…and now for something completely different

Well, perhaps not completely different. It’s been a while since I’ve watched any 39¢ movies. To take full advantage of our Amazon Prime membership, we recently purchased a Roku player; about the same time, we added streaming service to our Netflix account. So far, I’ve been a bit disappointed to discover that these services seem to offer very little of the vintage, grade-z schlock cinema I usually write about. What they do have (in abundance) are contemporary, low-budget sci-fi and horror features that received limited (or no) exposure in theaters upon their release – what we used to call “straight-to-video” movies. In the past, I tended to think of that term as a synonym for “absolute garbage,” but like most aspects of media production, distribution, and consumption in the information age, things are changing. Some of these films are quite worthwhile, and I plan to look at some of the best (and perhaps some of the worst) in a new series of mini-reviews. First up for your consideration:

Harbinger Down (American, 2015)

Harbinger: one that presages or foreshadows what is to come.

-Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary

I was skeptical about this one from the beginning. Harbinger Down isn’t a very catchy title, and it seems to drop a major spoiler even before the opening credits are over. Still, the brief synopsis Netflix provides was compelling:

Thawed from ice after three decades, mutated creatures recovered from a piece of Soviet Space wreckage terrorize a group of graduate students on a fishing trawler…

Hmm. Isolated location? College kids? Soviet space wreckage? Mutated creatures? Sounds good to me – and Harbinger Down does have a suitably creepy, 1980’s style vibe reminiscent (and at times, fairly derivative) of classics like John Carpenter’s The Thing and Ridley Scott’s Alien. It also seems to borrow from the lesser-known (but quite worthwhile) 1989 film Leviathan. Riddled with plot inconsistences (why is a group of whale-watching grad students equipped with a tabletop “portable molecular analyzer,” and why doesn’t anyone think it would be best to keep human remains frozen until potential contamination risks can be assessed?) and well-worn B-cinema tropes (like tough-as-nails Russian crewmember “Svetlana,” played by Natasha “Nogoodnik” Fatale – err – Milla Bjorn), Harbinger Down is nevertheless a great deal of fun.

Natasha

Hmm… seems legit to me…

Perhaps most interesting to me, Harbinger Down was funded primarily through a Kickstarter campaign, and made on a modest budget of approximately $400,000. The special effects are notable as well; the film relies almost exclusively on practical techniques (animatronics, make-up effects, stop-motion animation, and miniatures) in bringing an impressive array of disgusting alien monstrosities to life. Though Harbinger Down isn’t likely to merit repeat viewings, it’s well worth seeing once.

Attack of the Monsters (Japanese, 1969): Aren’t they just precious?

He just needs someone to love him!

He just needs someone to love him!

Attack of the Monsters is the US version of Gamera vs. Giant Evil Beast Guiron, and the fifth film of the original Gamera series. I was initially concerned about jumping into a franchise with the fifth installment, but found I had no need to worry – there didn’t seem to be much backstory that needed filling in. Daiei Motion Picture Company created the giant super-turtle Gamera in 1965 to capitalize on the success of Japan’s best-known daikaiju (giant monster) Godzilla; if you like those films, you’re sure to enjoy Attack of the Monsters.

Even so, the Godzilla films I’ve seen are almost thoughtful, well-crafted examples of cinematic art as compared to Attack of the Monsters. The plot is nonsensical, costuming and set design are laughable, and the special effects are certainly special – though not in a good way. The problems begin with our protagonists – two precocious little boys with a keen interest in “outer space.”  When children enter the sci-fi equation, the outcome is usually 1.) Said children will get themselves into BIG trouble, necessitating heroic rescue, or 2.) Said children will accomplish something wholly implausible – saving the earth from imminent invasion, stopping an intergalactic war, etc. – despite well-intentioned interference from their parents, the police, their teachers, the military, or some other authority figure(s).

Spoiler alert: Attack of the Monsters wasn’t content with one of those options, and gives us both. The boys manage to get the scoop on the entire world scientific community by witnessing the nocturnal arrival of a flying saucer – just down the street from their home. Of course they climb aboard and find themselves (mere minutes later) on a mysterious, desolate planet. They hope to find the planet inhabited by wise, benevolent aliens, but things aren’t quite what they seem. Action and adventure ensue: giant monsters fight, drugged donuts are eaten, heads are shaved, and brain eating is narrowly averted. The film’s conclusion left me with two burning questions: first, why weren’t the boys’ mothers more concerned when their kids disappeared? Second, how can a society that so readily accepts the existence of a giant, fire-breathing, jet-propelled turtle that loves children remain so skeptical about space travel and the possibility of extraterrestrial life?

Memorable visuals: I’m fairly certain I wasn’t supposed to be charmed by Gamera’s irresistible cuteness, but I was. He even does an adorable little victory dance during the climactic, final battle against Guiron. Perhaps more importantly, Attack of the Monsters answers an important question about giant monster anatomy: what’s inside those buggers? Guiron shows us in a scene cut from most U.S. releases of the film: it’s purple. Giant monsters are absolutely full of purple.

Sci-fi cred: Attack of the Monsters may not be a good sci-fi film, but it does – legitimately – fit into the genre. Space travel, aliens, meaningless scientific jargon, etc. abound.

Is it worth 39¢: For me, rarely do films of this sort fall into the “so bad, it’s good” category. This one does. It’s terrible… and terribly funny. Definitely worth the 39¢ I spent.

Find it here: Attack of the Monsters is another public domain treasure found on Mill Creek Entertainment’s Sci-Fi Classics collection.

It’s on YouTube as well – this version includes the “purple” scene cut from most U.S. releases.