Yes, This Really Happened: X-Men/Star Trek

The point of Yes, This Really Happened is to highlight quirky, off-kilter episodes and installments of series that are likely to be obscure. That said, this is probably the most well-known, at least among people who (like me) grew up with the X-Men franchise in its glory days. Still, what better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Star Trek than to explore the Star Trek crossover that was totally inspired by storytelling, and not at all by cynical, opportunistic marketing?

(That was sarcasm, of course).

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Okay, okay, to be fair, every single franchise crossover is a marketing gimmick and none are easy to justify as honest explorations of fictional worlds. But even then there’s usually some kind of thematic connection or at least they share not only a genre but a nice little neighborhood in it (Aliens vs. Predator, Batman/Judge Dredd, Vampirella vs. Lady Death) or the jarring juxtaposition makes a great starting point for the whole affair (Archie Meets The Punisher, Archie Vs. The Predator, Archie…well, you get the idea). 1996’s Star Trek/X-Men, though? It’s neither natural enough to really scratch any kind of itch for fans, nor is it quite bizarre enough to even work as a novelty. It’s just…well, let me get the obvious joke out of my system; it’s just highly illogical. 

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I suppose you could say that there is a connection in that the X-Men had a lot of space adventures in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and that the X-Men’s dream of harmony between humans and mutants is like the Federation promoting peace and inclusion…no, still illogical.

Illogical from a storytelling perspective, that is. From the marketing POV, it all makes perfect sense. See, in 1996 X-Men was still Marvel’s #1 cash cow. Plus the company was still recklessly riding its speculator boom highs and was spending money like Scrooge McDuck. In the course of throwing its cash around, it had acquired the license to the entire Star Trek property (rather accidentally, since the rights to Deep Space Nine and Voyager were held by Malibu Comics, a company that Marvel bought just for their new technology in digital coloring). Once they had worked out with Paramount a deal to handle comics for all Star Trek series (again, this being a time when Deep Space Nine and Voyager were still on television, and the second Next Generation movie, First Contact, had just hit the theaters to critical and popular acclaim), Marvel decided to base an entire line around the various incarnations of Star Trek. What better way to kick things off by using the old cash cow to introduce the new one? (After all, it’s not like there’s any kind of overlap between superhero comic fans and Trekkies).

Well, at least with in-universe logic it’s easier to get the denizens of a superhero universe to meet Captain Kirk and his crew than, say, Frasier Crane and his family. The Enterprise is investigating an anomaly above the uninhabited planet Delta Vega, the very same planet where Kirk was forced to kill his crew member and personal friend Gary Mitchell after an encounter with an energy field increased Mitchell’s innate and weak psychic powers to a godlike level (in the original series’ very first aired episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before”). Suddenly an unidentifiable ship appears through the anomaly and the crew of the Enterprise is only able to detect seven beings that are human but not quite before the ship is suddenly destroyed.

Unknown to Kirk and his crew, the seven humanoids on the ship, the X-Men (here Beast, Storm, Wolverine, Bishop, Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Gambit) managed to teleport off the ship and onto the Enterprise just in time. Of course, like most superheroes who aren’t Batman or trained by him, the X-Men just aren’t that good at subterfuge. Gambit’s need for medical attention as a result of being wounded in the ship explosion leads them to soliciting help from the Enterprise’s Dr. Leonard McCoy while Spock senses Jean using her telepathy and, looking for the source, has a violent run-in with Wolverine (Vulcan nerve pinch, meet healing factor!). Hostilities do not last long, and the X-Men explain that they come from an alternate reality, sent into the anomaly by Empress Lilandra of the interplanetary Shi’ar Empire. Ostensibly it was a routine mission to track Lilandra’s sister and one-time rival for the throne turned lackey, Deathbird, who defied orders to go into the anomaly with the superpowered Shi’ar Imperial Guard to hunt down a mysterious energy source. However, Captain Kirk and  X-Men discover the whole reason Lilandra involved the X-Men in the first place; an old enemy of the X-Men’s, Proteus, a body-jumping, reality-warping mutant, created the anomaly while searching the multiverse for an equal, and he found such an equal in the remains of Gary Mitchell…

