Category Archives: Sci-Fi

Blu-ray reissue: The Andromeda Strain (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 6, 2019)

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The Andromeda Strain – Arrow Films Blu-ray

What’s the scariest monster? The one you cannot see. Robert Wise directs this 1971 sci-fi thriller, adapted from Michael Crichton’s best-seller by Nelson Gidding. A team of scientists race the clock to save the world from a deadly virus from outer space that replicates with alarming efficiency. The team is restricted to a hermetically sealed environment until they can figure a way to destroy the microbial intruder, making this film a nail-biter from start to finish.

Arrow has done an outstanding restoration job (sourced from a 4K scan of the original 35mm camera negative). The mono audio is clean and clear (highlighting Gil Melle’s electronic score). Extras include Bryan Reesman’s engaging commentary, critic appreciations, and more.

SIFF 2019: Fantastic Planet (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 25, 2019)

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Director Rene Laloux’s imaginative 1973 animated fantasy (originally  La planete sauvage) is about a race of mini-humans called  Oms, who live on a distant planet and have been enslaved (or viewed and treated as dangerous pests) for generations by big, brainy, blue aliens called the Draags. We follow the saga of Terr, an Om who has been adopted as a house pet by a Draag youngster.

Equal parts Spartacus, Planet of the Apes, and that night in the dorm you took too many mushrooms, it’s at once unnerving and mind-blowing. SIFF is adding a unique twist: Seattle DJ “NicFit” will provide a live, “carefully curated soundtrack” of Flaming Lips tracks as accompaniment. Mushrooms not included.

Blu-ray reissue: 2001: A Space Odyssey ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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2001: A Space Odyssey – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of prehistoric humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Earlier this year, for the 50th anniversary, Christopher Nolan supervised a theatrical 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences experienced it in 1968. And, not missing an opportunity to make me re-purchase it for the 6th time (VHS, DVD, “remastered” DVD, Blu-ray, and “remastered” Blu-ray) Warner has released a “restored” Blu-ray (as well as a pricier 3-disc set that adds a 4K-UHD version).

This review is based on the 2-disc Blu-ray set (one disc is for the extras). There are no technical notes included; so I can’t confirm this is a 4K scan.  After an A/B comparison with my copy of the 2007 Warner Blu-ray, I can confirm the new scan is spectacular, with vibrant color grading, rich deep blacks and sharp contrast. Audio has also been upgraded. Extras are identical to the 2007 version (Warner is historically stingy with those) but it’s worth the dip for those who want the best possible home viewing experience of the film.

Blu-ray reissue: 12 Monkeys ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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12 Monkeys – Arrow Video Blu-ray

Another wild ride from the vivid imagination of Terry Gilliam, this 1995 sci-fi thriller (inspired by Chris Marker’s classic 1962 short film, La Jetee) has become a cult favorite.

Set in the year 2035, it’s the story of a prison inmate (Bruce Willis) who is “volunteered” to be sent back to the year 1996 to detect the origin of a mystery virus that wiped out 99% of the human race. Fate and circumstance land Willis in a psych ward for observation, where he meets two people who may be instrumental in helping him solve the mystery-a psychiatrist (Madeline Stowe) and a fellow mental patient (Brad Pitt, in an entertainingly demented performance).

I like the way the film plays with “reality” and perception. Is Willis really a time traveler from 2035…or is he what the psychiatrist is telling him-a delusional schizophrenic actually living in 1996? There are many more surprises up Gilliam’s sleeve here.

Arrow Films’ 4K restoration is a marked improvement over Universal’s previous Blu-ray; picture and audio quality are outstanding. The commentary track (by Gilliam and Charles Roven) and an 87-minute documentary (The Hamster Factor and Other Tales of Twelve Monkeys) have been ported over from the Universal edition, but Arrow adds several new features-including a video appreciation by Ian Christie and an image gallery.

