Thursday, November 14, 2013

Carrier, The (1988)

... aka: Contagion 1992
... aka: La ciudad maldita (The Damned City)

Directed by:
Nathan J. White

A mysterious fire killed both of teenager Jack Spear's (Gregory Fortescue) parents and he was put into a mental institution for awhile afterward to recuperate. Now out, he faces rejection and ridicule in his small town of Sleepy Rock. While most believe he started the fire to get his hands on his parents' land and property, a few others believe he's completely innocent and show him compassion. Either way, he's been ostracized by the town at large, is relegated to the outskirts of town and has taken to drowning his sorrows with liquor. But there's something else even stranger going on in Sleepy Rock. People have been spotting a strange creature that's referred to only as "The Black Thing..." and they've been seeing it a lot near the Spear farm. Late one rainy night after getting into an altercation with a bully at the town dance and getting thrown out, Jake returns home only to encounter the elusive creature. He smashes a lantern over it and then shoots it with a rifle, but not before it sinks its claws into his chest. When Jake goes out into his yard to survey the body, the creature has seemingly evaporated into the soil, leaving behind only a black spot on the grass.

The following day, Jake takes up an invitation for Sunday dinner, which ends up backfiring when he says the wrong thing. On his way out, Jake sighs "I can't get near anyone without ruining everything!" And he doesn't know how right he really is. The scratch from "The Black Thing" has given him some kind of strange, destructive power so now every inanimate object he touches turns into something capable of killing. The contaminate he spreads consumes cell tissue from both humans and animals... and he's already gone around town touching various objects. After a book eats a man's hand (which has to be axed off), the townspeople go to sensible local doctor Anthony King (Steve Dixon) for help. He does what he can with his limited resources; touching objects around town with baby chicks to see if they've been infected and then marking them off if they have, but he can only do so much. At an emergency town meeting, he recommends they rebuild the bridge (which has just been knocked out by a bad storm, along with the town's phone lines) and go to the nearest big city to be treated and quarantined. But the doctor's suggestions are challenged by the local reverend (Paul Silverman), who claims what's going on is punishment for their sins and they've just "trying to run from God" instead of relying on their faith. By the time the reverend is done talking, most are breaking out in a chorus of "Glory, Glory Hallelujah;" which goes to show just how well the doctor's speech went over.

It doesn't take long before everyone in town is wrapping themselves in plastic and paranoia spreads about who is the carrier of this strange new plague. A man get dissolved by an outhouse toiler and another woman is "eaten" by a mirror. Scared townsfolk start turning on and killing one another, using "red" (infected) objects as weapons and boarding up their homes, cats (which are good for testing out areas for infection) become a precious resource and Dr. King's clinic quickly begins to fill up with the injured and maimed. Jake learns early on that he's the carrier and goes around town trying to remove all of the objects he's already infected. Local girl Treva (Stevie Lee) - something of an outcast herself - discovers his secret but she's not too quick to rat him out and instead plots to split town with him. After Jake discovers that the entire town has been keeping a secret from him about the real cause of his parents' death, he decides to rile two factions; The Jones' and The Barmen, up; resulting in a bloody war over the town's possessions.

Made independently in Michigan, The Carrier is a surprisingly successful little low-budget concoction that overcomes its budget limitations via strong storytelling, believable local color and the clear care, love and attention to detail put into it by its creators. Centered around an genuinely intriguing central premise, this never rests on that along, but effectively builds upon it throughout, with lots of clever and sometimes even humorous little touches along the way. It also has something to say in its pitting of science against superstition / religion and may have even been intended as an allegory about AIDS. The whole film has this very Stephen King-esque mood to it, with its misunderstood, bullied outcast protagonist and in its focus on idyllic small town life just ready to be torn apart at the seams. There's a likable sense of community, as if the filmmakers took over a real small town and just drafted locals to fill out the roles. While this adds to the authenticity and charm, it's also something of a debit. The wildly uneven acting, which ranges from OK to awful, does take some getting used to.

