Tag Archives: Science Fiction

366 UNDERGROUND: BLOODSUCKER’S PLANET (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Mark Beal

FEATURING: , , Adrienne Dobson, Joe Grisaffi,

PLOT: Responding to a distress signal, the crew of a cargo spaceship find themselves on a remote mud-harvesting planet inhabited by the charming Bartlett, who harbors a dark secret.

Still from Bloodsucker's Planet (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: While it’s difficult to tell the deliberate weirdness from simple budgetary limitations, there’s no denying that this film’s minimalistic approach to its seemingly simple tale of vampires in space gives rise to some creepy and trippy visuals.

COMMENTS: The idea of vampires in a science fiction setting has a great deal of promise, but it’s been largely restricted to B-movies. It’s hardly a more ridiculous conceit than that of many films that break box office records. Yet personally, my sole encounters with the genre have been 1985’s Lifeforce, a film whose genuinely intriguing concepts were hard to take seriously thanks to the film’s needless sexualization, and Dracula 3000, an embarrassing bore from South African Darrell Roodt.

Point is, Bloodsucker’s Planet—which, really, spells out its whole concept right there in the title—has a promising premise right off the bat. It’s true that there are parts of it that, through no fault of the filmmakers, I probably didn’t fully understand (I unfortunately never saw Bloodsucker’s Handbook, the film that this is a prequel to; and I’m not especially familiar with 60s-era sci fi, from which Planet draws many cues); but still, I can recognize a solid and underutilized concept when I see one.

Bloodsucker’s Planet evokes the classics right from the opening, with the crew of a small cargo ship responding to a distress signal that leads them to the isolated planet of Mara, home to an abandoned mud harvesting operation now occupied only by the charming Bartlett and his gynoid assistant Adrianna. The sci fi parallels to the classic vampire tale are evident almost at once. The solitary Bartlett has that gentlemanly charm and likeability befitting the more romantic sort of vampire overlord (though he himself doesn’t seem to be afflicted with the condition); Adrianna brings to mind one of Dracula’s concubines; the somber graveyard on the planet’s surface evokes traditional horror imagery; and the vampiric disease, it seems, is spread by a native species closely resembling (and, indeed, explicitly referred to as) bats.

Unfortunately, this intriguing setup, which promises a sci-fied take on a classically Gothic setup, ends up feeling underexploited. A big reason is clearly the limitations of the budget.

I don’t look down upon a film for having a low budget. I don’t think any fan of arthouse or independent cinema could ever justify such an attitude. But I do think that, to execute certain concepts, a certain level of resources is required. Low budget charm is all well and good; but sometimes, a film’s resources can be so limited that a great portion of its central concept gets lost. And in this case, the plain sets and scenery don’t evoke a far-distant future to any significant degree. And while this might be forgivable in a film where the  setting was more incidental, it becomes noticeable in a movie that is centered on the novelty of “vampires in space.”

There are moments of brilliance, to be sure, where the limited budget evokes the setting in a creative, surrealistic manner (most prominently in several brief shots of uncanny, slightly-off miniature models of characters wandering the planet’s surface or hurtling through space). Moreover, there’s a classic subplot centered on Adrianna struggling to reconcile her emotions with her artificial nature, and all that. I get the sense that it’s there to reinforce the connection to classic science fiction; but despite taking up a good portion of the film’s midsection, it doesn’t go anywhere or relate to the plot in any significant manner (though, not being an expert in classic vampire lore, I’m more than ready to admit I might be missing a reference). If nothing else, I’d have appreciated a few more scenes of the wisecracking space roach; sure, he also had little bearing on the central plot, but he was far and away the most entertaining character.

As much as I genuinely hate saying this about any indie effort, I do feel that Bloodsucker’s Planet attempts to tackle a concept a bit beyond the reach of its resources. This isn’t to say that it’s a bad effort by any means—there are moments where that surreal shoestring charm does its job, and Joe Grisaffi, at the very least, takes to his role with an elegant charisma. But all in all, Bloodsucker’s Planet has more promising potential than solid execution.

