Having recently embarked upon the liberating, terrifying life of a full-time freelance writer (or just writer, if I’m feeling cheeky) I’m using some of my free time reconnecting with my love of the unlovable. I love bad movies, I love sleaze—there’s a reason why Mystery Science Theater 3000 hooked me early and never let go. I love bad movies.
I love to laugh at them, naturally—like Joel (then Mike) I do so sometimes out of a primal instinct for self-preservation. Some bad movies are decidedly not fun-bad, or “so-bad-they’re good,” but are just deadeningly awful, dull, and limp. They fail at their one and only raison-bloody-d’etre—being something that could be called “entertainment.” Even then, there are subtle gradations of awfulness, and the complex pleasures to be derived therefrom. My inner MST3k monologue turns most sharpish at the expense of big-budget nonsense—really, these are people who should know better, and therefore, I get a bit nasty. (Recent example of this sort of Hollywood awfulness: Ouija. I speculated about who or what, exactly, would be afraid of that movie. Finally settled on—baby lambs.)
And then there’s Mill Creek Entertainment.
I love Mill Creek Entertainment, purveyors of blessedly overstuffed and inexpensive collections of presumably public domain or very, very reasonable old movies. Mostly horror, sci-fi, exploitation, or, well, that’s it, really. (Occasionally you’ll find an obscure “real” movie in there, in what one can only assume was an accident at Mill Creek central. (Examples I’ve spotted: the Richard Burton church drama Absolution, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, which might qualify as a bad movie if its badness weren’t synonymous with its awesomeness.) Mill Creek’s a clearinghouse—I like to imagine it housed in a dusty, cavernous warehouse full of racks and racks of old, indifferently-transferred reels of forgotten films. Preferably overseen by a cigar-chomping fellow named Mr. Krump, who abuses his one and only employee/nephew for forgetting how he takes his coffee—again. It serves a purpose—apart from entertaining the hell out of me—that I quite approve of. In scooping up the forgotten detritus of the film industry, it preserves things that no one in their right mind would take the trouble to. It saves the fringes. I like the things that can be found on the fringes.
So—when that aforementioned terrifying freedom of the full-time writer (I am feeling a bit cheeky) allows, I’ll dip into my Mill Creek collections and review the first thing that comes to hand in their four-to-a-disc DVDs, more or less at random. That only seems appropriate, really. So, first up:
The Alpha Incident (1977)
Directed by Bill Rebane
From the Mill Creek collection: “50 Chilling Classics”
Oh, sweet, sweet Bill Rebane. You were just the pits.
Best known (to those who know him) as the man responsible for the MST3k classic (episode) Monster A-Go Go, which the writers considered the worst movie they had ever done on the show until Manos: The Hands Of Fate showed up. No shame in losing to the Ali of bad movies, Rebane. Plus, it’s not like you didn’t try, again and again and again.
This Wisconsin auteur isn’t dead—in fact, IMDb says he’s got a documentary coming out this year called Silver Street: The Lotta Morgan Story. I’ll believe it when I don’t see it, ever. He’s also not a stranger to the Mill Creek universe—I also own, by mistake, at least Twister’s Revenge and The Giant Spider Invasion (also a MST3k staple). I may end up reviewing Twister’s Revenge, but probably not. I started it—something about a guy with a monster truck—and found myself glazing over in a not-pleasant way. I may have lost time. I still don’t know where I got that scar.
Anyway, The Alpha Incident is Rebane’s shot at an Andromeda Strain-style alien infection/quarantine thriller, which it is, if you strip away all of the science, hardware, special effects, and Michael Crichton and just have dumpy guys hang around a railroad office and bicker for an hour.
Why did I pick this one? Good question—the decision to watch a Mill Creek movie takes a hook to grab my interest. This time, it was the fact that it starred Ralph Meeker. Who? I’m ashamed of you—it’s Ralph-freaking-Meeker, people! Just kidding. Meeker was a beefy middle talent best known for starring in Robert Aldrich’s revisionist, batshit Mike Hammer flick Kiss Me Deadly (he also had memorable roles in The Dirty Dozen and Kurbick’s Paths Of Glory). Here, well, it’s quite a bit later than those, and Meeker, playing Charlie, the saddest sack of all sad sack railroad depot managers, looks about as depressed to be there as his character does to be stuck in the middle of Wisconsin talking to the same three people every day. Pudgy, comb-overed, and nondescript, Meeker doesn’t make much of an impression—if I hadn’t known to look for him, poor Ralph would have slouched through the film unnoticed, the least colorful light in a not-at-all impressive and tiny cast.
