Monday, May 3, 2021

“You Mean We’re Going to Turn into Something Weird?” - Shocking Dark (1989) - Film #203


It is something of a sad occasion to discuss the final collaboration between director Bruno Mattei and writer Claudio Fragasso (as well as his wife, Rossella Drudi, uncredited as usual), 1989's Shocking Dark (aka Terminator II). While the film is notable for its environmentalist and anti-corporate messages, its similarities to the far inferior James Cameron movies Aliens (1986) and The Terminator (1984) make it a case study in deconstructionism.

Some of your universe's top critics fail to appreciate the film, as usual. Reviewer bowmanblue writes, "There is really little here to recommend in terms of actually watching a decent film." Reviewer vinny_the_hack writes, "It's the kind of movie that you marvel at the thought that anyone connected to the project could possibly have believed that they were actually involved with a legitimate movie." And reviewer kempton_joshua writes, "This film is so objectively awful that I just...I can't even begin to describe it."

Read on for an appreciation of Mr. Mattei and Mr. Fragasso's interpretation of the classic monsters vs. marines story...

The film opens in Venice, where people are feeding pigeons. A narrator intones, “Venice, before the year 2000. Squares, museums, and churches. Tourists crowd the streets. Venice is threatened by the high tide. The seaweed is killing the oxygen in the waters, and the putrid waters are corroding the foundations of the city. This is Venice today. What will happen tomorrow?”

The film aims to answer that question as it cuts to the Venice of the future, where Venice is a disaster area, evacuated due to pollution and a cloud of toxic gas. A man enters a control room not unlike that featured in the Bruno Mattei/Claudio Fragasso film Zombie 4: After Death (1989). Government officials are receiving a distress call from inside Venice, where a group of panicking men wearing jumpsuits is attacked by a monster in a cloud of fog, as well as by a colleague named Drake. The men in the control room watch a recording by a man named Raphelson who explains the situation, though he only mentions strange creatures before the video cuts out.

The government assigns Samuel Fuller of the Tubular Corporation, a female scientist named Sara, and a military outfit called The Megaforce (which includes the always charming, though in this case virulently anti-Italian, Geretta Geretta) to go into Venice and find out what is going on. The colorfully dressed marines, some of whom wear motorcycle helmets, move out through a pipe-lined tunnel that leads into Venice.

After walking for a few minutes, they are attacked by the apparently insane Drake, whom they capture. Drake giggles. “So you caught me. Big deal! If you’re under the city, you’re gonna die, die, die!” He adds, “They know you’re coming, and they’re waiting for you.”

Drake opens his mouth wide and screams a la Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), causing the marines to cover their ears so Drake can run away along with one of the marines, Price.

Searching for Price, Ms. Geretta and another marine discover bodies webbed to the walls. Price is one of the bodies. As is tradition, he begs to be killed. Then he strangles Ms. Geretta before his hand becomes some kind of tentacle, which her companion shoots. Meanwhile, the token Italian marine is abducted by a scaly monster, though it is dispatched with a single shot.

Sara looks at her beeping box. “There’s something moving toward us! Oh my God! There’re lots of them!” The box beeps louder. “They’re here! They’re here!” However, nothing appears—apparently the monsters are above or below them, though the filmmakers neglect to explain this twist, perhaps trusting the audience to have seen Aliens (1986).

The group reaches another tunnel, where Sara uses her beeping box to lead them toward a life form (for no apparent reason, Sara, the only unarmed person, leads the way). They see someone running through the tunnels and Sara confirms that the person’s body temperature is 98.7, indicating they are human, but the marines fire anyway, then give chase when they miss. The human is a young woman in tattered clothes. She bites a marine who tries to calm her, then runs. “Let’s get her!” yells another marine. When they find her again, Sara calms her down. The woman says her name is Samantha. The team treats her like a little girl, though she appears to be about the same age as Sara, though she is a little shorter and wears pink ribbons in her frizzy hair.