Blu-ray reissue: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [TV series] ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [TV series] – BBC Blu-ray

I’m not sure if it’s possible to “wear out” a DVD, but I’ve probably come closest to doing so with my copy of the original BBC-TV version of Douglas Adams’ sci-fi comedy cult classic.

In a nutshell, the Earth is obliterated to make way for a hyperspace bypass by a Vogon construction fleet (as the result of bureaucratic oversight the requisite public notice was posted in a basement-on a different planet). One member of humanity survives-Arthur Dent, a neurotic Englishman who “hitches” a ride on a Vogon vessel just before the Earth-shattering “ka-boom”, thanks to his friend Ford Prefect, whom Arthur never suspected was an alien doing field research for the eponymous “guide”. Zany interstellar misadventures ensue, with a quest to find the answer to life, the Universe, and everything.

While the 2005 theatrical remake was a hoot, it lacked the endearing cheesiness of the 1981 series. As it was originally shot on video and 16mm, the very idea of a “restored” Blu-ray edition is a bit silly, really…but it actually is an upgrade, particularly in audio quality (it’s mostly about the wonderfully cheeky dialog anyway). And with 5½ hours of extras, Adams geeks will be in 7th heaven (or at least somewhere near Alpha Centauri!).

Blu-ray reissue: Escape from New York ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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Escape From New York – Studio Canal Blu-ray (Region “B”)

John Carpenter directed this 1981 action-thriller set in the dystopian near-future of 1997 (ah, those were the days). N.Y.C. has been converted into a penal colony. Air Force One has been downed by terrorists, but not before the POTUS (Donald Pleasence) bails in his escape pod, which lands in Manhattan, where he is kidnapped by “inmates”. The police commissioner (ever squinty-eyed Lee van Cleef) enlists the help of Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a fellow war vet who is now one of America’s most notorious criminals.

Imaginative, darkly funny and entertaining, despite an obviously limited budget. Carpenter and co-writer Nick Castle even slip in a little subtext of Nixonian paranoia. Also with Ernest Borgnine, Adrienne Barbeau, Isaac Hayes (the Duke of N.Y.!), and Harry Dean Stanton (stealing all his scenes as “Brain”). Carpenter also composed the memorable theme song.

Boy, is this new sharp 4K scan ever a wondrous gift to fans of the film! This is probably the 3rd (or 4th?) dip I’ve made over the years; all previous DVD and Blu-ray editions have suffered from transfers so dark and murky that I’ve spent every screening squinting like Lee Van Cleef as I attempt to make out details. Granted, it’s nearly all night shots for the exteriors, but I have never seen the film looking so…film-like (outside a theater). Cinematographer Dean Cundey approved the restoration and color grading, and it shows.

Studio Canal’s new edition features 3 audio commentaries to choose from, and several featurettes and interviews with cast members. I haven’t been able to track down any information on a domestic (Region “A”) Blu-ray release; but given the popularity of the film I’m sure one is in the pipeline (this review is based on the Region “B” version only).

Blu-ray reissue: Liquid Sky (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 11, 2018)

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A diminutive, parasitic alien (who seems to have a particular delectation for NYC club kids, models and performance artists) lands on an East Village rooftop and starts mainlining off the limbic systems of junkies and sex addicts…right at the moment that they, you know…reach the maximum peak of pleasure center stimulation (I suppose that makes the alien a dopamine junkie?). Just don’t think about the science too hard.

The main attraction here is the inventive photography and the fascinatingly bizarre performance (or non-performance) by (co-screen writer) Anne Carlisle, who tackles two roles-a female fashion model who becomes the alien’s primary host, and a male model. Director Slava Zsukerman co-wrote the electronic music score.

This 1982 space oddity has been long overdue for a decent home video transfer, and Vinegar Syndrome gets an A+ for its 4K Blu-ray restoration (devotees like yours truly were previously stuck with a dismal DVD release that, while sold “legitimately”, screams “bootleg”). Extras include commentary track by director Zsukerman, plus a 50-minute “making of” documentary, a new interview with star Carlisle, outtakes, and much more.