Either way, Planet made me more than a little curious to check out Bloodsucker’s Handbook—a film which, allegedly, was far weirder than this one. It struck me that embracing the inherent weirdness of the premise could have spiced up Bloodsucker’s Planet and helped it overcome its limitations. After all, weirdness is one of the few things that, personally, I don’t believe can be held back by budgetary constraints.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Viewers who love such recent mind-bending indie retro outings as Joe Badon’s The God Inside My Ear (2017) and Drew Bolduc’s Assassinaut (2019) are bound to have a blast with Bloodsucker’s Planet, which is an absolute delight from before its ultracool animated opening credits to its postcredits cracker jack.”–Joseph Perry, Horror Fuel (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SPACE NINJAS (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Scott McQuaid

FEATURING: Yi Jane, Damien Zachary, Briane Narelle, Dirk Benedict

PLOT: Five high schoolers are doomed to spend their Saturday night at school in detention, then doomed by an infiltration of space ninjas.

Still from Space Ninjas (2019)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Some movies are so bad that they’re good, some are so bad that they’re weird, and some suffer from the misconception that you can try to be that bad. I could not figure out which of these (or what combination) Space Ninjas falls into: suffice to say, I never lost my “WTF?” expression throughout this mash-up of The Breakfast Club, ’80s horror, and low-budget flair that seemed to oscillate between winking at the audience and accidentally tripping over itself.

COMMENTS: A big part of me wonders if this whole thing was just a massive set-up to allow Scott McQuaid (the writer and director of this gem) to slip the line, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead!” into a Teen-Sci/Fi-Horror movie. That’s the kind of picture this is. Slippery. Some poking around online suggests it may be doing what it’s doing on purpose, and I’m inclined to believe it. However, the whole exercise gives off the vibe that McQuaid & Co. only mostly know what they’re doing, using a charming kind of amateur ineptness as a crutch to carry them across the “self-aware” finish line. But hold on a second, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Enter five teenagers: the jock, the nerd (Damien Zachary), the prima donna, the punk (Yi Jane), and the Japanese exchange student. These archetypes find themselves, for various not-altogether-specified reasons, confined to a classroom for detention on a weekend—the only way, it appears to the school’s “Deputy Head,” Mr Hughes, to actually punish them. (I’m bothering to tell you his job title because, like so much of the rest of the plot, it’s established to set up a hack n’ slash joke later in the movie.) Quips fly, barbs are jabbed, and the lights go out. A dark figure appears from nowhere. And for the rest of the movie, our band of teenagers finds itself increasingly failing to escape the menace of… Space Ninjas!

Two questions came to mind about halfway through watching this movie. First, how does 366’s radar pick up this kind of nonsense? Second, what drives a man to make this kind of nonsense in the first place? The visual tone is thrown from the get-go, appearing to have been captured on digital film from the early ’00s (those who remember “mini-DV” tapes will know what I’m talking about). The dialogue was—probably—dubbed in after the fact. The gore shots were achieved with, once again, some early ’00s-looking CGI. In fact, the whole movie, on the surface, felt as if Mark Region had finally gotten a correspondence school degree in filmmaking and decided to do a horror movie to follow up his taut psychological thriller. This extends to the delivery of the dialogue, which in Space Ninjas hews somewhere between “realistic” and “high school film class” in quality, but is pretty regularly (and obviously intentionally) funny.

The movie is bookended by a campy Mysterious Mysteries-meets-Horkheimer’s “Star Hustler” television show, which sets up the premise (its host, “Jack ‘don’t-call-me’ Strange”, is played by B-movie stalwart Dirk Benedict, who is mysteriously omitted from the IMDb credits). Judging from how those scenes play out, I am inclined to suspect that McQuaid (probably) knows what to do. I’m impressed that he was somehow able to obscure this skill set for most of the movie. Had I not been given grounding, I’d have readily slipped Space Ninjas into the “” category. I consider it far more impressive a specimen for having (probably) pulled the wool over my eyes.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…fans of B-movie horror comedies will love this.”–JB, Talk Nerdy to Me

CAPSULE: IRON SKY: THE COMING RACE (2019)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Lara Rossi, Kit Dale, Vladimir Burlakov, Tom Green, Renate Richter, Udo Kier

PLOT: In 2047, humanity’s last survivors cower in the crumbling Moon base after nuclear holocaust; to save the species, Obi must journey to back to Earth to find a mystical power source.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Hitting about a ten on my ridiculosometer, Vuorensola’s follow-up to his unexpected 2012 hit digs deep into a bag of outlandish premises; it’s often hilarious, and quite fun, but not weird. Just… silly. Really, really silly.

