May 27, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Hidden (1987)

by Nick Schager

The Hidden [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the aliens-and-cops sequel Men in Black III.]

An aliens-among-us thriller containing social and gender critiques within its body-invasion exterior, The Hidden blends various influences into a fast, funny and surprisingly sharp B-movie. That's not necessarily what you'd expect from helmer Jack Sholder, whose credits include the abysmal A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Yet his direction has a fleet, no-nonsense quality—highlighted by a few extended handheld shots that give the material some jazzy energy—that's perfect for this tale of L.A. cop Tom Beck (Flashdance's Michael Nouri), who's introduced trying to stop the robbery-and-murder rampage of a trenchcoated everyman (Chris Mulkey). This villain's murderous habits involve stealing Ferraris and listening to hard rock and heavy metal, as well as a more general take-what-I-want attitude that, altogether, makes him a caricature of materialistic '80s greed and entitlement. Moreover, there's a strong sense that he also represents the ugliest side of uninhibited masculinity, an impression that casts him as the diametric opposite of Beck, a do-gooder super-cop on the job and a loving, protective family man to his wife and daughter at home. Beck's roadblock finally stops the baddie's downtown joy ride, which includes running over a man in a wheelchair—and, amusingly, after the thug crashes and vacates the vehicle unarmed, the cops still fire on him, in the process detonating his car and putting him in the hospital.

The Hidden

Unfortunately for Beck, his assignment has only just begun, as he quickly learns after being paired with FBI Agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), whose interest in Beck's newest arrest spirals into a continuing manhunt for further killers who—it's clear to the audience but not Beck, who's flummoxed by the chaotic turn of events—are actually all possessed by the same evil slimy-slug alien who's using their bodies as vessels for its nefarious hijinks. Given Gallagher's true identity as a noble alien cop, The Hidden plays like a combination of The Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live (also from 1987), and John Carpenter's The Thing. This patchwork lineage, however, doesn't prevent Sholder's film from carving out its own unique sci-fi identity. There's consistent comedic friction between the heroic Beck and the weirdly blank Gallagher (with MacLachlan radiating out-of-this-world disconnection), born not just from their odd-couple rapport but, also, from the fact that they stand for contending versions of upstanding manhood—Beck as the virtuous alpha male, and Gallagher as the detached avenger, driven to catch his prey so he can exact revenge for the slaughter of his partner, wife and daughter.

The Hidden

That Beck/Gallagher and their alien adversary present opposing visions of male virtue and wickedness is never pressed by The Hidden. But it's a dynamic that does take increasingly comical form once the villain jumps from the body of a heart attack-prone middle-aged man to Claudia Christian's knee-high-booted stripper (the very image of sexpot femininity that would be celebrated by the degenerate alien) and a dog (man as snarling animal!), before finally settling on a popular Senator (John McCann) as its main target host. The creature's desire to be a politician with presidential aspirations—a goal apparently driven by a hunger for power—seems ridiculously at odds with its established steal-screw-kill impulses. Nonetheless, this conflict never interferes with the action's momentum, which is aided by a variety of uniformly excellent villains (including, late in the game, the nasty-eyed Ed O'Ross). Meanwhile, Beck and Gallagher's rapport is playfully testy throughout, only momentarily stalling during a dinner at Beck's home in which Gallagher shares a strangely silent staredown with Beck's young daughter Julia (apparently, kids intuitively recognize his otherworldliness), and then learns the pleasures of beer and the hangover-curing wonders of Alka Seltzer.

The Hidden

Both suspenseful and silly, The Hidden plows forward with a confidence that helps overshadow its more glaring plot holes, such as the fact that the alien isn't stopped by gunfire, even though the bullets plugging holes in its human hosts should be striking the creature lurking inside. Gallagher's shiny silver laser gun is a nicely ridiculous touch, and the initial sight of the alien jumping between bodies via their mouths has a slick nastiness that delivers some requisite genre squirminess. After much prickly banter between the suitably mismatched Nouri and MacLachlan, Sholder and screenwriter Jim Kouf (using the pen name Bob Hunt) resolve things with a bizarrely fitting development that hybridizes the film's two ideals of righteous masculinity, as well as elucidates that bad aliens are, in their true form, greasy insectoid monsters, while good aliens are sparkly glowing green light. Funnier still, however, is an earlier moment—in which a young Danny Trejo mockingly yells at the alien (now in a police Lieutenant's body), "Hey hippie, what kind of dude are you?"—that definitively makes clear that, for a macho '80s E.T. desperado, there's nothing more insulting, or worthy of death, than being called a counterculture wimp.

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Posted by ahillis at May 27, 2012 5:11 AM