Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie Review: Endangered Species (1982)

It is a widely held opinion among genre fans that the greatest summer film season ever was the summer of 1982. I've written about it here on the blog, and we've screened several of the films at Fantasmo. To give you some idea of how it has earned this reputation, films from that summer include: Conan the Barbarian, TRON, Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, Cat People, Poltergeist, The Thing, E.T., etc. Without question E.T. was the box office champ among the crowded field, with some of the darker films (e.g. The Thing) falling prey to negative reviews in the shadow of that feelgood crowdpleaser. Even so Blade Runner, The Thing, and Cat People, to name a few examples, were reassessed and eventually obtained the appreciation they deserved. Another genre film released late that summer, also featuring equally dark subject matter, has yet to undergo a hindsight evaluation.

Endangered Species came out in early September of '82 and, from my recollection, disappeared quickly. I caught it on a late night cable screening a year or so later, and remembered it being quite creepy. It featured mutilated cattle, strange lights in the sky, intense chases, and Robert Urich making the jump to the big screen. Without question it is a clear forerunner to the X-Files. I've always wanted to catch it again to see if it would hold up, but it has been out of circulation for many years. Now thanks to the Warner Archive on demand program, it is available at last (and thankfully in its theatrical aspect ratio). I could at last find out if Endangered Species was a lost classic, or a dated dud better forgotten lest it blemish the sterling reputation of that storied summer.

So what's it about? TV legend Robert Urich (Vega$, S.W.A.T., SOAP, Spenser For Hire) stars as Ruben Castle, a celebrated New York cop who is attempting to overcome a battle with alcoholism. In order to get his head on straight, he pulls his teenage daughter out of school and the two head to rural Colorado to visit his old newspaper friend Joe Hiatt (Paul Dooley). Instead of finding a little peace and relaxation, Castle finds himself in the middle of a mystery involving a series of local cattle mutilations. The newly elected local sheriff (JoBeth Williams), unable to find a trace of evidence, has considered theories ranging from U.F.O. abductions to Satanic cultists. However when Hiatt turns up dead and Castle gets involved, the two discover something far more sinister than they could have ever imagined.

I don't know if Chris Carter saw Endangered Species prior to making The X-Files, but I'm guessing it had to be one of his sources of inspiration. Wild card male cop, straight arrow female cop, and extra-terrestrial conspiracy theories. Sounds pretty familiar. If it had no other redeeming features, Endangered Species would certainly qualify as important for being the first out of the gate with the subject matter. Luckily director Alan Rudolph manages to sustain a nice level of suspense, and there are some terrific highlights here and there. In particular he spends a good deal of time up front with some quiet scenes of "something" chasing cattle from an airborne point of view. There's something unsettling about it that's hard to put a finger on, but if forced my finger would land squarely on the deliberate pacing. Rudolph takes his time with these sequences, which are interspersed nicely with the introduction of Castle and his daughter, investigations the crime scenes, and town meetings discussing the phenomenon. The first 15 minutes or so truly prepared me for potential greatness.

Unfortunately the early momentum is not evenly sustained throughout the film. For lack of a better description things become choppy. The remainder of the running time feels like an assemblage of parts rather than a cohesive whole. It's like Rudolph knows all of the stock situations required of a thriller and proceeds through a checklist, splicing them together with little consideration of how they flow. Some of these scenes are downright excellent. For example, there's a scene where Urich is being chased across the plains by a menacing black helicopter that could stand tall against the best thrillers. However for every one sequence like this there are three flat scenes that aren't up to par, mostly of repetitive exposition regarding the tension between the local cattle baron (Hoyt Axton), the sheriff, and Castle.

This uneven quality runs across every aspect of the film. Urich and Williams are solid in their roles, but then you have genre vets like Peter Coyote and Hoyt Axton dropping the ball. They so overplay their villain roles that it becomes laughable. And speaking of Coyote he dons the worst fake mustache I've ever seen in a big budget studio film (thanks HD television and your gloriously high resolution). That sort of attention to detail deficit rears it's ugly head time and again. Just taking body hair once more as an example, Dan Hedaya wears a wig that makes him look like a disco refugee instead of the menacing thug he's supposed to be. It's bizarre that these small, yet glaring details get overlooked when big effects items are executed so well. The ominous black helicopter is cooler looking than Blue Thunder, and some of the laser graphics and optical effects would have been fantastic for the period. It really is puzzling and frustrating that things don't come together the way they should.

One final item that bears mentioning is what a time capsule experience Endangered Species can be. It plays up the tensions between the U.S. and Russia that were so prevalent, and this aspect factors large in the narrative as events progress. It's amazing how many genre films of the time ranging from Wargames to Gymkata used the arms race as a plot point. Certainly every era will have examples of how reality filters into fantastic entertainment, and the 80's function as a prime example of that phenomenon. Most of all, for better or worse, music here is a real flashback to cinematic signs of times. Whenever there's a tender or tough moment between Urich and Williams or Urich and his teen daughter, we're treated to a sappy montage with a love ballad. No doubt this happens in movies now, but never was it done so cheesily as in the 80's. On the subject of music, the score for Endangered Species is an interesting electronic concoction. Some reviewers have suggested it's reminiscent of John Carpenter, and when it's at its best that's a fair statement. Like so many other elements in the film however, when it's firing on all cylinders the music is great, but when it isn't it REALLY isn't.

The overall problem with Endangered Species is that while it has plenty of good moments, they never add up to greatness. It is absolutely worth seeking out, particularly if you're a fan of X-Files type shenanigans, just be prepared for an uneven experience. The real tragedy of the film is that it was Urich's leap to movies, and its lackluster reception likely stalled his career. He then followed with the cult favorite The Ice Pirates, which sent him right back to television. It's a shame because he has a great presence and deserved better. Interestingly Williams and Coyote had both found big success earlier that same summer in Poltergeist and E.T. respectively. Guess that helped them to write this one off and move on.


MyLifeAndCode said...

Thanks for mentioning this, I'd never heard of it. Warner's Archive program is great. Also, another great genre film season was the summer of '89. :)

saminabinet said...

i remember liking this on cable way back then. i had been raised mainly on the sweetness-and-light beneficial 70s space brother aliens, and this was my introduction to the cattle-mutilation aspect of Oofology.

Jim Blanton said...

The Archive program is amazing, I've come across so many titles that I'd heard of but never had the chance to see! Another interesting looking SF title just out is No Blade of Grass, which is a post-apocalyptic thriller from cult director Cornel Wilde - can't wait to check it out!

As for the summer of '89, couldn't agree more. I just recently had a discussion with a colleague where I suggested to him that '89 was the last truly great summer movie season. We then proceeded to go through each year following, and he was forced to agree :)

I'm pretty sure this was the first one out of the gate to deal with the cattle mutilation angle, and I would suspect one of few at that point that hinted at government conspiracies of this type (which would later become such a popular subject).