June 17, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews, Part Two: Unidentified Flying Horrors

Forget Covid-19. Forget the latest mud-slinging in Washington, D.C. Forget the NBA and NHL playoffs. I’ll tell you what’s really on people’s minds these days: UFOs.

After Luis Elizondo, former head of a Defense Intelligence Agency program to study unidentified aerial phenomena, released videos of the Navy’s encounters with the strange Tic-Tac UFOs (or should I say UAPs) in 2017, the topic went mainstream in a hurry.

It certainly helped that, after some dithering, the Pentagon confirmed the videos as authentic. Suddenly, such sober, authoritative media outlets as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were treating UFOs seriously instead of poking fun at the credulous rubes. And interviews with rock-solid military pilots who had witnessed the incredible flying whatsits were popping up all over the news.

The dam has broken, and it seems like we’re being treated to a near-constant flood of new videos and images, witness testimonies and Pentagon acknowledgements that there may really be something to this UFO thing after all (but whatever it is, it’s not our secret stuff). 

Still, The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951
"Mr. President, the aliens are here and they're wondering if they can
get a copy of the UAP Task Force Report."

Just recently, 60 Minutes, the soberest, most sclerotic mainstream news program of them all, devoted its first ever segment to UFOs, including a very serious interview with Luis Elizondo. And there’s potentially another big shoe to be dropped with the release of the UAP Task Force report to Congress this summer.

As all the revelations have been piling up, I’ve had my own interesting encounters -- not with aliens, but with regular, down-to-earth people who are intrigued by the serious attention UFOs are getting. My go-to ball cap for protecting my balding head from the sun features a classic grey alien whose bulbous forehead is stitched like a baseball -- one of the logos of the now defunct minor league baseball team the Las Vegas 51s (named of course after southern Nevada’s notorious Area 51).

When I first started wearing the cap, no one, except for the occasional baseball fan, noticed the damned thing. But as more and more UFO stories hit the mainstream news, my cap became a wonderful conversation starter. Now, it’s almost routine when I’m out in public for perfect strangers to spot it and start talking about aliens and government cover-ups and the possibility that not only are we not alone, they’re actually here!

Photo - Las Vegas 51s ballcap
According to my sources, there is no truth to the rumor that aliens use
Spider Tack to get a better grip on their abductees. 

So, in honor of all those curious, somewhat freaked out people and the ongoing UFO/UAP revolution, I’m devoting this installment of capsule reviews to a triptych of “up close and personal” film encounters with aliens and UFOs, from the 1990s to the not-quite present.

The films below are not about epic alien invasions. Invasion flicks are a lot of fun too, and I plan to do a post or two on that subgenre in the near future. So stay tuned, and in the meantime, keep watching the skies!

The alleged alien abduction of forest worker Travis Walton in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest on November 5, 1975 is one of the most celebrated and controversial accounts in all of UFO lore.

Supposedly, Walton and six other workers were heading home from a hard day of forest thinning when they spotted a saucer-shaped craft hovering near the road. When Walton got out to get a better look, he was enveloped in a bright light and knocked to the ground, unconscious. The rest of the panicked crew hightailed it out of there. After extensive searches, Walton showed up five days later in a nearby town, with a story that he had been abducted and examined by two different species of aliens.

Believers point to the fact that Walton and his co-workers passed polygraph examinations, and have stood by the story for 45+ years (although recently crew chief Mike Rogers has wavered somewhat). Skeptics point out that the polygraph tests, sponsored by The National Enquirer (not the Sheriff’s office as depicted in the movie), were poorly administered, and that Walton and several family members and friends had previously been infatuated with UFOs. 

Whatever your take on it, watching Fire in the Sky will enthrall you and possibly make you a believer, if only for an hour or two. This is not so much Travis Walton’s movie (played by D.B. Sweeney) as it is friend and fellow forester Mike Rogers’ (Robert Patrick). After the shaken crew returns to town without Travis and tells its incredible story to the sheriff, tensions run high for days afterwards as most of the townspeople have concluded that Rogers and the others are hiding something, quite possibly Travis’ murder.

