by Lucius Shepard
March 17, 2008
According to a consensus of the world’s filmmakers, our future is a fait accompli. We will be ravaged by a deadly virus; billions will die or become the living dead; cities will be quarantined and the survivors will revert to barbarism; a powerful clique within the government will seize power; a man or woman with great martial skill and a highly individual moral code will be sent into the quarantined zone to recover some vital information or object, and during the course of this mission he or she will discover something that will prove that the government was responsible for the plague or has some otherwise significant culpability. There are variations on the theme, but that’s the essential end-of-the-world scenario, one that far outstrips the second-place entry, i.e., death by killer asteroid or meteorite, which endured a brief millennial vogue.
It’s a reasonable scenario, actually—the elements for a pandemic are all in place—but the prescience of these contemporary John Carpenters and George Millers is somewhat muted for me by the furnishings of their films. Why is it, I find myself wondering, that 80s punk fashions should so abound in the post-apocalyptic futures conjured by these visionaries? Escape from New York and The Road Warrior were both released in 1981, during the flourishing of the punk aesthetic, so a reliance on the imagery of the day is understandable; but it would seem the many re-imaginings of their seminal vision filmed since that time might mine some other depth for barbarian accessories. Perhaps the directors of these films are merely committing the sin of homage, or it may be that the fund of imagination responsible for such pictures has gone bankrupt. I think it more likely that when they cast their minds ahead, these great men have foreseen that vast secret stores of hair products and make-up will be unearthed from beneath our dead cities, not to mention loads of 80s synth, music much beloved by the punkiest generation.
The latest incarnation of this pop culture staple comes to us courtesy of Neil Marshall, who has previously given us two entertaining little horror films, Dog Soldiers and The Descent. Despite the chops Marshall displayed in those films, it’s hard to believe that he can return to form after a showing as abysmal as his latest, Doomsday, a mash-up of the sort one commonly sees on Youtube—such sudden downturns in quality usually reflect a drastic lowering of aspiration, a surrender to the realities of modern filmmaking. The movie opens promisingly enough, introducing us to spandex-clad commando Major Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra), who is engaged in holding together the last vestiges of a decaying Britain. Thirty years earlier, an outbreak of the “deadly Reaper virus” (as opposed to the cuddly Reaper virus), in Glasgow of all places, caused Scotland to be quarantined behind a steel wall stretching eighty miles from the North Sea to the Irish Sea, protected by automated batteries that blow away anything (as Marshall gorily demonstrates) from the size of a bunny rabbit on up. I suspect Marshall’s choice of a virulent Glasgow betrays some sub-text—at least I know quite a few Scots who would welcome such a wall, though with the guns facing in the opposite direction. Be that as it may, in terms of the movie all signs of human life disappeared from Scotland until 2032, when satellite imaging picked up activity on the streets of Glasgow. Now the virus, too, has resurfaced, this time in London, and the evil Canaris (a thuggish David O’Hara), the power behind the British Prime Minister, orders Bill Miller (Bob Hoskins in Thankless Role 538 of his career) to assemble a team to go into Glasgow and find Martin Kane (Malcolm MacDowell in Thankless Genre Role 327 of his career), a scientist who was working on a cure. Miller knows just where to go for a team leader: Eden Sinclair. As a child, she was thrust by her mum onto the last chopper out of Scotland and thus has a burning, churning urge to learn what happened. So off they go, the team, into the ghostly ruins of Glasgow, packed into a pair of Damnation Alley-style armored vehicles (there is scarcely a post-apocalyptic movie that Marshall doesn’t “pay homage” to). Things are moving along rather nicely at this stage, a suitably dark atmosphere having been established, and I was settling in for what looked to be a decent B-picture (nothing original yet done with a certain panache), when a force of Mohawk-sporting, S&M gear-wearing cannibal gutter punks attack the team, overwhelm vehicles designed to resist rocket assaults with Molotov cocktails, capture Eden, and the movie veers into low comedy.
Derisive audience reaction (sniggers, guffaws, and the odd profane catcall) began in earnest when Sol (Craig Conway), the leader of the punks and, as it turns out, Kane’s son, fronts his tribe in what appears to be a send-up of the stadium scene in Escape from New York (currently being remade for 2009, oh joy!), prancing about on a stage with dancers and leading a group singalong to “Good Thing” by Fine Young Cannibals, distributing paper plates to the mob in preparation for a feast, while one of Eden’s team is flash-roasted and then served piping hot by Viper, Sol’s consort, a tattooed young lady who seems to think that waggling her tongue Gene Simmons-style conveys her evil essence—whatever her intent, she waggles away whenever the opportunity arises. Sol, who specializes in yelling during moments of anger, frustration, and pretty much any old time, doing his best impression of Lord Humungus from The Road Warrior, yells aplenty when Eden breaks out of punk jail along with Cally (MyAnna Buring), Kane’s daughter, whom Sol has imprisoned because . . . well, just because. They make their escape by means of a train that’s conveniently waiting at the station, ready to chug off into the countryside in search of Kane, here portrayed as the mad Steward of Gondor-Lite by MacDowell. He’s hanging out in a medieval castle, the head dingbat of a bunch of armor-wearing, bow-and-arrow toting sword-swingers who eschew technology and resemble your local chapter of the SCA, participating in jousts, throwing roast beef up into the air and like that. This feudal schtick puts the punk ethos of Sol’s rebellion into somewhat comprehensible perspective, but basically it serves to amp up the comedy, some of which may even be intentional.