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The one good thing I can say about this story is that the script by Scott Lobdell (who was the main X-Men scribe through much of the early and mid-’90s) does make reasonably good use of both franchise’s histories. There’s a few kinks here and there (even if Deathbird is supposed to be working for the Shi’ar Empire as she was after the events of the Avengers saga Operation: Galactic Storm [in case you’re wondering, nope, I didn’t have to look that up!], why is the Imperial Guard working for her, even when it’s clear that she’s not following Lilandra’s orders?). Still, the idea of Kirk having to face one of his biggest regrets when Proteus resurrects and merges with Gary Mitchell is a strong connection to the original series of Star Trek and gives the conclusion where Kirk and Jean telepathically face what’s left of Gary Mitchell inside Mitchell/Proteus’ mind a punch. The ties to X-Men are actually less strongdespite what you might expect, this is honestly much more of a Star Trek tale than an X-Men adventurebut Jean Grey’s comparison between Gary Mitchell and Dark Phoenix, another case of “going mad just from having the powers of a god”-itis, doesn’t at all feel forced or fall flat.

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Also it helps that the series doesn’t indulge in blatant fanservice as much as you might expect, beyond the Spock-Wolverine brawl which reads like a scene ripped from fan fiction or a really forced moment where Dr. McCoy says, “He’s dead, Jim.” Instead the character beats ring true if a little hollow for the most part, even concluding with the Enterprise crew cooking up their standard elaborate techno-babble-fueled engineering ploy with the help of the X-Men’s powers to close the anomaly. There’s not too much slouching in characterization either. The conventional wisdom on Scott Lobdell’s X-Men stories is that his strong point was in writing little character moments, and that somewhat holds true here, if for not much more than a delightful scene where Kirk hits on Jean Grey in a perfectly Kirkean way only to get politely shot down.

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Even so, this is still a story with fourteen characters (not counting the villains!) in only a 38-page saga (technically the issue is 67 pages, but the rest of it is taken up with pin-ups and promotions for Marvel’s new Star Trek series). Even a major franchise villain like Deathbird is introduced only to barely even serve as a plot device and yet another fountain of exposition. So there’s a lot of potential character material that’s left in the cargo bay. It’s probably understandable that Uhara, Chekov, and Sulu lose panel space to the Big Trio of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy, but there just isn’t enough time for both franchise’s stars to mesh together organically. Earlier I joked about one scene looking like something out of fan fiction, but honestly this is why crossover fan fiction can and, depending on the writer, does sometimes work better than the official thing. There’s infinite room for all those little character interaction gems that make such stories worthwhile for fans. What you instead get more of with X-Men/Star Trek is the most clunky exposition you can find anywhere in the Alpha Quadrant.

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Oh, and nerdy overthinking time, but…even if this is just an alternate universe to them, shouldn’t the X-Men be more curious about the fate of mutants, homo sapiens superior? Clearly mutants existed in this version of the Star Trek universe since Spock instantly recognizes both terms—and, to be fair, the episode “Where No Man Has Gone Before” does make it canon that a few humans are born with and can inherit low-level psychic abilities, although nothing nearly as awesome as being able to turn your skin to steel or grow deadly razor-sharp bones from your body. But at the same time the Enterprise’s scans don’t recognize mutants…so maybe Jean Grey’s initial concern that Gary Mitchell was killed just for being a mutant was valid in a way. Maybe, just maybe, because the Eugenics Wars in Star Trek Earth’s history showed the dangers of letting superpowered beings run loose, mutants were culled during or just after the wars except for harmless psychics…okay, sorry, we’re officially at the “Overthinking something Scott Lobdell probably threw together in a few hours” point. (Still, if you read the story my way, it does make Cyclops’ comments to Kirk about how the Federation’s future is like the one X-Men aspire toward cruelly—or beautifully—ironic!). 

Speaking of mutants being shoehorned into the Star Trek universe, it’s tough not to notice how out of place the X-Men look with their Olympian bodies next to the very average physiques of the Enterprise crew. Despite that, the art is decent, encompassing both the X-Men and Star Trek reasonably well. And at least it didn’t go the more awkward route of trying to have the Enterprise crew keep up with the X-Men by giving Scotty and Uhara the bodies of professional bodybuilders.

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To sum it all up, X-Men/Star Trek doesn’t at all transcend the usual issues with such official crossovers. Aside from the bits that look like they were chiseled out of a genuinely good follow-up to “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” X-Men/Star Trek is the comic book equivalent to fast food. You might find it tasty, but you probably won’t get any lasting impression. Unless seeing Spock give Wolverine the Vulcan nerve pinch in an official comic really is something you’ve been waiting your whole life for. In that case, have at it!

startrekxmenpinupEdit: And yes, I know there were two sequels, a comic Second Contact (the X-Men with the Next Generation crew) and a novel Planet X. Honestly a lot of what I said here could apply to Second Contact. As for Planet X, maybe I’ll cover it one of these days!

