Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)Dracula, I feel, has a damned good case for being the single most famous literary character of all time.

Is there competition? Sure. There’s Sherlock Holmes. Ebenezer Scrooge. Ulysses or Odysseus. (You can’t have both.) Merlin. Hamlet. The list, of course, goes on.

Dracula’s creative lineage is so vast, so varied, so deeply ingrained in our cultural DNA that it seems like he was always there. He wasn’t an invention; he was a force that was eventually set to paper.

Even today, long after the novel’s initial rush of popularity, there are important echoes. He is the driving force behind the events of the Castlevania video games. He is hawking boxes of chocolatey breakfast cereal. A numerically obsessive clone of his is teaching children to count.

He’s lamenting the death of his beloved Transylvania Twist while everyone else does the Monster Mash. He’s offering batty counsel to Herman Munster. He’s inspiring a series of blaxploitation films.

And all of this is to say nothing of the straight adaptations of and sequels to his original story, across all media. Stage shows, radio dramas, films. And, as you might imagine by the very nature of this article, parodies.

Dracula, like its title character, endures. It lives forever. It adapts now and then to suit the times, and it’s surprisingly resilient.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

You know Dracula. You can make a list of all of the things that make the character what he is. There’s an accepted canon of features and accoutrements that define him. You know his fangs, his cape, his ability to turn into a bat, his taste for blood…you can continue the list yourself, because if I keep going I’ll eat up most of the article.

Whatever the power of Stoker’s original, though, it was the 1931 film version of Dracula that permanently fixed the character in our minds. Actually, that’s not entirely true: Bela Lugosi’s starring turn in that film fixed the character in our minds.

When we think of Dracula, we think — directly or not — of what Lugosi brought to the role. (A role he perfected on stage before playing the part on film.) It’s Lugosi’s take on the Transylvanian accent that Count Von Count, Count Chocula, and nearly every other portrayal of Dracula in popular culture imitates.

And that’s for good reason; Stoker invented the character, but Lugosi, three and a half decades later, gave it life.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

With that film Dracula (like Frankenstein’s monster the same year) instantly became a classic movie villain, with his literary origins feeling now like a footnote. Certainly when we hear the name “Dracula” we have a very clear image in our minds, and it’s an image that we saw on film…not one that we independently conjured up while reading a book.

Stoker explained who Dracula was in his novel, and Lugosi fleshed it out with his performance. Deviations don’t feel like alternate interpretations…they feel wrong.

Which is perhaps why Mel Brooks — zany satirist, manic showman, incomparable comic mastermind — was remarkably respectful with his (ostensible) parody, Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks opens his film with a slow zoom in on a copy of the novel. Not an actual copy, as Brooks has to superimpose the title, but the intention is clear.

As the word Dracula gets larger and larger on our screen, Brooks appends his subtitle, “Dead and Loving It.”

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

That small moment is a perfect metaphor for the film’s entire approach to the source material; present it faithfully, and tack on some fun original material where we can.

If this sounds critical, it is…but only partially. People setting money aside for a Mel Brooks film wanted to laugh. Constantly. Brooks’ then-recent parodies — Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men in Tights — set a gag-a-second precedent, and audiences wanted waves of dumb jokes to fill the space between the great ones. They wanted copious visual jokes and a thoroughly irreverent spirit. They wanted comedy first and foremost, and on that front Dracula: Dead and Loving It largely fails.

But that failure becomes a different kind of success, as Brooks actually made a legitimate (and sometimes legitimately good) Dracula film instead.

Critics weren’t kind, as they had largely the same expectations that audiences had, and shared in their disappointment. The trailers understandably spotlighted the gags alone, which baffled viewers who wished for them during the long — and not infrequent — stretches of drama. People, frankly, didn’t know what to make of it, and I can’t entirely blame them.

Sadly, the film’s toxic reception (it lost around $20 million dollars) either convinced Brooks to stop making movies or served as a very convenient excuse.

To this day, Dracula: Dead and Loving It is Brooks’ final film…a fittingly thematic final nail in the director’s coffin.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

But by no means is it anywhere near as bad as its reputation suggests. It wasn’t the movie anyone wanted, and it may not even have been the film Brooks wanted to make, but twenty years on we are able to appraise Dracula: Dead and Loving It on its own merits, and we should, because it’s actually pretty good.

It’s obvious that Brooks did not return to the Stoker original when he gathered up source material for his film. His visual and narrative touchpoints span the entirety of the character’s history on film, rather than in literature. In fact, two early gags, nearly back to back, feature the shadow from 1922’s Nosferatu and the absurd hairpiece from 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Those represented, at the time, both ends of Dracula’s cinematic legacy.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks relied on previous adaptations for at least two reasons. Firstly, and primarily, it’s because audiences are vastly more familiar with Dracula as a movie monster than they are as a character in a book, and Brooks’ comedy relies on familiarity. Secondly, though: it’s damned difficult to do a film that’s true to the original novel.

Here’s a big surprise for modern day readers of Dracula: Dracula is barely in the thing.

For Stoker, Dracula was less a character than he was a presence. We meet him at the beginning, spend a lot of distressing time in his company, and then he vanishes. For the overwhelming bulk of the novel, he’s not even there. Other characters talk about him and his horrific deeds — usually without connecting one to the other — but the vampire himself is pointedly absent.

This is almost unimaginable today. Dracula is a showman! He’s theatrical! He’s a major name, and filming a version close to Stoker’s original means he’d only appear at the very beginning and, perhaps, prostrate at the end. The rest of the runtime would be taken up by characters speaking about their romantic entanglements, a runaway wolf, the behavior of patients at the sanitarium…and this simply wouldn’t do.

It wouldn’t do because of Lugosi, whose iconic performance showed how much fun we could have by actually keeping Dracula around. He could bare his fangs, flourish his cape, suavely manipulate women and deflect the suspicions of men. He became perhaps the very first film character that audiences could love to hate, and a Dracula film that doesn’t take advantage of that opportunity would feel hollow and misjudged, however true to the original text it may be.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Lugosi, theatrical showman himself, sunk his teeth deeply enough into the role that he is still the standard by which Draculas (indeed, vampires in general) are judged. He arrived fully formed on the screen, and defined the character for generations to follow. Which is good, because the brief material that actually features Dracula is by far the best stuff in the novel, and films expanding on that are only richer for it.

Another issue that directors of a faithful adaptation would face is the fact that Dracula isn’t a traditional narrative. Rather, it’s a collection of documentation that, when taken together, forms a rough story. For a few pages you may be reading from one character’s journal. Then you’ll find yourself reading an exchange of letters between two other characters. Then you might find a ship’s log, a newspaper clipping, a telegram.

All of this helps Stoker to sustain the suggestion that this really happened.

It’s entirely a work of fiction, of course, but this scrapbook approach implies non-fiction, just as somebody might piece together real world evidence of a similar kind in order to form a rough narrative about Jack the Ripper.

In fact, the Whitechapel murders would have been fresh in Stoker’s mind, having occurred only about ten years before he published Dracula, and indeed he would have glimpsed that sequence of horrors in similarly oblique ways…through correspondence, through discussion, through newspaper coverage.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

In structuring his tale this way, Stoker was an extremely early pioneer of a genre that would become quite popular a hundred years or so later: the found-footage horror film. Dracula, of course, would make him home on the screen long before The Blair Witch Project and its ilk prepared audiences (and Hollywood) for such an approach, so we’ve instead gotten to know him through much more traditional narratives.

There must have been something about that distance from the action that appealed to Stoker. Perhaps he thought it made the story scarier, or perhaps he thought that it created a buffer for his readers, helping them to not feel too scared. I’m not sure of the reason, personally, but it’s interesting to return to the source text and find an unexpectedly unique and fragmented approach to a story that almost every time since then had been told through basic, straight-forward plot progression.

All of which, of course, is to discuss the general interplay between the original novel and the many filmed versions of Dracula to follow. This background, though, is helpful before we dig into Brooks, and the approach he took.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks made a film that was, by design, a few degrees removed from the original. His film is already filtered through the films of others, and that’s clear from the opening sequence, in which poor Renfield visits the Castle Dracula in order to finalize the sale of Carfax Abbey.

That’s a cinematic invention of the classic 1931 Dracula. In the novel, Renfield never visits the Castle Dracula; he is always a patient in Dr. Seward’s sanitarium, and it’s Jonathan Harker who visits Dracula.

Brooks’ interest in previous Dracula adaptations is further emphasized by the character’s appearance here, which hews very closely to that of Dwight Frye, who played the character opposite Lugosi.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks tapped Peter MacNicol (Ghostbusters 2, Ally McBeal) to play Renfield, and it has to be said that he does a fantastic job.

MacNicol is a gifted actor, and his pivots between serious victim and comic lackey serve very effectively as a metaphor for the entire film. He’s tasked with playing both extremes in a movie that’s a bit tonally confused, and he handles them both very well.

