Written and Directed by: Rolfe Kanefsky
Starring: Craig Peck, Wendy Bednarz and Mark Collver
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“ He IS a horror film - a walking, talking horror film!"
It’s interesting how our dialogues for movies become crystallized to the point where they lend themselves to history book style recitation. Any chapter on meta-horror will center on Scream, despite the fact that it was preceded by the likes of Wes Craven’s New Nightmare, Student Bodies, and Madhouse. You can even go as far back as 1935’s Mark of the Vampire to see hints of this, and there are surely others that have fallen between the cracks over the years. Those are the films that have always interested me--the ones that were on the cusp of something that would eventually become a zeitgeist when another movie took up the cause. There’s Nothing Out There is one of those movies--released a few years before Scream, it’s a self-reflexive horror film that features at least one character who is aware of the rules of the genre, and it serves as an early example of that 90s propensity towards more overt fan service. There’s Nothing Out There is the type of movie that’s easy to call a love letter because it doesn’t actually poke at the genre so much as it pokes with it.
The setup sounds remarkably similar to a more recent film, as a group of college students pack up for Spring Break and head to a cabin in the woods. While there, they begin to suspect that there actually is, indeed, something out there, waiting to terrorize them. Everything from a bear to a psycho killer is thrown out as a possibility, but it turns out that it’s an alien that’s crash-landed nearby and compulsively feeds on humans. Luckily, Mike (Craig Peck) has seen this sort of thing before in dozens of horror movies, and he hopes he’s armed with just enough knowledge to make it through the night alive (of course, if it were up to him, they would have high-tailed it the minute they saw an ominous car accident on the way in).
There’s Nothing Out There announces its intentions pretty early, as the opening sequence features a girl being assaulted in a video store by a VHS-tape wielding psychopath. As such, viewers are assaulted with a familiar scene filled with the usual suspects--there’s artwork for the likes of Grizzly, Rats, and, of course, The Evil Dead. This sort of anticipates the roll-call of references Williamson would rattle off a few years later, and, as an opening volley, it firmly plant’s the film tongue in its cheek, especially when it’s revealed to be a dream sequence. A girl having nightmares of being tangled up in VHS tape in a gratuitous opening scene far removed from the rest of the film is a setup to one of the film’s best jokes. Twenty years later, this scene also has a waft of nostalgia since such places have been boarded up and shut for years now, so There’s Nothing Out There feels like a time capsule now as well.
And in more ways than one; filmed at the tail end of the 80s, it’s still brimming with many of the decade’s horror excesses--dopey characters, gratuitous violence and nudity, an unrelentingly silly soundtrack, etc. At least in this case, however, we can assume it’s intentional--I mean, this is the type of movie that cuts from one girl disrobing to another doing the same thing, and there’s long stretches of kids screwing--because what else is there to do in horror movies besides die? Mike is keenly aware of this of course, and most of the film’s meta-humor is filtered through him. He occupies a similar space as Jamie Kennedy’s Randy in Scream, as he’s the on that’s there to spot all the signs that they’re caught in a horror movie; basically, he acts as the running commentary whose insights match our own as we watch a horror movies, and he pontificates on everything from gratuitous, random characters to the logistics of fake cat scares.
But what’s great is that There’s Nothing Out There doesn’t get overly burdened by this stuff; sure, there’s some instances of fourth wall breaking, and one kid even ends up swinging on a boom mic to elude danger, but Kanefsky’s film works because it’s actually a good, low-budget horror movie that embraces all the stuff that other meta-efforts would slightly look down upon. There’s Nothing Out There is what Scream would have been like if Randy were the actual hero instead of Sidney, who represented a sort of outsider to this culture; sure, she’d seen the movies, but she was also the first to point out the stupidity offered by a lot of slashers. Kanefsky’s take is subtly different in a way that puts fandom in the hero role; by that point, fans had been subjected to at least a decade’s worth of marginalization and the insistence that these movies were only enjoyed by weirdos and outcasts, and this film turns that notion inside out. It’s Revenge of the Nerds meets The Evil Dead, as the usual assortment of jocks and cool kids defer to the guy who’s watched Friday the 13th twenty times (but not without subjecting him to a prank first, of course).
The Evil Dead is an obvious reference point here; Kanefsky’s swirling, fluid camerawork that weaves throughout the cabin is obviously informed by Raimi, as is the generally demented spirit and tone. Kanefsky doesn’t go quite as broad with the splat-stick, but there’s an obvious bouncy silliness to There’s Nothing Out There, and it’s infused with that same guerilla energy. What it lacks in a budget, it makes up for with old school chops--at its core, There’s Nothing Out There is a 50s monster movie transplanted to an 80s setting, not unlike Night of the Creeps. The monster is gloriously ridiculous and rubbery, blessed with the ability to shoot lasers from its eyes that can be deflected by sunglasses. Its weakness is shaving cream, but you don’t want to fuck around with it unless you want it to literally melt your face or implant its seed into you. Like Scream, once There’s Nothing Out There really gets going, it simply glides into being a good horror movie, and, in this case, a minor little low-budget triumph that hits in all the places you’d expect (the gore, the cornball humor) and even those you wouldn’t expect (the acting).
There’s Nothing Out There serves as a perfect example of one of those unrefined gems that was dug up before the well was truly tapped a few years later. A lot of these types of precursors are crude in comparison to the films that would refine the formula, and this one is no different; however, it certainly earns its place at the table of meta-horror. If nothing else, it should be rightfully regarded as the original “cabin in the woods” take-off, and I kind of love that it serves as a perfect bookend to Whedon and Goddard’s flick. If Cabin in the Woods is the final word, then this is the weird little preamble that signaled a growing self-awareness without a critique; instead, it’s done with a knowing wit and clever adoration. Both Image and Troma released special editions of the movie, but you’ll want to go with the latter--not only is the presentation rather stellar, but it’s packed with extras that include introductions from Kanefsky and Lloyd Kaufman, a commentary with the director, a short film titled Mood Boobs, a behind-the-scenes featurette, original auditions, pre-production footage, storyboards, test footage, deleted shots, production stills, and a trailer. This 2-disc 20th Anniversary Edition is among the finer efforts Troma’s put forth, and it’s for a film that very much deserves it. Buy it!
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