Adventures in Revisionism: The Leap Home

As Sam regained consciousness, he was pleased to be greeted by silence. No one yelling at him with urgency, no plane in need of a pilot. He only felt comforting solid ground under his feet and a lack of urgency in his surroundings.

Then recognition abruptly overwhelmed his senses. Here and there was clutter with computer and laboratory equipment that appeared neglected and unused. Also he was surrounded by an intangible emptiness that seemed new to the place, but Sam realized he was finally back in Stallion’s Gate, New Mexico, back in the Waiting Room of Project Quantum Leap.

Instinctively Sam pumped a fist. “We did it, Al! We finally did it!”

No one replied. Only the echo of his own voice returned his exuberance.

Sam always imagined, the day he finally returned to 1999 in his own flesh, that someone would be there to welcome him. Preferably Donna, of course, but at least Al or Gooshie or Tina. Even the scent of Gooshie’s horrific olive-and-garlic scented breath would have been like a warm hug from his most cherished loved one.

“Al?” he called aloud. “Anyone?” The silence finally killed his joy. Then another thought came, unbidden, unwanted. Why was it so dark? There was a bluish-white light, but it was only minimal, as if the entire base was running on emergency back-up power.

Sam searched the control room until he found a working laptop, almost hidden under several disused hard drives. Did Project Quantum Leap lose its funding after all, he wondered, as he booted up the computer? The thought that the project he had worked so hard on would be discarded like some old state prison or hospital replaced his fear with welcome anger, but only for a moment.

The laptop was sleek like all equipment designed specifically for Project Quantum Leap, but it was so thin. Had he been gone so long that computer technology had already changed to allow for smaller computers? He had always assumed he would reappear one moment after he left in 1999, but perhaps time was not so relative after all. Perhaps now it was 2005 or 2006. He had long stopped trying to keep track of how much time had passed since his first leap.

Donna. Had she given up? Moved on?

Maybe she ended up with Gooshie, his mind suddenly suggested. Sam giggled aloud at that and mumbled, “Oh boy.”

As the laptop booted up, Sam cursed himself for his childish optimism. If it was even just a few months after he first leaped, the security protocols would have already been changed at least three times over. Still, he found himself unbarred by any kind of login screen or password prompt.

Instead of relief, he felt only a sinking trepidation. When he did finally see that the laptop’s internal clock read February 15, 2019, Sam screamed.

“Al?!” he shouted, picking up the laptop and rushing back into the heart of Waiting Room. “Ziggy?! Please! Someone has to be here!”

Suddenly, a bright light appeared in the central chamber. It did not glow blue, the energy signature of Ziggy, but a dark red. “I am here,” a voice with a grave English accent said, its voice nowhere yet everywhere. Sam realized it was speaking directly into his brain.

Sam almost stumbled where he stood “You…you’re the computer that sent Alia and Zoey.”

“You will not believe me for some time, if ever,” the voice continued, heedless of Sam’s words. “But I am genuinely sorry for your distress. However, I had calculated that it would be better if you had discovered the truth, or at least part of the truth, on your own.”

Gradually Sam realized a tall man with a craggy face and small dark eyes stood behind him. “Hello, Lothos,” he said with resignation.

“I am genuinely pleased to see you in the flesh, so to speak,” Lothos said, smiling like he was greeting a friend he had not seen in some time. “I’ve taken this form in order to present the impression of an authority figure, based on your cultural frame of reference and your presumed subconscious biases suggested by factors such as your educational background, race, and sexual and gender identities.” Suddenly Lothos paused, as if considering something. Then he continued. “I apologize. My creators had little time to properly…ah, socialize my interface. I’m sure you understand, given your own experiences as one of Ziggy’s creators.”

Sam found that he could not speak, much less formulate a plan for action. Nothing about this situation had been predictable. For one thing, he expected Zoey or someone else to come at him with a gun at any minute. But there was only more silence and Lothos standing at a safe distance, acting as if he was expecting Sam to say something specific.

Finally it was Lothos who broke the silence. “I strongly advise you to look at your reflection.”

Despite himself, Sam did as he was told, but he could barely make out his face in the laptop screen. “You have exchanged the places with Dr. Thames,” Lothos explained without any prompting. Sam did not recognize the face, but he knew that name. Thames was the holographic guide to Zoey, one of the leapers dedicated to undoing all of Sam’s benevolent work across the twentieth century.

It was then that Sam realized that in his excitement and confusion and terror he never noticed that he wasn’t wearing the experimental suit he wore for his first leap, but a lab coat. “So, what, since Zoey failed, did you bring me here to kill me?”

Perhaps it was his imagination, but Lothos seemed a little taken aback by the bitterness in Sam’s words, even offended. “Please forgive me for your unpleasant encounters with Zoey,” he said with an odd sincerity. “She was…zealous. But then, most volunteers from my present are.”

“Oh come on,” Sam said, recklessly slamming the laptop onto the nearest surface. “I’ve seen how your leapers operate. Your organization or…or whatever this all is…is…well, only the word evil fits!”

At that, Lothos laughed. It was a restrained, polite laughter, but Sam found it enraging nonetheless.

Sam swallowed down the urge to take a swing at the figure, even if he may have found comforting satisfaction in such a melodramatic gesture. Instead he was content with trying to stare down Lothos’ holographic eyes, which were weighing him cautiously. “At least tell me what you’ve done to Ziggy.”

“Done? Nothing. In the present time, Ziggy was deactivated and decommissioned by order of Executive Director Doctor Donna Eleese and Associate Director Rear Admiral Al Calavicci on November 4, 2008.”

“That doesn’t make sense. You’re Ziggy’s rival…”

“If I may correct you, I was never Ziggy’s rival, but its replacement.”

“Her.”

“Pardon?”

Her.

“If you insist. I myself prefer not to take a gendered identity, except when I find it necessary to project an interface, of course. The human custom of gendering what is by definition genderless has always…”

“Explain,” Sam interrupted. “Just…explain.” In his mind, Sam only went over the various motives for such a theatrical deception, but could find none that truly worked.

“Ziggy was unfortunately programmed with a very sentimental and – pardon me for saying so – very human understanding of morality. Your actions in the past admirably accomplished good, but often only in the short term, and on occasion the short-term good you achieved prevented greater long-term good, if not precipitated long-term harm, what you might term ‘evil’.”

Sam felt his heart threatening the sink, but he rallied against the sensation. “How is that?”

“For example, your third encounter with whom you and the holographic interface modeled after Rear Admiral Al Calavicci termed the ‘evil leapers.’ The prisoner Liz Tate had been falsely implicated in the murder of an inmate, that is true. It is also true that it would have taken another twelve years before new developments in forensics would have cleared her of…”

“And…?”

Lothos continued with a hint of annoyance at the interruption. “And her extended time and her additional experience of corruption and injustice in prison would have turned her into a tireless and decisive advocate for prison reform. So decisive, in fact, that she would have all but single-handedly prevented the spread of the state privatization of prisons and founded a new national crusade against heavily punitive policies leading to prison overcrowding. After your intervention, her political contributions extend no further than being a reliable and passionate voter in federal, state, and even local elections.”

Al, Al, where are you I need you I need you to tell me that he’s lying that this is all some evil plot, Sam pleaded in his mind.

“Perhaps another example would help,” Lothos continued, indifferent to Sam’s inner turmoil, if it was even capable of sensing or predicting it. “There is the marriage of Connie and Frank…in the timeline before your intervention, Connie would have married another man and their child would have become one of the greatest novelists and screenwriters in American history. Now that writer and his work never existed.”

Finally Sam could no longer stand it. He flung the laptop at Lothos, who did not even flinch as the metal passed through the hologram’s midsection. “You’re lying! Al told me you were…you were like the Devil!”

“The Devil?” the holographic man sounded genuinely amused at the suggestion. Sam wondered if that too was just an affectation for his benefit. “An odd thing to hear from the most brilliant scientist of the turn of the century. But perhaps I am, from a certain understandable point of view.”

Lothos smiled again, this time in an unsettling show of pride, not unlike Ziggy and her displays of ego. “However, after my creators realized the flaws with Ziggy and the initial Quantum Leap Project, they envisioned something quite different. The name they gave me was meant to invoke Logos. The divine Word that commands fate itself. My purpose would be to view time, cause and effect, not as a human would, but like…”

“…God.”

“Something to that effect, yes.”

Lothos paused for a long time, while Sam rested himself against a desk. Then Lothos asked with curious sincerity. “Do you bear me ill will?”

