Capricorn One (Hyams, 1977)

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Toss an arm-load of rotten eggs into a crowded street and chances are five out of every ten’ll hit a conspiracy theorist convinced we never went to the moon at all. I’m still not convinced about that. What I do know is that O.J. Simpson nearly made it to Mars. Yes, nearly. That is, until powerful men from On High decided to shut an almighty trapdoor on his face with compatriots Sam Waterston and James Brolin buried deep in the hole with him.

Back in 1978 these great actors – well, two great actors and O.J. – were venerated astronauts, but their long-awaited mission to Mars became an expenditure the American government could no longer justify to itself. Of course, that didn’t stop them orchestrating an elaborate pantomime to appease the flag-waving multitudes, and running with it to the bitter end.

They hijacked the three patriots – perplexed but unafraid at first – from the Capricorn One, secreted them in an old military warehouse for months on end and let the American public believe in the ‘reality’ of unexplored outer limits of space being breeched by mankind for the very first time.

A kindly doctor is charged with explaining the situation to our three heroes and he bemoans the quirks of fate in an eloquent manner, levering his argument with that old standby: this is for the Greater Good of the world’s greatest nation.

Quite a production this would be, sealing a trio of men in the tomb of a makeshift set made up of tinfoil crafts and red sand. They denied them access to the outside world naturally – even their blissfully unaware families who would wait, biting their trembling nails, for every minute detail of the flight to be relayed back to them.

Then something horrible happens: many months into this elaborate hoax, this simulation that even NASA officials believe to be real, a heat shield separates aboard the imaginary shuttle. Normally this would mean death for its occupants. Suddenly three astronauts sequestered in the desert are having their corpses described to the rest of the world via news reports.

Yes – it’s time to run! And they do, though not getting very far at first in a plane with mere droplets of fuel in its tank. So into the desert they race on foot, spreading out on different routes to avoid a mass capture. Will they be eliminated one by one? Or can at least one of them reach even a tiny, forlorn pocket of civilisation so that the biggest conspiracy in history can be blown wide open?

Director Peter Hyams either had a very vivid imagination or he knew something the rest of the world could only conceive of in their most outlandish, probably drunken, speculations. But Capricorn One, like his later, equally entertaining films Outland (1981) and The Star Chamber (1983), is slick, superior entertainment with a smart screenplay that defies the illogicality of its set-up to become something entirely plausible.

His casting is crucial to the film’s effectiveness, with Sam Waterston and James Brolin providing real authority. True, it’s hard to hold your own against the method stylings of O.J. and that dazzling array of empty, inscrutable glares he can seemingly conjure at will, but somehow they pull it off.

A fine – and for once, tempered – Elliot Gould plays reporter Robert Caulfield who becomes drawn into the conspiracy when his lowly NASA console-operating friend Elliott Whitter (Robert Walden) gets wind of processes at work on the ‘flight’ that don’t quite compute. When his nosy queries become a little too irksome to Dr. Kelloway (a brilliant Hal Holbrook), he’s made to disappear like smoke as if he never existed. An effective form of elimination unless the apparent illusionist’s most trusted confidante is a nosy journalist. Even Telly Savalas turns up in an inspired and hilarious small role late in the game as an abrasive crop-dusting pilot.

Exceptional widescreen cinematography from Bill Butler, who was fresh off Coppola’s The Conversation (1974) and Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) at the time, and a punchy, militaristic score from the greatest film composer in history, the legendary Jerry Goldsmith, complete the package. Though spread over two hours, Capricorn One still feels remarkably tight, assiduously cutting back and forth from the plight of the astronauts to the strained efforts of the elite few attempting to uphold the monstrous façade at whatever the cost. This remains fantastic B-grade fare from a decade that rarely disappoints.

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The Hidden (Sholder, 1987)

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Maybe once in a journeyman director’s career all the pieces will line up, the stars mysteriously aligned; if so, there’s a chance for something remarkable to occur, and in the case of veteran Jack Sholder, the fateful project was 1987’s The Hidden. Intelligently blending a police manhunt with strong elements of horror and sci-fi, it has – I was pleasantly surprised to discover – survived the intervening decades remarkably well. Earning a shot in the director’s chair on the back of the first Nightmare on Elm Street sequel two years previous, Shoulder delivers the goods with a superbly executed thrill ride featuring two memorable central performances.

L.A. detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) and his men are the trail of a ruthless thief and killer engaged in a random spree of terror across the city. With a propensity for stealing Ferraris and blaring heavy-metal music at full blast, Jack DeVries (Chris Mulkey) needs to be stopped, and after an exhilarating chase in the opening sequence, he crashes his car before being ruthlessly pounded by a police artillery. In hospital and near-death, it seems the city’s most wanted criminal has finally come unstuck.

In fact, it’s only the beginning of Beck’s trouble, for DeVries’ body has been nothing but a shell harbouring an alien lifeform, a slithering black worm-like creature that hops from body to body once it senses the weakening physical capabilities of its host. A quiet, undemonstrative FBI agent arrives from Seattle, Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), his assignment to track down the now dead DeVries, but his concerns are hardly alleviated by the sight of the man’s mortal remains. Confounding Beck with his oblique suggestions of a danger still at large, he keeps the detective frustrated, uncomprehending but intrigued.

Together they hunt for the body-hopping alien, Beck at first convinced of an elaborate scheme tying all the participants together. Before long however, even he becomes a believer as Gallagher, with a secretive past of his own, realises the need to spell out their predicament in black and white to ensure a legitimate chance at tracking the alien down and exterminating it once and for all.

The Hidden succeeds on so many levels, not only as a riveting police thriller, but as a genre film and wicked satire with cleverly suggestive moments of ironic dark humour. Beck and Gallagher are an odd but inspired pairing, with Nouri’s physicality and wearied, hardened edge complemented by MacLachlan’s minimalist underplaying of the outsider and his motivations.

There are clever touches aplenty in the screenplay by Bob Hunt, including a series of light-hearted jabs at the gulf separating the pair’s working processes, the reasons for which remain elusive until well into the film. It’s never clear how it all might end either and even when it seemingly does, Hunt has another neat trick in store for the film’s poignant coda. It’s rare that alien life forms are given the dimensions they are here, with qualities that clearly delineate the hunter from his prey, including empathy for earthly compatriots and a constant pining for simple family values.

Unlike so many films from its era, visually The Hidden has retained a toned-down, drab but gritty appeal that isn’t marred by glaring, grossly anachronistic fashion or style; much of that can be attributed to the fine work of production designers Mick and C.J. Strawn and cinematographer Jacques Haitkin. Another successful component are the many well-chosen pieces of rock music regularly inserted into the action, fitting comfortably between the harsh, jagged electronic daggers of Michael Convertino’s score.

Sholder has been a prolific workman over the years but nothing in his subsequent output – which seems to have ended in premature retirement in 2004 – comes close to what he achieved on The Hidden, a mostly forgotten but genuine treasure from the ‘80’s, one still highly regarded today as more than just a B-grade or cult classic.