Even Travis’ reappearance and the vindication of the polygraph exams can’t redeem Rogers, who gets divorced and, at the end of the movie, has become a recluse who hasn’t seen his daughters or former friend Travis in years. Patrick is very good as a flawed, but nonetheless stand-up guy who lives constantly on the edge, taking seasonal forestry work to keep the bill collectors at bay and his rusty old truck running. He passionately stands his ground, even in the face of withering skepticism from his family, neighbors, and hotshot criminal investigator Frank Watters (James Garner).

And then there’s the justifiably famous sequence with Walton aboard the alien craft. The film’s IMDb trivia page relates that studio execs found the real Walton’s abduction account too mundane, and had screenwriter Tracy Tormé (son of jazz singer Mel Tormé) jazz it up (pun intended). He and director Robert Lieberman succeeded spectacularly.

I watched Fire in the Sky with some friends a few years after its video release. Two of them reported not being able to sleep that night. I am (ahem) made of somewhat sterner stuff, but there’s no doubt that Fire in the Sky’s depiction of Walton’s close encounter remains to this day the wildest and scariest ever committed to film.

Night Skies

Night Skies is a typical representative of the subgenre of alien siege movies involving small groups of travelers, vacationers and/or locals who, while trying to commune with nature, end up being stalked by scary aliens bent on abducting or dissecting them. (For other examples, see Alien Abduction or Extraterrestrial, both released in 2014).

The movie strains credulity at the outset by asking us to believe that a group of oversexed twenty-somethings on their way to Las Vegas in a humongous rattletrap RV are lost because one of them wanted to take the scenic route... at night.

Rattling down a bumpy sideroad, the driver (Matt, played by George Stults) is distracted by weird lights in the sky, sideswipes a broken down truck in the middle of the road, and careens into a tree. Matt is the movie’s requisite hothead, and deals with the situation by punching the owner of the truck, ex-soldier Richard (Jason Connery) in the mouth.

A bad move, since Matt’s friend Joe (Joseph Sikora) has ended up with a kitchen knife in his back as a result of the crash, and Richard is the only one of the group with medical training (courtesy of the Army). Of course, neither vehicle is in shape to drive, and there’s no cell signal. Unfortunately for the stranded group, Joe’s injuries are just a precursor of what’s to come, as it soon becomes evident that they are not alone in the dark woods.

To its credit, Night Skies tries to add depth to its characters with various backstories: Matt’s girlfriend Lilly (A.J. Cook) is reluctant to tell him she’s pregnant (at least in part because he’s an immature dolt); Richard confides to Matt’s sister Molly (Ashley Peldon) that he was tortured by the Iraqis as a POW in Desert Storm, and his life has been on hold ever since.

The problem is that some of the backstory development slows things at crucial junctures and doesn’t really add anything substantive or explain why the characters act the way they do. However, patient viewers will be rewarded with some effective jump scares, a couple of good effects on what I assume was a shoestring budget (especially the fate of an old cabin), and aliens that won’t scare anybody, but that are pretty well-designed. (The score and the sound design are particularly outstanding, with the subtle, ominous music underscoring the aliens’ skittering and trilling as they pursue their prey.)

Night Skies’ climactic pièce de résistance is a scene that, to be charitable, is very reminiscent of Travis Walton’s abduction experience in Fire in the Sky (some might say it’s a blatant rip-off). The original scene is uniquely terrifying, and those who haven't seen Fire in the Sky may be impressed by Night Skies’ version. But the Night Skies people might have been better advised to come up with something more original.

This strange film goes all out in pretending to be a documentary drama, to the point that at the beginning, it presents lead actress Milla Jovovich as herself, grimly intoning, Dragnet style, that the following story is true and only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. And before the end credits, It throws up blurbs about what happened to the principal characters after the events of the movie transpired.

