I don’t understand why so many garbage movies have a cult following, yet it seems everybody feels compelled to dogpile on 1985’s The Strangeness. This is a very low-budget movie and, while it is by no means a masterpiece, it is a much better film than anybody gives it credit for. This may be the only time I have seen filmmakers talking apologetically in a disc’s bonus features.
This is the kind of movie where I’m guessing somebody found a location first and then devised a plot around it. In this case, we have an abandoned gold mine, apparently connected to a cave system, being explored by a crew of people with different skills and interests.
Our partly-motley crew is composed of a geologist, an experience Brit miner, a nerdy writer working on a book about the disaster that closed the mine, the writer’s photographer wife and two young freelancer miners. The group is led by a middle-aged man from the company that used to work the mine.
There were a couple of other people initially, but they don’t last beyond the opening credits. This unfortunate couple goes into the mine only to become an appetizer for the cave monster. But, before that, the guy had found a crude cross in the cave, held aloft by a pile of stones. Of course, he pulls the cross out for no apparent reason. Even if you don’t know you’re in a movie, it seems to me that removing a cross is always a bad idea.
Things then start out ominously for our main group, as the rope by which they descend into the cave is severed just as the last person drops in–literally, and it was the nerdy writer. “Don’t worry—no broken bones.” Then company man’s only funny line is the retort, “You only fell two feet!” But it turns out the rope didn’t just break, it was cut. It may not have been wise for the first person to drop down summons the others with, “Send down the meat.”
These are simple but believable characters, which benefits a cast I assume is largely unexperienced. Still, some of the actors are better than others. And there isn’t much depth to these characters, though there are some deviations from stereotype. I like how the blue-collar guys aren’t exactly letches, even if one of them occasionally hits on the photographer. Even the writer provides some necessary interpersonal skills to defuse a conflict.
The movie makes good use of the cave, with the illumination almost entirely only from the lights used by these explorers. Many of the reviews I have read complained about how the image is so dark in most of the film, but I think this was a good decision. One scene is from the perspective of the only person with a light on at that moment, and I felt like I was watching the inspiration for the eventual found footage trend. A great sequence at the end is made more effective by only being lit by the occasional camera flash.
In some scenes, the camera stays wide with most of the screen black while just a few lights occupy a small portion of it. One very effective shot like this stays black for a second or two after the lights go off screen. That darkness feels very intimidating, solid and lonely. Perhaps the most suspenseful scene is lit by a just a single flare, which we see sputter out at the conclusion.
Footage of the real cave is mixed in which scenes shot in what is an obvious set. Once again, the way the movie is lit is to its benefit. There were even some moments where I wasn’t sure whether what we were seeing was on stage or location. One such moment is creepy and innovative, as the team finds an area with mirror shards dangling from the ceiling on bits of string. The writer explains the miners started hanging them up to see if anything was approaching from behind.
And now it is finally time to address the Claymation monster in the room. If there is one thing critics consistently ridiculed this movie for, it is the stop-motion beast. First of all, I love stop-motion animation, so my esteem for a movie automatically goes up a step when the technique is employed. Alas, I also understand why so many found this creature so laugh-out-loud hilarious, as it most closely resembles the male member in its body and female genitalia as its face. I didn’t laugh when I first saw it, but I will say I was stunned. The best I can say is, you will never see another film with a monster in it like this one.
I must like The Strangeness, as I have seen is twice. If there’s one element of it I find bizarre, it isn’t the creature—it’s how everything about it feels like it was made a decade earlier. Once again, that isn’t a fault. I recommend this movie for fans of low-budget cinema which makes the most of its limited means.
Dir: Melanie Anne Phillips (as David Michael Hillman)
Starring Chris Huntley, Terri Berland, Rolf Theison
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray