Creature-Feature Conversations is a series of movie reviews as dialogue between horror authors, with a focus on unique, engaging, or cult-status horror films.
Phenomena (1995, directed by Christian Duguay)
With guest reviewer Orrin Grey
JR: I knew almost nothing about this movie going in, save it involves killer robots and is a Philip K. Dick adaptation. A co-worker shoved it in my hands and told me I’d like it, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s a movie that’s better than it deserves to be, mostly due to what I assume is the steady script by genre favorite Dan O’Bannon. I figured this would be a middling creature-feature about rampaging mechanical monsters. And while it is certainly that, there’s a lot more going on under the surface.
Everything about this movie screams mid-90s SF, in mostly bad ways: recycled sets and rubbery props, bad (although not totally overused) CGI, lame and overwrought dialogue, and paper-thin characters. Despite all that, the movie worked for me, starting with the first (of several) big twists in the film, which comes early on: the situation we (and the characters) have been sold is not at all as it seems. That revelation comes when a spaceship crashes just outside the base, and what and who is onboard doesn’t make a lick of sense. The following debrief scene gave me a chill as I realized that the movie was far smarter—at least in its first two acts (more on the somewhat-disappointing third act later)—than it initially lets on.
OG: I actually saw this one during its roughly 108 minute theatrical run! I hadn’t seen it in years before tracking it down to watch it for this column, though. I remembered liking it well enough, but also couldn’t recall much about it beyond its Tremors meets Aliens meets Terminator central premise, Peter Weller (of Robocop fame), and one line of dialogue (“You comin’ or you breathin’ hard,” memorable only because the kids I knew used to say it, but I had never heard it in a movie before).
Prior to re-watching, I had forgotten that the movie takes place on such a snowy desert planet, making it surprisingly seasonal viewing for the beginning of January! I think the things I found most interesting in the film are primarily in the first half—stuff like the conflict between the trade union and the big corporation, which is handled with a lot more moral ambiguity than you usually find in movies of this stripe. I was particularly surprised to realize that the trade union side was the one that created the titular Screamers!
Again, you can probably chalk a lot of that up to a screenplay by Dan O’Bannon and Miguel Tejada-Flores, who has one of the weirdest pedigrees you could imagine, from creating Revenge of the Nerds to writing credits on Fright Night 2 and The Lion King! Adapted, I’m sure veeery loosely (just, y’know, playing the odds here), from a Philip K. Dick story called “Second Variety,” which I would have read before writing this, if I were a better person.
JR: Moral ambiguity is right, and, however loosely this is adapted, that first big plot twist firmly echoes many of the themes of Dick’s work: paranoia, the shifting nature of subjective reality, and the sense of being at the mercy of unseen, unfeeling, corporate/government overlords. The overarching conflict between the union and corporation certainly is interesting, and is exactly how cold wars turn into brushfire wars, and it’s the little guy who pays the price for it.
The creatures themselves are a mixed bag, at least at first. They look like Phantasm balls that act like tremors, and the effects are kinda underwhelming. But when we get a good look at the newer models, well, it gets much more interesting, really quickly.
Unfortunately, when the final “type” is revealed, it’s really no reveal at all, as anyone paying attention can figure out where the movie is heading. The paranoia aspects definitely echo John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it isn’t executed as well, and most of the reveals are telegraphed. Still, the second act is legitimately tense, even if our characters are just wandering through an empty cement factory somewhere outside of Los Angeles.
The film works better when they are outside, and the cinematography and matte work does a good job of giving a sense of abandoned city- and industrial-scapes that really bring home the film’s themes of interstellar isolation and expendable human resources. As cliche as the film often is, it does a good job of communicating just what “expendable” means for individuals caught up in a larger system who are gradually realizing they’ve been sold a load of crap and left to rot at the ass-end of the empire. I definitely related to that!
OG: I liked the intermediate Screamer types, especially the one that we get to see in sort of stop-motion. While they weren’t actually designed by the Chiodo Brothers, as far as I know, they may as well have been (I think some people from their team actually did work on production here). And I was glad that we did finally get an army of the one type. Not to have done so would have seemed like a failure of imagination. Or possibly of budget.
But yeah, Screamers is at its best when the characters are outside, rather than wandering around in the dimly-lit industrial future that is the only kind of future we ever got, post-Aliens. And it’s at its worst when it starts trying to drag in the multitude of increasingly ridiculous and predictable “reveals” that make up its final third.
It was weird to see Roy Dupuis, who I mostly know as the sickly protagonist of the also-O’Bannon-scripted middling Lovecraft adaptation Hemoglobin (aka Bleeders), playing a very different role here. And I can’t believe I got through this whole thing without ever once mentioning the red cigarettes that the characters smoke to counteract the radiation, which seems like it belongs in a more overtly satirical movie than this one, but was one of my favorite little touches.
JR: The red cigarettes were very believable for me—sort of like vaccines or malaria pills that they give soldiers to “prevent” something, but that likely don’t do much at all (assuming, unlike malaria pills, they don’t outright cause brain damage). That final battle scene showcases a really creepy image, but the twists after that, yeah, not so much.
Overall, I recommend this film: it’s a lesser, mid-90s Verhoeven/Carpenter mash-up knock-off. It’s a fun ride, a little better than it ought to be, but not super memorable. Like a lot of science fiction-horror films of the era.
Orrin Grey is a skeleton who likes monsters and the author of a number of spooky books. His stories have been published in dozens of anthologies and other venues, including Ellen Datlow's Best Horror of the Year. You can find him online at http://orringrey.com.
Jonathan Raab is the author of numerous short stories, veteran advocacy essays, and novels including Camp Ghoul Mountain Part VI: The Official Novelization and The Hillbilly Moonshine Massacre. He is the editor of several anthologies from Muzzleland Press, including Behold the Undead of Dracula: Lurid Tales of Cinematic Gothic Horror and Terror in 16-bits. He lives in Colorado with his wife Jess, their son, and a dog named Egon. You can find him on Twitter @jonathanraab1.