Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, to commemorate its recent DVD debut, we look at the no-budget Canadian sci-fi/action oddity Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments.
Incoming confession: before I did this, I made movies. So yes, I’m another one of those failed-frustrated-filmmaker-turned-film-critic types, though I started writing about movies not long after I started making them and did both simultaneously for quite some time and ultimately settled on this as a more viable career at that point but that’s all neither here nor there. I bring it up not for the sake of unnecessary autobiography but because my own earliest (and inarguably worst) films so inform my general affection for Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments, a low-low-low-budget shot-on-video sci-fi/action flick that debuted on Candian cable access back in 1995 and recently made its DVD debut. It’s a really bad movie. But it rings true, because it’s bad in the same way that my films, and those of so very many other no-budget filmmakers, always were.
It concerns Sgt. Gregory Dapp (John Rubick), a Tom Arnold type with an awesome combination of spike and mullet haircut, a former military specialist and current gun for hire on a faraway planet that looks an awful lot like mid-‘90s Canada with some vaguely “futuristic” props banging around. He’s first seen, with the help of Atari videogame laser blasts, capturing a killer creature of some kind during an in-the-woods action sequence with the feel and intensity of a post-Thanksgiving touch football game; he brings it to someone’s office day job that we’re meant to think is a military base, and goes into an urgent conference in a public access television control room that we’re meant to think is a high-clearance command center. There, he’s begged to pursue another creature on some tiny nowhere planet called Earth – which he’ll only do on the condition that “I play by my rules.”
So off he goes, in an actual animated spaceship, which we’re assured is inhabited by our hero by the cutaways of him in what looks like a broom closet, wearing a motorcycle helmet and shades. After a brief interlude in which a couple of doughy guys in sweatshirts and mullets traipse through the woods shouting “C’mon ooot” as we wait for them to be killed by the alien creature (in deference to my many Canadian friends, I’m trying like hell to go light on the Great White North gags here, but this scene is seriously like a Blair Witch remake starring Bob and Doug McKenzie), suddenly we’re in a high school movie.
We meet Jennifer (Tina Dumoulin), a crispy-banged late-teen in a Toronto Blue-Jays T-shirt, a sensible type who dispenses invaluable advice like, “You should really go to that party. It’s your last year in high school. You’re a senior now!” On her walk home, she inexplicably picks up a strange rock and carries it with her, so she’s immediately in the sights of our creature, and is barely saved by the sudden arrival of our hero. “My name’s Dapp, Gregory Dapp,” he mumbles, in what is surely the worst Bond appropriation of all time, and thus Sgt. Dapp, clad in his wrapround sunglasses and denim coat, protects this ingénue from the killer alien creature.
So it’s basically a riff on The Terminator and its sequel– there are alien POV computer-screen shots galore, and Dapp has “license to terminate” on his badge, and there’s even a hint of romance between Dapp and Jennifer, even though UM SHE’S A HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT. But T1 and T2 aren’t the only very clear influences of Phobe, whose climax also includes a lightsaber battle and a Ghostbusters-style foot-sprung alien trap. And this specific element of the film – more than the amateurish acting, flat-as-a-board line readings, clunky staging, and nonsensical dialogue – are what hit me so close to where I once lived.
In 1994, when writer/director Erica Benedikty was shooting Phobe on VHS up in Ontario for $250, I was in Kansas, shooting my own debut on the same technology for about the same coin. She was trying to make her own Terminator; I was trying to make my own Reservoir Dogs, so my first film is a clumsy gangster movie riff, full of poorly-executed gunplay and self-consciously faux-cool dialogue. What didn’t occur to either of us – what seemed to have occurred to precious few filmmakers in our position before the Duplass Brothers and Joe Swanberg – was that when you’re as bereft as we were of resources, you shouldn’t try to make complicated genre movies with big casts and difficult effects. It’s smarter to make movies about people who are very much like the actors you can get, who live lives similar to yours, which are thus easy to dramatize.
But when you’re young, those aren’t the kind of films that get you movie-crazy, and thus inclined to spend your precious little time and energy making one of your own. You want to make movies in which people do cool shit, like wear shades and shoot guns and save the world, even if it means scenes like the one in Phobe were Dapp tells Jennifer, “Take this – if you need anything, press this button,” and tosses her what is clearly a car alarm keyfob. Yes, I laughed at that scene; I also laughed with it, because I did dozens of scenes like that, where we used what we had and hoped our viewers would go along with it. And that’s what’s so legitimately enjoyable about Phobe: its sincerity. It may be tin-eared and amateurish and silly from end to end – but there’s nothing cynical about it. It was made, and vibrates, with its creators’ love of movies, and with something resembling disbelief that they’re making one, low-fi though it may be. And frankly, that lack of cynicism is in frightfully short supply in most movies today.
Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiment is available on DVD from Severin Films for $14.90, and is totally worth it.