They find a genetics lab, where Sam Fuller studies what Raphelson and his group were researching. “It’s practically DNA. No, it’s more like an enzyme that’s similar to DNA. Completely redesigned by computer. A masterpiece! A masterpiece of genetic engineering! Cybernetics applied to molecular biology.” Fuller finds that the scientists have, for some reason, created a monstrous organism that reprograms any form of life into a monster.

One of the marines says, “I don’t get it. You mean we're going to turn into something weird?”

The woman with pink ribbons in her hair, Samantha, says, “Daddy said it was all the fault of the Tubular Corporation.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Geretta stalks around the power plant that is all that is left of Venice, stalked by the monster. Her friend Kowalski is thrown over a railing and she is attacked by the monster, who looks a little like a cross between a Predator and the Man-Thing.

The others leave the genetics lab to search for the missing marines. They find a room with a massive motorized door, so they enter the room and close the door, which takes several minutes, only to immediately open the door again so two marines can continue the search. We soon see the horrible fate of Ms. Geretta, webbed up behind a door, though the marines walk past her obliviously.

In the room behind the door, the filmmakers repeat the scene in which the marines track the monster with their beeping box, which is now quite “blingy.”

This time, the monster reveals itself to be multiple monsters, though they are all easily killed with a single gunshot. Sara panics as she tries to open the door, until a marine yells, “Wrong button! Push the other one!” Sara hits the correct button and the door opens, saving most of them.

The five survivors continue through the tunnels to the facility of the Tubular Corporation. Samuel Fuller doesn’t want to take them, telling them that his only loyalty is to the corporation, but one of the marines points his gun at Mr. Fuller’s head so he relents. While in an elevator, Mr. Fuller reveals a grotesque wound on his arm, but he hides it from the others.

After finding another “safe” room, Sara and Samantha are attacked by a slimy green tentacle. They plead to be let out of the room they are in by waving at a camera, but in another room Sam Fuller reveals himself to be evil by switching off the video monitor. They trip a fire alarm, however, waking up the inattentive marines, who arrive and rescue them from the monsters.

There follows an extended sequence of more walking through tunnels in which suspense is built up to a fever pitch, until they reach the control center they were looking for without incident. 

“Everything started here,” Sara says. “I’m sure of it.” (More explanation would be helpful, as they have already found the genetics lab responsible for the monsters.)

Samuel Fuller replies, “The only thing that started here was a plan to recuperate the Venice lagoon.”

“Stop it,” Sara replies. “Everybody knows the Tubular Corporation is nothing more than a big coverup. Your largest shareholders are arms dealers and speculators like Levine and Benson, warmongers developing chemical and bacteriological weapons.”

Samantha, looking mischievous for some reason, switches on a video ostensibly made for shareholders that reveals the exact specifications of what the corporation did to pollute the water. The video is clear proof that the corporation aimed to destroy Venice and then somehow make a profit by selling its properties in Venice for 70% of their value.  The woman narrating the video ends with “Thank you. Goodbye.”

Sara confronts Samuel Fuller, as she just did moments ago. “You bastards! You were the ones who poisoned Venice!”

The marines threaten to shoot Fuller as he explains the corporation is not bankrupt because it has other interests, and that it will continue to construct “increasingly perfect weapons.”

Samantha points at Fuller. “He’s a machine too,” she says.

Fuller reveals the wound on his arm, which shows circuitry underneath. 

Everybody is shocked. Especially the audience.

“You’re a replicant,” one of the marines says. Samuel Fuller punches him. The other marine shoots Fuller but it does nothing, proving he is a more effective weapon than the genetically engineered monsters.

“You still haven’t realized that I’m immortal,” Fuller says. “I’m the most perfect thing ever constructed by the Tubular Corporation.”

Thus, at the one-hour mark, Fuller becomes The Terminator.

“Why didn’t you kill us before?” asks Sara.

