Shocking Dark (aka, Terminator II, Terminator 2, Aliens 2, Aliennators and, last but not least, Contaminator) (Bruno Mattei, 1989)
“Kill me… please… kill me…”
-a goo-ily enmeshed Captain Dallas, begging Ripley to be put him out of his misery before he can be turned into an Alien incubator… wait a minute! That’s not it… it’s a goo-ily enmeshed soldier Price begging kick-ass black tomboy Koster (Gerretta Giancarlo Field, soon to be known as Gerretta Gerretta) to be put out of his misery before he can be used as… well… some kind of mutant monster something or other, what exactly I’m still not sure of.
It’s the near future and the rising polluted tides have rendered Venice uninhabitable (talk about timely viewing), conveyed in a quick prologue by putting a gray fog filter over the camera lens and shooting empty sections of the city, before we move on into the supposedly existing labyrinthine, steam-pipe tunnels beneath the city (which resemble nothing like anything that could feasibly actually be beneath the place) where gun-toting research workers find themselves at war with deadly mutant creatures. As they fight to get out alive, they realize it’s the insidious Tubular Corporation that’s behind it all – the destroyed city, the potential super-weapon monsters – and the cold-hearted, nearly indestructible android that works for them named Samuel Fuller (yep, you heard me, that’s what I said), is out to make sure no one escapes to expose that truth.
Having moved past the original films “Alien” viewings (including the two “Predator” crossovers, which led to the inclusion of the far less heady, but still worthwhile “Predator” films), even if I still haven’t gotten around to scribbling out my thoughts on that last unfortunate entry, the one subtitled “Covenant” (which should give some indication of how meh I found it), and then the films that inspired “Alien” (speaking of that latter grouping, I just read about another one in that department, Curtis Harrington’s 1966 Queen of Blood), our little viewing group is now firmly entrenched in setting our eyeballs on the oft-oddball (Contamination), intriguingly atmospheric (“Alien 2 on Earth”), occasionally brilliant (Xtro) and certainly plentiful 80’s films that straight out, shamelessly, and in no uncertain terms, ripped off the “Alien” franchise.
Which has led me here, following up my scribblings on A Cat in the Brain, a lesser, though still enjoyable, entry by a celebrated cinematic maestro of Italian exploitation, Lucio Fulci, to now putting down my thoughts on a… well… understandably less heralded, crazily prolific director from that same milieu… namely, Bruno Mattei; he who brought us the dubious Rats: Nights of Terror (though it reminds me, about time to pluck that bluray off the shelf and give it another whirl) and the shamelessly sleazy (as if there’s any other kind) nazi-ploitation romp, Women’s Camp 119, amongst many, many other (deliciously) ethically challenged titles (by the way, for your information, if you’re looking to hang anyone for helping destroy the minds of those poor misguided folks out there who were merely looking for a quick naughty thrill, Severin films stands irrefutably accused as peddler of all these aforementioned Mattei titles… But don’t bother me when you do, I’ll likely be busy re-watching ‘em).
Now regarding the specific Mattei film in mind; with everything from those completely unreliable blipping hand devices our heroes rely on to locate the monsters (you know the increasingly hysterical drill – ‘Three meters! Two! They’re getting closer!’, ‘It says they’re all around us!’, ‘We should be seeing them!’, ‘Where are they?!?’, ‘AHHHH!’), to the gooey entangling monster-created webs mentioned above, to the bravado amongst the group of wannabe tough-guy men and women soldiers (that is, until they realize the shit they’re in for – you know, ‘The game over, man! Game over!’ type of shit), to the insidious little corporate bad-guy who reveals himself as a replicant (only this one cackles with smug arrogance a lot more than Ash did in Alien), to the finding of the vulnerable young surviving girl living amongst the monsters (using a girl absurdly too old for the part, with bemused screenwriter Claudio Fragasso — as if the maker of Troll 2 has any right to complain — pointing out, in one of the worth-the-price-of-admission interview extras on the disc, she’s almost as tall as the film’s female Ripley character ‘Sarah’ and with the girl being a particularly annoying actor, endlessly yelling the same banalities over and over — “Sarah, I’m scared!’, ‘Sarah!’ – so many times, I was eventually wishing for her death myself), the only thing that stops this from being the most blatant, least disguised heists of the “Alien” franchise (more specifically, from the second effort, Aliens) ever put on celluloid – only on a far depleted budget, and infinitely less convincing, that is – is when the narrative suddenly shifts gears, leaves the genetically engineered monster mayhem behind and morphs into an undisguised Terminator rip-off (hence, the conglomeration of titles above).
