The Very First Film That Terrified Me! – Invaders From Mars (1953)

Video transcript:

The heavens. Once an object of superstition, awe, and fear, now a vast region for growing knowledge. The distance of Venus, the atmosphere of Mars, the size of Jupiter, and the speed of Mercury. All this and more we know. But their greatest mystery the heavens have kept a secret. What sort of life, if any, inhabits these other planets? Human life, like ours? Or life extremely lower in the scale? Or dangerously higher? Seeking the answer to this timeless question, forever seeking, is the constant preoccupation of scientists everywhere. Scientists famous and unknown. Scientists in great universities, and in modest homes. Scientists of all ages.

That was the opening narration of an alien invasion film that predates “Independence Day”, “District 9”, and even “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. Hello, and welcome to Madd Fictional Media, where today we’ll be taking a look at the 1953 science fiction classic, “Invaders From Mars.”

Oh, and if you haven’t guessed, we intend to walk you through the film, and that’s as close to a spoiler warning as we’re prepared to give you for a movie that’s been out since the 50s. If you’d rather not have the plot ruined for you, you know what to do.

Please note: If this is your first exposure to “Invaders From Mars” and you choose to stay, you’ll no doubt find it outdated and corny, but, if you can step outside of that mindset, and take a look at what the movie gets right, who knows, you just might enjoy yourself, and add a new classic sci-fi film to your watch list.

Now, any film buff worth their salt knows that the mark of a good film begins with a snapshot of the world the movie is set in, so that the audience can get their footing before the plot kicks in. And when you come across a great film, you’ll discover the same effect is achieved with little to no expository dialogue.

As low budget as Invaders appears to be, it does a fantastic job of providing a proper backdrop for the film. We understand instantly the reality in which this story takes place, with the family profession, the placement of the Rockwellian farmhouse, and our young protagonist’s interest, without any of the worldbuilding getting in the way. It’s a very barebones approach to a film that wastes no time getting the audience stuck in.

After the opening credits, our focus turns to the bedroom of 10-year-old David MacLean, played by Jimmy Hunt. His window is wide open, with a telescope poking out of it, which suggests that he’s an amateur astronomer.

His alarm clock goes off at 4 AM, and he’s startled out of sleep, fumbles to shut it off, and quickly stuffs it under his pillow to muffle the noise.

George MacLean, played by Leif Erickson, hears the alarm, and assumes it’s time to get up, but his wife, Mary, played by Hillary Brooke, points out that it’s only 4 in the morning.

George figures out that it’s his son, and as he enters the boy’s room, prepared to give him a good talking to, he sees David with his eye pressed to the telescope, examining an astronomical event that won’t happen again for six years.

And George is immediately invested! Which shows us they’re not just father and son, they’re best buds! And David has probably taken up aspects of his father’s scientific profession as a hobby. And the pair would have probably stayed up all night long, if Mary didn’t show up to put both her boys to bed.

It’s a simple show don’t tell bonding moment that illustrates the family norm. Yes, it’s inconvenient that David woke the entire household, but his parents aren’t angry. They understand, and support, his scientific interests, the way good parents should.

Roughly 40 minutes later, David is awakened again, this time by a noise that sounds like a thunderstorm, and when he looks out the window, he sees a flying saucer land in the sandpit on the hill just behind the house.

When David wakes his dad, and tells him about what he saw, the important thing to note is that George doesn’t disbelieve David, even though he tries to calm his son down by telling him it was just a dream. But unbeknownst to David, George is part of a scientific research team working on a secret project, and he feels what David saw might be related to it, so he goes out to the sandpit to investigate.

Morning comes, and George hasn’t returned, so Mary calls the police, and two officers (played by Charles Cane and Douglas Kennedy) conduct a search, and they wind up disappearing as well.

George eventually returns home but from the moment we first lock eyes on him, we can tell he’s a totally different man. He has a thousand-yard stare that would spook a zombie, and he’s disconnected and irritable, not at all like the affable man we saw earlier.

When questioned about his whereabouts, he curtly states that he stopped over to see their neighbor, Bill Wilson. But when George sits down, David spots a puncture wound on the back of his father’s neck.

When he asks about it, George backhands him hard enough to knock the young boy to the floor. And you can tell by David’s shocked expression that his father has never raised a hand to him before in his life.

Before Mary can question what happened, the policemen return, and they’re also noticeably different, robotic and distant, and although we don’t see it, David spots puncture wounds on the back of their necks, identical to his father’s.

I wasn’t fortunate enough to catch this in the theater when the film first opened. It was a little before my time. I watched it as a young boy in the mid 1960’s on late night television, after sneaking into the living room while my family was asleep.

This scene is where the first real fear came into play, because the film introduced a new concept to my young mind. I was used to monsters looking like the creature from the black lagoon, or something easily identifiable. But I was totally unprepared for the idea that monsters could wear the faces of the people you loved and cared about most in the world. That they could be changed into cold, unfeeling strangers overnight without your knowledge.

Yes, I know now that it was a popular theme during the cold war era of science fiction films, but as kid I didn’t know anything about the Red Scare. All I knew with a certainty was that monsters were real, and aliens existed and their only purpose was to take over our world.

But I digress.

Later, David, having a scientific mindset, takes his telescope outside, and trains it on the sandpit, where he witnesses the disappearance of a young girl, Kathy Wilson, played by Janine Perreau. He runs to tell the girl’s mother, played by an uncredited Fay Baker, but in the middle of his story, Kathy returns.

And she’s perfectly cast in this role, because she has the creepiest expression ever witnessed by human eyes. If you woke up in the middle of the night and found her staring at you, you’d instinctively reach for a weapon, or holy water and a crucifix. And maybe even a stake, if you had one handy.

This is not meant to be a slight on the actor’s looks at all, she grew up to be a very beautiful woman. All I’m saying is that stare was visually the creepiest thing about the film. It still gives me chills to this day. Good job, Janine.

