Friday, 11 January 2013

Alien Species

Director: Dave Payne
Writers: Dave Payne, Duke Lorr
Producers: Mike Upton, Mike Elliott
Cast: Maria Ford, Rodger Halston, Cassandra Leigh
Country: USA
Year of release: 1995
Reviewed from: UK DVD

It's not Alien, it's not Species - it's Alien Species.

Except it's not. It's actually Alien Terminator, a slice of mid-1990s independent sci-fi which was retitled for its UK release. Presumably the title was changed because of an obscure 1988 Italian SF picture originally called Top Line which was released in the UK as Alien Terminator. Ironically there is actually another American picture, also from 1996, which was already called Alien Species but as that was never released in the UK, everything should work out fine in the end.

Anyway, it's not Alien, it's not Species and it's not The Terminator either.

Except it is actually Alien because this is a fairly blatant clone of that movie, simply transposing the action from a far future spaceship to a near-future underground facility.

A company called EarthTek has set up a project called Bio-Com which involves sealing six scientists into a base 'five miles' underground, accessible only by one tunnel with a very, very long ladder. There is some talk of this being a project to study human behaviour in isolation, but why would they need to bury the place so deep underground? (The opening title sequence is a long pan down a model of the access shaft, or rather several carefully edited together pans down a slightly shorter model. It’s well done - photographed by Andrea Rossato who was cinematographer on Vampirella, Curse of the Komodo and Embrace the Darkness II - but you do wonder why there are ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ notices every so often. Surely they just need one at each end...)

Anyway, the story takes place in the final 24 hours before the facility is opened and the characters are six of the least likely looking 'scientists' you're ever liable to find. The nominal leader seems to be Taylor (Rodger Halston: Carnosaur 3, National Lampoon's Men in White) who manages to have both long, untied hair and a pony tail at the same time, plus a beard. He is evidently the cook as well and says something about having to make the food from algae, despite shots of plates that have slices of pineapple on them. Taylor has a love-hate relationship with spunky McKay who makes a brief comment about basalt, presumably supposed to indicate that she is some sort of geologist. McKay is played by top-billed Vegas showgirl-turned actress Maria Ford whose packed CV includes Deathstalker IV, The Haunting of Morella, Slumber Party Massacre III, The Unnamable II, Necronomicon, Bram Stoker's Burial of the Rats and a shocking horror picture that combined witchcraft with the undead - Casper Meets Wendy.

Then there's Pete (Emile Levisetti, who topped his acting career with the SF classic Emmanuelle: First Contact before moving into producing TV shows such as Haunted and Threat Matrix) who isn't actually addressed by name until about an hour into the film. Whereas the others tend to wear overalls, he favours dungarees with one of the shoulder straps undone. Combined with his silly little goatee and the blonde highlights in his hair, this makes him look extremely gay, though we know he isn't because he's an item with Rachel (Cassandra Leigh, who was in Face/Off and Lost Highway but is more typically seen in the likes of Terminal Voyage and Time Hunters) who gets her tits out at the quarter-hour mark for a semi-naked snog with Pete and again at the half-hour mark for a brief and completely arbitrary shower scene. It’s almost as if the film-makers were working to some sort of schedule about these things. Bizarrely, although the opening credits call the actress Cassandra Leigh (an occasional pseudonym which she also used for Caged Heat 3000 and Midnight Tease), the end credits use her real name of Lisa Boyle.

Coach (Bob McFarland, who was also in Carnosaur 3) is a bit tubbier and less fit than the others which is ironic because he's the medical officer. Then there's Dr Newton Fuller (Kevin Alber: Bram Stoker's Burial of the Rats, The Unnamable II), who works alone in a dimly lit lab, making him the only scientist whom we ever see doing any sort of science. He has longer hair than Taylor, a more stupid goatee than Pete and a penchant for home-made crystal meth and other narcotics. Newton is the key character because he is in secret contact with an EarthTek executive (credited as 'The Boss') and is actually carrying out some weird experiment to design a drug that will make humans stronger and more aggressive, with an aim to creating an army of 'genetically engineered' super-soldiers, or something. Newton plays with molecular structure using a VR handset and glove and dictates his findings into his computer. He injects a mouse with the drug, then sees it tear another mouse into a bloody pulp (we see only his shocked expression and the aftermath).

Now, while we can all see precisely where this scenario is going (and skipping over the curious point that he is conveniently perfecting his work on the penultimate day of a two-year project, not to mention that apparently every single chemical or piece of equipment which he might need was presumably put down the hole with him two years ago) nevertheless the nature of the resulting monster is very vague and confusing.

A brief shot shows some sort of creature emerging from the bloody mouse pulp but of course that's not the killer mouse itself. Something escapes through a hole in a wire mesh and later kills the base's cat, Jinks ("Hate those meeces to peeces!"), who can’t have been terribly happy cooped up inside for two years. While Taylor and McKay are arguing because they fancy each other, and Pete and Rachel are snogging for the same reason, Coach is alone in his room, playing a guitar, when he hears Jinks under his bed and reaches underneath, receiving a nasty scratch on his hand.

