Slaughterhouse-Five 1972 *****

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE-POSTER_final-Art_Lucas-Peverill_20The moment that I gave up on terrestrial broadcasting of feature films was at some point during a BBC broadcast of George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children’s Crusade. Edited for content, with sweary dialogue, plot-driven nudity and whole scenes missing, then finally panned and scanned in a way that rendered the compositions meaningless, seeing this film cut to ribbons made a decision for me; no more trusting the authorities when it came to providing cinematic content.

Watching Slaughterhouse-Five now is something of a revelation. George Roy Hill’s 70’s output needs no excuses; post Butch Cassidy, he followed up with great star vehicles The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper, Slapshot. But for the key role of Billy Pilgrim, a metaphorical time traveller, he went with Michael Sachs, an unknown who won a Golden Globe nomination here for a strong, subtle performance. Sachs plays Billy Pilgrim, a man who, not unlike a literary Doctor Who, finds himself unstuck and moving back and forward in time. Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really sci-fi; the action moves, briefly, to an alien planet where Billy is put in an alien zoo and encouraged to mate with Playboy Playmate Valerie Perrine, but that’s essentially the last ten minutes. Otherwise, this film is largely a historical and personal meditation on the firebombing of Dresden during WWII, evoked using real, sobering footage here.

Seen in HD, Slaughterhouse-Five has a crisp, clean look by the wizardly Miroslav Ondricek, with technical specs through the roof; The great Dede Allen (Reds, The Breakfast Club) edits, with smash cuts back and forward in a fragmented timeline. Glenn Gould provides a remarkable soundtrack that, together with an imaginative sound-editing palate, makes Roy Hill’s film more like playing an album that watching the movie. And the digressions are intense as a 70’s movie might promise; a scene in which Billy’s wife crashes her car, dislodges her exhaust, and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning after driving the wrong way down a freeway is crazily downbeat, not least because the previous scene shows how joyful she was when Billy gifted her the same car. There’s all kinds of pleasures here, not least in the acting, with Ron Liebman and Eugene Roche particularly strong as the two experienced soldiers that Billy bounces between morally, Platoon-style, and John Wood as a British officer with a practical, worldly view that Billy finds hard to understand. And a final scene, as Dresden is looted and Billy finds himself trapped beneath a stolen clock, perfectly encapsulates the idea that although Billy moves freely in his mind, the physical world can still trap him in a moment in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliant adaptation that even the author was delighted with; it distils key moments from a sprawling text, and creates something cinematic that is probably easier for us to get our heads round in 2020 than in 1972. A Cannes winner of the time, Slaughterhouse–Five is one of the best grown-up movies you’ve never seen, a wise, satirical and important story that sees several great talents realise a difficult text. And if you’ve only ever seen it on tv, it’s worth taking another look. So it goes.

Communion 1989 ***


Communion is a problematic film that’s hard to fit into any specific genre, and has consequently slipped into relative obscurity; popping up on Amazon Prime might encourage a cult following for Philippe Mora’s film. Whitley Strieber adapted the script from his own book, and horror/sci-fi fans will know that Strieber claims to know his subject well, because he controversially went public in describing his own abduction by aliens. Communion takes these claims seriously; based on Strieber’s position, Communion is not horror, or fiction at all, but a personal account of being assaulted by alien beings.

There’s plenty of reviews willing to make fun of this, but Strieber’s entitled to make his case, and he does so in a rather strange way. The Wolfen author enlisted Christopher Walken to play a version of himself in Communion that is decidedly uncomplimentary; Strieber’s writing routine is depicted as rather weird, and his penchant for strange outfits and voices makes you wonder what the audience is supposed to think of him, but there’s at least a veneer of extreme honesty here. Strieber (Walken) takes his family out of NYC and off to a remote cabin, only to be visited by aliens. And before you can say ‘anal probe’, that’s exactly where Mora’s film goes, and in some detail. Strieber struggles to admit to himself what’s happened, but meeting up with other survivors of alien kidnappings gives him the gumption to go public about his trauma.

Mora actually does a nice job here, taking time for atmosphere and to get inside Strieber’s head, as well as decent support from Lindsay Crouse as Strieber’s long-suffering wife. But hiring the director of Howling II: My Sister is a Werewolf may have been a mistake in terms of credibility, an own goal that makes it easy to carp. The alien designs (there are several species identified here) are a mixed bag, and Communion won’t please genre fans because it doesn’t use that first encounter as a jumping–off point; that’s the whole movie, and it takes Strieber two hours of semi-improvised scenes to catch up.