Meanwhile, George and Mary are heading into town, but first, he wants to show his wife something out by the sandpit. This leads to another scary event. I mean, who wouldn’t be frightened by a sandpit sinkhole that sang a tune in the eerie vocal effect of a chorus as the swirling sand swallowed you whole?

Nothing’s been right since he saw the saucer land, so David decides to go to the police station to get help, but Police Chief Barrows (played by an uncredited Bert Freed) also has that strange puncture wound on the back of his neck. And David winds up being locked in detention until his father can pick him up.

Desk Sergeant Finlay (played by an uncredited Walter Sande) is concerned about David’s mental wellbeing and puts a call through to Dr. Pat Blake (played by Helena Carter) from the city health department.

David asks to see the back of Dr. Blake’s neck and I have to admit that for at least a solid week and a half after watching this movie, I asked to see the backs of everyone’s neck who spoke to me. They must have thought I was crazy, and they were right, just not on this occasion.

David tells Dr. Blake the entire story and in another amazing turn of events, she doesn’t automatically dismiss the boy’s claims. Instead, she calls her astronomer friend, Dr. Stuart Kelston (played by Arthur Franz) to validate David’s story.

While Dr. Blake is on the phone, Mary arrives at the station to pick up her son, and David is happy to see her, unaware that she now has that same thousand-yard stare. Then George shows up and David tries to resist them taking him home.

Re-enter Dr. Blake who stops them from taking David from the police station under the guise that the boy is showing possible signs of having the poliovirus and must be taken to the hospital isolation ward for observation.

Dr. Blake takes David to the observatory and Dr. Kelston describes a theory that the Martians have developed a race of slaves called MYU-Tants, not mutants, MYU-Tants to travel to Earth and stop us from developing space flight (which is the top-secret project that David’s father is a part of) in order to maintain an existence on their dying planet.

In a bit of lucky coincidence, they turn the telescope to David’s house and spot George MacLean leading General Mayberry (played by an uncredited William Forrest) and pushing him into the sandpit. Now Drs. Blake and Kelston are 100% on David’s side. Kelston immediately calls his contact, Colonel Fielding (played by Morris Ankrum) to get the army on the case.

Kelston postulates that the Martian ship is hiding beneath the sandpit, having used a radioactive ray that can melt right through the earth. In another stroke of coincidence, one of Fielding’s officer’s, Sergeant Rinaldi (played by Max Wagner) strikes off on his own to investigate the sandpit and gets sucked in while the military watches, offering proof that the threat is real.

Word comes through that Kathy Wilson died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage, and Dr. Blake attends the autopsy and uncovers a strange bit of technology buried in the little girl’s brain that they assume to be a mind control device. By reverse engineering the device, the military figures they stands a chance of locating the broadcast’s point of origin.

While the Army tanks are en route to the sandpit. The mind-controlled humans begin destroying facilities connected to the top secret space rocket project, and those who successfully complete their mission, die from cerebral hemorrhages due to the control crystal exploding in their heads.

Other mind-slaves are not so lucky. General Mayberry is killed while attempting to blow up a rocket scheduled for launch, and David’s parents are apprehended as they unsuccessfully try to kill one of the secret project’s top scientists, Dr. Bill Wilson (played by an uncredited Robert Shayne) who happens to be Kathy’s father. Hearing the fate of the other mind-slaves, David is naturally worried about what will happen to his parents.

The army tanks arrive and surround the field around the sandpit. Then a unit determines the approximate spot where people have been sucked into the sand, dig a hole, pack it with explosives, and blast a pathway into the Martians’ underground lair.

Dr. Blake receives a call telling her that David’s parents are on the operating table. When she walks the boy to a secluded spot to break the news to him, the pair are sucked into the sandpit and carried by MYU-Tants to the Martian Intelligence (played by and uncredited Luce Potter). The being, described as “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence,” is interrogating them through a mind-controlled Sergeant Rinaldi and when Dr. Blake refuses to answer any questions, she is forced onto a table and the drill machine used to implant the mind-control device inches toward the nape of her neck.

Fielding, Kelston and a small detachment breach the tunnel beneath the sandpit and make their way to the Martian ship, fighting MYU-Tants along the way. They manage to save Dr. Blake before she’s enslaved but the ship is preparing for take-off, so Fielding orders his men to pack the saucer with explosives.

The problem is, David’s missing, having been carted off by Rinaldi. Fielding orders all available men to go looking for the boy.

The timer is set and starts counting down, but the MYU-Tants use the radioactive ray to seal off the tunnel leading to the escape route.

David is rescued. And he suggests using the Martian radioactive ray to burn a hole to the outside. The tension builds as the explosive timer ticks down to zero and everyone has evacuated the tunnels and are running for cover. David’s run feels like an eternity just like in a dream when you’re running for dear life and not getting anywhere. And the events of the movie are playing out over his frightened face, almost as if his life is flashing before his eyes.

That scene, expertly done, made me nervous and had me chanting under my breath for him to run!

The spaceship lifts off and explodes and David wakes up in his bed during a thunderstorm. He races to his parents’ bedroom, confused and frightened. They’re both alive and back to their normal selves. They reassure him that he was just having a bad dream, and George puts him back to bed.

But at 4:40 AM, David hears a loud noise like thunder, goes to his window, and the movie ends with him witnessing the very same flying saucer from his nightmare, slowly descending into the sandpit.

As previously mentioned, Invaders from Mars was released in 1953 just when science fiction was becoming a major Hollywood genre, adapted from John Tucker Battle’s original screenplay which was based on a nightmare that terrified his wife.

The script found its way to producer Edward L. Alperson and the original intention was to go for a 3D shoot, but the 3D craze was beginning to die down by the time filming began, so that idea was abandoned. And as it was delegated to the Saturday matinee class of space thrillers aimed at children the budget shrank to $290,000.