Taylor sees Coach lying on the floor of his room and tries to revive him with heart massage, then everyone carries Coach to the Emergency Room where they try defibrillators but to no effect. The guy is dead. Then he sits up and to everyone's surprise he's alive. Taylor stays with Coach that night but only the audience see strange shapes shifting in the guy's stomach. Next morning at breakfast, Coach goes into John Hurt-style convulsions but - just to show that this isn’t a complete Alien rip-off - the thing bursts out of his back. Or rather, nothing bursts out of his chest and after a slug-like creature has scurried across the floor, Coach is seen to be lying on his back in a pool of blood, so I think that is what happens. And if you think that’s a shameless steal from Alien, please note that I haven’t even mentioned the (completely irrelevant) computer voice called ‘Mother’.

And so we come to the standard creature-on-the-loose-in-a-confined space scenario. Newton thinks he can control it if he injects some other drug, but he is the first to be killed and the others are picked off one by one until only two are left. I won't go into detail about who lives and who dies but it really won't take you long to work out.

To his credit, director Dave Payne never gives us a clear view of the monster, which spends most of the movie as some sort of humanoid thing, the obligatory mishmash of Alien, Predator, Pumpkinhead and Xtro with perhaps just a dash of Syngenor. We mostly see shadows, extreme close-ups of eyes or claws, or ultra-fast blurry movement. But what is this creature? Is it the mouse? Is it Jinks, who is found dead and eviscerated under Coach's bed? Is it Coach? Is it something new? Either the situation is incomprehensible, or it doesn't matter. Or both.

(It apparently all stems from the first scene of Newton alone in the lab. Snorting cocaine off the workbench, he then knocked over a glass phial. Picking that up, he cut his finger and a couple of drops of blood landed in a petri dish as he reached for a tissue. This presumably all had some relevance, but Christ knows what. We know that he was out of his skull at the time because he said: “I’ve knocked down fractal nonsense and broken the genetic code that creates life. I’ve engineered an organism whose cells are reproducing at sextillion times the normal rate.” At least, I hope it’s the character who is out of his skull and not the scriptwriters.)

Woven into all the expected running around corridors is a subplot about Pete and Rachel getting engaged and another about The Boss watching what is happening, though neither goes into any depth. While the group is split up they communicate by walkie-talkies which unfortunately render the dialogue absolutely incomprehensible. The Boss watches TV news reports (Betsy Baldwin - no relation - plays reporter Kelly Hill) about the expected opening of the Bio-Com project and the subsequent 'problems' which EarthTek claim have killed all six inhabitants.

The ending is particularly silly as the life support systems shut down, causing some sort of strong wind to blow through the tunnels, and some sort of gas to build up, which somehow ignites and causes one massive explosion. We saw our two survivors at the bottom of the massive shaft to the surface, then we saw the whole base blow up including a ball of flame shooting up that shaft and destroying the entrance building topside, but now we see our surviving couple, their clothes ragged but their hair and make-up immaculate, talking to Kelly Hill in front of the smouldering ruins.

Alien Species/Terminator is actually competently directed. Payne (who, curiously, gives himself a second, pseudonymous credit as Second Unit Director) also helmed Addams Family Reunion, featuring Rodgers and Ford, and Showgirl Murders, featuring Ford, Alber and McFarland, as well as Alien Avengers II and Reeker. But the script by Payne and Duke Lorr is awful, lacking excitement, clear characterisation or realistic dialogue. The cinematography by Mike Mickens (Dead Seven, Leprechaun in the Hood, Black Scorpion Returns; allegedly he started out as a gaffer on the American Ultraman series!) is good, and effective use - and re-use - is made of the sets.

But it is all let down by a plot which consists of various unrelated ideas - blood in petri dish, killer mouse, dead cat, Alien-style monster in the base - which have been cobbled together without anyone bothering to check whether they can be connected in any way. Also, because this isn’t a T&A picture (Ms Boyle/Leigh’s flashes of breast aside), things like McKay’s sexy cut-off T-shirt which she wears throughout the second half of the film look out of place. The monster itself, from what little we see of it, seems okay; the creature effects are by Horror Lab/Cumberland FX, “operated by” Mark Mobley (Monster Makers) while someone called Kevin Gillogly is credited as 'creature consultant' on the Second Unit crew.

Many sources list this movie as a Roger Corman film, possibly because he is credited as Executive Producer on the Inaccurate Movie Database, and that's not an unreasonable assumption, given the number of cast and crew who have worked on various Corman productions around that time such as Carnosaur 3 and Machine Gun Blues/Black Rose of Harlem. But Alien Species/Terminator was an independent production from Calibre Films, founded by Mike Elliott and Mike Upton who had previously been working as producers for Corman's Concorde-New Horizons company. Corman has no connection with this film which was picked up for international distribution by Lloyd Kaufman and the folks at Troma, although Uncle Lloyd gets no credit apart from a 'Troma Team Release' logo at the start. Minard Hamilton and Rob Kerchner are credited as executive producers on screen but curiously Kerchner is demoted to co-producer on the sleeve.

MJS rating: C
Review originally written 22nd June 2005

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