Jan 1, 2013

Invasion From Inner Earth (1974)

From the 1960s to the early 1980s, a filmmaker could produce movies within their own geographic location, and get them seen in the drive-in circuit or the early days of home video, completely bypassing the Hollywood system. These so-called “regional” pictures, often low-budget exploitation films, sired many careers during that silver age: Earl Owensby in North Carolina, S.F. Brownrigg in Texas, and William Grefe in Florida, to name only a few. Because they were made outside of the supra-real lenses of Hollywood, once one looked past the genre conventions, these films emerged as interesting snapshots of the people and places within the frames.

Bill Rebane’s genre films offer quirky portraits of eccentrics, intellectuals and enterprenuers cast amidst a bluish landscape of Wisconsin winter, in small towns with neon Pabst signs hanging in the windows. (It’s not for nothing that one of these projects is named The Cold.) Rebane’s work is often ridiculed for its poor acting, scripting and special effects, but his films do have a unique atmosphere, with a feel for the narratives’ rugged isolated locations, and odd marriages of shifting tones.

He first attempted feature filmmaking in the early 1960s, with the tedious, Chicago-lensed horror dud Monster A Go-Go, which even he considers to be the worst film ever made. After this disappointment, Bill Rebane returned to his previous vocation of the business end of international production, acting as an executive in charge of US productions for  “Studio Bendestorf” in Bendestorf, Germany,  persuading major studios in Hollywood to save production costs by shooting in Deutscheland. However tiring of commuting to and from Germany on a bi-weekly basis for a few years, Bill Rebane eventually settled into a farm property in Gleason, Wisconsin, in the late 1960s, and here is where the next and most durable phase of his career began.
This cattle farm morphed into a studio, christened “The Shooting Ranch”, at which numerous commercials, industrial shorts, and his own eccentric low-budget genre films were produced. The first “official” Bill Rebane feature was a bizarre science-fiction film which began in 1973 as The Selected (perhaps a more appropriate title), released the following year as Invasion of Inner Earth, which he co-produced, co-edited, and also directed under the oft-used pseudonym of “Ito” (to perhaps give the impression that one person didn’t do everything on the film). The script by his wife Barbara attempts thrills and allegory in equal measure, but the result is a mishmash that however has struck a chord with some viewers, this author included.

In the opening of Invasion from Inner Earth, we are bombarded with a pandemonium of images with people running, close-ups of eyeballs, red smoke rising from the swamp, a papier mache UFO, lens flares... what is going on? This question is never satisfactorily answered for the rest of the film. People everywhere are dying of a mysterious plague, however our five protagonists sit around a snowy lodge and talk, and talk, about what it could be.

The film has a weak introduction to our main characters, as siblings Jake and Sarah Anderson tend to their lodge and see off their scientist guests: rich bitch Andy, stud Eric and bearded funny guy Stan. Jake is also a pilot who flies them back to the mainland, and here is where the movie has potential as a halfway decent thriller. They are shooed away from one hangar by an ill traffic controller, and seek refuge at another runway which is mysteriously deserted. Finally, Jake and the scientists return to the same lodge from which they came.

Meanwhile, they are menaced by a red light that shines on them, and a heavy-handed voice that speaks to them on the CB radio. (The inspiration for this alien menace may have been the monotonal creature that kept saying “You-have-two-seconds-left” in the “Corbomite Maneuver” episode of Star Trek.) Stan is convinced that the voice is of an alien, since it constantly asks for their location. (Wouldn’t the alien already know, if the humans are besieged by the red light?)

To show how global this epidemic is (or to save the viewer from the relentless tedium of seeing these people pontificate forever in the cabin), the Rebanes cutaway to more scenes of people running down the city sidewalk, a drunk staggering out of a bar into a red cloud, a DJ ranting and raving, and even a late-night TV talk show that suddenly blacks out during their discussion of UFOs with some local yokels. In between all the talk, however, our protagonists individually get picked off by the red light: Andy when he selfishly tries to escape in the plane, Jake in his benevolent hunting for food, and Eric during their supposed flight to freedom once the survivors realize they’re sitting ducks in the cabin. Then, we cut back to the DJ still sweatily ranting, wondering aloud on the air if he’s the last one alive. Finally, Stan and Sarah walk (and walk and walk) through a snowy small town, and then mysteriously the film changes from its grey wintry locale to a vibrant green meadow in which an adolescent boy and girl hold hands and frolic off into the garden. Fleetingly in the background, we see a UFO. The end.

This mind-blowing conclusion comes out of left field, but in truth it’s no less baffling or senseless than most of what precedes it. Despite the way-out theory given by Stan (played by Paul Bentzen, who would soon return to Rebane’s universe) about how Martians are instead invading us from the earth’s core than their own planet, there is really no rhyme or reason given for the film’s strange occurrences or the people responsible for them. Perhaps Ms. Rebane’s screenplay was intended all along as an existential tome, much like Hitchcock’s The Birds. The conventions of a science fiction invasion story are used as a modern-day Biblical treatise, where the aliens are instead a deity using the plague much like the flood, systematically eradicating humankind so that Stan and Sarah can inherit the earth, as its new Adam and Eve. (Maybe the DJ is the snake.)

The movie fails in the acting and writing departments; the suspense is often drained by the slow pace, gaps of logic, and Rebane's customarily eccentric, juvenile approach to the adult material. This film is especially notorious for the "kid run amuck on a Casio" synthesizer score which lifts the theme from The Good The Bad and the Ugly! These attributes are exactly why the film is a favourite among bad-movie aficionados. However, this movie also has a strange appeal, which after five viewings, I still am no closer to deciphering than on my first viewing, way back in 1986, on CityTV in an unforgettable twin bill of late night movie badness (shared with the Dave Hewitt-James Flocker jawdropper, The Lucifer Complex.)

Misleading VHS cover art.
Perhaps because I have an affinity for stories set in the North and the cold, Rebane’s films work for me on a subjective level due to the isolated snowy surroundings, which heighten the feeling of helplessness of their characters, and distinguishes them from other low-budget thrillers of the time.  Invasion, set in Canada although shot in Wisconsin (usually it’s the other way around), has that atmosphere in the moments that aren't so stagy (namely the scenes in the cabin). Perhaps too, this disorienting atmosphere is aided by the haywire plot. Rebane's subsequent films benefit from this characteristic melange of eccentric regional characterizations, often juvenile approach to the material, and a strange atmosphere. The virtues of the oddball mystery-thriller The Cold, the engagingly nutty 50s sci-fi tribute The Giant Spider Invasion, and the offbeat supernatural horrors of The Demons of Ludlow all find their origins in Invasion of Inner Earth. Despite the obvious shortcomings, even this wildly inconsistent effort has a unique feel that stays with you long afterwards. There will still be those late winter nights, when I once again choose to revisit this movie and be rewarded in unusual ways.

Director/Producer: Bill Rebane
Screenwriter: Barbara Rebane
Cinematographer: Jack Willoughby
Cast: Paul Bentzen (Stan), Debbi Pick (Sarah), Nick Holt (Jake), Karl Wallace (Eric), Robert Arkens (Andy), Arnold Didrickson (Sam), James Steadman (Radio Announcer)
Northstar Communications 1974; 95 min