This meant the script needed an overhaul, so Richard Blake was brought in to downscale the global invasion into something that would fit within the tinier budget. Blake’s solution was to turn the story into a dream, a change that upset John Tucker Battle so much that he had his name removed from the credits.

I think this was a mistake on Battle’s part. Having read Battle’s 1950 revised draft, most of the key elements remained intact. All Blake did, besides adding the dream element, was tighten up the pace by removing unnecessary elements (like David’s dog, Cricket) and tweaking the initial interaction between David and his father. In Battle’s script, George MacLean, was a little gruffer about his sleep being disturbed, disbelieved David’s U-F-O sighting, and fed his son leftover flu medication to put the boy to sleep, even though David wasn’t sick. I don’t know about you, but slipping your kid a mickey finn at 4 in the morning hardly qualifies you for parent of the year, in my book. Also, the thing that leads George to investigate the sandpit in the early morning, was the disturbing noises made by their cow that was being a nosey parker on the hill. Maybe my bias is showing but I prefer Blake’s take on the story.

Again, I digress.

The film was then rushed into production in an attempt to beat George Pal’s “War of the Worlds” to theaters, making it the first feature film to show flying saucers and aliens in color.

Other budgetary changes Included Alperson hiring an all B-List cast and assigning the directing chores to William Cameron Menzies, who had directed before but was primarily known for his ingenious work on production design (a concept he practically invented) at the time.

As you can imagine, the special effects were done on the cheap. The effect of the Martian radioactive wave melting the tunnel walls was achieved by an overhead angle of oatmeal boiling in a pot, with red food coloring mixed in and shot with a red light. The cooled bubble tunnel walls were actually thousands of latex condoms blown up and pasted to the walls (and if you pay close attention, you can see them wobbling whenever anyone runs past). And the MYU-Tants were plush velour jump-suited extras with visible zipper seams running down their spines.

Jack Cosgrove created matte paintings of the MacLean house and the telescopic view of the atomic rocket, as well as glass paintings of a number of saucer interiors, including the angle down the glass tube above the Martian operating table.

The scenes of the military regiments rolling in when Colonel Fielding summoned troops to surround the sandpit, were accomplished by Edward Alperson using stock footage of a World War 2 training film on how to transport tanks by rail.

And then there was the infamous repetition of shots. In the underground tunnels leading to the Martian ship, the scenes of shuffling MYU-Tants and running soldiers are reused and disguised by flipping the scenes horizontally, to make it appear that there are more than six MYU-Tants present. The same trick is used when David’s parents attempt to flee from the army soldiers, when Rinaldi drags David out of the Martian operation room, when the soldiers open fire on a MYU-Tant and drop it in its tracks, only to have the fallen MYU-Tant rise and get shot again by reusing the same shot from seconds before, and when the army tanks open fire on the spot in the sandpit that the Martian ship is launching from.

Despite all this, one of the things that impresses me today is, even though it’s all a dream, David is somehow grounded in reality. He never overpowers an adult or goes toe to toe with a MYU-Tant. He’s constrained by the laws of physics of what a boy his age and size can do. That doesn’t make him any less a hero. His actions are responsible for mobilizing an armed response to an alien invasion and he’s in the thick of the action every step of the way. He’s a 10-year-old boy who marches with soldiers and manages to keep stride.

Once you realize that the story is being dreamed, all of the odd camerawork and effects make sense, as they added flourishes of dreamlike surrealism. David’s house was the most elaborate indoor set because it was a place he was most familiar with. Other indoor sets, the ones David hadn’t seen every day (the police station, the observatory, and the Martian saucer) were spartan, consisting of elongated structures with stark, unadorned walls, sometimes much taller than necessary to emphasize David’s smallness in the face of authority and the unknown.

Oh, I should mention Raoul Kraushaar’s curious musical score, especially the Martian chorus as people are sucked into the whirlpool of the sandpit. What’s even creepier than the eerie and foreboding melody is that fact that David and Dr. Blake can actually hear it just before the sandpit swallows them.

A year later, the film was scheduled to be released in the UK, but the run time was too short, and the dream narrative didn’t meet the demanding standards of the British film distributor, so additional footage was shot to expand the planetarium scene (causing wardrobe and background set continuity errors, not to mention new Jimmy Hunt’s growth spurt and older appearance) the U.S. ending was replaced with a more straightforward conclusion of David, Blake and Kelston seeking cover behind an army tank before the Martian saucer explodes overhead, and Dr. Blake assuring David that his parents are safe now that the Martian saucer was destroyed. This version ends in David’s bedroom, where he’s been put to bed by Kelston and Blake. Standing at his door, they wish him a good night.

In my humble opinion, the U-S ending stands head and shoulders above this, but hey, to each their own. Different bikes for different likes as they say.

Have you seen the film? If so, which version, American or British? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Nostalgia certainly plays a big part of my love for Invaders From Mars. Seeing it at a young age helped me to relate to this compelling tale set in an adult world heading into the crisis of an alien invasion, mainly because it was told from a boy’s point of view, and a good portion of the key scenes are filmed from a low angle to enhance the dramatic and visual impact. It was easy to put myself in David’s helpless shoes, and imagining how I would feel, and what could I do, if the logic of the world shifted on its axis, and the people I knew and authority figures could no longer be trusted. After the movie was over, I spent a long time thinking about how I would deal with a sandpit that became a living, sinister place that fed on humans, swallowing them whole into the bowels of the earth. I wasn’t as fortunate as David, because I didn’t know an astronomer with military connection, and I doubted that I could have convinced a single, solitary soul of the impending peril of an alien invasion that utilized our own people as weapons of mass destruction.

Which begs the question: How would the 10-year-old version of you be able to safeguard the planet? Let us know in the comments.