I mean, it’s no accident (nor, truth be told, much of an inspired idea), that the Ripley girl, who suddenly shifts from monster-killing to spending the last act mostly trying to figure out a way to destroy the out-of-control cyborg-like replicant (with a half-mechanical face even!), is given the name ‘Sarah’ (think about it). The film even manages to (very) awkwardly jam in a time travel narrative device that leads Ripley (I mean Sarah) and Newt (I mean Samantha) and the terminator (I mean Arnold – wait, I mean Ash – no, I somehow actually… mean… Sam Fuller) back to the ancient gondola city ‘before the catastrophe’, providing hope that history can be rewritten.
The stiff actors consistently scream their lines with a hysteria that had me imagining a desperate Mattei thinking his only hope was to play it all in a way to have it celebrated as some kind of scifi cult film in the vein of Rocky Horror Picture Show; alas, Bruno, you needed a lot more than ridiculous overacting to achieve that rarely attained aim. An anomaly with “Dark” was that the dialogue was captured live, in English (with almost the entirety of Italian films shooting MOS, to be dubbed later on), leading to some of the more amusingly misguided production moments, such as the scenes in the underground command headquarters, where not only are the characters inexplicably screaming into their headsets, but the responders sound as if they’re standing just off-set doing their best to muffle their voices as they yell their lines back to them. And, come on, is there any way the moment of Sarah frantically pushing the big button to open the escape door again and again, hysterically shrieking to the besieged troops that ‘I can’t open it! It won’t open!’ until one of them points out the obvious that she should just try ‘the other button’, the one right next to it, which opens the door on first hit, that Mattei isn’t simply having us on?
Haven Tyler, the actress who plays Sarah (unsurprisingly, one of those with a single credit to their name), is incapable (and I mean, not once) to organically deliver a single line, let alone spew out the scifi gobbledegook she’s forced to drone on about. To be fair, it’s not her fault alone that her audience-cheer lines don’t work… it’s the script which offer her the same repeated banal choice of ‘You bastard!’ every time she seems to take out Fuller (at some point it all felt like some kind of nightmarish loop of ‘Sarah, I’m scared!”, “You bastard!”, “Sarah!!”, “You bastard!”, “Sarah, I’m scar – ! “).
Of course, the whole thing is really silly (even if the puppet monsters heads have some effectively gloppy slimy trails in their mouths every time they mechanically open their maws to make a sound that doesn’t at all fit with the limited mobility), but amusingly passable. I’m always up for these Italian apocalypse tales (true of the original Alien franchise as well, it must be said) that paints the faceless controlling corporation as the true villain, out to exploit and gain while ultimately destroying the world (gee, what a radical idea). And it’s hard not to find comfort, even with a decidedly lesser effort like Shocking Dark, in which the end was clearly coming, with that glimpse at a go-for-broke, bygone genre cinematic era in Italy where wonky films like this were actually made, and sometimes actually thrived, outside of the mainstream system.
My one major complaint? The same that afflicted many of the late 80’s and early 90’s Italian efforts; namely a serious lack of gore to relish in. Normally a saving grace for many a Mattei effort (with nudity and a healthy dollop of perversity and sleaze rarely far behind for the director), while not a fatal flaw, the proceedings certainly could have been healthily livened up with some more lurid fare to wallow in.
There isn’t a ton of extras on the disc, but the interview pieces are worth the price alone, with a casual, if really nice career overview with the still striking and enjoyable Gerretta Gerratta, the black female of many a Mattie anti-classic (and who amongst us can ever forget her as the curly-haired, boil-bursting prostitute and first victim in Lamberto Bava’s pulse-pounding 80’s gore-classic Demons?) and another with screenwriters Fragasso and Rosella Drudi, with Drudi mostly reminiscing fondly about how absurd these films they were writing mostly were and the delusional Fragasso unsurprisingly feeling more protective of their work.