Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Martians and rock aliens

Has there ever been a movie that you are pretty sure you saw once, but you can’t prove it?

I think this must happen to people fairly often because I regularly get email from people (occasionally ones I know, but mostly from people I don’t) wanting to know if I can identify this movie or that movie that they saw years ago but they can’t remember the title or much else about it. This may be the most common type of question I get from strangers, with the possible exception of people wanting to know how to get a hold of a certain movie they are interested in seeing but can’t find anywhere but they found it reviewed on my web site. And, of course, there are the perennial comments, corrections and dissents about the pronunciation of Cannes.

“George” wanted to know the name of a frightening movie he had seen in the early 1960s about a psychotic who kills nurses in a hospital. I was sure that I had never seen the movie, but a tour of the Internet Movie Database convinced me that the movie he had seen was William Castle’s Homicidal. But “George” wrote back to say that he had decided it was an episode of the TV series Alfred Hitchock Presents called “An Unlocked Window.” “Bill” had seen a movie called (he thought) Jeanne Diehl and wanted to see it again. That was easy, as I knew in an instant that he probably meant Jeanne Dielman, directed by Chantal Akerman. (Full title: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.) The question I couldn’t answer, of course, was why anyone would need or want to see it again. “Jenn” had seen a film clip on the internet featuring “a scene of Kung Fu style sex in the woods” and wanted to see the whole movie. She asked if I could confirm that it was a flick called Chinese Torture Chamber, which I had reviewed. (It was.) She even gave me a link to the mpeg file and delicately inquired as to whether I was actually old enough to be viewing such material. (I’m not.)

If we can designate movies that are hard to see in the first place as “Cinema Obscuro,” then perhaps we can label movies that we have seen but can’t quite remember as “Cinema Quasi-amnesiac.”

Personally, I am not tormented by memories of movies that I can’t identify, although as a child I was haunted for quite some time by memories of a movie I had seen on television but didn’t know the title of. I later identified it as Invaders from Mars. One of numerous paranoid 1950s science fiction flicks that caught the spirit of the Cold War and the fear of enemy as contagion, it was a perfect horror story for a child. A young boy’s parents are taken over by aliens, and no one believes him. Moreover, he doesn’t know whom he can and can’t trust because he doesn’t know which grownups have been taken over by the aliens. And you never knew when the ground would turn to soft sand and swallow you up. Fortunately, the fears instilled by the movie were pretty much wiped out by viewing a 1986 remake by Tobe Hooper, starring Karen Black and Timothy Bottoms. Jimmy Hunt, the little boy from the 1953 original, played a cop in the remake.

But it has been years and years since I last agonized over a movie that I could remember but didn’t know what it was. Sometimes, a memory of a movie pops into my head, and I have to wonder if such a movie really existed at all or did I imagine it? A few years ago, when this occurred, such a thought might have nagged me for a quite a while. These days, of course, a few minutes on the internet can settle the issue. Life is definitely simpler than it used to be. Still, the phenomenon of a movie that appears briefly and then vanishes forever, leaving the faintest of memories, intrigues me. Most major Hollywood releases have an ongoing life, whether on TV or on video or both. But some movies, especially low-budget ones, simply vanish, never to be heard from again. I have seen more than my share of these because, if such a film plays anywhere, it plays at a film festival. Seeing lots of films at film festivals is a good way to see movies no one else has ever seen and that you will never see again.

This is why it is sometimes good to attend film festivals with a buddy, so that you can back each other up about a movie that you think you saw. This is especially true when seeing midnight movies, when one is likely to be sleepy, drunk or both. For example, my friend Don and I occasionally reassure each other that we really did see a certain midnight flick at the Seattle International Film Festival in the 1980s. It was called Population One and was about the last man on earth after some sort of apocalyptic catastrophe. Now, this sounds like it could be a pretty interesting film. But to this day, Don and I can hardly remember anything about it except that it starred a guy named Tomata Du Plenty and at one point he was doing a George M. Cohan song-and-dance number. This film does show up on the Internet Movie Database, although it is still awaiting the required minimum five votes to get a viewer rating. Its director, Rene Daalder, went on to make the equally memorable Hysteria. Sadly, the IMDB reports that Tomata Du Plenty died nearly four years ago, with only this one film to his credit.

Sometimes, even if the movie wasn’t very good—even if the movie was pretty bad—I get the urge to see it again, or at least see parts of it again, or maybe see just one part again. One such movie, and you will probably laugh at this, is Voyage of the Rock Aliens. It was released in 1988, although I’m not sure that it really was actually released. I saw a lot of press material about the movie because the movie editor of the weekly where I worked (the infamous Stu) got a bunch of press releases and photos from the studio and dutifully passed them on to the production crew for printing. The only screening that the film got, of which I am personally aware at least, was at the Seattle International Film Festival, I think maybe at midnight. It turned out to be a campy send-up of both science fiction movies and rock movies of the 1950s. The director was James Fargo, who has directed several equally forgettable flicks as well as a lot of episodic television. The star was Pia Zadora, whose previous film credits included non-starring roles in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and John Waters’s Hairspray. Her leading man was Craig Sheffer, who has worked regularly in movies for the past 20 years but who probably peaked career-wise in 1992 with A River Runs Through It, in which he played Brad Pitt’s brother. Ruth Gordon played the town sheriff. I don’t remember too much about the story, except that it involved extraterrestrials coming to earth to learn all about rock ‘n’ roll. They landed in a town called Speelburgh (get it?) and meet up with Zadora and Sheffer, who are the big high school couple on campus. Some sort of interplanetary romantic triangle ensues. (Zadora was in her mid-30s when she played this teen queen; Sheffer was in his late 20s.) It was as if the movie was trying to cash in on the success of Grease, but ten years too late.

If the movie sounds totally forgettable, it was. Well, almost anyway. There was one sequence that didn’t seem to belong in the movie at all that has come back to haunt me ever since. And I can’t figure for the life of me why. In an early scene, the aliens pass by a planet and view it on a television screen. They see two people singing. One of them is Zadora, apparently not playing the same character she does on earth. The other is Jermaine Jackson. The scene and the song have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s like a stand-alone music video that got inserted into the movie to make it longer or because they didn’t know what else to do with it. For some reason, I have never gotten that bit out of my mind.

One time years ago, when thumbing through soundtrack CDs at a music store, I saw a section in the V’s devoted to a soundtrack for Voyage of the Rock Aliens. The section was empty, and I have never found any other evidence that a soundtrack album actually ever existed. With one exception. The song with Jermaine Jackson, “When the Rain Begins to Fall,” does exist as an MP3 file and can be found on the internet, ahem, via certain peer-to-peer file sharing systems. Now, I don’t advocate illegal copying of intellectual property, but if a song can’t be found through any reasonable legal means, is it really so wrong? I… I mean a friend of mine, has a copy of this song. It is a ballad with a thumping disco beat so typical of the time. It is totally dispensable, but still something compels me… I mean my friend, to listen to it from time to time.

The bottom line, however, is that nobody else seems to have ever heard of this movie. Even knowing that it exists feels like a dirty little secret. It does show up on the Internet Movie Database. According to the IMDB, it is not available on VHS or DVD in the U.S., although it supposedly is available on VHS in the UK and Germany. I am tempted to order it, but why? How would I feel about myself if I actually owned a copy of it? Probably not good. It is times like this when I think that it is actually possible that maybe we were better off before the internet.

-S.L., 8 April 2004

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