The title refers to one of the categories of UFO encounters that researcher J. Allen Hynek developed in the early ‘70s, famously popularized by Steven Spielberg in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (Actually, Hynek only described 3 types of close encounters; UFO researchers have since expanded the list to seven. A close encounter of the fourth kind is abduction by aliens.) 

Jovovich plays Dr. Abbey Tyler, a clinical psychologist and mother of two young children, whose husband was recently murdered in a horrific home invasion. In the course of counseling patients in the remote town of Nome, Alaska, she is intrigued and baffled when a number of them independently tell her the same story of being awakened night after night by an owl that sits outside the bedroom window and stares at them.

When she decides to hypnotize one of her patients to try to figure out what the strange owl is all about, the session reveals a terrifying underlying reality, and unleashes a series of bizarre events that sweeps up Tyler herself and threatens her children. (Believe it or not, the owl-alien connection is a real thing in UFO circles; read all about it: “The Owl-UFO Connection Continues,” Nick Redfern, Mysterious Universe.)

As Tyler delves more deeply into the mystery and conducts more hypnosis sessions, the film frequently employs a split screen to show the supposed “actual” taped footage side by side with the “recreated” scenes involving Jovovich and her fellow actors. Interspersed throughout are segments from an interview conducted years after the events in Nome, in which the “real” Dr. Tyler (played by Charlotte Milchard) defends her interpretation of what happened.

It’s all very meta, but surprisingly effective. For a film about alien abduction that neither shows an alien or a UFO, it still manages to generate a good deal of suspense and dread, especially in the hypnosis scenes. It even manages to insert such concepts as ancient astronauts and Sumerian demons at various points without completely blowing the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

Milla Jovovich took a break from being an action heroine in the Resident Evil movies to emote as the “recreated” Dr. Tyler, and she’s very good -- including the ability to let loose with a very creditable scream when the scene calls for it.

Perusing the IMDb user reviews, the residents of Nome, Alaska aren’t happy with the way The Fourth Kind depicted their town, but if you can get past that and the film’s cheesy “this is a true story, wink, wink” set-up, there are some legitimate thrills in store for you.

June 3, 2021

Time-release Capsule Reviews: Horrific 21st Century Life Lessons (Part One)

I just want to reiterate that, although I run a blog devoted to lean-budgeted genre movies from the hazy past, roughly ranging from the 1930s to the 1970s, I am not some close-minded old codger who refuses to watch anything new.

Okay, so I’m not a big fan of the current crop of comic book movies or Disney’s endless retreads, but I’m constantly on the look-out for intriguing new films to feed my addiction.

Not to brag or anything, but my wife and I saw a good many of the films nominated for Academy Awards this year, and enjoyed them all to some degree or another. (We also were among a relative handful that watched the awards from beginning to end, but I’m not sure that’s a bragging point.)

Still - Psycho (1960)
Although viewership for the 2021 Academy Awards hit a new low, the show
still managed to do well with the key 100-110 year old demographic.

If you’ve stopped by here before, you may have run across the disclaimer in About this Blog that I will occasionally write about newer films that pique my interest, if only to prove that I’m not hopelessly mired in the antediluvian past.

It’s been awhile since I reviewed something reasonably contemporary, so I’m devoting the next couple of posts to independent, low-budget horror and sci-fi films made in the past dozen years or so that grabbed my attention for their fresh, inventive takes on their genres (and that IMHO deserve more exposure).

I’m calling these “time-release capsule reviews” because a.) I’m releasing myself temporarily from the preference for moldy oldies, and b.) I’m hoping that with these capsule descriptions, I will plant a mind-seed that will tempt you to hit play the next time you run across one of these titles.

A time-release capsule from Hell
Warning: this blog uses time-release technology that will blow your mind.

