The Terror Within (1989)

JUNE 4, 2011


Why the hell was 1989 such a huge year for Alien ripoffs? Did it not hit video until 1988 or something? Three years after the success of Aliens, a whole bunch of folks decided to go back to the Ridley Scott original and copy its structure, blue collar characters, etc. But unlike Deepstar Six and Leviathan, the Roger Corman-produced The Terror Within didn't bother with a pricey (and "different" on a surface level) underwater locale, instead settling for some sort of underground bunker in the desert. So it basically just looks like every other cheapo horror/sci-fi movie.

But the Alien theft is more explicit than those others, even copying some dialogue exchanges more or less verbatim (the whole "do you always repeat everything he says?" bit), with the fake Brett character wearing a Hawaiian shirt just to make sure we don't mistake him for Dallas or Ashe. The obligatory "birth" scene is a hilarious combination of two Alien scenes (the one where they try to remove the facehugger from Kane's face, and of course the actual chest-burster bit), and there's even a pet for good measure (Jones the cat, meet Butch the dog!).

To be fair, this actually sort of pays off in the film's third act, when they mix things up a bit. There's an extended scene where the Dallas standin (Andrew Stevens as David) finds himself climbing up and down a ventilation shaft and poking his head around looking for the Alien, and so you expect him to bite it. But no! Not only does he get out alive, he does so and finds that the expected Ripley character has killed herself. See, one of the few inspired bits in the film concerns her pregnancy, which may be a normal one, or the result of the alien raping her (yeah, Corman is ripping off himself here too), but this being a sort of trashy B movie, you can guess which the answer is. Still, the fact that she died was one I didn't see coming, and then (in a very strange bit of irony), the other female cast member gets promoted to hero even though she was sort of a supporting character up until that point - which is exactly like Alien! It's a stealth ripoff!

But even tossing all Alien comparisons aside, it's not particularly good. Corman and his team (including director Thierry Notz, which is an awesome name) fail to use their obvious lack of resources to their advantage time and time again, most notably in ripping off Alien instead of The Thing. It's easy/cheap enough to say someone is a shapeshifter and hunting the others one by one in a confined space, but when you have a guy in a less-than-awesome monster suit, you're spending money (and presumably time) on something that looks like crap anyway. The survival elements are also under-utilized; they are supposedly running out of food, which could lead to some in-fighting, but everyone gets along pretty well save for the occasional minor argument over who should go look around or whatever. And, to dip back into Alien territory again - why not have a killer robot, or at least a traitor? Any action you can work into the film without having to use the clunky monster suit should have been a no-brainer.

However, it's not exactly wall-to-wall with monster action either. It takes a while for one to get trapped in the facility with the humans, and even then he's hardly front and center. Instead we just get scene after scene of folks investigating air ducts, cautiously wandering through the corridors, and other uninteresting scenes. The script also makes the inane mistake of killing just about everyone in a 15-20 minute segment of the film instead of spacing it out. There are eight folks in the facility and five of them die almost back to back, including (spoiler!) top-billed George Kennedy, who barely appeared even in the portion of the film where his character was alive (he also put zero effort into the proceedings, look at the scene where he's supposedly watching the action on a monitor... except he's facing the wrong way and actually looking at nothing).

They also didn't do enough with the post-apocalyptic setting. Early on they work in a plot contrivance to keep them in the base (another alien is trying to get in, so they seal up that door), which just means a lot of corridor/vent action instead of going outside and having a chase scene there. The atmosphere isn't toxic or anything, so this rather simple "There's an alien outside" explanation didn't quite work for me. Plus, with most of the population dead anyway, there's not really a lot at stake. Aliens (called Gargoyles, by the way) are already on Earth, everyone's dead... who the hell cares if these guys bite it too? In The Thing, Alien, etc, there's the looming concern that the characters will have to sacrifice themselves in order to save the human race, but here it's basically just "I hope the dog lives because he's cute."

At least it LOOKS pretty good. Shout Factory has provided a really nice transfer here, and Notz uses a lot of diopter shots to give it a bit of a style. I mean, this is the equivalent of today's Syfy originals, which generally look like ass thanks to sub-par HD camera/transfers and horrid CGI. The monster suit may not be the best I've ever seen, but at least it's REAL, so when they fight it's an actual fight, not a poorly rendered, quickly edited sequence of nearly incoherent images that try (and fail) to hide the CGI limitations. It's also sufficiently splatter-y, with lots of walls getting drenched with the red stuff, and a pretty awesome demise for the alien, who slowly falls through an industrial fan.

The actors were also pretty decent (save for Kennedy's bored performance, but you can't really fault him there). Again, today's equivalent films have performers who wouldn't even be acceptable as background extras, so it's nice to see a bunch of guys/gals who may not win any awards but at least put some effort into what they're doing. The Brett and Parker simulacrums had a nice chemistry, and Stevens made for a fairly charismatic action hero, which is probably why he was able to score a gig not only returning for the sequel, but writing and directing it as well! I can't say I'm dying to see it, but I'll give it a shot down the road on the basis of the current IMDb user review selection: "not as good as the first but still ok". Put that on the poster!

What say you?


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