Shocking Dark (1989)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2018-07-07 05:32

Shocking Dark (1989)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: May 29th, 2018

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)

The movie:

When it comes to capturing the wild, reckless, and possibly illegal halcyon days of the Italian movie rip-off scene just appropriating titles as it saw fit, Shocking Dark might be the standard bearer. Released in some territories as Terminator 2, it’s actually a grungy, no-budget remake of Aliens that sort of dovetails into ripping off The Terminator. It should come as no surprise that it hails from Bruno Mattei, Italy’s preeminent intellectual property thief, whose career was lined with other, similarly questionable efforts. Given both the shameless titling and the even more shameless plagiarism, it feels like Shocking Dark should be among Mattei’s most unhinged, entertaining offerings, yet it never quite rises to the levels its infamy suggests. Don’t get me wrong: it’s still incredible that James Cameron has allowed any prints of it to exist—it’s just that it leaves me wishing for just a little bit more beyond its brazen riffing on better movies.

Much of it unfolds in Venice, or at least stock footage that simulates the impression of the popular tourist town. An ominous voiceover narration informs us, however, that in the near future, the city will be underwater. Sure enough, we flash ahead to the near future to find that pollution has turned it into a wasteland, where only the nefarious Tubular Corporation dares to tread. Tasked with restoring Venice to her former glory, the company has established a remote site for testing and experiments. When one experiment goes haywire, a distress signal is sent out to corporate headquarters, which luckily has a special task force on hand to deal with such incidents. Not just any force either, mind you: this Mega Force is comprised of elite badasses who are all too eager to dive headlong into the action, even if it involves encountering the inhuman monsters that have infested Venice.

Most of the appeal here rests in just how closely—yet carelessly—Mattei and company follow the Aliens playbook. It’s a bit like watching an amateur troupe reprise a classic on the fly—you can practically sense everyone checking off the list of requirements. Do we have our Ripley stand-in? (Yes—here, she’s a reluctant scientist played by Haven Tyler.) Does our group of grunts totally remind you of the ones in Aliens? (Affirmative—there are easily recognizable surrogates for Hicks, Vasquez, and Hudson, only they all feel like they’re brain-damaged.) Do our intrepid heroes have their asses handed to them by xenomorphs? (Sort of—there’s definitely some semblance of a lumpy man-in-suit monstrosity here.) Oh yeah, we’ve got a Newt, right? (Naturally—her name’s actually Samantha, but she naturally bonds with faux Ripley all the same.) Maybe it’s really more akin to watching a drunk friend stumble through karaoke, carefully hitting all the notes but with a wobbly voice that’s in danger of just going completely off-script at any moment.

You watch Shocking Dark with that kind of car-crash intrigue—you’re just waiting for that moment when it becomes even more obvious that Mattei is kind of making this all up as he goes along, despite working from a recognizable blueprint. Like a kid smashing together action figures in a sandbox, he eventually does get carried away by his whims that proceed in an delirious train of thought: since we must have a Burke character here, why not actually make him more like Ash, the traitorous android from the original Alien? Wait—even better, what if he were actually just the fucking Terminator? The answer to all of these questions makes for fine entertainment, as Mattei invites you to lose your mind with every twist and turn. When ripping of Aliens isn’t enough, you go ahead and help yourself to a heaping of The Terminator, too. The sheer audacity of it is enough to coax disbelief at what you’re seeing unfold on-screen, especially when Mattei introduces one of the most insane deus-ex-machina devices I’ve ever witnessed. I must admit that this stretch of Shocking Dark is pretty incredible, if only because Mattei paints himself into an absurd, nonsensical corner before quickly escaping it with even more nonsense.

Arriving at that point can feel a bit tedious, though. The stretch of the film that’s just a straight-up lo-fi Aliens retread lacks just about everything that made Cameron’s film great: thematic heft, charismatic performances, and the tactile griminess of the effects work. It’s perhaps no surprise that the effects here come closest to matching their counterparts in Aliens, but even they come up well short. The creatures are just formless, mostly nondescript lumps-in-suits, and their carnage lacks the necessary gore that would at least invite you to revel in the schlock of it all. A couple of hilarious ragdoll stunt doubles has to suffice on this front, leaving you with the sinking feeling that the on-screen insanity doesn’t exactly match the sheer insanity of this movie’s very existence.

Indeed, once you absorb the shock of the blatant bootlegging on display here, this one takes a while to warm up to. If not for the final 20 minutes or so—when it becomes an Alien and Terminator movie—it’d be a pretty forgettable entry in Mattei’s oeuvre (and even then, you’re still mostly gawking at the IP theft more than anything). Shocking Dark is just fine, which isn’t really what you want from a scene that can better command your attention with more outrageous efforts, many of them hailing from Mattei himself.

The disc:

If it’s incredible that Shocking Dark exists, then it’s even more incredible that Severin Films has blessed it with an official Blu-ray release. Long only available on shady, unauthorized DVDs, it’s presented here in its proper, restored glory, complete with a 2K transfer, a DTS-MA audio track, and a handful of supplements. Co-writer Claudio Fragasso and writing partner Rossella Drudi appear in “Terminator in Venice,” a 13-minute interview detailing the production of Shocking Dark, a film they don’t have much fondness for (on account of all of the limitations and lack of real creative input on their part). Another interview features actress Geretta Geretta, who recounts her experiences on both this film and others throughout her career. A trailer and an alternate Italian title sequence are also included, the latter of which carries the Terminator II card, seemingly to confirm that, yes, this actually happened.

As such, this disc feels like another bit of anthropological work for Severin, who has emerged as the patron saint for this strain of disreputable, quasi-illegal filmmaking. Shocking Dark is the type of film that needs to be preserved as evidence more than anything, and this release does a fine job of it. I can only hope that Severin is willing to wade into the murky depths of rights issues that have scuttled a release of Cruel Jaws for all these years—now that’s a Mattei movie that will melt your mind, whereas Shocking Dark just sort of mildly scrambles it.
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