Get Ready for BRAIN DAMAGE

Artwork by Betsy Midnight

|Betsy Midnight|

In a memorable Brain Damage scene, a junkyard security guard, quietly and unseen, observes a nice young man in ecstasy, so transported by the mind-blowing, euphoria-inducing spectacle of a dirty pile of smashed-up cars that he can’t help but proclaim his rapture to the stars.

The look on that guard’s face––a kind of delighted, hypnotized stupor––is very similar to the look I had on my face the first time I saw this movie.

Essentially a horror-comedy about addiction, Brain Damage follows Brian––a perfect prototype of a late-80s-white-guy-creature-feature-protagonist––as he navigates the complexities of his troubled relationship with Elmer––an ancient, slug-like parasite who lives in the bathtub and eats brains. Even though Elmer is a manipulative, disgusting, veiny monster whose single aim is to murder people by eating their brains, he has a couple qualities that make him hard for Brian to quit: he’s very charismatic, has a great singing voice, and has the devil-may-care attitude and friendly demeanor of your favorite uncle the game show host. And perhaps more significantly, he is the sole source of a highly addictive drug that induces such a perfect combination of body high and transcendent mind-state that Brian would rather sign on as the long-term partner of a gruesome serial murderer than get clean.

But it’s a struggle for him, and lead actor Rick Hearst really commits. Brain Damage was his first job out of drama school, his first opportunity to use his classical training to inhabit the reality of this guy Brian, who, from the moment we meet him, is under the thrall of a phallic turd monster. We don’t get to learn much about Brian, really––we know he lives with his brother, has a girlfriend named Barbara, has his own room, and might be into punk (there’s a brief shot of a Siouxsie and the Banshees poster in his apartment). Does he have a job? Is he a student? No one knows.

But the integrity with which Hearst immerses himself in Brian’s grimy, vomit-soaked, hallucinogenic reality gives the character more depth than any amount of expositional detail could. Throughout the film, Brian is caught in a psychological standoff between his conviction that murder is wrong and his desperate need to get high. This is perhaps most evident in the scene that shows Brian’s withdrawal from Elmer juice: we see him writhing on the floor, sweating blood in his own filth as he watches himself pull his own decaying brains out of his ear. It is intense, grisly stuff, not brought on by the usual horror movie culprits of haunting or demonic possession, but by plain old everyday addiction. Brain Damage,this bizarro 80s cult film, is on to something true and disturbing about humans’ overwhelming desire for pleasure, and it may make you squirm in your seat.

So it’s all the more jarring that Elmer himself is so goofy. Not because the effects are sloppy–– quite the contrary, the makeup and practical effects are fantastic––but because his entire character design is just silly. From the moment he appears, peeking out from behind Brian’s head with a friendly “Hi!,” Elmer is exactly the opposite of what you expect. With cartoonish eyes, an innocent grin, and a refined voice thick with wisdom and life experience, Elmer sings a jaunty song from his perch in the sink as Brian plunges deeper and deeper into his own personal hell. Elmer is so charming that he’s almost cute, which is extraordinary, since the film’s talented effects team were clearly emphasizing the similarities between Elmer and a poo-stained, penis-bodied leech.

Make no mistake, though, this leech is a hunter. By promising Brian hits of “his juice,” Elmer compels him to wander through the dangerous streets and back alleys of New York City during the drug-fueled crime wave of the late 1980s. This reality saturates the film, especially given the fact that most of the movie was shot in a studio built by the filmmaking team in a particularly rough NYC neighborhood. High as a kite and feeling no pain, Brian wanders through landscapes pulsating with synth beats and a maze of decaying infrastructure and forgotten corners washed over in neon light, ferrying Elmer to his next victim, whose brain he devours in increasingly creative ways.  Writer/director Frank Henenlotter didn’t have quite enough material for a full 90-minute feature, so to go the distance, he stretches out each shot, each scene, ever-so-slightly to fill the time––a technique that becomes more and more disconcerting the stranger and more demented Elmer’s attacks become. Once you see the scene in the alley behind Club Hell, I’m confident you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Strip away the layers of strangeness and the psychedelic punk-rock aesthetic that make Brain Damage so bombastic, and you’ll find an anxious downward-spiral-addiction-parable at its core that is riveting. However, Brain Damage‘s spirit is emphatically fun, almost joyful. I left the theater after my first late-night screening bubbling over with things to say, enthusiastically gushing, surprised, energized, inspired.

