Wot's all this, then? A brief, NASTY overview
Let me put it this way: I remember seeing a Val Guest movie years ago, called And the Band Played On (also known as The Shillingsbury Blowers). It was a comedy about a brass band in a little English village — the worst brass band in the British Isles. Their leader had always insisted the players forget what was written on the page and just play what they felt in their hearts. The result, of course, was sheer chaos, but the band members thought it was the most beautiful music ever made. But then the old bandleader died, and his place was taken by a younger man fresh out of music school. The young conductor tried to establish some sort of discipline, and in trying managed to make the players very upset. The players decided to demonstrate their displeasure by playing only what was written on the page, without (in their opinion) any soul or imagination to make the music worth listening to...
... and consequently the band started winning competitions all over the country. The young conductor, thinking he was responsible for the enormous improvement in their playing, was elated. But then, on the eve of their last competition, when the Shillingsbury band was poised to win the title of the best band in England, the players decided that the new bandleader wan't such a bad fellow after all; so, just for him, on this momentous occasion, they were going to go onstage and really play their hearts out. You can imagine the results.
I think about this story every time I watch a movie by Luigi Cozzi. Cozzi is in many ways the Shillingsbury band personified. His first and deepest love has always been science fiction. However, every time he creates something out of that deep and abiding love, the results — however sincere and well-intentioned they may be — are just awful.
Now, Italy is as well-known for its science fiction cinema as Antarctica is for its beer. Thus Cozzi had to get his start working in a completely different genre. He apprenticed with Dario Argento making those peculiarly Italian kind of suspense movies, or gialli as they're known. He directed a feature film called The Killer Must Kill Again which is one of the classics of the genre, and contributed to Argento's television series The Door to Darkness by writing and directing several of its best-remembered episodes. Cozzi was on his way to becoming one of the most successful of Argento's disciples... except that for all his great success, his heart wasn't really in it. He still wanted to do sci-fi.
After the success of Star Wars, he actually got his chance... and given the opportunity to realize his life's ambition, what did he do? Well, he certainly made a unique contribution to the genre, but not in the way he'd hoped. He made Starcrash (Have you ever seen Starcrash? Yes? Then you know what I'm talking about. No? Well, there's a reason you haven't: it's terrible). The man who had shown such a firm grasp of technique in the psychological thriller genre turned around and made a film so childish, so naïve, that it makes the old Flash Gordon serials look like profound statements on the human condition.
And then, after Starcrash, Cozzi went on to make many other ridiculously insipid films, including the Lou Ferrigno Hercules movies and a couple of awful horror flicks. In each case, even when the material he was given to work with was, say, mythological or supernatural, Cozzi tried to shoehorn it into a sci-fi context. That's why Herc ended up battling stop-motion robots from space instead of hydras and giants. Support for Italian sci-fi had never been strong, and by the late 1980's backing for other genres was beginning to wane as well, so Cozzi usually found himself under-funded and abandoned by his producers... Cozzi's ideas, silly as they often were, came off even sillier thanks to all the half-measures he had to resort to.
But the greatest contast between Cozzi's early, relentless thrillers and his later sci-fi attempts is found less in the movies' content or technical quality — though the contrast in these elements is enormous enough. The biggest difference is in attitude. There is usually a Flash Gordon-y, "Boy's Own Adventure"-y innocence to Cozzi's later films that makes them impossible to dislike. No matter how stupid they get, there is a feeling of wide-eyed wonder about them. They're devoid of moral ambiguity, for one thing... which is shocking when you consider the complexity of The Killer Must Kill Again. It's precisely this childish unworldliness that makes it difficult to understand how Cozzi's 1980 film Contamination made it to the list of Video Nasties in England.
Oh, well... superficially, I suppose there is an explanation why Contamination was banned from public viewing for so long:
Contamination, originally titled Alien Arrives on Earth, was intended as an unofficial sequel to Ridley Scott's Alien, a film which was notorious for its "chest-burster" scene. Cozzi intended to out-do Alien by filming not one, but a dozen scenes of people's guts exploding. Obviously, he completely missed the point of Scott's original. In Alien, the "chest-burster" scene comes at the end of an ominous lull, just as it seems that everything should be getting back to normal. The audience knows this calm is an illusion, but Scott extends the uneasy peace as long as he dares... and then breaks it with a scene so shocking that it's actually even worse than we'd imagined it would be. Nothing else in Alien is as horrible as Kane's death... but the rest of the movie feels as intense, even though we don't really see anything on-screen, because of the impact of that one carefully-controlled sequence.
Cozzi isn't concerned with any such subtleties. He just throws offal at the screen; and while that sort of thing is good for a few ewwwwws the first time we see it, by the time we get to the end of the flick the gesture has lost its impact. Still, if this is the reason Contamination was labeled such a threat to the public morals that it had to be banned — that people could be imprisoned for owning a copy, or offering one up for sale or rent — then it provides all the evidence anyone could ever ask for that the whole Video Nasties episode was bollocks. Except for a few moments of unconvincing air-bladder effects, Contamination is so completely innocuous that its inclusion alongside films like Cannibal Holocaust and Last House on the Left makes no sense at all. It makes so little sense, in fact, that it calls into question the judgment of the censors on all the films on the list.
Contamination begins with an unattended ship making its way into New York harbor. Maybe this, plus the presence of Ian McCulloch in the credits, is the real reason the movie was banned: the censors may have thought they were watching Lucio Fulci's juicy Zombie Flesh Eaters all over again. But the ship in question this time is a large South American cargo ship, not a sailboat. It attracts the attention of the Coast Guard when it comes into the habor at full-throttle, violating all the regulations, and fails to respond to radio communication. "They musta smoked the stuff they're smuggling," comments the helicopter pilot who tracks the ship; "That Captain's a real turkey."
This time there are no flesh-eating zombies on the mystery vessel. However, there is no sign of the crew, though the lifeboats are undisturbed. It seems as though something very sudden happened to drive the crew off the ship... which makes the authorities suspect some sort of biological agent. Lieutenant Arris of the NYPD meets Dr. Turner of the Heath Department at the docks that evening. Since the Doctor needs witnesses for everything he does aboard the ship, Arris and three of his men don protective clothing to go with him.
Perhaps the urgency of the situation explains why they decide to investigate the ship at night. Urgency does not necessarily explain why they decide to investigate — in total darkness — with the ship's power generator off. Sure, it looks more atmospheric to have the men crawl around in the dark with flashlights, but when you consider the nature and importance of the job it seems a little foolish. "It's like something out of a movie!" says Arris, and we agree.
Soon the men discover the Officer's Mess, which is a mess... the food has been left half-eaten, Marie Celeste style, but there seems to be no clue about what happened to the officers themselves. Then, however, Arris opens the door to the adjoining room... and discovers the body of the Captain. It looks as though he'd barricaded himself in the room in a futile attempt to escape from something. But what cold he have been running from? Though there's no one else in the room, something has torn the captain to shreds. What's more disturbing is that whatever it was, it seems to have torn him apart from the inside.
"It's as if some force inside just... let loose!" says Dr. Turner. Consider the proximity of the Officers' Mess, and insert your own "South American cooking" joke.
As the team makes its way into the cargo hold, they discover more bodies, all blown up from the inside out. There are also traces of a curious green glop which the men are careful not to touch. It's still unclear what could possibly have happened, especially since the cargo seems to be box after box of Columbian coffee. The brand of the coffee is unusual, though: "Café UniverX". Nobody's ever heard of that. Still more unusual is what the men find when they discover a coffee box that's fallen open. Inside are a number of large green pods, about the size and shape of footballs. They're clearly not coffee, though what they are is difficult to figure out. Perhaps they're fruit, one man muses. But the analogy that seems to stick — perhaps because the men have seen Alien — is that the leathery green ovals are some kind of egg.
One of the green eggs has rolled under a steam pipe. The heat from the pipe seems to have ripened it — so I guess you can see why we're going with the "egg" theory over the "fruit" theory, right? (Sigh) The ripening "egg" glows yellow and pulses, while making a strange sort of sound... the sort of contented snore a walrus might make after eating a particularly juicy penguin. When one of the men goes to pick it up gently, it bursts, spattering everyone except Arris with green sludge. The goo eats its way into the men's skin on contact, and within moments Dr. Turner and the policemen have exploded in slow motion.
Up to this point, the movie has been just a little goofy, with the influence of Alien and other films clearly evident. It's even been reasonably suspenseful, and with the introduction of the lethal glop it's even been enjoyably gross. It's unclear, to say the least, how one open box of gooey eggs could have killed the entire crew, even if we imagine the "eggs" somehow becoming mobile and chasing down the sailors as they hid in various parts of the ship... Still, these opening scenes have been entertaining enough that we're unlikely to care that it doesn't make a lot of sense. Unfortunately, it's time for the movie to get going with its actual plot... and almost immediately, Cozzi begins to falter. For example, we now meet our comic-book heroine, Lieutenant Colonel Stella Holmes of "Special Section 5" or some such nonsense. She appears on the scene barking orders like, "Implement Code Seven!" or "Reverse the polarity!" or similar official-sounding jargon.
There's almost always a "Stella" in a Cozzi movie. It's a trademark, like a "Liza" in a Fulci film. This Stella was supposed to be played by Caroline Munro, who played Stella Starr in Starcrash; like Munro, she was supposed to be young, beautiful and strong. The producers, for some reason, disagreed. They wanted Stella to be older; or, as Cozzi puts it rather unfairly, "ugly". Thus they hired the decidedly more mature Louise Marleau for the part. This decision seems to have thrown Cozzi way off his game. Certainly the attempt at building a romance around Stella fails even by Itaian horror movie standards... but this lapse pales by comparison to the inevitable Shower Scene. Contamination features the single more demure Shower Scene in all horror movie history. We see more of Ms. Marleau when she is fully clothed than we do while she is in the shower.
But the real problem with Stella isn't the appearance of the woman who plays her. Stella Holmes is just a very poorly scripted character. I suppose we should give Cozzi a tiny bit of credit for attempting to give us a strong female character as the protagonist of the film. However, the key word is "attempting": what he actually gives us is a character who is uninteresting at best and decidedly unsympathetic at worst.
One of Stella's first actions on taking charge of the Case of the Exploding Eggs is to see how Arris is doing in quarantine. Arris, wearing only a sheet, is furious at being detained and fumigated. In his harangue, he makes the fatal mistake of calling Stella "baby"... not because it's in any way plausible that he would call her "baby" in this situation, but because It's In The Script. "Don't you call me 'baby', young man!" says Stella.
"And don't you call me 'young man', babe," Arris replies. That's when Stella reveals her rank and status, "comically" startling Arris into half-dropping his sheet (revealing nothing). Stella arches her eyebrows at what could almost be described, charitably, as his semi-nudity. It's a scene that even the Carry On series would have rejected as being beneath them.
Stella decides they need to freeze the remaining eggs abord the ship. She and her crew go back to the ship, wearing ridiculous protective suits that make them all look like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They collect the remains of the egg that killed the policemen (though the bodies that should be lying next to it have mysteriously disappeared) and take it back to their lab for more research.
Stella's lead scientists expain that the "egg" is not really an egg at all... though they continue to use "egg" analogies for the rest of the movie. The "yolk" of this thing-which-is-not-an-egg is some sort of strange bacterium that has a lethal effect on living tissue. The scientists demostrate by injecting a white rat ith a sample of the goo: it explodes.
NOTE: No real rats were harmed in the making of the movie. The exploding animal in this scene is clearly just another air-bladder special effect. You may, if you like, cite this scene as the real reason this movie was banned — though I think you'd be crazy for suggesting it — but in any case, this would be your last chance for defending the censor's decision. That's it for any possible objectionable content in Contamination... everything else is just a varation on stuff we've already seen.
Stella decides to keep Lt. Arris as a member of the investigation, not because he's particularly bright or competent, but because she wants to limit the number of people who know about the incident. She theorizes that the intent of the people who brought the green "eggs" into the city was to place them in the sewers. Once they burst, she surmises, the city would be awash in lethal gop... and as we know from the Republican National Convention of 2004, that would not be a pretty sight (rim shot). Stella's theory about the placement of the eggs reverses the way I thought sewers were supposed to work, but then again, I am not a scientist.
Stella also reasons (more credibly) that since the whole incident has been kept secret, the people responsible for importing the eggs might not have realized yet that their cargo has been intercepted. She and her team come up with the brilliant plan of marching up to the warehouse of the bogus coffee importer and — wait for it — knocking on the door. This plan works about as well as you'd expect it to, although it does lead to one of the best, eeriest moments in the film. When they realize they're outgunned, the zombie-like smugglers, who are standing amid a pile of the deadly green eggs, grin at the federal agents and shoot the eggs instead. Rather than be captured, they allow themselves to be coated in egg yuck... whereupon they explode in slow motion.
The smugglers' deaths bring the New York investigation to a halt. Stella orders the warehouse and its eggy contents to be incinerated. The exposure to extreme heat causes all the thousands of eggs to burst, coating the city in slime and killing thousands. The terrorists win. The End.
(Of course I'm kidding. Burning the eggs kills them, without spreading the infection or even causing much of a mess. In movies like this, the Good Guys' plans always work, even if they really shouldn't.)
In the meantime, the scientists have come to some conclusions about the nature of the eggs. Since they are organisms based on silicon rather than the normal carbon, the scientists theorize that they are not native to Earth. Stella's response to this news isn't quite as classic as Stella Starr's famous line from Starcrash ("It's a space ship!"), but it's close:
SCIENTIST: I don't believe these belong to our planet.
Yes. And then the other penny drops. Stella just happens to remember her involvement in the aftermath of the first manned Mars expedition two years ago. The English astronaut Hubbard — yes, an English astronaut, probably an affectionate (if misguided) nod to the Quatermass series — claimed to have seen thousands of football-sized green eggs on the surface of Mars, though his American counterpart Hamilton testified there were no such things. Stella had been part of the committee that judged Hubbard to be mentally unstable, effectively ending his career. You might expect this incident to have left a bigger impression on Stella, but hey... this is Stella we're talking about.
Now, it also just happens that the disgraced Hubbard lives just across the river in Hoboken or Jersey City or someplace, in a squalid little apartment where he drinks himself into a stupor every night. Stella goes to see the man whose life she ruined, to try to get his help in figuring out the rest of the puzzle. Would you, perhaps, expect her to go with a little humility? Contrition, perhaps? At least some respect? Again, this is Stella: when Hubbard asks if she hasn't already put him through enough, Stella's response is, "Oh, shut up!"
HUBBARD: What do you want to know, how many times a week I screw?
This humble, sympathetic approach works like a charm, and soon Hubbard is opening up about his traumatic experience on the Red Planet. Hubbard's flashback is filmed very simply but effectively: as he describes walking with Hamilton over the Martian polar icecaps, we see the two actors in their space suits agaist a pure white background. We know how it's done, and how cheaply it was achieved: but it works. Hubbard describes entering a cave in a mountain, which is no less charming for being a papier-maché model... and in the cave they saw thousands of green eggs (which are very obviously olives). As he remembers the ominous thumping and the blinding white light that came towards them from the depths of the cave, and as he thinks of the expression he saw on Hamilton's face before he lost consciousness, Hubbard collapses in a screaming fit...
Green eggs? Meet ham.
(Apologies to every other reviewer who's used that line for this film, but really... what else is there to say?)
Now, I don't want you to strain yourself wondering where one might find enough moist heat to incubate the eggs at the polar icecap of Mars. It doesn't matter. It also doesn't matter that the eggs seem to serve no biological function whatever, other than to make carbon-based life forms explode... surely not a very useful trait on Mars. Or anywhere else, come to think of it. The important thing is that Stella, Arris and Hubbard must travel to Columbia — a place chosen no doubt for its, ahem, uncanny resemblance to the climate of Mars — to get to the bottom of the mystery. Hubbard is unwilling to go at first, but Stella shames him into going by humiliating him, taunting him about the wreck of a man he's become (no thanks to her), until he finally hauls off and smacks her. And surprise... (ugh)... that's what she wanted. She liked it. Don't strain yourself thinking about this too carefully either. Off go our heroes to South America, posing as coffee buyers — disguises that fool nobody.
