Tag Archives: Alien Abduction

CAPSULE: MYSTERIOUS SKIN (2004)

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Brady Corbet, Michelle Trachtenberg, Jeffrey Licon, Elizabeth Shue, Mary-Lynn Rajskub, Bill Sage, Chase Ellison, George Webster

PLOT: Brian, who is missing memories from part of his childhood, believes that he was abducted by aliens; his investigations lead him to Neal, a street hustler who may have had a similar experience.

Still from Mysterious Skin (2004)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: This searing and graphic drama about two damaged boys and their opposite approaches to dealing with trauma is Gregg Araki’s masterpiece, his best movie by a wide margin. Ironically, however, it’s also his least weird film, with only a few dreamlike moments thrown in to relieve the harsh reality.

COMMENTS: Alternating stories in the lives of two former Little League teammates, one now a teenage hustler and the other a UFO-abduction fanatic, Mysterious Skin plays something like Midnight Cowboy with a touch of “The X-Files.” The performances of both young leads are astounding, and it’s actually a little unfortunate that Brady Corbet’s turn as nerdy, asexual Brian is overshadowed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s (literally) sexier performance as a prematurely dissipated teenage prostitute. Gordon-Levitt’s role interacting with the various johns, from lonely middle-aged businessmen to touchingly pathetic AIDS sufferers to the inevitable angry sadist, is simply meatier than Corbet’s, who only spars sexually with a frumpy fellow alien-abduction enthusiast. Gordon-Levitt, in his first major part after concluding his run as an alien inhabiting the body of a precocious kid in the sitcom “Third Rock from the Sun,” announces himself here as one of the great upcoming actors of his generation in his dark performance as a cocky boy-stud who isn’t nearly as in control of his life as he believes himself to be. Each kid has a very different character arc, but they have more in common than it seems. The story’s big “secret” will probably become obvious very quickly, but the drama doesn’t come in the mystery of the big reveal. This is more of a dual character study depicting opposite but equally dysfunctional strategies for dealing with the unthinkable. It’s difficult to watch at times, but it’s played with exceptional compassion and insight that steers well away from survivor clichés—the hustler’s story, in particular, reveals a disturbing but credibly sick psychology. Scenes with cornfed Kansas grotesques finding mutilated cattle with their genitals removed make the Midwest look a little Lynchian; but, other than a misty shot of a Fruit Loop shower and hallucinatory glimpses of an actual UFO, Akari makes very few departures from raw reality here. The supporting performances are all excellent, as is the unobtrusive shoegaze score. This is filmmaking at its most humanistic.

Araki wrote the Mysterious Skin screenplay from Scott Heim’s novel. According to a Heim interview included on the Blu-Ray edition, the director consulted the original author on the adaptation, although Heim decided to get out of the way and not meddle unless asked after the contract was signed. Heim was then invited to tour with the cast and crew as they took the film on the festival circuit. The dynamic between the original author and the adapter here appears to be a model working relationship.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The film has a weird buoyancy…”–Stephanie Zacharek, Salon.com

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tori.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

LIST CANDIDATE: XTRO (1983)

DIRECTED BY: Harry Bromley Davenport

FEATURING: Bernice Stegers, Phillip Sayer, Danny Brainin, Maryam d’Abo

PLOT: A husband and father disappears one day while playing frisbee with his young son; three years later, he returns to the family as an amnesiac who eats snake eggs for sustenance.

Still from Xtro (1983)

WHY IT’S ON THE BORDERLINEXtro is vying for the spot on the List reserved for an incoherent low-budget sci-fi/horror combo movie.  Unfortunately, that spot has already been filled by Phantasm, a more involving and iconic film; is there room for two films in the genre?  Xtro is definitely a b-flick of interest, but it’s inconsistent, and there seem to be better candidates for the List running around out there.

