"I didn't want to make fun of horror films, I wanted to make fun of the stupid things people do in horror films."
True story: Two months ago, I joined nine friends on a weekend getaway for the New Year holiday. We headed to a semi-secluded cabin in the woods, nestled in the outskirts of the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area. It was a destination I had no part in choosing, my reasoning made clear as I commented upon entering the rickety wooden house for the first time: "Which one of us gets slaughtered by a machete-wielding murderer first?"
It drew laughs from my friends, but I was actually half serious. My fear was personified at night when I had to sleep on a couch (my reward for being single), which faced the giant window by the pathetically "secured" front door (even I could have probably punched through it). If anyone wanted to slaughter a group of mostly unsuspecting strangers, this presented the perfect time and place. We had wrapped up the gift with a bloody red bow, a neon arrow practically leading the way. That's just one of the reasons I got virtually no sleep either night, tossing and turning on a smelly stained couch as the outdoor light stenciled "Murder me first!" on my chest.
That's the thanks I get for being raised on horror films, my particular fascination with the Friday the 13th series shaping a large part of my paranoia. I have a lot in common with Mike (Craig Peck), who lets his apprehension out while his gang of friends passes a suspicious accident on their way to a Spring Break getaway in the woods: "Can we please go home?" he pleads, pondering the fate of the missing but presumed dead woman whose car has been attacked and abandoned. "You don't understand...we just went through a warning. I have rented out every single horror film on videotape, and what we just went though is called a 'warning stage'." And his concern about unlocked doors is verbalized with a question I actually posed in my own head (no lie!) at that damn cabin: "Do they at least creak a little bit for some warning as they open?" (Have you seen Wrong Turn, people?!)
That's the set-up of There's Something Out There, writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky's early '90s low-budget homage to exploitative '80s horror. The horror/comedy hybrid is a surprisingly smart and enjoyable effort that was ahead of its time, predating the whole wave of self-aware and self-referential horror--a movement that Scream took credit for in 1996 (it's a crime that I hadn't even heard of this film until now). Let's be clear from the start: Out There looks cheap. It's filmed on low-budget equipment, utilizes bargain basement effects and has no-name actors. But that makes it all the more impressive that it's so much fun, especially considering this was the then-20-year-old Kanefsky's first feature. On the surface, Out There looks like a direct-to-video stinker...but not only is that assumption a severe mistake, the film is a lot better than many big-budget genre efforts.
Kanefsky's genre love (obsession?) is immediately apparent, the first scene taking place in a video store where cashier Sally (Lisa Grant) gets stalked by a mysterious figure in black. The excited camera can't contain itself, frantically cutting to the posters and video boxes of films that have undoubtedly influenced the director: Hell Night, The Mutilator, Grizzly, New Year's Evil...an endless array of cheesy films that I grew up adoring, and an orgasmic sequence that will make horror nerds squeal in delight. The scene also beautifully illustrates one of the greatest weapons in Kanefsky's arsenal: editing (done here by his father), which helps make this film move with a force that's undeniable. He's going to give his story a speed and flow that most other cheapies couldn't dream of capturing. He has a purpose, damn it, and nothing's going to stop him (case in point, the implied hanging by film reels, an awesome sequence that makes something out of nothing).
From there, we're thrust full force into Friday the 13th territory: Mike joins six high school friends as they make their way to a secluded camp by the lake...sorry, excuse me...house by the pond. Joining him are Nick (John Carhart III)--whose parents own the place--and his girlfriend Stacy (Bonnie Bowers), who spends the majority of the film bursting out a sexy bikini that would do Wonder Woman proud; jock Jim (Mark Collver) and his blond babe Doreen (Wendy Bednarz), who has a healthy fear of bears and sharks; and geeky David (Jeff Dachis) and his girlfriend Janet (Claudia Flores), a sexy Brazilian who talks all funny like.
All are soon annoyed with Mike, who wastes no opportunity pointing out the obvious clues to their impending doom--like when a van full of punk potheads straight out of Friday the 13th Part 3 stumble across the secluded home:
"Nick, you ever heard of the words fore shadowing?"
