Tourist Trap

I saw Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Last Drive-In, a twenty-four hour movie marathon that I highly recommend. Tourist Trap is a weird movie that borrows its look from Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but without that movie’s fabled grit.

No, Tourist Trap has a bizarre vibe all its own. It stars Chuck Connors and Tanya Roberts along with a group of attractive roadkill – er, I mean youths. Seeing Tanya Roberts before she became famous is a real eye opener, sort of like watching Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, the best movie you’ll ever see about a homicidal leprechaun.

The plot: six young people get stranded at a roadside wax museum run by friendly weirdo Chuck Connors. Unfortunately, Chuck’s crazy telekinetic brother isn’t as friendly and the attractive youths get picked off one by one. I will say that the killer wears some pretty freaky masks. Our youthful revelers dress in cut-offs and t-shirts, but the final girl wears a white dress paired with a white sunbonnet and looks like she’s going to church. The subtext, it burns my eyes!

Tourist Trap gets an A-plus for its creative use of mannequins. Chuck’s house used to be a roadside wax museum, and Chuck’s wacky brother uses his telekinetic powers to animate those mannequins – at points, he goes way beyond animating the mannequins. He thinks the final girl looks like his dead wife, even though she looks nothing like her, but he’s crazy so we should cut him some slack.

Tourist Trap sure isn’t boring. I don’t know if it deserves the title of a cult classic, but it doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. It’s well-made and it has a bizarre vibe that I liked. If possible, watch Tourist Trap on Joe Bob’s Drive-In, as his commentary will add to your movie-going experience!

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Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People

Damn, I fell behind early this year. Okay, the next movie on the chopping block is Matango: The Attack of the Mushroom People. This film was directed by Ishiro Hondo, who also directed the original Godzilla (along with a number of sequels), so I was inclined to like this movie. A confession: I saw Matango years ago but don’t remember anything about it, so it’s the same as seeing it for the first time!

The plot: seven revelers set sail in their party boat on a Three-Hour Tour and get shipwrecked on an island. Here the similarities to Gilligan’s Island end, alas; it’s a shame there was never a crossover between these two franchises. I would have paid good money to see that.

Anyway, there is fresh water on the island, but not much food – turtle eggs, seaweed, sea birds. Mushrooms grow everywhere, but they can’t eat them because reasons. One by one, members of our merry band do eat the mushrooms. Instead of dying, they transform into fungi themselves! Or do they? Perhaps there is another level to Matango, something having to do with how easily civilization can slip away. Or maybe this is just a weird movie about mushroom people. I dunno; you tell me.

Our seven castaways don’t splinter as a group because they didn’t really like each other in the first place, which I found to be realistic. The film does a good job of giving most of the characters actual personalities. People quickly show their true colors, and those colors aren’t pretty. It came as no surprise to me that the writer is the first to go crazy and eat the mushrooms.

I wouldn’t call Matango psychedelic as we only catch glimpses of the walking fungi until the end. Most of this movie is unrelentingly grim and depressing as our band of not-so-merry castaways lose their grip on reason and slide into madness. Parts of Matango have an apocalyptic feel; the single survivor (not a spoiler!) is in an asylum in Tokyo, where he has a view of the lights of the city, and I got the impression that one of the movie’s messages was that this too could easily slip away…

Unseen

Unseen is a documentary about Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, who murdered eleven women. This movie reminded me of another documentary called Tales of the Grim Sleeper. The subject matter of these documentaries is eerily similar, drugs, prostitution, poverty, mass murder and the apathy of the authorities.

Unseen consists of interviews, mostly with the women who encountered Mr. Sowell. Many of these women were prostitutes struggling with drug addiction at the time. There is also news and police footage. There are no interviews of law enforcement authorities in Unseen, and after watching this documentary it’s not hard to figure out why.

Mr. Sowell was not careful about covering his tracks. An awful smell permeated the streets near his home, which residents thought came from the local sausage shop. When police entered his house, they found four decaying bodies. A few of Mr. Sowell’s victims escaped, and he let a few of them go. One tried to press charges and was unsuccessful, even though Mr. Sowell was a known sex offender who spent fifteen years in jail. Another jumped out of a second-floor window to get away from him; authorities thought he was her husband because he rode in the ambulance to the hospital with her. According to the documentary, none of the disappearances of his eleven victims was ever investigated.