He has the most thankless and the most difficult part in the entire production, and he’s still great.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

He actually steals the film from Leslie Nielsen several times, which is no mean feat, as Nielsen does impressive work as both a comedy version of Dracula, and as a proper portrayal.

It’s difficult to think of Nielsen now as anything other than a comic actor, but he appeared in more than 50 films before he first flexed his comic muscles in Airplane! In fact, part of what made him such a great comic actor was the fact the was already a good actor in general.

He understood emotion, character, motivation. He knew how to sell an idea subtly, and if that seemed to get lost in his later films, it’s undoubtedly due to the roles he was hired to play, and the directors making specific demands of him. Moments of legitimately great acting find their way into Dracula: Dead and Loving It, as Brooks is a kindred spirit who knows that the best comic actors are actors first and foremost.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There’s a scene early in the film during which Count Dracula meets four of the other main characters in a theater. He is immediately taken with the fetching Lucy Westenra, and she’s clearly taken with him as well.

She catches him staring at her.

LUCY: Count Dracula?
DRACULA: I’m sorry, my dear…but you have such a lovely ucipital mapilary.
LUCY: What’s that?

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

It doesn’t play like a joke. It doesn’t have the cadence of a joke, it’s not performed like a joke, and it’s not shot like a joke. There is an element of dark comedy here, but it’s chilling more than it’s funny. It’s probably the best of this particular Dracula’s moments, and it’s a perfect distillation of the seductive menace that defines the character in general.

Nielsen, sadly, didn’t do much of merit after this film. He starred in a few children’s movies and limp parodies that aimed to capture the Naked Gun audience without understanding why those films worked at all. It was all downhill from here until his eventual death in 2010. That makes it even more disappointing that Dracula: Dead and Loving It is so often overlooked; it’s not just our last chance to experience the directing talent of Mel Brooks; it’s the last chance to see a truly solid performance from Leslie Nielsen.

The ucipital mapilary moment is also an example of Brooks making a proper vampire film, something which, indeed, he does for unexpectedly long stretches. Dracula: Dead and Loving It as such feels less like a sendup of Dracula adaptations than it does like one that happens to veer now and then into self-contained comedy sketches.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

What’s interesting about this is that the story of Dracula seems to be as seductive and powerful as the character itself. Even the restless comic mind of Mel Brooks can’t help but revere it, separating his own (largely very funny) comic interludes from the actual narrative of the film itself.

These include a scene of Renfield trying to secretly consume bugs during his meeting with Dr. Seward, an effectively silly stretch that allows both MacNicol and an underutilized Harvey Korman to have a great deal of fun while still both attempting to act the straight man.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There’s also a self-contained scene introducing Dr. Van Helsing, played by Brooks himself, who delights in being able to get an entire class of students to faint during his especially gory autopsy lesson.

“I’ve still got it,” Brooks says, in a film that with sad irony had a lot of critics disagreeing.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Most notably, though, there’s the scene in which Steven Weber, as Jonathan Harker, drives a stake through the heart of an undead Lucy Westenra. Watching it is the only way to understand the full comic impact of the absurdly powerful gushes of blood that follow.

They exist for no reason except that it’s funny to see such large amounts of obviously fake blood absolutely drench an actor, and in a relatively subtle gag (to be fair, anything would be subtle next to that), Brooks’ Van Helsing hides behind a column in order to stay dry.

It’s a great scene, and the film’s funniest, and it actually uses its own predictability as a punchline by subverting the rule of three. After the second staking and jet of blood, Harker is dripping with Lucy’s vital fluid. Brooks steps over to encourage him. “She’s almost dead!” he says.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Jonathan Harker replies, “She’s dead enough.”

It’s a great comic sequence, but it also, by design, stands apart from the rest of the film, and also stands apart from the arc of poor, doomed Lucy Westenra.

Lucy’s demise in the book is also exaggerated to almost comic lengths, but, obviously, humor was not Stoker’s intention, so much as a profound and prolonged despair.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

In Stoker’s original, Lucy is slowly drained of her essence by the repeated visitations of Count Dracula. Van Helsing and Dr. Seward manage to keep her alive for a couple of uneasy weeks with transfusion after transfusion, but she slowly, inexorably, dies. Hers is not a peaceful death nor rest by any means; she suffers thoroughly, and this is not a new emotion for her.

Prior to being targeted by Dracula, Lucy had to deal with her own erratic romantic attentions from three men, her jealousy of her friend Mina Murray, her rapid engagement to a man for the seeming sake of upstaging (or at least keeping up with) Mina, and the encroaching death of her sickly mother.

Brooks — like most directors — eschews these entanglements, and positions Lucy not as a woman facing the latest in a long line of misfortunes (and bad decisions), but as a target solely. She is tragic not by nature, but by virtue of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Brooks has Dracula meet her and become infatuated (or his vampiric equivalent) at the theater, and he visits her at night, slowly drinking of her blood until she is dead.

The truly funny thing? Brooks handles this seriously.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There are very few jokes related to the slow death of Lucy Westenra, and those that do occur are tangential (Van Helsing repeating “she will become one herself” in a mock-dramatic stage whisper) or occur after her death (prudish Jonathan’s mixed reactions to her sexualized vampiric advances).

As she dies, Brooks treats it seriously. He films it as any director of a serious adaptation would. His performers are serious and subdued. If it weren’t for Weber’s (excusably, for a comedy) poor British accent, it would be easy to stumble upon these scenes and not realize at all that you’re watching a parody.

This works, in some ways, against the comedy. In other ways it enhances it, as it reduces the expectation of a laugh every few seconds. This both makes the big comedy setpiece scenes stand out in sharper relief, and allows smaller jokes to feel bigger than they really are, simply because they’re less expected.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

There’s a scene in which Nielsen dreams he is cured of his condition. He walks through a park in the brilliant sunlight, appreciating the warmth, the colors, the people. Somebody offers him some wine, and he hesitates. And then he takes it, saying warmly, “What the hell!”

It’s a perfect line reading with a great deal of innate comedy, but it registers, I feel, mainly because the rest of the film isn’t so manic as to drown it out. Later in the dream Renfield shows up to caution him against being out in the daylight, but Dracula assuages his concern. “Renfield, look at me. I’m drinking wine and eating chicken!”

These aren’t jokes, but they’re humorous. They’re funny because it’s innately funny for Leslie Nielsen to be dressed as Dracula in the middle of the park eating a chicken drumstick. It’s certainly not setup / punchline, but it’s affectingly absurd.

This film is packed with moments like this, and I love them. They’re funny in a passively light-hearted way that would get lost in a film that aimed exclusively for the bigger laughs, or at least the bigger clusters of laughs, and it makes me appreciate the more general, quieter comic approach Brooks took with this one. (The scene ends with Dracula realizing he had a “daymare,” so it’s not as though those expecting sillier, more obvious comedy left completely disappointed.)

Dracula: Dead and Loving It is more a humorous vampire film than it is a parody of one. Brooks has his cake and eats it, as he legitimately made an adaptation of Dracula as he spoofed it.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

This certainly works in favor of the film overall. It’s easy to get caught up in the story before an unexpected gag — or the sight of Leslie Nielsen’s head on a bat — reminds you of which version of Dracula it is that you’re watching.

This is especially true in a scene toward the end of the film, when Harker, Seward, and Van Helsing arrange to expose Dracula at a gala event.

Dracula and Mina dance together, and a wall-length mirror is unveiled as they do. While the narrative purpose of this moment is to proto the crowd that the count casts no reflection, what we get in the audience is a long, artful sequence in which Mina, played by a very game and quite lovely Amy Yasbeck, dances both with Dracula and by herself.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

The camera pans elegantly from scenes of Nielsen and Yasbeck together to the reflection, in which Yasbeck dances alone.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

While it’s by no means a perfect effect, it’s impressive from both a directorial and an acting standpoint. It mixes both practical effects (Yasbeck dancing with an imaginary partner) and special effects (the invisible count spinning her so quickly that she leaves the floor).

It’s a great sequence, one that’s fun to watch without containing jokes or even being funny, exactly. It’s Brooks relishing the vampire film he’s making, and falling into rhythm with the beats and opportunities for flourish that come along with that.

That’s not the only flourish of his, either. Early in the film he establishes a running gag of Dracula’s shadow having a mind — if not a life — of its own. From lunging unprovoked at Renfield to rigorously humping Mina, the count’s shadow seems to be a manifestation of the character’s darker background.

It hearkens back to the more overtly villainous character that Stoker created, the one that springs forth only to take what it wants, before once again retreating to the darkness.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Nielsen’s Dracula, on the other hand, behaves more like his cinematic predecessors. Suave, charming, romantic. He’s seductive rather than forceful. He beckons rather than seizes. He coerces rather than insists.

The separation between this Dracula and his shadow is the separation between the Dracula we’ve come to know and the Dracula that was originally intended. It’s always there, rarely acknowledged, and able to shock devastatingly when given its chance.