The film takes an interminably long time getting to that railroad shed, with a pair of tetchy scientists first musing over how their superiors are treating that pesky virus that tagged along when a satellite crashed back to Earth. Ain’t that always the way—at least Night Of The Living Dead pretty much handwaved how perfunctory that phoney-baloney was. Here, in a top secret government facility seemingly run by two guys and no security, we’re told the virus is dangerous, but possibly not, and that they haven’t figured out what it’s deal is. Then a rat’s head explodes from the inside. Here, I’m just going to say that I hope Rebane observed some sort of ethical protocols for dead rat usage and didn’t just go into a pet store, demand a rat, and kill it while snarling, “Because I’m Bill-fucking-Rebane, that’s why!”
Anyway, by that time, the virus samples have been dispatched to a top secret-er government storage facility. By train. Escorted by one guy. Even though no one knows or cares anything about the virus or would have no reason to steal it. Cough. Still, better safe than sorry, I guess, especially with super agent Ted Sorensen, played by your dad’s pal from the Rotary, Stafford Morgan. I can see why they sent just Sorensen, as he immediately has his cover as a railroad conductor ferreted out by the crustiest of all alcoholic railroad conductors, Hank, played by the perpetually covered-in-alcoholic-crust character man George “Buck” Flower.
Ted, of course, snaps into action once his cover is so expertly blown, taking a nap so that Hank can bumble into the next car and spill the virus all over himself, then stuff everything back in its container and walk away whistling nonchalantly. It’s okay though, since, once the train pulls into Charlie’s tiny, featureless depot (and get used to those blank walls, people), Son-of-Soren makes a phone call and quarantines Hank, Charlie, and himself, alongside plain jane secretary Jenny and beefy, date-rapey ladies man Jack, by telling everyone they really, really shouldn’t go outside. Like, not at all. Sure, Hank freaks out once he realizes he’s Patient Zero for the Martian ‘Splodeys and gets away after Ted nicks his leg with a bullet and then sort of forgets about him.
And, yes, he allows Jenny and Jack to skip out for a “we’re gonna die anyway” quickie in a boxcar (watched by the peepy, creepy Charlie), even though he has a gun and is, as we’ve mentioned, super good at guarding stuff. I mean, what is an armed government agent supposed to do, control four doughy Wisconsonites just because the fate of the entire world is at stake? C’mon.
So when it turns out that the virus only kicks in when you fall asleep, the four remaining characters take a lot of government air-dropped uppers, play license-free instrumentals on the radio, and pair up to play cards and dance. Luckily, Bed-Head Ted actually manages to stay awake this time. Not so luckily, he’s sort of logy, allowing poor Jenny to blow her own brains out, since it turns out she’d invented the big, hot date she’s been bragging about (before being indifferently humped by the smug-for-no-reason Jack). Can’t imagine why she fled to fantasy (and then suicide), since her entire male prospect pool seems to consist of nothing but three disagreeable, middle-aged alcoholics, but it’s hard not to feel bad for her. (And for actress Carol Newell who Rebane convinced to do a brief nude scene in service of his vision, and to provide the necessary drive-in T&A.)
In the end, there’s another echo of NOTLD, as Ted, having dispensed the government-issue cyanide secretly to the people he’s been fundamentally unable to protect in any way, is shot by the shock troops dispensed to contain the epidemic that he was supposed to avert by escorting one, small package to Denver without fucking everything up. As a great man once said, Irony can be pretty ironic sometimes.
In theory, this isolated setup could work, if Rebane were going for some sort of dialogue-heavy stylistic exercise in close-quarters end of the world drama that, say, similarly low-budget but actually talented Arch Oboler was going for in 1951’s Five, or the Harry Belafonte-starring The World, The Flesh, And The Devil (1959). Instead of, you know, this—a soporific, sludgy slog from Wisconsin’s pride and Mill Creek all-star Bill Rebane.
Real word entertainment value: D (I sort of admire movies where people just sit around and nothing happens. But really nothing happens.)
Mill Creek entertainment value: C- (For the Mill Creek aficionado, there’s a certain fascination in how slack and chintzy the whole thing is, and how Rebane clearly thinks Ted is a conflicted, beset hero instead of the most incompetent dope that’s ever doped.)
The Mill Creek-iest: Speaking of Kubrick, here’s Rebane’s approximation of Dr. Strangelove‘s war room, wall-hung grade school map standing in for the Big Board.