Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Mimic

 

Mimic Poster

(1997) Directed by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins; Based on the short story, “Mimic,” by Donald A. Wollheim; Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Alexander Goodwin, Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton and Josh Brolin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“There was something in this movie that forced me, like the Mimics, to evolve into something different. It was perhaps not quite human, if you look at my body proportions, but certainly made me survive, and made me find my own voice and my own personality, visually…” – Guillermo del Toro (from Director’s Cut Blu-ray commentary)

Dr. Tyler with Bug

If there’s one cohesive theme throughout Bug Month, it’s that our days as the Earth’s dominant species might be numbered. Many of us view insects as inferior lifeforms, unworthy of our attention. It could only take a little push to upset the balance, tipping the scales in their favor. Mimic suggests that this day of reckoning, thanks to our hubris, could be much closer than we think.

Mimic in Subway Station

Guillermo del Toro’s second feature film introduced the then 33-year-old writer/director to the rewards and pitfalls of Hollywood filmmaking. While working with Miramax* afforded him the comparatively vast resources of a larger production (with a $30 million budget, compared to around $2 million for his debut feature, Cronos), it created a great deal of friction for the filmmaker and his vision. The director constantly clashed with an endless parade of producers, including Bob and Harvey Weinstein,** resulting in myriad of arguments over virtually every aspect of the production. As a result, the theatrical cut that was released in theaters represented a compromised, watered-down version of del Toro’s original concept.*** For the purposes of this review, I took a look at the so-called “Director’s Cut,”**** which is probably the closest we’ll ever get to what del Toro originally intended.

* Note: Above all, the most disturbing issue behind the scenes was Ms. Sorvino’s ongoing harassment by Miramax head, Harvey Weinstein.   

** Note II: In a 2017 interview, del Toro commented, “My first American experience was almost my last because it was with the Weinsteins and Miramax. I have got to tell you, two horrible things happened in the late nineties, my father was kidnapped and I worked with the Weinsteins. I know which one was worse… the kidnapping made more sense; I knew what they wanted.” (excerpted from IndieWire article by Zack Sharf)

*** Fun Fact #1: At the insistence of Miramax, the original script from del Toro and Matthew Robbins was subjected to numerous re-writes by some of Hollywood’s most prominent figures, including John Sayles, Steven Soderburgh, and Matthew Greenberg.

**** Fun Fact #2: According to del Toro, much of the second-unit work (shot by Robert Rodriguez, among others), which was utilized in the theatrical cut, was removed for the “Director’s Cut.”

Dr. Tyler's Lab

The opening scene establishes that New York City is besieged by Strickler’s disease (not to be confused with Stickler syndrome), a deadly epidemic that strikes children.* Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), a brilliant young entomologist, develops a new species of insect,** the “Judas Breed” (incorporating some DNA from cockroaches, termites and mantids), to combat the roaches that carry the contagion. Initial results are promising, but in the researcher’s zeal to solve one problem, she creates a potentially larger one. Dr. Tyler discovers that the new species, left to its own devices in the secluded lower recesses of the New York subway system, is thriving. The bugs were genetically engineered to be sterile, but to borrow a phrase from a certain popular dinosaur movie, “Life, uh…finds a way.” If left unchecked, this new life form could threaten the population of New York City and beyond.

* Fun Fact #3: The stylized opening scene (excised from the theatrical cut) became another bone of contention when the producers asserted the set didn’t resemble a real-life hospital.

** Fun Fact #4: According to del Toro, he originally wanted the Mimics to be based on the White Oak Borer Beetle, but Miramax executives (apparently associating NYC with another common insect) insisted that cockroaches should be the star of the show.

Dr. Tyler and Dr. Mann

Sorvino is likeable in her lead, relaxed performance as intrepid researcher Dr. Tyler. Not quite as convincing is Jeremy Northam as her husband (and CDC official), Dr. Peter Mann, the film’s nominal hero. It’s not terribly surprising that his performance never quite gels, considering Northam wasn’t del Toro’s first choice to play the character (del Toro wanted an African American actor to play Dr. Mann, but the shortsighted producers objected to the inclusion of an interracial couple). Possibly because of the script revisions and cuts, some other characters are reduced to bit roles: F. Murray Abraham as Dr. Tyler’s mentor, Dr. Gates, and Josh Brolin as an unlucky police detective.  