Ron Asheton, guitarist for The Stooges, has a small role and is the only "name" in the cast. He went on to appear in other low-budget horror films like Hellmaster (1992; which was executive produced by White), Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo (which was filmed in the late 80s but not released until 1995), Mosquito (1995) and Legion of the Night (1995). Bruce Campbell was the "sound effects recordist." After decent VHS distribution through Magnum, this sadly faded away until its belated 2010 DVD release through Code Red. If you ask me, it still hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.


Devil's Partner (1961)

Directed by:
Charles R. Rondeau

Elderly, reclusive eccentric Pete Jenson has just been found dead in a pool of blood that may or may not be his; a dead goat with its throat cut by his side. Sheriff Tom Fuller (Spencer Carlisle) suspects foul play but since no one in the sweltering small town of Furnace Flats, New Mexico, population 1505, liked the man much, it's difficult to tell just what happened. Arriving by bus, Nick Richards (Ed Nelson), Pete's handsome, charming nephew and only living relative, pops in claiming his Uncle had written him a letter telling him he was sick and wanted to see him right away. Upon hearing the bad news Pete has possibly been murdered, Nick is given a box full of his Uncle's belongings and ownership of his run-down shack and goats. He soon meets Nell Lucas (Jean Allison), the attractive daughter of the town's only doctor (Edgar Buchanan), who used to buy goat milk off the Uncle to help treat TB patients. After a slightly rough start, Nell and Nick hit it off and become fast friends. You could say they might even make a good couple, except Nell is dating and hoping to marry gas station owner David Simpson (Richard Crane). But something seems a little off about the newcomer, and a wave of unfortunate "accidents" soon start occurring all over town.

Though the seemingly kind, generous and amiable Nick seems to be the polar opposite of his much-hated Uncle Pete, the two are actually one in the same. Pete had just sold his soul to the devil for the ability to return to as a young man for two years; after which time Satan will come to collect. Nick / Pete isn't above doing whatever it takes to both get revenge on his enemies and get the girl of his dreams, who happens to be Nell. He first takes out a man he hates with some tainted goat milk, which causes him to keel over from a heart attack. Next up, he places a photo of David inside a hexagon he has hidden under a rug, causing David's dog to go crazy and maul his face. Though David survives the attack, he's badly disfigured and goes into a deep depression. Nick offers up his help in running David's gas station and also doesn't mind giving his girl a shoulder to cry on. A plastic surgeon heading in to fix David's horribly-scarred face is killed in a car crash on his way to town when a cow wanders into the road in front of his car. When Nick tries to pay off town wino Papers (Byron Foulger) to help him and the arrangement doesn't work out, he sends a black horse to trample him to death. Can the Sheriff and company figure out what's going on before more people are mysteriously killed?

Considering that this has lapsed into the public domain to little attention and took three years to release (the credits have a 1958 copyright date), this was better than expected. For starters, it's rather smoothly directed on a very low budget by Rondeau, who primarily worked in TV. The script (by Stanley Clements and Laura Jean Mathews) also isn't bad. The dialogue comes of as natural and credible, the premise is interesting, some of the side characters are enjoyably quirky and there are some genuinely neat ideas in here, particularly that Pete / Nick can transform into various animals to do his dirty deeds. Some tightening up on the vaguer elements would have improved things a bit, but we're given just enough to fill in most of the blanks. And this wouldn't have worked at all if the actors weren't decent, but nearly everyone acquits themselves well in this one.

Aside from his recurring gig on Peyton Place, star Ed Nelson was best known for the numerous early Roger Corman productions he appeared in. Despite racking up quite the cult film resume through the 50s and 60s, appearing in SWAMP WOMEN (1956), ATTACK OF THE CRAB MONSTERS (1957), INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957), The Brain Eaters (1958), NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST (1958), A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) and others, he's often overlooked as an actor. However, some of his best work can be found in this non-Corman film, where he provides a blend of nice guy charisma with some subtle, just under-the-surface sinister qualities that are perfect for this particular role. Ronald Stein's eerie score is another definite asset.

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