Review Date: August 11, 2009
Released by: Code Red
Release date: 8/18/2009
Region 0, NTSC
Widescreen 1.78:1 | 16x9: Yes
I love the idea of a coal mine as the setting for a horror film. Easy to say, now that it's a staple of horror thanks to My Bloody Valentine
new and old, but at its core the symbolic weight of the place makes it perfect to, erm, mine for dramatic potential. Like the great horror locations - Dracula's castle, a haunted house, or even an old ship at sea, the coal mine represents history. It's an old institution largely laid to rest, where corruption, dark secrets and deceased memories remain. Horror's most common trope is for the youth to unearth that dirty laundry, upsetting the balance of past and present. The coal mine has another dichotomy that the others don't, though. It represents a dirty clash between man made and environment, the structures and tools used to support and emaciate the mines working in contrast to the earth that supports it. In essence, miners are depleting the very place they inhabit - imagine a home owner slowly tearing apart each wall from the structure of their house. In horror it's never good to remove or forget and like every demon born, they are determined to make you remember again. The Strangeness
takes us to these dramatically rich depths. Has Code Red mined another classic or is this something that should have remained buried?
A young couple journey into day for night for a trip to an old, abandoned mine. They’ve been commissioned by an unknown for a lump sum of cash to dynamite the entrance to an old mine in hopes of its opening making it financially viable once again. Before they can make it much further than the cave entrance, though, an octopus-looking stop motion monster goes in for the attack, shaking the walls in the process. Cue the credits, which possess not only an effectively derivative John Carpenter synth score, but also some chic still pictures of the actors in various states of distress that become expressionist line drawings. We open up then on a new batch of would-be miners, and as you can guess, their fate will soon be the same.
Apparently the “earthquake” (read: stop-motion monster attack) unearthed the entrance to the long-closed mine, and thinking he can make a quick buck the scowling Myron Hemmings (Rolf Theison
) assembles a ragtag group of explorers to blitz the place for a couple days. Among the fray is a crazy Aussie decked in plaid, a pretentious writer always trying to spin a story, a ditsy blonde and a bunch of guys with mustaches that I cannot tell apart. They are well groomed mustaches, though. They throw out some legend about it being Indian land and such, you know, the requisite things of eighties horror, and then take off into the depths. It doesn’t take them long to get lost, though, and our little stop-motion beast is right there to give them directions…to hell!
The last half of the film plays out almost entirely in darkness, with the only sources of light coming from the characters themselves. Flashlights and flares, while in the darkness the sounds of pigs, crackling tree branches and horse hoofs synthesized into some sort of cacophony. “What about the exit?” a character asks in desperation. “There is no exit.” Says the Aussie, bluntly, which begs the question – what do you do when the only way out is death?
is a fittingly strange little hybrid of the monster movies of the sixties and seventies and the bodycount splatter flicks of the eighties. The stop-motion effects certainly scream sixties, but the slimy deaths and the zany characters seemed handpicked from a slasher. Although low budget, the movie certainly wears creativity on its mining cap, lighting a would be clichéd canvas with claustrophobic compositions, creative creature effects and an effective sense of dread. The fact that almost all of the underground stuff was shot inside the director’s garage is testament to the power of ingenuity. The film was made by a consortium of USC film students over weekends for a year, and while it certainly has its flaws, its cavernous walls echo with the “can do” attitude of kids with no creative cap.
The small core of filmmakers certainly did wear a lot of caps during production. The credited director, David Michael Hillman (pre-gender change Melanie Anne Phillips) worked as writer, director, producer, editor and composer. Writing partner in crime Chris Huntley worked as actor, producer, writer, composing, visual effects design and even some directing. The final piece in the Strangeness trifecta was Mark Sawicki, who also acted, produced and animated all the stop-motion effects. It’s quite amazing what this little team was able to pull off on a $25,000 investment, and much like John Carpenter’s USC film, Dark Star
, it’s a little movie with big ambitions, and isn’t that what independent film is all about?