Not unlike Brian freaking out in the junkyard, actually.

Brain Damage movie family members include:

  • Bad Milo
  • Trainspotting
  • Basket Case
  • Valley Girl
  • Evil Dead

… and it is playing at the Trylon from Friday, October 11 to Sunday, October 13. Tickets are available at trylon.org. Don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy this psychedelic splatterfest in a theater with friends!

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Lina, Giancarlo, and Mariangela: Amore Pazzo

|Matt Levine| Bogey and Bacall. Tracy and Hepburn. Loren and Mastroianni. Giannini and Melato? As far as fabled onscreen couples go, the two leads who costarred in a number of Lina Wertmüller’s films in the 1970s – including three playing at the Trylon, The Seduction of Mimi (1972), Love and Anarchy (1973), and Swept Away (1974) – may not be household names. But it’s hard to think of a more volatile and hypnotic pair than Giancarlo Giannini and Mariangela Melato, whose cinematic passion was so often violent, raw, grotesque, and desperate. Seeing these three movies in close proximity is something of a revelation, uncomfortable though it may be to witness their caustic emotions bared onscreen.

In the film that brought writer-director Wertmüller international fame, The Seduction of Mimi, Giannini plays the titular character, a hapless Sicilian who bumbles from one political ideology to the next. He starts off as a poor sulfur miner in a small village who adheres to Communist beliefs only because his friends do. He makes the mistake of voting for a leftist (at the encouragement of his fellow poverty-stricken workers) and not for the patsy candidate propped up by the local capitalist Mob bosses. So Mimi, fired from his job and persecuted by the Mafia, has to abandon his wife and family and hightail it to Turin, where he naively believes “workers are free and respected” and capitalist crooks don’t control everything. 

It’s in Turin that he meets Fiore (Melato), a committed leftist who makes a living hawking the sweaters she knits on the side of the road. She’s a more socially conscious character than Mimi (which isn’t saying much) and arguably more nuanced than many of her later characters in Wertmüller films: “I’m nothing just now,” she says. “I have no party… With one group into bombs, another into banning work, we’re all on the Left, but we squabble among ourselves like enemies.” Mimi gawks at her, enraptured and oblivious, and before long he’s declaring his love for her with dialogue that could be seen as sincerely romantic or comedically vacuous: “I think of you dreaming at night, but not of me… All this love I have for you, great, desperate, useless as it is, is only my love and not yours.” So begins their tempestuous romance, based mostly on their perceived political affinities, which are genuine on Fiore’s part and less so on Mimi’s. 

The Seduction of Mimi hurtles forward at breakneck speed: Mimi and Fiore have a baby, the entire pregnancy skipped over in the space of one cut; a moment later, Mimi witnesses a Mafia don in Turin gunning down an entire restaurant but chooses to keep his mouth shut, his allegiances veering toward the side of the plutocrats. He receives a promotion at a metal factory as a sign of thanks from his politically-connected bosses, but ironically it’s back in the Sicilian town from which he came, sending him and his new family back to his sexually frigid wife and uber-conservative family (a milieu that Wertmüller enjoys exaggerating and ridiculing). 

