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.

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