I had an unexpected Festival of Bad Cinema on Saturday night. JC brought over a copy of what he referred to as “the original War of the Worlds”. Excellent, thought I, momentarily channelling Monty Burns. The 1950s version of The War of the Worlds is a cinema classic. The special effects were revolutionary for their day, and the odd, religious ending alone is worth the effort of watching it.
I had forgotten, however, that despite his many qualities JC is not very knowledgeable about the classics of the cinema. When we actually sat down to it, the root menu of the DVD seemed far too slick to be the 1950s version. I checked it again. Perhaps the most telling sign that this was not in fact “the original War of the Worlds” was the listing of C. Thomas Howell and Jake Busey as "stars" on the cover.
As it turned out, this
was a version of the War of the Worlds made earlier this year, presumably for cable television. It vanished without a trace upon release, but JC has a rare and uncanny ability to select and acquire films of unparalleled awfulness, so if anyone could have found it, he could. He excused himself by claiming that it was a gift from his cousins, but all that proves is that his skill is genetic.
C. Thomas Howell “stars” as an astronomer with an improbably young and beautiful wife and small son who looks like a midget surgically altered to resemble Frodo Baggins. As the Martians begin invading Earth, C. and his family are separated, and he must begin the classic movie quest to meet up with them again.
For a while he staggers through hillbilly country with a soldier named Kerry, who speaks like a stoned California surfer despite looking like Norman Bates. Then, after they’re separated, he staggers through hillbilly country with a priest named Victor, who is clumsily explained as an expatriate Australian because the actor can’t do American accents. He comes across as a typical, well-grounded Australian man, which is sort of a shame as he’s supposed to be barking mad. Oh well. In due course his face melts off.
For a movie about alien killing machines wiping humans off the face of the Earth in a variety of imaginative ways (ripping off every science fiction film from Alien to Mars Attacks! in the process) it’s a long, plodding, tedious narrative. So many scenes of people in small rooms or empty landscapes talking about nothing! It’s like a Stoppard play filmed by Andy Warhol… and if that doesn’t send shivers down your spine, well, you probably need to take a night class in 20th Century Theatre Studies or something.
Jake Busey eventually makes his appearance, in a tiny role that he probably knocked off in an afternoon. Peter Greene, who also “stars”, features in a touching scene with C. playing a man who’s received a full-body amputation just under armpit level. For a man with no lungs, he has plenty to say in his INCREDIBLY LENGTHY death scene. None of it is comprehensible, but it gives C. something to overact to.
But if you held a gun to my head and forced me to choose the person responsible for the very worst part of this film, I’d have to give the award to the sound editor. And here’s why:C.: We must escape the aliens. I have to find my family.
Victor: You know, all this alien invasion stuff is raising some difficult theological issues.
Me: What the hell are they saying? (turns volume up)
Victor: Oh no! The aliens have found us!HUGE PRETENTIOUS ORCHESTRAL BOOM AS BAD ALIEN SPECIAL EFFECT APPEARS ON HORIZON, WAKING THE NEIGHBOURS AND POSSIBLY THE DEAD
Me: Gaaahhh! (turns volume down)C.: I don’t think it saw us.
Victor: Yes. Let us whisper incoherently to each other some more.
Me: DAMN IT, YOU DICKWADS! THERE’S A REASON WHY THEY’RE CALLED SOUND “LEVELS”!
C. does eventually meet up with his jailbait wife and Elijah Wood’s evil twin on the steps of what is supposed to be the Lincoln Memorial. You know, it’s funny, but the last time I was in Washington DC the Lincoln Memorial was on a flat piece of land in front of a large body of water. In this film, the aliens have blown up Washington so severely that all the water is gone, and the explosions have apparently created densely vegetated hills in the background. It’s almost as if Washington has been transformed into an abandoned industrial site somewhere outside Los Angeles. Weird.