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Case Number 17086: Small Claims Court

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The Strangeness

Code Red // 1980 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // August 21st, 2009

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All Rise...

Appellate Judge Tom Becker grows misty when he hears his high school nickname used for a movie title.

The Charge

No one knows the incredible secret of the mine!

The Case

The old Golden Spike mine has been closed for a lot of years, since miners stopped working there because they were afraid of the terrible thing that was decimating their numbers. Now, a company wants to find out if the Spike's worth re-opening. So an oddly disparate group—including a writer and his photographer wife, a geologist, and some veteran miners—go in to investigate.

We already know that there's trouble in the mine, because earlier, a couple of people who'd gone to open it up were attacked by a tentacle-laden beastie. And now, as this crew descends into the Earth, the evil is awakened. When a series of mishaps traps them, they find themselves looking for an exit. As they search, they encounter…the beast!…and one by one, becoming fodder for this hell-sent demon.

Put together and shot in 1979 and 1980, The Strangeness was never released theatrically. It was distributed on VHS through a small company in the mid-'80s and has evidently turned up here and there on late-night TV. It's hardly an undiscovered classic, but it's at least as good as many of the low-budget slashers turned out during the Reagan years and light years above most of the direct-to-home-video stuff being churned out these days.

Produced by a bunch of USC alumni and students for the cost of a mid-sized car, The Strangeness is a rickety affair highlighted by the usually brief glimpses of the monster—rendered in crude but endearing stop-motion animation. Setting the film in a mine, with its confined spaces and low lighting, was certainly a courageous move on the part of our feckless if determined young filmmakers, but it is to the project's detriment. In addition to the obvious technical concerns, mines are just not fertile breeding grounds for things like action and character development. Much of the way-too-long 92-minute running time is spent watching characters stumble about in the near darkness.

Part of the problem here is we never quite get what the monster's about. It seems to be like kind of an octopus that acts sort of like a spider, keeping some of its victims alive and bound up in ooze. We get bits of legend and back story, but nothing especially concrete. The monster just turns up randomly, an actor screams, and then it's on to the next scene.

While this release from Code Red lacks two elements you normally take for granted on DVDs—subtitles and scene selections—it's overall a very nice disc. The picture looks decent, pretty good actually, considering the budget, though there are the expected nicks, scratches, fuzz, and the like. Audio is a serviceable mono track.

The real fun of this disc is in the bonus features. Code Red gives us a feature-length commentary with the director and producers, as well as individual interviews with them. They have a great time catching up and reminiscing about the film, not taking it any more seriously than they should. Watching the film with the commentary definitely gives you a better appreciation of the whole enterprise and helps fill in a few storytelling gaps as well.

Like me, you might be a little confused by the director. When the film was made, the director was known as David Michael Hillman. Some years later, Mr. Hillman underwent gender reassessment and is now known as Melanie Anne Phillips. This is only briefly mentioned at the tail end of the commentary, almost as an afterthought. It was odd when Ms. Phillips introduced herself as the director of the film and talked about her wife and children. At first, I thought she might have been a lesbian or, like Doris Wishman and some other female exploitation directors, had simply directed the film using a man's name. It wasn't until I sought out Phillips' blog—an excellent read, by the way—that I learned the real story. While the director's personal life has no real bearing on the film, it might have been worth mentioning if only so the viewer is not confused by the credit sequence. Also included are some student films producers Chris Huntley and Mark Sawicki made at USC, which are pretty entertaining.

The Verdict

No-budget early '80s goofiness in a fun and friendly package, The Strangeness is at least worth a rental.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Code Red
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Cult
• Horror

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Interviews
• Short Films

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