Poster - Triangle, 2009
Triangle (2009)

“Mind-bending” is a term that gets tossed around a lot by critics, but Triangle earns that description in spades and then some. Jess (Melissa George) is an exhausted single mother of an autistic child who has taken the day off to go yachting with a group of wealthy friends. When their boat capsizes in a freak squall, the survivors, who are clinging desperately to the upended hull, are ecstatic when an ocean liner passes close enough to climb aboard.

Jubilation turns to consternation as the group explores the ship, which seems to be an antique from decades past, and which also is apparently completely deserted. Wandering around the spooky ship, Jess gets an uncanny sense of deja vu. But before anyone can fully process what’s going on, terror strikes in the form of a burlap-hooded killer who is targeting the group one-by-one.

The terror is amplified exponentially as Jess discovers that she and her yachting friends are caught in a time loop, seemingly condemned to repeat the chilling events over and over. Jess has to avoid becoming the hooded maniac’s next victim while trying to figure a way out of her terrifying Groundhog Day from hell.

Triangle is a sci-fi-mystery-action-psychological-thriller that steadily ratchets up the tension and keeps the audience guessing along with its frantic protagonist. It takes the old time loop cliché and transforms it in very disturbing ways. There is one scene in particular, involving one of Jess’s companions, that very graphically illustrates how many trips around the space-time merry-go-round the group has taken (and it’s a scene you’re not likely to forget).

At the start of the film, Jess is something of a mystery. She’s a working class mom, a duck out of water among the toney yuppies that she sets sail with. As things get deadly serious, Jess appears to be another in a long line of B-movie heroines and final girls; down-to-earth, practical types who are far-better equipped to survive than their arrogant, pampered companions. Yet, even as Jess is on the brink of solving her hellish puzzle and emerging triumphant, the film reveals events leading up to the sailing excursion that completely upend assumptions.

Writer-director Christopher Smith also co-wrote and directed Severance (2006), a grisly black comedy about a corporate team-building retreat in the wilderness of eastern Europe that goes horribly wrong. Australian actress Melissa George has done a ton of TV along with the occasional feature film. She is currently starring in Apple TV’s The Mosquito Coast.

Poster - The Shrine, 2010
The Shrine (2010)

While international backpacking has not been a thing recently for obvious reasons, vaccine rollouts are opening up more travel possibilities, and before long restless souls will no doubt once again be tromping around exotic locales on the cheap and staying in crowded hostels.

The Shrine begins with the aftermath of a backpacking trip gone bad. Carmen (Cindy Sampson), a young journalist, is intrigued by a string of mysterious disappearances of backpackers in eastern Europe, the latest of which is a young man by the name of Eric Taylor.

Carmen tries to sell the idea of an investigative story to her editor, but he declines. Undaunted, she interviews Eric’s mother, who gives the journalist her son’s diary that was found after his disappearance. From the diary, Carmen pinpoints Eric’s last known location to a remote village in Poland. Even without management’s blessing, she talks intern Sara (Meghan Heffern) and photographer Marcus (Aaron Ashmore) into accompanying her on a trip to try to find out what happened to Eric.

The trio wind up in a Polish village that seems to be straight out of the middle ages, run by severe-looking priests. At first the sullen, tight-lipped villagers are of no help, except to warn the visitors not to go in the woods where an odd, static fog bank hovers over the trees.

Eric’s diary mentioned the bizarre fog, so of course, Carmen and her companions have to investigate. At first Sara, then Carmen stumble upon a demonic-looking statue located in the center of the fog that appears to be examining them with sightless eyes, leaving them paranoid and disoriented.

Back at the village, one of the locals has a change of heart and leads them to an ancient-looking shrine that contains the bodies of Eric and other unfortunate travelers, each wearing a primitive iron mask suggesting some sort of grisly blood ritual. By trespassing in the woods, the visitors have marked themselves to be the next sacrificial victims, but incredibly, that may not be the worst fate awaiting them.

