Monday, July 20, 2020

Space 1979: The one with the Ice Castles lady, the guy from Endless Love and a producer who quit after making it

Title: The Falling aka Alien Predators
What Year?: 1984 (filming)/ 1985 (copyright)/ 1987 (US release)
Classification: Knockoff/ Mashup/ Anachronistic outlier
Rating: What the Hell???

This time around, I'm working from one of the major modern vectors of obscure pop culture, the rise of Netflix. By about 2010, streaming was well-established, and Netflix and a few other services were greatly expanding the catalogs of available movies, including a very impressive selection of infamous or forgotten 1970s and 1980s sci fi/ horror movies. For me personally, it was an opportunity to watch many movies I certainly knew about but never had the opportunity or sufficient interest to look up. But there were also some even I had never heard of until I ran across them in the online archives. This is one of those movies, and it is a doozie.

This story begins with a shot of burning wreckage, said to be debris from Skylab that landed in Spain. (It actually landed in Australia, in 1979.) The next few scenes, said to be 5 years later, alternate between a diseased cow and a trio of tourists driving through Spain in an RV. As this progresses, the two guys take turns harassing their female companion, while the cow is torn apart by a pack of dogs that suddenly begin disappearing one by one. By morning, the tourists have reached an isolated town and find that most of the locals have vanished, except for a handful that menace them with various methods including a large and outrageously dilapidated truck that appears and disappears like Michael Meyers. Then we are introduced to yet another plot thread, a scientist sent to investigate the disturbances. By the time the scientist and the tourists meet up, it is clear that the human populace has been infected by a pathogen that first makes them violently insane and then causes a parasitoid alien to burst violently from their bodies. The scientist reveals that the only hope for humanity is stored a secret lab (which he already visited and then left), and one of the tourists must go back to retrieve the cure. The film ends with the tourists making their escaped, only to discover the disease has already spread.

This is a movie whose production history ended up as strange and in some lights at least as interesting as the movie itself. It was filmed in Spain in 1984 by director Deran Serafian with mid-tier stars  Lynn-Holly Johnson,, Dennis Christopher and Martin Hewitt, plus veteran Spanish star Luis Prendes as the scientist. It was produced by horror director Carlos Aured, who would later cite the production as the reason he quit making movies altogether. It remained in limbo until 1987, when it was released under several equally incomprehensible titles, including the notorious US title Alien Predators. The movie's credits state that it was based on a script titled "Massacre at RV Park". Most evidence of its contemporary distribution (including the image shown here) comes from video releases, though Wikipedia indicates a US theatrical release with the humorously exact box office figure of $2,554.

Moving on to my personal thoughts, I must say at the outset that this movie fascinates me. It is certainly among  the most creative and well-made Alien knockoffs to crop up in the early 1980s. In the context of this series, the most interesting thing about is that it barely came out early enough to meet the ca 1985 time frame I have set. This is all the more curious as any number of elements feel like they belong in a significantly older film, including the cast. This contributes to some of the more effective moments, like a shot at parasitoid's eye level that hearkens back to early slasher movies (and I hate slasher movies!). The anachronistic feel is heightened by the strange choices in possible sources and visual references. On that front, the film comes across less like Alien than a cross between Duel and Dawn of the Dead, with touches of The Thing.

Most of the movie's further relative virtues lie in surprising attention to detail. The settings are convincing and well-used, if only because it seems likely that the film makers simply found locations to shoot live. The one location that is clearly a set is the secret lab, which is comparatively undeveloped but gives just enough detail to give a sense of clinical dread. The vehicles are used to further good effect, and the tourists' Iveco camper van is cool enough that I seriously considered covering it in the RVs of the Apocalypse feature on my old blog. The weakest elements are the gore and monster effects, to the point that I have wondered if they were simply worked in at some late point in production. Even here, there are effective moments. The scenes with the diseased cow are so exceptionally horrid the film barely bothers to tie it in to anything else. By comparison, the infected townspeople the tourists encounter are creepy in their own right, on the few occasions they appear. We see even less of the parasitoids, and the film does not suffer for it. The one explicit scene of an emerging parasitoid is so close to the end that the known VHS covers would qualify as a spoiler. It is genuinely ghastly and menacing enough, at least until it has a run in with a windshield wiper.

A little further comment is in order on the cast and characters. This is where the filmmakers clearly invested far too much not to achieve a high standard of mediocrity, yet the final product is uneven to say the least. Johnson, best known then and now for starring in Ice Castles, is inevitably charming, while character actor Christopher is no more annoying than he clearly intends to be. Hewitt, past his career peak in Endless Love, is a bit bland in comparison, and certainly not successful in providing romantic tension. The pleasant surprises all come from Paredes, a stage and screen actor whose career began in the 1930s. Dated innuendo provides an extra cringe factor with the benefit of hindsight. The most uncomfortable moment comes when one of Christopher's "jokes" becomes entirely lewd; Johnson completely justifiably blows up at him, but it is not at all clear that the audience is expected to be on her side. If possible, things get more awkward when the lady makes it clear she is interested in Hewitt's character. Regardless of what was intended in the script, the chemistry between the pair is so wonky that he literally retreats from her, as if in the role of a damsel who just found out that the interview isn't really for a "modelling" job.

Now for the "one scene", I am going with the one that definitely stayed strongest in my memory, and it features Paredes. After briefly passing the tourists, the scientist and a colleague go to the hotel room of an officer previously sent to investigate goings on in the town (without stopping to don protective gear that appears a little later). The military man, is introduced as "Lieutenant Lumpy", lies on his bed with an enormous growth on his face and neck. This is the film's best practical effect by far, as big as a soccer ball (which the scientist compares it to) and as ornately textured as a kit-bashed Star Wars ship. It is somewhat ambiguous whether Lumpy is dead, unconscious or comatose, but the growth throbs and makes strange sounds when the investigators approach. The doctor barely hesitates before opening the tumor, still without so much as a pair of gloves. He seems to do this with a scalpel, but after careful review I believe he simply tears with his bare hands. Of course, there is gushing and spurting,  plus extra throbbing and squirming, but whatever is inside remains out of sight, by all appearances happy where it is.

For the post script, this movie got a string of online reviews from about 2010 to 2013, almost all negative. While several reviewers reported seeing it on VHS in the 1980s, I have little doubt that this was driven by viewings on Netflix. It disappeared from Netflix as the site's streaming catalog contracted due to licensing issues, and dropped out of site until disk releases came out in 2015 and 2018. It has finally returned to streaming through Vudu, where I rented it for the purposes of this review. This is the shape of preservation in the digital age, with the threat coming not from moldering out of print tapes but petty legal squabbles, frivolous censorship, and companies that simply do not care. Whatever one makes of the movie, the fact that it remains available for the time being is a victory for everyone. For me, it remains an intriguing artifact, not by any means great or particularly good, but with just enough imagination and overall quality to be spared a worse fate.

Flor links, see reviews by Mondo Bizarro and Girl Who Loves Horror. The image credit goes to, which has compiled a thorough collection of VHS art. See also the Introduction of this feature for my review scale, classification system and other details.

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