Chuy

The most intriguing supporting character is Chuy (Alexander Goodwin), a young neurodivergent boy with uncanny powers of observation. Chuy possesses an innate talent for determining shoe size on sight and, most importantly, imitating the clicking sounds of the human-sized insects. Rather than feeling revulsion, he seems entranced by the Mimics’ odd appearance, referring to one of them as “Mr. Funny Shoes.” Unlike everyone else who has encountered them, he doesn’t display fear, which proves to be his protection. He forms a special connection with the creatures through communication, clicking spoons to mimic the Mimics.

Leonard

A common theme in del Toro’s films is how he shines the spotlight on marginalized people. In Mimic, he illustrates how individuals can appear to be little more than insects to the upwardly mobile. Manny (Giancarlo Giannini),* runs a humble shoe shine business in a bustling subway station. His grandson Chuy, who possesses unique patterns of cognition and interpreting the world, seemingly exists in a world of his own. The film draws further parallels to our hierarchical society, with a group of sweat shop workers who fall prey to the Mimics. The people behind the garment manufacturer are no less predatory or unfeeling than the Mimics (one shot lingers on a label that reads “Proudly Made in the USA,” reminding us the means don’t necessarily justify the end). One of del Toro’s many talents is featuring characters you might initially write off, infusing them with nuances that make them rise above plot devices. On the surface, beat cop Leonard (Charles S. Dutton) is just another cog feeding into a bureaucracy, but he proves to be much more, versed in the rich, forgotten history of the subway system, and a snarky sense of humor (he also delivers the film’s best line).

* Fun Fact #5: Before Giannini was cast in the role of Manny, the studio considered other actors, including Ian Holm, Max von Sydow, and André Gregory. The director’s initial choice was Federico Luppi (ultimately rejected because his English was a bit shaky), who appeared in del Toro’s previous film, Cronos (1993), and subsequent production, The Devil’s Backbone (2001).

Mimic

The distinctive look of the title creatures is the main attraction. Aiming for something that appeared real, rather than fanciful, del Toro insisted on a “National Geographic” approach, eschewing features that didn’t already exist in the insect world.* Designed by TyRuben Ellingson and refined by effects virtuoso Rob Bottin, the Mimics were brought to life through puppetry effects by Rick Lazzarini.** The creature design accounted for factors that limited the size of insects and other arthropods, incorporating lungs and a modified exoskeleton more suited to a much larger organism. The icing on the creepy cake is a bipedal creature that presents a crude, albeit effective approximation of our appearance. The result is at once mesmerizing and unnerving.    

* Fun Fact #6: In another battle (which del Toro thankfully won), the producers were perturbed that the Mimics looked too much like bugs, as opposed to some alien life form. They suggested adding teeth, gums and hair – none of which are present in insect anatomy.

** Fun Fact #7: Among Lazzarini’s memorable prior contributions were the Budweiser frogs, which appeared in a series of popular commercials in the ‘90s.

Trapped in a Subway Car

As with all of his films, del Toro incorporates layers of substance into his style. Catholic iconography figures prominently throughout, signifying the intersection of the spiritual and concrete (science-minded) worlds. The use of color also presents a stark contrast, with vivid golds and blues, representing the juxtaposition of the human and insect realms. In his commentary, del Toro described another theme throughout the film, as a contrast between fecundity (the Mimics) and infertility (Dr. Tyler’s personal struggles to conceive a child).  

Mimic in Subway Tunnel

Guillermo del Toro referred to his movie as an “imperfect child,” an apt description for the end product of too many chefs meddling with the recipe. In his “Director’s Cut” commentary, he takes a philosophical (and likely diplomatic) outlook to his ordeal grappling with the multiple producers. While his vision was inevitably compromised, the painful process of give and take helped map a future blueprint for his filmmaking methodology. Mimic is a film full of great ideas, memorable imagery, creatures that evoke chills, and a top-notch Marco Beltrami score. It suffers from a few too many loose ends, undeveloped characters, and an ending that’s far too pat (the original, un-filmed, ending envisioned a much darker conclusion which seemed more in line with del Toro’s sensibilities). Even if Mimic falls a bit short at times, it’s well worth a look (especially the Director’s Cut), to spot the elements del Toro would continue to refine and develop, to great effect, in his subsequent films. 

Sources for this article: Director’s Cut Blu-ray commentary; Guillermo del Toro – Cabinet of Curiosities, by Guillermo del Toro and Marc Scott Zicree; “Guillermo del Toro ‘Hated the Experience’ of Working withHarvey Weinstein on ‘Mimic’,” by Zack Sharf, IndieWire  

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Tarantula

Tarantula Poster

(1955) Directed by Jack Arnold; Written by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley; Story by Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco; Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva and Ross Elliott; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar): “But what if circumstances magnified one of them in size and strength, took it out of its primitive world and turned it loose in ours?”