’68 was ’68, pt. deux: 10 essential films

By Dennis Hartley

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Have you had it up to “here” yet with all the 1968 retrospectives? Yes, I know. Hang in there; we’re halfway through the year, so you should not have to weather too many more.

It can’t be helped…there’s something sexy about “50th” anniversaries And, there was something special about 1968. As Jon Meacham noted in a Time article earlier this year:

The watershed of 1968 was that kind of year: one of surprises and reversals, of blasted hopes and rising fears, of scuttled plans and unexpected new realities. We have embarked on the 50th anniversary of a year that stands with 1776, 1861 and 1941 as points in time when everything in American history changed. As with the Declaration of Independence, the firing on Fort Sumter and the attack on Pearl Harbor, the events of ’68 were intensely dramatic and lastingly consequential. From the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and of Robert F. Kennedy in June to the violence at the Democratic National Convention in August to the election of Richard Nixon in November, we live even now in the long shadow of the cascading crises of that year.

It was also a year when cinema came face-to-face with “scuttled plans and unexpected new realities.” The eclecticism of 1968’s top 10 grossing films indicates a medium (and an audience) in cultural flux; from cerebral art-house (2001: A Space Odyssey, Rosemary’s Baby), low-budget horror (Night of the Living Dead), and star-powered adult drama (Bullitt, Planet of the Apes), to traditional stage-to-screen adaptations (The Odd Couple, Romeo and Juliet, Funny Girl) and standard family fare (The Love Bug, Oliver!).

Just for perspective, here were the top 10 domestic grossing films of 2017: The Last Jedi, Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol. 2), Spiderman: Homecoming, It, Thor: Ragnarok, Despicable Me 3, and Justice League. Is it me-or is there a depressing, mind-numbing homogeneity to that list?

Oh, well…I’ll leave it to whomever is writing a retrospective in 2067 to sort that mess. If you will indulge me one more 1968 retrospective, here are my personal picks for the 10 best films of that year (plus 10 more I heartily recommend, if you want to delve deeper!).

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If…. – In this 1968 class struggle allegory, director Lindsay Anderson depicts the British public-school system as a microcosm of England’s sociopolitical upheaval at the time. It was also the star-making debut for a young Malcolm McDowall, who plays Mick Travis, one of the “lower sixth form” students at a boarding school (McDowall would return as the Travis character in Anderson’s two loose “sequels” O Lucky Man! and Britannia Hospital). Travis forms the nucleus of a trio of mates who foment armed insurrection against the abusive upperclassmen and oppressive headmasters (i.e. the “System”).

Some critical reappraisals have drawn parallels with Columbine, but the film really has little to do with that and nearly everything to do with the revolutionary zeitgeist of 1968 (the uprisings in Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, etc.). That said, you can see how Anderson’s film could be read outside of original context as a pre-cursor to Massacre at Central High, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Heathers, The Chocolate War and Rushmore. David Sherwin and John Howlett co-wrote the screenplay.

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Hell in the Pacific – This 1968 offering from the eclectic John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Excalibur, Hope and Glory) is essentially a chamber drama, set on a small uninhabited Pacific Island in the closing days of WW2. It’s a two-character tale about a pair of stranded soldiers; one Japanese (Toshiro Mifune) and the other American (Lee Marvin).

The first third, a virtually dialog-free cat-and-mouse game between the sworn enemies, is a master class in physical acting by Mifune and Marvin. Eventually, necessity precipitates an uneasy truce, and the film becomes a fascinating study of the human need to connect (the adage “no man is an island” is figuratively and literally in play). The final act suggests an anti-war sentiment. It’s interesting that a film with such minimal dialog needed three screenwriters (Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, and Eric Bercovici).

