The misplacement of trust is a go-to device within the whole of dramatic storytelling. It allows us to root for or against a protagonist’s decisions, and can make us question our own beliefs and prejudices. There’s a subset of films out there that take this notion and apply it not to characters but an institution, and within that subset there’s a wonderfully campy corner we’ll examine today. Past ToM’s have addressed plants and animals run wild – it’s time to tackle technology. If you can’t trust your dishwasher, what can you trust?
The Car - mining the supernatural fringe of Spielberg’s classic road wrecker Duel, TV specialist Elliot Silervstein uncorked a petrol-fueled riot with this 1977 James Brolin vehicle (hi-oh!) detailing a desert town under siege from a possessed muscle car. Besides sporting a mustache for the ages Brolin turns in nice work as a befuddled lawman, complimented by reliable character player R.G. Armstrong. In spite of its goofy underpinnings The Car works by keeping its central mystery – what’s driving the titular menace – just that: a mystery. Explanations linked to Indian mythology float on the picture’s fringe, but much is left to the viewer’s imagination, which in my book is always a wise choice.
Chopping Mall - ‘80s / ‘90s / ‘00s DTV mainstay Jim Wynorski delivered this Corman-produced winner about a group of young, reliably promiscuous teens who square off against a squad of haywire robotic sentries when they decide to lock themselves in the malll overnight for a little, um, inventory work. Featuring some impressive gore and wanton destruction of a sprawling, nicely-realized (especially on a tight budget) series of sets, the film clips along at brisk pace over its just-right 75 minute run-time. Cheeky cameos by Dick Miller (offering a nod to another Corman classic, A Bucket of Blood) and Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel (both of ‘80s camp favorite Eating Raoul) enhance the proceedings. Night of the Comet’s Kelli Maroney toplines.
Demon Seed - something of a lesser effort from aggressively anti-formal writer / director Donald Cammell (perhaps best know for his ‘80s serial killer headtrip White of the Eye), Demon Seed still finds the auteur firing on more cylinders than most as he adapts lit machine Dean Koontz’s tale of a robotically-enhanced house developing feelings for and attempting to impregnate occupant Julie Christie. As gonzo as the plot sounds, Cammell and cast manage to keep the film compelling and reasonably plausible through roughly two-and-a-half acts… then the bottom clatters out as Proteus IV, the automated system responsible for Christie’s plight, attempts in earnest to enact its evil robo-sex scheme. All debits aside, this is still a fine piece of suspicious ‘70s sci-fi with an outstanding turn from the always-impressive Christie.
Killdozer - already reviewed here by yours truly, no list of technology developing a mind of its own would be complete without this MFTV jewel involving a possessed bulldozer kicking ass and taking names on a tropical isle. No matter how many times I see it, I can never escape the absurd joy of watching a two-ton machine sneaking up on a group of grown men. Strange, hilarious beauty there. One in a line of shockers about ghostly vehicles, including but not limited to the afore-mentioned Car, the excellent late-game MFTV offering Wheels of Terror (starring the lovely Joanna Cassidy), Carpenter’s adaptation of King’s Christine, and the pooptacular Estevez-powered Maximum Overdrive.
Pulse - not to be confused with Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s own examination of the darker side of technology (a little too good to be lumped in with this lot), this sci-fi / horror mash-up concerns an errant stream of electricity jumping from house to house in suburbia and wrecking all manner of havoc by taking command of appliances and turning them against their fleshy masters. Highlighted by several amazing sequence of micro-photography (see Phase IV or The Hellstrom Chronicles for a few more examples of this mind-blowing technique brought to bear in genre confines), the film tows an interesting line between the ‘80s suburban dread so well-articulated by the likes of Dante and Zemeckis and out-and-out horror. Solid perfs the reliable Cliff De Young and a 12-year-old Joey (woah!) Lawrence help ground the sometimes illogical action.
There are plenty of non-campy (or less-campy) examples of this trope out there as well – Kurosawa’s Pulse, Ring, One Missed Call… what are some of your favorites, goofy and otherwise?