If you’ve made it all the way through this video, bless you, you’re a rock star. As this is our first video, asking you to subscribe is a bit premature (but if you’re willing to take a leap of faith, we certainly won’t stop you). If you enjoyed yourself, why not leave a like and share the video.

If you hated the video, be the bigger person and leave a like anyway. That will teach us a valuable lesson about the kindness of strangers.

Until next time, thanks for watching.

I Watched: The Umbrella Academy Season 2

Unfamiliar with The Umbrella Academy? No worries, I can assist you with that. In October of 1989, forty-three women across the globe became pregnant and delivered babies in the course of one day. The billionaire industrialist, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, manages to adopt seven of these infants and creates The Umbrella Academy in order to train his adopted children to save the world. But teen years being what they are, the kids have a falling out and each goes their separate way and don’t reconnect until they’re in their thirties when they learn of Hargreeves’ passing. They reluctantly work together to solve a mystery surrounding their father’s death, which puts them on a collision course with a global apocalypse. All caught up? Good. Here’s the trailer for Season 2:

The end of Season 1 saw Vanya (Ellen Page) absolutely losing her ever-loving mind and inadvertently bringing about the apocalypse but Five (Aidan Gallagher) manages create a time portal for his family to escape before life as we know it is obliterated. But it was done in rush and the math on the portal wasn’t accurate enough to keep everyone together, so the Hargreeves siblings land in the same location in Dallas, Texas but scattered in time across the early 1960s.

Klaus (Robert Sheehan) and Ben (Justin H. Min) arrive at 1960 where Klaus accidentally becomes the leader of a cult; Allison (Emmy Raver-Lampman) arrives in 1961 where she lands a job in a beauty salon in the colored part of town and marries a civil rights activist; Luther (Tom Hopper) lands in 1962 and becomes an underground boxer for Jack Ruby; Diego (David Castañeda) lands in September 1963 and winds up in a psychiatric hospital; Vanya lands in October 1963 with no memory and becomes the nanny of a young boy who is on the spectrum; and lastly, Five (Aidan Gallagher) lands on November 25, 1963 in the middle of the Soviet Union invasion of America, and when I say middle I mean US and USSR soldiers are battling all around him. Before Five can get his bearings, his brothers and sisters arrive on the scene to aid the US troops but are unable to stop the nuclear missiles overhead from detonating on American shores.

Before the nukes land, however, Hazel (Cameron Britton) appears beside Five and delivers his version of the classic Arnie line, “If you want to live, come with me.” and he transports Five 10 days in the past and arms him with as much information as he can before he’s gunned down by the assassin trio known as The Swedes (Kris Holden-Ried, Jason Bryden, and Tom Sinclair). The Hargreeves siblings, believing they’re stranded in the past, decide to settle into their new lives which makes Five’s job all the more difficult when he has to pull them out of the comfort of their individual worlds to save the world and repair time. Oh, and their father is alive at the time and very much active in some shady goings-on.

I have to admit I wasn’t looking forward to this season because 1) although I liked the first season well enough, the plot’s big mystery felt belabored and stretched thin and I was beginning to lose interest during the midpoint; and 2) Netflix original content ongoing series usually suffers from sophomore slump. That is absolutely not the case here. Season 2 surpasses its predecessor by a country mile.

And while the season is better, it’s almost a little too familiar with the Hargreeves siblings starting out separated from one another, facing yet another global apocalypse, and being dragged into investigating yet another mystery surrounding their father, Sir Reginald Hargreeves. The saving grace is each character is placed in different settings and is allowed to grow outside of the confines of their dysfunctional family relationships. Not so much for Five, Luther, Klaus, or Vanya (who gets a personality reset thanks to a helpful bout of amnesia) but Diego, Allison and Ben are each given their moments in the spotlight, and through Diego, we’re introduced to the most intriguing character of the season, his girlfriend, Lila (Ritu Arya).

Okay, I’m not being totally fair to Klaus or Vanya because they both have moments where they deal with the hardships relating to differing sexual preferences especially when placing the well-being of others before themselves, just as Allison comes face to face with the reality of the lengths some people will go to express their dislike of the color of a person’s skin.

If I had my druthers, I would have liked to see more development in the season’s antagonists. While it’s sometimes fun to watch Kate Walsh chew up the scenery, her one-note characterization detours into tedium after a while. And The Swedes are nothing more than cardboard cutouts of Season 1’s Hazel and Cha-Cha, with every ounce of personality drained from them. I’m also not the biggest fan of the dance numbers and I realize I’m in the minority here, but if you’ve got the time for a dance number, then you’ve got the time to beef up your bad guys. Just saying. And more of Ritu Arya. She’s amazing.

So, would I recommend The Umbrella Academy Season 2? Yup. Much like the Hargreeves siblings, the series as a whole still has a lot of growing up to do but this season shows the promise of the better, faster, stronger show it can be if it abandons its rehashed story beats and explores bold, new, weightier territories (and by weightier I don’t mean another global damned apocalypse). If you’re looking for superhuman action, humor, jukebox moments and head-scratching time-travel antics, then you’re in the right place. Still not convinced? Why not check out Season 2’s opening scene (it doesn’t spoil anything, trust me):

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Horse Girl

How do you draw a definitive line between dream life and waking life when characters and events begin bleeding into both? That’s the question explored in the Netflix fim, Horse Girl, directed by Jeff Baena, written by Baena and Alison Brie, which follows a socially isolated arts and crafts store employee who finds herself more content in the company of horses and supernatural crime shows than people. Have a gander at the trailer:

Sarah (Alison Brie) is that oddly shaped piece that doesn’t quite fit in the societal puzzle, friendly yet friendless–with the possible exception of her boss, Joan (Molly Shannon)–her shy, introverted ways leads her to live a quiet life. Aside from working at a crafts store, she visits the grave of her suicided mother and frequents the horse stable where Willow, the horse she rode in her childhood is boarded, which annoys the stable owners to no end.

On her birthday, when roommate Nikki (Debby Ryan) finds Sarah home alone, she invites her boyfriend’s roommate, Darren (John Reynolds) over for a double date. The four drink and smoke weed and despite Darren talking about his ex all night, he and Sarah hit it off. When the party’s over, Sarah has a bizarre dream in which she is lying in an antiseptically white room with a man and woman and she wakes up face down in the living room on a mound of throw pillows and there are large scratch marks running across the wall that she can’t account for. Shortly after, a series of bizarre incidents begin to befall Sarah and that’s where this recap ends because I don’t want to spoil the rest of the movie for you.

So, would I recommend Horse Girl? It’s a yes for me but it’s one of those divisive films and it depends on how you view it, as a psychological drama about the effects of hereditary mental illness or a slow burn science fiction fever dream. Like a previous film I reviewed, Relic, the filmmakers seem intent on leaving the decision of whether Sarah is suffering mental problems or the victim of extraterrestrial forces beyond her ability to comprehend, entirely up to your interpretation.

Whichever way you personally lean, the one thing you will probably agree on is Alison Brie’s powerful and convincing performance as a troubled woman who slips on a patch of sanity and falls head first into the instability of a dream-life/waking-life reality that’s been tilted on its axis.

It’s currently on Netflix (apparently it’s been there a while) and it’s certainly, in my not-so-humble opinion, worth the watch. Besides, city and state reopenings have been a mixed bag, so you’re better off playing it safe by maxing and relaxing in your home, and there are far, far worse things you could be doing with 104 minutes of your self-isolated life. Treat yourself, why don’t you?

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Rental

The Rental is the directorial horror film debut of Dave Franco, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Swanberg, and it stars Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, and Toby Huss. The film follows two couples who go on an oceanside getaway by renting an Airbnb vacation home and grow suspicious that their host may be spying on them.

Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are business partners who are looking to celebrate a deal their company just signed that stands to make them a ton of money and the movie opens with them scrolling through online photos of the Airbnb they’re planning to book for a romantic weekend getaway with their significant others, his wife, Michelle (Alison Brie) and her boyfriend, Josh (Jeremy Allen White) who happens to be Charlie’s brother.

The Airbnb is situated near the ocean and is surrounded by woods, making it the ideal location, the only fly in the ointment is when Mina first attempted to book the place using her Arabic surname, she was rejected but when Charlie called an hour later, his booking was accepted. When they meet their host (Toby Huss) and Mina airs her suspicions, the host neither confirms nor denies the racist allegation and simply suggests they refer to their contract cancellation policy if they’re unhappy. Mina balks at handing their hard-earned money over to the host but decides to take the high road and not let his ignorance spoil their celebratory weekend.

And, as is the case when a small group of friends drug up and let their guard down in close quarters, relationships are explored, fidelities are tested, and well-kept secrets are exposed, forcing the friends to see each other in a whole new light. Oh, and they discover hidden cameras (not a spoiler, it’s in the trailer).

If you’ve read any of my previous reviews (first off, bless you) you’ll know I run light on spoilers so that’s all the plot I’m giving away but the film was released on VOD today so if you’re really interested you can find out what happens next for yourself.

So, would I recommend The Rental? I’m on the fence with this one. Not because it’s a bad film, quite the opposite, in fact. Dave Franco has put together a competent film which, unlike its horror contemporaries, doesn’t need to rely on a supernatural element to bring the fear. My quibbles are mainly that I’m not a huge fan of mumblecore or what I call fly-on-the-wall cinema, the character development and their relationships to one another tread very familiar ground, and the premise (although dipping its big toe in the mini-genre pool of Airbnb horror) is far from original or innovative. But the thing that really stuck in my craw was when Mina made her stand against the host’s apparent racism and her friends didn’t back her play. There was a missed opportunity to add a level of tension between the friends. After all, the racism you ignore is the racism you allow. Mina is such an outspoken character and letting the matter be swept under the rug rather than given space to breathe just seemed disingenuous to me.

Having said that, the acting all around is solid, the film doesn’t deviate from its course in order to serve up twist after twist in an attempt to confusticate you into believing you just viewed a work of daring genius, and the tension builds so slowly that when it shifts gears into full horror mode, you’ll find yourself fully invested. The ending? I’m of two minds about that but discussing it would put me in spoiler territory, so I’ll just keep those thoughts to myself. I sort of appreciated the epilogue, though.

I think sort of sums up my opinion of the film. I sort of liked it and sort of didn’t but it’s not the worst film, horror or otherwise, that I’ve seen during lockdown. Judge for yourself and let me know your thoughts.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Japan Sinks 2020

Based on the 1973 disaster novel, Nihon Chinbotsu by Sakyo Komatsu, Japan Sinks 2020 is a 10-episode anime series available on Netflix in which a series of major earthquakes hit Japan. We follow the Mutou family (who were separated when the first quake hit) as they reconnect amidst the chaos and try to escape the city before additional quakes and the possible eruption of Mount Fuji threaten to sink Japan.

And that’s all I’m going to give you because I truly do not want to spoil a moment of this for you.

So, would I recommend this series? Without a doubt but it comes with the caveat to keep in mind this is based on a disaster novel, so if you’re out for a lighthearted coming of age Ghibli romp full of magic and wonder, this might not be the anime you’re looking for. The Mutou family and the people they pick up along the way are plunged into extreme life and death situations and from early on you realize that No. One. Is. Safe. which I appreciate, though you might feel differently about it. Different bikes for different likes.

I’ve heard people complain about Naoya Wada’s character designs, Science Saru’s animation style and the fact that the characters in the series live under a constant cloud of hopelessness as the pendulum swings both ways as they experience lucky breaks and violently devastating events in near equal measure, but I was far too interested in the story to nitpick any of these details. When it comes to the show’s atmosphere, I suppose it all boils down to your personal outlook. Is the glass half full or half empty? Do you only see the unapologetically brutal chaos brought on by a natural disaster and how it brings out the worst in some people or can you admire the strength to keep moving forward, the determination to survive in the face of unending adversity which is a cornerstone of the human spirit? Again, each person to their tastes.

For my money, this is a wonderful, intense and compassionate anime series that starts off strong and remains consistent throughout. I started out only planning to watch one episode to get a feel for whether it was in my wheelhouse or not and ended up binging the entire thing in one sitting because each segment closed with a cliffhanger that immediately drew me to the following episode. This deserves more attention and respect than it’s getting. I hope that changes soon.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: 7500

In 7500, directed by Patrick Vollrath, written by Vollrath and Senad Halilbasic, and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a soft-spoken young American co-pilot aboard a Berlin-Paris flight struggles to save the lives of the passengers and crew when terrorists try to seize control of the plane.

Captain Michael Lutzmann (Carlo Kitzlinger) and First Officer Tobias Ellis (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) board an airplane and begin pre-flight checks before embarking on the flight from Berlin to Paris. Also on board is Tobias’ girlfriend, Nathalie (Aurélie Thépaut), who is one of the flight attendants and they have a brief conversation about which school their son should attend.

Once the plane takes off, a terrorist forces his way into the cockpit and although Tobias is able to shove the cockpit door closed before anyone else can enter, he suffers a bad wound to his arm by the terrorist inside the cockpit who stabs Lutzmann repeatedly before Tobias can knock out and tie up the hijacker.

Tobias signals Air Traffic Control and is ordered to divert to Hannover. Lutzman loses consciousness so Tobias attempts CPR but is unsuccessful. All the while, the remaining terrorists continuously attempt to break into the cockpit. Tobias informs ground control of the situation and is informed under no circumstance is he permitted to allow the terrorists inside. And the terrorists test his resolve by taking a hostage and threatening to kill the man unless they’re granted access to the cockpit. Tobias pleads with the terrorists in vain as they execute the hostage.

Tobias is visibly shaken. He attempts to render first aid to himself when the terrorists return with another hostage, this time a member of the flight crew. You guessed it, it’s Nathalie, Tobias’ girlfriend. Over the PA system, Tobias tells the passengers to fasten their seatbelts as he tries an aerial maneuver to make the terrorists release Nathalie. She manages to get free and struggles with the terrorists but they gains the upper hand and she is once again taken hostage. One of the terrorists holds a glass shard to Nathalie’s jugular and is going to kill her if Tobias doesn’t open the door. Tobias relents and agrees to open the cockpit door but Nathalie tells him not to, repeating, “It’s going to be all right! It’s going to be all right!”

What happens then? You’ll have to head over to Amazon Prime to find that out because I’ve reached the limit of my spoiler reveal for this film.

So, would I recommend it? Actually, I would. 7500 (which is airline code for a hijacking) is one of those fly-on-the-wall-almost-documentary-style films that takes place in a single location, in this case, the cockpit of a commercial airliner which is equipped with a monitor so we’re able to see the terrorists on the other side of the locked door. Joseph Gordon-Levitt gives an excellent performance as he cycles through a range of emotions in attempting to deal with a situation he is clearly not adequately trained to handle. There are a few logic issues I have with the plot but I can’t mention them without getting into spoiler territory, but I can say they weren’t so severe as to affect my enjoyment of the movie. So, if you’re the type of person who likes a thriller that slowly ratchets up the tension as events unfold in real time, progressing the situation from bad to worse, this film just might be worth your time.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Greyhound

In Greyhound, directed by Aaron Schneider, screenplay by and starring Tom Hanks, based on the 1955 novel The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester, an inexperienced U.S. Navy captain must lead an Allied convoy being stalked by a Nazi U-boat wolfpack during World War II.

Only a few months after the United States officially entered World War II, US Navy Commander Ernest Krause (Tom Hanks) receives his first war-time assignment aboard the destroyer USS Keeling, codenamed GREYHOUND, to deal with the problem of German U-boats disrupting convoys of supplies in the Mid-Atlantic gap between North American and Britain where shore-based military air support is sorely lacking. Accompanying Greyhound in the assignment to get the 37 Allied ship convoy safely to Liverpool are two British destroyers codenamed HARRY and EAGLE, and a Canadian Flower Class corvette codenamed DICKIE.

When the convoy is three days away from Liverpool, Greyhound sonar identifies an incoming U-boat closing in on the convoy and the destroyer prepares to intercept. The U-Boat is able to launch a single torpedo before the Greyhound fires a full pattern of depth charges. Luckily, the U-boat torpedo misses, and the Greyhound depth charges effectively destroys the U-boat.

Before the Greyhound crew can celebrate their victory, their sonar picks up multiple targets slowly approaching in the distance. A Wolf Pack of six U-boats are stalking the convoy, staying just out of firing range. Krause suspects the Wolf Pack is waiting for nightfall in order attack under the cloak of darkness.

When night falls, the U-boat attack commences and a number of passenger and freight ships are destroyed by torpedoes. Krause has sonar on a few of the U-Boats but chooses to rescue the survivors of the downed ships rather than engage the enemy. And after their successful attack, the U-boats pull back to a safe distance once again.

The following day, the U-boats mount another coordinated attack and the Greyhound crew are now being taunted by broadcasts from the lead captain of the Wolf Pack in an attempt to affect ship morale. During the Wolf Pack attack, the Greyhound is barely able to evade the torpedoes deployed against her but the Dickie and the Eagle, are less fortunate. The Dickie takes some damage but still seaworthy, the Eagle, however, eventually sinks. Through the combined efforts of the Greyhound and Dickie, another U-boat is destroyed but Krause’s destroyer is now down to only six depth charges and their ammunition is running low and the convoy is still two days away from Liverpool and not yet in range of air support.

What happens next? They would be telling, and you know I hate dealing out spoilers (somewhat) but you’re free to head over to AppleTV+ and find out all on your lonesome.

So, would I recommend Greyhound? I have to admit that based on the trailer, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the theater to see this, COVID-19 notwithstanding, but, surprisingly enough, yes, this gets a recommendation. In fact, of all the films I’ve watched over the past week, I enjoyed this one the most, which is saying a lot because I’m typically not a war film kind of guy. I think it’s because this film takes a different approach by placing us inside the Greyhound along with the crew through the entire skirmish. The adversaries remain faceless voices issuing taunts over the airwaves, and when convoy ships are destroyed it all happens at a distance. There are a few explosions, U-boat destruction is typically marked by oil slicks on the ocean’s surface and I believe there are only three scenes containing blood and they’re minimal at best. Unfortunately, also minimal is character development, though subtle Tom Hanks plays to his strengths in portraying an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances, and I’m a fan of Stephen Graham and Elisabeth Shue, even though they aren’t given much to do here.

Another thing Greyhound is lacking (and this time it’s a good thing) is that mid-movie slump. You know exactly what I’m talking about, when a film comes out the gate strong, then sags in the middle and has to ratchet up the action in the third act to get you interested again. I can safely say, once you’re aboard the Greyhound, your investment in the story and the outcome remains consistent throughout. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a very well-paced film and I’m impressed by Hank’s handling of the screenplay.

In closing, if you’re looking for the intense, high octane tension of a 1917 or Dunkirk, you should probably go watch 1917 or Dunkirk. Greyhound isn’t that sort of war film and it doesn’t have to be. But it most certainly is ninety minutes of streamlined sea battle that’s worthy of your viewing time.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Old Guard

In The Old Guard, written by Greg Rucka, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and starring Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, a covert team of immortal mercenaries are suddenly exposed and must now fight to keep their identity a secret just as an unexpected new member is discovered.

Former CIA operative Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hires a mercenary team to rescue a group of kidnapped children in South Sudan. During the mission, however, the team find no children, and are ambushed by a squad of soldiers and are killed with extreme prejudice. The problem is, the mercenaries don’t stay dead. Their bodies spit out bullets, wounds heal rapidly and they slay their attackers, all of which has been recorded by Copley to expose their gift of immortality.

The mercenary team consists of Andromache of Scythia, but you can call her “Andy” (Charlize Theron), Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Joe (Marwan Kenzari), and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) all of whom are centuries-old warriors with regenerative abilities who use their vast experience to help those in need.

While the team is hunting down Copely, the scene shifts to Afghanistan where U.S. Marine Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne) gets her throat slit in the line of duty, dies and recovers without a scratch. She is plagued by a disturbing dream that is somehow shared with the other immortals, who are now alerted to her existence, which forces Andy to track the Marine down and rescue her before the military brass can subject her to testing.

Copley shows video of the ambush to pharmaceutical executive Steven Merrick (Harry Melling), who naturally wants to capture the mercenaries and turn them into lab rats in order to uncover the secret of their abilities for fame and profit. Andy take Nile to France where she’s introduced to the rest of their team and she hears the story of Quynh (Veronica Ngo), Andy’s first comrade, who was captured by priests during the witch trials and cast into the sea in an iron maiden and has been continually drowning ever since, as the mercenaries have not been able to pinpoint the location of the iron maiden. Nile learns that neither she or the rest of the team is truly immortal and one day their ability to heal will stop without warning.

Merrick’s forces are able to track the mercenaries down and in the melee Joe and Nicky are captured and a heavily wounded Booker is left behind as bait for Andy, who has taken damage during the assault and discovers her body is no longer healing in the process. After a bit of computer hacking, Booker locates Copley, and he, Andy and Nile mount a rescue attempt.

And because I don’t like spoiling films (not much, anyway) that’s all I’m telling you. You wanna know how it ends? You know what to do. It’s available on Netflix for you to stream to your heart’s content.

So, would I recommend The Old Guard? Sure. Just go in knowing that this is based on a comic book series written by Greg Rucka and the plot feels comic booky in nature, which is a weird thing for me to say because this film is in my wheelhouse and I should like it better than I do. I suppose my biggest problem is that I have no connection to any of the characters. Oh, I’m told how wonderful the characters are but I’m not shown anything beneath that expositional surface. The story is laid out so matter of factly, interested in hitting story beats rather than providing texture, that it feels more like the pilot of a tv series than a fleshed-out movie. Items are introduced to set up a sequel or possibly a franchise and I know that’s a thing now, with everyone jumping on the How-To-Franchise-Like-Marvel bandwagon, but it shouldn’t be overtly shoved into a film in place of proper character and story development.

If I had my druthers, I would have liked to see Nile, our every-person, resist a little more. Resist coming to terms with what she’s become, resist the mercenaries and their cause, and resist the wholesale slaughter that comes part and parcel with joining the old guard (which she does a little but it’s not enough in my opinion). Having said all that, it ain’t a terrible movie (don’t go by me and my tastes, what the hell do I know?) and if you’re already subscribed to Netflix, you’re not going to be out of any extra money, and Charlize Theron knows how to throw down in a fight and there’s enough action to satisfy your deep-seated need to see bad guys catch a bullet.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: Relic

In Relic, directed by Natalie Erika James and written by James and Christian White, Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call from the police that her mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) has gone missing which prompts Kay and her grown daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to travel to their remote family home to investigate.

When they arrive, they find the house is full of clutter and mold and certain sections appear to be deteriorating and Post-It Notes are tacked up in every room with reminders like “set the alarm” and others with warnings like “do not follow it.” Kay remarks that Edna is sometimes forgetful but it’s clear the elderly woman is suffering from dementia.

As is the norm with horror films, there are creepy, unexplainable noises everywhere inside the house, a room (in this case, a walk-in closet) with a lock that spells trouble for anyone who enters inside, and one of the characters, Kay, is plagued by spooky dreams. I don’t mean to diminish this film by any means but some of the tropes simply weren’t handled very well, such as, Kay and Sam hear a noise coming from inside a wall in the living room, a loud thud in response to Kay’s knock and something massive is moving up inside the wall seemingly following a large path of mold. So, what do they do? Why they ignore it, of course. Move along, audience, nothing to see here. Now, let’s inspect Kay’s dream:

Kay is following a shadowy figure through the foggy woods and is led to a rundown cabin (wouldn’t be a respectable horror film without a cabin in the woods) and the interior is covered head to toe in mold. A naked, old, decrepit man is sitting on a bed and there are a series of jump cuts of decaying animals with the sound of buzzing flies and falls off the bed and there’s a jump cut to a decayed corpse who opens his pitch-black eyes just as Kay wakes up.

In the morning, Kay is drawn to the kitchen by the whistle of a tea kettle and finds Edna making a cuppa. The family doctor makes a house visit and despite the large black and purple bruise on Edna’s chest, that she can’t explain, the old woman seems to be in good physical health and has her mental faculties about, though she won’t say where she’s been. The doctor recommends that Kay and Sam stay with Edna to monitor her condition. Kay sensibly decides to look for a nursing home for her mother despite Sam’s protestations.

While cleaning the house, Sam finds a sketchbook from her granddad, and in it is a picture of the cabin from Kay’s dream. It turns out the cabin was the first house on the property, occupied by Kay’s great grandfather who died abandoned by his family. The cabin was torn down but the windows were rescued and reused for the house they’re currently staying in.

Edna’s dementia is getting worse. She’s talking to people who aren’t there, remarking about how unfamiliar the house seems, cutting her hand with a knife, throwing violent tantrums, eating photographs, and burying photo albums in the woods to keep those memories safe.

Sam, in the meanwhile, returns to that creepy walk-in closet and discovers it’s deeper than it appears. Past a pile of items in the back is an entire labyrinth of crawl spaces within but when she tries to turn back, she finds herself lost.

And that’s when things really get crazy. And nope, I’m not gonna tell ya what happens next. I’ve said too much already. If you really want to know, go watch the film for yourself.

So, would I recommend Relic? I suppose I would, though, fair warning, if you’re looking for jump-out-of-your-seat scares or cover-your-eyes-and-peek-through-your-fingers gore, you’re barking up the wrong film. Natalie Erika James’ directorial debut is a well-paced slow burn that successfully creates a unsettling atmosphere with superb acting, but if I had my druthers, I would have liked to see the story played straight without the gimmicky tropes that served no actual purpose other than to make it feel like a “horror” film and having Kay and Sam react to the bizarre and unexplainable occurrences happening before their eyes in a more honest and realistic fashion would have sold me even further. Cutting away from terrifying moments without the characters doing a proper investigation just to move the plot along (it happens twice) took me out of the film. Having said that, you could do a lot worse with 90 minutes of your life.

Ciao til next now.

I Watched: The Vast of Night

The Vast of Night, written by Andrew Patterson (under the pseudonym of James Montague) and Craig W. Sanger, directed by Andrew Patterson and starring Sierra McCormick and Jake Horowitz, isn’t a movie, not exactly. It’s a tv show inside a movie that runs parallel to real-life events starring the local townsfolk as actors playing themselves, though I doubt they realize it. Got it? Good. Moving on.

The television show being broadcast is Paradox Theater (an homage to The Twilight Zone with a dead-on vocal impression of Rod Serling) and the episode airing is titled, you guessed it, The Vast of Night which takes place in the small town of Cayuga, New Mexico sometime during the 1950s on the night of a high school basketball game. It’s a big event with nearly the whole town in attendance except for those who have to work and among these unlucky few are two teenagers, disc jockey Everett, the Mr. Fixit cock of the walk in his high school circle who carries himself with just enough swagger to be a likeable jerk; and his switchboard operator friend, Fay, a curious science nerd with a deep interest in technology who also wants to become a radio broadcaster.

At work, Fay listens to Everett’s radio show, which gets interrupted by a strange audio signal which is also coming through over the phone lines as she begins fielding calls from the town locals about something strange happening in the sky. Fay calls Everett at the station, lets him listen to the mysterious noise which he, in turn, broadcasts on the air and asks his listeners for information about the signal.

You’re going to hate me for this but I’m not interested in dishing out spoilers so that’s all I’m going to tell you about this film (you can basically get what I’ve mentioned from the trailer). I will say that if you’re looking for some CGI effects-laden alien invasion action extravaganza, this ain’t the film for you. The story is laid out like a breadcrumb trail that leads you to one answer after another in order to solve the big mystery of what’s going down in Cayuga and it’s in no rush to deliver those answers to you.

And before you wave this off to go and rewatch Independence Day for the thousandth time, let me assure you that if you’re a science fiction cinephile, this film is worth your time. The small town feels like a genuine small town, the townies come across as authentic, the atmosphere makes you feel like you’ve slipped on a patch of time and landed back in the 50s, and the acting is top-notch all around. Plus, there’s an innocence present that’s sadly missing from the movies released in the past few years, which is kind of refreshing, actually.

So, would I recommend The Vast of Night? You betcha! And, if the producers got it in their minds to do an X-Files-style tv series featuring Everett and Fay exploring all the mysterious, extraterrestrial and supernatural goings-on that occur in Cayuga during the 50s, I’d be first in line to watch it!

Til next now, “Bacon, bacon, nine-forty.” Watch the film, you’ll understand.