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The Lion in Winter – Anyone who has delved into the history of royal family dynasties in the Middle Ages will attest that if you take away the dragons, witches, zombies and trolls…the rather nasty behavior on display in Game of Thrones isn’t that far removed from reality. After all, as Eleanor of Aquitane (Katherine Hepburn) deadpans in director Anthony Harvey’s historical drama, “What family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”

Adapted for the screen by James Goldman from his own 1966 stage play, the story centers on a tempestuous family Christmas gathering in 1183, at the chateau of King Henry II (Peter O’Toole). All the scheming members of this family want for Christmas is each other’s head on a platter (ho ho ho!). Joining the merry festivities are Anthony Hopkins, Timothy Dalton, John Castle, Nigel Terry, and Jane Merrow. Goldman’s beautifully crafted dialog sings (and stings) and the acting is superb. The film was nominated for 7 Oscars and earned 3 (for Hepburn, Goldman, and composer John Barry).

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No Way to Treat a Lady – Directed by Jack Smight (Harper, Kaleidoscope, The Illustrated Man) and adapted from William Goldman’s eponymous novel by John Gay, this terrific black comedy pits a neurotic NYC homicide detective (George Segal) against an evil genius serial killer (Rod Steiger).

While there is nothing inherently “funny” about a killer on the loose who targets middle-age women, there’s a surprising number of laughs; thanks to an overall New Yorker “attitude” and Segal’s harried interactions with his leading ladies-Eileen Heckart (as his doting Jewish mother), and Lee Remick (as his love interest). Steiger is typically over the top, but this is one of his roles where the water finds its own level…he was perfectly cast for this part. Comedy elements aside, the film is genuinely creepy and suspenseful; in some ways a forerunner to Silence of the Lambs.

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Once Upon a Time in the West – This is a textbook “movie for movie lovers” …cinema at its purest level, distilled to a perfect crystalline cocktail of mood, atmosphere and narrative. Although it is chockablock with “western” tropes, director Sergio Leone manages to honor, parody, and transcend the genre all at once with this 1968 masterpiece.

At its heart, it’s a simple revenge tale, involving a headstrong widow (Claudia Cardinale) and an enigmatic “harmonica man” (Charles Bronson) who both have a bone to pick with a gun for hire (Henry Fonda, cast against type as one of the most execrable villains in film). But big doings are afoot-like building a railroad and winning the (mythic) American West. Also with Jason Robards, Jack Elam, Woody Strode and Keenan Wynn.

Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci helped develop the story, and it wouldn’t be classic Leone without a rousing soundtrack by his longtime musical collaborator, Ennio Morricone (you won’t be able to get that “Harmonica Man Theme” out of your head).

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Petulia – An underappreciated, uncharacteristically “serious” character study/social commentary from director Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers). On the surface, it’s about a star-crossed affair between a young, flighty newlywed (Julie Christie) and a middle-aged physician with a crumbling marriage (George C. Scott).

In hindsight, one can also enjoy it as a “trapped in amber” wallow in the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the late 60s (filmed in San Francisco at the height of the Summer of Love, no less). Look for cameos from Big Brother and the Holding Company, The Grateful Dead, and comedy troupe The Committee. Beautifully acted and directed. One caveat: Lester’s non-linear approach is challenging (but rewarding). The screenplay was adapted by Lawrence B. Marcus and Barbara Turner from John Haase’s novel. Nicholas Roeg did the lovely cinematography.

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Planet of the Apes – The original 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon, The Boys from Brazil). It had an intelligent script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it had Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds but raised the bar on film-goers’ expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own way.

*SPOILER AHEAD* The 1968 film also ended with a classic Big Reveal (drenched in Serling’s signature irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it there. Granted, the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette, implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a surprise box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…I needn’t tell you that “they” are still churning out sequels to this day. But the progenitor remains the best entry.