Is it perfect? Nooooo, sir! The film often sells itself short with some major plot conveniences that really ruin the sense of inescapable doom the film works so hard to harvest. First, the mine layout isn’t effectively established from the start, with the pre-credits victims making it easily into what was apparently a buried mine, but maybe is just a cave that leads to the mine? I don’t know, you eventually just sort of accept the fact that it’s a big, dark labyrinth and there’s no way out. The ending though, totally cops out, teaching us the moral that when in doubt simply TNT the place while holding your breath under a cavernous body of water and you’ll end up magically transported to sea while the rest of the place erupts. Up until that point The Strangeness
does a pretty ballsy job of basking in darkness and denying the viewer even enough light to make any more of the surroundings than the actual characters. You’d think, then, that the film would continue on the same wavelength and not make happy endings such an arbitrary deus ex machina moment.
also has a The Pit
moment, where it just tacks on the exact same sequence from earlier on in the film, thinking it’ll go over without fault. Well, erm, considering the entire mine has just been blown up, you kind of wonder how the support beams and rock caverns are still fully intact and the beast unharmed. The continuity police should put that scene behind bars along with the masked Michael Myers at the end of Halloween 5
. These are plot details, though, and in a movie cobbled together over weekends and reshoots, are minor compared to the triumph that a few kids in California could assemble something good enough to stand out from the pack of modern horror.
The Harryhausen stop-motion beast is a pretty disturbed creation – one part octopus, one part vagina, two parts clay and six parts Freud. The monstrous erectus certainly looks primitive today, but Mark Sawicki certainly did the best he could, working in plenty of stalking, a death scene and even a stop-motion tracking shot through a bunch of mine columns. Considering the sexual implications that descending into a giant cave conjures, the half-phallic, half-vaginal beast certainly leaves an impression on all the repressed characters (different for the time, there is no exploitative nudity or even a kiss shared throughout the film). The genre confused monster takes on more weight considering monster creator Huntley was still closeted and director Hillman was close to gender reassignment. Not bad for a little film set in a cave often too dark to see.
certainly skirts a line between letting the imagination run wild in the darkness and boring it with so little visual information on screen. Keeping the beast largely hidden and shown in only short bursts certainly adds to the mystique, but often you’re always left clamoring for more. Something concrete enough to grasp. Same, too, with the cave cinematography, that on one hand effectively uses on-screen lighting like flares and flashlights, but keeps the rest so dark it often just looks like the ABBA Gold cover over a serious of close-ups. The deep focus cast shots, and a virtuoso moment where we follow the action first person with a flashlight prove that even if much of the film was too dark it certainly wasn’t from a lack of creativity.
There isn’t enough backstory to make the story linger, nor is there enough gore or boundary pushing to give the film weight among more notable eighties contemporaries. Yet, as a document of a few folks trying to break into the industry by mastering the constructs of the genre, The Strangeness
is a noble and enjoyable effort. It harks back to a time where movies were about trying to put creativity on the screen and not trying to meet mandates of sex and shock. It’s a film that looks and feels its age, and in today’s film environment of clones, that’s its biggest asset. While it doesn’t dig as deep as My Bloody Valentine
, this little flick still occasionally mines the goods.
Code Red unearthed a monster of their own when finally locating the 16mm answer print of The Strangeness
that the filmmakers long thought was lost. At times it certainly does look as if it were lost in a cave, with scratches and specs visible throughout. This is a film that thrives on its older sensibilities and lower budget though, so consider the abrasions marks of character. What Code Red has done well, though, and what they usually do well, is restore the color of the film to the point where it still looks very rich. The copious red flares throughout look very vivid, and the skin tones saturate with a nice orange glow. All the blacks on display (and boy, there’s a lot) look pretty solid, not totally delineated but not grey enough to come off as flat. Progressively encoded, this old flick comes off looking about as new as it probably did when it was spliced together almost thirty years ago.
First off, the John Carpenter-esque composition that gets airplay throughout the film is pretty catchy. It was mandated and added by the initial VHS distributors, but it has that relenting, brooding quality that a cave monster movie should. Apparently much of the sound leveling was affected by the distributor changes, but still it comes through here as mostly audible and effective. There was some pretty inventive sound design on display, with slow motion Styrofoam squeaking, pig squealing and branch breaking for the monster, and plenty of cavernous ambiance for everything else, and it still comes through on this track. At times it was a little shrill and there are even a few slight bits of dialogue distortion. When there were multiple cast members at times it was tough to separate channels and break through the hollow echo of the sound recording. Still, for the most part this is an effective sound mix, and that we’re hearing it at all is probably the biggest plus for this forgotten little flick.