"One word, Mike."
"Oh good, thank you. I'll remember that when I'm getting my face ripped off...look, don't you know what just happened? Those kids were born to be murder victims and just paid us a visit!"
To be fair, Mike does get pretty annoying ("He has no life!" complains Stacy. "He is a horror film! A walking, talking horror film!"). But he's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore! And because we're aware of the real situation, his antics are amusing--it's almost like he's a loud theater patron watching the film unfold from his seat, yelling at the idiot characters for their stupidity (his running commentary turns the film into an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000). The paranoid, single loser (hmm, what is this film trying to tell me?) is convinced that the car accident they drove by was the result of something shady:
"So what do you think happened?"
"I'm still going back and forth between an ax murder and alien from outer space."
"You're serious? You really think there's something out there waiting to kill us?"
[...cue loud mysterious noise from inside the kitchen, followed by a pause...]
"...no, now it may be inside."
We know from the opening scene--and from the box cover, which also spoils any potential surprise--that the culprit is a tiny little green alien with sharp teeth and a big appetite, sort of a cross between the monsters from The Boogens, Critters and Little Shop of Horrors (but he also shoots laser beams out of his eyes, too...bright green ones!). The cute little bugger roams through the woods like a land shark, the POV camerawork clearly evoking The Evil Dead--another classic that Kanefsky is smitten with (I'll be the first to admit that there are probably ample winks to other horror film that I missed). Normally this kind of monster would limit my enjoyment--but using a slasher wouldn't have afforded the director as much freedom, and the result is wickedly funny.
It's neat to see the alien inadvertently set up Mike as "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", infuriating his friends so much that they lock him in the basement for a night (bad idea!). But Kanefsky throws us a cute curveball when it dawns on our survivors that this particular slimeball ain't the sharpest species in the solar system: "To tell you the truth, I think that thing's pretty stupid," says Mike, who morphs into MacGyver as he tries to outwit the alien with mirrors, light bulbs, sunglasses and...shaving cream?! ("Nobody likes a mouthful of shaving cream...")
Out There is having a blast, whether it's mocking the requisite sex (Bowers' over-the-top gyrating on Carhart comes straight out of "Porn Acting 101", an undoubtedly intentional choice) and nudity (skinny dipping in your jeans?!), winking at fake scares ("Where did it come from?! There's nothing up here but ceiling!!!"), feeding us all of the required eye-rolling lines (see: title), calling out its characters on bad judgment ("Is someone paying you to stand in front of an open window, or is it just your own idea?"), reciting the "rules" of horror (take that, Scream!) or acknowledging its influences:
"You know what keeps coming to mind?"
"Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
"Well...mind control, birth cycle, high-pitched scream..."
"So, how did they kill 'em in that one?"
Out There is far smarter and funnier than most would anticipate; it has a snappy script and a keen sense of timing. And to their credit, the actors are actually not too bad...okay, some of them are, but that's kind of the point. At least their characters aren't douchey (excerpt from my notes: "I like these people!"). The editing magic goes a long way in selling the more active sequences--two (human) tussles in particular (including one cat fight!) show clear purpose and attention to storyboarding, the amateurs convincingly pulling off some pretty challenging scenes that lazier films succumb to. The film has more "speed" than you would expect (love the stunt jumps!). And even when the film looks its cheapest--including the stuntman in the opening car crash, a bevy of poorly framed shots, the explosive finale or any time the actors are asked to fight the monster, their own arms creating its movement--it still manages to put an earned smile on your face.
There are gags galore here--including a pesky rake that predates Sideshow Bob, an unforgettable run-in with a tree, a "we know we're in a movie" acknowledgment that culminates with a hysterical "goof", the alien's thirst for lady parts and an ending that puts the perfect punctuation mark on the film. Out There also throws in a few gross-out moments, including a nasty demise to one character that I wasn't expecting. My only gripe is that my hoped-for return of the punk potheads never materialized; but any film that can put forth a genuinely funny fart joke (the usual bane of my movie critic existence) has to be pretty damn good in my book.