It also, funnily enough, survives the film where Dracula does not, as the shadow is smart enough to flee the scene when Van Helsing storms Carfax Abbey.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks never had any difficulty stuffing his films with actors who could bring more to their roles than sheer comedy, and Dracula: Dead and Loving It is no exception.

Nielsen, MacNicol, and Yasbeck we’ve spoken about already, but they’re not the end of the strong performances. Harvey Korman and Lysette Anthony (as Lucy Westenra) both deliver their material very well, as odd as it must have been for them to be asked to sell far more tragedy than comedy in a Mel Brooks film.

Korman, at the very least, makes up for this by setting up the great final punchline of the entire movie:

SEWARD: Your master is gone forever, Mr. Renfield. You are your own man now.
SEWARD: Yes. No one will ever control you again.
RENFIELD: You’re right!
SEWARD: Come, Renfield.
RENFIELD: Yes, master.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

The biggest surprise for me was Mark Blankfield, who turns a nothing role of Martin, a sanitarium security guard, into one of the genuine comic highlights of the film.

Blankfield makes the most of his small amount of screentime, and also gets a great exchange with MacNicol, who I’m seeing more and more is this film’s real comic MVP:

MARTIN: You’re free to go.
RENFIELD: Free to go? Why? How?
MARTIN: Good behavior.
RENFIELD: But I’ve only been in here for a moment.
MARTIN: Well, for that moment your behavior was very good!

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Brooks has long been in the habit of giving himself memorable bit parts in the films he makes, and surely few bit parts are more memorable than Van Helsing.

That’s naturally who he plays here, and of course he inhabits the learned Dutchman with the sprightly Yiddish heart that he brings to all of his characters. As in Stoker’s original, Brooks’ Van Helsing is the one character who knows what’s going on and how to stop it. Unlike the original this Van Helsing is a bit prideful and petty, getting dragged into a war of “last words” with Count Dracula that serves as a great running joke, as well as a comically minor symbol of their mutual antagonism.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Steven Weber gets a bit less to do from both a dramatic and comic standpoint, and he’s probably the weakest of the cast as a result. There’s no real spotlight for his talents and nothing that pushes him to be especially memorable, aside from taking two gushes of blood to the face. He’s meant to be prudish and proper, but he also comes across — probably intentionally — as a bit dim.

Which actually leads to some accidental resonance. The popularity of Dracula as a character — and the immediate recognition of his traits, abilities, and weaknesses — works against a straight adaptation of the novel.

In the original text, Jonathan Harker is holed up in the Castle Dracula for roughly the first quarter of the book, with only a vague idea that something is amiss. During the second quarter of the book — in which Lucy Westenra fights in vain for her life — Seward, Van Helsing, and others are confused for a long time before they understand what they’re up against.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

But for us, we who have grown up watching the count, dressing as the count for Halloween, watching cartoon characters square off against the count, eating the count’s breakfast cereal, learning to count with the count…well, it’s hard for us not to see the characters in the book, and therefore in a faithful adaptation, as slow learners having trouble keeping up.

So ingrained in our consciousness is Dracula, and so well-versed are we in his mythology whether or not we’ve even seen the movies, that it seems odd and foreign that somebody wouldn’t immediately put the dual incisions on the neck together with the loss of blood together with the mysterious flapping at the window and conclude “vampire.”

And yet these characters don’t, with the unintentional effect being that they don’t seem especially smart by our standards. It feels like the equivalent of a hypothetical Christmas film in which characters stand around for three quarters of the runtime trying to figure out who the fat guy in red is who flies in on a sleigh and leaves gifts for everyone.

For the characters in a universe without that knowledge, it’s understandable. But in our universe we have that knowledge, and watching characters try to figure out what we already know can be unreasonably frustrating.

Fortunately, adaptations of Dracula don’t treat the characters that way. Directors assume we can piece enough of it together in the audience, which relieves Van Helsing of a lot of exposition and frees up the count to be what he never had any interest in being in the book: social.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

The popular portrayals of Dracula are much more interested in socialization than the original, who could be seen as an extreme, cautionary introvert. That cannot possibly be said about Lugosi, who recontextualized the character as one who wished to integrate himself into high English culture. Sure, he did so for his own selfish interests, but…well, who doesn’t? His interests happened to be supernatural, is all.

And that’s the Dracula we remember. The one who steps into the room with a flourish of his cape. The one who smiles disarmingly and tries to be friendly until somebody gets a bit too curious. The one who gets to know his victims face to face, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder, charming them to keep them off guard, pretending to be the grand and cultured noble that he once actually was…just to get closer…

Just to get…close enough.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

It’s not Stoker who gave Dracula such an incredible, irresistible presence; it was Lugosi, who fought tooth and nail, against the wishes of the studio, to play the character on film.

Lugosi understood — consciously or not — that there was one way to play the count, one way that would resonate, one way that would take a character people thought they knew and turn it into something nobody would ever forget. In some alternate universe, he failed in his overtures, and the part went to somebody else.

I’m glad we live in this one, where the role was built so firmly into what we know today. So firmly, in fact, that even cinema’s greatest parodist couldn’t resist treating it reverently.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

But maybe that’s Brooks’ best joke, after all. Dracula was a monster that had already lost his monstrousness. He was already a joke, as any monster must be by the time he’s reimagined as a cartoon mascot. Lugosi cemented him so strongly and effectively and indelibly in our minds that he became familiar. Safe. Forgive the pun: toothless.

Brooks, in very large part, presented the story straight. Not entirely straight, but straight enough to make a point.

And his point was that Dracula could be both silly and frightening. Brooks bridged the gap between the character as we know it, and its original shadow. Between the non-threatening likenesses that we’ve all grown up with, and the genuinely dangerous original. Between modern sensibilities, and the simple stories that so long ago terrified generations of readers.

And it’s a good joke. It’s the joke that sneaks up on us when we all think it’s safe to laugh.

Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)

Dracula: Dead and Loving It
(1897, Bram Stoker [as Dracula]; 1995, Mel Brooks)

Book or film? Book
Worth reading the book? Yes. It’s not great, but it’s deeply fascinating to encounter one of literature’s most famous characters in his first incarnation.
Worth watching the film? Yes. It’s both funnier and better than its reputation suggests.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Of course not.
Is it of merit in its own right? Definitely. Ignore everything you’ve heard against Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Brooks neither made a riotous satire nor a proper Dracula film, but he split the difference in a fascinating way. It wasn’t the movie anyone was expecting it to be, but it’s a lot of fun, and, at times, a surprisingly effective film in its own right.

Aliens, 1986

Alien was an instant classic, and its clout has only grown since. Looking back on it for last week’s review, I find it hard to identify anything that it did wrong. Sure, I might disagree with the need for one narrative wrinkle or another, and certainly the alien itself looks a bit silly compared to the rest of the effects and sets, but it’s impossible to deny its masterful atmosphere, its solid performances, the deliberate, creeping terror that unfolds at an almost unbearable pace.

Audiences liked it. Critics liked it. Sigourney Weaver became a star, the design of the alien became a standard against which others would be measured, and even the film’s tagline (“In space no one can hear you scream”) took on a life of its own.

Oh, and it made something like 20 times its budget back at the box office. Presumably that was important to someone…

None of which leads me to say that a sequel was inevitable, exactly, but there were certainly plenty of parties interested in the possibility. When we did finally get one, it was with a different director and an almost entirely different cast.

James Cameron took over for Ridley Scott, and Weaver — returning as Ellen Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo — was the only returning face.

Aliens, 1986

Occam’s Law of Film Titles was undoubtedly adhered to here, as pluralizing the original really was the simplest and best idea. It also made sense in terms of the film’s content. Alien featured one alien. Aliens featured many aliens. Alien3 featured aliens made of Lego.

The title was also great because Alien 2 would have suggested little more than a sequel. And, yes, Aliens is a sequel, but it’s also an entirely separate film.

It takes place in the same universe, but it doesn’t have to. And just a little bit of rewriting would, hypothetically, allow this film to exist without the previous one having happened at all. Aliens is the rare sequel that genuinely wishes to be appraised on its own merits.

Of course, that’s no more an inherently good thing than an inherently bad thing, but it’s nice to see a sequel to a popular film that does more than repeat the original, beat for beat, to diminished returns.

Aliens in fact repeats relatively little, and the viewers that it’s bound to disappoint most are those who want more of the same.

Aliens, 1986

To some extent, I think I wanted more of the same. At the very least, I don’t like Aliens nearly as much as I like Alien.

They’re both successful in what they set out to achieve, but Alien set out to achieve many of the things that I enjoy in a film. It was contemplative, sedate, artful, intelligent. Aliens set out to achieve many of the things that I don’t like. It was flashy, loud, action-heavy, and interested in filling in gaps that Alien left deliberately open.

They’re both good at what they do, but I don’t enjoy what they do equally. There are obviously those who prefer the sequel to the original, and I’m happy for them. But I also imagine that they and I wouldn’t have much overlap in our lists of favorite films.