Unseen is the type of movie that makes you think the world is a piece of shit. The guy who owns the convenience store next to Mr. Sowell’s house says on camera that Mr. Sowell was doing the world a favor. We see police footage. The investigators are eating potato chips while interviewing Mr. Sowell.

Ghost Stories

Ghost Stories is a British horror anthology released in 2017. The plot: psychic debunker Philip Goodman uses his TV show to expose hucksters and frauds. Interestingly, he is portrayed as a spoilsport with an enormous ego. I’ve seen horror movies featuring skeptics before, but this is the first one I’ve seen that is so openly hostile to its main character. Anyway: Goodman gets a message from his mentor, Professor Cameron, who now lives in a spooky trailer by an abandoned amusement park. The good doctor gives Goodman three cases of the paranormal he’s never been able to solve, and there’s your frame story.

The first case features a security guard keeping watch over an abandoned women’s prison/asylum. Why anyone would hire a security guard to do such a thing, I have no idea. The lights keep going out as our hero wanders around in the dark. This asylum features lots of women’s mannequins, because reasons.

The second story involves a younger guy who hits something in the woods while he’s talking on his cell phone. In an act of cosmic justice, his car stalls in those selfsame woods and the goat thing he hit comes by to pay a visit. The third story involves a rich guy whose older wife gets pregnant. She goes into the hospital while he stays in his enormous home. From what we see of his personality he’s doing his wife a favor by staying away. Is it poltergeists that invade the baby’s room or something else?

Ghost Stories contains a few decent jump scares and shrieking ghouls. They made me jump anyway, but that’s pretty easy to do. The first story is good, but the second and third are skimpy. That’s because the frame story becomes vital to the plot as the movie progresses. Watch Ghost Stories closely, as certain characters and scenes repeat. Unfortunately, there’s no way for the viewer to guess what’s happening.

After awhile things get really, really surreal and I didn’t know what was going on, never a good sign in a horror movie. Please note that some of the characters make anti-Semitic statements, and since this movie dislikes its protagonist I wasn’t sure how to take them. Ghost Stories reminded me of Dead of Night, a wonderful 1940’s horror anthology which features a psychic battle between a ventriloquist and his dummy. Ghost Stories isn’t as good as Dead of Night, and for reasons I won’t go into (because spoilers) I also found this movie to be depressing. A decently made jumper that gets incoherent towards the end.

 

The Silence of the Lambs

Hey, I’ve never seen The Silence of the Lambs! I’m not sure what I can say that’s new or interesting about this movie, but I’ll give it a shot. Do people know that the character of Buffalo Bill is partly based on an e.e. Cummings poem? Here’s a link to the poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47244/buffalo-bill-s

Isn’t that great? I’ve often thought it’s a shame that it’s impossible to make a living writing poetry in this country. Anyway, when I watched the closing credits I learned that Roger Corman and Chris Isaak were in this movie! They thanked John ‘Mindhunter’ Douglas! And there was a Moth Wrangler, and an Assistant Moth Wrangler. Union jobs!

One of my favorite parts of The Silence of the Lambs occurs near the end, when Catherine Martin calls Clarice a bitch because she won’t let her out of the hole. I mean, it’s not a nice thing to say, but you can sort of see her point. The goat-green cam at the very end gave me flashbacks to all the shitty found footage movies I’ve watched.

I was curious, so I looked. Here’s Precious’ filmography: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1584705/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t28

Anthony Hopkins plays Hannibal Lecter, and he looks like he’s having the time of his life. You can almost hear him giggling. I’m not sure I understood the connection between him and Clarice. He calls her a dumb hick and then gets upset when the loony in the cell next to him throws sperm in her face. It’s a weird moment, because Lecter wears a mask (literally and figuratively) throughout most of this movie, and I think this is one of the few moments when he shows genuine emotion, and I’m not sure why. I read the book, years ago. Maybe I’ll take a look.

