Sci-Fi Thrillers: Viral, Alien, and Parallel Worlds

October 8, 2015 | By

SatanBug_posterThis week’s wave of reviews launches with a quartet of sci-fi thrillers spanning different aspects of the genre, starting with the virus or bio-thriller, of which John Sturges’ The Satan Bug (1965) is one of the best.

While ensconced in the fears and fantasies of the mid-sixties, this taut adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s novel is still an engaging thriller in which a madman steals a flask carrying a viscous mass of germ warfare, developed by the U.S. Government in a secret desert lab.

Sturges had just come off the blockbuster The Great Escape (1963), and Satan Bug marks a much smaller-scaled work in terms of scope – the impact of a killer bug is huge, but the fight to get back the red-corked flask is kept local and intimate. Great cast, stunning desert cinematography, and a marvelous score by Jerry Goldsmith.

KINO Lorber’s Blu features a solid commentary track by DVD Savant’s Glenn Erickson, and fans of the film can finally scratch this must-have thriller off their still unavailable shopping list.

Hollywood’s flirted with viral thrillers off and on: The Cassandra Crossing (1976) localized a killer bug (also stolen from a secret lab) to a moving train, and the last big bio-thriller wave stemmed from the publication of Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone (1994), a superb chronicle of the Ebola virus that read like a taut Sturgian thriller. That book was poised to become a Ridley Scott film with Robert Redford as Crisis in the Hot Zone, but ‘creative differences’ killed the project.

Genre fans did get Wolfgang Petersen’s B-level Outbreak (1995), and there was The Burning Zone (1996-1997), a piece of shit, cash-in series that featured wooden performances, bad dialogue, cheesy primordial digital effects, and a ‘virus’ or ‘phenomenon’ of the week.

Sure, a serial killer series like Millennium (1996-1999) worked on the conceit that there’s a murderer knocking off daily assorted members of society, but in The Burning Zone, the world would be reduced to foliage and roaches. Or Charlton Heston wandering parts of California with a cool shotgun / flashlight gizmo.

I’ve added an older review of Elia Kazan’s excellent virus thriller Panic in the Streets (1950) – perhaps a closer cousin to Cassandra Crossing, in terms of authorities seeking out patient zero before a densely populated locale is smudged with viral goo. The review of the 2005 Fox DVD was written for the old Told You So website, and it’s a title I’ll eventually revisit on Blu in more detail.

Also reviewed are two indie sci-fi flicks with interesting elements that sometimes transcend their uneven execution: the alien visitation thriller Ejecta (2014) from Anchor Bay Entertainment Canada, featuring an excellent performance by prolific character actor Julian Richings (the name may not be familiar, but you’ve definitely seen his face and intense performance style); and the parallel worlds thriller Singularity Principle (2013), also a CanCon production, billed as being shot in “a special $300 million lab in Northern Canada.”

I’m catching the Fabio Frizzi’s concert Frizzi 2 Fulci tonight at The Opera House, and will report back on the event. Those interested in hearing the composer of The Beyond, Contraband, and other Lucio Fulci thrillers can listen to a set of podcasts conducted prior to the composer’s dual London shows in the fall of 2014 and 2013.

More stuff to follow shortly, including the first of several posts leading up to International Independent Video Store Day (aka VSD), which makes its fifth appearance and salutes the bricks & mortar shops that continue to do daily business around the world. Toronto’s lost a few since VSD IV, but the total still hovers around 8-9 video sales & rental shops, which is unusually high compared to other and bigger cities.




Mark R. Hasan, Editor

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