Out There received an upgrade from Image Entertainment in 2001, a disc which is now out of print. While I don't have that disc for comparison, the comments from director Rolfe Kanefsky in the newer extras seem to indicate that this is the same transfer--a one he approves of, noting the film has never looked better (and probably never will, unless a Blu Ray arrives--something he seemed to think was happening with this release). The anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer certainly doesn't make the film look less cheap, but for a very low-budget horror filmed in 1989 it looks better than you might think. The pic suffers the most in darker scenes, where black levels and contrast issues are more apparent (a Jaws homage isn't as effective as it could have been). It's never a sharp-looking film, and the movie maintains a very dull look throughout along with plenty of dirt and specs.
The 2.0 stereo track also seems to be the same one used for the 2001 Image release; a modest effort that gets the job done, it sometimes has that fuzzy old record sound but--for the most part--is serviceable.
The extras are spread across two discs, mixing old and new material. Two audio commentaries from writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky are included on Disc 1: the one he recorded for the 2001 Image DVD and a new one for this release. The 2001 track is the crown jewel of the bonus features, with Kanefsky joined by father/producer/editor Victor Kanefsky; actors Craig Peck and Mark Collver; location coordinator/odd jobber John Kim; prop PA/rake wrangler Gene Masse; and, in a very quick cameo in the last 30 seconds, executive producer/director mom Alice.
There's a running theme in this commentary that is hinted at early and revisited often, concluding in some more in-depth explanation late in the track: no one liked actress Bonnie Bowers (Stacy), who made the shoot hell for all involved. Refusing to show up for work (claiming food poisoning), refusing to get wet (or slimed) for shots that required it, yelling "Cut!" during her own scene, holding the bathing suits hostage and a general all-around bad attitude (she complained about scenes being filmed out of order) are just a few of the relayed incidents. Negative? Yes. Funny? Absolutely, especially considering the diva-like attitude was probably the last thing the crew expected from an inexperienced newbie in a low-budget horror film. Of one crucial scene between Bowers, Peck and Wendy Bednarz as the final chase begins, Kanefsky offers this:
"If you notice, there's parts of it where Bonnie is not there in some of the shots because I believe she was on the phone to her lawyer trying to get off the project at this point. It was like five days into the movie, and she realized this wasn't all glamour and fun and she was trying to leave, if you can see the expression on her face. I remember Wendy was trying to work herself up into this big fit, and Bonnie was like, 'It's just a movie...who cares?' In a way it was good, because everyone else bonded...you always need someone on the set to be angry at, and because of Bonnie everyone else became really good friends and they're still to this day."
"That is what Bonnie looked like on the entire shoot of the movie..."
During one sequence at the end where Stacy brandishes a knife, actor John Carhart refused to film the close-ups with Bowers actually holding the weapon near his body--so the stunt double was used (and the inserts are actually Bednarz's hand). Also listen for a funny story involving a flashlight ("Why don't we just smash it in Bonnie's jaw?"), and for the one and only friend the actress had on set (note: it's not human).
"When we did the shot where her hands grab the knife and grab John by the balls,
we had Wendy double her hands because John said,
'I'm not gonna let that woman near me with a knife...'"
The track is a hoot from start to finish, with the participants mixing nicely as they reminisce about the project (dad Victor perhaps has some bad timing issues, interrupting a few good stories). In addition to the director's influences (The Pink Panther, The Evil Dead, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, etc.), casting choices and the general challenges in making the film (from the difficulty of certain shots to the effects to the use of doubles when actors weren't around), the group gets nice mileage out of random things like a jar of M&Ms, Claudia Flores' accent and the folksy, sweat-lodge lovin' lesbian couple that owned the house (they didn't want their trinkets to be "disturbed spiritually").