Professor Townsend (Raymond Bailey): “Then expect something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.”

Tarantula on the Highway

What is it about the Arizona desert* that makes it the ideal setting for a bug movie? Phase IV (1974) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) are two notable examples that exploited the arid, unforgiving climate. As these films, and today’s featured title, would have you believe, the vast desert landscape is the perfect place to conceal something terrible under our very noses. Universal International’s** fourth collaboration between producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold (after It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Revenge of the Creature) was based on co-writer Robert M. Fresco’s*** original script for Science Fiction Theater episode, “No Food for Thought.” The most significant tweak to the original story was to add a giant spider. Produced on a modest $334,000 budget, Tarantula utilized real footage of a live spider, in lieu of stop-motion animation or puppetry, (with the exception of a mock-up of the big creature’s face, used for close-ups). 

* Fun Fact #1: Tarantula was actually filmed in the California desert, in the town of Apple Valley, where the cast and crew had to contend with temperatures reaching 120 degrees (Fahrenheit). One scene features a prominent geological formation called Deadman’s Point, which was duplicated in miniature for a rockslide. 

** Fun Fact #2: According to David Schecter, while the music is commonly attributed to Herman Stein and Henry Mancini, much of the score in the film was a hodge-podge of various snippets from the voluminous Universal library. Among the components “borrowed” from other films were cues from This Island Earth (1955) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). 

*** Fun Fact #3: According to an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, Fresco claimed that he was forced to give Arnold co-credit for the story, although Arnold supposedly didn’t write any of it. 

Deemers, Hastings and Sheriff Andrews

Genre movie stalwart John Agar stars as small-town family physician, Dr. Matt Hastings, who suspects something’s rotten in the state of Arizona. He’s called in by the local sheriff to examine the body of Eric Jacobs, a man who collapsed in the desert. The corpse’s distorted features indicate acromegaly (erroneously referred to as “acromegalia” in the film), which usually develops over years instead of days. Signs point to the esteemed Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), who employed Jacobs in his home-based laboratory.*/** Deemer is tinkering with a hormone, which accelerates aging and results in rapid growth. Although he views his research as a possible solution to world hunger, it’s not so good for Jacobs, or a second lab assistant, Bob Lund,*** both who succumbed to the serum’s deleterious side effects. Lund blames Deemer for his disfigurement, attacking the scientist and throwing the lab equipment into disarray. In the ensuing scuffle, Lund smashes the glass to an enclosure for one of the test subjects, an enlarged tarantula, enabling the critter to escape.**** As a final insult, Lund injects the professor with a dose of his own medicine, ensuring that he’ll meet the same awful fate.  

* Fun Fact #5: Professor Deemers’ home was the “Dabney House,” on Universal’s backlot, built for the 1948 film Tap Roots. It was also featured, with different backdrops, in genre favorites This Island Earth (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

** While we’re on the subject of Professor Deemers, what’s the deal about scientists with home labs? As countless movies would lead you to believe, every scientist worth his or her salt is independently wealthy, with their place of research conveniently situated within their own home.* Naturally, it’s all the better to carry out ethically dubious skullduggery on the sly, free from reliance on grants or the prying eyes of pesky university/government officials.

*** Fun Fact #4: If you feel a sense of déjà vu while watching this movie, your perceptions aren’t entirely unfounded. Stuntman Eddie Parker appears three times in the film, as Deemers’ lab partner Eric Jacobs, the sole ground crew who meets Dr. Hastings’ plane, and Paul Lund, his second lab assistant.

**** The mind reels, wondering what would have happened if one of the other lab animals had made their way out instead, such as an oversized guinea pig (nope, they didn’t use a capybara). I’m sure I speak for others when I state that Attack of the Giant Guinea Pig is something I would like to have seen.

Deemers and Tarantula

As with most super-sized creature movies, a healthy suspension of disbelief is required. In the real world, spiders (and other arthropods) are limited in size due to several factors. Chiefly, the gargantuan tarantula depicted in the film* wouldn’t be able to absorb enough oxygen with its current breathing apparatus, and its exoskeleton would be too heavy and unwieldly. And speaking of exoskeletons, considering the spider’s rapid growth, you’d think there would be several molts lying around. In another bit of artistic license, the tarantula roars, but we’ll let this slide.  

