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    Humankind and Unkind

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    The arrival of Blade Runner 2049 in theaters heralds another cinematic consideration of what it means to be human. In the dystopian futuristic world first inspired by Philip K. Dick’s influential 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and hypnotically visualized on screen in Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott and adapted by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, flesh-and-blood, all-too-mortal humankind exists uneasily – and sometimes lethally – alongside a population of manufactured replicants invested with dream lives and aspirations that evolve into anthropomorphic capacities for long-term survival and even dominance. The tale’s new continuation, building out the tale 30 years into an even darker and more cataclysmic future realized by director Denis Villenueve (Arrival) and screenwriters Fancher and Michael Green, intensifies that man-vs.-machine struggle while amplifying the original’s “what price immortality” questions. Movies have always explored this area of human duplication with varying degrees of reflection and commentary on our past and present, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, sometimes supernaturally tinged, sometimes with ghoulish sci-fi riffery. As Blade Runner 2049, which topped the domestic box office this weekend, reignites the conversation about true-versus-synthetic humanity in our culture, three Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray titles offer interesting perspectives on the matter. Wildly different in their approaches and budgets and thematic concerns, it is, above all, Halloween season and they prove intriguing complimentary viewing, as well as considerable amounts of scary fun. 

    Consider what happens when alien invaders from another planet take over an isolated Midwestern town in 1958, assume the forms of local townfolk and time simply stops? Director/co-writer Michael Laughlin and co-writer Bill Condon did just that in the delightfully shaggy, nostalgically entertaining Strange Invaders (1983), a tip of the hat to It Came from Outer Space, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I Married a Monster from Outer Space and other 1950s classics, spiced with an angle of governmental conspiracy as the feds seem to be in on the otherworlders’ operation and keep close tabs on the petrie-dish experiment of a Centerville, Illinois, amber-encased in 1958 until an incursion from a present-day college instructor (Paul Le Mat), a tabloid journalist (Nancy Allen) and an institutionalized victim of the aliens (Michael Lerner) exposes the extraterrestrial activity. This good-natured blend of the suspenseful and the satirical utilizes a great cast (Diana Scarwid, Louise Fletcher, Wallace Shawn, Fiona Lewis, Kenneth Tobey, June Lockhart, Charles Lane), surprisingly effective budget-conscious special effects, and a reasonable ending that allows our species and theirs to part ways short of Armageddon, leaving behind a human/alien love child as a (hopefully) good luck charm toward better future relations. Another recurring theme, that of human possession by another predeceased soul, haunts a host of movies, and is explored with unerring sobriety and unnerving eeriness by director Robert Wise and writer Frank De Felitta (adapting his own novel) in Audrey Rose (1977). Ten-year-old Amy Templeton (Susan Swift) is outwardly a normal, adjusted child, except she experiences inexplicable visions and nightmares of a past life and a violent, agonizing tragedy. Her parents (Marsha Mason and John Beck) are desperate to save their child from the harmful effects of her behavioral outbursts, when a compelling Anthony Hopkins enters the story as a man whose wife and daughter were killed in a fiery auto accident and an audacious claim founded on clairvoyant research: that young Amy is the repository of the essence of his late daughter Audrey Rose. Accustomed as the audience is to the primacy of one’s own personhood, they’re forced to confront the strange notion that two souls are housed in one body and that a terrible price may have to be paid to liberate one of the occupants of an innocent, living host. Wise, who had covered this territory before with spooky precision in The Curse of the Cat People and The Haunting, brings off a challenging premise with effectively potent, cinematically clinical results. Finally, there is the “scientific hybrid” subgenre that floats the following premise for consideration: what kind of specimen results when medical doctors engineer an entire metahuman from a mixture of the best body parts, fiendishly stolen, of course, from hapless living or murdered victims? Before you can say “Doctor X plus Doctor Orlac equals Vincent Price as an unhinged renegade surgeon,” there is the mutant speculative sci-fi/exploitive horror/political allegory Scream and Scream Again (1970), directed by Gordon Hessler from a Christopher Wicking screenplay based on the novel The Disoriented Man by Peter Saxon, a publishing house pen-name for speculative fiction writer Stephen D. Francis. (Talk about your alternative unreal identities.) Three somehow related plot strands covering the case of a hospitalized heart-attack victim whose treatment turns savagely extreme, the hunt for a serial “vampire killer” of amazing strength and with a proclivity toward draining the blood of his female victims, and the brutal tactics applied on political prisoners as well as bureaucratic superiors in a mysterious fascist state weave the fabric of this crazy-quilt collaboration starring horror genre legends Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. The bizarre link throughout this fiendish concoction is the generation of superhumans via mad genius Price’s pioneering limb and organ transplant techniques, with the ultimate goal of circulating these ghoulish creations into society at large and infiltrating the corridors of power with sinister “replacements.” Of course, like anything experimental, there will be results that go haywire. And in common with Blade Runner 2049 now in cinemas, the fascination with what defines the true nature of our humanness versus remarkable but incomplete facsimiles, including the TT discs of Audrey Rose (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/28097/AUDREY-ROSE-1977/), Scream and Scream Again and Strange Invaders, ultimately fixates on the haywire part.