The political ignorance of modern Italians (as Wertmüller sees it) is constantly mocked by The Seduction of Mimi: people adhere to whatever ideology is fashionable at the time, their lack of convictions ultimately dooming them in the end. The violent chauvinism and hypocrisy of Italian men, obsessed with their own virility, is also lambasted by the film, as Mimi is enraged to find out that his wife Rosalia (Agostina Belli) had an affair and became pregnant while he was away—which is ludicrous since he did exactly the same thing. As always, Wertmüller presents a perplexing and often infuriating set of contradictions: she’s a political leftist but not a feminist, as revealed in the climactic comedic scene in which Mimi tries to have sex with an obese woman, her abundant folds of flesh observed in lingering close-up; Wertmüller leans towards comedy but her subject matter is of the bleakest sort; she is concerned with very pressing real-world issues but favors a preposterous, chaotic tone, influenced in part by her years working with Fellini (she credits her assistant director position on as a formative experience); her visuals have the dynamism and power of silent cinema, but her dialogue is copious and firecracker-quick, spraying from the mouths of her actors in unbridled frenzy. 

Throughout The Seduction of Mimi—even and especially its most problematic moments (like a scene in which Mimi beats his pregnant wife and we’re not sure if it’s meant to be funny)—we have Giannini and Melato. You can’t take your eyes off of them, and their postdubbed dialogue is exhilarating to try to keep up with. The eyes of both Giannini and Melato, the radiant color of translucent jade, are transfixing. His weary face perfectly conveys someone who can barely keep up with the shifting times, and his hair becomes, somehow, marvelously expressive: curly and unkempt in his early scenes as a struggling worker, straightened and slick-back in his scenes as a burgeoning capitalist fat cat, complete with bushy sideburns and manicured mustache. Melato’s pale skin and elegant cheekbones suggest restraint and calm-under-pressure at times, while in other moments she’s furious and vitriolic, presenting her as someone both fragile and unbreakable, thoughtful and mercurial. They play off of each other marvelously; we believe they could fall cataclysmically in love, even though (as they realize by the end) they’re completely different in almost every way. The scene in which Mimi finally breaks down her defenses, proclaiming his love in a decrepit, unheated loft with a portrait of Lenin staring at them in the background, is a wonder to behold. 

Love and Anarchy, from a year later, also features Giannini and Melato as would-be leftists caught up in the torrents of history. Admittedly, in this case they’re not romantically involved, but anarchists bent on killing Mussolini in the days leading up to World War II. Giannini is Tunino, an ignorant farmer inspired to join the anarchist cause when his beloved uncle is killed by Mussolini’s fascist forces; Melato is a prostitute named (a little too blatantly) Salomé, whose own lover, a leftist, was killed in Milan by Mussolini’s army. Tunino hides out in Salomé’s brothel in Rome for a few days, given shelter as they plot how to kill the dictator during a demonstration on the city plaza, and it’s during that time that Tunino falls in love with another angelic prostitute, Tripolina (Lina Polito). 

In some ways, this is Wertmüller’s most melodramatic movie, given to tropes like the hooker with a heart of gold and the price of political sacrifice. But it may also be her best. The shadowy cobblestone streets and elegantly crumbling buildings of Rome provide marvelous scenery for this story of impending doom and fleeting love in a world unfit for it. There are also some hilarious moments despite the grim political atmosphere, embodied by the absurd character of Spatoletti (Eros Pagni), a despicable fascist (and Mussolini’s security advisor) who spends his time joking about massacring rebels and pinching the ass of any woman he comes across. He’s a furious and hypnotic parody of fascism, as loud and narcissistic as Trump and almost as stupid. 

Love and Anarchy, despite its copious and often provocative dialogue, shows Wertmüller’s silent-movie proclivities at their finest; some of the best moments, including a sexually charged stare-down between two characters during an acoustic rendition of a resistance song, contain imagery reminiscent of something like Sunrise (1927). Throughout these three films, Giannini is Wertmüller’s Charlie Chaplin and Melato is her Louise Brooks: the former graceful but in over his head, sad and hilarious, his put-upon toughness a disguise for feeling vulnerable in a difficult world; the latter sexy and steely but hiding something wounded, aware that she’s generally smarter and more capable than the men surrounding her, but also beneath them in the social hierarchy. It’s remarkable to see a writer-director and her two stars so completely on the same precarious wavelength. 

