Hangdog cool


© Road Movies / Filmproduktion GmbH / Argos Films S.A


So far, the number of celebrity deaths in 2017 hasn’t been as astronomical as it was in 2016.  However, this year has taken its toll on a certain type of male American character actor.  I’m thinking of guys who made their names with supporting roles in films in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and who could be relied up to steal a scene, or indeed steal the whole show, in sweaty, hardboiled action-thrillers directed by the likes of John Milius, Paul Verhoeven, Walter Hill, James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez.


2017 has already seen the demise of Miguel Ferrer, Bill Paxton, Michael Parks and Powers Boothe.  To that list we must now add the great Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away on September 15th.  Whatever movie he was in, Stanton would project a glorious hangdog, laconic and slightly-disreputable cool without seeming to break sweat.


He acted from the 1950s, initially doing a lot of television and, on the big screen, turning up in many Westerns like Revolt at Fort Laramie (1956), Tomahawk Trail (1957), The Proud Rebel (1958), The Jayhawkers (1959), How the West was Won (1962), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) and Day of the Evil Gun (1968).  Indeed, latterly, there was something of the ageing cowboy about him and it’s no wonder he appeared in music videos for country-and-western and Americana stars like Dwight Yoakam and Ry Cooder.


By the late 1960s he was getting minor roles in prestigious fare like In the Heat of the Night and Cool Hand Luke (both 1967) but his career really started to take off in the 1970s when he played tough guys, never-do-wells and oddballs in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), John Milius’s Dillinger (1973), Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garret and Billy the Kid (1973), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II (1974) and John Huston’s Wise Blood (1979).  I suspect, though, that for many people of my age and disposition Stanton first appeared on the radar with his performance as Brett, the disgruntled blue-collar crew-member of the giant space freighter the Nostromo, in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979).


© 20th Century Fox / Brandywine-Ronald Shushett Productions


As Brett, Stanton should be a disposable and anonymous character.  He gets little in the way of dialogue and he’s the second person to get killed – he tries to catch Jones, the spaceship cat, and the irresponsible feline leads him into a dark engine room and right into the alien’s scaly claws.  Yet thanks to Stanton’s terse and grizzled presence, he’s strangely memorable.  It’s telling to compare him with the characters in this year’s Ridley Scott movie Alien Covenant, where half-a-dozen of them got killed off before I started to figure out who was who.


During the 1980s those hangdog Stanton features became awfully familiar in the cinema.  Bernard Tavernier cast him in the offbeat Glasgow-set sci-fi movie Death Watch (1980) and John Carpenter cast him in the overrated Escape from New York (1981) and the underrated Christine (1983).  Best of all, Alex Cox gave him the role of Bud, car-repossession kingpin and mentor to Emilio Estevez’s street-punk Otto, in his scuzzy sci-fi / satirical comedy Repo Man (1984).  Alternatively seamy and anarchic, Stanton gets many of Repo Man’s best lines: “The life of a repo man is always intense.”  “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”  “Goddamn dipshit Rodriguez gypsy dildo punks.  I’ll get your ass!”  And his mission statement: “Look at these assholes.  Ordinary f*cking people.  I hate ’em!”


© Edge City / Universal Pictures


In the same year as Repo Man, at the age of 58, Stanton finally got to be a leading man in Wim Wenders’ melancholic Western / road movie Paris Texas.  A film with impeccable credentials – a script by Sam Shepherd (who’s been another casualty of 2017, unfortunately), a score by Ry Cooder – Paris, Texas is famous for this scene with Stanton and Nastassja Kinski, which I suspect has had a lot of hits on YouTube over the past few days.


Apparently, two years after Paris, Texas, he won even more fans when he played Molly Ringwald’s father in John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink (1986).  But I’ve never seen the film, so I can’t comment on it.


Stanton was as prolific as ever during the 1990s and into the 21st century.  Quality control couldn’t keep up with his work-rate and he inevitably featured in some tat, though no doubt he appreciated the opportunity to appear in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile (1999) and Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths (2012).   Thankfully, during this later period in his career, he forged a bond with the weird and wonderful David Lynch and as part of Lynch’s repertory he had roles in Wild at Heart (1990), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), The Straight Story (1999) and Inland Empire (2006).


A sprightly and wits-still-about-him nonagenarian, Harry Dean Stanton played trailer-park manager Carl Rodd in Lynch’s long-awaited third season of his legendary TV show Twin Peaks, whose final episode aired only a few weeks ago.  Rodd wasn’t a huge component of the show, appearing in five out of 18 episodes, but the scenes he got were memorable.  There was a simultaneously vicious, eerie and affecting one where Rodd witnesses the death of a child in a hit-and-run accident and sees a weird light – an untethered soul? – rise from the child’s body; and then, alone among the traumatised onlookers, he shambles forward to try and comfort the child’s grieving mother.  There was a scene that said a lot about life on the breadline in 2017 America where he dissuades an ailing and hard-pressed trailer-park resident from selling his blood at the hospital by cancelling his next rent-payment.


