Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Retro Review: THE TERROR WITHIN (1989) and THE TERROR WITHIN II (1991)

(US - 1989)

Directed by Thierry Notz. Written by Thomas M. Cleaver. Cast: George Kennedy, Andrew Stevens, Starr Andreeff, Terri Treas, John Lafayette, Tommy Hinckley, Yvonne Saa, Joseph Hardin, Al Guarino, Butch Stevens. (R, 88 mins)

It doesn't scale the glorious cult movie heights of New World classics like 1980's HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP or 1981's GALAXY OF TERROR, but by the lesser standards of late '80s, Concorde-era Roger Corman, THE TERROR WITHIN isn't bad. Owing a lot to both ALIEN and HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic America of an unspecified future--not too far in the future, if the presence of mullets are any indication--after a plague has wiped out a good chunk of mankind. A small group of military scientists have taken refuge in an underground lab in the Mojave Desert, occasionally scouting the land above for food and dodging "Gargoyles," hideous mutant creatures that run rampant. During one excursion to find the remains of two of their team killed by a Gargoyle, David (Andrew Stevens) and Sue (Starr Andreeff), along with David's dog Butch (played by Stevens' own dog, who gets onscreen credit), find a shell-shocked young woman named Karen (Yvonne Saa) and bring her back to the lab, much to the concern of the group's leader Hal (George Kennedy), after a Gargoyle discovers their secret entrance through a dilapidated shed and knocks out their main security camera to the outside. Head doc Linda (Terri Treas) runs some tests and finds that Karen is expecting, but the pregnancy is accelerating. During an attempted C-section, the baby claws its way out of Karen, the mutant result of a rape by a Gargoyle. The mutant spawn escapes into an air vent and grows at a rapid rate, occasionally emerging from a hiding place to pick off the survivors one by one in sequences that will in no way remind you of ALIEN.

The HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP-derived idea of the Gargoyles hunting women in order to propagate their species brings some exploitative tackiness to the proceedings, which elsewhere mimic ALIEN right down to the top-billed actor and biggest name in the cast being killed off halfway through, just like Tom Skerritt in Ridley Scott's 1979 classic. Both happen offscreen and are implied, but Skerritt's is handled in a much better fashion compared to the way TERROR WITHIN director Thierry Notz has a bellowing Kennedy foolishly charge the gargoyle and yell "Die, you miserable ugly fuck!" Elsewhere, John Lafayette as Andre and Tommy Hinckley as Neil are carbon copies of Yaphet Kotto's Parker and Harry Dean Stanton's Brett, respectively, with Brett's repeating of "Right!" echoed here with Neil's "Maybe," and David asking "Do you just repeat everything he says?" just like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley (elsewhere, STAR TREK gets invoked as a frustrated Linda barks "I'm a doctor, not an engineer!"). THE TERROR WITHIN suffers from chintzy makeup work, with the body of the Gargoyle an obvious rubber suit that looks like Corman borrowed it from a HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP cosplayer, and some serious lapses in logic, as a limited-power laser is tested on a fire extinguisher, not only draining the laser by 25% but also emptying out the fire extinguisher, almost certainly foreshadowing a raging inferno to come later (SPOILER: it does). But THE TERROR WITHIN is a fairly solid little B-movie, with Notz enthusiastically letting the blood splatter everywhere as well as establishing a convincing claustrophobic atmosphere in the underground lab. He even pulls off a couple of stylish, De Palma-esque split diopter shots. A native of France, Notz didn't spend much time working for Corman--his other directing assignment around this time was 1990's WATCHERS II and he served as second unit director on the same year's FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, Corman's one-off return to directing after a 20-year hiatus--before moving on. He directed a pair of obscure war dramas with 1994's FORTUNES OF WAR and 1997's GOODBYE AMERICA, and the latter remains his last credit on IMDb.