As the characters are dwarfed by urban design and architecture in Love and Anarchy, it’s tempting to think of another triumvirate of a director and movie stars in Italian cinema: Michelangelo Antonioni, Alain Delon, and Monica Vitti, who in L’eclisse are made inhuman by their insignificance in relation to the constructed, consumerist world around them. But the characters in Wertmüller’s film do remain human, their admirable but destructive ambitions ultimately revealed to be inconsequential in the face of rampaging fascism. That’s largely due to Giannini and Melato, who suggest unspoken depths beneath the movie’s surface storyline: is Salomé jealous of the love between Tunino and Tripolina, and that’s why she urges him to go through with the assassination? Are they both basically nihilistic, knowing that love and sex matter little when death (at either their own hands or those of Mussolini’s goon squads) waits around the corner? There’s more subtlety and ambiguity here than in the other collaborations in this series, and it’s a refreshing change. 

By far the most problematic film that Giannini and Melato starred in for Wertmüller is 1974’s Swept Away (with a full title of Swept Away…by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August), though it may also be the most interesting. Melato plays Raffaella, a boorish capitalist who’s enjoying a seaside vacation on the yacht of her wealthy intellectual husband. She’s beautiful, privileged, carefree, outspoken—she makes no attempt to hide her disdain for those socially and economically beneath her. The world is “a shithole full of starving people,” she concludes, and ridicules the inhumanity of Communism, sarcastically saying that Stalin’s concentration camps were “well-run.” (One of her friends says that’s nothing compared to what the U.S. did to Hiroshima.) 

Giannini plays a lower-class Sicilian sailor named Gennarino, a deckhand on the yacht. He bristles at her behavior from the start, glowering at her when she complains about the coffee being too cold or the pasta too bland. Things get even worse when he tries to sail her to an isolated island on a small rubber dinghy for a day of sunbathing; inevitably, the boat stalls, they drift at sea for days, and eventually crash ashore on a deserted, edenic island. 

Swept Away is nothing less than a titanic clash in a primal setting—not only a clash between man and woman, but between political ideology, capitalism and communism, master and slave, the haves and have-nots. It’s funny and sophisticated, at least for a while: as Gennarino tries to avoid Raffaella on the island, he blurts, “I can’t get away from you. It’s worse than Coca-Cola!” In one of the most fascinating scenes in the movie, Gennarino catches some fish, starts a fire, and prepares a feast for himself; a starving Raffaella gazes at the meal from a distance, and Gennarino forces her to pay for her food, an echo of the capitalist exchange she holds so dear. First, he forces her to pay with money, which is absurd on this island where currency means nothing; second, he forces her to pay a more carnal and emotional price. 

This is where the movie gets infuriating: Wertmüller spins the master-slave relationship on its head when Gennarino forces Raffaella to give in to him, and then love him and become obsessed with him, through physical abuse and rape. There’s the unambiguous indication that Raffaella truly wanted this victimization all along and enjoys it (a hugely problematic trope also familiar from Wertmüller’s All Screwed Up). By the end of the film, a truly twisted and codependent passion has been built through violence and subjugation. If Swept Away starts as a comedy, its most representative shot is actually a bleak and silent image of Raffaella staring at black sludge lapping onto the rocky shore—a visual symbol for her self-perception and her view of human nature. 

Swept Away is massively powerful and thought-provoking, but sometimes for the wrong reasons. One critic called it “the most outrageously misogynist film ever made by a woman.” There’s more to it than that—the sadomasochism that Wertmüller portrays is political as well as sexual, suggesting that the capitalist elite are not only dependent on the oppressed classes but also secretly desiring their own downfall at their hands—but that doesn’t excuse the simplicity or callousness of the violent rape fantasy that Swept Away espouses. Arguably, though, a problematic film made by a female director about sex, power, oppression, and subjugation should be seen and debated precisely for its nauseating contradictions. 

Once again, through it all, there is Melato and Giannini, who give human form to the cerebral ideas and provocations that Wertmüller unleashes. One could call Wertmüller fearless for presenting these radical themes, but the real fearlessness is courtesy of Melato and Giannini, who embody these characters and their extremely skewed states of mind. On this sun-drenched island, their beautiful bodies frequently exposed, their sparkling eyes radiating hatred and desire, the ugliness inside of these characters is indelibly conveyed by Melato and Giannini.

