Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Borrower, The (1991) [copyright 1989]

... aka: Alien Killer
... aka: Alienkiller
... aka: Borrower
... aka: Depredador galáctico (Galactic Predator)
... aka: Il cacciatore di teste (The Headhunter)
... aka: Mutación Asesina (Mutation Killer)

Directed by:
John McNaughton

With his stock on the rise due to the slow-building success of the brilliant Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), someone gave McNaughton 2 million bucks to make a second genre feature. Filmed primarily in 1988, The Borrower ended up sitting on a shelf for several years until Henry finally received a proper and well-publicized (albeit limited) theatrical release in 1990. The delay was likely caused by two favors: 1. It went through several studios, starting with Atlantic Releasing Corporation (who went under before The Borrower was finished) and then Cannon Films (who were having their own financial problems at the time and would close their doors permanently in 1994), and 2. So it could piggyback off of Henry's excellent reviews and publicity. Long story short, it didn't work. The Borrower failed to come anywhere near the critical or commercial success of the director's first masterwork. Instead, it quickly faded from view after its initial VHS and laserdisc releases. Even now, the film is hardly ever discussed. Most interviewers just skip right over it when questioning McNaughton as if it doesn't even exist. One may assume all of that means this is a bad or forgettable movie, but that turns out not to be the case at all. If anything, the film is underrated and deserves much better treatment than it has received over the years.

Things open aboard a spaceship where an insectoid alien criminal receives the worst punishment an alien can receive: being "genetically devolved" into a human (ha!) The alien (Robert Dryer) is then banished to Earth, where he'll be forced to live out the rest of his days in the company of us primitive Earth scum. Oh yeah, there's one other tiny little problem. Because the aliens haven't quite mastered the de-evolution technique, the alien's head will occasionally explode and he'll be forced to acquire new ones every now and then. The banished alien is then dropped off and his head promptly bursts. Thankfully a redneck poacher (Henry co-star Tom Towles) is around to become the first donor. Alien Towles manages to get a ride from a bimbo teenager ("Geri Betzler" / Zoe Trilling) after she runs him over and eventually finds himself wandering the streets of downtown Chicago, where he's befriended by a homeless man (Antonio Fargas). Things start to escalate from there. Rae Dawn Chong and Don Gordon play a pair of detectives trying to uncover why decapitated bodies and disembodied heads up heads keep turning up all over the city.

What separates this film from numerous others of its type (aside from a very unusual premise) is McNaughton's ability to find quirky humor pretty much everywhere in the grimy urban setting. The seedy, scuzzy downtown Chicago of Henry is pretty much the exact same Chicago seen in The Borrower. Druggies, thugs, hookers and homeless people lurk in the alleyways. People urinate right in the street and drop rats into someone's dinner at a soup kitchen, gang members shoot up diners and - in addition to the alien killer - there's a sadistic serial rapist (Neil Giuntoli) on the loose. Hell, there's even rampant degeneracy in places you may not expect, like at a hospital where a doctor (Tony Amendola) is so busy screwing a nurse he doesn't seem to care that people are literally dying all around him. Even paying attention to minor details in the background, you'll notice things like chemical plants spewing pollution and posters for child abuse. Everything is consciously laid out to illustrate that this can be one ugly world we all live in which, amusingly, pretty much just confirms that the alien's punishment was an apt one. While this could have easily ended up being depressing, it's not at all because there's humor, satire and / or social commentary around every turn. Instead of slapping together a routine sci-fi action buddy cop pursuit film, McNaughton is aiming for something a bit different here. When it works, it's great. When it doesn't, you're zipped right along to something else before you even have time to dwell on the not-so-great bits.

The Borrower also offers up many odd, hilarious and memorable scenes. My favorite was when a couple are lying in bed watching The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (!!) while their son's amateur rock band ("I like the part about killing your parents.") are downstairs being attacked by the alien, who's been reduced to wearing a dog's head! And then there are other bizarre scenes that, quite frankly, I have no idea what exactly they were shooting for, but all the set pieces are entertaining regardless.

This film frequently receives two criticisms and both are valid. The first involves the special effects. While Kevin Yagher's gore makeups are really good, there's no explanation behind why the alien's body size and skin color changes with each head swap. The second criticism involves the ending. Well actually, this film doesn't really have an ending. It more kind of just stops and the credits roll. I'm not sure if they ran out of money or time, but concluding things on such an anticlimactic, rushed note leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Regardless, flaws and all, this is conceptually a lot more sophisticated and clever than numerous other ordinary horror and sci-fi films from the 80s and 90s that get a lot more undeserved love and attention than this one does.

Many familiar faces pop up, including Larry Pennell, Pamela Gordon, Bentley Mitchum (son of Robert), Tamara Clatterbuck, Mädchen Amick (in her film debut), Emmy-nominated TV writer / producer Pamela Norris and Henry co-star Tracy Arnold in a small role as a nurse. It had to be cut and submitted to the MPAA a number of times in order to get an R rating and was was nominated for Best Film and won for Best Special Effects at the Sitges - Catalonian International Film Festival. With the fairly well-known cast and the director's pedigree (he went on to several high-profile, big budget films), I'm not exactly sure why this isn't on DVD.



crow said...

Amick and Rae in the same film = eye candy.

Haven't heard of this one. I'm intrigued.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Ha, yes. I had a crush on both of those ladies when I was a kid. Apparently McNaughton did NOT like working with Rae, though. According to him, she didn't take it seriously, made it clear she was only doing it for the money and didn't even try to give a decent performance. Then I read an interview with Tom Towles and he claimed he and Rae got along just fine after he complemented her on her ability to change a bike tire in seconds in the movie American Flyers. I thought she was OK in this. Amick's part is like 2-3 minutes max but it's a fun little bit.

spookyx3 said...

mcnaughton: (FANGO, july #89) "rae dawn and i had some run-ins... it was her first starring role and i believe she was nervous and tense. also, i don't think she's used to working on projects whose budgets are quite so low, where the amenities are quite as thin. she worked big blocks at the beginning and end of the picture, but during the middle three weeks she didn't work at all. we had a scrape or two during the first three weeks, but i got along with her much better the last weeks, and it all went pretty smoothly."

a few other tidbits: the director said the the original script was too ambitious -- "hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of opticals ... things on fire, twice as many people decapitated... a huge radio telescope facility [destroyed] at the end... the effects more than the story." the film was shot in L.A., not chicago, as planned. all the "head expansions and explosions" were done on a soundstage, some FX by KNB. the article winds up with mcnaughton inferring he'd like to do a sequel.

thanks for putting BORROWER to the front of my brain. i haven't seen this in at least 15 years, and wasn't all that impressed, though i don't remember why, now, so, time for a revisit!

spookyx3 said...

damn. july 1989, not issue 89.

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

Thanks again for all the info! Had no idea KNB were involved in some of the fx.

The first time I saw this I was pretty lukewarm about it but enjoyed it much more on a re-watch so maybe you will, too.

spookyx3 said...

> Thanks again for all the info!

glad to; i'm enjoying flipping through the old magazines again.

FANGO ran an interview with writer richard fire (sadly, it appears that he died just last month) in january '92, when it was finally time to promote the actual video release. he talked most about HENRY, and the BORROWER stuff reads like a rewrite of the earlier article. it does mention that when he and mcnaughton saw their new film on tape, they both agreed despite the gruelling production and the rewrites "this is the movie we set out to make -- it's up there."

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