Tuesday, September 12, 2023

Laboratory (1980)

Directed by:
Robert Emenegger
Allan Sandler

Sandler / Emenegger Productions cranked out around a dozen science fiction films in less than two years (!) Each were talky, indifferently directed, as bare bones as a community theater production, contained at least one washed up former star (+ their nepo babies) and had costumes, props, sets and sfx that only managed to shine a spotlight on the rock bottom budgets. Among these were pure sci-fi movies, sci-fi comedies and the occasional horror / sci-fi hybrid like their KILLINGS AT OUTPOST ZETA (1980) and WARP SPEED (1981). This is another of those, perhaps the last I'll be covering here actually. If it's remembered for anything today, it's for the unique appearance of the aliens.

Frequently compared to disco balls, the extraterrestrials seen here are played by humans outfitted in head-to-toe silver sequin onesies! At times, you can even see the zippers on the backs of the costumes. While these beings do look rather silly much of the time (appearing particularly arts-and-crafty in low light situations), they also look kind of cool when they're lit and photographed correctly, which they sometimes are here. There's just something about the way bright light glimmers off of the suits that really does capture an otherworldly feel. Also, I'm sure it was much cheaper taking a trip to JOANN Fabric than it would have been hiring special effects artists.

Still, I try not to harp too much on issues caused by budget restraints because some filmmakers are able to overcome them. The alien lens flare aesthetic won't necessarily even be a problem for some viewers, namely those of us who have seen our fair share of older genre films and are already accustomed to suspending our disbelief for the sake of an otherwise well-made, imaginative or thought-provoking film. Just because a movie is cheap and has unconvincing special effects, doesn't necessary mean it can't be good. It also doesn't mean shoddy fx work and cheapness can't be charming and actually add to one's overall enjoyment. Corman's IT CONQUERED THE WORLD (1956), for instance, succeeds even though it features a creature that looks like a snaggle-toothed rutabaga.

The plot used here is a simple one. An alien council decides to kidnap a half dozen "lower life forms" (humans) for observation and study. Among the unwilling test subjects are LA-based musician Linda Bruce (Camille Mitchell, daughter of Cameron and also star of the aforementioned Warp Speed), jogger Jed White (Ken Washington), streetwise Jerry Hansen (a pre-star Martin Kove), priest Father Rowan (Garnett Smith), rich housewife Gloria Van Buren (Corinne Michaels [Camacho]) and an unnamed Asian lady (June Kim), who is referred to only as "That Oriental Lady" or "Subject 31D" by the others. All six are engaging in normal activities on Earth when a large orange light that resembles a fireball sweeps out of the sky and whisks them away. They all awaken in separate white bedrooms dressed in ill-fitting white jumpsuits without a clue as to where they are or how they got there.

Jerry is the first to be let out of his room. He wanders down a corridor and enters a lab where the aliens are conducting experiments on "That Oriental Lady," which involve "probing" her with a metal rod inserted into her belly button. The aliens have certain weapons at their disposal, like a red "restraint field" to hold their specimens in place, can appear and disappear at will and also possess strong mind control / telepathic abilities that enable them to make people fall asleep and make them mute merely by waving their arm and demanding it. Jerry is put in one of the restraint holds and has to stand there helplessly watching the whole experiment play out. The subject doesn't take well to the probing, becomes ill, is decapitated by a laser and then has her head stuck in a glass domed case.

The remaining five characters wander hallways endlessly and sit around in their rooms talking for long stretches, occasionally taking part in some test (like a game that will shock participants if they don't hit buttons in sync with their partner) or allowing for minor character insights. Jerry is a loner, but he and Linda still find a little time for romance. Jed has some electronics knowledge that he hopes to put to good use blowing up the lab. Gloria is bitchy, pampered, uncooperative and has a history of both alcoholism and mental problems. The priest is your usual creepy religious fanatic who thinks they're in purgatory, believes this is some kind of test from God and constantly goes on bug-eyed rants.

Not only is this not much to look at, with dreary, boring, sparse sets, but it's also not very pleasurable on the ears, with a droning music score, poorly recorded audio and often indecipherable electronic voices for the aliens. However, the main problem here is the script. The story just isn't terribly interesting, many story points are muddled and the film ends up going nowhere. Toward the end, one of the characters is forced to play a computerized "communication game" with colored flashing lights and musical tones, almost exactly like the electronic memory game Simon (which had just hit the market a few years prior), which is used to briefly speak to the aliens. I couldn't even figure out why this was necessary since the aliens already know how to speak English!

I also had a difficult time determining just where this whole thing was taking place. Though the humans are trapped in a normal looking building with normal looking rooms and furnishings like one would find on Earth, there are tons of cut-away shots to a large, white, glowing, spherical ship floating through space. For the longest time, I thought the abductees were actually ON the alien spacecraft, but toward the end I suddenly realized that the aliens had merely taken over an abandoned military hospital on Earth, put the humans in there and have been conducting their experiments on them from the safety of space. Since the aliens show up in the hospital at will, I couldn't figure out if some of them were left on Earth in charge of things or if they had the ability to teleport down to Earth from space to tend to their subjects. A lot of this isn't adequately established or explained and it's kind of annoying. The ending also sucks.

Having previously acted for the likes of Wes Craven, Roger Corman, Paul Bartel, Andy Warhol and Andy Sidaris, Kove already had a presence in B movies when he appeared in this, though apparently not enough of one to actually get his name on the video box despite being the top-billed star! Soon after, he'd land the part of Detective Victor Isbecki on the hit TV series Cagney & Lacey and became a big 80s star, which led to notable villain roles in box office hits like The Karate Kid and Rambo II, which he's best remembered for today. Now in his late 70s, he's been enjoying something of a career resurgence thanks to the Karate Kid reboot, Cobra Kai. Good for him, but unfortunately this isn't a good showcase for his talents and he's stuck playing a bland hunk romantic hero role. The most developed character is actually the second female lead played by veteran TV actress Camacho, who gives the film's lone standout performance. At one point she even gets to on a long, deranged monologue about her traumatic childhood while locked away in a padded isolation cell!

The associate producer was Anne Spielberg, sister of Steven, and the editor was Burton Lee Harry, who'd later direct the "classic" SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT PART 2 (1987). IMDb has this listed as a 1983 release, but the copyright date in the end credits is 1980 and "Released in 1980" is written right on the United VHS box, which was, to my knowledge, the only home video release this ever received. It would occasionally pop up on TV in the 80s and 90s, both in the U.S. and UK, which is where most viewers saw it.

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