And there was a scene where he gets to chill, strum his guitar and sing the old country number Red River Valley.  Which was a charming reminder that the gaunt, gnarly figure of Harry Dean Stanton – a musician and singer as well as an actor, who’d performed with the likes of Bob Dylan, Art Garfunkel and Kris Kristofferson – was also blessed with the voice of a troubadour.


© Lynch / Frost Productions


God save the Queen


© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox


Scene: The living room of the Parochial House on Craggy Island during a 1996 episode of Father Ted.  The elderly and infirm Bishop Jordan, one of a visiting trio of church dignitaries, has just been explaining how he had a heart attack last year and needs to avoid having sudden surprises and shocks.

Father Dougal (bellowing at the top of his voice): AAAAAHHHHH!

Bishop Jordan nearly suffers another heart attack on the living room sofa.

Father Ted (seeing Bishop Jordan’s distress): Dougal!  What are you doing?!

Father Dougal: Sorry, Ted – I just remembered.  Aliens is on after the news!

Father Ted: Dougal, for God’s sake!  (To the stricken Bishop Jordan, who has almost collapsed off the sofa.)  I’m sorry, Bishop Jordan!  (To Dougal.)  Did you not hear what he’s saying about his heart?

Father Dougal: I know, but it’s just that it’s the Director’s Cut!  Come on everyone, let’s all have a lads’ night in!

Father Ted: Dougal, just shut up!  (To Bishop Jordan.)  Ha-ha.  A heart attack?  That’s rare enough these days.

Bishop O’Neill (trying to help Father Jordan back onto the sofa): There were certainly a lot of prayers said for Bishop Jordan –

Father Dougal: I don’t know why we can’t look at Aliens

Father Ted: Dougal!  Bishop O’Neill is speaking.

Father Dougal: But…  They’d love it, Ted!

Father Ted: No, they wouldn’t!

Father Dougal: But bishops love sci-fi –



* * * * *


Here’s yet another anniversary that makes me feel ancient.  It’s now exactly thirty years since the James Cameron-directed sci-fi / horror / action movie Aliens was released in the United Kingdom.  A few days from now, it’ll be exactly thirty years since I first laid eyes on it in a crowded cinema in Aberdeen.  And like Dougal in that old episode of Father Ted, I still get irrationally excited when I discover that it’s due to have another airing on TV.  And during the first occasion I watched it, there were a few moments when, like the beleaguered Bishop Jordan, I thought my heart was about to pop.  Yes, Aliens is a film that gets the adrenaline sluicing through you like no other.


It’s remarkable that the film achieves this when it’s a sequel.  One of the Great Laws of the Cinema is that, compared to the original films, sequels are almost always rubbish.  Certainly, that law seemed to hold true in the 1980s, when cinema audiences were subjected to such puddings as Halloween II (1981), Grease 2 (1982), Rocky III (1982) and Rocky IV (1985), Jaws 3-D (1983), Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) and Rambo III (1988), Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986) and Beverley Hills Cop II (1987).  Oh, and Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), which was directed by a certain James Cameron…


Aliens’ task was particularly daunting.  It was to be the follow-up to Ridley Scott’s magnificent haunted-house-in-space movie, 1979’s Alien.


© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox


It’s unsurprising that while Cameron was shooting the sequel at Buckinghamshire’s Pinewood Studios in the mid-1980s, he had to put up with a sceptical British crew who were of the opinion that this bearded thirty-something Canadian wasn’t fit to kiss the boots of the mighty Ridley Scott.  Mind you, the contempt was reciprocated by Cameron.  A man used to pursuing his vision with the single-minded determination of The Terminator (1984) – the film that he’d directed between the Piranha sequel and the Alien sequel – Cameron was not impressed by his crew’s Great British working practices like stopping every couple of minutes to have a tea-break.


The resulting movie shows no disrespect to Ridley Scott or the original Alien.  It simply takes a very different approach to the hideous, slimy, fanged, multi-jawed, acid-blooded title creatures.  Whereas Alien set one of them loose in a giant spaceship and Scott milked the scenario for all the clammy, claustrophobic horror it was worth, Cameron unleashes a whole army of them in and around a base on a distant planet and declares out-and-out war on the bastards, courtesy of a well-armed platoon of space marines who’ve journeyed there in the company of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, heroine and sole survivor of the first film.   Yes, there’s clamminess, claustrophobia and horror to be found in Cameron’s creation too, but that doesn’t prevent Aliens from also being one of the best action films ever made.


