The Arrival (1991) aka The Unwelcomed
Dir. David Schmoeller
Written by Daniel Ljoka
Starring Robert Sampson, Joseph Culp, John Saxon, Robin Frates
The years following David Schmoeller’s undisputed masterpiece TOURIST TRAP were littered with near-misses. He had a studio thriller with Morgan Fairchild which just didn’t catch on. A harrowing experience directing Klaus Kinski in the sleazy CRAWLSPACE, which didn’t add up to much commercial success. A castlebound religious horror effort which sat on the shelf for years before it was re-titled and released as the fourth movie in the unrelated CURSE series. Only the fun, kiddie-horror PUPPETMASTER from 1989 --a full ten years after TOURIST TRAP-- managed to come together into something that worked. And that was direct-to-video, and Full Moon video, no less, so not exactly a victory to shout from the rooftops. His follow up, THE ARRIVAL (retitled for video THE UNWELCOMED, and in West Germany, ALIANATOR 2) was a step up in the sense of actually getting at least some theatrical release. I can’t find any specific box office figures, although I know it was at least less successful than the $356,000 Hal Hartley’s TRUST made as the 32nd most lucrative film of 1991. Also I know it did less than the $519,000,000 that TERMINATOR 2 made the same year.
But great art is not always appreciated in its own time, so let’s not hold that against it. Considering it must have been made for almost nothing, this is in some ways technically better than you might imagine, in some ways, I guess. It is, I think, a somewhat more solid effort than his subsequent ambitious-but-disappointing NETHERWORLD, but unfortunately it has the same essential problem that one does: A semi-interesting premise and decent atmosphere are undermined by a poorly structured plot and a lack of sufficient genre goods.
Basically, this is a sci-fi horror tale of some kind of alien entity (seen only for a few scattered frames) who crash-lands on Earth and takes up residence in the body of bespectacled septuagenarian grandpa Max Page (Robert Sampson, Dean Halsey in RE-ANIMATOR). This seems to kill Max, but in the morgue he suddenly regains life, and his health improves in record time. It’s not long before he’s inappropriately but endearingly flirting with his nurse (Robin Frates, PUPPET MASTER and Talia Shire’s ONE NIGHT STAND, exuding an easy sense of endearing girl-next-door warmth). And then… he keeps getting better, starts to feel youthful. And then starts to look more youthful. And then also starts blacking out and drinking blood. OK, so one notable downside, then. Pretty soon, Max realizes he’s a danger to his family, and heads out on a cross-country road trip/killing spree with continually incredulous detective John Saxon in pursuit. All the while, he’s killing more women and getting younger, until finally he looks like hunky, leather-jacket-wearing motorcycle-riding Kenneth Anger alien fantasy Joseph Culp (Dr. Doom from the original 1994 FANTASTIC FOUR and son of Robert Culp).
There are definitely some decent things in here. The movie looks pretty good, for one thing, even if it negates a lot of its visual atmosphere with a chintzy keyboard score from noted Charles Band accomplice/brother Richard Band. There are some surreal, symbolic dream sequences at the beginning which look quite handsome, and a strange, dreamy ambiance to the editing and acting throughout. The acting is significantly better than you’d expect, with both Sampson and Culp giving performances which are subtly textured but intriguingly opaque. All that works in the movie’s favor, because what it kinda turns out to be is a sort of early blueprint for UNDER THE SKIN, with an alien predator who isn’t exactly evil, but has very little interest or aptitude for pretending to be the humans it preys on (it even figures out to turn into a hot guy to lure women). THE ARRIVAL even adds a little wrinkle to the UNDER THE SKIN formula, in that there’s obviously still a little of Max in there, or at least his memories. But how much, and what motivates this strange amalgam of human and alien intelligence?
|This is what the alien looks like, which is actually pretty cool. Shame it's probably on-screen for less than a second in the whole film, and I had to meticulously screen-capture it by going frame by frame.|
All that stuff is pretty good, and there is ample evidence that someone put at least a little thought and craft into the story. There’s a recurring motif of white roses for some reason, and hey, somebody knew enough to know it was both necessary and morally right to get Michael Pollard in there as a wacky witness that John Saxon talks to one time. It’s a pointless, worthless exposition role which just fills Saxon in on a few details we already knew, but Schmoeller (who has a brief cameo as a doctor himself) almost certainly lets Pollard ad-lib his way into by far the most entertaining scene of the movie. Still, there’s no getting around it: this whole enterprise could definitely use a little more whammy. Its dreamy, quiet middle is almost completely free of narrative tension, it’s just the alien wandering from place to place and occasionally eating a woman off-camera. Nothing in it is assertively bad, but it treads water for an inexcusably long time while waiting for the finale to finally introduce some conflict again. The film doesn’t even seem to settle on a main character til the final act, when it finally decides against all logic and reason that for some reason the alien ain’t that bad, and we should be worried mean ol’ John Saxon is going to stop his murder spree. How this makes any sense at all, I cannot say, but at least once it firmly comes down on the alien’s side, the filmmaking is strong enough to manage a little tension that most of the film lacks.
Even so, there’s just not a lot of meat on the bone, here (although the version I saw inexplicably had the “fucks” beeped out [though the “shits” are left in?], so maybe there’s another cut out there that delivers a few more exploitation goods.)* It has a few ideas and some little unique touches, but as with NETHERWORLD, the filmmaking isn’t quite strong enough for the dreamy, slow burn thing to resonate much. But also like NETHERWORLD, a thin through-line of dark humor is key to it squeaking over the finish line without turning into a total snooze. Pollard is a hoot, Stuart Gordon has a cameo as an unfortunate biker, and his wife Carolyn Purdy-Gordon also steals a scene as a belligerent alcoholic trying to scam a free drink at a liquor store. Little asides like that add some much needed color. And it can be pretty funny to watch this weird alien guy make people uncomfortable by barely making an effort to fit in. Sometimes it’s also not-so-intentionally funny, like when the Cops spot this multiple-murderer leaving a house, and Saxon admonishes them not to follow him, but to just wait around where they are in the hopes that he’ll come back. Pretty crafty police work there. He does come back, although I bet the people he kills in the interim would appreciate a slightly more proactive approach. I’d ask the same of the film.
*Huh, the trailer actually has a scene of our alien in a bathtub full of blood with a naked women, which also isn’t in the version I saw, or if it was I don’t remember it. So maybe this review isn’t giving it a fair shot. They also tease a freaky naked three-way that they don’t deliver on but later make reference to. I gotta check the runtime on my 99 cent Dollar store DVD copy.
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