I thought Dr. Chilton had great taste in ties; even his clothes are loud and pompous. The guy who plays Buffalo Bill sadly isn’t in the movie much, but he’s awesome. He’s got some great lines. PUT THE FUCKING LOTION IN THE BASKET! His housekeeping skills are worse than mine, which is saying something, and when he’s wearing those night vision goggles he sort of looks like a bug. I figure his last words were something like – ah, shit. It’s a shame his performance has been overshadowed by Anthony Hopkins.

Jodie Foster is great as Clarice Starling. She puts up with tons of shit from everybody in this movie. Lots of people underestimate her, including Buffalo Bill, and boy does he pay for it. The only mistake she makes is not shooting him in the parlor, but who can blame her? What if she shoots the wrong guy?

A few touches I liked: when the cop moves Hannibal’s drawings away to clear the table and we see he’s sketched Clarice. I also liked Catherine Martin refusing to let go of Precious, even when the paramedics are leading her out of Buffalo Bill’s house.

I’m not sure if The Silence of the Lambs taught me anything new about serial killers. I mean, this movie is about as realistic as an episode of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, but it works wonderfully as a thriller. By the way, I view this more as a thriller with horror elements than a horror movie with thriller elements.

 

 

 

The Blob

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I saw the remake of The Blob in the movie theatre in the summer of 1988 and reviewed it for my weekly school newspaper, The Rutgers Review. Unfortunately, I don’t have any exciting stories to tell about my moviegoing experience because I don’t remember anything about the movie.

Wait, that’s not true! Del Close, who plays the crazy preacher, co-wrote a DC comic with John Ostrander called Wasteland. John Ostrander happens to be my favorite comic writer of all time. He wrote The Suicide Squad and Grimjack, a wonderful comic nobody today has ever heard of. This gives you, the reader, two pieces of important information. 1. I was predisposed to like The Blob. 2. I was a comic nerd decades before it became fashionable.

I don’t recall if I enjoyed The Blob on my first viewing because I can’t find my original review and my memories of it are sketchy. Since I had no desire to revisit this movie, I’m assuming I didn’t think much of it. I do recall being surprised when football dude bites the dust. I also remember the scene when football guy and his friend go into the drugstore to buy rubbers – does anyone say rubbers anymore? Fun fact: that’s what we used to call condoms in New Jersey back in the 1980’s. And that’s about all I do remember.

The thing that struck me most on rewatching The Blob was Kevin Dillon’s magnificent mane of hair, which I’m not sure qualifies as a mullet. Maybe it left such a strong impression on me because I’m slowly losing my own hair. I also thought Shawnee Smith was very good. She almost takes out the Blob herself before getting her foot stuck in – what? What the hell was that? A foot-trapper?

The scene where the girl passes out in the car was really unpleasant to watch. In general, the tone of The Blob is way off. The word I would use is squicky. This might have been a decent PG-13 movie, but it just doesn’t work as an R-rated movie. The gory parts of The Blob are gross, yes, but not in a good way. They’re just gross. These are the kind of effects you’d see in a body horror movie like Dave Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly.

This just isn’t a very good movie. It’s been forgotten for a reason. Most of the effects are laughably cheesy, which clashes with the ultra-gross scenes when the Blob eats people. The screenplay is full of holes. Why would the U.S. government fire bacteria into outer space when they can simulate outer space conditions in a bunker in Roswell, New Mexico? Why would sewer guy in the white containment-suit have a rocket launcher strapped to his back?

The characters are clichés. We have the local yokel cop, the cheerleader, the jock, the burnout (an 80’s phrase!) with a heart of gold – incidentally, I didn’t think Kevin Dillon’s character had a heart of gold. I thought he was a dickhead (another 80’s phrase!).

That being said, I liked both the leads. It’s not their fault they got stuck in The Blob. The screenplay has a couple of surprise deaths and thus isn’t totally predictable. I do enjoy watching horror movies where it feels like anyone can die. I was also happy that they weren’t madly kissing at the end of the movie. After seeing this movie, I didn’t feel like kissing – I felt vaguely queasy.