COMMENTS: Whatever other qualities Timo Vuorensola has, he’s a great salesman. With his not-quite-debut Iron Sky, he made a pitch to investors that a movie about Moon Nazis was a viable project. Having established his own universe to play around in, he tops himself thematically and financially with the sequel Iron Sky: The Coming Race. Not content to rest on his laurels and just have the Nazis regroup, he dives into the “Hollow Earth” myth and concocts an origin of species theory whose only time-spanning equal might be Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus.

Renate Richter’s daughter Obi (Lara Rossi) works tirelessly to keep a decrepit Moon base operational while a Steve Jobs cult hoards the facility’s scant resources. Led by their charismatic preacher, Donald (Tom Green, with scene-stealing deadpan), the Jobsists demand the perfection of a “closed system.” Obi’s mother is an acolyte, but she is dying —and her cure lies in an unlikely place. Crazy-Russian-Stereotype Sasha (Vladimir Burlakov) literally crashes onto the scene with some Earth refugees and his ship enables Obi to go on a mission at the behest of the erstwhile Mondführer (Udo Kier, again) to retrieve a powerful vessel containing “Vril-Ya”. And so, with Donald, Sasha, and beefcake Malcom (Kit Dale), Obi rigs the Russian’s clapped-out vessel for a final journey … to the Center of the Earth!

I’ll spare you more plot rehashing to segue now into just what it is Vuorensola is trying to do here: everything he can. There are explosions, chase scenes, cults, backstabbings, and Vril-Hitler on an allosaurus. Whatever enthusiasm Udo Kier lacked in the first movie, he makes up for with his double role as a pair of ancient alien brothers who… ah, but that’s some more plot. There’s just so much plot in this movie, and while the rational part of my brain knows that this isn’t a good thing, the softer side of my brain laughed loudly very regularly. This movie pokes fun at everything: iPhone advocates (the send-up of the iconic “1984” Apple commercial is a treat), conspiracy theorists, blockbuster classics (including, but not limited to, The Planet of the Apes and Indiana Jones & the Last Crusade), Vladimir Putin… Like a young Mel Brooks with half the talent but twice the sense of urgency, Vuorensola just does not stop.

I wouldn’t want to risk this site’s credibility by slapping a ” label on this, but I haven’t had so much fun watching a movie in quite a while. A caveat, though, is that I can easily turn my brain off as the situation demands: if you go into this movie thinking, you’ll think I’m some sort of idiot for enjoying it. But Tom Green was great as a silly-sinister cult leader, Kit Dale somehow managed to make his “red shirt” death wish boy scout both funny and charismatic, and Udo Kier just felt right as dinosaur-riding Hitler. Of course there’s a set up for a third installment, and I look forward to seeing what nonsense they get up to on Mars. Catch you on the Red Planet, comrade.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This better-funded, more lavish sequel seeks to be equally engaging and wacky, but the result is an incoherent if well-made mess that will find most favour with the more fervent devotees of ‘trash’ cinema.”–Dave Aldridge, Radio Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: IRON SKY (2012)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Julia Dietze, Christopher Kirby, Götz Otto, Stephanie Paul, Udo Kier

PLOT: Having regrouped on the dark side of the moon, the Fourth Reich finds that the computing power of a visiting astronaut’s smart-phone is just what they need to launch their super-ship, “Götterdämmerung,” and conquer the Earth.

Still from Iron Sky (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: As one of the last places for narrative fiction to wedge them, the whole “Nazis-on-the-moon” thing isn’t so strange. The movie itself is merely a tongue-in-cheek  diversion that errs on the side of (sometimes) dumb humor over anything weird. A serious dissection of the premise’s socio-military implications, however, would have been a shoo-in.

COMMENTS: Unlike the fabled whalers of old, Nazis on the Moon found a great deal to do during their stay. Though this isn’t the first vision of that possibility, Tim Vuorensola is probably the first film-maker to pull the trigger on it, and he provides an intermittently funny send-up of classic science fiction, B-movie sensibilities, and even a bit of political commentary. The combined efforts of maybe a dozen European production companies, as well as some crowd-funding (including me, having drunkenly splashed out eight years ago for a limited edition copy one evening) resulted in Iron Sky.