But there’s something going on here that’s worth a second look. Paul Schrader’s Kingdom Come was an account of alien visits that got revamped as Close Encounters; round about the time of Taxi Driver, Schrader equated male alienation and disillusionment with a lack of belief, and Communion addresses the same subject. Walken is an unpredictable presence, and he makes something remote and tricky of Strieber’s character; this might be a vanity project, but it’s also one that casually and perhaps unwisely exposes the author warts and all. Of course, seeing Christopher Walken deep probed by aliens has a real curiosity value for thrill-seekers, but Communion’s intermittent sense of quasi-religious conviction is unusual to say the least. Whether you believe it or not, the author seems genuinely keen to you to give his story a chance.

The Return 1980 ***


I’ve been impressed by fellow blogger mikestakeatthemovies for his ability to come up with obscure titles featuring top-drawer talent, films like Dark Places or Contact on Cherry Street, suggesting a secret history of Hollywood stars. He’s well worth a follow. But perhaps some things should stay secret; that’s a reasonable reaction when confronted by such a strange proposition as The Return, which surfaces after decades of shame in a truly horrendous print on Amazon Prime. Wrongly listed as being from 1970 when it’s actually from 1980, Greydon Clark’s sci-fi melodrama is clearly a Close-Encounters rip-off that’s undercooked in many ways, but over-compensates in terms of familiar faces.

The subject is, surprisingly enough, cattle mutilation. In fact, the whole film seems to have been constructed in order to give every member of the cast the chance to say the words ‘cattle mutilation;’ several times over. Martin Landau has a weird line to the effect ‘everybody is all jazzed up about cattle mutilations’ which he says on regular occasions throughout the film. Other improbable stars who try their luck at discussing cattle mutilations include Cybill Shepherd and Jan-Michael Vincent, both in limbo between other, much more recognisable projects for television. Shepherd was post her collaborations with Peter Bogdanovich and pre-Moonlighting, while Vincent was post Hooper and pre Airwolf. They both look less than pleased about appearing in such grade A shlock as The Return, but they both grin and bear it as Wayne and Jennifer, two adults who realise that they have forgotten that they were encountered by aliens as children.

This doesn’t make much sense, but even less when set against a plot with sees Jennifer’s father (Raymond Burr) on the trail of a light-sabre wielding prospector played by Vincent Shiavelli, whose striking countenance is immediately recognisable from his iconic role as the subway ghost in Ghost. Could The Prospector be the key to the solving the spate of cattle mutilations that everyone’s talking about? Why is there a tunnel of light in his mine-shaft? What do we gain from seeing Jan-Michael Vincent ride a motorbike through a plate-glass window?

MST3K made comedic hay from Pod People, a Alien knock-off that was swiftly repurposed as an ET knock-off, creating memorably abrupt changes of tone, and The Return seems similarly discombobulated; that’s presumably why its cinema release back in 1980 didn’t happen. Films quite often have mistakes, but The Return really doesn’t even begin to make sense. If the unseen aliens are peaceful after all, why do they need lumps of cow-meat thrown down a tunnel to them? The Return is a film of remarkable awfulness, and one can only imagine how thrilled Cybill Shepherd must be to see this get a fresh re-release via streaming services. And who are the couple featured in the cover-art below? They look like Jodie Foster with toothache and Richard Benjamin’s creepy half-brother…

Stranger Things 1-3 2016-2019 ****


The brightest jewel in the Netflix crown is the Duffer Brothers riff on the kids sci-fi genre that apes Stephen King and various 80’s horror fads; with the latest series (3) taking place largely at a 4th of July carnival, Stranger Things is a cross-generational funhouse that, according to Netflix’s hall-of-mirrors figures, every sentient member of every household in the western world watched several times each within seconds of being put online. Stranger Things somehow found a sweet spot by fusing elements of King’s Firestarter (a girl on the run from authorities with telekinesis), plus the small-town kiddie-gang adventurers from It, then throws in the gelid alien attack from The Tommyknockers to boot. The big-draw name above the title name was Winona Ryder, although the series success has made pretty much everyone in the well-assembled cast a household name; Millie Bobbie Brown makes a big impression as Eleven, David Harbor exudes a gruff chemistry as police chief Jim Hopper, and the kids are great, with a smattering of 80’s names (Sean Aston, Paul Reiser, Matthew Modine, Cary Elwes) to keep older viewers engaged. As well as nailing the key font for the titles and the cod Tangerine Dream score, the key to the formula, kids and adults joining forces to fight to creatures leaking through government experiment portals, is that Stranger Things presents a warmly aspirational world, more focused on the likable characters than on the monsters. If the second series was too similar to the first, the third manages to balance up the gender issues and freshen up the team to good effect; Netflix need a dozen series that command loyalty like this to survive the streaming wars, so it’s likely that various expanded-universe incarnations of Stranger Things will be around long after the original lightning-in-a bottle cast have moved on.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind 1978 ****