THE TERROR WITHIN opening in Toledo, OH on Feb 24, 1989

(US - 1991)

Written and directed by Andrew Stevens. Cast: Andrew Stevens, Stella Stevens, Chick Vennera, R. Lee Ermey, Burton Gilliam, Clare Hoak, Larry Gilman, Barbara A. Woods, Rene Jones, Lou Beatty Jr, Gordon Currie, Brad Blaisdell, Cindi Gossett, Brewster Gould, Pete Koch, Butch Stevens. (R, 85 mins)

Two years after THE TERROR WITHIN, Andrew Stevens and a noticeably older Butch returned to reprise their roles, wandering the post-apocalyptic wasteland for THE TERROR WITHIN II. The sequel provides some backstory that the first film didn't really address, namely that a nuclear disarmament treaty led to covert experiments in biological warfare, resulting in a plague that wiped out most of mankind, creating the creatures that were called "Gargoyles" in the first film, but are now referred to as "Lusus." David is eventually joined in his nomadic existence by a young woman named Ariel (Clare Hoak, from Concorde's MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH remake). The sole survivor of the first film (apparently, Terri Treas' Dr. Linda died in the desert after they got away), David is en route from the Mojave stronghold to a similar underground lab in the Rocky Mountains run by Von Demming (R. Lee Ermey, on the heels of a similar role in Juan Piquer Simon's ENDLESS DESCENT), with the intent of bringing along a Lusus vaccine derived from a cactus extract. David and Ariel fall in love and after one night of passionate desert lovemaking, she's convinced she's pregnant. They eventually run afoul of Aunty Entity-type despot Elaba (Cindi Gossett), which leads to Ariel being kidnapped and strapped to a rape stand as a Lusus has its way with her. David and Ariel eventually make their way to Von Demming's compound, where it's discovered that Ariel is indeed pregnant with David's child, though a mutant sperm from the Lusus has infiltrated the egg and caused yet another human/creature hybrid. Meanwhile, a finger severed from an earlier Lusus attack on the Rocky Mountain lab is regenerating an all-new Lusus as David, Von Demming and the rest--including Kyle (Chick Vennera), treacherous scientist Sharon (Barbara A. Woods), who's created just enough vaccine to hoard it for herself, and head doc Kara (Stella Stevens, Andrew's mom)--are hunted down one by one by Ariel's rapidly growing offspring, a half-human/half-Lusus monstrosity that looks a lot like Dr. Pretorious in Stuart Gordon's FROM BEYOND (1986).

Stevens was being groomed for stardom back in the late '70s with co-starring roles in a pair of 1978 films, THE BOYS IN COMPANY C and as Kirk Douglas' brainwashed psychic son unable to control his powers in Brian De Palma's THE FURY. He then headlined a pair of high-profile NBC miniseries with 1978's THE BASTARD and its 1979 sequel THE REBELS, as well as a 1979 made-for-TV remake of the 1938 classic TOPPER that paired him with then-wife Kate Jackson. He co-starred in two Charles Bronson movies (1981's DEATH HUNT and 1983's 10 TO MIDNIGHT) and played a psycho stalker obsessed with TV news anchor Morgan Fairchild in 1982's THE SEDUCTION, but big-screen stardom never panned out and Stevens spent most of the '80s on short-lived TV shows like CODE RED and EMERALD POINT N.A.S. He also had numerous guest spots on shows like THE LOVE BOAT and MURDER, SHE WROTE, as well as a recurring role as J.R. Ewing underling Casey Denault on DALLAS. It was during his time on DALLAS from 1987 to 1989 that Stevens first began dabbling in the world of low-budget B-movies, with 1987's SCARED STIFF and a pair of Spanish actioners with director Jose Antonio de la Loma, 1988's COUNTERFORCE and 1989's FINE GOLD. Stevens would ultimately find his niche as a leading man with the advent of the straight-to-video erotic thriller thanks to 1990's video store mainstay NIGHT EYES. Thus began a series of what could best be described as "Stevensploitation," leading to three sequels, with 1992's NIGHT EYES 2 and 1993's NIGHT EYES 3 pairing him frequent co-star Shannon Tweed, as the duo would also star in 1994's SCORNED, 1994's ILLICIT DREAMS, and 1995's BODY CHEMISTRY 4: FULL EXPOSURE, the Concorde franchise that Stevens inherited with 1993's BODY CHEMISTRY 3: POINT OF SEDUCTION. Stevens also starred in the Tweed-less 1997 sequel SCORNED 2, making him the DTV erotic thriller equivalent of compulsive franchise-joiner Jeremy Renner (THE AVENGERS, THE BOURNE LEGACY, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE).

