Friday, February 1, 2019

Past Misdeeds: Mutant Species (1995)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts presented with only  basic re-writes and improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

A very special forces team under two guys named Hollinger (Leo Rossi) and Trotter (Ted Prior, director David A. Prior's brother and frequent leading man) is dispatched to salvage a mysterious something from an unmanned rocket that was bound for the moon but crashed down in the woods of Georgia. The special forces men don't actually know where they are dropped, nor what the actual goal of their mission might be, which, if you ask me, seems not very practical.

Soon, said mysterious something turns out to be a bio weapon in form of "mutant, virulent DNA" developed on behest of evil spy Frost (Powers Boothe). Secretly, Frost has ordered Hollinger to kill his troop once the bio weapon is secured, which he does, or rather attempts, for Trotter and a guy who might as well be called Deadman escape. Unfortunately for Trotter and his red shirt buddy, their kill-happy former colleague isn't just out to kill them but has also been infected with the DNA, which is the sort of thing that tends to happen when you just grab biohazard materials without protective measures. The stuff gives Hollinger awesome sniffing abilities but also makes him pretty difficult to kill and slowly but surely turns him into a guy in a rubber monster suit with a particularly large doglike head.

As if that weren't enough trouble for one protagonist, Trotter also has to survive the interest of a troop of goons sent in by Frost to just kill everyone in the woods. Help comes in form of a squatter (Denise Crosby) and her survivalist kid brother (Grant Gelt), as well as - on the home front - from General Devereaux (Wilford Brimley), Trotter's commanding officer, who does not like Frost's way to go about things at all. Let's just hope Trotter can kill the monster before someone nukes the place from orbit.

Mutant Species' director David A. Prior - whom you might know from his director/producer/writer role with Action International Pictures - was involved in quite a few attempts to transfer the local production model for the creation of independent genre movies from the times of the drive-in movie into that of the direct-to-video and direct-to-DVD-era. Prior's films usually have a distinctly Southern US flair, with no attempts made to hide the "local" in local talent. For a time, Prior and his Alabama-based gang must even have been financially successful, because - local cheap filmmaking or not - you don't get to direct more than twenty movies during the course of ten years without bringing in any money.

The film at hand was made right at the end of Prior's directing spree. I'd suspect a changing video market to be the reason for Prior's following (mostly) lack of productivity. Fortunately for people with dubious tastes (like me), the mid 2000s brought him back to making even cheaper movies, so the Prior story even has a kind of happy end, but that's not really relevant when talking about Mutant Species.

What is relevant is that by 1995, Prior had turned into quite an adept director of this type of low budget genre mishmash, a development his earliest films (see Sledgehammer), which were as odd as that duck Americans are always going on about, don't naturally suggest. Here, Prior has turned into the kind of director who knows how to pace a film, how to get the most out of fine yet limited locations, how to make things explode, and how much of a sense of self-irony a low budget movie can bear without becoming a self parody.

There's a sharp sense of (very odd) humour running through the proceedings, particularly the dialogue and the spirited casting of Wilford Brimley of all people as the grumpy general in the eye-killing shirt. The surprisingly effective self-consciousness of the script actually reminds me of the sort of thing John Sayles would have written for Roger Corman fifteen years earlier, though nothing here is quite as sharp or clever as in a Sayles script, and the politics are rather more Southern.

Prior also gets some fine performances out of his actors. Brother Ted (what is it with directors and their actor brothers named Ted, by the way?) is surprisingly laid back compared to the scenery-chewing madness I like and know him best for, but his bland semi-action hero good guy underacts to leave enough room for basically everyone else. For as long as he's on screen Leo Rossi really throws himself into the role of a guy slowly turning into a slimy dog monster dude, with all the sniffing (there is one of the great sniffing sequences in cinema in Mutant Species) yet not much of the howling that suggests; even without any howling, however, Rossi's approach to his role seems appropriately insane. Powers Boothe gives the very mid-90s evil guy in a black suit trading in secrets and evil with real glee, as you'd wish for from a bad guy whose master plan includes developing a method to turn his own soldiers into killer mutants that don't care who they kill, and attempting to let his creation run wild in the woods of Georgia, because what could possibly go wrong? Wilford Brimley plays exactly the same role he always plays, just that his grumpy yet kind-hearted grandfather guy just happens to be a gruff general. That's what I call inspired casting.

Of course, I basically eat this sort of thing up, so the mileage sane people can get out of Mutant Species and other Prior movies will most probably be quite a bit less joyfully overwhelming than my experience with the film. As usually, sane people miss out on the best things.

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