These three films—The Seduction of Mimi, Love and Anarchy, and Swept Away—are undoubtedly Wertmüller’s creations. When they excel, it’s because of her audacity: her blend of political ideology and sexual power play, of farcical comedy and utterly bleak tragedy, her mix of silent-film elements and mile-a-minute dialogue, her remarkably vivid and mobile camerawork (courtesy of cinematographers such as Dario Di Palma, Giuseppe Rotunno, and others). But when they fail, it’s also due to Wertmüller’s occasional prioritization of idea over character, provocation over sensitivity, and her adoption of some seriously callous depictions of women. 

What I’ll remember from these three films are Giannini following Melato around the snowy streets of Turin as a mournful operetta plays on the soundtrack, or Melato and Giannini having one last desperate kiss (in front of his supposed beloved) as he prepares to kill himself for the sake of anarchism, or the two of them lying naked on the beach, feeling twisted and depraved and rabidly in love. These films were brought into the world by Wertmüller but they belong to Giannini and Melato, two overpowering and captivating movie stars that deserve their place in the pantheon of cinema’s greatest tempestuous duos. 

Lina Wertmuller’s films continue playing at the Trylon thru September 29. You can purchase tickets for the remaining films; Love & Anarchy, Swept Away and The Seduction of Mimi here.

NAKED CITY & BRUTE FORCE: A Jules Dassin Double Feature

Still from The Naked City (1948)

|Geoffrey Stueven| The Naked City was directed by Jules Dassin, as stated, but its lead creative force is journalist-turned-movie producer Mark Hellinger. His affinity for Weegee’s extraordinary 1945 photo book Naked City animates what could have been a fairly tepid noir. The book Naked City was a freewheeling and feverish glimpse under the veneer of mid-century city life. The Naked City adds a definite article, for a somewhat less definitive translation of the book’s themes. Hellinger is there at the outset, in lieu of opening credits, telling the audience who made the picture, who the stars are, and why we’ve been so suddenly dropped into a helicopter view of New York City: to see the rhythm of life as it’s truly lived, and slowly descend on one of millions of possible stories.

The movie is never more haunting than in the bleak and beautiful views of this opening sequence, which makes an essay of establishing shots and weaves in parts of a story we don’t realize has already started. It also offers a few visions of shocking death that seem indifferent to the Production Code, and most closely channel Weegee’s work (he was involved in creating some of the film’s static shots.)

Photo from Weegee’s book Naked City (1945)

The Naked City then proceeds as the story of a dead woman who never gets to speak, a device that proves alternately eloquent and frustrating. What might seem like the film’s biggest mistake, the completely phony reactions of friends and lovers to news of the woman’s death, is from a different angle its eeriest evocation of her life’s loneliness and disconnection. Later, the pair of detectives investigating her murder encounter the woman’s parents. When the mother’s angry litany of “I hate her” gives way to inarticulate grief upon seeing the body, the characters’ habits of indifference and victim-blaming are finally given a counterpoint. The film comes closer to the reality of death and the uncharitable reaction of the living than most noirs.

Reaction stills from The Naked City (1948)
Still from the morgue scene in The Naked City (1948)

Elsewhere, its points of interest are as varied as the “city of stories” framing suggests. In one astonishing scene, young detective Halloran briefly returns home to nuclear family splendor outside the city, where Mrs. Halloran repeatedly implores him to whip their child for leaving the yard. “Why me?” he asks, in high cheer. End scene. Is there any way to take this, except as the most archly ironic parody of American domesticity ever conceived, whether in film or sketch comedy? Amazing that this scene precedes television, and the laugh track. But in other ways, The Naked City seems quite simple and timid. For a film that considers the full range of human life to be within range of its lens, it is weirdly taken with the idea that playing the harmonica is the greatest possible eccentricity.