The film's mistakes--many of which I missed, like the van's rearview mirror at the end--are pointed out: "There's a lot of parody in there," says Kanefsky. "In fact, everything that looks stupid is deliberate." And even the director questions some of his own absurdity: "This is the point in the film where I thought it might be getting too stupid," he notes of the late scene where the monster is covered with a giant turtle shell (a sequence I loved). "This turtle running around was just so ridiculous." (Also listen for the fun jabs at his transition shots, which I also adore.)
Peck provides some of the track's best moments, while the quieter Collver (who gets a round of applause for his ass) is more stealth with his contributions: "Mark, anything about this scene?" asks the director, to which the actor replies, "Well, it's pretty self-explanatory." It's a common exchange, his "method acting" another recurring gag ("My shoulder is a method shoulder," he shares after breaking the wall in a scene). Masse doesn't talk much but he still manages a few chuckles, especially when talking about Carhart and the rake. Kanefsky also catches us up on the careers of the cast and crew, many of whom went on to work on big name projects.
The new audio commentary features just Kanefsky, and can't compete with the original track. Despite his insistence to make it fresh, much of the material he shares is found elsewhere in other bonus features--and a large portion of the track is more about his own career and films, much of it not related to this movie in particular ("Back to the film!" he exclaims after many tangents). His frustration with the industry he loves is apparent, something we also get in his more entertaining (and new) video interview on the same disc. He spends a chunk of time sharing the plot of the Out There sequel he wrote (giving away the ending and everything!), but even near the final quarter of the commentary he seems to be stretching for material, with "Ummm...", "Anyway..." and "Do you have any questions out there?" joining some frequent pauses. A few new interesting nuggets of information creep in (I was intrigued by the line of dialogue from The Faculty that further calls Kevin Williamson into question; and by a story about his interaction with producer/agent/director Chris Moore), but by and large this isn't nearly as entertaining or insightful as the 2001 track.
Also new, and pretty unnecessary, are two brief intros: the Lloyd Kaufman introduction (5:13) is a long, boob-filled ad (of course!) for Troma's website, while the Kanefsky introduction (1:14) doesn't add anything unique. He also provides optional commentary on the film's trailer (2:16), interesting in that it ends by promoting his age at the time (which I' not sure would be a wise selling point from a marketing perspective). Again, the commentary here doesn't add anything new (he mentions the Super Bowl, blizzard and riots that marred the film's theatrical runs); the trailer was included on the previous release.
One of the better new features is the new Kanefsky interview (35:56, full frame). While it also covers some familiar ground, it serves as a harsh reminder to how brutal the industry can be. Filmed in his small studio apartment in North Hollywood, the piece has Kanefsky reflecting in his career and the difficulty of surviving as an independent filmmaker. "Looking back, would I do it all again?" the semi-dejected director asks himself before pausing. "Yeah. Do I wish it was more successful? Yeah. Anyway, that's Hollywood and that's the film business."
He discusses his passion for film--and his ambition--at a very young age, and about his influences (including Abbott and Costello, along with his successful editor father--who worked on such classics as Bloodsucking Freaks). He briefly talks about the film's reception, and how he was told by executives that it was too hard to classify (he also notes he went to see Jason Takes Manhattan before filming to study audience reactions). He then diplomatically tackles the whole "Scream ripped you off!" theory: "You don't want to be bitter in this town...you want to keep moving forward. Luckily I was making more films, so I wasn't sitting around and watching the critics say, 'This is the first time it's ever been done before!' Because of course it's been done before; it was done before There's Nothing Out There." The director concludes by talking about his other works and the kind words he received from some big-time filmmakers.
Rounding out Disc 1 is the requisite batch of Tromatic Extras, a bunch of promos including trailers and more T&A.
Disc 2 starts out with the film's self-titled music video (5:15 total includes a 1:00 intro by Kanefsky), a new extra pieced together using two VCRs (as the director warns, the full-frame image isn't pristine). Next up are two short films, both new to this release: Just Listen (14:32 total includes a 1:57 director intro) is the film playing in the video store in the opening of Out There. It was made as a student project at an unimpressed Hampshire College when Kanefsky was 18, who shot it on Super 8 before transferring it to video and dubbing it on VHS (once again, the full-frame image isn't pretty). It's also not very interesting, chronicling a young woman's fear of an attacker in the woods (complete with a "surprise" ending).
