A Fistful of Pennies

Albert Pyun's 'Invasion'
A few years back, some 15 years after the unexpected success of The Blair Witch Project, I did a series of reviews on horror movies which rethought the role of the camera in telling their stories. In choosing the films to include on the list, I decided to go with a Spanish film that set itself up as yet another simple Blair Witch copy, only to subvert the audience's expectations at the last possible moment; a Uruguayan film which redefined the idea of the "POV camera" by having it record subjective reality in real-time; the American remake of that single-take Uruguayan film, which also served as an admirable example of the strengths and weaknesses of even the most respectful Hollywood remake; and a recent film by one of the directors of Blair Witch, which managed to unite "found footage" with the technique of the unreliable narrator in a brilliantly convincing way.

But there were other movies I had considered including in the list, which I decided at the last minute to drop. By the time I had finished the fourth review, I felt it would be out of place to include some of the unsuccessful (or at any rate, less successful) experiments in post-Blair Witch narrative. One such film was Chhodon Naa Yaar, or the Bollywood Blair Witch, which I've also considered reviewing for one of the B-Masters' Roundtables — it's difficult for me to describe exactly how far wrong Chhodon Naa Yaar goes, but for now let me just ask you to imagine The Blair Witch Project retold as a straightforward, third-person narrative film. Yeah. I think you get the idea. Anyway, the other film I considered and then rejected was Invasion, also known as Infection, directed by none other than Albert Pyun.

I'm a little surprised that it's taken me nearly 17 years of reviewing to get to a film by Albert Pyun. Those of you who know Pyun's body of work (e.g., Alien from L.A., Cyborg, Omega Doom) might think you understand why I dropped Invasion from my list, but I'm afraid you'd misunderstand.

To begin with, I don't dislike Pyun's movies as much as I used to. Pyun hasn't always been to blame for the terrible final forms some of his movies have taken; he's gone back and recut some of his movies in recent years, and if the results haven't been unheralded masterpieces, they've at least generally been less awful. He reminds me of Jess Franco, in a way: when I see stills from some of his movies, their style interests me, and I forget how little I enjoyed them the first time around... how poor the actors tended to be, how lopsided the scripts turned out, how the pacing tended to drag and the musical score grated. And so I end up dusting them off and watching them again.

I've also come to realize that Pyun's earlier films have a different context now than they did when they first came out. You think the fight scenes in Omega Doom are badly edited and incomprehensible? Have you seen anything by Uwe Boll? Pyun's films are downright charming compared to anything by Michael Bay, and "Z-grade sci-fi" has largely lost its meaning... thanks in large measure to those worthless hacks at The Asylum. What's more, many of Pyun's earlier films really do conjure up the atmosphere of a strange, oddly-compelling alien landscape: the 1980's. I came of age during that era, and even I can hardly believe it ever really existed. In my imagination, at least, the popular 80's vision of dystopia doesn't really look that much different from the 80's as I remember them.

So each time I forget my original disappointment and inflict a Pyun flick on myself, I find myself hating it less. The man has real imagination and, dare I say it? a certain flair. I guess all these years of watching Bruno Mattei movies have helped me come to appreciate when a film-maker really does have something to say, even if he has difficulty saying it the way he'd intended. And even if what he has to say isn't nearly as important he seems to think it is.

However, when it comes to 2005's Invasion, none of this really matters. With Invasion, we're not even dealing with a recognizable Pyun flick. Were it not for the presence of a character named "Brick Bardo" — a Pyun trademark — it would be difficult to guess whose film this really is. This is not Pyun's fault. Quite the opposite: with this movie, Pyun set himself a significant technical challenge... and to be honest, he did a lot better with it than I ever would have expected anybody to do.

I can sum up the plot of Invasion very simply: one spring night, the rural community of Lawton Valley, California experiences a rain of meteorites. A police officer named Brick Bardo rides out to the local park, responding to a call from a local farmer named Jenkins. Jenkins says he's found one of the meteorites, and insists there's something strange about it. Turns out it's not only the meteorite that's strange. Bardo is so intent on studying the remains of the rock that he fails to notice Jenkins's odd behavior until it's too late: the farmer coughs some sort of leech into Bardo's ear, and soon the two men are conversing in an unearthly language.

This is the opening phase in a space invasion, which will use Bardo as the delivery system for more brain parasites. One of his victims is the mayor's son, who's left his high school prom with his sweetheart, Cheryl, to go make out in the park. Cheryl manages to get away, but as more meteorites fall and the invasion rolls on, she finds herself unable to escape the park.

You probably think you've seen this before. Certainly the story will be familiar to anybody who's ever seen the paranoid sci-fi films of the 1950's. But trust me: you haven't seen a movie quite like this one. You see, the entire body of the film (except for the opening and closing text and a rather useless framing device) is shot from the dashboard camera of Officer Bardo's car.

Naturally, this means the action of the movie unfolds in one continuous shot. That's pretty remarkable. But when you compare Invasion to, say, La Casa Muda or Silent House (as I did, when I wrote my series of reviews), the achievement becomes a little less impressive. There's not much happening in Invasion, and much of what does happen is conveyed to us by the special effects and by the audio... both of which were added in post-production. Still, if Invasion's single shot isn't quite as complex as that of those other films, it's still very well-managed, and there are one or two precisely coordinated moments that must have been very challenging to capture.