Down in Columbia, astronaut Hamilton (who is presumed to be dead) is actually coordinating an alien takeover of the Earth. We find out he also has some sort of psychic link with each of the exploding eggs, another trait you'd figure would be less-than-useless in the great scheme of things. Hamilton recognizes Hubbard not only from his appearance, but also by sensing the proximity of his mind. This is the same psychic sense that allowed the alien intelligence to take over Hamilton in the ice caves of Mars, an influence that Hubbard seems strangey immune to.
The psychic abilities of the aliens' agents on Earth are remarkably precise, as long as the script requires them to be. They are able to sense when Stella is about to take a shower in her hotel room ("If I'm going to die with the rest of the planet, then I want to have a proper dress on," she says; "... and clean underwear"). While she's busy with the world's least exploitative shower scene, somebody slips a ripe egg in the bathroom and locks the door. When she comes out of the shower, Stella — that trained and seasoned military officer and scientist — is not only unable to break through the bathroom door, or pick the lock, but she's also not clever enough to think about, oh, I don't know, throwing a towel over the damned thing and going out the window. No. Instead, she sits by the door, right next to the pulsing egg, and looks helpless... until Hubbard charges in to rescue her. See what I meant when I said Cozzi was only making a token effort at providing a strong female character?
Things come to a head when Stella and Arris, who have started an unconvincing romance ("You can call me Stella!" she says), are taken captive by Hamilton and his Nordic ice queen girlfriend. It's up to Hubbard to sneak into the Colombian egg-farm and save them... which he plans to do by using the principle that evil henchmen never, ever recognize their co-workers when they're wearing body suits and gas masks. When you're an evil henchman, you can work next to a guy for six months and never notice when he's been knocked unconscious and replaced by the hero. You mustn't notice. It's part of the union contract.
From this point on to the very predictable ending, the script is sure to bring up all the usual action movie clichés. Still, it does manage to throw in two very nice features of its own:
The first is the actual appearance of the Alien Cyclops (I don't think I'm spoiling anything by mentioning the Alien Cyclops, since it's given a mention in the opening credits). When Cozzi and his crew got the monster machinery out onto the set, they discovered to their horror that the contraption didn't work. It just sat there like the lump of papier-maché it was. The crew could only get one part of the monster working at a time, operating the mechanisms by hand; so Cozzi got to work redesigning the lighting, and thinking up shots that could be edited to make the monster look much more convincing than it was in real life. The end result was a minor miracle. Cozzi's monster may not be the most impressive alien invader, but it is suitably icky; and I don't think you'd realize from the finished film what poor shape the contraption was in.
The second nifty surprise the film has for us the the unexpected and gruesome demise of one of the major characters. I have no intention of revealing which one, or how that gruesome demise comes about, except to say it's a remarkably unexpected gesture from a film that otherwise has so much in common with the matinee serials of the 1930's and 40's.
In spite of the brief mosey into different territory, the movie goes back to form for the inevitable "it's over but it's not really over" ending. We go back to New York — and how did anyone ever symbolize New York in earlier times other than by showing the World Trade Center buildings? Yes, we pan down those familiar glass-and-metal boxes to the street, then to that equally typical symbol of New York City in the late 70's: garbage lying on the corner. Inside the garbage bag is a swollen, leathery green orb...
By now, I think you'll have worked out from my summary that there is absolutely nothing in Contamination, with the possible exception of the exploding rat, that ought to raise the eyebrows of the censor. OK: so a couple of extras blow up in a shower of latex and red paint. I'm not sure how this was supposed to contribute to bringing down Western civilization. Perhaps the Powers that Be were worried that the film might start a trend of people spontaneously erupting in a shower of innards. Or maybe they were afraid that the rate of Martian invasions would skyrocket. Or maybe — just maybe — the guardians of public morality had their heads stuffed so far up their asses that they couldn't and didn't actually see the movie they were banning.
It's pathetic, really, that such a harmless little movie should be treated this way. And while the movie as a whole is nothing more than brainless fun, it does include one of the best scores the band Goblin ever did for a film that wasn't by Dario Argento. Certainly the track named Connexion is one of my favorites — it accompanies the scene with the Alien Cyclops — but it's even better when you hear it in context, since it brings together several motivic patterns that have been used throughout the soundtrack. The music makes far more sense than the dialogue; if you were to watch the film with only the picture, the sound effects and the music, you'd come away with the feeling you'd just watched a much better film.
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