Thursday, December 15, 2011

Encounter At Raven's Gate (1988)

Written by: James Michael Vernon, Rolf de Heer, Marc Rosenberg
Directed by: Rolf de Heer
Starring: Steven Vidler, Celine Griffin, Ritchie Singer

Stumbling across relatively unknown and excellent movies like this one is like putting on a coat you haven't worn in a while and finding ten bucks in the pocket; just one of life's little pleasures that make it all worthwhile. I'd never heard of this flick until I watched Not Quite Hollywood, a brilliant documentary about Australian exploitation movies. Precious few of the movies mentioned in that documentary, aside from the obvious Mad Max flicks and a handful of others, are available in the States, so I was surprised that this one was not only available, but up for streaming on Netflix (now I think of it, considering some of the bizarre things they have for streaming with pristine HD transfers that have no physical home video counterpart, it's not that surprising).

We begin with a cop named Taylor poking around in the ruins of an acreage where something seriously bad went down recently, and being apprehended by an astrophysicist named Cummings, who is attached to Special Branch, apparently the Aussie equivalent of the CIA. Taylor is given the usual, “you've seen too much” spiel, and forced at gunpoint to accompany Cummings back to the agent's car.

Now we flash back to the story proper, five days before the farm came to be the ruin it is now, and find out just how it all happened. Big city bad boy Eddie has just been released from jail on parole, but the conditions of that parole dictate he work on his brother Richard's farm until the hard work and country living have beaten all the criminal tendencies out of him. Having grown up on an operational farm, I can honestly say that's not a bad idea. By the end of the day, you're just too damn tired to be stealing cars and mugging old ladies. Unfortunately, it's a bit late in the proverbial day for Eddie to be anything but a slack-ass loser, and he's more interested in feeling up Rachel, his brother's wife, and getting plowed in the local bar (as well as plowing the local barmaid), than raising sheep and developing a hydroponic paradise in the outback with Richard.

Ol' Rich is quite the green thumb, and has a greenhouse full of prize-winning flowers and experimental crops. When the water starts disappearing, first in a sheep paddock in a far corner of the property, and eventually from the tank that feeds the greenhouse, Rich becomes more and more convinced that it's Eddie's fault. Eddie, meanwhile, grows more and more convinced that it's evidence of something strange going on. Considering dead birds start falling from the sky, and an old farmer who is Rich's nearest neighbor keeps telling Eddie there are things going on he doesn't understand before he is eventually discovered by Eddie and whackadoo local cop Officer Skinner in his farmhouse welded to his wife, Eddie's probably on to something. That, and old Bill's house was filled with all the missing water which was inexplicably running down the walls, and the atmosphere made Eddie and Skinner talk like they'd been sucking helium.

Eventually, Eddie decides to head back to Bill's place with a rifle and see if he can't take care of the problem himself. Instead, Richard follows him and has a face-to-face meeting with whatever's been doing some heavy welding in Bill's barn, which turns him into a homicidal maniac. He pursues Eddie back to his place, where Eddie and Rachel get cornered in the basement when...well, it's not totally clear. It's kind of implied that all the strange goings on are related to the alien fixing its ship. It lifts off at the end, right before Richard breaks into the basement, and shines a light on the house. The light tracks back and forth, as if it's searching for Richard, and then the light and sound just go away. Eddie and Rachel emerge and make their way out of the ruins of the farm and down the highway, where they are eventually picked up by Cummings (who has since shot the obnoxious Taylor), and returned to Richard's farm, which has been completely restored by Special Branch for no particular reason I can figure out.

The credits are rolling and you're starting to bask in the glow of a great cinematic discovery before you realize you just watched an alien encounter flick that didn't have an alien in it. Or any special effects at all, except a couple of scratched-into-the-film-by-hand bolts of electricity. The budget is listed as $2.5 million, which must be dollars from the year 3011, where the exchange rate would buy you about enough for a couple pizzas and a case of beer in 1988, because this looks like a very low budget flick. What raises it above the norm is excellent performances from the main cast and very creative and innovative directing that completely suck you in to the tension and the atmosphere, both of which are slathered over the movie in spades. The outback itself almost becomes a character. The best way I could describe this flick in a sentence is a mean-spirited grindhouse cousin of Close Encounters of the Third Kind with the visual aesthetic of Razorback.

It's those bookend segments that really keep this from being a perfect movie. More questions are raised than answered throughout the five days between our first meeting with Eddie and Richard and Rachel and the subsequent destruction of the farm, but they keep you thinking about the movie. What is going on at Raven's Gate? Why does it fill Bill's attic with water and turn his house into a helium-filled decorative fountain garnished with melted old people? Why does it turn Richard into a mindless killer? Why was it looking for him at the end? Did it realize its mistake and correct it once its ship was fixed? Why was its ship broken? And so on. Surrounding this fascinating flick with a bunch of government coverup X-Files bullshit totally undermines it and makes you wonder instead why Special Branch would fix up the farm? Presumably as a bribe in return for Eddie and Rachel's silence, except if they can get away with killing cops, they can get away with killing a loser parolee and his dead brother's wife who appears never to leave the farm. Two bullets are cheaper than a rush renovation job fixing exhaust damage from an alien spacecraft. Plus, none of that is nearly as interesting as a helium-breathing alien who melts old people as a hobby when it needs a break from fixing its ship with a welding torch that causes massive spontaneous bird kills.



  2. I have two things to say to that:
    1. You sure do watch some crap, and that's saying something coming from me! Assuming you've actually watched all that stuff. If so, color me impressed.
    2. What insane dictatorship do you live in that requires you to pay a dollar to watch a preview of a shitty direct-to-video action movie from 1991?

  3. I named it that because most of the movies I was uploading at first all came from the local dollar store. Also just wanted to say great reviews man.

  4. Thank you. Also, I wish we had a store around here that carried that stuff.