Homeland Insecurity: The Black Hole (2006)

TheBlackHolecoverThat most dangerous of all scientific endeavours, Quantum acceleration experiments, as taken on in a certainly highly scientific establishment in St. Louis goes rather wrong, opening a black hole in the fabric of space-time, as these things tend to. The black hole quite impolitely starts eating up the surrounding matter, growing in curious stops and starts in the progress, and threatening to eat up the whole planet rather sooner than later.

Because only one of the three initial scientists of the project, Dr (I assume) Shannon Muir (Kristy Swanson) has survived the film’s first five minutes, the military under the surprisingly competent and sane General Stryker (David Selby) calls in former project member Eric Bryce (Judd Nelson), who brings with him the aftershocks of a bad divorce, moon eyes between him and Shannon, ridiculous mad scientist hair, and a chip on his shoulder because he was¬†right all along. As if closing up a black hole weren’t problem enough for two more or less sexy scientists, an energy creature has slipped out of the black hole, eating electricity (and people) and feeding the black hole in the process. Shannon and Eric are doing their best to resolve the situation before the increasingly humongous black hole eats¬†all¬†of the landmarks of St. Louis, and eventually find out the creature’s – and therefore the black hole’s – central weakness, which at least is neither salt nor the power of love this time around.

It’s just too bad that their government would really rather resolve the problem in more traditionally American ways, by dropping an h-bomb on it and the remaining citizens of St. Louis, despite our heroic experts telling them this would only make matters worse. Consequently our heroes have not just one but two races against time to win. Fortunately, the film provides a bombing mad general to Stryker’s sane one, so the latter is free to actually be helpful.

People who are wrong will tell you that Tibor Tak√°cs’s¬†The Black Hole¬†(produced by Nu Image for our friends at the – then – SciFi Channel) is a stupid piece of nonsense, when in truth it’s a film that provides a whole lot of fun based on a silly yet clever idea of the kind it’s not difficult to imagine to find in an episode of the classic Outer Limits.

As everyone who¬†isn’t¬†wrong knows, Tak√°cs in his incarnation as direct-to-DVD and direct-to-TV director is pretty excellent at squeezing fun films out of sometimes (okay, most of the time) doubtful scripts and tiny budgets, and his¬†The Black Hole¬†is absolutely no exception. The film is perfectly paced, hitting the disaster movie and semi-monster movie beats at just the right moments, never stopping for too long along the way to let the audience think too much about the (im)probabilities of what’s going on.

Sure, if you’re the kind of person who can’t help but bemoan curious scientific ideas, the bizarre lack of scientific staff in US government during a scientific catastrophe, and call them “plot holes”, you won’t have any fun with this, and even Tak√°cs won’t be able to distract you from actively avoiding fun, but then, why are you watching a film about a black hole opening up in Missouri in the first place?

For the rest of us, the film at the very least shows a degree of coherence. That is to say, if you accept¬†The Black Hole‘s sometimes (okay, always) bizarre assumptions about the nature of reality, it proceeds logically enough from them to create a diverting SF pulp movie plot that provides Tak√°cs with ample opportunity to show soldiers vaporized, and parts of St. Louis eaten by a black hole. Which, surely, is all we can ever ask of a film called¬†The Black Hole.¬†To make up for a tight budget, Tak√°cs shows most of the major destruction through the eyes of shaky TV footage happening on screens with dubious resolutions, a cost-conscious decision that works beautifully – thanks to good timing much better than in other SyFy movies trying the same trick.

Added to the film’s entertaining pulp trappings are some rather sarcastic nods in the direction of political crisis management – particularly in a scene of the US president and his aides writing a bathetic speech about the nuclear destruction of St. Louis before the fact intercut with our scientist heroes’ attempts to actually do something to save the the city and the world. It’s also difficult to miss the fact that the least effectual (and most destructive) ideas to solve all problems come courtesy of “Homeland Security”, which can hardly be a coincidence in a US film made after hurricane Katrina.

In the less real world, SyFy experts will be astonished that the catastrophe is only normalizing the relationship between Eric and his ex-wife and daughter, instead of bringing the grown-ups back together as is annoying tradition and stupid rule in these films, nor does Shannon sacrifice herself to protect Eric’s family or something of that sort. Why, you might even think the film argues moving on after a divorce is a good thing! I am quite conscious I’m happy about getting a clich√©d romance instead of the clich√© divorce regression, but then, this isn’t something too typical for a SyFy movie. Perhaps Tak√°cs made¬†The Black Hole¬†too early in the cycle for the Rule of Un-Divorce to have already been in effect?

Given these achievements and minor surprises of and in¬†The Black Hole, I’ll end this with the traditional phrase that could end half of my SyFy Channel Original write-ups: what’s not to like!?