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Rosemary’s Baby – “He has his father’s eyes!” Roman Polanski put the “goth” back in “gothic” in this truly unsettling metropolitan horror classic.  A New York actor (John Cassavetes) and his young, socially phobic wife Rosemary (Mia Farrow) move into a somewhat dark and foreboding Manhattan apartment building (the famed Dakota, John Lennon’s final residence), hoping to start a family. A busybody neighbor (Ruth Gordon) quickly gloms onto Rosemary with an unhealthy zest (to her chagrin). Rosemary’s nightmare is only beginning. No axe murders, no gore, and barely a drop of blood…but thanks to Polanski’s impeccable craft, this will scare the bejesus out of you and continue to creep you out after credits roll. Polanski adapted the screenplay from Ira Levin’s novel.

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The Swimmer – A riveting performance from Burt Lancaster fuels this 1968 drama from Frank Perry (and a non-credited Sydney Pollack, who took over direction after Perry dropped out of the project). It was adapted for the screen by Eleanor Perry, from a typically dark and satirical John Cheever story. Lancaster’s character is on a Homeric journey; working his way home via a network of backyard swimming pools. Each encounter with friends and neighbors (who apparently have not seen him in some time) fits another piece into the puzzle of a troubled, troubled man. It’s an existential suburban nightmare that can count American Beauty and The Ice Storm among its descendants.

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2001: A Space Odyssey – The mathematician/cryptologist I.J. Good (an Alan Turing associate) once famously postulated:

Let an ultra-intelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man…however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus, the first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.

Good raised this warning in 1965, about the same time director Stanley Kubrick and sci-fi writer Arthur C. Clarke were formulating the narrative that would evolve into both the novel and film versions of 2001: a Space Odyssey. And it’s no coincidence that the “heavy” in 2001 was an ultra-intelligent machine that wreaks havoc once its human overseers lose “control” …Good was a consultant on the film.

Good was but one of the experts that Kubrick consulted, before and during production of this meticulously constructed masterpiece. Not only did he pick the brains of top futurists and NASA engineers, but enlisted some of the best primatologists, anthropologists, and uh, mimes of his day, to ensure that every detail, from the physicality of pre-historic humans living on the plains of Africa to the design of a moon base, passed with veracity.

Transcendent, mind-blowing, and timeless doesn’t begin to do justice. I don’t personally know too many people who haven’t seen this film…but I know there’s a few of you out there, in the dark (you know who you are). I envy you, because you may have a rare chance to see it on the big screen. Earlier this year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the film’s first run, Christopher Nolan supervised a 70mm re-release of the “unrestored” version that presents it as audiences originally experienced it in 1968 (fussy collectors needn’t worry, Warner Brothers is readying a sparkling 4K restoration for later this year).

Encore! Here’s 10 more recommendations:

The Battle of Algiers

The Bride Wore Black

Bullitt

Candy

Charly

Head

One Plus One

The Party

Targets

Yellow Submarine

SIFF 2018: Little Tito and the Aliens ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss.

I want to believe: The Endless (**1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2018)

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Solaris meets Wild Wild Country in The Endless, a new horror-sci fi-thriller from co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. Benson and Moorhead cast themselves as (wait for it) “Justin” and “Aaron”, two 30-ish brothers who managed to escape from a UFO death cult in their early 20s. One day they receive an enigmatic message via VHS tape. Something really “big” might be going on back at Crazy Town Ranch; something tangibly intangible. Intrigued (if wary), they decide to hit the open road and head back to the camp, hoping to gain a sense of closure about their experience.

 Yes, of course it’s a dumb decision on their part…but then again, if they laughed off the tape and moved on with their lives, you wouldn’t have much of a film, would you? Predictably, their old “friends” are overjoyed to see them again back at the old enclave (located somewhere in the scrubby wilds of Southern California’s rugged back country). The brothers make it clear this is only a visit. The cult members smile. They understand.

That’s how it always starts, doesn’t it?

I won’t risk spoilers, suffice it to say if Justin and Aaron were hoping to discover there really is “something out there”, they get all that and a large orange soda. For me, the “twist” ending demotes all that precedes it into a glorified Twilight Zone episode, but hardcore genre fans should appreciate the genuine sense of dread, and what the filmmakers lack in budget is effectively compensated by their imaginative workarounds.