Earth-side, we root for a Sarah Palin-esque president of the United States (Stephanie Paul). She sends a black astronaut, James Washington (Christopher Kirby) to the moon as a PR stunt for her re-election. Moon-side, the Fourth Reich is ruled by Mondführer Wolfgang Kortzfleisch (Udo Kier, dropping in for a paycheck and a chance to hold the ceremonial “Führer baton”), with his right-hand man Klaus Adler (Götz Otto). Stuck in the middle is Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), daughter of the Reich’s preeminent scientist, as well as a 97% genetic (and therefore, romantic) match of Klaus. After Washington stumbles across the Nazi base, he is captured, and the fascists discover his smartphone. With it, their super weapon almost gets up and running, only for the phone battery to die. So, off go Klaus and Renate to the Earth to pick up a new machine and lay the groundwork for a full-scale invasion.

So far, so good(-ish). The story, such as it is, doesn’t really pick up until about the halfway point, with the long-form introduction acting primarily as an opportunity to crack wise about Nazis, race relations (Washington has an African-American persona straight from the mid-’90s), and the trajectory of US politics. 1 Beyond the premise, though, the only things that stand out are the art direction—the ominous, sleek, and deadly armaments look just as you imagine real Nazis would want their space machines to look—and costuming (for similar reasons). I just wish…

I just wish, I suppose, that Vuorensola had put more time and effort into the script. Shortly before writing this, I found that I had only watched the “theatrical” cut, which he was obliged to throw together very quickly to make before the premier at the Berlinale Film Festival, instead of the “Dictator’s Cut”, which has twenty more minutes fleshing out characters and scenes. With that in mind, I’ll advise a “Probably Recommended” for that version, because even in its slapdash form it maintains a good pace and has enough laugh-out-loud moments to justify itself. Only a humorless sourpuss should not-see it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Ultimately, ‘Iron Sky’ is neither good enough to rep a proper breakout hit nor bad enough that it might attain cult status; it’s just kind of lame, the worst of all possible worlds.”–Leslie Felperin, Variety (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: FREAKS (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Zach Lipovsky, Adam Stein

FEATURING: Lexy Kolker, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern, Amanda Crew

PLOT: Chloe’s father keeps her boarded up in a dilapidated house to protect her from an unspecified danger; outside, an ice cream truck driver waits for his chance to free the girl.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LISTFreaks has a very Hollywood feel to it, though it subverts the genre to a fair degree. It feels like a thinking man’s X-Men movie.

COMMENTS: The trials of fatherhood, the uncertainty of childhood, and pervasive agora-claustrophobia all come together with wonder and menace in Freaks, the final film of Fantasia’s final weekend slot. It acted as a nice finishing note of the festival’s main event. Appropriately, Fantasia was the final festival stop for Lipovsky’s and Stein’s baby (not just co-directors, they also wrote the screenplay together). For them and the audience, Freaks provided a climactic blast of pizzazz before things began to wind down in Montréal.

Despite her protestations, we learn fairly early that Chloe (Lexy Kolker, as impressive a 10-year-old actress as I’ve ever seen) is not normal. She’s trained by her ever-exhausted father (Emile Hirsch) to spout an origin story on demand, and be able to ad lib responses in case she’s pressed about details. Why must she worry about the “people out there who want to kill [her]”? The ever-looming ice-cream man, “Mr Snowcone” (Bruce Dern) knows the answer; he’s been hoping to get a moment to abduct (rescue?) her for some time now. Trapped at home, Chloe spends much of her days drawing and pining for her lost mother (Amand Crew). By night, she’s haunted by a wailing figure in her closet. One day, the father passes out after being injured while out getting supplies, and Chloe takes the opportunity to escape and get that chocolate ice cream she’s been hankering for.

Freaks obviously draws comparisons with some contemporary science fiction, but it attempts to address its thorny issues in a way that’s more realistic. What would you do if you were raised in abject fear of everyone but your family? What would you do if that family seemed hell-bent on stifling everything about you that was special? While Lipovsky and Stein obviously frame the story to engender sympathy for Chloe and her family (they are the main characters, after all), they do provide ambient hints about what the rest of society feels the other. As in the more famous movie with the title, this new Freaks forces the audience to themselves just how comfortable they could be with fellow humans are completely out of the norm.

