Sunday, June 15, 2008

Not Without My Daughter: Alien Edition

Strange Invaders (1983)
Sometimes lesser-known movies turn out to be forgotten gems that just didn't find their audience when they were first release; unfortunately, sometimes they're just forgettable. When a person (like, say, me) watches a lot of B-movies, they take their chances. More often than not, the effort is rewarded, but there are still plenty of those movies where one thinks, "Man, this bombed for a reason."

In Strange Invaders, American Graffiti greaser Paul LeMat plays an entymology professor (not etymology, which is more up my alley); and oh, how I wished his knowledge of insect life was going to come in handy when dealing with alien lifeforms! I mean, it certainly could have. This is not, shall we say, the least of this film's missed opportunities.

One weekend his ex-wife drops by unexpectedly with their adorable daughter. It's not his weekend, but she's been called home to a funeral, and wants him to watch little Elizabeth until she gets back. This wouldn't be a problem, except for the fact that she doesn't come back. Starting to worry, he takes a road trip to Centerville, her ostensible middle American hometown, to find out what's happened to her.

When he gets there, he finds that the people are clean-cut, driving vintage cars, going to malt shops, and dressed like it's still the '50s. The town has a veneer of apple-pie Americana, but juxtaposed with odd, anti-social behavior. These early scenes are fleetingly promising, evoking a mood that we could call Lynchian, except that in 1983, even Lynch wasn't Lynchian yet. He hadn't even released Dune, for pete's sake, much less Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks.

In their isolation, the aliens apparently haven't learned the art of keeping a low profile, since they quickly try to kill him with electric thunderbolts (they have some vague powers to control electricity with their...minds?), and even show their real, alien faces. Hightailed back to New York, LeMat first looks up a government UFO expert (Louise Fletcher, whose casting is a glaring red flag for the presence of deceit and duplicity). Then he visits a Weekly World News-like tabloid that has accidentally (and coincidentally) printed a real photo of one of the real aliens. The cynical writer, who suffers from a bad case of '80s hair, is played by Nancy Allen, signaling the onset of gratuitous romance.

Quick point: when the professor got back home, he discovered that someone had broken in and ransacked his apartment. Then, when he brings Allen upstairs, it all looks freshly ransacked. Did someone break in AGAIN? But no, apparently, he just never bothered to put the couch upright, or anything else in his living room, for that matter. Even the refrigerator is still lying open with its contents all over the floor. Which seems odd, because it's been at least a few days. Maybe he's an alien.

And at that point I went, hey, whatever happened to that girlfriend he started out with? They looked like they were a fairly established couple, but he went out of town for a few days and not only did she vanish without a trace, but he seemed to forget she'd ever existed. Maybe she was an alien.

Eventually, the mystery is resolved by the ex-wife just...showing up at his door and explaining everything. It turns out she was part of an alien infiltration back in the 1950s, and used her mission (learning more about human life in the big city) to try to escape what seems like a pretty tyrannical alien society, although not much gets made of that, or of her or her motivations. The aliens are on schedule to return to the home world, and want to take her hybrid daughter back with them, so it's desperately important that he hide the kid. It might've been more helpful if she'd mentioned this before, especially since he'd have never gone to Centerville and put himself in danger if she hadn't mentioned it. But never mind.

Various chase and fight scenes ensue between dumb aliens and clueless humans. The only character to really maintain his dignity is Michael Lerner (Barton Fink's Jack Lipnick, plus a million other characters), who's been institutionalized for insisting that aliens turned his family into glowing balls of light.

Rock 'n' Roll High School's Dey Young has a cameo, along with her Strange Behavior costar, Dan Shor. That was another movie with a promising premise that didn't really make any sense -- by the same director, Michael Laughlin. Maybe I should have noticed the connection before I watched Strange Invaders. By the way, it was co-written by Bill Condon, the director of Dreamgirls, who also has that horrible Candyman sequel on his resume. Beware.

Partisans of the film like to justify its sloppy plotting and haphazard editing by claiming "spoof." Heaven knows, I understand having an irrational fondness for something just because I happened to see it on tv late at night at a particular point in my life. But in my world, a spoof is kind of obligated to be funny, something this movie never even attempts. Really, all it has going for it is its panorama of bad '80s fashion, and if that's what you're looking for, you can do better. I'd start with Girls Just Want to Have Fun and work from there...

No comments: