02 December 2009

Movie review: The Hidden

The Hidden (1987)
Directed by Jack Sholder. Starring Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Nouri, Claudia Christian, Clarence Felder, Clu Gulager, Ed O’Ross, William Boyett.

The high-concept behind The Hidden of a body-hopping killer entity wasn’t new in 1987 (Hal Clement’s 1950 novel The Needle; the Star Trek episode “The Wolf in the Fold”; John Carpenter’s re-make of The Thing), and it has gotten enormous mileage since (The First Power, Fallen, the agents in The Matrix). This overplay may explain the movie’s relatively low-profile today. You simply don’t hear much about it. This is a shame, since The Hidden is a real gem of both ‘80s low-tech science-fiction and cop thrillers.

The Hidden feels like a Michael Mann ‘80s production with a science-fiction slant, sort of To Live and Die in L.A. goes Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The police procedural action crackles with realistic energy, and the SF tale of slug-spider alien parasite that seizes bodies across L.A. so it can cause bloody mayhem remains at a level of believability that simmers below the detective work of homicide cop Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) and his uncanny partner from the FBI, Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan). It’s Gallagher’s sudden appearance in the L.A. police department that alerts Beck to the connections in a series of killings that formerly law-abiding citizens are committing in a weird chain reaction.

Gallagher remains purposely obfuscatory about what he knows about the links between the murderers, causing Beck to eventually turn on him as events just get stranger and stranger, with perps who seem not to go down despite the massive number of bullets plugged into them. MacLachlan’s performance, which begins as distant and cold—what a police officer might expect from a FBI agent—turns increasingly bizarre and similar to the flat-affect antics of the various psychos. Gallagher explains that he’s tracking a single killer, one responsible for the murder of his partner, his wife, and his child.
The alien-hopper isn’t a secret from the audience, however, which gets to see the grisly body-switch early in the movie. The balance of tension comes from watching how Gallagher has to eventually let Beck in on a secret that he simply will never believe . . . until it stares him in the face with a gun.

Produced on a mid-budget that wouldn’t allow much in the way of large SF effects (the actual creature only shows up on screen twice), the film relies on shoot-outs and car chases, but executes all of them with punch. Director Sholder composes a few flair scenes, such as the gripping and often imitated opening credits viewed through a security camera at a bank, where a man calmly enters and suddenly open fires with a shotgun before turning to the camera and placidly blasting it away. The night chase and shootout with the stripper-host is moodily shot and frankly bizarre, tinged with a real ‘80s noir sensibility.

The Hidden has many bonus pleasures along with the excellent story and stylish filmmaking. The real “hiddens” are the 1980s spices like the synth-score that belts out staccatto percussion effects, the cheesy pop songs, and the “greed decade” subtext of the alien’s rampages. Essentially, the alien had come to Earth not to conquer it (although it mentions that should its people choose to do so, it would be a cinch), but to act like a yuppie prick with homicial tendencies. It likes Porches and Ferraris, Rodeo Drive girls, expensive strippers, and taking anything that it likes. It also kills anything that gets in its way. It’s an appealing villain because it has nothing more on its mind aside from doing all the crazy things the many humans would secretly like to get away with. Here’s an extraterrestrial “conqueror” who most of us can understand.
Nouri and MacLachlan play their strange “buddy cop” partnership with ideal chemistry. But the most impressive performances come from the actors taking the roles of the alien parasite’s hosts: Chris Mulkey, William Boyett, Claudia Christian, Clarence Felder, Ed O’Ross, John McCann, and Roy the Dog. Each performer brings a special touch to the oddness of an entity feeling its way through the human body. Boyett gets the most screen time and gives a crunchy off-kilter performance as a middle-aged white collar drone who pulls a casual hold-up and massacre at a Ferrari dealership. (We know the guys deserve to die, however, because the movie shows them snorting blow in their office. See also Die Hard for an example of cocaine-related ‘80s movie fatalities.) Christian, who would later have a long-running science-fiction association with her role on Babylon 5, is also a kick to watch as a stripper who suddenly gets very interested not only in heavy artillery but also her own curves; the parasite must not have possessed a woman before—or at least, not one this hot. Christian’s line, “You think it’s over now. You’re wrong,” is my strongest memory from the film’s trailer back in 1987, and still gives me a chill when she delivers it.

The Hidden concludes in a rush of police action suspense and a twist on audience expectations about the sort of people who are supposed to live through these movies. Once again, I was reminded of 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A., which pulls a similar shock stunt. The film manages a sharp punch to the gut, then turns around with a fade out both eerie and touching. There’s a wonderful subtext about a life left unseen, only given through hints in MacLachlan’s performance.

Director Jack Sholder, who helmed two early films for New Line Cinema (Alone in the Dark and the second Nightmare on Elm Street movie), should have gone onto some finer A-list pictures based on what he did here, but unfortunately he’s had to kick around in TV and low-budget movies. He was responsible for the fix-up job, uncredited, on the disaster-ridden Supernova—a film I think isn’t as bad as its reputation would make it. I’d love to see some producer who’s a fan of The Hidden pull Sholder away from his teaching job at Western Carolina University and give the guy a shot in today’s crowded science-fiction market . . . maybe he can pull out some old tricks that will seem new again.

The current DVD has a wonderful 1.85:1 picture, but the optional re-mix in 5.1 Surround is disappointing. Although people like to get the most out of their sound systems, in this case stick with the crisp, sharp original mono soundtrack.