Aliens, 1986

Aliens picks up exactly where the previous installment left off.

…in a way.

We ended Alien with Ripley entering deep sleep, and we open Aliens with her being revived. There was a fairly long gap between films in the real world — seven years, to be exact — and Cameron expands that gap by another 50 years.

Yes, Ripley’s been asleep in that pod for 57 years. Ripley didn’t just outlive her previous crew…she outlived her own young daughter.

She returns to an Earth that isn’t exactly the same as what she left behind, without any of the social or family connections she once had. Very quickly her professional connections are severed as well, as Ripley is tried for the destruction of the Nostromo.

Aliens, 1986

The trial scene is great, not least because it’s a very natural, believable way for the last film’s tragedy to be addressed: in an overly bureaucratic concern for lost revenue.

It’s also tremendously difficult not to feel sorry for Ripley during this scene. She escaped by the skin of her teeth at the end of Alien, but that stroke of good fortune turns out to be the first shift in her next avalanche of misfortune. There’s no evidence to corroborate her story; we know she isn’t lying, because we were there, but these folks sitting around a table know nothing except that she detonated the ship and fled.

Sure, there could have been an alien, and it could have murdered the crew, but she just as easily could have gone insane and blown up the ship for no real reason.

In fact, to them, that’s actually the more likely outcome…there have been humans colonizing the very planet upon which she claims to have encountered the alien, and they never complained about any hostile organisms.

Aliens, 1986

That’s where the film gets going in earnest. Ripley warns that the ship full of alien eggs is definitely on that planet, and, of course, the company immediately sends somebody to seek it out. (In a nice bit of sad symmetry, it’s Newt’s family who does so. Ripley unknowingly robs the girl of her parents before stepping in to serve as their surrogate.)

It’s also where the film deviates entirely from the approach of the original. Yes, giving Ripley a daughter, and explicitly naming and spending time with Weyland-Yutani as opposed to casual and vague mentions of “the company,” takes the film in a unique direction, but the way in which the cast of each film confronts the alien menace is the defining difference.

In Alien, the crew had no choice. Once the alien was aboard, they were trapped. The shuttle wouldn’t fit all of them, so they had to fight…and they had to fight with what few resources were at hand. In Aliens, we send in the marines with as many resources as they like, and direct them to shoot the living shit out of whatever they encounter.

Aliens, 1986

The former approach lends itself to a concern for caution that gradually gives way to all-out desperation and panic. The latter approach lends itself to…well, an action film.

Alien had a cattle prod and a flame thrower, neither of which did anyone much good. If anything, they were symbols of protection that didn’t actually offer any; they were a small psychological concession rather than anything that actually helped. Aliens by contrast has bullets whizzing by, grenades exploding, aliens tumbling out of the ductwork, heads bursting in plumes of acid…

At times, it gets pretty mindless, as an action film does. It relies on spectacle — impressive though much of it is, visually — rather than consideration. It’s a film that contains intelligence without actually rewarding intelligent viewing. If you’re there for fire and blood you’ll be much better served than if you’re there for smart, efficient storytelling.

Aliens, 1986

I mentioned last week that Alien predated the home-video renaissance. Aliens, by contrast, landed just about at the very beginning, and I think that this shaped the film’s approach. After all, seeing a film in theaters was no longer the end of its profitability. Now a theatrical release could double as a commercial for its purchase on home video. Don’t show somebody a movie they enjoy; show them a movie that thrills them. Show them something they’ll want to own.

So Aliens screams. It bellows. It hollers. It commands and demands attention. It’s vast, long, and sensational. It shook theater seats. It got audiences excited.

Long, silent pans down the deserted corridors of the Nostromo? Who’s going to buy that? Give us gunfire and waves of alien guts!

Aliens, 1986

It’s a bit of a cynical way to look at what is, strictly speaking, a pretty solid action film. But as a sequel to Alien, and as a deliberate evolution of the series, it’s instructive.

Bombast sells. Videos, action figures, video games… Introspection doesn’t shift units.

Cameron, to his credit, doesn’t let spectacle run away with the film. At least, not overall. And it’s worth taking a moment to spotlight a few of the things that his sequel did exactly right.

For starters, it’s good in itself that it was so different. This meant that no matter how the film was received, it would leave the reputation of the original untarnished. Maybe you’d love Aliens and maybe you wouldn’t, but no matter how you felt it wasn’t likely to change your opinion of the first film.

Sequels to other franchises often hew so closely to the original formula that it retroactively makes you feel tired of the film you once enjoyed. (See: Austin Powers.) But when the sequel is so different, so unique, so independent of the original experience…well, it allows both films to just exist, without any necessary comparison between the two.

This is a uniformly positive thing.

Aliens, 1986

Cameron also iterates impressively upon a few of the breadcrumbs sprinkled by Scott’s film.

Most notable, of course, is “the company” becoming Weyland-Yutani, with a slogan, a series of commercials, and a disregard for employee welfare that would make Donald Trump blush. While we saw the company treat one single, presumably small crew as expendable, here we see them treat an entire colony — consisting not only of employees but of those employees’ families — as expendable.

Greed knows no boundary…something made clear enough by the first film, but illustrated with horrifying clarity in this one.

Aliens, 1986

Weyland-Yutani is personified here by Burke, played by Paul Reiser, in a role that miraculously holds up.

One would be forgiven for assuming that his years of starring in punchlines like My Two Dads and Mad About You would render any menace here inert, but he does a genuinely great job with his material. He seems every bit the dedicated, somewhat dim company man — and ally — he pretends to be to Ripley, but once he makes his turn he’s no less believable.

We never have to see Burke as a criminal mastermind…just somebody who would willfully sacrifice others for the sake of padding his wallet. He’s not evil because he doesn’t believe he’s evil. He thinks he’s smart, and knows that you don’t win a game of chess without sacrificing a few pieces. Reiser does excellent work here, blending both halves of Burke so seamlessly that neither feels more real than the other.

Then there’s the other major seed planted by Scott: Ripley’s distrust of androids.

Aliens, 1986

Aboard the Nostromo she had to contend with Ash, the science officer, who was secretly an artificial person. The revelation came as an unpleasant surprise for the crew, as they realized that he endangered them for the sake of a company that programmed him to do so.

Ripley is already en route to deal with the aliens before she realizes that Bishop, played by Lance Henriksen, is also an android. It’s too late to turn back, and Bishop swears that he would never do anything to jeopardize a human life, but she doesn’t accept that. She tells him to stay away from her, smacks the tray of food out of his hands, and makes it clear that she will not trust him.

Cameron could have gone either way with this. The way he did choose to go — Bishop was genuinely well-intentioned, and willing to sacrifice himself to protect her — was probably for the best, but either could have worked.

After all, Ripley was already going back to face the aliens against her better judgment; serving with an android that ultimately betrayed her for a second time would just be salt in the wound.

Aliens, 1986

Instead, Bishop’s a good guy. Far from inviting the tragedy to them as Ash did, Bishop is the only reason, several times over, that anybody is able to escape this one.

This means that for most of the film, Ripley is the antagonist, at least from Bishop’s point of view. And that’s a pretty impressive flourish, I have to admit. Her mistrust is understandable at the same time that it’s out of line. Her experience being pushed around on the Nostromo prepared her to push back against the one character who truly wants to help.

It’s also impressive that Cameron doesn’t feel beholden to the themes Scott established and explored in his previous film.

Here, we chart new territory. Most significant are the meditations on motherhood, but he also has a lot to say about the United States’ militaristic mindset, and colonialism in general. We’ll come back to each of those, but they’re worth bringing up here, briefly, as evidence that Cameron had something to say with this film, even if he didn’t say any of it as gracefully as Scott did in the last.

Aliens, 1986

There’s also a nice way of retaining Ripley’s outcast status, even while her knowledge of and experience with the alien are invaluable: she’s not a soldier.

The company, and the military in general, may respect her experience and understand how much they need her, but the soldiers themselves are grunts. (No offense.) They don’t respect her, they don’t care about her, and they’re much more interested in themselves than they are in anything she has to say. This keeps Ripley on the strategic sidelines once again, which is important, because if she had it her way they’d have nuked the planet from orbit to begin with, and, in the words of Kermit the Frog, that’d be a real short movie.

Those are the good things. The bad things, however, are not in short supply.

Most urgently, I think, is the quality of the acting, which simply was not on par with the tight performances of the first film.

Aliens, 1986

Sigourney Weaver, unquestionably, is great. There’s no scene or moment that is not elevated by her presence. Aliens calls for a broader range of emotions than Alien did, and Weaver hits them all perfectly.

She’s great, and the film’s clear MVP. Paul Reiser turns in a surprisingly good performance. Lance Henriksen makes a great android. And…that’s about it.

Somewhere in the middle we have Michael Biehn as Corporal Hicks, who would probably be a lot better if he had more to do, and Carrie Henn as Newt, who would probably be a lot better if she had less to do.

