The Strangeness (1980)
Film review by: Witney Seibold
There are more tactful ways to put this, but I think that glib is more succinct: The monster looks like a vagina. The monster is an eight-foot grey-green slug with six tentacle arms, and giant, oozing vagina for a head. It east people with its vagina head, but also, occasionally, spews ooze from its vagina head to trap people in a cocoon, presumably for consumption later. It looks like something from an H.P. Lovecraft story, but with a vagina for a head. The title of the film has some Lovecraftian leanings, and the monster’s given origin (an ancient god unleashed from the depths) is also Lovecraftian. And it has a vagina for a head.
I’m sorry to keep harping on that one detail, but it’s one of the most striking things about Melanie Anne Phillips (working under the pseudonym David Michael Hillman) 1980 cheapie “The Strangeness.” It’s largely a boilerplate monster-stalks-harmless-innocents-in-an-enclosed-space thriller with some odd performances, strangely effective low-fi 16mm photography, and a really cool, sop-motion-animated monster.
The enclosed place in question is an abandoned gold mine, which is to be mapped by a group of largely indistinguishable archetypes. There’s the milquetoast, bearded hero type (Dan Lunham), a hard-drinking and amusingly sarcastic Aussie miner man (Keith Hurt), there’s the blonde damsel in distress (Terri Berland), and there’s the nerdy journalist (Rolf Theison) who is writing a hard-hitting expose on the life of miners, and who seems to think that the lives of miners are way more interesting than they really are; a running gag in the film is that every time our nerdy journalist tries to get a sensational story out of a fellow character, he is deflected with jokes and banal truths that he readily ignores. Yuk yuk.
This film was shot largely inside a mine (or a soundstage made to look like a mine) in low, low light with cheap 16mm cameras. While it’s clear that Phillips was using the darkness to fudge a lot of the cave’s geography (not to mention the film’s low budget), it was actually an effective way to depict a dark, claustrophobic space. Most big-budget films depict darkness by merely filming through a blue filter, or somehow tinting the film. I have always liked when a filmmaker uses actual nighttime blackness to depict nighttime blackness. When we see miners trudging through a cramped, extended passageways, we see only their lonely lanterns, a glimmering of rock, and their panicked faces. There are few details, giving this micro-budget monster flick an unexpectedly strong verisimilitude.
As a monster thriller, however, “The Strangeness” is a little weak. The film takes a long, long time to get started, setting up the characters and situation far more than it needs to. Our heroes, then, don’t even enter the cave until about 30 minutes in, and the monster doesn’t make its first appearance for another 15 minutes. There’s a lot of creeping about. Then more creeping about. Someone gets separated from the group, and is predictably killed offscreen, and stuffed into the monster’s giant vagina head. Eventually, we’re whittled down to our two remaining characters, as is so often the case in films of this sort, who must face off with the monster in its lair. There’s an awesome sequence where the damsel in distress illuminate her path, and the monster, using the flash of a camera. I liked that bit.
But then there’s an explosion, and the monster is killed… or is it? I don’t think I’m really going to be breaking any tension by revealing those details; this film is very predictable.