COMMENTSXtro makes the most of some fascinating and inventive exploitation moments that stick out all the more because they’re set against a poorly developed background story.  It features so-so acting (particularly from the not so precocious child co-star), dull patches of domestic drama, and an annoying synthesizer score by the director, who is no John Carpenter.  But people tend to forget all that, remembering instead the graphic scene where a woman gives birth to a full-grown man, who helpfully chews off his own umbilical cord after emerging!  It takes some work to upstage the nude scenes by a debuting future Bond girl Maryam d’Abo, which by themselves would have insured the film a semi-legendary status, but Xtro manages to come up with multiple gross-out tableaux that push d’Abo’s ta-tas into the background.  Most notable is a sequence where a dwarf clown kills the French nanny by conking her on the head with a rubber hammer, then uses her body to incubate alien eggs. Bizarre, perverse sexual imagery abounds: a woman is impregnated (through the mouth) by a phalluslike appendage that emerges from an alien’s body through a zipper built directly into its skin. At other times characters exchange what one presumes is alien DNA by sucking on each other’s sides or shoulders, which appears to produce sexual ecstasy.  A murderous giant plastic solider and a prowling panther who appears from nowhere add to the mad quality. The movie is set in comfortably cliched horror movie territory, so you always feel like you know where it’s heading, and yet the plot often makes little sense.  Most significantly, there’s no explanation for the alien’s motives for returning to Earth.  Presumably, Sam only wanted to retrieve his son, but why kill random folks and hire a clown to train the tyke in phantasmagorical techniques to murder the neighbors?  Why not just zap the lad up to the mothership, the way Dad was abducted in the first place? Arthouse patrons will want to stay far away, but fans of crazed, excessive b-movies may want to snatch this one up; the weird money scenes make the film linger in the memory longer than it really deserves.

Xtro was mentioned in the same breath as films placed on the British “video nasty” list, but it was never actually banned.  Although it’s shocking and definitely earns an “R” rating, it’s hardly among the most sadistic and offensive movies ever made.  The original ad campaigns played off the success of Spielberg’s then recent E.T. with the tag line, “Some extraterrestrials aren’t friendly.”  The DVD contains the original ending (lopped off by New Line Cinema for the American release), which is much different in tone and even weirder than the climax with which most viewers are familiar.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Weird but not wonderful low-budget horror that is a succession of odd moments rather than a conventional narrative.”–Halliwell’s Film Guide

BORDERLINE WEIRD: NOWHERE (1997)

DIRECTED BY:  Gregg Araki

FEATURING: James Duval, Rachel True

PLOT:  Shallow L.A. teenagers take drugs and have kinky sex all day in preparation for the party of the year, while a rubber alien reptile occasionally stalks and abducts them.

nowhere

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  As an attempt at a contemporary update of Repo Man by way of Clueless, Nowhere is weird, but only in the most superficial way possible; ultimately, it lacks the emotional and thematic chops to earn itself a more dignified adjective than “silly” (although less dignified adjectives like “self-indulgent,” “pretentious” and “annoying” do spring to mind).

COMMENTS:  It begins with the portentous pronouncement “L.A. is like… nowhere.  Everyone who lives here is lost,” voiced with emotionless fervor by “Dark” (Keanu Reeves impersonator James Duval) as he masturbates in the shower.  (This should be your first hint that you might want to skip this movie: do you really want to spend 82 minutes watching an inferior version of Keanu Reeves?)  In the course of a day, the film introduces us to such lost characters as bulimiacs, drug addicts, vanishing valley girls, a “Baywatch” hunk/rapist, and teen dominatrices, all of whom are at bottom indistinguishable but for their preferences in body piercings.  Their chief defining characteristic is a lack of character.  What little character development there is involves Dark’s doomed search for true love and his fruitless attempts to convince bisexual gal pal Mel (Rachel True) to stop sharing her nubile body with every Tom, Dick and Mary.  Too occasional chuckles come via the vulgar and exaggerated teen slang. (A three way cameo conversation between val-gals Traci Lords, Shannen Doherty and Rose McGowan about potential beaus to take to the big party who are not gay, dead by their own hand, or under-hung is an engagingly braindead highlight).  Any lighthearted satirical momentum the film may muster, however, is destroyed by the intrusion of ugly realities like date rape and teen suicide that belong in a non-joke movie that would treat these topics with respect.  Writer/director Akari aims his wit at an incredibly easy target—vapid Hollywood teenagers—but he hardly appears less shallow than they are; whenever the script veers dangerously near something that looks like a real human emotion, as in the climax, he’s quick to deploy predictable Gen-X irony to turn the scene into an absurd joke before his skill at eliciting genuine empathy can be tested.

The teens’ irresponsible “empty” hedonistic lifestyle of drugs, partying, and humping hot bodies actually looks pretty appealing, if only the company didn’t totally blow.  The flick may be enjoyed by smart teenagers (even though director Araki seems to have nothing but contempt for teens), but impressionable young minds should be steered towards better adolescent angst comedies like Heathers if it at all possible.  Not currently available on DVD in North America.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This live-action cartoon might be described as a surreal ‘American Graffiti’ crossed with a kinky ‘Beverly Hills 90210,’ as imagined by a punked-out acolyte of John Waters or Andy Warhol…  If it weren’t so overpopulated and desperate to shock, ‘Nowhere’ might have succeeded as a maliciously cheery satire of Hollywood brats overdosing on the very concept of Hollywood.”–Steven Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)