Mutant Popcorn #1

Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – Brazil, Night of the Comet, Trancers, and more – appeared first in Interzone #13 (Autumn 1985).

This year, it’s the aliens. They come from the apocalyptic future (The TerminatorTrancers), from the antediluvian past (BabyIceman), or just from somewhere Out There (Repo Man2010StarmanLifeforce). They don’t always look much – a bright light off camera, a big black monolith, the appalling Jeff Bridges doing his Oscar-nominated impression of a robot chicken – and most are pretty inscrutable (‘He shouted ‘Greetings’ and melted my lugwrench’). Some are cute, a few are nasty, some are just misunderstood: if they blow up Jupiter, or lurk in the trunks of cars and vaporise Californians to a pair of smoking cowboy boots, it’s to warn us against tampering with forces that may not be commanded. Yet if we’re willing to learn, they will give us of their cosmic wisdom (‘You know what I find beautiful about your species? You are at your best when things are worst.’ Gee, thanks, Starman) or their gifts (‘All these worlds are yours, except Europa.’ Well, I dunno, we actually kind of had our eye on Europa…). The strange thing is, deep down, they’re not so different from us. How else to explain their pervasive fascination with Los Angeles, CA? their passion, seemingly instinct, for the earthling sport of car chases? their curious drive to impregnate our females? (‘Your child will grow up knowing everything I know. He will be – a teacher.’)

Perhaps it’s simply that Hollywood sf has lately struck a peculiarly sterile patch, with the major series all dead or in suspended animation. This is the first summer for eight years with no Star Wars, Superman, Conan, or Indiana Jones blockbuster to get bums on seats across the world, and it’s hard to see how the UK’s recent upsurge in cinema admissions is going to be sustained on what’s around. So far as the majors go, the fashions are twofold. On the one hand, there are the icky sword & sorcery juveniles (Neverending StoryLadyhawkeLegendThe Black Cauldron), all of which latter three I tip to follow the first to box office oblivion. Otherwise, slightly more laudably, there are the well-meaning but lacklustre followups to films that can’t be followed, with Return to Oz now joining Psycho II and 2010 in the archive of the world’s strangest mistakes. Where will it lead? Gone With the Wind: The Struggle ContinuesCitizen Kane II? (‘Hi, my name’s Rosebud. Any messages for me?’)

And yet, outside Hollywood, the desert still casts up strange blooms. What America will make of Brazil on its September release there remains to be pondered, but the surreal mix of nightmare comedy and farcical horror might just be marketable as modish Brit loopiness despite its poor performance at home. There hasn’t been a film like it, and unless it makes a packet Stateside it’s unlikely anyone will trust a fruitcake like Gilliam with that much money and that much artistic control again. But by any standards it’s a sublime creation: a visionary world of soaring dottiness, magnificently sustained in a two-and-a-half-hour cascade of extravagantly inventive images, yet anchored in a sharp script (main credit here to the Stoppard rewrite) and some cherishable performances. Contemporary audiences, cynically used to watching screenfuls of money catch light (‘Crumbs! bet that cost them’) come out of Brazil with steam pouring out of their diodes. For weeks after, nothing else, however good, looks quite like a movie.

Even in America, things aren’t entirely bleak. From Android and Liquid Sky to this year’s Repo ManTrancers, and Night of the Comet, we’ve seen an irregular stream of low-budget American independent sf features from first-time writer-directors, of which none has made much dent on the commercial box office, but all have managed a respectable degree of critical success and cult popularity, and springboarded their creators to more ambitious projects. All the above five are wittily scripted and engagingly performed, with final scenes of such preposterous charm that you cheerfully overlook the occasional longeurs and iffy sexual politics that went before. But the interesting link is that the appeal of all five depends on a sophisticated mix of faux-naif entertainment with sly genre-subversive irony. The science-fictional ideas are tendentiously second-hand, heavily derivative on the celluloid equivalent of pulp – in this case mainly UFO and doomsday movies of the 50s.

