Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Terror Within (1989)

I would like to take a moment to chat about a tragic malady that has plagued Caucasian males for the past forty years (possibly longer, though it was only really diagnosed prominently from the 1970s and beyond). I'm talking about the White Man's Overbite. For those who are unfamiliar, it consists of the ludicrous facial expressions employed by the white male (sometimes females are equally afflicted, but these cases are far less widespread) during the act of dancing. It gained its name from the propensity of men with little to no rhythm who insist on hitting the dance floor to actually bite lightly at their bottom lip in futile concentration. 

Sadly, it is rarely commented on, except as the object of derision. An explosion of cases occurred in the disco era, when people felt it was okay to expose as much of their flabby, fur-covered torsos as possible and do things in public they would probably be ashamed of doing in private. Plus, there was lots of cocaine around, so inhibitions were at an all-time low. Nevertheless, once the diagnosis became popular, it only became more and more prevalent among white folks, right up to the present day (though this infirmity knows no true racial boundaries; for every Screech, there's an Urkel). You may have seen this disorder firsthand. You may even be a victim of it yourself. But I'm telling you now, the monster in The Terror Within has you beat by miles (and he doesn't even dance). 

After 99% of the Earth's population are destroyed by a mysterious plague (known as "the Accident"), the remainder of humanity is left to scavenge the planet's surface for sustenance. A small band of survivors subsist in an underground bunker, sending foragers topside occasionally to deal with the dearth of victuals and try to avoid mutant creatures affectionately nicknamed "Gargoyles." While trying to rescue two of their group (spoiler: They don't), David (Andrew Stevens) and Sue (Starr Andreeff) come upon Karen (Yvonne Saa), who is pursued by a Gargoyle. Bringing Karen back to their complex, it's discovered that she's with child (actually "with monster," but…), and the baby's sire is hanging out by the bunker's entrance, waiting not-so-patiently. When the Gargoyle is born, it promptly escapes into the air ducts, growing at an accelerated rate, and begins to pick off our intrepid cast, one by one.

If the plot sounds familiar, that's because it is. I counted no less than thirteen (and probably many more, if I'm left to reflect on it) "influences" on this Roger Corman production (under his Concorde banner). The most prominent citation is, of course, Alien (Ridley Scott's movie itself heavily taking from It! The Terror From Beyond Space). The monster can impregnate other species to propagate its own race, though it does it more traditionally than Alien's hermaphroditic face hugger. The creature escapes after being born, hides out in the complex's ducts, and whittles down the humans. The characters share a great many similarities as well. But the filmmakers didn't stop there. They chuck in everything from Day Of The Dead (the underground bunker/survivalist angle) to Inseminoid and Corman's own Humanoids From The Deep (monster rape/monster birth) to The Thing From Another World (the siege angle).

In this vision of a post-apocalyptic world, motherhood is something which is sought after by the survivors, and when Karen is found to be pregnant, our heroes are hopeful. The only holdout is Hal (George Kennedy), who cautions that they will have to abort the fetus at the first sign of an abnormality. So when the infant is found to be Gargoyle-spawn, it turns the concept of motherhood in this universe from a boon to a bane. Not only can human babies no longer be conceived, but the human race's new natural enemy has the power to continue its own species by exploiting the human womb. When the monster birth occurs, it does so explosively, killing the lifegiver and cutting off the chance of the mother giving birth again, as well as decreasing the faltering human population by one.

Of course, you can't have a monster birth without a monster impregnation. Though never explicitly shown, the Gargoyles force themselves upon their female victims, and this plays into the fear of rape and the terrifying vulnerability that the act creates. This fear extends beyond the physical act, because the mother is now faced with the fact that, in very short order, she will die rather violently. The creatures' "super sperm" also flies in the face (pause for laughter...) of the human males' sterility and effectuates notions of sexual impotence. The men cannot protect their female counterparts and cannot perform with them, either. To be fair, there is a love scene (though it's oddly non-explicit for an exploitation film), but it is not in the service of procreation, and since the audience doesn't really see anything, there's no way we can be sure there wasn't "failure to launch."

This future is also one of very limited resources. There are not even many animals left, and the humans are barely scraping by. There is reference to rationing food and decreasing everyone in the complex's caloric intake to fewer than one thousand calories per day. That said, to look at them, you certainly wouldn't think any of them were under- or malnourished (Kennedy being the standout example). When Karen and her impending bundle of misery are brought in, it's again brought up that everyone's rations will have to be shorn further still. The idea that food supplies are dwindling quickly is an interesting one, and an entire movie could have been built around this alone. In Thierry Notz's film, however, it's perfunctory, an expositional device to illustrate the desperation the human race is in (though none of the characters act very desperate at all, by my estimation). The film's pedigree is as an exploitation/creature feature, not a sociological thesis.

The special effects are effective, and the monster, if nothing else, is unique in its facial design. Though when viewed in long shot for any length of time, its low budget, rubber-suit origins become blatantly apparent. But this isn't detrimental to the film. If anything, it enhances the enjoyableness. It is also to the filmmakers' credit that they got a workable cast who never go too far over the top to pull you out of the movie (even Stevens' ever-present aura of smugness is thankfully toned way down) and are capable of handling loony material like this. Lastly, there is plentiful action afoot, and the film's pace is breakneck, so you never dwell too long on the faults. The filmmakers build some decent tension and escalating crosscut action going into the finale, and I was surprised at how well these climactic scenes were structured. The Terror Within is easily in the top five most derivative films I have ever seen, but damn if it wasn't just satisfying and brisk enough to keep me in my seat.

MVT: Stevens actually makes the cut as a non-smug, likeable, capable hero, and he doesn't go overboard on the angst other actors may have chewed down on.

Make or Break: Karen's birth scene is everything you would want in a movie like this and the "Make" for me. There are copious amounts of gore, rubbery monster effects, body horror, and mayhem. What more can you ask for?

Score: 7/10

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