being shot at them. Sadly, once Cal and Ruth are abducted and whisked off to Metaluna, she crumbles into a hysterical heap, one that cries out at incoming planetoids and shrieks in horror as one of the monstrous Mutants stalks her around a spaceship. Exeter is a guy who we can’t fully classify up until the very end of the film. At times, he seems villainous but he will the quickly say that his alien race is a peaceful group. My one complaint is that Cal and Ruth at first overlook Exeter’s bizarre physical appearance. His forehead is quite unlike a regular forehead—something that you would assume would jump out at the two scientists.

There are moments of This Island Earth where the atmosphere is so tense, it could be cut with a laser beam. Just check out the scene where Cal, Ruth, and Exeter arrive on Metaluna, an eerie place with explosions that look suspiciously like nuclear blasts in the background. It becomes mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud as our heroes dodge attacks by the lumbering Mutants, who swipe their claws after the terrified humans. It’s a shame that This Island Earth has been waved off by many science-fiction/horror gurus (The film was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000, forever ruing its reputation.), as there is plenty to appreciate in this science fiction extravaganza, both visually and intellectually. The films trippy final half-hour more than makes up for the droning and uneventful first half. Yet director Newman keeps the humanity that is shrewdly established in tact and it never becomes a cynical vision of nuclear destruction. It never looses faith in the human race and it proudly stands by the fact that we are capable of making the right decisions when it comes down to it. Overall, if you have the patience and you enjoy this sort of thing, open your windows, allow the summer evening air to creep in, fix yourself a big buttery bowl of popcorn, grab an extra large soda, find a date, and loose yourself in the world of This Island Earth. There are plenty of thrills, chills, and sights to behold in this slightly flawed Cold War drive-in classic. Make it a double feature with another Cold War science fiction classic!

Grade: B

This Island Earth is available on DVD.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

by Steve Habrat

I’m glad I let Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy marinate in my mind for a few hours before I sat down to hammer out a review of it. I emerged from the matinee showing with my head spinning and my brain scrambling to put the pieces of this puzzle together. I was so hastily trying to wrap my head around what I had just seen. I was initially let down by it and to think I was so excited to see this smoky, earth toned espionage thriller that looked like it was ripped out of the 1970s. I thought it would be full of thrills and white-knuckle moments. Folks, I’m here to tell you it’s not what you think it is. Despite passing itself off as a Cold War spy flick, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about the men that were causalities of this war that consisted of suspicion and heightened awareness of the individual at your side. Accusations flew in place of bullets. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is about bombed out egos rather than bombed out cities. If character studies and talky dramas turn you off, either wait until this film is at your local Red Box or skip it entirely. If you are willing to let it into your brain, you will find it slowly creeping down your spine hours after you see it.

Set in 1973, retired British Intelligence agent George Smiley is lured out of retirement by Oliver Lacon (Played by Simon McBurney), the civil servant in charge of intelligence, to investigate a mole who has infiltrated intelligence and has apparently been there for years. Smiley teams up with fleeing agent Ricki Tarr (Played by Tom Hardy) and intelligence officer Peter Guillam (Played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and together they launch an investigation aimed at the new Chief of the Circus Percy Alleline (Played by Toby Jones), his deputy Bill Haydon (Played by Colin Firth), and his allies Roy Bland (Played by Ciarán Hinds) and Toby Esterhause (Played by David Dencik). Smiley begins meeting with individuals who were forced out of positions due to their suspicions and accusations, now left in ruin and haunted by what the know. Along the journey, Smiley tries to repair his shattered past and come to terms with his demons that silently plague him.

While it is certainly a droll film in it’s first forty-five minutes, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy finally sets things in motion when more layers begin to peel away. The one aspect I really liked in the beginning was the fact that Smiley barely spoke any dialogue and he lets his world-weary face do all the work. His eyes are cartoonishly enlarged behind his thick-rimmed specs and his mouth slightly opens as if he is about to let a thought out but he quickly remembers to cage it back up. He is a curious one. When he does speak, he has a raspy and weary voice to fit his somnolent eyes, though his words have been dipped in thick globs of confidence. Oldman does a terrific job with Smiley and he will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his aloof portrayal of John le Carré’s heartbroken spy. I found myself replaying the scenes of Smiley strolling through the misty, dingy streets of Cold War London or Smiley sitting alone in his apartment as the television chirps in the background. There is a knock at the door and in response, his head slightly turns, and this is when we get a quick glimpse at his broken and lonely heart.

The rest of the supporting players in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy hold up quite well next to the slow burn of Oldman’s Smiley. This is, afterall, a character piece. Firth’s Bill Haydon is a standout, providing some small bursts of humor in the relentlessly dreary atmosphere. Hardy’s Ricki Tarr seems like he will be the tough guy but Hardy has the good sense to show us that even tough guys have a breaking point. Jones’ Percy Alleline is a supercilious and loose cannon little twerp who you would never dare cross (even if he only stands at 5’5”). What is fascinating about these men, who all appear to be working on the same side, is that if their eyes were daggers, no one would be left standing. They sit around in a smoky boardroom and stare each other down, loose their cools, stomp off, and sulk. And yet Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds the moments where we see them fall victim to all the suspicion, accusations, and attempts at ruin. They collapse when the chips are down and it is almost worse than any of the actually carnage that the film shows us.

Behind all the cigarette smoke and glaring actors, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy offers us eye-popping art direction, allowing Cold War London to really come alive. At times, I felt that the sets were actually characters in the movie. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also shrouded in a film noir atmosphere and the only thing missing is a femme fatale to lure these men to their fate. Director Tomas Alfredson has made a film that slowly grows in the hours after it has been seen, coaxing you back to uncover more. It is watered by your own puzzlement over it and your drive to want to put it all together. The film never resorts to gunfights or fists fights and it only builds excitement through heated exchange. The downfall of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is that the film sometimes seems unsure how to actually build that suspense and the narrative gets caught up in itself. Talky and arty with a nifty old school swag, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works better as a portrait of wrecked men rather than as a chilly espionage mystery.

Grade: B+