What we’re witnessing, in fact, is a renaissance of the B-movie tradition. For the first time since the decline of the double bill the movie industry has a relatively buoyant and stable market for low-cost entertainment features that wouldn’t recoup their costs on theatrical release alone. What’s more, the increasingly complex business relations between video, television, and theatrical release, all fed from the same broad pool of product, mean that not all the theatrically-budgeted releases make it to the big screen (witness Iceman), and not all the cheap stuff is confined to the video shop. What distinguishes the new B-movie from its traditional forebears is its cinematic self-consciousness: its address to an art-house or late-night audience appreciative of styles, conventions, nostalgias.

A case in point is Thom Eberhart’s Night of the Comet, whose only name stars are – shrewdly – Mary Woronov and Robert Beltran from Eating Raoul. Here we have the human race reduced to red dust overnight by the rays of a rogue comet, and the only survivors are those who spend the fatal night entirely enclosed by steel. (Note the deliberate trash science.) If the protection is partial, you dissolve slowly into a homicidal zombie and then die anyway. In LA (where else?) the only survivors are a pair of goofy teenage sisters, who romp round empty department stores to ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’, and fight over the last man in California, who happens to be a rather humpy trucker. But out in the desert a secret military base has survived – sort of – and has sinister plans for our heroines… Well, the plot logic has holes the size of a small Balkan state, and a lot of it’s pretty dumb; but this is essential to the style, and the end-of-the-world fantasy is surprisingly well evoked considering the budget, with moody filter shots of empty flyovers and silent city streets. It’s nowhere near as funny as Repo Man, nor as snappily directed or stylishly performed. But the inspiration is similar, and it’s amiable for many of the same reasons.

Or take Trancers: a loose reworking of the Terminator setup – invincible assassin from future trying to change his history, chased by avenging agent who falls awkwardly in love with his own grandmaw or similar – but with jokier touches in place of the textbook-slick suspense, and some gratuitous technogimmickry and psionics to pep up the thrill-power. The resulting hodgepodge is absurdly contrived, with plot devices carelessly tossed in all over, but in their very sloppiness the undisguised genre plagiarisms rather add to the B-movie appeal, engagingly sent up by the unshaven Marlowesque hero ‘Jack Deth’. Sad that Trancers’ director, Charles Band, is also the producer of Ghoulies, a meritless occult cheapie with four bendy rubber demons whose articulation would be scoffed at by Sooty and Sweep inserted in the script at an obviously late point to make it look like a Gremlins clone. See: the walking dead with the tongue that strangles! See: green contact lenses that won’t stay in place! See: forces of evil lurking beneath the bogseat! (This scene unfortunately not in the actual film.)

In their different ways, these films define the new B-movie: unpretentious entertainment pictures with modest production values, unknown or at best unbankable stars, and a knowing use of genre clichés. All these are qualities particularly calculated to appeal in a medium terminally afflicted with hype, blockbuster megabudgets, superstar heroes, and an imaginative starvation that seems to be driving big-money cinema into a kind of frantic autocannibalism in quest of substance. It’s hard not to warm to films like this whatever their faults, especially when set against the much more expensive (and dull) Hollywood B-movies like Starman and Runaway, which are every bit as derivative but take themselves far more seriously, the junk art dressed up in cosmetic moralising about xenophilia and technophobia.

Still, it would be a mistake to overrate this stuff as though it were some kind of ciné-punk nouvelle vague. Refreshing as it may be to see the B-movie alive and thrashing, it’d be nice now and again to see a glimpse of the odd A-movie. I have modestly high hopes of Mad Max 3, and cautiously of Peter Greenaway’s long-awaited Z00 – which promises, among other delights, rhinos rampaging through Amsterdam and a pair of separated Siamese twins who want to be sewn back together. It may or may not be sf, but it’s wild, wild cinema: maniac with camera, loving the alien.

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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