The film’s shifting perspective, roving omniscience and grab-bag of ideas likely owes as much to the sometimes awkward fit of Hellinger’s and Dassin’s perspectives as it does to the source material. There seems to be a consensus view that the chase sequence that ends the film, up high above the Williamsburg Bridge, is Dassin showing his hand as a stylist, somewhat at odds with the photorealist ambitions of Hellinger. Funnily, it’s the moment the film finally becomes exciting in a sustained, visceral way.

Stills from The Naked City (1948)

In the superior Brute Force, a pulpy prison break drama rooted in the inhumanity of the carceral state, the material stands on its own. It’s a better Dassin showcase, too, more noticeably the work of a distinct creative force. Enter Westgate, a perpetually rained-on prison with a population at twice capacity, no opportunities for rehabilitation, and an administration intent on exerting control over the inmates, winding up the “human bomb.” A few of the employees inside are would-be foils to this state of things, but the power-hungry lead guard considers kindness a weakness and enforces his own policies.

As the guard, Hume Cronyn embodies some of the more distressing examples of coded homosexual villainy in classic Hollywood (seeking favors, er, “information,” from an inmate, then dooming him when not reciprocated? check; framed photo of muscled marble bust in well-appointed office? check!), but it’s certainly a terrific and surprising performance. I never imagined Cronyn as a quietly menacing sadist, either.

Still from Brute Force (1947), Burt Lancaster on the far right

The film also marks Burt Lancaster’s second screen credit, after The Killers, and it’s odd to see such an obvious leading man still anchoring an ensemble, disappearing for long stretches. Still, the unflinching determination with which he bites into a sandwich (after reading the paper message concealed inside) reveals him as the film’s true star, if any doubt lingers.

The prison break climax leads to an ending so bleak that it plays like a subversion of the Production Code, even as it follows its prescripts. There’s no sense of punishment being meted out by moral authority, just one of tragic miscommunication, hopelessness, and the teeming humanity behind prison walls.

Still from Brute Force (1947) prison riot scene

Brute Force and The Naked City play as a double feature all weekend long at the Trylon, buy your tickets here. If you’re interested in checking out Weegee’s photo book, it’s largely out of print except for a reprint available on Amazon. However, it is in circulation in the Hennepin County library system.

Ellen & Christa

Art by Charlie Couture

|Benjamin Savard|

An unexpected thought weaved its way through my experience of seeing Alien at the Trylon: Haven’t I seen this before? At first, this seemed silly: of course I had seen the movie before. I remembered it well. I knew the characters by name and could still brace myself for the jump scares. But something felt unnerving in my rewatching, déjà vu laced with dread. I knew the film would end well for Ripley and Jones, but I couldn’t shake the anxiety. It felt like a familiar nightmare was being projected onto the screen. 

One of Hollywood’s oldest tropes is the everyman-turned-hero. We are all familiar with the ordinary man (it is almost always a man) who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances and rises to the occasion to save the day. From Richard Hannay to Bilbo Baggins to Ash Williams, these are the characters who inspire a glimmer of hope that you—pedestrian you—could be the hero of the story given the chance. Ellen Ripley is a personal favorite and one of the rare examples of a woman inhabiting this trope. Not only did she become the unlikely hero of the movie, but she did so in an era and genre notorious for mistreating women or ignoring them entirely. Ripley also stands out because of the way Alien plays with audience expectations of what is ordinary. When the film was released in May 1979, manned spaceflight was still rare and miraculous: only 29 humans had ever left low earth orbit. Watching astronauts on a glorified tugboat complaining about their menial work was delightful in its strangeness. 

The exceptional-turned-mundane setting is the perfect backdrop for Ripley to emerge as a hero. She is introduced as a warrant officer of the unremarkable Nostromo, neither in command nor the lowest ranking crewmember. Her role seems purposefully unspecific. We see her interact with everyone from the maintenance workers to the science officer to the captain. She assists in a bit of everything and does it competently. This fluidity helps connect her to a broad audience: no matter what job you imagine having on the Nostromo, you feel like Ripley would be right there with you. 