Freaks‘ greatest achievement, however, is how it fleshed out such a thorough world needing so few resources. Nearly all of the action takes place in one run-down house (with occasional forays to a mountain prison). To flesh out their story, the directors use sound to great effect (be it in the form of news channel snippets or the ominous drone of an unseen helicopter) in addition to channeling the narrative through the eyes of Chloe, who despite having been shut-in all her seven years, has maintained her sense of wonder and hope. Speaking of, here’s hoping that these two filmmaker fellows make their mark with this: I don’t generally approve of the word “franchise”, but I would love to see more of this “freakish” world they’ve created.

You can also listen to our interview with co-creators Zach Lipovsky and Adam Stein (which may contain mild spoilers).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a cleverly constructed, thrilling and often super-surreal coming-of-age story that gets right into your head.”–Anton Bitel, SciFiNow (festival screening)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: JESUS SHOWS YOU THE WAY TO THE HIGHWAY (2019)

Recommended

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Daniel Tadesse, Agustín Mateo, Gerda-Annette Allikas, Guillermo Llansó

PLOT: Seriously? I’m going to pinch this straight from IMDb because, man, right now I’ve got nothing. “CIA Agents Palmer and Gagano are tasked with the mission of destroying a computer virus called ‘Soviet Union.’ They enter the system using VR but the mission turns into a trap.”

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: To cheat, once more: Merriam-Webster defines “gonzo” as, “outlandishly unconventional, outrageous, or extreme”; and so it is with JSYTWTTH. Stop-motion VR missions to thwart a computer virus called “Soviet Union,” a pizza restaurant of your dreams, a second (and third?) coming of the messiah, and a transvestite super agent are all here. What more could you want? (Don’t worry: there is much, much more.)

COMMENTS: Unfortunately I’ve been the “king of caveats” recently, but here it goes: you haven’t ever seen a movie like this one. Miguel Llansó, an affable Madrid-born professor, has assembled a casserole of ’80s-’90s nostalgia, ’80s-’90s satire, cyber-dystopia, messianic lampoons, kung-fu fighting, Stalin/Redford/Pryor avatars, giant death-ray bugs, and a “PsychoBook” program (not to be confused at all with a more famous “____Book” social media site), all under the banner of a title that is both long-winded and apt: by the end, Jesus shows you the way to the highway.

Ah, but what happens before that gratifying finale? Now that I’m over-caffeinated, I may have better luck with this “plot” section. Strapping on their VR visors and headphones, intrepid CIA agents D.T. Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) and Palmer Eldritch (Agustín Mateo) enter PsychoBook, an AI/VR intelligence network being held hostage by a computer virus that manifests as a Nike-shoe-clad avatar in a Stalin mask. It wants to make a deal with the agents to start dealing “the Substance,” a green-goo byproduct of the environment (don’t worry, Eldritch stands firm: “I don’t make deals with computer viruses!”) Meanwhile, Gegano wants to quit the CIA and help his BBW German sweetie Malin (Gerda-Annette Allikas) start a kickboxing academy. Lurking in the background is the President of Ethiopa, dressed up as the the superhero-villain “Batfro” (Solomon Tashe). Something goes wrong, and Gegano gets trapped in PsychoBook. Will Jesus’ help be enough to allow his escape?

Now you probably can see what I’m working with here. And that’s just one layer of what’s going on. Stylistically, it’s about as madcap as you can get. The stop-motion forays into PsychoBook, when the agents hunt Stalin, are the stuff of comic nightmares (and apparently took up most of the shooting days).

One of the many questions raised about Jesus Shows You…‘s goings-on is, “Why Robert Redford and Richard Pryor masks?” The director revealed in the Q & A after the premiere that it was a poke in the eye to the stuffy producers who demanded he have some big stars lined up before they’d give him any funding. As for the other aesthetic choices, suffice to say it’s clear that Llansó grew up in the ’80s, as beautiful old computers appear left, right, and center, and heavily influenced the mind-blowing/seizure-inducing credit sequences.

I have almost two weeks still to go here, but I sincerely doubt that Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway will be topped, weird-wise. Any fan of the clunky sci/fi joking of “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace” will want to catch this. Anyone wanting to see the Matrix done with no money and maximum humor will want to catch this. Anyone who wants to check out a contender for 2019’s weirdest release will want to catch this. Turn on, tune in, and just say, “F*¢k you, Stalin!”

You can also listen to our audio interview with director Miguel Llansó.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“It’s weird y’all… I am already putting in on my list of top movies of the year, because it’s so damn inventive.”–Lorry Kikta, Film Threat (festival screening)

Q&A AUDIO: