Ah, October. The air turns a little crisper, the leaves begin to fall, and your humble host runs runs out of autumnal cliches really quickly. So why not just cut to the case? (Whoops, guess I hadn’t quite run out of cliches after all.) With Halloween fast approaching, this is the time of year when people who don’t even normally give a damn about horror movies suddenly take an interest in finding some good ones, so in order to facilitate a happy horror-viewing experience for what readers I do actually have, I thought I’d spend my posts for the month of October on a kind of “countdown” of interesting horror flicks you may not have seen. I don’t in any way claim these to be the ten best horror flicks of all time, nor am I even purporting to list these in any particular order, I just thought I’d focus on ten good movies that you, dear reader, may not have ever seen and I think would be worth your time.
Let’s start the ball rolling (damn, another cliche) with a little-seen gem lensed in 1980 (though it didn’t see release until 1985, and even then it went straight to video) by three friends from USC film school on a budget of right around $25,000 that has just seen its first (and altogether excellent, it must be said) proper issuing on DVD from the always-awesome Code Red label (yes, they do appear to have a pulse!) a couple of weeks ago.
First off, let’s state the obvious : this movie is cheap—dirt cheap—and that certainly shows in places throughout, whether it’s the altogether unprofessional acting (watch one of the principal characters, purportedly from Britain, employ/unemploy a come-and-go accent, for instance), the occasionally muddled and confused camerawork, or the dime store- Ray Harryhausen (but damn cool nevertheless) stop-motion monster that’s stalking and terrorizing our hapless heroes, it’s patently transparent at numerous times that just about no money was spent on this thing.
Those financial limitations, however, forced our intrepid young trio to get creative if they wanted to make anything like an effective little horror movie, and in that regard, “The Strangeness” is something of a triumph. A qualified triumph, to be sure, but a triumph nevertheless—of necessity-driven accidental brilliance, creative gusto, decision making-on-the-fly, and sheer bloodymindedness. Our trio of USC recent-grads and almost-grads (director/producer/screenwriter/ editor/incidental music composer David Michael Hillman, producer/screenwriter/incidental music composer/actor/sound recording engineer/visual effects designer/opening “teaser” scene director Chris Huntley and producer/actor/sound recording engineer/visual effects designer Mark Sawicki, respectively) were determined to get this thing done and to come out with a finished product that neither they nor audience would feel compelled to turn their eyes away from in sheer embarrassment or disbelief (well, at least not too often).
The result is a truly admirable little (absolutely) independent creature feature that is by turns involving, gripping, impressive (especially considering its extreme limitations), atmospheric, and inescapably authentic. Chances are that even though the film’s basic premise of horrific-creature-living-in-a-mineshaft-picks off-trapped-and-terrified-ordinary-people-one-by-one has been done before and (numerous times) since, you’ve never seen anything quite like “The Strangeness.”
The set-up, as you have probably surmised by ow, is simple enough : a group of explorers go into a disused mine in order to see if there’s enough gold left to make reopening the underground facility a profitable venture for a local mining concern. There are some creepy legends about the place, though—it closed not because it had been played out but because the workers refused to continue going down there. A previous expedition that went with a similar eye to getting the mine running again disappeared. And then there are the old Indian legends about some kind of monster in the caves. For those reasons, our little crew is composed not only of prospective miners but of a mercenary/privateer-type and a writer on local California mining history and his wife (okay, I know it’s ridiculous that the last two would be allowed into a potentially dangerous situation like this, but if you can’t suspend your disbelief about scenarios like that, you’re just not gonna make it through this movie). Things start pretty slowly, I’ll be the first to admit, and the film take a good 40 minutes to really get rolling, but this initial period of doldrums, resultant though it may be from inexperienced screenwriting, actually gives us a chance to do something we can’t always do in horror movies, which is to clearly differentiate each character and their (admittedly completely two-dimensional) motivations. It’s not terribly exciting, but it works, even if purely by accident, and there is some some wonderful and truly professional northern California coastal location scenery throughout that wouldn’t look at all out of place in any film with ten, 100, or even 1,000 times the budget of this one.
Once inside the mineshaft (actually a few papier-mache rock walls inside director Hillman’s parents’ garage, but thanks to wisely-chosen camera angles and inventive and effective use of various lighting gels you’d quite literally never guess it, so well-constructed is the illusion-on-a-budget here) our adventurers are quickly trapped by a cave-in and while they search desperately for a way out they hear strange noises, come across evidence of those who have been this way before, and then start getting killed.
Okay, there are way too many obvious parallels here to draw to films like “The Boogens,” The Stuff,” “The Descent,” “What Waits Below,”and even the newly-released “Pandorum,” (which is, for all intents and purposes, “The Descent” in a spaceship)—but “The Strangeness” was one of the first movies to realize the inherent dramatic tension that comes with setting a horror movie inside a mine or a cave, and in many respects it still outshines those later, more expensive offerings.
As for the monster itself, well—
Let’s just say it’s part penile, part vaginal, part Lovecraftian, and altogether Freudian. As co-producer/creature designer Huntley explains in an on-camera interview included in the DVD extras, he was living as a closeted gay man at the time and the idea of a giant dick-like appendage that grabs you and puts you inside an equally giant pussy that eats you up and swallows you whole is probably as obvious and public a statement about his confused sexual state at the time as he could make. In any case, it’s still nothing the filmmakers (nor the model-maker who actually built it, Ernest D. Farino, who went on to work for George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic) have any reason to hang their heads about and it has a certain amateurish charm that both draws attention to its bargain-basement origins and somehow transcends them thorough its brazen gumption at the same time. They’re not showing off their ultra-cheap creature, but at the same time you don’t get a sense that they’re actively ashamed of it, either—this is what they could do with the cash they had and it’s nothing to brag much about but still a damn sight better than what anyone has any right to expect.
And to be honest, that’s not a bad summation of “The Strangeness” as a whole. It’s nothing close to revolutionary, but it doesn’t pretend to be, and it’s miles beyond anything you’d think they could come up with given the circumstances. It’s got a creepy atmosphere and a “can-do” spirit and somehow the two complement, rather than conflict, with each other.
Now for the particulars of the Code Red DVD : Folks, what we’ve got here is one incredible little package that suits the film perfectly. There are on-camera interviews with principal filmmakers Huntley, Sawicki, and Melanie Ann Phillips (David Michael Hillman as she’s now known after undergoing gender reassignment surgery some years ago—probably the reason people have had a tough time tracking her down for the occasional interview over the years) that are both fascinating and fun, there’s a selection of their USC student short film work (some live action, some animated), all three get together for a feature-length commentary, and there’s a nice sampling of trailers for forthcoming Code Red releases, as well.
In addition to all that, the technical specs are great. The original mono audio track sounds as crisp and clean as possible with only occasional drops in the sound, and the picture, struck from one of the film’s only answer prints and presented for the first time ever in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, looks as close to flat-out magnificent as this can. The colors are vibrant, the blacks are strong and well-defined, and compared to the earlier home video versions where the last 30 or so minutes of the film (which take place in almost complete darkness) were basically unwatchable because you couldn’t tell what the hell was happening, the difference is—well, like night and day (okay, last cliche of the review, I promise). If by some chance you have seen “The Strangeness” before, you will simply not believe that it could ever look this good. Sure, there are some occasional flecks and grainy spots, but it’s a 16mm print stuck in 1980—that’s inevitable.
So all in all, what Code Red gives us here is a flat-out technical miracle packaged together with the type of well-thought-out and highly personal extras for which they’ve quickly become known, all in service to a film that truly deserves this kind of TLC-heavy treatment.
Flawless “The Strangeness” is not. But remarkable it certainly is. And if you’re going to do a horror movie marathon sometime around Halloween, it’s a great choice, and is well-deserving of the new round of attention it’s hopefully going to get as a result of Code Red’s superb new DVD release. So why not take a trip down into the mine with “The Strangeness”—you’ll definitely find a gem. Not the prettiest, to be sure, and one that’s definitely rough around the edges, but a gem nevertheless.