Against this backdrop, the crew meets its fate. As they perishes one by one, Ellen Ripley remains. Over the course of the movie, she transforms from capable but ordinary shipmate to victorious survivor, becoming one of the most iconic characters in film history. The Nostromo’s mission may have collapsed into disaster, but it somehow feels right that Ripley makes it through. She’s the quietly adept one, the one you couldn’t take your eyes off, the one you saw yourself in. Of course she has to survive. 

Sometime during the second half of the film it hit me.

Photo edited by Benjamin Savard

I was born more than six years after the Challenger disaster, but it has always had a strange power over me. There have been many national tragedies during my lifetime, including several on larger scales and others that I watched unfold in real time. However, the one that causes me the sharpest grief is the Challenger. The hope and death of Christa McAuliffe hits close to home. 

She and I are both from Concord, New Hampshire. She taught social studies at the high school I graduated from. I grew up nine houses down the street from Steve, her widower. Though she died a decade before my earliest memory, the connection I feel demonstrates how deeply rooted her legacy is within the Concord community. Every January 28th we would turn on the regional news to rewatch the launch, the explosion, the slow horror of realization in the crowds below. Every five year anniversary, when the story again became noteworthy, we could watch the same footage on the national news. But to us, Christa McAuliffe was always relevant. I was raised to be like the community around me: forever proud, forever in mourning.

It was McAuliffe who made the Challenger a national spectacle before any tragedy. The president announced the Teacher in Space competition on live television. Eleven thousand teachers applied, ten were chosen as finalists, and one would become the first civilian in space. Of the millions of Americans that followed the selection process, how many felt a kinship with McAuliffe? Like so many others, she was the kid who fantasized of becoming an astronaut, but whose adult life took a different path. Now she had been given the opportunity to fulfill her dream and leave the bounds of earth. The story we had seen so many times in fiction was coming true: the ordinary person was going to become a hero.  

And so I found myself unexpectedly overwhelmed, connecting dots between the Challenger and Nostromo that exist perhaps only to me. Seven astronauts: five men, two women. What was supposed to be a simple mission turned into a life and death struggle. At the center, one crew mate draws the most attention. She’s earnest and competent and easy to spot with her jumpsuit, wide smile, and mop of reddish-brown curls. She’s the one you can see yourself in. Of course she has to make it out. 

In the dark of the theater, I watched as one triumphantly survived but felt myself still in the shadow of the one who didn’t.

Edited by Shivaun Watchorn

The Trylon played Alien as part of this summer’s Magnificent Desolation series. If you missed it, don’t worry! It will come around again soon. In the meantime, check out our fall programming here.

IT!, ALIEN, and Genre Conventions

|Zach Jansen|

Let the following description unspool in your mind’s eye: A spacecraft from Earth is boarded by an unknown alien. Before you know it, the alien begins attacking and killing off the crew members one by one. The surviving crew does its best to fight the creature but discovers that the alien is seemingly super powered and near indestructible. As the crew dwindles in number, the situation becomes more desperate. When all seems lost, the remaining crew members devise a plan to send the alien into the vacuum of space.

While the above summary could describe any number of films, two in particular have been selected as a part of the Trylon’s August screening schedule: the B-grade It! The Terror from Beyond Space (Edward L. Cahn, 1958) and Ridley Scott’s classic Alien (1979). The films differ beyond measure in terms of acting, production design, story, and suspense, but both are great reference points for the “alien on the ship” subgenre of science fiction movies. Even though they’re separated by about 20 years their respective adherence to genre conventions is timeless and worth exploration.           