That’s not to say that Aliens is a non-stop rollercoaster from start to finish.  Cameron actually takes his time getting his characters to the base (after contact with the 160-strong space colony there is suddenly and mysteriously lost).  Wisely, and unlike a lot of directors of scary movies who’ve come since, he gives the audience a chance to get to know, and get to like, his characters.  So that when all hell does break loose, halfway through the film, we’re genuinely on the edge of our seats because we’re rooting for those characters to survive.


© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox


Cameron does such a good job of it that, thirty years on, I still know those characters like they’re dear old friends.  There’s Michael Biehn’s reliable Corporal Hicks, who packs a vintage pump-action shotgun alongside his space-age weaponry (“I like to keep this handy… for close encounters”) and who finds himself in the unexpected position of platoon leader after the aliens’ first onslaught wipes most of it out.  There’s Lance Henriksen’s Bishop, the regulation android whom Ripley – mindful of what happened in the first movie – is extremely wary of; though after he’s saved her and saved the other surviving humans three or four times (even after he gets ripped in half), she accepts that he’s a good, if synthetic, bloke.


And there’s the motor-mouthed Private Hudson, played by the great Bill Paxton, who gets the film’s best lines.  This is both before the aliens show up, when he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!” – and after they show up, when he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked, pal!”


But Aliens is hardly a testosterone-fest.  Dougal in Father Ted might have earmarked it for a ‘lads’ night in’ but it’s also, subversively, a chick-flick.  At its heart are no fewer than four powerful female characters.  There’s the splendid Sigourney Weaver, of course, back in the role of Ripley – though it’s in Aliens that both Weaver and Ripley properly achieve the status of cinematic icons.  There’s Carrie Henn as Newt, the waif-like little girl who’s the colony’s only survivor and who, gradually, awakens Ripley’s maternal instincts.  While Ripley spends the original movie reacting to and mainly running away from the horrors around her, it’s thanks to Newt that in Aliens she becomes increasingly proactive and ends up running at them.  Admittedly, that’s when she’s armed with a M41A Pulse Rifle / M240 Flamethrower.


© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox


And let’s not forget the impressive Private Vasquez, played by Jenette Goldstein, who’s more than a match for any man in her platoon.  “All right,” she snarls at one point, “we got seven canisters of CM-20.  I say we roll them in there and nerve-gas the whole f***in’ nest.”  And when she’s not shooting down aliens, she’s shooting down Hudson’s bullshit, as happens in the following exchange: “Hey Vasquez.  Have you ever been mistaken for a man?”  “No.  Have you?”


The film’s final trump card also takes female form: the Alien Queen.  Here, Cameron combines the design of the original alien, by the Swiss artist H.R. Giger, with the concepts of an egg-laying queen termite and of a tyrannosaurus rex.  He creates a twenty-foot foe of terrifying savagery, strength and tenacity.  And when she comes bearing down on Ripley at the movie’s climax, Aliens turns into the Battle of the Big Bad Mamas.  By this time, the Queen has seen her whole hellish brood destroyed and wants revenge.  Meanwhile, Ripley is determined to defend what’s left of her family – Newt and the now-incapacitated Hicks and Bishop – to the death.


What more can I say?  Three decades later Aliens is still riveting and I envy anyone sitting down to watch it for the first time – especially on a big screen with a big sound-system.  In the words of Private Hudson: “We’re on an express elevator to hell, going down!”





© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox


Farewell, Alien’s dad


From www.museumssyndicate.com


In 1979 a surprising thing happened.  A movie was released called Alien, which was about an alien, which unlike practically every other alien that’d appeared in a movie until then really looked alien.


Pre-1979 science fiction cinema had served up some memorable beasties, of course, including the scaly clawed man-fish in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and the bulging-brained mutant in This Island Earth (1955), but watching them even as a child, I could never quite escape the suspicion that if you inspected these creature’s spines you’d discover a zipper; and if you pulled down that zipper, their exterior – a monster suit – would drop away and reveal inside a Hollywood stuntman.


The thing in Alien didn’t give that impression because it was so nightmarishly bizarre.  Its body was a ribbed and ridged structure that seemingly combined a dinosaur skeleton with a samurai warrior’s armour.  Its tail tapered to a swishing lash and its veins pulsed with yellow acidic blood.  Its head was a truly grotesque item, long, phallic and eyeless, and endowed with a succession of mantrap-like fangs on the ends of a succession of tongues that emerged, Russian doll-style, out of one another.  And it drooled slime.  Its design was created by Swiss surrealist artist H.R. Giger – who, unfortunately, died three days ago after falling down some stairs at his home in Zurich.