Aliens, 1986

The marines on the whole, though, come off like caricatures. They don’t feel real…they feel overacted. The kind of thing somebody might picture after reading a lot about the Marine Corps. but without ever actually meeting someone who served.

The marine scenes seem amateur and unnatural, and like the work of a director who…well, to be honest, I’m not sure what any director would be going for with these performances. They’re broad. Forced. Too-obvious relics of fiction in a film that feels otherwise grounded.

The marines operate on a very different tonal plane from the rest of the film, and, frankly, I don’t believe in them. It’s like they’re trying too hard to be one thing in a film that needs another.

My position is one that’s admittedly easier to take when you’re not watching the film, and nearly falls apart when you are: Cameron is trying to embed an anti-war satire in the middle of a film that’s otherwise not satirical.

This explains the performances, and even allows for them. It explains why we’re suddenly in the company of a squad of cartoon characters instead of nuanced individuals. It explains their purpose.

Aliens, 1986

But watching the film, they don’t actually feel satirical so much as they feel misjudged.

I think there are important things to be said about the way the U.S. is so quick to resort to mindless firepower, to dismiss or disregard intelligence, to believe in an inherent and sustained rightness that had everything to do with our egos and nothing to do with what’s actually happening in reality.

But I don’t think that Aliens comments on those things adequately, or at least not adequately enough to justify the inconsistent performances. It really should be impossible to look at Bill Paxton’s performance and Sigourney Weaver’s, and believe that they both originated in the same film.

And yet, here we are.

Aliens, 1986

Newt as a character serves a purpose, both structurally and thematically, but, again, I’m not sure that she was handled entirely the way she needed to be.

Henn does well enough for a child actor, but she’s still a child actor. She screams a lot, because she’s told to scream a lot. She stumbles over lines, because she’s a little kid being asked to tackle a difficult role, and to pretend she’s in the throes of a trauma she can’t actually imagine.

But she looks the part, and when she’s not talking, she’s actually pretty great. She has expressive eyes. She trembles believably. When she’s at her most frightened and vulnerable, I believe in Newt, and I want Ripley to protect her. When she has to say anything, or do something other than scurry away, though, it’s easy to be swept out of the moment.

Aliens, 1986

What I do like about her is that she seems almost like a comment on the first film. Whereas in Alien it might have seemed pretty careless for Ripley to go back for the god-damned cat, it’s much more believable that she’d go back for Newt.

She needs to save Newt. She’s already lost one daughter and countless associates; saving Newt makes a kind of narrative sense that saving the cat, to me, never did.

Newt also reinforces the theme of motherhood, which is strongly at play in Aliens and is a valid filter through which to view the entire film.

The “I” on the title screen actually spreads itself open as though giving birth. We learn that Ripley is a mother…or was. She has alien-specific nightmares about being impregnated…a term that’s used with notable caution in the film.

Aliens, 1986

Newt is newly motherless, and is also seemingly the only survivor of the entire colony, scarred and horrified though she is. Ripley and Hicks fall into a kind of parental relationship with the girl, and into (at the very least) a mutual respect for each other. (It’s also pretty great that Ripley befriends Hicks by respecting him when he becomes the de facto first in command; something her crewmates on the Nostromo did not do for her. Kindred spirits.)

And, of course, there’s the alien queen. A mother herself. And their big showdown toward the end of the film sees each of them fighting to protect their children.

On one level, it’s a big action sequence. But keep in the mind the theme of motherhood, and it becomes much more layered, more complex, and more nuanced.

Aliens, 1986

The ending, though, it needs to be said, goes on far too long. I like all of it, to some extent, but it’s in serious need of editing. At the very least I don’t think they need to lose Newt just to find her again just to lose her again just to find her again, and the very fact that she slips down that laundry chute — or whatever it was — feels like padding.

Moments like that can create tension, but use them too frequently, or too clumsily, and they only engender frustration.

We should absolutely keep the part where Ripley beats the shit out of the alien queen in her powerloader and says GET AWAY FROM HER YOU BITCH though because that’s incredible.

Aliens, 1986

Ultimately, though, the film’s biggest crime was redefining Ripley as an action hero. As we discussed last week, she didn’t survive the Nostromo because she was brilliant, or powerful, or anything else, really. We were just grading on a curve, because the alien grabbed the slowest animal in the pack each time.

Ripley survived because she was the fittest of that sample. She kept a relatively clear head, was relatively competent, and was relatively calm.

Everything was relative.

Here, she legitimately kicks ass.

Over, and over, and over again.

Aliens, 1986

She’s an action hero, and while it’s admittedly nice to see a female busting heads now and again in the interests of equality, it makes her a lot less interesting as a human being. Action heroes are less interesting as human beings, because they all tend to speak the same language: that of violence and triumph.

Ellen Ripley attempted violence in Alien, but quick thinking and a bit of luck is what actually saved her. And she triumphed, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, with every other member of the crew wiped out, the ship destroyed, and her life and career ruined upon her return.

She was a human being. In Aliens, though she has some very human moments, she’s not.

She becomes a powerful force in her own right, which can be fun, but can’t as easily be cared about.

Aliens, 1986

I do care about Ripley. I’m glad that she forged a bond with Hicks. I’m glad that she rescued Newt. I’m glad that she had a nice moment with Bishop before he was ripped in half. And I’m glad she survived another film. But whereas that survival was a genuine surprise in the first movie, it was a foregone conclusion in this one. Of course she survived.

She’s an action hero, and Alien is now a franchise.

Then again, in a sense, maybe it’s not Ripley we should worry about. Aliens potentially gives us a new victim: the aliens themselves.

After all, aren’t we impeding on their turf? Aren’t they just trying to survive the way their natures require them to survive? They didn’t come to us…in each film, we went to them. The fact that they didn’t play ball, did not submit to us, did not go gentle into that good night…well, is that really their fault?

Sure, they’re violent and deadly, but that’s also their nature. And at the end of the film, that’s a human being roasting alien eggs with a flame thrower while the queen shrieks with helpless horror, is it not?

We side with the humans because we are human, but that’s just self-interest.

Aliens, 1986

On the alien homeworld they made the same movie, and it wasn’t an action film. It was a profoundly distressing tragedy.

But, hey, at least those brave alien soldiers fought to the very end, against invaders they never provoked in the first place.

Join us next week, when any discussion of intelligence, artistry, or competence will have no place whatsoever.

Red Dwarf XI, "Can of Worms"

I mentioned last week that Kryten is a potentially difficult character to build stories around. Here’s a confession, though: part of the reason I made that observation is that I knew that this week’s episode — the last in series XI — was about The Cat. And if Kryten is potentially difficult, The Cat is a problem the show never before cracked. In fact, I’m still not sure it has.

But, you know what? I really enjoyed “Can of Worms.”

And that says something, because I actually wanted to hate it.

Watching it, I was almost relentlessly frustrated. “Can of Worms” contained so much of what often holds latter-day Dwarf back from being great. It recycled plot lines. It leaned on silly faces and references to previous episodes. It underused a guest character. It felt cobbled together from at least four different scripts.

I wanted to abhor it.

…but I couldn’t. Because it was very funny, sometimes quite clever, and always a lot of fun. “Can of Worms” isn’t great, but it’s a riot.

Until this week, we’ve never had a Cat episode. Sure, there was “Waiting for God,” the runaway worst episode of the classic years, way back in series I, but even that was more about his species and its history than it was about him.

And that was it. No other episode even came close to being “about” The Cat. There was, of course, “The Identity Within,” which was written for series VII. It was never made, though…a fact that immediately makes it the best episode of series VII, but still means we had no Cat episode.

We had no Cat episode, I’m sure, because there isn’t much about him that’s conducive to driving complete stories.

He’s vain, he’s selfish, he’s a bit dumb. Any of that could be at the center of a narrative, but I think it’s safe to say that Red Dwarf has been most comfortable keeping those things on the sidelines, tapping into them for punchlines or isolated sequences, and otherwise just leaving them be.

See, each of the other characters has a bit of emotional give. Lister is a lazy slob, but he’s ethical and caring. Rimmer is an abrasive coward, but he’s fragile and has a conflicted soul. Kryten is an anal exposition bot, but he has real desires and is unfailingly loyal.

The Cat doesn’t have a but. He’s vain, he’s selfish, he’s a bit dumb. That’s it.

Earlier in this very series he refused to give a dying Lister one of his kidneys, and that wasn’t an episode-specific development. I genuinely believe that he would always have refused, at every point in the show’s run, and would continue to refuse in a hypothetical series XX. That was true to the character, and it also illustrates why he’s not a natural protagonist.

TV shows (and novels, and films) nearly always require some kind of arc. A character starts somewhere, then experiences something, and ends up somewhere else. The Cat, by nature, stalls at step two. He doesn’t learn any lessons, not even temporarily for the purposes of an episode. He’s him, and he’s gorgeous. Why would he change?