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

The Earth Dies Squirming: Behemoth (2011)

BehemothCoverA US small town situated close to a mountain that was an active volcano ages ago is hit by a series of tremors and rather curious earth activities, while deadly CO2 starts leaking all around the mountain. Strangely, at the same time this mysterious activity starts up, various off-screen natural disasters hit places all around the world.

Retired professor William Walsh (William B. Davis) has found an explanation for the strange phenomena through his extensive study of myth, or rather myths. William thinks what’s happening has to do with the true base of various myths shared by cultures all around the world, myths in which a gigantic creature acts out the wrath of the Earth whenever humanity too actively disturbs the natural order; now, says William, the creature is waking up again.

Of course, William is mentally ill (probably schizophrenic, though the film doesn’t dare use the world in what I assume is an example of inexplicable US puritanism), and going off his meds, so neither his son Thomas (Ed Walsh), a lumberjack boss, nor his twenty year old daughter who acts like a teenager Grace (Cindy Busby) believe a single word he says. Too bad he’s right.

The seismic activities are so peculiar that Thomas’s former flame Emily Allington (Pascale Hutton), now a seismologist, returns to her hometown to find an explanation of her own, and convince her Sheriff uncle (Garry Chalk) of the danger of the situation, if need be.

The danger is, of course, even larger than she could have expected. Also as a matter of course, Emily, Thomas, Grace, and a mysterious government agent of the Department of Weird Shit (Ty Olsson) will end up on the mountain exactly when the tentacles really hit the fan, and William’s theories are proven quite beyond doubt.

The Internet disagrees with me here, but I truly think W.D. Hogan’s¬†Behemoth¬†is a particularly fine example of SyFy movie making. Certainly, it’s a film pushing a lot of my buttons with the way it mixes a basic SF horror idea right out of Weird Tales or Astounding in its more horrific moments with the highly localized global disaster movie style SyFy is so very fond of. It’s a great mixture, particularly because Hogan (and/or Rachelle S. Howie’s script) really does know how to sell the age-old clich√©s most of the film is built from as natural instead of annoying.

Plus, there’s a monster as big as a mountain with tentacles that is first partially revealed in a sequence where its very large eye peers angrily out of a hole in the mountain at our non-teenage teenage co-protagonist and her boyfriend, which is as perfect and resonant an image as one could hope to find anywhere. Once we get to see the monster completely, it also turns out to be one of the rather more creatively designed SyFy CGI creatures, again fully fitting into the traditions of certain old pulp magazines. The only disappointment when it comes to the monster is the rather lame way our heroes end up getting rid of it, even though this comes with a territory when you as a filmmaker aren’t allowed to let it eat the world and surely couldn’t afford the pyrotechnics anyhow.

Behemoth, despite being a film deftly made from clich√©s and well-worn tropes, also has some moments when it’s making small steps into directions you¬†don’t¬†expect. I was particularly surprised by the film’s treatment of William’s mental illness (even though it doesn’t dare name it – people could infect themselves with it, or something). There’s a believability and truthfulness about the way his environment reacts to William’s illness and what they believe to be just another expression of it in what must have been a long line of expressions. William’s family shows a mixture of sadness, exasperation and plain tiredness that isn’t just unexpectedly real for a SyFy monster movie but for movies in general. Even better, the film also allows its mentally ill character the same degree of dignity (one thing many mental illnesses don’t exactly leave you much of, while your environment generally does its damndest to take away the rest) it gives its other characters, and even provides him with an opportunity for small-scale heroism without feeling the need to kill him off for reasons of redemption.

William B. Davis uses the opportunity to for once in his life not play a bad guy, and provides William (the name-giving fairy was out, sorry) with just the right mixture of obsessiveness, fragility, and a warmth suggesting a complete human being.

In general,¬†Behemoth¬†is pretty good at breaking up its ultra-competent and highly entertaining giant monster/disaster tale with small moments of truth in the character department (not in the moments when everyone just has to act like an idiot for genre conventions, obviously). Apart from everything to do with William, there’s – just for example – the telling fact that the Sheriff doesn’t take what Emily tells him about a possible catastrophe seriously, despite her being an actual expert, because she’s¬†just¬†his niece, and surely she can’t know more about anything than he does, which seems to mirror the experience most younger women of my acquaintance have with their own families.

For me, these kinds of elements and small details often are what make or break a SyFy creature feature; it is of course important (and pretty much unavoidable) to work with and within clich√©s and tropes when making a low budget genre film for TV, but it’s these small things that differentiate a competent movie from one truly worth watching.¬†Behemoth, for its part, clearly belongs to the latter group.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?

Carny (2009)

The very peaceful working life of small-town Sheriff Atlas (Lou Diamond Phillips) and his lone deputy becomes quite a bit more straining when the carnival comes to town. High-strung and melodramatic local pastor Owen (Vlasta Vrana) must have studied theology during the Dark Ages. Therefore, he is sure the outward deformity of people is proof of their inner sinfulness. Ergo, the arrival of a carnival equals the devil making the town his new vacation home.

Alas, in this particular case, the pastor isn’t¬†completely¬†wrong. The carnival’s boss, Cap (Alan C. Peterson), at least, is the kind of guy who doesn’t even stop at murder to get what he wants, and uses a spiel about the outsiders of the world having to stick together to keep his people in line. This week’s murder has brought Cap a nice little winged monster he plans on selling on, but surely, there’s no problem with exhibiting it before that happens? It’s not as if Cap’s measures to keep the monster in its cage were half-assed at best, and the thing really not a fan of audience participation, right?

So, obviously, the monster escapes, and it’s now the Sheriff’s job to kill it before it eats everyone in town. This job is not made easier by the crazy pastor who will get reason to become even crazier in time, nor by Cap’s own, ruthless, attempts at catching his monster again. On the plus side, the affair does give the Sheriff opportunity for researching what monster of urban legend he is confronted with (I see no need to spoil it, unlike everyone else on the ‘net) together with the carnival’s authentic fortune teller Samara (Simone-√Člise Girard).

 

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Sheldon Wilson’s¬†Carny, ladies and gentlemen, might very well be the perfect SyFy/Sci Fi/Sci-Fi Channel movie, at least of the serious “monster munches through small town” variant. At the very least, it’s among the best examples of the species I’ve yet encountered – I’m not sure I’d survive the joy if I found one I enjoy even more than this one.

Carny‘s just pretty much perfect as a clever little low budget monster movie in every respect. Wilson, working from a rather tight script written by Douglas G. Davis, is a deft hand at using visual short-hand and small bits of dialogue to do expository work, establishing character habits and expecting the audience to get them without feeling the need to point everything about its cast of small town characters out with grand gestures. Quite a few films of this type make their generally not very original characters less believable by having them talk everything out;¬†Carny¬†often just¬†shows¬†something. That doesn’t sound like much, but it demonstrates a basic trust in Wilson’s own abilities as visual storyteller, as well as in the audience not being too stupid to understand the basics of a monster movie without having them pointed out to them.

This approach leaves space for some advanced narrative elements, like actual subtext – if ever there was a SyFy Channel movie seriously sceptical of the kind of working class small town values these films generally espouse without demonizing every working class small town denizen, this surely is it – and the clever little touches that turn a competent little monster movie into something special. Just watch the Sheriff’s first walk around the carnival, and try not to be impressed by how the film establishes Atlas as a good guy, not someone completely without prejudices but trying to work on that and the carnival people as protective of each other, without making everything too demonstrative.

I very much appreciate how messy the script is willing to keep everything, with the pastor and Cap both crazy men keeping their respective communities in line through fear – in the pastor’s case, the fear of god and everyone who is different, in Cap’s case the fear of (and often painful experience of) being mistreated for being different. Everyone in the movie is flawed, even our Sheriff hero, the difference just seems to be that some people are able to see their own flaws and try to work through them while others very much prefer a scapegoat.¬†Carny¬†is even willing to follow this line of thought into rather dark places for a SyFy movie, without laying it on too thick.

atever flaws the script has – let’s be honest here, even carrying some thematic depth, the characters are still far from original and certainly rather on the broadly drawn side, and US small town horror is a sub-genre rather too common on screen and in print – the actors very much make up for. It’s no surprise to anyone that much-loathed – but if you ask me just unlucky in his career – Lou Diamond Phillips was pretty much born to play this kind of laid-back, quietly competent small town sheriff. I am in fact quite sure that a mysterious fortune teller foresaw his fate as an actor when he was still a baby, and convinced his mother to proceed accordingly with his education, making him even more perfect for this kind of job.

However, the rest of the cast – probably not honed from birth for their parts – is equally wonderful for their roles, with Alan C. Peterson rendering his sleazy and absolutely ruthless carnival owner convincingly without resorting to too much scenery chewing. That part of the job is left to Vlasta Vrana, whose frequent outbreaks of melodramatics and loud preaching of nonsense should be ridiculous but really rather fit¬†Carny‘s mood of macabre threat with a side dish of the quotidian turning a little bit mad.

Talking of said threat, the monster here is one of the better SyFy CGI (with a bit of practical effects magic in the appropriate places) creatures I’ve seen, with a simple yet cool design, showing little of the apparent sloppiness often characterizing this aspect of the Channel’s movies. Even though it’s pretty great, Wilson does put a lot of effort into not showing too much of his monster without resorting to overly fast editing, for once actually providing a SyFy monster with a feeling of menace.

Carny¬†is also just very good at being an old-style creature feature, with just as many small, clever moments connected to the monster attacks as there are to the film’s thematic interests. The finale is particularly cool, even turning towards a somewhat (small town) apocalyptic mood with excellent effect. The film’s just lovely all around.


Denis Klotz contributes a regular weekly film column for ExB, and can otherwise be found kicking around on his prolific cult media blog The Horror!?