Godzilla (2014 remake)

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Vintage 1974 MechaGodzilla Action Figure!

Once again, I am going to reach into my seemingly endless store of treasured movie-going memories to tell you about watching the 1998 remake of Godzilla. Yes, I know this review is about the 2014 remake…stick with me. You can’t imagine how excited I was for Godzilla 1998. Despite disturbing rumors about the creature designs, I had high hopes for this movie. Perhaps Godzilla would even eat Matthew Broderick, whom I’ve hated with an unholy passion since Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

To commemorate what was sure to be a wonderful evening, I smuggled my Godzilla action figure (not pictured above) into the theater to watch the movie with me. This upset my roommate, who seemed to think it would ruin his chance to impress the girls in the seats next to us. How could he be thinking about girls? This was Godzilla!

Anyway, Godzilla 1998 was utter shit.

This is to say that I went into the 2014 remake of Godzilla with lowered expectations…and I enjoyed it. I give this movie a B. I believe I’ve seen every Godzilla film ever made, so this puts it squarely into the solid category. Not a classic, but pretty good. When I rewatched the movie this morning I had the same impression.

Yes, I enjoyed Godzilla, but that doesn’t meant it’s a very good movie. When our hero, MR. EVERYMAN, saves the child from toppling off the train, I thought there’s the movie’s save-the-cat moment. I wasn’t surprised to learn Godzilla had multiple screenwriters because it has a cut and paste feel.

Most of the movie’s characters are clichés, the peacenik scientist, the nuke-crazy general, the conspiracy theory nut. Our protagonist, MR. EVERYMAN, doesn’t have a personality. MRS. EVERYMAN doesn’t get upset when her husband’s nutso father calls and summons him to Japan. THEIR ADORABLE CHILD is a set-piece. By the way, after Bryan Cranston’s crazy daddy character bites the dust, MRS. EVERYMAN and THEIR ADORABLE CHILD become the movie’s MacGuffin. It’s better than being the hostage object, I guess.

MR. EVERYMAN travels to Japan to help his father. Or perhaps he’s hoping his father will teach him how to have a personality. Or maybe one night of domestic bliss was enough for him. Who knows? To me, this was one of the most unbelievable things about the movie. Bryan Cranston is a grown man, a trespassing offense isn’t all that serious and it’s obvious he doesn’t really give a shit about his son. Plus, he’s crazy.

Here’s the thing about Bryan Cranston’s character: he is nuts. Yes, it turns out that he was right, but that doesn’t mean he’s not nuts. This is the type of person who would walk into a public library and ask to see the government’s secret files on the JFK assassination. Godzilla gets a lot less interesting when he dies and his cardboard cutout son shoulders the load as the movie’s protagonist.

So what did I notice in this viewing of Godzilla? I talked about phallic imagery in Alien. This movie has phallic imagery, also, and some of it is quite disturbing. Example A: the way Godzilla kills the female MUTO is pretty, uhm…yikes.

Abandonment is a recurring theme in Godzilla. Bryan Cranston abandons his wife to die in a nuclear reactor, MR. EVERYMAN abandons his wife and child to go to Japan and the parents in Hawaii abandon their child in the train. The only good husband and parent in this movie is MR. MUTO, who sticks by his woman and gets squashed against a skyscraper for his troubles.

Godzilla is a great-looking movie. Garth Edwards, the director, wears his Steven Spielberg cufflinks on his sleeve, but there are some genuinely riveting scenes. I’m thinking of Hawaii and the San Francisco bridge. My favorite interview with Mr. Edwards features him telling the interviewer to please get out of his personal space in the middle of their chat. This interjection comes out of nowhere, and it’s awesome because it’s so unexpected and he’s so totally sincere.

The fact that the filmmakers don’t show Godzilla much didn’t bother me. I have seen enough Godzilla movies to know that it’s a bad sign when we see the Thunder Lizard in the first five minutes. Usually a half-hour to forty-five minutes into the movie suffices.

I liked the monster designs. The MUTO is obviously a riff on Mothra (there’s even a diagram of a moth at the beginning of the movie), and they resemble the xenomorphs from Alien, but I thought they were well-done. I liked the Godzilla design. I liked his roar. Solid Godzilla fare.

Anyway, I know you all have been waiting for this. Here are my top five Godzilla movies!

  1. Godzilla v. MechaGodzilla (1974) – vintage MechaGodzilla (pictured above) is my favorite ever action-figure. This movie is great because it features a ten-minute song to summon the heroic monster King Caesar, who awakens and proceeds to get pummeled to jelly by MechaGodzilla.
  2. Godzilla (1958) – watch the uncut original, not the Raymond Burr remake!
  3. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964) – this movie features the Monster Summit, when Godzilla, Rodan and Mothra share a conference call before kicking King Ghidorah’s ass off planet Earth.
  4. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Monster Attack (2001) – the best Godzilla movie of the 21st century (so far), this is a must watch!
  5. Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)– the Heisei Era of Godzilla cinematography isn’t my favorite and has some real stinkers, but I have a soft spot for this movie because it has an actual plot and attempts to be timely (genetic engineering!). Biollante is actually a Godzilla clone combined with a rose. This could be a great movie, but is hampered by poor effects.

Triple Feature of Terror: John Carpenter’s The Thing!

Wilford Brimley was a versatile actor!

I have seen John Carpenter’s The Thing too many times to count, so at this point it’s tough to say how this movie affects me. I don’t even jump during the scary parts any more. However, I can tell you the way it affected me the first time I saw it.

I did not see The Thing in the theater. I saw it on HBO back in the mid-80’s. It was dinnertime, and I polished off a chicken pot pie while watching this movie. God’s honest truth, I didn’t eat chicken pot pie again for another decade.

When I rewatched The Thing this morning I ate toast with butter and strawberry jelly, and that went down much better. I’m not sure what to say at this point. Years ago, I read Alan Dean Foster’s movie novelization, and can still recall details of the author’s scientific explanations. The Thing internally blocks all oxygen to the brain, so the person suffers oxygen death. Even back then, I recognized a great example of handwavium when I saw it!

Let’s see…The Thing is the best remake of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness that’s ever been made. No offense to John W. Campbell, but the monster of this remake is a Shoggoth, right down to the eyes. I don’t know why Lovecraft the writer gets short shrift here, because he wrote some brilliant science fiction, and At the Mountains of Madness (which is science fiction) is one of the best things he’s ever written.

The Thing is an influential movie. Peter Watts wrote a sequel for Clarkesworld, which you can find here. There is a manga called Parasyte that uses the same concept, except the parasytes gobble up the person’s head and then control the body. The main character applies a tourniquet to his arm when the parasyte invades, so the lil’ bugger eats his arm instead and we have a symbiotic relationship. They should have made a sitcom!

What else…the effects are good. I liked the characters. I kept expecting Wilford Brimley to tell everyone to relax and dig into a hearty bowl of oatmeal. Garry, the head of the base, dyes his hair but leaves his snow white eyebrows untouched, which is a nice actor’s touch. And I loved MacReady’s sombrero! The characters don’t do too many stupid things until the end. The Thing itself is brilliant and almost certainly survived the final blast. The creature that attacks MacReady at the climax is the Dog Thing that escaped at the beginning of the film, not the Wilford Brimley Thing.

How can I not mention the original Thing, the best movie ever made about a blood-drinking space carrot? Carpenter must have liked the movie also, because that’s the flick the little kids in his movie Halloween are watching. Nowadays if a character in a horror movie watches a horror movie, it’s always The Night of the Living Dead.

Anyway…James Arness, who played the aforementioned bloodthirsty space carrot in the original Thing, also played the state trooper in the 50’s classic Them, the best movie ever made about giant ants. Why do I mention this? Because it’s the third and final link in the Web of Nostradamus!™ The original Them starts with the image of a young girl walking down the highway clutching a doll, and James Cameron recycles the same image in Aliens, his sequel to Alien. Guess he liked the movie too!

Triple Feature of Terror: An American Werewolf in London!