And so “Can of Worms” doesn’t evolve the character. He doesn’t express some moral awakening the way Lister does. He doesn’t reel from a dark exploration of his psyche the way Rimmer does. He doesn’t embrace some newfound taste of humanity the way Kryten does. He’s The Cat when the episode begins, he’s The Cat throughout, and he’s The Cat at the end.

That in itself is not a bad thing, but it does mean that the episode this one most reminded me of was “Only the Good…” That one ended series VIII with a barely-connected series of skits that didn’t so much build upon each other as sat next to each other until the episode ran out of time.

“Can of Worms” flits similarly from idea to idea, but it’s not as dissatisfying. This is for two reasons.

One: As we’ve said, The Cat can’t experience a narrative journey the way the other characters can, so an episode “about” him needs to be more about the things that happen around him.

And, more importantly, two: the ideas that flit around are funny.

Danny John-Jules really has gotten better with each series, and I honestly feel that his performance over the decades culminates in the great scene in which he describes his first sexual experience. It was funny, oddly sweet, a little disgusting, and perfectly delivered. The punchline (“It still counts!”) served as absolutely perfect punctuation, entirely in keeping with the character, and it was a highlight of the entire series.

The Cat wasn’t the only character who got great moments, though. Lister’s face before his emotional surgery — and the reveal that Kryten hadn’t started yet — got a huge laugh out of me. The three simultaneous Mexican standoffs toward the end were also a hugely funny surprise, and they redeemed the fact that so much of the basic idea had already been done before in “Polymorph.” (I also have to admit that I laughed for a very long time at Lister shooting The Cat without knowing that it wasn’t really his crewmate. Again, a similar idea to what we’ve seen before, but a surprising take on it.)

The biggest disappointment for me came early. After finally meeting a female cat, we learn much too quickly that she’s a shapeshifter. At first my disappointment was simply the fact that we’ve seen Red Dwarf use that development a few times already, but really the biggest issue is that we didn’t spend more time with her. Like Butler from the last episode, she was a nice parallel version of a character we know, and her relationship with The Cat is one I really wish we could have explored without immediately shifting into another kind of episode altogether.

But you know what? These are nitpicks. And they’re nitpicks about an episode that, by all rights, should be riddled with issues.

Red Dwarf did the impossible this week. It didn’t give us a latter-day episode that felt like the classic years; it gave us a latter-day episode that felt like a latter-day episode and was still really good.

I think that says a lot about series XI. If you’ve been following these reviews…well, thank you! But, also, if you’ve been following these reviews, you know how much happier I am with this batch of episodes than I was with series X.

And I think “Can of Worms” really showed me why that was. As much as I could poke at X and dissect it and prattle on about its flaws, it really came down to one fact: I wasn’t laughing. I can poke at “Can of Worms” and dissect it and prattle on about its flaws, too, but I was laughing, and that makes all the difference.

Series XI has been funny. No, scratch that. Series XI has been very funny, and it’s the happiest I’ve been with the show in ages. I don’t want to say Red Dwarf is back, because that implies that it’s become whatever it used to be. And it hasn’t. But I will say that Red Dwarf seems to have found itself a second wind. It’s found a groove that works for it. It’s not exactly what we knew before, and that’s okay. It may even be a good thing.

It’s confident. It’s smart. It’s very funny. It’s easily the best the show has been in twenty-three years.

Latter-day Red Dwarf has found its voice. And since series XII was shot almost immediately following this one, I’d guess this unexpected streak isn’t over quite yet.

I will end this review by briefly mentioning something about series XI as a whole: I’m surprised by how divisive these episodes have been. In the last series, we could pretty easily identify the two everyone liked (“Lemons,” “The Beginning”) and the two everyone hated (“Entangled,” “Dear Dave”). This time around, though, just about every episode seems to be somebody’s favorite and somebody’s least favorite.

There doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus, and, I admit, I don’t have anything intelligent to add to that. I don’t even have any theories. I just find it very interesting.

Personally, though? I’m happy with the entire series. I have my favorites and my least favorites, but even the lows here are higher than almost all of series X and Back to Earth. We’re on an upswing, and I look forward to seeing how high it takes us.

Of course, though, what’s a review series without a definitive ranking that you’re wrong if you disagree with?


“Twentica” > “Krysis” > “Can of Worms” > “Samsara” > “Give & Take” > sitting on Kryten’s screwdriver > “Officer Rimmer”

I’ll see you all for series XII. Thanks for reading. Oh, and do share your favorites and least favorites in the comments. I really do find it fascinating.

Alien, 1979

Welcome back to Trilogy of Terror, a series in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or films with any relationship, really.

Last year we had some fun with the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy by Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright. This year we’re much closer to true horror, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be hopping genres.

Alien is an interesting franchise, with each of the main films having a different director, creative vision, and set of themes that it wishes to explore. This has the unfortunate side effect of making the series feel a bit unfocused. In fact, I don’t think it’s easy for somebody to claim to be a fan of the series as a whole.

Alien, 1979

While I’ve heard people say they like the Back to the Future movies, or the Harry Potter movies, there tends to be more selectiveness when it comes to the Alien films. Many people only like the first two. Many only like the first, or only the second. Somebody, somewhere, must only like the third. (I’m kidding, of course.)

In short, I don’t think there are many fans of the series so much as each individual film has its following. The films may link together to create a longer story, or a vaster understanding of the universe in which they take place, but viewers are welcome to cherrypick. In fact, they’re almost encouraged to do so by the fact that each film is so different from the others.

You may love Alien, and hate Aliens. I think that they’re both good films, but it’s also clear that they take vastly different approaches to the material, and have unique ideas about how their stories should be told. The experience of watching one is entirely different from watching the other.

Whatever you liked or disliked about one Alien film — the atmosphere, the action, the cast — may never come into play again, and each one, I’d argue, exists in its own creative bubble.

Alien, 1979

As such, the Alien series is more like an anthology of related short fiction than it is an ongoing narrative. This is especially apparent when you factor in the prequel movie(s), and the side series in which Alien and Predator stand around slapping each other.

That all comes later, though. Neither Alien — as the first entry in the series — nor its audience could have possibly been interested in “what came before.” As such, the film establishes everything that it chooses to establish, glosses over what it chooses not to, and weaves its own complete narrative, uncompromised by audience expectation.

It’s also one of the best horror films ever made.

Alien, 1979

Is it horror, though? Or is it sci-fi?

Well, it’s both, obviously. And not always at the same time. It’s sometimes horror, sometimes sci-fi, and sometimes sci-fi horror. It’s a slasher movie set in space, which allows director Ridley Scott to focus alternately on the slasher and the space as he sees fit.

The rest of the movies would follow a similar template, swapping out “slasher” for another genre. Aliens is a war movie set in space. Alien 3 is a prison movie set in space. Alien: Resurrection is a not-very-good movie set in space.

It’s actually during the long (brilliantly long) stretches of sci-fi that I think Alien is at its best. It’s impressive how well-built Scott’s world is here, when all he strictly needs to do is set up some toys for the alien to eventually kick over.

We get a lot of great, very well-handled moments and fragments of dialogue that open brief windows into the larger universe, and spend very little time explaining them overtly.

Alien, 1979

What we learn about the ship, the crew members, the company for which they work, even the alien itself, comes incidentally.

It’s second-hand. It’s what the film lets slip between “important” moments, and that’s what makes Alien so effective, so intelligent, so great. It gives the audience credit at every step, not flooding viewers with detail and backstory, but providing it for those who choose to pay attention.

Remember here, too, that Alien was released before the home video renaissance; if you were rewarding those who would watch your movie several times, it was under the assumption that they’d pay to see it several times in theaters. Scott banked on a repeat audience that would have the patience for a layered narrative, and, somewhat shockingly, he succeeded.

Alien, 1979

The film opens with the crew of the Nostromo being revived from deep sleep. They’re on their way back to Earth — from parts and activities unknown — but that’s not why the ship’s computer wakes them up; it’s picked up what seems to be a distress beacon.

The first stretch of the movie is masterfully sedate. One by one the characters rise from their sleep pods…yawn…get slowly about the day-to-day. They make breakfast. They perform basic readings to figure out where they are. They complain about their pay.

We learn everything we need to know about how the team members interact — and either work together or fail to work together — here, while nothing is happening, while things are quiet. The movie wakes up along with them, just as slowly. It’s not in any more of a rush than the characters are.

Alien, 1979

We learn, of course, a few things more clearly than we learn others. Mainly we learn that there’s some friction between the engineering team and the main crew. The former is comprised of two people, Parker and Brett, and at some point before they entered deep sleep, they voiced their misgivings about the pay structure. The discussion was obviously tabled — or at least not resolved to their satisfaction — and it comes up again now. Parker pushes the issue, Brett quietly lets the discussion unfold around him.

Their relationship, and their relationship as a pair to the rest of the crew, comes through clearly. Whatever they do or don’t actually deserve, it’s clear what they’re getting, and that’s that. We have a career’s worth of frustration raised and dismissed in just a minute of screentime…which is certainly why there is so much frustration.

