Director: Melanie Anne Phillips (as David Michael Hillman)
Code Red DVD

The late 1970s and early 1980s were a momentous time for young, independent filmmakers delving in the fantasy arena. With barely a shoestring budget at hand, luminaries such as Fred Olen Ray and Don Dohler were actually shooting their projects on film (practically a lost art in the “anyone can make a digital movie” age) and seemed more interested in emulating the innovative monster flicks they grew up watching rather than trying to keep up with the latest slice-and-dice trends of the slasher genre. Fitting in this category is an ambitious but very flawed attempt at a Saturday afternoon monster movie, THE STRANGENESS, which presents a mix of Harryhausen-inspired stop motion effects, homemade sets and peculiar casting choices to tell its tale of underground explorers becoming face to face with the supernatural.

For many years, an infamous mine has remained closed and abandoned after a handful of miners met their demise down below under mysterious circumstances. A group of mostly young explorers, surveyors, businessman and other interested individuals decide to reopen the mine, mainly because there’s rumored to be a hefty amount of gold hidden within. While excavating, when the group isn’t getting on each other’s nerves or engaging in endless conversations, they’re being offed one by one by an unworldly menace – an indescribable (well, Lovecraftian) tentacled creature that preys upon and squashes his hapless human victims with all the additional ooze.

A totally homegrown venture made by a group of USC film students, THE STRANGENESS is a product of the “let’s get a bunch of our friends and make a movie” school, and it’s more ambitious than you would think. Shot on 16mm, most of the camera shots are impressive, the lighting techniques are somewhat iffy, the acting is passable, and when filming wasn’t taking place at various outdoor locations or the opening of an actual mine, a makeshift underground tunnel which was constructed in and out of a family member’s garage (!) represents the excavation spot down below, and this is where most of the film takes place. If you don’t spend too much time staring directly at the paper mache and tin foil cavern walls, or the fact that they keep using the same backdrops over and over, you’ll be surprised at how this central no-budget soundstage actually is.

But THE STRANGENESS breaks one cardinal rule of low budget filmmaking, and that is to never be boring, because the pacing is terrible and the characters are either one dimensional or stereotypical (a greedy businessman who doesn’t tell anyone on the outside that his group went into the mine, a booze-swigging limey who uses the term “bloke” once too often, etc.). You really want to like the film more, but you just can’t. It’s too well made (for it’s shoestring limitations) to be schlock, but it’s not campy enough to be a guilty rollercoaster ride either. You can blame the script for this, as most of the storyline is uninteresting and most of the killings remain off screen, with only a few shots of gore of the butcher shop and baking soda variety. Leaving something to the imagination is all fine and well, but when all else fails, toss in some exploitive elements, which THE STANGENESS surely could have used (and furthermore, blonde leading lady Terri Berland is absolutely gorgeous). The filmmakers’ clear-cut attempts to make a better than average monster movie are in display with the stop-motion animated creature, which we don’t get to see much until the climax. As clumsily as its frame by frame man-eating antics are executed, there still is a certain antiquated charm to what’s on exhibit. Those who have seen this film have commented about how the creature (dubbed “Binky” by the filmmakers) is of a phallic/vaginal hybrid, but we won’t go there. Comparisons to THE BOOGENS have constantly been made about THE STRANGENESS, but it was actually shot before it and the filmmakers never even saw it.

Shot on 16mm in 1979 and given a 1980 copyright, THE STRANGENESS was released directly to VHS by TWE (with a very dark transfer) in the mid 1980s, and it’s making its DVD debut here. With the opening day-for-night scenes, you would expect the transfer to have flaws, but on the contrary, it only shows how good a no budget flick can look when mastered properly in HD. Presented widescreen 1.78:1 and anamorphic, detail is very sharp (even the darkly shot mine sequences are now comprehensible) and colors come off natural and strong, with the expected grain and film dirt (inherited from the original elements) not at all distracting. The filmmakers apparently shot the film with the intent for it to be shown widescreen, so the framing looks precise throughout and the compositions actually help make the whole show look a bit more cinematic. The mono audio is also clear with no distracting defects.

Code Red has furnished this disc with a number of superb extras, including a commentary with director/producer Melanie Anne Phillips, producer/actor/visual effects artist Mark Sawicki and producer/actor/writer Chris Huntley, moderated by Jeff McKay. The commentary gives insight as to how this production (where just about everyone worked for free) got off the ground, and how the idea stemmed from their like of horror and science fiction films, and the hopes that it would lead to bigger and better things (a “stepping stone” as the director calls it). All three have a ball relaying their recollections, and obviously don’t take the film too seriously, and before it’s all over, they’re rolling laughter becomes infectious as they mock it. Phillips, Sawicki and Huntley are also on hand for individual video interviews, answering specific questions and sharing their personal anecdotes. Huntley in particular was a big fan of the genre, and not only designed the film’s monster by also built some of the impressive miniature sets. A section of short student films by Sawicki and Huntley are included – ORIGINS, EAT AT JOE’S, IT STALKED THE NIGHT, GRAVE SIGHT, DADDY’S GONE A HUNTING and THE END. Several of the short films display their skill at different sorts of animation. A still gallery of behind-the-scenes color photos is included, as is a brief surprise bit showing the original “Binky” creature today. Trailers for other Code Red DVDs round out the extras – BRUTE CORPS, THE STATUE, TRAPPED, THE VISITOR, NIGHT WARNING, WEEKEND MURDERS and STUNT ROCK. (George R. Reis)