Today I am going to reach into my treasure trove of childhood memories and treat you to a wonderful story. In the summer of 1981 I was thirteen years old and commercials for An American Werewolf in London were playing all over the TV. I wanted to see this movie very badly. My parents watched the TV commercials, one of which featured a voice-over by 70’s radio personality Wolfman Jack, and thought An American Werewolf in London was a comedy.

Long story short, the three of us made the trek to the movie theater in Port Jervis NY, now long gone. My mother fled during the scene in the moors. I bolted when the deformed Nazi monsters massacred David and his family. We weren’t the only ones to leave, not by a long shot. A small crowd huddled in the lobby, shell-shocked. A young woman whose date stayed behind burst through the theater doors, muttering “holy shit.” Quite a night for the Galuschak family!

I’m happy to report that my father watched the entire movie. He never said so, but I think he was disappointed by our lack of fortitude. Anyway…I rewatched An American Werewolf in London this evening. Technical difficulties prevented me from seeing it during my snow day. Since this is about my 80 zillionth viewing of the movie, it’s not exactly a terrifying experience anymore.

What does a person notice when s/he is watching a movie for the 80 zillionth time? A few things. When David calls home near the movie’s end he gives the operator a NYC area code. During the subway chase scene, I amused myself by looking at the ads on the wall, and saw an advertisement for See You Next Wednesday. This is of course the porn movie playing at the theatre David and Meatloaf Jack visit when they discuss his suicide. The first time we meet David and Jack they are in a truck full of sheep, and soon afterwards they visit a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb (I got this one from the interview I linked to); as director John Landis says, the symbolism ain’t exactly subtle.

What else? During the end credits Lycanthrope Productions congratulates Prince Charles and Lady Di on their wedding. Frank Oz, the voice of Miss Piggy in the Muppet Show, makes a cameo (along with Miss Piggy) as the American guy from the embassy who doesn’t like the young people.

The English apparently use I find you extremely attractive as a pick-up line; Alex says it three or four times, as so does the middle-aged protagonist of Vampyres, a 70’s Eurotrash movie about a pair of female vampires who lure middle-aged men to their castle, kill them and then carefully pose their naked bodies in their cars so that it’ll look like a car accident. Watch out for all those nude drivers in England!

I don’t think I’m reaching when I say An American Werewolf in London is the best werewolf movie ever made. It’s funny, it’s gory and the makeup effects are wonderful. You can make an argument for the original Wolf Man, I guess, but how many people have even seen that movie? There’s The Woofen – I mean The Wolfen – an underrated gem worth watching just to see Albert Finney treat the world to his version of a New York accent. Maybe The Howling? Please. None of these movies have the crazy energy of An American Werewolf in London. None of them measure up. None of them will ever measure up. I’ve been disappointed in every werewolf movie I’ve ever seen after this one.

An American Werewolf in London is not a comedy. It’s a horror movie with comedic elements. Don’t believe me? That’s what director John Landis says in the interview I linked to. Of course this is a horror movie. Did the people who say this movie is a comedy even watch it? Although maybe the young people think it’s a comedy. When I saw the second theatrical release of The Exorcist a few years ago the movie theater was full of young people, and they were all laughing their asses off.

Anyway…here is the second part of the Web of Nostradamus™. An American Werewolf in London is a werewolf movie, just like The Wolfen. Whitley Strieber wrote The Wolfen; he also wrote The Hunger, the movie version of which was directed by Tony Scott, the brother of Alien director Ridley Scott. By the way, The Wolfen is a pretty damn good novel. Whitley Strieber made his name writing about people being probed by aliens, but he’s penned some decent classic horror novels also.

I don’t think I ever thanked my parents for taking me to see An American Werewolf in London, which is one of my all-time favorite horror movies. Thank you, sorry this is thirty-seven years late. These dumb-ass kids, they never appreciate anything you do for them!

 

Triple Feature of Terror: A Review of Alien!

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I begin this review with an announcement: I have seen Alien about 82 times. Alien is one of my favorite horror movies, but at this point I’m a wee bit sick of it, so I will try a different format for this review. There will be almost no plot summary at all.