Clare Hoak between takes of the human/Lusus-hybrid birth scene

While he paid the bills enduring endless unrated sex scenes with the likes of Tweed, Shari Shattuck, Tanya Roberts, and others, Stevens was also pursuing his interest in directing. THE TERROR WITHIN II marked his debut as a filmmaker, and it's only fitting that the opportunity came courtesy of Roger Corman. Corman was known for shepherding many young, aspiring filmmakers of the '60s and '70s, like Francis Ford Coppola (DEMENTIA 13), Peter Bogdanovich (VOYAGE TO THE PLANET OF PREHISTORIC WOMEN), Martin Scorsese (BOXCAR BERTHA), Jonathan Demme (CAGED HEAT), Joe Dante (PIRANHA), John Sayles (writer of PIRANHA and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS), James Cameron (an art director and production designer on BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS and GALAXY OF TERROR), and Ron Howard (GRAND THEFT AUTO) just to name a few. Corman didn't establish much in the way of bench strength during his '80s Concorde years, with only two directors having any notable degree of mainstream Hollywood success (Luis Llosa with SNIPER and THE SPECIALIST and Carl Franklin with ONE FALSE MOVE and the Denzel Washington thrillers DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS, and OUT OF TIME). Corman letting Stevens earn his stripes with THE TERROR WITHIN II was an old-school move out of the 1970s New World playbook, and that extended to the involvement of Polish-born cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who shot THE TERROR WITHIN II and THE RAIN KILLER for Concorde before quickly graduating to the big leagues as Steven Spielberg's go-to cinematographer, winning Oscars for his work on 1993's SCHINDLER'S LIST and 1998's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (it's doubtful Kaminski mentioned THE TERROR WITHIN II in either acceptance speech), while also earning nominations for 1997's AMISTAD, 2011's WAR HORSE, and 2012's LINCOLN. The end result is somewhat less than its predecessor, though Stevens does what he can with the pocket change given to him by Corman (in an interview on Code Red's new TERROR WITHIN II Blu-ray, Ermey claims the budget was only $500,000, and judging from the finished film, that's probably accurate). Incredibly cheap-looking and raggedly-assembled, THE TERROR WITHIN II makes THE TERROR WITHIN look like a lavish sci-fi epic, with no money spent on even the most basic props, as evidenced by a great shot of Vennera--a Stevens BFF who appeared in several of his films, and this one just three years after starring in Robert Redford's acclaimed THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR--angrily firing an assault rifle but he's really just holding it and shaking it as sounds of firing ammo are put over it in post. The first hour of THE TERROR WITHIN II plays more like a Cirio Santiago post-nuke than a sequel to an ALIEN knockoff, and once David and Ariel arrive at the Rocky Mountain compound with 25 minutes to go, it morphs into a rushed, condensed version of the first film, with David apparently remembering absolutely nothing of what he endured since he faces the same situations and makes the same mistakes once again.

Complaining about plot holes and contrivances in something called THE TERROR WITHIN II is a waste of time. It's an enjoyable enough time killer, though Stevens' direction lacks even the most basic sense of style that Notz brought to the table two years earlier, and considering that he was just a couple of years away from becoming one of the most respected and sought-after D.P.'s in the movie industry, Kaminski's work here is functional at best. Stevens would continue directing throughout the '90s (NIGHT EYES 3, SCORNED, ILLICIT DREAMS) before launching a second career as a producer, forming Franchise Pictures with business partner Elie Samaha. Franchise had a hand in everything from low-budget action movies (STORM CATCHER, AGENT RED) to future cult classics (THE BOONDOCK SAINTS), and major studio fare with big name actors (THE WHOLE NINE YARDS, BATTLEFIELD EARTH, 3000 MILES TO GRACELAND, DRIVEN). Franchise would eventually crash and burn in a controversial court case involving allegations of scamming investors with inflated and fraudulent budget reports, leading to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2007. It was during this period that Stevens was accused of hiring private investigator and "wiretapper to the stars" Anthony Pellicano to tap the phones of one of the plaintiffs in the case. Pellicano became the subject of an extensive, years-long FBI investigation involving everything from racketeering to illegal possession of explosives and firearms, and Stevens was granted immunity for testifying against him in the same investigation that eventually led to the imprisonment of DIE HARD and HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER director John McTiernan after he allegedly lied to an FBI agent about hiring Pellicano. Now 61, Stevens has laid relatively low in recent years. He hasn't directed or appeared in a film since 2010, and his last credit as a producer was on Fred Olen Ray's 2013 DTV kids movie ABNER THE INVISIBLE DOG. In 2014, he published the book Foolproof Filmmaking: Make a Movie that Makes a Profit, and embarked on another career giving seminars and online tutorials covering the ins and outs of movie production.

No comments:

Post a Comment