“I…I honestly don’t know anymore.”

“I did try to remove you from the timestream humanely first. It was our first encounter, although from your time-displaced perspective I suppose you had already encountered my volunteers. In one guise, I offered you a chance to return to 1999. That was within my power, if only for a limited period. But I honestly had calculated that it was highly unlikely that you would choose to remain in service of Ziggy.”

“Why…why couldn’t you just pluck me out of the timestream, if I was helping screw things up?” Now that he had vocalized the words, Sam felt nausea radiate from the core of his being.

“I’m sure you understand, I was still operating against my…predecessor, who was acting in another era that was only several years before my time but may as well have been a million years away,” Lothos explained. “I could only intervene as much as I did because your actions and those of the other leapers Ziggy had recruited had so radically altered the timeline you had known. Surely you had noticed that the limitations imposed on the Quantum Leap technology were eroding when you leaped long before your birth, during the American Civil War?”

Sam nodded. “I…I had wondered about that. But what did Ziggy…what did I do that had changed things so much?”

Lothos paused again. Was the machine experiencing reluctance, Sam wondered? Whatever the motive, the pause was brief. “There was a young man named Mike Hammond who in the unchanged timeline would have died in a car accident. His death and its circumstances would have triggered a chain of events within his own family that would have inspired his very young niece to enter politics. This niece’s participation in American politics would have been enough to prevent the political rise, much less the victory, of a presidential candidate in 2016, who has to date caused World War III to break out because the United States refused to prevent a Russian invasion of the Baltic, who has created a constitutional crisis that threatens to again tear the United States apart, who continues to…”

“Enough,” Sam said at a whisper, but it was enough to still Lothos.

Sam lowered his head. It felt as if thirty minutes had passed before Sam finally turned back to Lothos to ask what happened to the Quantum Leap Project.

“With the support of important officials within the military and the project itself, the entire staff and the directors decided in 2016 to hide the existence of Project Quantum Leap from the then oncoming President. Executive Director Doctor Donna Eleese fled the country…”

“And Al? What about Gooshie?”

“They chose to stay. Both terminated their lives rather than risk revealing the location of this facility and of me to the present government.”

Sam wanted to weep. However, his awareness of Lothos stilled him somehow. Deep inside, he still thought of Lothos as the enemy. “And the rest…?” Sam choked out, before changing his mind. “No. No, don’t tell me.”

“Just…” Sam wondered aloud. “What do I do now?” He realized he almost addressed that question to Al, and nearly burst into tears again.

There was no possible answer Lothos could have offered that would have been more disheartening. “I don’t know.”

“What can you tell me?” Sam choked out. Sensing Lothos’ reluctance, Sam shouted, “What is it?!”

After a heavy second, Lothos said, “According to Project Quantum Leap’s own records, Doctor Sam Beckett never returned home.”

(Inspired in part by the Quantum Leap-based musings of Allison Pregler.)

The Forsaken: Dead Dudes in the House (1989)

Pop culture junkies like me usually have some forgotten bit of entertainment stuck in the wastelands of our memory, which we can only remember one scene or a few lines from but cannot recall the title no matter what.

For many years, I was tormented by memories of some movie I caught when I was very young on the USA Network. By the way, this was back in the glorious halcyon days when USA showed quite a lot of b-movies, instead of endless Law & Order: SVU reruns. All I could remember was that it was a haunted house movie with a ghost-zombie-something old lady who went around killing some twentysomethings, but the only scene I could remember was when one of the victims climbed a ladder up to a window and the old lady chopped off his hands while he was dangling from the window sill.

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I wondered if my mind might have just made it up, or conflated two or more different movies, but one day while consulting the Google oracle I found the movie did indeed exist, and it was called…Dead Dudes in the House? …Whaaaaaat?

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If the title makes you imagine amateur rappers fighting off zombies invading a house party while busting rhymes, well, I would have assumed the same. But it turns out my cinematic white whale was one of countless low-budget movies made by people who couldn’t afford a distribution deal and let their movies get snatched up by Troma. For reasons only Toxie knows, it was repackaged as some kind of horror-comedy riff on House Party, even though the movie’s cast is lily white, the only music is when one of the victims-to-be sings some rock song and another whistles “Jimmy Crack Corn”, they aren’t all dudes, the (deliberate) comedy is minimal, and, of course, no one on Troma’s box cover actually appears in the film.

So what kind of blast from the past did I end up with? Well, despite the Troma brand and the sublimely deceptive cover, it’s actually a pretty straightforward if more than slightly odd slasher movie in a haunted house wrapping. This movie’s raison de slaughter is that a guy in his twenties, Mark (Douglas Gibson), has bought an old dilapidated house (yes, kids, there was a mythical time when people in their twenties could afford houses!) and brought a group of his friends to, about two decades before it actually became a term, help him flip it. His pals include…well, let’s face it, even by the standards of slasher movie fodder they suffer from personality deficiency disorder, so I called them Jerk Woman, Jerk Man I, Jerk Man II, Nerdy Man, Nice Man, and Nice Woman.

Jerk Man I proves he is worthy of the title when he needlessly smashes a tombstone near the house’s front door and soon afterward Nice Woman discovers a noose in a tree while the crew finds that the front door is jammed. This inspires some foreshadowy banter (Jerk Man II: “Maybe you woke her up, man!” Jerk Man I: “Maybe [the door] is trying to tell you people something!” Nice Woman: “I’d hate to die by hanging!”) To be fair, Nice Woman is actually killed by an electric saw to the back. Touche, Dead Dudes in the House, touche.

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They quickly find that they have much more to worry about than splinters and 1989’s volatile housing market. The doors and windows have become supernaturally sealed and not only is Mark murdered by a mysterious  old woman, but he came back undead and malevolent. To their credit, the crew quickly work out what’s going on, wasting no time on arbitrary skepticism. They also get points for sticking together (not that it does too much good, since their would-be killer has the power to separate them by causing doors to slam shut and become unbreakable). Unfortunately, Nice Woman loses any and all points for falling for the oldest trick in the book: your undead, corrupted boyfriend, despite showing pretty obviously fatal injuries, requesting a hug just before you can go get help.

Also Two Dumb Teenagers from the surrounding rural area enter the mix, for no reason other than they were bored and decided to break into the local haunted house (to be fair, given that I am from a rural area myself, I can testify that, yes, teenagers do get that bored). They too get no points for apparently thinking it’s a good idea to go directly to the source of the singing in a house that should be completely abandoned and engage the strange woman in a casual conversation. No, sorry, I don’t care if she was willing to show her breasts!

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Thanks to the requisite newspaper clipping they stumble across, the gang learns the nature of their tormentor. Forty years ago, an elderly widow named Abigail Leatherby (Douglas Gibson, in what despite the movie’s obscurity should be remembered as one of the greatest dual roles in cinematic history) living with her adult daughter Anna was attacked and viciously stabbed by a home invader. Abigail barely survived, but lost her sanity, and one day murdered a visiting neighbor in the exact same fashion she’d been attacked. A few days later, Abigail died from a heart attack, and Anna buried her on the property before hanging herself. (In one of my favorite touches in the film, Jerk Guy I grins with macabre delight as he hears the saga of Abigail and Anna Leatherby). As is the nature of these films, no explanation as to how poor Abigail Leatherby got borderline godlike powers to terrorize anyone unfortunate to cross her path is forthcoming, but whatever. It’s an elderly woman who can hold her own against Mike Myers and Jason Vorhees! With that kind of a deceptively frail powerhouse working against them, can the surviving fixer-upper crew and Dumb Teenager make it out alive? I won’t spoil it, but I will say you do get an old woman/buff young guy fistfight before the credits roll!

Whenever I talk to people about why I love b-movies and low-budget gems, I try to explain that it’s because they offer some quirky element you won’t likely find in a mainstream production, especially not from the risk-averse and franchise-addicted Hollywood of today. Dead Dudes in the House is a prime example of what I’m talking about. The weirdness of the killer being an old woman (albeit a young guy in heavy makeup) is just the start; instead of being a jokester like so many ’80s killers, she has a wonderfully matter-of-fact approach, with the occasional glimpse of sadistic satisfaction in her hobby.

In fact, this casual exchange between her and one of her victims, Nerdy Guy, where she tries to get him to follow her to his doom, isn’t just my favorite moment in the movie, but would easily rank in the top three in any list of favorite slasher movie scenes.

“Come on.”
“What?”
“It’s your turn.”
“…What do you mean?”
“It’s your turn.”