By the time the survivors of Eden’s team reach Kane’s castle, there have been so many logical gaffes and plot holes that to list them would be overkill; however, two in particular deserve mention. First, we learn early on that the Scottish survivors have become cannibals because they have run out of food; yet the team has just entered Scotland when they run smack into an enormous herd of cattle. Secondly, before imprisoning the team, Kane, a blood scientist, tells them that their quest has been in vain, the virus is incurable, this despite the fact that he and his subjects are immune, and that his daughter is ultimately handed over to the evil Canaris government with the instruction that a cure can be distilled from her blood. The general slovenliness exemplified by these irrationalities makes it impossible to enjoy the film, even as an exercise in camp. There follows a pitfight before a howling audience between Eden and Telamon, a massive armored chap who caves like a sissy after a few karate kicks, thereby allowing Eden and her pals to flee into a mineshaft where she happens upon a brand new Bentley in a box, with a full tank of gas and an activated cell phone.
Pretty lucky, huh?
Off Eden and her team go again, only to be pursued by Sol and his band of neo-barbarians who appear out of nowhere in jalopies tarted up with skeletal remains and so forth—they may not look fast, but they’re capable of outrunning Eden’s ride, a fact that must distress executives of the Volkswagen Group, manufacturers of the Bentley. The ensuing chase scene is an almost note-perfect reprise of the climactic chase in The Road Warrior, with punks and punkettes alike suffering grisly, comic deaths . . . at least they were comic the first few times I saw them. In short, Doomsday should be avoided like the deadly Reaper virus.
Sticking with the end of the world as a theme, a better result (not for the world, but for the moviegoer) can be had by a viewing of The Signal, a low-budget filmic tryptich by a trio of Atlanta-based directors, David Bruckner, Jacob Gentry, and Dan Bush, each of whom tell part of a larger story. The first and most traditionally horrific, Bruckner’s Transmission 1: Crazy for Love, follows an adulterous wife, Mya (Annessa Ramsey), home after a nooner with Ben (Justin Wellborn), where she finds her suspicious husband Lewis (AJ Bowen) watching a game on TV with some pals. Zzzzt. The picture goes haywire, resolving into a many-colored Rorschach blob. A minute later, someone is bludgeoned by a baseball bat and Mya flees her blood-splattered house only to discover that the world has been driven insane by a signal that comes through every TV, cell phone, and radio. People armed with guns and hedge clippers and whatever falls to hand are committing mayhem on one another . . . albeit not mindlessly. The signal amplifies bloodlust and leaves its victims with sufficient mental capacity to deny or rationalize their guilt, a symptom that strikes me as very 21st century.
It’s in Jacob Gentry’s more comedic Transmission 2: The Jealousy Monster that the film really comes together. The episode opens with a wife sitting at the dinner table talking to her murdered husband. Several other people join her over the next half hour, including Lewis, who’s searching for Mya, and the situation grows increasingly surreal—at one point the group has a deadpan discussion about whether or not to kill someone knocking at the door; at another, a woman believes she is dancing with her husband, whose body lies a few feet away. The last episode, Escape from Terminus by Dan Bush, takes place after most of the citizens of Atlanta have been slaughtered and covers events that occur after Ben and Lewis arrive at a bus station, both men hunting for Mya. It’s hampered by having to tie all the narrative strands together, yet it maintains the movie’s surreal edge and is highlighted by a conversation between one of the characters and a decapitated head. Though it’s a bit uneven, The Signal employs its interlocking narrative with considerable deftness and the recurrence of characters in one another’s stories seems entirely natural.
Sometime this summer or this fall, a little movie called Paranormal Activity will sneak into your town, play for a few days or a week, and then be gone without much fanfare. After Cloverfield, I thought I was done with the Blair Witch mode of home video “documentary” filmmaking. I was wrong. First-time director Oren Peli has taken the form and, working with basically a two character cast and from a completely improvised script, has fashioned a terrifying ghost story that left me exhausted and unsettled for a couple of days after watching it. Much credit must be given to the actors, Micah Stoat and Katie Featherston. They play a young couple who have just moved in together—Katie has felt haunted by an indefinite presence her entire life and, half playfully, Micah decides to record their nights when they are asleep. Katie begs him not to disturb the entity, but Micah's ego won't let him hear her, and so it begins. I'm not going to tell you any more about the movie, except to say it makes The Blair Witch seem about as scary as a day-old sandwich and, though it's always hard to guess what will scare people, I'd wager you won't make it through this one without experiencing major anxiety. The picture's paced so well, the actors are so persuasive . . . Put simply, Paranormal Activity revitalizes a worn-out scenario, gives it a canny new edge, and succeeds in adding to the canon of horror cinema.