Saturday, September 24, 2011

Oddball Film Report: ALIEN TRESPASS (2009)

   When ALIEN TRESPASS had its very brief and limited theatrical release across the country, I had mixed feelings. It was sure to be yet another spoof of 50's science fiction movies. While I love the films of Larry Blamire as much as the next guy, it also saddens me to see that none of the various supposed 'tributes' are played straight enough to stand on their own. As someone who enjoys his 50's genre fare irony-free, I want nothing so much as to see a genuine attempt to make one of these wonderful films. In a way, ALIEN TRESPASS actually delivered what I had hoped to see ever since MATINEE. While things start off rather tongue in cheek (with purposefully stiff acting and awkward dialog), the film settles into a (more than less) straight science fiction period piece once things get moving. They've served up some laughs to get us going, then they let the strength of the story take over and we're treated to an actual monster movie. Moreover, a monster movie that actually delivers the goods.

   Not to say ALIEN TRESPASS is perfect. The tone isn't quite right (although closer than I'd expected) and there are some lines here that would never be heard in a 50's movie. It actually plays more like an 80's monster movie inspired by 50's monster movies. True to the period, though, they keep things optimistic and don't try to make fun of 1950's America. That there were no shots at the period's innocence as somehow being misguided was quite a relief, as was the absence of the typical Hollywood white-washing of communism. Even more charming, they didn't dirty things up too much and we actually get a movie with a PG rating (actually, the tag on the film itself claims a PG-13 rating! The reasons given include science fiction-type suspense and -I kid you not- "historical smoking!" I'd heard that smoking was going to be factored into the ratings system, but I never really believed it because the notion was so ridiculous. Just when you think modern Hollywood can't get any more insane, they pull something like this. Is there any wonder the older films are so much more fun to watch?).

   The plot is largely a mixture of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE and THE BRAIN FROM PLANET AROUS, and there are plenty of visual homages to films like FIEND WITHOUT A FACE and THE BLOB, yet the picture manages to retain its own identity. The film it tries to copy most is THE BLOB, and in fact the 1958 release is seen playing in a theater at one point, no doubt in hoping some of the classic's luster might rub off onto our subject. (Odd, though, is that a film released in 1958 is shown to be playing during the summer of 1957, the very period during which the film was being shot, in fact!) The color is gorgeous, trying for a Technicolor look, reminding us that films used to really take advantage of color photography, and how bland most everything today looks. While the color undoubtedly made the film more marketable, there are times when black and white might actually have been a better choice. Still, this isn't an exact recreation or anything, as we're treated to some computer imagery to portray the flying saucer in flight. It's a period film made for modern audiences, not a duplicate of the older films. Not a bad choice, and I wouldn't mind seeing more films of this nature. Happily, the monster effects are done with practical props. While the monster's design isn't all that stunning, it manages to be dangerous enough to provide some genuine suspense during the climax.

   Our plot concerns a small desert town where a flying saucer crashes during a meteor storm. This is witnessed by a scientist and his impossibly sexy wife (man, do I miss the glamor look). When he investigates the crash scene, his body is taken over by a benevolent intergalactic cop who needs an earth body to hunt down the dreaded Ghota, an evil (and intelligent) creature that reduces all organic matter to its liquid base. Aiding our hero(es) in his mission is a beatnik waitress (don't worry, she isn't as annoying as she could have been). Once things get going and the actors are allowed to give actual performances, ALIEN TRESPASS picks up quite a bit. One thing though, the title is all wrong. The word "alien" as pertaining to extraterrestrial life really wasn't thrown around that much in the 50's. Had there actually been a movie made in the 50's called ALIEN TRESPASS, it would have been about spies sneaking into the country. "TRESPASS FROM OUTER SPACE" or "TRESPASS OF MARS" would have been more logical choices.

   The music is a nice original score evocative of the Universal cues we all know and love. Heavy use of the theremin is a plus. The acting is pretty good in general, and most everyone looks the part, although the performances can be uneven since the tone of the film isn't always committed to what it wants to be. Best might be Eric McCormack in the dual role of Dr. Ted Lewis and Dr. Lewis as possessed by Urp, the Martian "federal Marshall." McCormack manages to play both parts well enough that you can actually believe they are different personalities. Urp displays a child-like sense of bewilderment upon surveying his new earthy surroundings, yet his determination in hunting down his quarry conveys the urgency of the situation rather well. McCormack undoubtedly enjoyed the fact that so much of Urp's story must be told through subtle facial expression and just enough exposition to get the story across without turning into a gab-fest. It looks like the kind of part any serious actor might jump at, and he handles it very well. Also good here is Dan Lauria as the local Police chief, who manages to convey exactly the sort of older character actor persona the part calls for. Robert Patrick, meanwhile, suggests someone used to doing westerns who just passed through this horror flick because the job offered a paycheck (some mock Ed Murrow-style interview segments confirm 'period actor Robert' to be a veteran of serial horse operas). Director R. W. Goodwin, for the most part, does a good job creating period visuals. The rather obvious set used for the crash scene of the flying saucer only adds to the film, rather than detract from it.

   As a hook, the picture was advertised as if it were a real, unreleased 1950's science fiction film that had recently been discovered and finally released in 2009. The actors in the film even did promo reels claiming that their similarly-named Grandfathers and Uncles had made ALIEN TRESPASS back in 1957! It all adds up to a fun experience, making it even sadder that the film was barely released, and then to poor box office. It has since, at least according to the film's director in a new interview included on the DVD release, become a bit of a cult film. One can only hope more movies like this get the green light. Maybe next time they'll have some consistency in the tone.

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