Parts - The Clonus Horror (1979), a new DVD from Mondo Macabro being marketed simply as Clonus, is a real surprise. Though obviously made on the cheap - it was shot in 18 days for just $257,000 - the picture has a strong story, imaginative touches throughout, and its ambitions wisely don't try to go beyond what was possible with the money and time that was available. Along with Shock Waves (1976) and a few others, Clonus is one of the best low-budget genre films of its era, and deserves to be better known.
As was all late-'70s sci-fi, the picture was unfairly measured against Star Wars, and apparently received a poor distribution deal that, according to its director, pretty much ripped off everyone creatively associated with it. Without their consent, the film eventually turned up on the execrable Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1997, and the contempt heaped upon it then gave Clonus wide exposure at the expense of carelessly considered ridicule.
Though dated in obvious ways (Farrah-Fawcett hairstyles, Adidas jogging wear), in others the picture is timelier than ever. The first half uses the kind of "what's going on here?" set-up popular on The Twilight Zone. In a strange society, Clonus, where constantly monitored athletic adults act like wide-eyed, eager-to-please children (or maybe Osmonds), with their actions overseen by Orwellian security guard types with headphones, news arrives that George (Frank Ashmore) has "been accepted," and gets "to go to America," believed to be a veritable nirvana, even though Clonus's surroundings already look like Southern California. Everyone's pleased as punch for Frank, especially best friend Richard (Tim Donnelly).
But when George is brought into a medical lab run by sinister Doctors Jameson (Dick Sargent) and Nelson (Zale Kessler), George is drugged, his blood exchanged with something like embalming fluid, he's wrapped in plastic and put into cold storage along with dozens of others that had preceded him.
Richard, meanwhile, is starting to have doubts about his seemingly utopian world. In a nearby river, Richard finds an Old Milwaukee beer can, and when he asks about the strange object at "confessional" and an unseen voice dismisses the discovery, Richard begins openly questioning whether that the leaders of Clonus are telling them the truth about the outside world.
To reveal more plot points would be spoiling the fun of this consistently interesting film, adapted by director Robert S. Fiveson and producer Myrl A. Schreibman from Bob Sullivan's story - suffice to say that cloning and a political cover-up are involved.
The film borrows elements from other films: the clones wear ear-tags a la THX-1138 (1971), there's a Delos-like control center like the one in Westworld (1973), the medical horror of Coma (1978), and the dystopian society of Logan's Run (1976), etc. But Clonus quickly spins its own way through the genre. The first two-thirds of the story is told mainly from Richard's point of view. We, the audience, don't quite know what's going on and neither does he. His discoveries thus become ours, and the little clues he finds along the way keep our interest piqued. Though it's easy enough to guess Clonus's real purpose, the isolated world it perpetuates is an interesting one, with nice little touches throughout, and which often turn the low budget to its advantage. The confessional, for instance, is nothing more than a modified telephone booth, where clones are directly connected to soothing voices at central control.
Some may be put off by Richard's childlike innocence and melancholy growing pains, but it's an interesting character, one almost unique to filmed science fiction. Probably inspired by the common problem of inmates' anxiety and desire to return to the "comfort" of prison after their release, Richard likewise longs for Clonus soon after he escapes. So uncomfortable is he with the outside world that he would rather return to the deadly but cocoon-like existence in Clonus rather than in the unfamiliar "real world." In another neat touch, when Richard meets his genetic forebear, the 60-ish "original" Richard (David Hooks), the moment really works because of the careful casting; the two actors really do look alike.
Director Fiveson lets his inexperience with feature film production show in some scenes, but displays considerable inventiveness in others. One intended romantic moment between Richard and beautiful blonde Lena (Paulette Breen) is thwarted by a bad camera angle of a campfire, making it look like smoke is billowing out of Lena's butt. The introduction to a newspaperman played by Keenan Wynn has a glaring lapse in continuity (glasses off, glasses on, glasses off, etc.).
Conversely, Fiveson makes full use of the locations given him. Richard's escape from Clonus has some real energy, and one clever shot finds Richard hiding atop an elevator car. Fiveson shoots the actor (or his stand-in) from a low angle looking up at him, as the elevator slides down the darkened shaft. The effect is unsettling, yet doesn't seem to have been attempted before this. A dream sequence offers the film's only really horrifying (and gory) moment, and Fiveson uses his background in editing to really make it effective.
Video & Audio
Parts - The Clonus Horror is presented in 1.66:1 format in a 16:9 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The image is clean with decent color and, especially given its obscurity, generally looks very good. The Dolby mono sound is acceptable. There are no subtitles or alternate audio options.
Supplements include Robert Fiveson Interview, actually Parts of a Life - Robert S. Fiveson, a 35-minute featurette in 16:9 format. Though overlong and digressive (he tells a story that sounds like the basis for the Woody Allen-Meryl Streep relationship in Manhattan), the interview is interesting with good info on low-budget filmmaking. Fiveson returns for a screen-specific Audio Commentary.
Also included is what is described as a Theatrical Trailer, but it has video-type credits at the end and seems more like a promo of some other sort adapted from the theatrically shown trailer. It's in 16:9 format cropped to 1.33:1. A Still Gallery rounds out the extras.
What seemed fantastic in 1979 - human cloning to keep the rich and powerful stocked with replacement organs - now doesn't seem quite so outrageous. And Mondo Macabro's respectful presentation of the picture should earn it some well-deserved if belated kudos. Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.