Saturday, August 7, 2010

Alien Encounters

PREY (1977)

A dog-nosed alien terrorises rural England in PREY, the strangest British horror movie of all time.

EXISTING in tandem with Hammer's decline was a vibrant sub-culture of independent filmmakers working with minuscule budgets but inspirational levels of enthusiasm. One such director was Norman J. Warren, who followed SATAN'S SLAVE with PREY, shot in ten days at Shepperton for around £50,000. A triumph of minimalism, with a principal cast of three, the film is the story of hesitant shape-shifting alien Kator (Barry Stokes), who adopts a human guise (and the name Anderson) from his first victim and finds himself stranded on Earth in the care of an unstable lesbian couple in their isolated home: possessive Josephine (Sally Faulkner) and childish Jessica (Glory Annen). Unnervingly bleak, PREY plays out its bizarre triangle with several moments of inspired weirdness: Anderson is forced to dress as a girl for a highly uncomfortable dinner party, and when the alien discovers he cannot walk on water, there is a seemingly endless slow-motion struggle in an improbably filthy stream. And when Anderson finally gets to go to bed with Jessica, Warren unleashes a truly shocking entrail-wreathed climax.

Josephine is more sinister than the alien, and has already killed one of her lover’s potential male suitors; Faulkner doesn't overplay this, and keeps the character at least two steps from insanity. PREY was Annan's first movie and despite a very halting style of delivery it is appropriate that she doesn't have the strength of Faulkner. Stokes is also memorable, his limited resources as an actor paying dividends where he's meant to seem awkward and an outsider. When he changes into his true form, however, Stokes looks less like a dangerous alien than a badly made-up dog on children's television. But considering the budget and the schedule, PREY is astonishingly effective and certainly deserves more attention. It’s also got one of the great final lines of any British horror movie.

Mathilda May's background in ballet lends her a certain onscreen elegance in the SF fiasco LIFEFORCE.

LIFEFORCE (commonly known as Lifefarce) is a film light years away from the intimate inventiveness of PREY, so conceptually ambitious that it bites off far more than it is ever capable of coherently presenting. Loosely based on Colin Wilson's 1976 novel Space Vampires, its tale of three sleeping humanoids brought back to Earth and draining London of its lifeforce plays more like a Quatermass scenario. Directed by American maverick Tobe Hooper, the film is remembered mostly for French actress Mathilda May - billed as Space Girl - who spends the entire film undressed. May is possessed of such a spectacularly statuesque physique that she could probably have conquered all of mankind even without her special talents, which include a form of electroshock vampirism and the ability to inhabit other bodies.

Hooper pays homage to his hosts, drawing on the British tradition of sci-fi drollness (tea is served as the country burns to a crisp), and much of its wryness is in the sincere performances: Peter Firth representing military authority and Frank Finlay playing the scientist ("well, in a sense, we are all vampires"). Producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus sank a then substantial $25 million into the production, clearly seeing LIFEFORCE as the next SF blockbuster. Hiring ALIEN co-scripter Dan O'Bannon and STAR WARS visual supremo John Dykstra, the film however was a box office disaster. In fact, LIFEFORCE and Hooper's other two Cannon projects - the INVADERS FROM MARS remake and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE 2 - ended up almost single-handedly sinking Cannon's finances and forced Golan and Globus to declare bankruptcy by the 1990s.