Friday, June 22, 2018

Retro Review: ALIEN PREDATORS (1987)

(US/Spain - 1987)

Written and directed by Deran Sarafian. Cast: Dennis Christopher, Martin Hewitt, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Luis Prendes, J.O. Bosso, Yousaf Bokhari, Yolanda Palomo. (R, 90 mins)

The vault pickings must be getting slim for Shout! Factory if ALIEN PREDATORS is out on Blu-ray. Shot in 1984 and released overseas under its original title THE FALLING, the US/Spanish co-production was rechristened ALIEN PREDATORS for its belated 1987 US release through Trans World Entertainment and subsequently became a fixture in every video store in America. It's the directing debut of then-26-year-old Deran Sarafian, the son of veteran director Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT), and a sometime actor (he had a bit part as a murder victim in 10 TO MIDNIGHT) who spent most of the '80s working in Europe. In addition to ALIEN PREDATORS, he also directed the late-period Italian post-nuke INTERZONE and starred in 1988's unintended Lucio Fulci/Bruno Mattei collaboration ZOMBI 3. Sarafian returned to the States and quickly established himself as a competent journeyman with 1989's vampire film TO DIE FOR, 1990's Van Damme prison brawler DEATH WARRANT, and a pair of 1994 actioners with GUNMEN and the A-list Charlie Sheen vehicle TERMINAL VELOCITY.  Now 60, Sarafian hasn't directed a feature film since 1995's straight-to-video THE ROAD KILLERS, but has since stayed very busy as a go-to hired gun for TV over the last 20-plus years, piling up directing credits for shows like NASH BRIDGES, CSI, CSI: MIAMI, COLD CASE, LOST, HOUSE, FRINGE, HEMLOCK GROVE, HELL ON WHEELS, and BLUE BLOODS. While he'll never be mistaken for a visionary auteur, Sarafian's career is a success just in terms of the sheer volume of TV gigs he gets, but if ALIEN PREDATORS accomplishes nothing else (and rest assured, it doesn't), it proves the old saying that everybody's gotta start somewhere.

Sarafian's script has an intriguing idea at its core, dealing with the 1979 falling of Skylab back into Earth's orbit. In actuality, the space station, launched in 1973, crashed near Perth, Australia but for the purposes of Spanish producer Carlos Aured (who directed several Paul Naschy films in the 1970s), the location has been moved to Duarte, Spain. It also didn't have a parasitic virus of sorts onboard that turned the entire population of a nearby town into INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS rejects. Three American tourists--Damon (Dennis Christopher), Michael (Martin Hewitt), and their platonic female friend Sam (Lynn-Holly Johnson)--are passing through Duarte in an RV with a dune buggy on a trailer en route to Madrid when the mayhem breaks out. "Breaks out" is a term used loosely, as there only appears to be three people who live in Duarte, and most of our time is spent focused on the trio of annoying tourists, with Damon and Michael in a competition over Sam, followed by the eventual jealousy of Damon once she clearly chooses Michael. One can hardly blame her, considering how broadly Christopher plays the obnoxious Damon, who busts out terrible impressions of James Cagney, Elmer Fudd, and Robert Duvall from APOCALYPSE NOW (Christopher's gift for mimicry was put to much better use in the 1980 slasher film FADE TO BLACK). They're eventually joined by rogue NASA scientist Dr. Tracer (Luis Prendes, sleepwalking and mumbling his way through the film with an expression that seems to say "I'm almost Fernando Rey"), who informs them that Skylab brought back an alien life form that inhabits and takes over both humans and animals, and at the rate it's going, all of Europe will be wiped out in a matter of three weeks.

THE FALLING is actually a more appropriate title, and that's what's on the print used for Shout's Blu-ray (it also occasionally runs on MGM HD and Comet under this title). It barely even qualifies as an ALIEN ripoff except for one faceburster scene at the very end, which is the first time we even get a clear look at a creature. Mostly, we see the gory after-effects of a cow being taken over, a corpse with an alien fetus bulging out of his neck, and one local with his face shredded. The creature effects are sparse but deliver the splattery goods when Sarafian gets around to them. But in the end, ALIEN PREDATORS is a total slog, with far too much time spent on an uninteresting love triangle that doesn't even seem interesting to the three actors, who got a nice vacation out of the deal but probably had to question how their promising careers led them to a cheap Spanish horror movie in such a short amount of time. At the time of filming, Christopher was only a few years removed from his breakout role in 1979's coming-of-age classic BREAKING AWAY and 1981's CHARIOTS OF FIRE; professional figure skater Johnson was nominated for a Golden Globe for the 1978 hit ICE CASTLES and was a Bond girl in 1981's FOR YOUR EYES ONLY; and Hewitt co-starred with Brooke Shields in 1981's popular but multiple Razzie-nominated ENDLESS LOVE, and was part of the ensemble of the 1983 Monty Python offshoot YELLOWBEARD.

ALIEN PREDATORS did nothing to further their careers by the time of its eventual 1987 release: Johnson and Hewitt both logged time in the world of DTV (Johnson in Cirio H. Santiago's 1988 Filipino post-nuke THE SISTERHOOD before retiring from acting in the late '90s to focus on her family, Hewitt in several early '90s erotic thrillers like SECRET GAMES and NIGHT RHYTHMS, his last credit to date being a guest spot on a 2003 episode of ER), while Christopher was already reduced to playing the title hero's sidekick in 1986's JAKE SPEED, Hollywood's one-and-done attempt to make Wayne Crawford a big-screen action star. Christopher did play the adult Eddie Kaspbrak in the 1990 TV mini-series version of IT and was a regular presence on TV throughout the '90s and '00s, but it wasn't until 2012 that he had another prominent role, as the attorney for Leonardo DiCaprio's nefarious Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED. Christopher's place in film history is secure thanks to the beloved BREAKING AWAY, but bottom-of-the-barrel duds like ALIEN PREDATORS only succeeded in killing any momentum he had going. Sarafian would certainly go on to make better movies (am I the world's only GUNMEN fan?), and while I totally get the feeling of nostalgia for the 1980s VHS glory days, there can't possibly be a cult around ALIEN PREDATORS, can there? Sarafian's on a commentary track on the Blu-ray, and judging from the long periods of dead air and the fact that he basically pulls a peace-out and calls it a day five minutes before the movie's over are pretty solid indicators that even he doesn't have much affinity for it.

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