Far more entertaining is Mood Boobs, a.k.a. In the Mood (19:37 total includes a 1:20 director intro), a more recent foray into comedy starring Shaina Fewell as a young woman who gets more than she bargained for while holding a wishing stone that actually turns out to be real: "That's it!" she tells her friend on the phone while clutching the rock, venting her frustration over what men want. "Mood boobs! Just like mood rings, but instead of changing in color, they fluctuate in size and sensitivity according to mood! Yeah! I wish mine could do all those things!" Hilarity ensues, and while the short is still a little too long, it features some quotable lines ("No, no, no, no, no! I don't want angry nipples! Calm down!"), lots of orgasmic sounds, a funny cat named Cali (a.k.a. "Devil Spawn") and a theme song (over the closing credits) that is bound to draw a snicker despite your better judgment. You also get a Behind the Scenes of Mood Boobs featurette (16:09, full frame), which takes a look at the ever-expanding mammoth mammary effects and features some laugh-filled outtakes and even more breathless sex sounds. (And don't worry: No real breasts were damaged or hurt during the making of this project.)
The rest of the features are from the 2001 Image release: Screen Tests: Original Cast Auditions (11:59, with optional Kanefsky and cast/crew commentary) takes a quick look at all of the main players (all non-SAG actors) reading lines (Bonnie Bowers is pretty horrendous...why did they pick her? Oh right...her breasts...). The most intriguing part about this collection is the nudity element; the females are asked about their willingness to bare all ("It's okay as long as it's done in good taste," says Lisa Grant)--and each are given "body checks" to "see if they could move." (Claudia Flores is the only one to actually take off her top in the audition.) In the commentary, the director notes they filmed body checks for the men, but those are not included here because apparently that would be too gay. It's a slightly creepy look at the business, especially hearing the director offer some criticism during the commentary ("Very thin," he says of Wendy Bednarz. "I was a little concerned about that in the auditions.")
Pre-Production Footage & Storyboards (7:11, with optional director and cast/crew commentary) gives us a look at location shots, the director's mom and some laughs with John Kim, who fills in for various characters for storyboard/shooting construction (listen for some simulated sex sounds with a fellow embarrassed male crew member!). This one has some entertaining audio commentary, as does Rehearsal Footage & Bloopers (10:38)--which is highlighted by a water-loving pooch that startles Wendy Bednarz, a distracting musical lesbian and Craig Peck's difficulty in making in through a key line of dialogue. (I also enjoyed Bowers' use of the word "drawers" and Peck's impression of Claudia Flores).
Animation Test Footage and Deleted Shots (3:26, with optional commentary) has a few uneventful scenes (watch Mark Collver put on his shirt!). The Production Still Gallery (4:17) has some great photos, and really benefits from Kanefsky's commentary (something all still galleries should have) as he shares some quick stories (Good Day New York stopped by to film the shoot, but the piece never aired). All in all, a great set of extras...but if you have the 2001 disc, I'm not sure thgis necessitates an upgrade--unless you are a Kanfesky completist or really into big fake boobs.
Remember the good ol' days when you walked into your neighborhood video store, browsed the horror shelves and picked up a title you never heard of in the rare hope that you'd strike gold? There's Something Out There has me waxing nostalgic and renews my faith in the genre. It does a horror fan proud to see that something made so cheaply can still be this smart and entertaining. Writer/director Rolfe Kanefsky clearly loves horror films, and he knows some technical tricks to keep his puppy pouncing along with surprising speed and flow. Long before Scream took credit for the modern wave of self-aware slashers, he crafted this fitting tribute that winks at us the whole time--and earns every last one of its multiple laughs. Cheap and cheesy? Absolutely, but it's also clever, cute and comical. Highly Recommended for horror fans who do not own the 2001 Image release, which contains the best of the extras--although some new additions might be worth the upgrade for uber-fans of the director.