* Fun Fact #6: According to Weaver, five tarantulas were cast for the role of the titular creature, although the film’s pressbook apparently claimed a much larger number were used.

Deemers and Steve

Tarantula stays a cut above many of its giant bug contemporaries, because it never forgets that while we’re obviously here for the spider, the human characters* count. Director Arnold and crew takes a moment to get to know the characters as three-dimensional people, not simply props for exposition or a means to move the plot along. Hastings is an affable individual, as friendly as he’s inquisitive. Carroll lends a touch of class to the production, as a man deeply invested in his work. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), is pursuing her master’s degree in biology, and knows her stuff but has her work cut out for her, navigating the male-dominated academic and professional landscape depicted in the film. Character actor Nestor Paiva provides a welcome face, and adds some subtle humor to the film, as local sheriff, Jack Andrews. Hank Patterson also provides some levity as Josh, the hotel manager/resident busybody. The movie keeps things interesting, thanks to some snappy dialogue. When the dubious sheriff dismisses Hastings’ professional opinion over elder scientist Deemers, Hastings replies, “There’s nothing like the safety of prestige.”

* Fun Fact: Watch for a young Clint Eastwood, in a small role, as a jet fighter pilot. You almost expect him to ask the giant spider if it feels lucky (spoiler: He doesn’t, and it’s not).

Stephanie "Steve" Clayton

It wouldn’t be 1950s sci-fi without some unfortunate old-fashioned misogyny, lobbed against Steve. When Hastings learns about her professional aspirations the doctor comments, “Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady scientists.” When she finally meets Deemers, her new employer, the professor states that he didn’t expect his new assistant to look like her (not exactly a great beginning to their professional relationship). Even the big spider is part of the boys’ club. In a scene reminiscent of King Kong, the pervy arachnid sneaks a peek into Steve’s bedroom window while she’s in her jammies, just before it demolishes the house.  

Tarantula and the Town

Compared to the titular monster in Jack Arnold’s earlier movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the giant arachnid doesn’t have much personality, mindlessly roaming the desert and consuming everything in its path. Unlike King Kong, I don’t suspect many folks would shed a tear for the errant arachnid. What makes the film tower above much of the competition is its three-dimensional characters, dialogue and heart, keeping this from being a by-the-numbers exercise. Perhaps just a shade behind Gojira (1954) and Them! (1954), Tarantula remains one of the best giant critter movies of the ‘50s, or any decade.

Sources for this article: DVD commentary by Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J Kiss, and David Schecter; Science World article, “Why Aren’t SpidersBigger?” 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Phase IV

 

Phase IV Poster

(1974) Directed by Saul Bass; Written by Mayo Simon; Starring: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

Note: This article is an expanded version of a capsule review, originally posted in November 2014. 

Ant Towers

“They’re not individuals. They’re individual cells. Tiny, functioning parts of the whole. Think of the society, James, with perfect harmony, perfect altruism and self-sacrifice, perfect division of labor organized for preordained roles. Think of the building of elaborate, complex structures according to plans they know nothing of, and execute perfectly. Think of their ability to evolve and adapt in ways that are so beautiful and still so unknown. And all contained in one simple form. So defenseless in the individual, so powerful in the mass.” – Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)

Dr. Ernest Hubbs & Michael Murphy

For the bulk of recorded history, humankind has been complacent about our position in the grand scheme of things, confident in the assumption that we are the dominant life form on Earth. But what if another creature, unassuming in its diminutive size, was poised to usurp our throne? Saul Bass’ cerebral science fiction film, Phase IV asks us to reconsider how we rate in the universe, compared to the ants.* Bass, best known for creating the memorable title sequences for many classic films (including Psycho and West Side Story), made his one and only outing as a feature film director with this movie.

* Fun Fact #1: Need further proof? The total population of ants is estimated to number 1 quadrillion, and the largest colony (consisting of Argentine ants) occupies a 3,700-mile stretch of land along the Mediterranean.  

Aftermath from Pesticide

The opening narration informs us that unspecified “events in space” have upset the balance of life on Earth, leading to a profound shift in ant behavior. Cut to an abandoned housing project in the arid Arizona desert,* where the resident ants have successfully supplanted the human population. The desolate landscape sets the stage for a research project to observe the insects and their activities. An entomologist and his assistant, a statistician, collaborate to determine what the ants are planning. While the humans scratch their heads, they remain under the ever-watchful eyes of the colonial insects, perched within their unfathomable, monolithic towers.    