Following on from Star Wars was quite an ask; Steven Spielberg’s 1977 sci-fi drama had been in development for four years, but was a very different kind of film from Lucas’s franchise-booting fantasy. Instead, CE3K was a blue-collar view of an electronics engineer Ron Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) who is obsessed with UFO’s after a close encounter, leading him to alienate his family and defy a government cover up to make contact. An eclectic support includes Teri Garr as his wife, director Francois Truffaut as an expect on extra-terrestrial contact on hand to put the emphasis on language and communication, and Bob Balaban as his assistant; Balaban’s own published diary throws considerable informal light on the production process. The disappearance of a child, emphasis on Neery’s madness and the sinister nature of the establishment whitewash are three rather uncomfortable elements here, making for a more adult movie than might be anticipated. But the set-pieces, notably a mountain-top police chase and the final mother-ship revelation, are brilliantly handled; if CE3K’s impact his diminished today, perhaps it’s because Spielberg’s vision was considerably darker and more grounded than most fantasy cinema allows.

Top Line 1988 ***

top line

Another mystifying entry on Amazon Prime, Top Line is a murky thriller of some kind; ideally approached with as little foreknowledge as possible. Franco Nero is an adventurer who is on the trail of a flying saucer; there’s a striking scene in which he finds a fishing boat inside a mountain cave; ‘The cave is a spaceship’ someone helpfully points out. In a strange alternate universe, no-one in Top Line seems amazed or even surprised about the existence of extra-terrestrials; they’re only concerned with how much money might be made out of their technology. Top Line is an extremely weird mish-mash of Romancing The Stone, Close Encounters and eventually The Terminator, with an alien cyborg turning up in the final act to chase everyone around. When a film warns you of the ‘extraordinary participation of George Kennedy’ you know you’re in for a treat, and the Airport star doesn’t disappoint, wandering around in a dressing gown and then driving his car through a field of cactuses as only he could.

Super 8 2011 ***


A refreshing alternative to the usual summer popcorn movies, Super 8 harks back to the 80’s style of Gremlins or The Goonies, as a group of children with a penchant for making home-movies discover an alien presence which has escaped from a government train which derails near their town. Writer/director JJ Abrams does a nice job in conjuring up the feel of 1979, and the scenes in which the kids create their own movie are lovingly done, with the final result playing engagingly over the final credits. Kyle Chandler also does nice work as an investigating cop, and while the final confrontation with the alien goes on too long, Abrams manages to pull out a few emotive plot-points that stop it from becoming a CGI-fest. Super 8 is a charming and light-hearted blockbuster for a age when bombast has become the norm.

The Mist 2007 ***


The least celebrated of writer/director Frank Darabont’s Stephen King adaptations, 2007’s The Mist is a downbeat and intense depiction of people under pressure that makes something original of its monster movie premise. The always excellent Thomas Jane and Marcia Gay Harden are amongst the inhabitants of a small-town who take refuge in a convenience store when a mist falls on the surrounding area. There’s huge creatures wandering around, and much of the tension comes from the siege situation that develops. The acting is heavyweight and committed, and the brief appearances of the creatures, with tentacles snaking beneath the shutters, are well handled. Darabont builds to a shocking climax that turns the story on its head and haunts the mind; The Mist is a smart film in a perennially silly genre.

Dark Star 1974 ****


John Carpenter’s 1974 sci-fi comedy drama is often mentioned in considerations of the genesis of Alien; it’s actually a quite different kind of film, aiming for black comedy somewhere between MASH and Dr Strangelove. The four-man crew of the Dark Star spacecraft are bored out of their minds by space travel, and their mission to blow up unstable planets has taken second place to niggling arguments and alienation from each other. The mischievous behaviour of a ball-shaped alien they’ve adopted as a pet leads to further conflict, and Carpenter’s film captures both the outlandish comedy and the worn pathos of men on a mission so long they can barely remember why they ever wanted to do it. The budget may be low, but the standard of invention is high; the interaction with computers and the use of video diaries are all spot-on.

Village of The Damned 1960 ****


The quintessential creepy movie, Wolf Rilla’s stark black and white chiller uses John Wyndhams’s The Midwich Cuckoos as a jumping off point for a sci-fi story that’s blear and disturbing, even today. Professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders) is perplexed by a mysterious incident in which the women in a peaceful English village falls asleep, and wake up pregnant with blond haired, blue eyed children that seem to have a telepathic link. While the idea of aliens generically inserting their minds into children is an ambitious one, Village of the Damned keeps the drama to a tight scale, and the 77 minutes are focused on the efforts of the free-thinking villagers to shield their thoughts from their alien visitors. Right down to the shocking ending, Village of the Damned is all the more frightening due to the matter-of-fact presentation.