Dan O’Bannon, who’d penned the original script for Alien, was a fan of Giger’s artwork.  With its disturbing organic / mechanical imagery, it seemed to fuse the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch and Francis Bacon with the spirit of H.P. Lovecraft, but in a science-fictional way that made it seem prescient of what was approaching as humanity became evermore reliant on, addicted to and integrated with technology.  O’Bannon showed some of Giger’s work to the project’s director, Ridley Scott.  A figure in one of Giger’s designs, Necronom IV, caught Scott’s eye and during the film’s production it evolved into the alien that we’re familiar with today.


In fact, we’re rather too familiar with that alien today.  It’s become an enduring part of popular culture, featured in numerous spin-offs – not just in the film sequels, whose quality gradually decreased and eventually saw poor old Giger’s alien having pro-wrestling-like scraps with the creatures from the Predator movies, but also in graphic novels, computer games and other media in the wider Alien franchise.  Its appearance has also been copied and mocked in countless rip-offs and parodies.  And while the alien was cheapened by over-exposure, Giger himself was never able to make the same impact again.  It must have been galling for him to find himself working on the design for the 1995 movie Species, which was clearly an an inferior cash-in on the film he’d contributed so much to a decade-and-a-half earlier.  Mind you, it got even worse — a year later, he worked on something called Killer Condom.


As well as designing movies, he produced artwork for rock musicians.  He was responsible for the Penis Landscape poster that was given out with the Dead Kennedys’ Frankenchrist LP in 1986.  The poster was an arresting one – literally so, because it resulted in the Dead Kennedys’ frontman, Jello Biafra, being brought to court accused of corrupting minors.  Prior to that, in 1981, he’d also painted the cover of Koo Koo, a solo album by Debbie Harry, which showed Ms Harry’s face being pierced by four long horizontal skewers.  Two years later, she starred in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a film that – with its images of human flesh mutating to incorporate video and military technology – is much informed by Giger’s aesthetics.


(c) Chrysalis 


In the 1949 film classic The Third Man, Orson Welles famously observes: “in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland, they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace.  And what did that produce?  The cuckoo clock.”  Well, those 500 years of Swiss democracy and peace managed to produce H.R. Giger too.  Alas, the next logical Swiss invention – a cuckoo clock that on the hour opened its doors and released, not a cuckoo, but a phallic skeletal creature snarling with a series of fanged mouths and and spurting slime and acidic blood – never materialised.


Game not yet over: film review / Prometheus


(c) 20th Century Fox


Following the previous entry on this blog, I’d like to continue the space theme by giving my thoughts on Ridley Scott’s recent science fiction movie Prometheus, which was released on DVD in the United Kingdom this week and is a prequel to the series of Alien films – the first of which was famously directed by Scott back in 1979.


I’d have liked to begin this review with a quote from Hamlet.  The film comes laden with child-parent themes – there’s the relationship that Michael Fassbender’s android character has with his creator, and the dreams experienced by Noomi Rapace’s archaeologist where she recalls her childhood with her father, and a late-on revelation that provides a parental motive for the behaviour of the glacially unpleasant company executive played by Charlie Theron, and the fact that the film takes place in the same universe as the Alien movies, which feature the worst parenting experiences in the history of the cinema – and a few lines from Shakespeare’s play about the father-haunted, mother-fixated Dane would surely be appropriate.  However, it’s actually a quote from another Shakespearean work, Macbeth, which bests sums up certain aspects of Prometheus: “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”.


That’s not to say that the film’s basic premise isn’t sound.  It begins with a scene set in the earth’s distant past that suggests life on our planet was the result of alien tampering.  Subsequently, in the late 21st century, evidence of these aliens – who are nicknamed ‘the Engineers’ – and the planet they may have come from is uncovered by archaeologists and a mega-billionaire called Charles Weyland (Guy Pearce) is sufficiently inspired to launch a spaceship containing a team of cryogenically-frozen scientists towards the distant planet.


Arriving a couple of years later at their destination – having been looked after en route by an android called David (Fassbender) – the team thaw out and soon discover on the planet’s surface what appear to be the remains of a giant genetic laboratory once run by the Engineers.  However, when David gets the lab’s holographic CCTV system operating again, it reveals ghostly footage of the Engineers in terrified flight from something they’d created.  And as ghastly things begin to stir in the shadowy, cave-like tunnels of the abandoned lab, it becomes clear that the Engineers – no longer the benevolent species they were when they visited earth – were working on making genetic weapons here, weapons that are still, horribly, active.


