If you’re in the mood for an unpretentious action-adventure with aliens stirred into the mix: Zone Troopers (1985, Danny Bilson)
The modern Michael-Bay-style blockbuster has flash and bombast to spare, but what’s often missing amid the aggressiveness is a sense of fun — all whiz-bang, no gee-whiz. A film like Battleship, story-wise, is ridiculous on its face (aliens vs. the Navy!), and yet the finished product tries so hard to be Very Serious, as though The Navy vs. the Night Monsters had delusions of being Battleground. The WWII-era Boy’s-Own throwback Zone Troopers, on the other hand, blissfully harbors no such illusions. Goofy and proud, this slice of cheeseball sci-fi milks every ounce of lantern-jawed joviality out of its premise.
That’s not to say director Danny Bilson doesn’t take said premise — a platoon of American soldiers stranded behind enemy lines in the waning days of World War II discover an alien ship crash-landed next to a Nazi officer base — as seriously as it needs to. It’s just that it’s not ashamed of its premise, and it isn’t choked with smug po-mo irony. Rather, it functions as straight wish-fulfillment fantasy, with a black-and-white morality to match — eager recruits led by a gruff sergeant (Tim Thomerson, agreeably no-nonsense) teaming up with a benevolent otherworldly lifeform (one that looks like the Brundlefly got caught in a compromising position with a warthog) to blow the holy hell out of the Nazis. The Jewish recruit even gets to sock Hitler in the kisser. The modest ambition at work here, then, is to be corny but relentlessly entertaining Sunday-matinee greasy kid’s stuff, the kind of wide-eyed B-movie that, seen at the right age, would lead the viewer to get their friends and re-enact their favorite parts and maybe write into “Famous Monsters of Filmland” about how much they really enjoyed this little flick.
If you’re in the mood for a scary alien-abduction film: Altered (2006, Eduardo Sanchez)
Stories of rednecks and alien abductions are slam-dunk fodder for easy, stupid laughs — a couple hick stereotypes, a couple anal-probing jokes and no sweat. Eduardo Sanchez’s Altered, thankfully, is more ambitious than that. Sanchez is interested in the idea of such an abduction actually happening. How would that affect you, how would you live with that, how would you carry on?
What exactly has Wyatt (Adam Kaufman) been coping with? Years ago, he and several others — Duke (Brad William Henke), snarling Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington), Cody’s late brother and perpetually dazed Otis (Blair Witch alumnus Michael C. Williams) — were snatched up by malevolent aliens. So when Cody, Duke and Otis manage to trap and capture one of these little bastards, the tension of what to do with it, the desire for revenge crashing against the suspicion that harming this thing can only end badly, creates a compelling pressure-cooker situation that Sanchez exploits to maximum effect. Every potential complication present within the scenario is rolled out inexorably, spaced and allotted at perfect intervals to keep the tension high, with the occasional dash of rueful humor proving supremely effective in this atmosphere. Like Blair Witch, though, the ace in the hole for Altered is the characters in it and how they develop inside the situation. Sanchez pushes past initial impressions to reveal his characters as angry, scared and all too human in the face of an unearthly menace that, at times, seems to be all teeth and claws; there’s a scene where a character, under attack by the alien and having his guts pulled out, whimpers, “I want my mommy…” and it’s a testament to the tone that said plea comes off as genuine humanism. Sanchez is as interested in the horror of lingering trauma as he is the horror of little green monsters.
If you’re in the mood for a horror-comedy with an outre premise that actually works: One-Eyed Monster (2008, Adam Fields)
In the first scene of the horror-comedy One-Eyed Monster, a character exclaims at another, “Cynical bastard. Where’s your joy?” My joy is seeing something like this that comes up with an eye-rollingly stupid premise and, instead of sniggering to its audience about it, actually uses a modicum of restraint and intelligence to figure out what to do with it.
It feels strange to be thinking about restraint in regards to a movie about an alien that takes control of Ron Jeremy’s penis and starts tearing through the snowbound cast and crew of a porn film, but that’s exactly why the spam-in-a-cabin One-Eyed Monster succeeds where so many similar films fail. Director Adam Fields goes for a deadpan whimsy, the kind of tone where a character can say, “I saw a dick crawl out of a tailpipe today,” and sell it not as a dumb punchline but as someone genuinely trying to grapple with the bizarre situation into which they’ve been thrown. It’s ridiculous but grounded – an incredibly tricky balancing act that shouldn’t work but does, which is why scenes like Charles Napier giving an increasingly ludicrous Jaws-spoofing monologue about a rampaging dong he encountered while in Vietnam or an unexpected homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing that culminates in the line, “It’s in his ass,” get honest chuckles. By the time the boom is lowered and the possessed pecker starts mowing people down, we’re laughing with the film and not at it.
Our collective of would-be smut purveyors are allowed to be sweet, naive, venal, unsympathetic, smart, dumb and everything in between, but the one thing they aren’t is stupid for the sake of pushing the plot along. Most interesting of all is the treatment of Jeremy and fellow old-school porn star Veronica Hart. Their status as old hands in a pepetually young-skewing industry is used for a number of jokes, but they’re also allowed a small measure of dignity; in particular, there’s a wonderful wistful moment of knowing silence between the two early on after Jeremy admits that age and his expanding physique have curtailed his infamous ability for autofellatio. It’s in those little spaces between the idiotic premise and the desire to make a real movie from said premise that One-Eyed Monster finds its enjoyable groove. Just because you’re making a film in which Kegel exercises are weaponized doesn’t mean you have to get lazy about it.
The Netflix streaming library is vast and daunting and mostly filled with crap. Steve Carlson is the Netflix video clerk, and every week he hand-delivers three awesome movies you’ve never heard of before. He’s been writing about movies in one form or another on the Internet since 2002 and co-hosts the Bad Idea Podcast. Someone once called him the lonely Magellan of exploitation cinema. He thinks that’s the best compliment he’s ever received.