In Which the Enemy is Inside
I am loathe to indulge the precepts of nostalgia. To looks back and winsomely intone the fall of what was and could’ve been. The framing of “they don’t make them like they used to” frequently executed as a cudgel. flattening the nuance and difficulty of the contemporary world.
Never the less, I would like to entertain a few moments of historical grousing over 1987’s b-movie gem The Hidden. Director Jack Sholder’s flick is a perfect entry into the oh so sought after canon for a certain breed of cinephile: the moderately budgeted action/sci-fi film that’s high on ideas, lean on cruft, and executed with by the hand of a person who is more than a solid craftsman. Such an experience is the high that people chase after once they’ve exhausted the big names of late 20th century action cinema. Once Spielberg, Zemeckis, Cameron, and Carpenter’s catalogs have been fully explored it’s a relief to know that a whole swath of small but excellent pieces can be found.
The Hidden is much more than the nostalgic patina we associate with the 80’s in our modern era. It is the kind of film that was common in its day that has become a scarce resource now, and because of that factor it has aged into a delight of a moment of aesthetics and filmmaking.
The film is at once a melange of tropes and genres that were popular at all levels in the world of the cinema at the time. It is a buddy cop action movie, a sci-fi thriller, a touch of horror to keep things a smidge spicy, and topped off with a satirical looks at the contemporary culture. The story follows LA detective Thomas Beck (Michael Nouri) as he tracks down a violent criminal. As his case draws to a close FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan) comes in to assist. Once the two hunt down the offender its revealed that all is not as it seems, for their enemy is a giant alien slug that transfers from person to person and drives them to violent acts.
The premise is a wonderful framework for the filmmakers to flex their muscle in a variety of genres and tones. Sholder, who mostly worked on mediocre horror pieces like Alone in the Dark and Nightmare on Elm Street 2, here gets to play around and execute a variety of different and impressive sequences. The opening ten minutes are an absolute highlight as the audience is treated to a shockingly intense car chase through the LA streets. The combination of location shooting, a few overblown stunts, and an eye for excellent camera movements makes the pursuit a tense and explosive start to the film.
It also clearly sets the stakes for what will happen further down the line. With the villain being a twist on a classic body snatcher trope it frees up Sholder and company to have fun with their action and violence. It might be a bit immature to marvel at the galloons of fake blood that flows across the screen, but there’s a charm to the squib work found here that makes it feel less like bloodlust and more like watching craftspeople enjoying their job. The alien menace allows Sholder to pump the enemies full of bullets and have the red dye fly thick and fast, creating a Pollack of b-movie mayhem for the viewer to enjoy.
But such base pleasures are usually unsustainable by themselves without support from the other aspects of the story. Here it’s sheer luck that Nouri and MacLachlan have such easy chemistry and repartee. Nouri is the perfect “tired of this shit” mould for MacLachlan’s spacier character to bounce off of. The car rides and dinner scenes provide an enjoyable context for wanting to see these characters work together and chase down the bad guys.
The Hidden also excels at populating the corners of its world with texture and fun details. Early in the film our alien menace stops by a local record shop to acquire some of the heavy metal music it enjoys, and just the trek through the store and its vicinity is a delight for the retroist watching. Old posters, old fashion, and old music populate the local in a believable manner that brings the world to life.
Such details extend to sillier and more whimsical elements of the film. A shootout in a mannequin factory that ends with an exploding neon sign, a Ferrari dealer who delightfully serves cocaine out of a miniature car to his customers, and a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by a young Danny Trejo. Each specific builds together to create a thorough, lived in, and heightened b-movie landscape to explore.
The movie isn’t perfect. As with most things of the time women are seen as either eye-candy or cannon fodder. The film telegraphs some of its later swerves much too early, and while the action in the final act is explosive and fantastical, it can’t quite match the breathless glee of the opening segments.
Still a movie like The Hidden is a gem none the less: small, under seen, but thoroughly fun from beginning to end. It has the bravado and feel of a bigger picture mixed with the low down fun of a tinier one. And if you want to grouse about days gone by for action cinema, this is a perfect example of it.
Is it Weird, Overlooked, or Wonderful?
Yes to all three. The Hidden is a mostly forgotten feature, combines many elements in a unique, and is a thrill to watch. Highly recommended.
Odds and Ends
- It’s amazing how much MacLachlan’s character here mirrors his role in Twin Peaks.
- This movie also has a terrific soundtrack, combining clanging industrial sounds with overblown metal, punk, and pop.
I’m still feeling out the viability of this series moving forward. So this week I’ll take suggestions from people on what to cover. Thanks in advance.