Since most of what actually happens in the movie is conveyed to us by the dialog, what we're left with is very close to a radio play. A lot of screen time is taken up by driving down dirt roads, and while this can be suspenseful when suspense is needed, sometimes the lack of visual interest actually helps us imagine what's being described — and our imagination envisions it better than Pyun's meager $35,000 budget ever could. Also, the long stretches when nothing happens create a different sort of suspense: we start to expect something is going to happen... and we strain to see what that "something" might be, as we peer into the dense darkness beyond the police car's headlight. Pyun knows that we're expecting something, and he occasionally gives us something to see. Not everything he shows us is fully revealed, and not everything is even explained, leading to some genuinely creepy moments.

That's the positive way of putting it. There's a negative way of looking at the same material. If the script tends to function like a radio play, it doesn't quite succeed, for the simple reason that it is about 20 minutes too long. A large portion of the script consists of Cheryl swearing into the microphone; and the remainder of the dialog goes over the same ground in the story as frequently as the car goes over the same ground on-screen. If the repetitive nature of the dashboard footage helps build the suspense, the padded dialog brings it right back down again. All this might be a little more forgivable, were it not for the fact that the whole movie is only about an hour long. Sure, the DVD box lists the running time as about an hour and a half... but that's including the fake news broadcast that bookends the action, the opening text crawl, and the sixteen interminable minutes of end credits.

Also, since the climax of the invasion takes place off-screen — and this isn't a radio play — the burden of carrying the end of the movie is placed squarely on our lead actress and her ability to emote. That's a lot to ask of anybody. But when the actress in question (Jenny Dare Paulin) hasn't even been seen on screen for more than a minute or two, and her character has been presented to us almost entirely through her post-dubbed voice-over, that burden becomes just about impossible to bear.

And then (cough), there are always people who would prefer that the film-makers did the imaginative work for them. And who could blame them? Although Pyun's film is more convincing than I could ever have believed possible, I think some viewers will find the style of Invasion reminds them all too much of daydreaming on their commute to work.

Next, let's look at those all-important special effects. Since there's so little to see for so much of the movie, the effects are crucial. Well, again, it depends on where you'd like to put your emphasis. If you want to see the Pyun glass as half-full, then you're bound to admire the lighting, and the way that those eerie half-glimpsed details are shown (even if one of those represents something the camera should never have been able to see). The brain leeches are animated simply but effectively; however, what's much more impressive is the way the lighting and choreography make it possible for us to glimpse the brain leeches going about their work. And Cheryl's space-zombie boyfriend (Morgan Weisser) is absolutely terrifying as he lurches down the dimly-lit road; he, alone of the infected people we see, gives a really convincing portrayal of a human puppet being manipulated by an inexperienced master.

But then, there are the frequent meteorite effects, which are shown by making the screen flash into a desaturated negative. Meh. There's the insertion of scary background music in something that's supposed to be footage from a sheriff's office hard drive. The movie's low point is probably in the audio effects used to simulate the alien's language: it's obviously English being played backwards. Was it too difficult to get some actors to make menacing growly noises? For crying out loud, Pyun knows we live in a digital age... an age in which not only are we able to carry our movies around with us to play on our computers, but also an age in which sophisticated audio editing tools are within the reach of practically everybody. He must have realized that some smart-ass like me was going to extract the audio from the DVD and play it backwards, to find out what the actors were actually saying.

In the initial infection scene, this is what's been reversed:

"Umm, I mean... sure. I'm enjoying this," says one alien zombie.

"This is lots better than just sitting in my apartment getting drunk," replies the other.

I had to stop myself from reversing more dialog, because it just didn't seem fair.

Since the best I seem to be able to do is to damn Invasion with faint praise, let me just say that Pyun's movie is absolutely the best full-length science fiction movie ever filmed using a dashboard camera. It's not the most terrifying thing ever filmed from a dashboard — real life will always have the edge there, unfortunately. But overall, the movie works much better than it should. Does it work well enough? That's a very difficult question. Your reaction may be much different from mine... but I think it does work well enough. Barely. I say this because, having watched this again for the Roundtable review, I was not only still entertained by it; I also realized I would not mind watching it again some time.

Not now. Or any time soon, thank you. But... sometime.

Yet in spite of its qualified successes, I chose not to include Invasion in my survey of movies that used the camera in thought-provoking ways. Yes, Pyun took an enormous gamble on a technique nobody'd thought of using before. Yes, against all odds, he managed to sort-of kind-of pull it off. Yes, Pyun has gone on — battling the onset of multiple sclerosis — to make The Interrogation of Cheryl Cooper, a new movie in one unbroken take, featuring characters with the same names as the ones from Invasion. For all these things, I congratulate him. I am beginning to think I understand what has pulled me back time and time again to Pyun's movies, and that is the subtle, subliminal sense — in spite of all the evidence on-screen — that the man really does care about his craft. But Dash-cam-o-rama is not a format I'm anxious to see become popular. It seems to me more a self-conscious striving for a gimmmick than a thoughtful adjustment of the relationship between the audience and the view on-screen. Perhaps he ventures deeper in 2014's The Interrogation of Cheryl Cooper. Based on Invasion, much to my own surprise, I'm actually excited to find out.

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