In the original, Scott-directed Alien, the life-cycle of the hideous title star was fairly straightforward.  It started off inside an egg, emerged as a claw-like face-hugger, incubated inside John Hurt, reappeared explosively as the phallic chest-burster and finally grew into the nightmarish, acid-blooded, adult alien that’d been designed by Swiss artist H.R. Giger.  The cycle was tweaked with but not dramatically altered in later films – James Cameron’s Aliens brought in the egg-laying alien queen, while Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien Resurrection introduced the half-alien, half-human new-born (which unfortunately looked like it was about to burst into tears and ruined the film’s finale).  Prometheus avoids the easy option of using the aliens we’ve been familiar with since 1979 as the biological weapons lurking in the Engineers’ laboratory.  Instead, we get some new but equally unpleasant life-forms that might’ve been developed in parallel with the aliens, or developed as prototypes to them.


Unfortunately, the rules governing the life-cycle of the thingies in Prometheus are all over the place.  (It doesn’t help that a couple of the humans are attacked too on a cellular level – they get infected by something viral and gruesome.)  During the latter stages of the film, while horribleness piled on top of horribleness, I was asking myself an array of troubling questions.  Where did that come from?  Is that thing related to that other thing from half-an-hour ago or is it something new?  And if it’s something new, what happened to the other thing from half-an-hour ago?  Why did that happen to him when it didn’t happen to the other bloke?  Why did he react that way when the last guy reacted a different way?  Oh, what the f*** is going on?!!  At a number of moments, such was the illogical sound and fury of Prometheus that it did indeed seem like a tale told by an idiot.  (The script is by Damon Lindelof, who isn’t actually an idiot, but he’s perhaps the next worst thing: he’s a writer on the TV show Lost.)


However, having got that major gripe out of the way, I can say there was much in Prometheus that I enjoyed.  The early stages of the film have a lovely 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe to them and it’s refreshing to encounter a science fiction movie that isn’t afraid to engage with big questions such as where we come from and what we’re doing here – which the genre should do more of, but doesn’t (cinematically, at least).  It also makes a change to have an Alien movie where the main characters are scientists and specialists who have some idea of what they’re getting themselves into (even if they’re not sure what exactly), as opposed to the hapless blue-collar and low-life characters who populated the earlier films: space-truckers in Alien, space-marines in Aliens, space-convicts in Alien 3 and space-mercenaries in Alien Resurrection.  (That said, during the scene where the spaceship prepared to land on the Engineers’ planet, I was half-hoping that Bill Paxton would pop up and exclaim: “Stop your grinnin’, and drop your linen!”)


The cast are also good value, especially Noomi Rapace who, in the best Sigourney Weaver / Ripley tradition, becomes tougher and more proactive as her fellow crew-members are gradually whittled away around her; and Michael Fassbender as David, who’s an intriguing creation.  Driven by a curiosity that’s sometimes child-like and sometimes ruthless, he’s morally positioned halfway between Ash, Ian Holm’s out-and-out bastard of an android in the original Alien, and Bishop, Lance Henrikson’s noble android in Aliens (who helped to save the day even after the alien queen had ripped him in half).  The other actors and actresses do well too, although they have to cope with some wildly expository dialogue – it’s just a pity that the dialogue hadn’t been more expository when explaining what, precisely, was going on in the Engineers’ laboratory.  The script also demands they do some very stupid things that only characters in horror films, and Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, are capable of doing.  An alien life-form rears up in front of you…  And how do you respond?  You reach out and touch it.  Duh.


Among the supporting cast, I particularly liked Sean Harris and Rafe Spall as a bickering geologist and biologist – although when the moment comes that they stop sniping and decide they actually like each other, you know that Something Bad Is Going To Happen.


The real star of the film, however, is Ridley Scott.  His direction, coupled with the photography, set design and special effects, ensure that, visually, the films packs as much of a punch as any of his best movies did in the past.  And it just feels good to have him making a film again that’s set in the Alien universe, the universe that he played a major role in creating 33 years ago.  Prometheus doesn’t have the narrative thrust or the freshness of the first two films in the series, but it’s certainly superior to the third and fourth ones (although, directed by David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet respectively, neither Alien 3 nor Alien Resurrection are without merit).  So – welcome back, Ridley.


(You’ll notice that in the above review I have not mentioned the Alien vs Predator movies.  I have no wish to.  In fact, anyone who tries to argue with me that Alien vs Predator I and II are part of the canon deserves to have acidic alien blood dribbled over his or her head.)