Reviews

Reviews 31 Days of Horror IX

The Alpha Incident

The Alpha Incident

Bill Rebane

USA, 1978

Credits

Review by Thomas Scalzo

Posted on 21 October 2012

Source Media Home Entertainment VHS

Categories 31 Days of Horror IX

Bill Rebane: if you know him, you know The Giant Spider Invasion. And if you know The Giant Spider Invasion, you most likely know the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 version, with its running commentary of good-natured mocking. While it’s certainly true that Rebane’s work, Spider Invasion in particular, is a treasure trove of ridicule-friendly horror, the man should not be dismissed as a mindless moviemaking hack. He may have routinely lacked for funds, but a thorough examination of his output shows a man with an obvious fascination with fantastic tales, and a fierce determination to bring those tales to life. Whether that determination led to relying on hokey special effects or dialogue heavy screenplays, Rebane found a way, time and again, to tell his stories. And that’s what makes Rebane’s films resonate, despite their obvious shortcomings: they are his films. They are labors of love, filled with a charming purity that can only be achieved by an independent artist following his vision. On Sundays this month we’ll take a look at four features from this low-budget auteur from Wisconsin.


I don’t know how much more of this I can take.

—Jenny

We’re right there with you Jenny. After spending over thirty minutes watching a group of pitiable dullards sitting around a train station waiting room trying not to fall asleep, it’s easy to consider giving up on this film. Though we are told explicitly that if the characters nod off, they will die, the potential death of boring people is simply not enough to keep us engaged as minute after uneventful minute drags by. If any of these lonely losers had even a spark of charisma, it would have at least been possible to fret over his or her impending doom while traversing this narrative wasteland. As it stands, each member of this wretched band is more unremarkable than the next. With no one to care about, humdrum scenarios such as, “will they run out of coffee?” take center stage, slowly sapping what reserves of cinematic energy we might have. By the time the shockingly downbeat ending rolls around, it’s difficult to find the resolve to adequately appreciate it.

Enduring such stagnant storytelling is even more frustrating when considered in light of the film’s intriguing premise: a malevolent Martian microbe is brought back to earth by the Viking Probe. To date, all the scientists have been able to determine is that it has “some of the qualities of an enzyme, and some of a virus,” and that it kills in a way that they do not yet understand. Until such time as its properties are clearly defined, the life form is to be transported to a secure underground location in Colorado. Inevitably, something goes wrong, the microbe is unleashed, and the train carrying the deadly cargo is forced to end its journey at a desolate depot called Moose Point station. Dr. Sorenson, the biochemist in charge of seeing the cargo to its final destination, has no choice but to institute quarantine. And so begins a deadly waiting game for Sorenson and the four ill-fated souls who happened to be at Moose Point that fateful day.

Sadly, once the waiting game begins, any active interest we may have had in the film essentially ends. Aside from a few abrupt cuts to the anonymous scientists frantically searching for a counter agent, there is nothing to watch but interminable scenes of train station tedium. Jake and Jenny sit on a bench. Charlie reads a magazine. Dr. Sorenson stares impassively at the floor. In a moment of inspired storytelling, the gang plays cards. The most interesting sequence involves Hank, the alcoholic train conductor, being shot in the leg by Sorenson as he tries to run away. Though we must assume that Hank eventually falls asleep and dies, his fate occurs off screen, denying us the opportunity to witness what happens when a person finally does succumb to sleep. Without this yardstick by which to measure potential future horrors we have nothing specific to look forward to. Nothing, that is, but more waiting.

To be fair, an inherently static storyline like quarantine in a small railroad station does not easily lend itself to exciting action set pieces. With such a setup, a slow-moving, dialogue-heavy screenplay is certainly understandable. What doesn’t square, however, is the utter lack of characterization. What better scenario for mining the complicated depths of the human psyche? What more perfect opportunity to craft an unassailable bond between the audience and these doomed players? And yet, as the time rolls on, we learn next to nothing about these people. Jake is nothing but an obnoxious blowhard who alternates between hitting on Jenny and whining about his boredom. Charlie, when asked about his interests, is visibly at a loss to come up with an answer. Sorenson remains impassive throughout, routinely making phone calls and giving orders, but never sharing anything that could be considered a personality trait. As for Jenny, admitting that she lied about having a date is the apex of her character’s complexity. There isn’t even so much as a hint that any of these people has a family or anyone outside of the Moose Point train station that cares anything about them.

And so, as The Alpha Incident slogs on toward its inevitable conclusion, we find ourselves in the position of not really caring what happens. Though the starkly pessimistic view of humanity inherent in the film’s closing scenes is appreciably shocking, pessimism in and of itself is simply not enough to carry a film. Without memorable characters to explicitly connect us to the horrors of the tale, even the most appalling scenes of human callousness come across as immaterial and unearned. In light of Bill Rebane’s talent for crafting start-to-finish low-budget entertainment, as well as the initially interesting setup, this apathetic approach to storytelling is truly a shame.

More 31 Days of Horror IX

We don’t do comments anymore, but you may contact us here or find us on Twitter or Facebook.