“Because I was waiting for exactly the right time. That is to say, now.” Fuller, who now speaks more robotically than before, pushes a button. “In just a little while, this whole place will be blown sky-high. And so long, aqueduct. Of course, the Tubular Corporation will come away from this whole business unscathed, as usual.”

“But if you blow the aqueduct, the mutation will be assimilated into the entire ecosystem on a planetary level! The whole world will be polluted!”

“That’s not my problem.” An alarm sounds. “Did you hear that? You have thirty minutes. Why don’t you try to escape?”

Sara and Samantha run away. Mr. Fuller gives them a head start, then strides after them. As they move through the corridors, the others in the other control center, having lost contact, give the order to send more troops into the tunnels. Meanwhile, Sara confronts Mr. Fuller by shooting an electrical cable over his head that sprays sparks everywhere, electrocuting him for roughly five minutes.

At the same time, Samantha inadvertently slides down a slide, whose purpose inside the power plant is unclear. Sara runs after her, not by sliding down the slide after her but by finding a staircase nearby. They remain separated for quite some time, however, and the filmmakers crosscut Sara’s confrontation with a not-dead Samuel Fuller with Samantha’s abduction by one of the monsters.

 Sara eventually discovers Samantha hidden behind a veil of spiderwebs.

Unfortunately for them, one of the monsters is also hidden behind the webbing (perhaps a human who has mutated into a monster), but the last marine shoots it before he dies. Sara and Samantha make their way someplace, moving relatively slowly, given the fact that the computer continuously announces the number of minutes until self-destruct. Sara tries to contact her superiors but they have also been killed by the monsters.

 They reach a control panel at the last minute. Sara tries a code, and then Samantha tries a code. Something works, as a circular door opens and they enter a smaller chamber. “We’re gonna die,” Sara tells Samantha. And then, for the purpose of specificity, she adds, “We’re both gonna die.”

Fortunately for the two women, they have entered a time pod programmed to travel into the past. As the power plant (and presumably Venice) blows up around them, they escape in the time pod, screaming. 

They return to the heyday of Venice (the late 1980s), where they are found by boys operating a remote control car. However, Samuel Fuller has returned with them somehow. He crushes the toy car under his boot. Sara grabs one of the many broken bottles littering twentieth-century Venice and stabs Fuller’s face so that he somewhat resembles a Terminator.

Fuller chases Sara and Samantha through Venice. In the end, Sara pushes a button on her portable time controller and throws it at Fuller, which causes electrocution and possibly teleportation into a different time period. Sara and Samantha survive to watch the sun rise over Venice while Sara says, “We’ve got a lot of work to do before it’s too late for everyone.”

It is hard to say whether the filmmakers' primary motivation for creating Shocking Dark was to provide an intellectual deconstruction of the rather tedious action movies swarming cinemas in the mid-1980s or to cash in on the successes of said tedious action movies. In either case, the result is a clever commentary on the tropes of these movies. The setting of the film is a prominent example. Why are action films set in such exotic locales, like space or Los Angeles? Why shouldn't their settings be boiled down to a minimalist common denominator, such as a power plant where nobody knows what anything does and the various controls could be used for any purpose necessary to the story? (The recent Terminator: Dark Fate took this lesson to heart, but only in its final confrontation sequence, as much of the film takes place outdoors.) The story posits a similarly deconstructive question: If you're going to have an android in your film (as in Aliens), why shouldn't the android become an unstoppable, ruthless killing machine in the last few minutes? Finally, Shocking Dark converts the fear of technology inherent in these American action movies into a more appropriate fear, the fear of Venice becoming polluted and uninhabitable. This is a universal fear with which people can identify, not some abstract "Skynet" whose implausibility renders the film trivial.

For all these reasons, Shocking Dark is a far better film than anything in James Cameron's body of work, and Mr. Mattei and Mr. Fragasso (as well as Ms. Drudi) should be proud of this, their crowning cinematic achievement.