* Fun Fact #2: Many of the sequences in the “Arizona” desert were actually filmed in Kenya.

Dr. Hubbs, Kendra and James

The three primary characters represent a rough, albeit imperfect cross-section of society.  Lead researcher Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)* parallels the ants in his single-minded pursuit of information, suspending emotion and compassion in favor of logic. His callous demeanor provides a stark contrast to the more balanced approach from his younger colleague, James Lesko (Michael Murphy). Lesko regards deciphering the ants’ patterns as a sort of game. Unlike Hubbs, however, he retains perspective about the stakes that are being played, as well as the human cost. In a scene when their compound is under siege, Hubbs resorts to releasing a powerful toxin against the ants. While fleeing their farm, a farmer and his wife (Alan Gifford and Helen Horton)** are caught in the crossfire, succumbing to the poison. Despite the fact that the pesticide caused their deaths, he’s more concerned with the ingenuity of the ants, as opposed to their lifeless bodies outside. After they rescue the couple’s teenage daughter Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick)***, Lesko is ready to pull the plug on the project, but Hubbs is opposed to anything that would compromise his research. Compared to the two scientists, Kendra is an innocent, caught in the middle. Although she seems the most likely target for the ants and their abstruse schemes, all of them are being manipulated in oddly unique ways.

* Fun Fact #3: According to the DVD commentary, Davenport read for the part of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey

** Fun Fact #4: And while we’re on the subject of wayward artificial intelligence, Helen Horton, who appears briefly as Kendra’s grandmother, later provided the voice for the computer, MU-TH-UR 6000 (aka: “Mother”), in Alien (1979). 

*** Fun Fact #5: Per the DVD commentary, Linda Blair was once considered for the part of Kendra.  

Ant

Phase IV effectively depicts the hidden world of the ants and their society, providing a glimpse of an intelligence we can scarcely comprehend. The massive colony operates as a massive solitary organism, singular in its purpose, with every member committed to its goals, unfettered by emotion or mercy. While the pesticide released by Hubbs seemingly stops the colony dead in its tracks, it only proves to be a temporary setback. In one scene, the worker ants slowly and methodically move the deadly yellow congealed poison. They execute their plan little by little, with cold, unrelenting precision and the end goal continually in mind. Individual deaths don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, only the survival of the colony. The design of the desert research facility itself mimics the twisty chambers of the ants’ lair, with the scientists navigating the labyrinthine rows of equipment.

Ant

Few would dispute that Phase IV’s claim to fame is its stunning, immersive macrophotography by Ken Middleham (who previously worked on the 1971 pseudo-documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle), affording viewers an unprecedented insect’s eye view. The ants scurry about in their tunnels, revealing a place as alien as anything our minds could imagine. The filmmakers never make the claim that no insects (or arachnids) were harmed in the making of this picture, as Phase IV unflinchingly illustrates the often brutal, merciless aspects of the ants’ lives. Dick Bush’s cinematography expertly complements Middleham’s images, with an emphasis on shapes and symmetry. In the film’s opening shot, what appears to be a field of stars pans out to reveal grains of sand. The shot gradually transitions to space, suggesting there are worlds within worlds. In another scene, the camera lingers on the enigmatic towers created by the ants, the angular tops turned toward the sky, in a crude mimicry of human faces. One of the film’s most disturbing images shows ants crawling out of a hand (also used in the film’s poster art) recalling a similar shot from the surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Ants

As a result of studio meddling, Saul Bass’ original, dystopian-flavored ending was scrapped in favor of a shorter, more ambiguous conclusion. The hallucinatory sequence, once thought lost, can now be found on the UK Blu-ray from 101 Films, providing an interesting alternate, if not necessarily better, conclusion to the story. With or without the original ending, Phase IV remains a thoughtful exploration of a mystery. In the best tradition of 1970s cinema, the film raises more questions than it answers, reveling in its ambiguity, and unabashed in its downbeat implications. But what’s pessimistic for humankind is optimistic for ant society (Are the ants ushering in a new stage of human evolution, or are we simply a vehicle for the ants’ evolution?). It’s a science fiction movie that trusts the intelligence of the audience to fill in the blanks. Phase IV suggests that we don’t have all the answers, and success, as well as failure, is a necessary part of science. 

Sources for this article: 101 Films Blu-ray commentary by Allan Bryce and Richard Hollis; Ants.com; BBC Earth News, Ant Mega-Colony Takes Over World,” by Matt Walker