Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Hidden

(1987, 96 min.)

Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Nouri, William Boyett, Claudia Christian, Clarence Felder, Ed O’Ross, Catherine Cannon, Richard Brooks, Larry Cedar, Chris Mulkey, Clu Gulager, John McCann, Lin Shaye, Kristen Clayton, James Luisi, Duane Davis, Frank Renzulli.

Written by Jim Kouf (as Bob Hunt)

Directed by Jack Sholder.

(Note: This review does contain certain spoilers, most of which are about things revealed to the audience fairly early on, but if you want to watch it completely cold (and, frankly, it’ll be that much sweeter if you do), you should probably hit the Back button.)

LAPD Detective Tom Beck (Nouri) is having an interesting few days. His squad has just chased down a man named Devries (Mulkey) who went from upstanding citizen to spree killer at the drop of a hat. After a wild car chase and shootout, during which Devries is badly injured, he is taken to the hospital where, not too long afterward, he’s found dead on the floor of his room, while his roommate, a man named Jonathan Miller (Boyett) who is in bad coronary distress and shouldn’t even be able to walk, is suddenly AWOL. The police chase Miller down only to find him dead at a strip club after he was seen harassing one of the dancers, Brenda Lee Van Buren (Christian). They subsequently discover that Brenda Lee has apparently screwed a guy to death (details as to how are neither proffered, nor, frankly, desired) in a car that she then stole.

Beck is understandably vexed, and in need of a little assistance. And assistance he gets in the form of FBI Agent Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan), who claims to have been chasing Devries for quite some time, although he’s equally adamant about the need to chase Miller and Van Buren. What Beck doesn’t know but Gallagher does (as does the audience) is that there’s a reason all of them suddenly began to exhibit an aggressive anti-socialism, a love for fast cars and heavy metal, and a surprising tolerance for being perforated repeatedly with ammo. There is a nasty-looking slug-like creature from another world making its way from one body to another, with no apparent plan to stop. And, as if the situation wasn’t difficult enough for Beck to grasp, his new Fed partner isn’t exactly the picture of normalcy either. It doesn’t take too big a leap of logic to figure out why.

This is one of those movies that I saw countless times in my young adulthood, having discovered it with my hometown friends and then turned my college friends on to it as well. (We actually had a rental copy of it in my college dorm room one year for many, many months. My friend and roommate Andrew got stuck with the late fees, but that’s small potatoes compared with the numerous times he ducked out on me at the end of the year leaving me to clean the entire room myself. But I digress.) And it was a pleasure to revisit it after a long hiatus and find that it hasn’t lost any of its spark. The script makes you endure a few ’80s-cop movie clichés along the way, but more than makes up for it by managing to be alternately exciting, tense, funny and even touching.

Now, I could talk about the film’s possible subtext: the creature’s misadventures as a reflection of the unthinking consumerism and excess of the ‘80s, particularly in his somewhat convenient encounter with a cocaine-snorting arms dealer, or the potentially sticky idea of hedonist behavior linked to the spread of a deadly organism. But New York Press critic Armond White recently wrote a typically snotty essay lamenting the state of modern film criticism, blaming, in part, the glut of amateur critics on the net and whining about those who refuse to write about films within their social context. So to spite him, I’m just going to talk about what I like about this film and not mention any of the things mentioned above. (Yeah, I know. Shut up.)

The cast acquits itself quite well, and includes a lot of familiar and interesting faces in roles large and small, including Law & Order’s Brooks, Rescue Me ’s Jack McGee as a bartender, MacLachlan’s fellow Twin Peakser Mulkey, fulfilling the rule that if one Peakser is in a movie, another will be as well, and Danny Trejo in a very small role (and, yes, he gets iced, as always). Letting us know the secret of the villain early on might be a mistake under other circumstances, but it completely works here, and both Boyett and Christian (in one of a couple of sexpot roles she played before becoming a fan-con staple by joining the cast of Babylon 5), as well as the other “inhabited” actors, who I’ll refrain from naming in order to preserve suspense, really make the sociopathic nature of the creature come alive. Once we find out that it is a thinking creature and not just a relentless id-satisfier, it loses a little bit of its chilling allure, but the movie continues to work nonetheless.

The two leads also work well together. Nouri is basically doing the standard put-upon cop routine, but that’s a byproduct of the story and he does it well, while it’s fun watching MacLachlan doing a dry run for his role as Peaks’ Special Agent Dale Cooper a few years later. (Although, ironically, Cooper’s eccentricity was informed by his humanity.) And despite slight inconsistencies, the plot charges forward, sometimes with a level of brutality that approaches if never quite equals the Verhoeven-ian, towards a satisfying conclusion that might bring a tear to your eye, should you be susceptible to pathos (or at least drunk enough at the time to be susceptible, he said, fearing the revocation of his curmudgeon license). In fact, this is one horror/sci-fi movie that really makes you wonder what may have happened after the credits rolled, although I’m told that it’s better to use your imagination than turn to the sequel, which was made six years later and is supposedly not a worthy successor.

As is often the case with films such as this, the build-up to the action movie climax isn’t as interesting as watching the madness unfold, but in this case things are kept moving along briskly enough that it doesn’t matter so much, and, as I said, the coda is suitably dramatic. Plus the aforementioned build-up contains a moment at a press conference that makes sly commentary about the nature of modern sound bite politics as effectively as the rest of the film trades on the fear of camouflaged predators lurking in the labyrinthine maze of the city. (Damn, a little social relevance got by me there. Oh well, just see this one.)

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