We also get a good sense of how distant Ash, the science officer, is from the rest of the crew. It’s easy (by design) to read this as a kind of emotional detachment, or intellectual aloofness.

He doesn’t joke around. He isn’t playful. He doesn’t even seem to be especially interested in anything his crewmates care about. These are qualities that could well make him a great science officer — one who adheres to logic and reason over worries and gut feelings — but we learn later that he only recently joined the crew. Ash’s detachment is felt here, and explained more and more deeply as the film unfolds, but the mere fact that he’s the new guy means that he won’t fit as well, and the crew may be as detached from him as he is from them.

Alien, 1979

We’re also introduced to Ellen Ripley, of course, played incredibly by Sigourney Weaver. And it’s here that the length of the franchise robs us of a great surprise. By now, whether you’ve seen any of the films or not, you know that Weaver is a constant. She’s the main recurring character, outside of the general “alien” itself. We’ve seen her in trailers, on movie posters, on DVD boxes for years. So watching the original Alien as a newcomer, it’s impossible not to know that she’s the protagonist.

This is all understandable, but disappointing, as Alien takes great pains not to single Weaver out from the start.

It’s an ensemble cast. No one character is present for all of the important conversations, no one character makes the decisions that save or damn them, and no one character really calls the shots. Audiences experiencing Alien for the first time in 1979 may well have been under the impression that Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) was the main character. After all, he’s handsome. He’s rugged. He holds the highest rank.

He’s…y’know. Male.

Alien, 1979

Alien gradually, artfully narrows its perspective until it belongs to Ripley. I’m speaking literally here, too, as she narrates the dénouement in the first person. Which is a telling change from the soundless establishing text that opens the film. Alien isn’t Ripley’s story; it becomes Ripley’s story.

In doing so, it also reveals itself as a woman’s story. It may or may not serve as a deliberate comment on passive sexism in real, actual workplaces, but it certainly comments on it within the universe of the film.

Throughout Alien, Ripley is interrupted. Spoken over. Ignored. Contradicted. Even when she’s left officially in charge of the Nostromo, her authority is overridden.

She’s questioned more sharply and more frequently than the other characters are. She’s discouraged from speaking up at all. When she asks questions she has to do so several times, and her male crewmates respond through gritted teeth or with rolling eyes.

Alien, 1979

Why? Because Ripley isn’t playing by their rules.

The safety of the crew is important to her. She respects protocol. She understands enough of what’s happening to find holes in the official explanation…or at least to smell bullshit. But she’s a woman, and she’s not behaving the way a woman should, so they need to put her in her place.

Okay, yes, she’s acting in the best interest of the crew and voicing valid concerns that would prevent the entire situation from spiraling out of control the way it ultimately does, but, man, she sure needs to learn to speak when spoken to.

The crew’s treatment of Ripley is further emphasized by the much more positive way they treat the other female aboard: Lambert.

Alien, 1979

Lambert is a more traditional woman. She doesn’t push. She doesn’t fight. She might mutter under her breath now and again, but she knows better than to talk back.

In one very telling scene she tries to relay what she thinks is critical information to Dallas…and he interrupts her, telling her to give him the short version.

And you know what? She does.

Lambert does as she’s told.

Would Ripley have responded the same way? Of course not. Because Ripley, foolish girl, would have actually thought that what she had to say was important.

Alien, 1979

So Lambert gets the better treatment. She plays the game. When Dallas assigns squads to comb the ship for the alien stowaway, she gets to be on the A-team. Ripley, in an unspoken but clear fuck-you, gets saddled with the two disgruntled maintenance guys.

Of course, we all know how the film ends by now. Ultimately Ripley’s concern — along with her pragmatism, her understanding, her willingness to lose a lot in order to save a little — is vindicated. She goes from being dismissed and talked over and contradicted to quite literally having the last word. The woman gets to talk…after absolutely everybody else is silenced forever.

You know, watching Alien during this particular election cycle sure brings a lot of things into sharp focus…

Alien, 1979

Oh, but, wait, okay, so, you may not believe me here, but: there’s an alien in this movie! Sorry. Sorta just skipped right past all that.

Yes, the beacon leads the crew of the Nostromo to another ship, marooned on a hostile planet. It’s devoid of life…at least as far as they can tell initially. Further investigation leads them to a misty area below-deck, full of eggs. One of the crewmen gets a bit too curious, and ends up with a strange creature attached to his face.

And this is where the film veers directly into horror, but, unfortunately, it’s also the most effective horror in the film. In terms of scares, Alien peaks a bit early, with the facehugger being a genuinely frightening — and horrifically believable — movie monster.

It’s also something that every one of this film’s sequels has failed to top.

Alien, 1979

The facehugger is scary. So much so that I’ve actually had nightmares about it, and that usually won’t happen for some imaginary beastie I’ve seen in a film.

This thing, though?

Holy hell this thing.

On the whole, the alien itself — the final, physical presence — is the area in which the film has noticeably aged. The film’s overall visuals and effects have held up brilliantly, but the ultimate alien is a bit too obviously a guy in a rubber suit. Terrifying for 1979, probably pretty scary through the 80s, and now…bordering on silly.

The design of the creature is without question fantastic, but the actual execution feels at times like the crew is playing an especially tense game of hide and seek with a guy in a very expensive Halloween costume.

Alien, 1979

Not so with the facehugger. That thing looks — to this day — like an actual, living monster.

It’s terrifying. I get chills just hearing Ash refer to its “knuckle.” Its design — and execution — is amazing, and feels horribly timeless, as though this pale, fleshy succubus will be causing feelings of unease in audiences long after you and I are dead and gone.

It looks real. It breathes, for Christ’s sake. And while I know — of course — that the thing exists only within the confines of the film’s reality, I’m unable to see it as “just” a plastic prop.

It feels alive, and watching it tighten its tail around Kane’s neck when they first attempt to remove it is just…scary.

Alien, 1979

The facehugger benefits from the same vagueness of detail as the rest of the film. We hear a bit about it, courtesy of Ash’s findings, but are left to imagine the most horrible parts. The tube forced down a human neck to feed it oxygen. The eggs laid in the chest. The disorientation involved that leaves the victim to remember nothing more than awful dreams of suffocation…

We see the facehugger do enough. But we hear about more, and that’s what keeps it scary. It’s still mysterious, no matter how clearly we see it on the screen. Often in horror films (this one included) the best course of action is to show the monster as fleetingly and infrequently as possible. This allows the viewer’s imagination to take over, as what they will see with their mind’s eye will likely be much scarier than anything you can achieve with makeup and prosthetics.

But the facehugger isn’t fleeting.

It’s there.

It’s…doing whatever it’s doing.

It’s in plain sight. The crew members stare at it. They try to remove it. They analyze it. They eventually find its corpse and prod at it.

Alien, 1979

And it never — ever — gets any less scary for it, because no matter how much time we spend with it, our imaginations still have a lot to work with. We’re still inventing our own horrors. And the more realistic that little prop looks — whether it’s the pulsing silhouette in the egg or the slimy innards its death allows us to probe — the more we are able to believe in the horrors we don’t see.

The film letting us spend so much time with the facehugger is a mark of bravery, and confidence. “Go ahead,” it says. “Look. You still won’t see the scariest part.”

And of course it all leads to one of the most famous scenes in science-fiction history. By now so many other productions have borrowed it and homaged it and parodied it that it’s been robbed of its necessary surprise, and it’s one of those film moments I really wish I could travel back in time to witness firsthand, with an audience that had no idea what was coming, and couldn’t possibly have known how to react.

Alien, 1979

Once the chestburster is — ahem — out of the film’s system, we’re squarely in slasher territory. The characters are stuck, they’re up against a killer with inhuman strength, and at least a few of them are going to have to die before they figure out how to defeat it. And, spoiler: damn…there really is no defeating it.

One of Alien‘s great narrative flourishes is the way it doesn’t allow the crew to kill it. While trying to cut the facehugger off of Kane, they discover that the alien has acid for blood. And a tiny little squirt — about the same that you’d get from nicking your finger in the kitchen — burns through several levels of the ship.

It’s a detail that makes the alien scarier — and, er…alien — and it also solves the basic logistical question of why they don’t just fight like hell against it: even if they did manage to kill it, its blood would eat through the hull and take them all with it.

It’s a deeply efficient detail that answers a lot of questions and does an impressive amount of storytelling all on its own.

Alien, 1979

The tragedy of the Nostromo unfolds as it must. After all, once you let a ruthless killer on board and establish that you can’t shoot it, stab it, or blow it up, there’s really no chance of a happy ending.

Prior to that, of course, there were several chances of a happy ending.

Respecting quarantine procedure, for instance.

Or deciphering the beacon before sending out the search party.

Or…y’know what? Let’s just say “letting Ripley finish her sentences” and be done with it.

Alien, 1979

Ripley is — and I genuinely can’t fathom anybody disagreeing with this — the film’s crowning achievement. With no biographical details to speak of (outside of approximate age and the fact that she’s a pet owner), she feels fully drawn. She feels real. Too real, so that the crew’s steadfast refusal to take her seriously registers as its own kind of horror…the horror of a life sidelined in favor of somebody else’s interests.

Ripley’s experience is relateable. It’s understandable. It’s frustrating. And it makes her eventual survival that much more satisfying. Not because she was strong enough to overpower the alien; she wasn’t. She was just the most level-headed of her crew, was able to think more clearly, and was able to change her plans and then change them again as various solutions to the problem closed themselves off.

She wasn’t a singular, blessed bad-ass. She was just the most competent person on the ship. That’s all. She was an everywoman. Not transformed by a threat into an ass-kicking hero, but emboldened by danger to take her own ideas more seriously. And as the objections — and those making the objections — fell away one by one, she became more empowered to place them into action.

Alien, 1979

This is something that the sequels, I feel, really missed. Ellen Ripley becomes a sort of Chosen One, at the ultimate expense of her humanity. She becomes almost hyper-competent, whereas her role in the first film is defined by relative competence.

Ripley shouldn’t survive because she’s an invincible, fearless powerhouse; she should survive because the others don’t. It’s difficult to identify with an adept alien whisperer, but pretty easy to identify with somebody just resourceful enough to make it out alive.

Alien is a nearly perfect movie. In fact, the only thing I keep going back and forth on is the reveal that Ash is an android, sent by the company to ensure that the crew does its bidding. Granted, both aspects of this (the company’s intentions and Ripley’s rightful distrust of androids) are elaborated upon to great effect in the sequel, but for now it just feels a little muddy.

I don’t dislike it, exactly, but I’m not sure that the film needs another active villain on the ship. There’s already a murderer, and I think that I’d slightly prefer the crew to unknowingly endanger each other through poor judgment and thickheadedness than to have one member of the crew programmed to endanger them.

Alien, 1979

It also provides Ash with another specific reason to dismiss Ripley’s concerns, which I don’t think he needs.

The others dismiss her, and they’re not androids. They do it because they’re people. Tired people who don’t want to be bothered. People with egos they don’t like to see pierced. People in a panic making decisions they can never take back.

“I’m a robot so, yeah…” is a much less compelling explanation than the one that arises from basic human behavior and gender conflict, and I definitely don’t think we need a sci-fi explanation for someone being a dick.

I’m not saying it was a bad creative decision, necessarily, but it’s the one I do second guess from time to time.

Alien, 1979

But it’s Alien, and if its biggest misstep is something I can still enjoy, understand, and appreciate, then I’m really not surprised at all that it quickly became — and remains — such an important film. A film that instantly cemented its place in horror history, sci-fi history, and film history, and continues to shape our expectations of similar films today.

It’s a truly great movie, front to back. One that has absolutely earned its reputation. One you feel familiar with even if you haven’t seen it. And when you do finally sit down to watch it, you’ll likely see that it’s still better than anyone led you to believe. It’s one of my favorites, and, in my opinion, one of the best.

Alien, 1979

The tragedy of the Nostromo is one we already know. Corporate indifference, class conflict, inequality. Rules for the sake of rules. Safety compromised by shortcuts. Bad decisions made in heat. People who don’t necessarily get along having to work together, because a job’s a job. Being damned in an instant by the interests of another.

Sure, the alien didn’t make things better.

But was life all that great to begin with?

Tune in next week, when we’ll discuss Aliens.

Red Dwarf XI, "Krysis"

“Give & Take” was the episode I was looking forward to most in this batch…and it was okay. That disappointed me, because I was expecting something great, and got something that was…okay. Admittedly it’s the kind of episode likely to improve over time, with repeat watches, so my opinion on it could well change. But for now?

It was okay.

“Krysis” was, by a landslide, the episode I was looking forward to least.

And it was also okay, but that’s a huge step up from what I expected, and I’ll take it.

Kryten’s an odd character. He doesn’t lend himself as easily to shouldering an episode. It can be done, of course, but compared to Lister or Rimmer — both of whom have clear, identifiable desires and fears that define their characters — Kryten works more naturally as a tagalong.

That’s not meant to be any kind of slight on the character, and it’s certainly not one on Robert Llewellyn, who might be the most consistent performer on the entire show. But Kryten is there to help, by nature. To assist. To serve. Sure, he’s typically the first of the crew to piece together whatever’s going on, but it’s in that way only that he takes the lead. The rest of the time he’s selfless, he steps back, and he lets others go first.

This is who is he is. He was designed to serve, and he genuinely loves to serve. One of his running gags involves how much he absolutely adores cleaning. This naturally endears him to both Lister and Rimmer…the former because he never wants to do it, and the latter because he enjoys issuing orders.

But it’s not easy to build an episode around such a character. The two best Kryten episodes, then, tap into something more universal. “The Last Day” is a kind of riff on general mortality, and “Camille” is a love story.

Very basic stuff. In fact, they’re the kinds of stories you could plug any character into — from any production in any medium — and they’d feel like no less natural a fit.

Was there Kryten-specific and Red Dwarf-specific material in those episodes? Of course there was, and it’s that material that made both of those episodes great. My point isn’t that those episodes failed to find interesting things to do with Kryten; it’s that those episodes were sparked by a creative idea that wasn’t specific to the character.

Also instructive, I think, are the two worst Kryten episodes: “Beyond a Joke” and “Krytie TV.” The former was less “bad” than it was lacking in humor, as Kryten reconnecting with his deadbeat brother Able was better as a concept than it was as an episode of a sitcom. “Krytie TV” was about him broadcasting invasive pornography for prisoners to masturbate to, so Lister trims his pubes.

Those episodes, arguably, were more specific to the character than the good ones. “Beyond a Joke” was about two mechanoids, and the very different ways in which they processed the information they learned about their origins. “Krytie TV” was fucking garbage, but it was specific to Kryten as a masculine character who had been classified as a woman, and so was in a unique position to broadcast invasive pornography for prisoners to masturbate to while Lister trims his pubes.

Based on that alone, the best Kryten plot is the one that’s less specific to who he actually is, and more of a relateable situation that just so happens to be filtered through a robot.

Fortunately, that’s where “Krysis” lands. It’s not a great episode of Red Dwarf, but it actually was not half bad. “Kryten becomes a hotrod” wasn’t a promising direction in my mind — and sure enough that was the worst part, complete with totally unnecessary screeching-tire sound effects — but the episode took us to several interesting places along the way.

It went from being a very frivolous idea for a story to one that, ultimately, I was convinced was worth telling. That’s an achievement.

There was a lot to like in this one, and it’s giving me a good amount of hope for the long-anticipated Cat-centric episode next week.

And it did far more with the mid-life crisis angle than I expected. It also brought that particular thread full circle, as Kryten causes The Universe Himself to question the value of anything.

But the real star was Butler, a great guest performance in a series that’s had a good number of them. (Compare just about any one-off character in XI to just about any one-off character in X and you’ll see how far we’ve come.)

Butler was an absolutely perfect foil for Kryten, being irritating in precisely the right way, getting under his skin for precisely the right reasons. Butler, far from being an embarrassing reminder of Kryten’s early years, has actually used his centuries of freedom to develop intellectually, embrace his artistic side, make friends, and basically become everything a sanitation droid (and Lister’s personal cleanup crew) was never intended to be.

And it’s played perfectly. It’s easy to understand why Kryten would bristle so, and just as easy to understand why Rimmer (and maybe less enthusiastically the rest of the crew) would want to convince him to come along. And all of this is accomplished without, I feel, pushing the audience too far in either direction. I don’t think we’re meant to hate the guy any more than we’re meant to hope he joins the cast; we’re supposed to see both sides, and “Krysis” absolutely succeeds in that. It’s a complex treatment of a character in a show that, lately, feels like it’s lost its complexity.

The more I think about “Krysis,” the more I like it. It fell down a bit here and there, and not all the gags landed or were necessary, but I appreciate what it tried to do, and I largely appreciate how it went about doing it.

I also like that this works as a quiet companion piece to “Beyond a Joke.” In that episode Kryten looked at Able and could say, relieved, “That’s what I could have been.” Here, though, he looks at Butler and can say, jealously, “That’s what I could have been.”

It was handled quite well, and that’s due in large part to the guest performance that does most of the episode’s heavy lifting for us. “Krysis” doesn’t rely on the main cast to tell us what we’re meant to think.

I could have done without so many specific callbacks to previous episodes (416 of them by my count, and surprisingly not one of them was “Beyond a Joke”) but that’s a small gripe. That shows the need for a beltsander rather than a hacksaw, and I’m not complaining.

So, not as good as “Twentica,” but somewhere between “Samsara” and “Give & Take” I think.

“Krysis” is a very pleasant surprise, and this is already the strongest series we’ve had since VI. I’m very excited to see next week’s finale. (The review on that one may be a day or so later than usual. Thanks in advance for your patience!)

Let’s see where it takes us.

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