Code Red seems to come and go in spurts on the DVD scene, but every time they return they remind you about just how essential their commitment to preserving the lost and uncared for artifacts of American 80s horror truly is. Their extras here profile the three main talents involved in the film, and through interviews, a commentary and a collection of student films, they really give a wonderful profile of where these people were creatively when they made the film. First up is the commentary, which assembles Melanie Anne Phillips, Chris Huntley and Mark Sawicki together to laugh, groan and wax nostalgic over the little film they can call their own. Moderator Jeff McKay is also present, but for some odd reason he doesn’t even get his own microphone, so much of what he says is too faint to decipher. He doesn’t really have much to do, though, since the three filmmakers really remember a lot and have no problem dissecting everything on screen and relating it back to the time the film was made. Watching the film with the commentary instantly elevates the viewing experience, turning it from a sparse, serious horror film to a valiant youthful attempt at making something of substance.
Each of the participants then gets their own revealing interview, each running around 12-minutes. Although Melanie Anne Phillips doesn’t really address the obvious (she sure doesn’t look like a David Michael Hillman!) she talks about how the film came to be, the struggles they had with it, and how it led to future film work for her and the rest of her crew. She’s wonderfully candid throughout. Chris Huntley certainly doesn’t hold anything back, either, and he laughs about how the vag-monster came to be, how his acting was at times painful and how he used to be a big horror fan. He even addresses with honesty the faults that he thinks come with the film. Lastly, Mark Sawicki speaks tender about his experience both as an actor and in doing the effects work. He talks a lot about how his overnight jobs at production houses led to his optical effects prowess and how today he’s working with the biggest Hollywood movies doing effects work. Look him up, he’s got an impressive resume, from The Age of Innocence
and Tropic Thunder
to The Terminator
and The Gate
Completing the chronicle of these three talents is a collection of six short films the three worked on during their tenure at the University of South California. The first, fittingly “Origins”, is the most impressive, with tons of innovative uses of optical and stop-motion work by Sawicki to convey the dawn of life. Some of the others include short optical exercises to black and white live action shorts to disturbed Bakshi-esque adult animation pieces. Equal parts pretentious and interesting, these little films (all under 6 minutes apiece) really help shed light on the minds behind the movie that gets main billing here.
Finally, there are a few odds and ends to round things off. There’s a great still gallery filled with that John Carpenter synth music and a bunch of well documented production stills and drafts. There’s also a short, 5-second segment with movie monster as he looks today, puppeted jokingly by Mark Sawicki. And always the quiet highlight, there’s an assortment of Code Red trailers: Brute Corps
, The Statue
(basically one long dick teaser), Trapped
(with some of the most subliminal title credits ever), The Visitor
, Night Warning
(where is it already!), Weekend Murders
and Stunt Rock
is a modest little cave dweller with grand intentions made by a bunch of USC film students looking to leave their mark on the world. While the stop-motion monster is more interesting than effective, and the directional lighting a little too dark for its own good, it’s still an enjoyable descent that makes up for its budgetary constraints by well to do ingenuity. Code Red has revived this 16mm shelver, giving it a nice color restoration and their customary array of personal, earnest and humorous extras. Their extras often make the humble films they release that much better, and this is no exception. Be sure to support this release so Code Red can continue to mine the depths of 80s horror!
Movie - B-
Image Quality - B-
Sound - C+
Supplements - A
- Running time - 1 hour 32 minutes
- Not Rated
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English mono
- Audio commentary with producers (and director/actor/writer/effects/etc.) Melanie Anne Phillips, Mark Sawicki and Chris Huntley
- Interviews with Melanie Anne Phillips, Mark Sawicki and Chris Huntley
- USC Short films from Melanie Anne Phillips, Mark Sawicki and Chris Huntley
- Production still gallery
- "Blinky" short extra
- Code Red trailers