At first glance, The Shrine seems to be another standard entry in the “Don’t go in the woods!” subgenre featuring naive young campers, hikers and backpackers meeting gruesome demises that Cabin in the Woods parodied so well. But The Shrine cleverly adds yet another layer of horror onto the proceedings, and you’re suddenly not sure who the bad guys and good guys really are.

This culminates in a very effective scene in which Marcus and Carmen, exhausted, terrified, and desperately trying to avoid having metal masks nailed to their skulls, invade a family’s home to try to get the keys to their truck. The language barrier adds to the tension, but the family members, upon seeing the strangers, are panicked beyond what a garden variety home invasion would suggest. At this point the viewer is clued into what’s going on, but Marcus, who just wants to get out of Dodge, is completely oblivious.

The Shrine features some very hard, but important life lessons:

  1. Don’t make snap assumptions about people you don’t know, including those who live their lives differently from you.
  2. If the locals tell you not to go into the woods, don’t go in the woods.
  3. Always be aware of your surroundings.
  4. Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind.

Carmen and her crew pay a very heavy price for traipsing into a place they know nothing about in an attempt to solve a mystery for fleeting journalistic glory.

Jon Knautz, also a writer-director, is responsible for The Shrine’s unique take on an old subgenre. Since then, he has directed a pretty well-received “neo-slasher,” Girl House (2014), and a psychological horror film, The Cleaning Lady (2018; expanded from his short film from 2016). Fans of the Smallville TV series will recognize Aaron Ashmore (Marcus), who played Jimmy Olsen.

Coherence (2013)

It’s a sad fact of 21st century life that many people rarely interact with their neighbors except to squabble over fences that encroach on someone’s property or uninvited kids trampling on flower gardens. Coherence is a sci-fi/psychological horror film that asks the question: What would you do if you suddenly encountered the mother of all bad neighbors, and that bad neighbor was.... you!

Eight young suburban professionals are having a dinner party on a night when a comet is passing close to the earth. When the power goes out, the group goes outside and sees that one house in the neighborhood still has power. Two of the men go over to the other house to find out what’s going on. They return with a box containing pictures of them, the eight friends, and a strange story about the place being deserted, but it also being an exact copy of their house, with a dinner table set for eight.

They write a note to tape to the front door of the other house, but then are freaked out by a stranger who approaches their house, then runs off. To their amazement, they find the very same note they had written pinned to their door.

One of the more scientifically inclined dinner guests suggests that somehow, the passing comet has torn open space and time to such an extent that an infinite number of alternate universes/realities are suddenly coexisting together. Naturally, this induces paranoia and distrust in the group -- and all the other alternate groups that are co-occupying “reality.” Things degenerate from there.

Coherence is great example of a film of far-out ideas and suspense, made for next-to-nothing (reportedly around $50k), that grabs you from the get-go, doesn’t let go, and twists you around until you have no idea who’s on first or what’s on second (but in a fun way, I assure you).

The film was released in 2013, just as the possibility of parallel universes was gaining more ground among mainstream physicists, and in popular culture, the notion of the Mandela Effect -- allegedly false memories that make it seem as if the fabric of reality is changing in small but noticeable ways -- was also gaining traction.

But beyond cutting-edge physics or the paranormal, Coherence speaks to some very down-to-earth realities of daily living. It’s a sort of metaphor for how, in spite of the supposed unlimited connectedness of social media and technology in general, we continue to carve ourselves up into smaller and smaller groups of like-minded people who are increasingly suspicious of those who aren’t in the club. The social pods that developed out of the pandemic have only accelerated the trend.

James Ward Byrkit completes this post’s trifecta of writer-directors. This was his first feature film directing job (and the only one to date); he also wrote the screenplay. He is apparently a jack of all filmmaking trades, with producer, art department, visual effects, acting and soundtrack credits on his resume in addition to writing and directing.

Emily Baldoni, who plays Em, the alpha female in the dinner group, has been all over TV since about 2008, with parts in several of the CSI and NCIS series, among others.