Announcement #2: it’s snowing today, and I’m stuck in my apartment, so I had the wonderful idea to watch Alien, An American Werewolf in London and The Thing all at once. A Triple Feature of Terror! Later in this review I will discuss the mystical ties that bind these movies together. I call these ties the Web of Nostradamus™, but that’s another story.

The first thing that struck me on my 83rd rewatch of Alien was how tight the screenplay is in places. This movie was written by Dan O’Bannon, who wrote the screenplay for the underrated Dead and Buried. He also wrote and directed The Return of the Living Dead, THE GREATEST ZOMBIE MOVIE OF ALL TIME. If you want to know the origin of the belief that zombies crave brains, watch this movie.

What do I mean about a tight screenplay? When the crewmembers of the Nostromo check out the SOS, which is actually a warning, Dallas (the Captain) needs three crewmembers to investigate the signal. He can’t use the engineering crew, who normally get all the shit jobs, because they are busy repairing the landing ship. He also can’t use the Science Officer (Ash), because the movie later makes it clear that the science officer is the most important member of the crew. That leaves him, the second in command (Kane), the third in the command (Ripley) and the navigator (Lambert).

Dallas should have sent Ripley with Kane and Lambert; instead he pulls a Captain Kirk and goes himself. This is a good character moment for a minor player, showing us that Dallas isn’t a very good captain and foreshadowing his decision to send himself crawling through the air ducts. The screenplay hints that maybe Dallas has an unspoken thing for Ripley, who offers to go crawling through the air ducts. Dallas goes in her place.

But there’s more! O’Bannon damages the landing ship so that the two crewmembers most likely to be sent on the rescue mission will be unavailable. He also sets up the Ash/Ripley conflict; when Ash overrides Ripley’s decision to not let the crewmembers back into the landing ship, it creates tension between these two characters that pays off later in the movie. All of this is set up by the composition of a simple scouting party. I have a ton of respect for the level of thought that went behind this scene.

Of course, the second half of Alien plays things a lot looser. That’s because this movie starts as a science fiction movie and ends up as horror movie, and the final hour plays by horror tropes. I particularly enjoyed the sequence when Ripley, who earlier refused to let her fellow crewmembers onto the ship because it violated quarantine, risks her life to hunt down her cat Jonesy, who spends most of the movie scaring the shit out of the crew. Knowing cats as I do, I think it’s possible that Jonesy and the alien were working together.

I watched Alien with my own cat, and sensed his approval during the feline rescue sequence. When Jonesy appeared onscreen he pawed at the screen and then peered behind the television, searching for the interloper. I have friends who assure me this is a sign of great intelligence in felines, although I have my doubts. I once had to stop my cat from eating a garbage bag.

Speaking of stupid: people sure do stupid things in the second half of this movie. Besides cat chasing, we have characters splitting up, Dallas confronting the alien in the air ducts (he wins a Darwin Award!) and the crewmembers leaving the door to the medical facilities wide open when the face-hugger vanishes.

One of the most problematic scenes in Alien is when Ripley – who is portrayed as a strong, tough-minded woman (weakness for cats aside) – strips down to her underwear. I’m sure director Ridley Scott would tell you he needed this scene because it sets up the sequence when Ripley dons the spacesuit (which wouldn’t fit with her clothes on, I guess) and ejects the alien into space. Yeah, right.

Alien is a visually striking movie. Yes, there are the H.R. Giger call-outs, but this film also contains all sorts of weird phallic imagery, from Ash’s white blood to the alien itself, which is a walking phallus. One of the movie’s more bizarre scenes is when Ash tries to kill Ripley by jamming a pornographic magazine down her throat. Perhaps he’s imitating the face-hugger, which shoves a tube down its victim’s throat. Or maybe there’s an even stranger reason. I don’t want to know.

I know you’ve all been waiting for this, so here is the first Web of Nostradamus™ that mystically binds all these movies together. The novelizations for Alien and The Thing were both written by Alan Dean Foster, who has the same middle name as actor Harry Dean Stanton, who spends most of Alien smoking unidentified substances and looking like he doesn’t know where the hell he is.