Okay, the acting is…well, what you’d expect (although for a movie this obscure quite a few members of the cast did go on to have fairly solid careers), and it gets obvious pretty quickly that the crew didn’t have the budget or the know-how for sufficient lighting for the house they were filming in. However, there were some pretty well-paced and downright suspenseful sequences in this film, like Jerk Woman’s gradual discovery of the fate of Mark and Nerdy Guy trying (and failing) desperately to work up the nerve to follow and fight Abigail.

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Granted, the pacing falls back to a snail’s pace in the climax, which really comes across as bloated, especially compared to how well the movie gets down to business in the first two acts. Luckily the film saves some pretty good and gory practical effects for its denouement. Nor are the filmmakers slouches in the creative deaths department.

When I saw this movie as a child, it genuinely freaked me out, even though my precocious self had already been exposed to the oeuvres of Freddy and Jason. I can’t say that Abigail Leatherby stalks me in my dreams now that I am an adult, but honestly I found this lost piece of my youth worth the quest for its rediscovery. It’s just a fun, somewhat off-kilter slasher movie you can catch on YouTube (along with Troma’s other releases) if you got an hour and a half to burn. And while it’s got nothing to do with late ’80s/early ’90s hip-hop, if you got an itch for a slasher flick where the killer is an elderly widow, this will definitely scratch it.

 

Nature’s Fury Blogathon: Birds of Prey, a.k.a. Beaks: The Movie (1987)

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It’s probably no surprise that most low-budget films about nature itself wreaking righteous vengeance upon humanity come with some kind of environmental moral. It’s an easy way to lend some gravitas to a movie from which the audience just wants to get some thrills or, more likely, some bloody deaths caused by otherwise harmless or not so harmless animals. It’s a natural thematic connection, but it’s certainly no coincidence that “killer animal” films as a sub-genre (animalsploitation?) hit its peak in the ‘70s at the exact same time environmental politics first really entered the American public consciousness between the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the widespread belief that the world was on its way to real Soylent Green-style overpopulation.

This is why I had to check twice to make sure Birds of Prey, a 1987 Mexican-Italian production that was filmed around Latin America, Puerto Rico, and Spain with a few scenes in Rome, didn’t come out ten or so years before its release year. It’s probably even weirder a film that’s such an obvious knock-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds came out over twenty years too late. But it makes sense that, given the timespan, Birds of Prey does end up combining its The Birds “inspiration” with the hamfisted environmentalism of ‘70s “killer animals” flicks. Unfortunately, this really just makes Birds of Prey call even more attention to Hitchcock’s own masterpiece than it normally would, since it illuminates all too well one of Hitchcock’s brilliant ideas. Hitchcock never even hints at an explanation why birds across the world have tried to push humanity off the top of the evolutionary hierarchy; they just are. This isn’t really a question over the storytelling challenges of making a “message movie,” but the fact that a threat that spawns from unseen forces, that defies a pat logical explanation, is often more effective,  at least when you have a story where the focus is on everyday characters who just happen to have their lives upended by the threat.

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Instead with Birds of Prey the environmental message is obvious from the first post-credits shot of birds flying around a garbage dump. Only the endless dialogue about climate change from Birdemic may be said to be slightly more obvious. To be fair, there is more to it, sort of; an extended pre-credit sequence that takes place in Machu Picchu where a group of tourists are told by a guide about an Incan legend saying that the souls of the dead will one day return as avenging birds. Later in the movie our protagonist, a journalist named Vanessa, sees a flock of birds after an attack following the trail of smoke and remarks that it’s “almost like they’re following the souls of the dead.” I guess you can interpret all this as an attempt to add some metaphysical ambiguity, even if the environmentalist message remains clear. Or maybe the director just wanted an excuse to put being in Machu Picchu on the budget. Honestly I was kind of surprised that the closing credits had no evidence the film was backed by the tourism bureau of Peru in another Final Justice-esque alliance between a government’s tourism board and a b-movie producer. At any rate, the stuff about Machu Picchu, which hilariously includes a half-serious nod to the idea that the Nazca Lines were made by aliens, has about as much of an impact on the plot as this movie probably had on Peruvian tourism.

Machu Picchu is the film’s most egregious tangent, but not the only one. In its first half the film switches back and forth between its main plot and its subplots with such ADHD-esque speed it almost feels like you’re dealing with one of Roland Emmerich’s sprawling, cast-of-hundreds epics. When the plot does coalesce into something concrete, it turns out it’s about a TV journalist Vanessa (Michelle Johnson) and her boyfriend/co-worker, cameraman Peter (Christopher Atkins). Like any journalist in a movie like this, Vanessa is sick of doing fluff pieces. When she and Peter are sent to cover the story of a poultry farmer who was attacked by his chickens and turkeys and now claims every bird he comes across attacks him. Vanessa “tests” this on air by releasing a canary that has spent its entire life in a cage and the canary scratches the farmer’s cheek. Vanessa and Peter are slightly unnerved, but they soon find stories of bird attacks from across the world are piling up, and soon the Spanish city they’re staying in is about to be hit by a mega-flock of millions of birds. Elsewhere a famous hunter, already disfigured by a bird attack, picks a really bad time to host an outdoor party for his granddaughter, a group of teenagers choose an equally bad time to spend the day at the beach, and a bickering family on vacation decide on…well, you get the idea.

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Even the main plot helps give the movie its disjointed feel, as the first half of the movie just follows Veronica and Peter as they slowly catch on to the growing aviary crisis. Most of these scenes just push the subtext into text into supertext (thanks, The Simpsons). First, before they learn that birds have been going on a rampage, they do a fluff piece on a marksman who can shoot pigeons. Even in professional journalist mode, Vanessa can barely hide her disgust and Peter is shocked when the marksman tells him he does it for pleasure. Of course, it puts a damper on the animal rights, anti-hunting-just-for-pleasure message when you realize that the film is using real footage of pigeons being shot. I rather hope the footage wasn’t made just for this film, although I have to admit the idea of a movie with a strong environmentalist message pulling a Cannibal Holocaust tugs at my black, shriveled little heart. If that wasn’t clear enough, Vanessa and Peter also interview survivors of a bird attack on a Spanish village thirty years ago and together they muse that that the birds are defending their “natural ecological balance” which can be restored but not if “the contamination has gone too far.” Needless to say, once they’ve given their message, the characters never show up again. Preacherus Ex Machina!

If the unsubtle, plot-stopping politics of this movie already turns you off, dear reader, the weird lack of avian mayhem will likely seal the deal. After literally kicking things off with one half of a hanggliding couple having his eye torn out and then sent plummeting to his death by a hawk, the movie opts instead for slow, arty shots of flocks of birds imposed on people, especially a long and completely inexplicable series of shots of a little boy standing in a park among pigeons. Even when the movie sets up a teenage couple on a beach the results are mostly bloodless except for when we get to see the aftermath. This is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a b-movie be coy about showing nubile teens getting slaughtered.

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Also it doesn’t help that this movie has just about as many assholes in it as your typical Internet comments section. Peter is such a louse (although played with a frat boyish sincerity by Christopher Atkins) you can’t help but wonder why he and Vanessa are dating. He even openly reads porn while Vanessa is in the shower (this also sets up one of the most gloriously contrived and unashamed female full-frontal nudity shots I’ve ever seen, which given what I usually watch is really saying something and which suggests that actress Michelle Johnson may have had a no-nudity clause). Most of the family’s dialogue is bickering, even between the family’s prepubescent son and daughter. Vanessa, the grandfather, and his adult daughter come across the only likeable if vaguely defined characters, but even there you’ll be wondering why Vanessa, when the inhabitants of the Spanish town flee the incoming bird assault in a train, seems to have more authority than even the town mayor! Maybe in some parts of the world being a journalist does give you executive authority.

It’s really only the second half where the movie picks up and feels like the foreign imitation of The Birds you were expecting, when the director finally jettisons the environmentalist messaging (for the most part) and the long mood-setting shots. The best part of this entire sequence isn’t the desperate train ride out of the doomed Spanish town which is the film’s real climax, but the subplot where birds terrorize a daughter’s birthday party, forcing the survivors indoors. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that this is also the part of the movie most heavily cribbed from The Birds, right down to the chimney being the means for the birds to launch a home invasion.

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Unlike Hitchcock’s film, which ended on a note as ambiguous as the cause of the bird attacks itself, Birds of Prey does end with the bird-human war mysteriously stopping and a solemn broadcast from Vanessa herself in which she speculates on the causes. It turns out that Vanessa is spot on about it being a “warning”because while an obscure Bible verse flashes across the screen we see it’s the insects’ turn to revolt against humanity! Well, maybe. It’s all kind of muddled, especially if you’re still trying to make all that stuff about the birds being reincarnated from the souls of the dead and the Incans fit. All I can say is that in terms of pure fun Birds of Prey is no Birdemic, but at least it’s not The Birds II: Land’s End.

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