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SCREAMERS  ***

Directed by Christian Duguay.

 Starring Peter Weller, Roy Dupuis, Jennifer Rubin, Andy Lauer, Charles Edwin Powell, Ron White.

 Canada / USA / UK 1995 108 mins Certificate: 18

 

Released on Blu-Ray by 101 Films on May 25th 2020

 

“Second Variety”, a short story published by “Space Science Fiction” magazine in 1953, was one of Philip K Dick’s timely Nuclear War parables and among the nearly three dozen works he didn’t live to see adapted into films, episodic television or shorts. (Dick died before the theatrical release of BLADE RUNNER). Christian Duguay, a recurring name in the realm of 1990’s straight to video action / sci-fi pictures, is a fun, ambitious feature adaptation without the major studio funding of BLADE RUNNER or TOTAL RECALL, propped up by the core concepts and a fine star turn from the long-undervalued Peter Weller.

 

After one of those heavy handed opening exposition crawls (with added voiceover to make sure we get it), it unfolds in the future Hell of 2078. The planet Syrius 6B has been devastated by a decade long war between the “Alliance” and the “New Economic Bloc” (NEB) over Berynium, a precious mineral anticipated to hold the solution to the world’s energy crisis. War followed attempts to ban it, with the NEB’s Nuclear bomb raids decimating the planet and a few hardy survivors emerging at the end of ten years of conflict. The Alliance created “Screamers” to help the war effort: underground-dwelling machines that can read pulse rates to attack the living, possess limb-chopping blades and emit an ear-piercing shriek as they go about their business. Gruff Colonel Weller gets wind of a possible peace settlement from the NEB end and sets off to the nearest outpost with the obligatory mismatched younger partner nicknamed Johnny Gung Ho (Andy Lauer). Meanwhile, the Screamers have modified themselves, multiplying and evolving to take human form - notably in the physical shape of a juvenile (Michael Caloz) and his clones.

 

SCREAMERS is overlong and a little clunky at times but benefits from a fine cast. Weller dominates as the opera-loving, VR-hating, cynical hero thrust into an unwanted partnership with a naïve young ‘un (“You got a dimmer switch?”) and elegiac about the olden days of being able to watch girls’ volleyball. His signature line is “Do I look like the kind of person who gives a shit?” Jennifer Rubin, one of the unsung breakaway stars of 1980’s American horror (and superb in A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III: DREAM WARRIORS and BAD DREAMS), proves her worth in a somewhat under-written sidekick role. Lauer is likeable as the young upstart who can shoot the dots off a dice from 100 yards. The largely Canadian cast also includes recognisable veteran actor Bruce Boa, whose career encompassed Bond, Kubrick, George Lucas and Michael Winner – but to us will always be the obnoxious American ordering the Waldorf Salad in the second series of FAWLTY TOWERS.

 

Rewritten from a 1980’s script draft by Dan O’Bannon, the film has neat incidental details– characters smoke scores of cigarettes to save their lungs from worse threats – and offers visual and thematic elements familiar from a range of classic sci-fi and horror pictures: everything from INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS and THE THING to TREMORS. Some of the CGI elements (notably a key character’s cartoonish demise) didn’t even look good in the 1990’s, but it mostly transcends its budget with atmospheric, wintry cinematography by Rodney Gibbons and a lively original score by Normand Corbeil. Duguay is adept with action and the Screamers themselves are impressive creations, conceived as a reinvention of man’s first modern weapon – the autonomous sword – and memorably introduced via a bravura multiple dismemberment in the first few minutes. Consistent with its grim, technophobic outlook, it has a suitably gloomy outlook, even if its final “shock” is more of a throwaway half-serious coda in the tradition of 1980’s horror.

 

Extras - 101 Films’ special edition “Black Label” release comes with a booklet of new essays on SCREAMERS and Philip K Dick by Liam Hathaway and Scott Harrison. A commentary by British film historian Kevin Lyons is also new to this release, placing it in the context of robots in cinema and Dick’s body of work. Ported over from the U.S. Shout Factory release are four informative featurettes. Duguay, who also made the first two SCANNERS sequels in the 90’s, reflects on making the movie for less than $5 million and filming in freezing Montreal, along with Weller’s influence on its development. Veteran independent film producer Tom Berry highlights the continued relevance of Dick’s work and SCREAMERS’ inevitable destiny on home video after a token theatrical release – he also hints at a SCREAMERS TV series in development. Screenwriter Miguel Tejada-Flores takes us through a writing career that has encompassed REVENGE OF THE NERDS, FRIGHT NIGHT PART 2 and the fun FRANKENSTEIN’S ARMY. Invited back for the disappointing SCREAMERS: THE HUNTING (2009), he also highlights the reduction of the grimmer “downer” elements of O’Bannon’s original script and the addition of more humour.

 

Extras highlight is “From Runaway To Space”, an 18 minute sit-down with Jennifer Rubin. The actress has been an honest, enlightening presence on past special editions (notably 88 Films’ Blu-Ray of BAD DREAMS) and here charts her early shift from modelling to acting with her usual candour. Her reflections on SCREAMERS are enthusiastic, singling out her Sean Young-in-BLADE RUNNER haircut and a trip with Peter Weller to a Stones concert. In a parallel universe, Jennifer Rubin is a huge star.

 

Steven West.

 

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