The late film historian Robert Osbourne aptly summed up It! when introducing it for Turner Classic Movies: “It’s what fans of sci-fi of the 50s loved best about the genre. It has low-budget sets and effects, wild predictions of what our future will look like, and a menace that only a drive-in crowd could truly love.” But that lack of quality can be overlooked when examining how It! turns those budgetary disadvantages into powerful interpretations about our world. The first thing to note is that the main set is redressed to represent different levels of the ship. This can be explained away from a budgetary standpoint, but from a thematic angle the recycled set indicates that changes to our environment, however slight, do not eradicate the threats of the present. Colonel Carruthers (Marshall Thompson) is accused of murdering his colleagues on the first mission to Mars and he returns to Earth for a court-martial. He denies the allegations, but without proof he doesn’t stand a chance. When “It” sneaks onto the ship, it’s as if the creature stands in for Carruthers’s terrible ordeal on Mars, one that follows him back home. He can’t escape the death and horror found on Mars, even as he and the crew move from one level of the ship to the next, and even as they race closer to Earth. In the film, Mars seems to represent the future, but like the film’s sets, this future only changes in appearance rather than content or purpose. As the final line of the film states, “Another name for Mars is Death,” which suggests that death cannot be escaped, even on a distant planet. The theme of death is emphasized by the film’s use of light and shadow. Cinematographer Kenneth Peach—who would later lens 25 episodes of The Outer Limits (1963-1965)—employs a pseudo-noir lighting scheme, especially whenever Carruthers talks about Mars. When this technique is paired with the shadowed shots of “It” lurking through the ship, the connection between Mars and death becomes clear to the viewer.

Thirty years later, Alien’s similar use of cinematic techniques—especially lighting and cinematography––brought this subgenre to a pinnacle of suspense through scares, designs, and effects. With a background in commercials, director Ridley Scott came to the film knowing how to manipulate and persuade an audience. He brings this skill to Alien in the scene when Kane is attacked by the facehugger. In almost complete silence, alternating between medium close-ups of Kane and shots from Kane’s point-of-view, the suspense builds to unbearable levels. This pattern of shots situates Kane as a point of identification for the viewer––we watch and experience the tension mounting in the character onscreen. Then, through a series of five point-of-view shots occurring in less than a second and an otherworldly squeal, the facehugger launches from the egg and latches on to Kane’s/our face. This shock is followed by a quiet and empty wide shot of the forsaken planet, giving us a moment to both grasp what has happened and realize how alone the Nostromo is.

Throughout the film, Scott keeps the camera around eye level and employs point-of-view shots, which makes the viewer feel like an eighth (or ninth, depending upon one’s thoughts about Jonesy the cat) member of the crew. This technique becomes more powerful as the crew splits up to find the chest-burster. The camera floats down the dark, dank corridors, and with it, so do we. Like the crew, we know to expect anything after everything that’s happened to Kane, and the first time one watches Alien, there’s no way anyone could expect the creature that the crew finally encounters.

Alien’s use of light is similar to It! in that the shadows and low-key lighting also seem to represent death, or the possibility of it. The planet the Nostromo lands on, LV-426, is lifeless and unforgiving. Despite Mother, the computer, stating that the sun is rising, a light-blocking wind storm whips across the landscape. The relic in the antechamber is large, grey, and foreboding, and the xenomorph is sleek and black. Moreover, at the end of the film, when Ripley blasts the alien from the ship, it disappears into the endless darkness of space. In contrast to the overwhelming darkness in the film, the lighting in the final moments of the Alien––a blast of bright, blinding white light as Ripley activates the shuttle’s thrusters and leaves the intruder behind––highlights the connection between light and life, because her will to live wins over the seemingly unstoppable force of death, personified by the xenomorph.

Looking at the two films together, we see the cinematic growth of the genre from the low-grade, no-budget quickies that rolled out at drive-ins to the big-budget special effects films made by visionary directors. Like all genres, the beginnings are humbler than the matured form; but like all things in life, we should never forget those that came before. While no one expected It! to be a box-office success or even a genre classic, it reminds us that films are historical products, inspired by the world from which they’re created.

Bibliography

Doherty, Thomas. “Genre, Gender, and Aliens Trilogy.” The Dread of Difference: Gender and the Horror Film, edited by Barry Keith Grant, University of Texas Press, 1996, pp. 181-199.

Luckhurst, Roger. Alien. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Edited by Michelle Baroody

Catch It! The Terror from Beyond Space from Friday, August 16 to Sunday, August 18 at the Trylon Cinema. Tickets and more information available here. Make it a space-horror double feature and stay for Event Horizon.