Monday, October 31, 2016

Hidden in Plain Sight

Kyle MacLachlan in The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden (1987, directed by Jack Sholder) is one of those films from the 1980s that took full advantage of the video revolution. A marginal hit in theaters, it found its audience in mom and pop video stores across the country. This was back when movies still had some kind of commercial half-life after opening weekend. Good movies--and The Hidden is a pretty good movie--could have a long commercial life even if no one saw them at the multiplex. I suppose this is still possible, but it's much more difficult in the present movie economy. There are so many more shows competing for eyes these days that a movie has to be something really special to survive the winnowing process. None of which really has anything to do with The Hidden beyond the suggestion that it is an artifact of a bygone era, but it's one that's worth your attention for all that. It's a pretty good low-budget genre picture with enough quirks to make it stand out from films of similar provenance.

The premise of The Hidden finds buddy cops Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Nouri chasing after a series of criminals who seem unconnected to each other in spite of the similarity of their crimes. MacLachlan's character, FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher, knows more about the crimes than he tells his partner. Nouri's Tom Beck is irritated at being kept in the dark. Gallagher has good reason for his reticence: the criminal he's tracking is an alien slug who takes possession of human hosts and assumes command of their bodies. Gallagher himself seems to be the host to such a creature as well. Meanwhile, their quarry rampages across L.A. stealing Ferraris, killing bystanders, and listening to loud music, switching bodies as needed from a mild mannered stock broker to a cardiac patient to a stripper to Beck's usual partner. Even a dog at one point. The alien has it in his head to possess the body of a politician running for the Senate, and our heroes must race to stop him...

Claudia Christian in The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden doesn't screw around with exposition. It starts with a bank robbery and a high-speed chase that ends in a hail of gunfire. You don't get actual characters until the film has been playing for a while. It's an effective opening, one that grabs the audience by the adrenals while getting them to ask questions about what they are watching. It sets a narrative hook. The Hidden is all about narrative. It's all on the surface. It's not interested in subtext. And yet, its execution of its narrative is just a half step out of phase with what we might expect from a film that's all narrative forward motion. It doesn't take its foot off the gas, per se, so much as it adds embellishing details along the way. One of those details is the congruence of the performances by the actors playing the alien criminal. All of them have collaborated such that they are all recognizably the same character, whether they're played by Claudia Christian or Ed O'Ross. Claudia Christian gets the most arresting version of the character, done up as she is in a stripper outfit with thigh high red boots and a dress that goes all the way down in the back, but the little smile Chris Mulkey gives from behind the wheel during the opening chase is equally disarming.

Perhaps the key pleasure to be had from The Hidden is Kyle MacLachlan's performance as Gallagher, which is just a half-step behind or ahead of the world around him. He's out of phase and MacLachlan performs it perfectly. Two of the film's best jokes come from this otherness: when he's handed an Alka-Seltzer tablet to cure a hangover and is told he must put it in the water rather than eat it straight, then when he's handed a couple of aspirin in a later scene and he drops them into a glass of water, too. Gallagher's parallel taste in cars with his quarry is funny too. Watching all this with the benefit of hindsight, one can see the actor trying on the persona of Dale Cooper three years before the fact. His partner, Michael Nouri, isn't nearly so fun to watch until he clues into the fact that his partner is an alien. That happens late in the film. Before that, his performance is a bundle of cop-movie cliches. But that doesn't really harm the film.

The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden (1987)

There are some icky special effects in The Hidden. Just enough to slant the film in the direction of a minor genre classic. When the first victim opens his mouth and a set of insectile legs come out, it's plumbing a deep, atavistic revulsion. The rest of the scene only makes it worse. But this isn't generally a special effects movie beyond this. Most of the pleasures to be had are found in familiar character actors like Richard Brooks, Clu Gulager, and Clarence Felder, and in a soundtrack that usually sounds like a low-budget compromise to music rights that never the less includes songs by the likes of The Lords of the New Church and Concrete Blonde. This is a film positioned at the tail end of Hollywood's demonized relationship with punk and metal, and that vague prejudice fixes it indelibly in its time. Still, it plays pretty well even to a contemporary audience, in part because of its breathless forward momentum. It's not a film that pads its length. It's efficient with its resources and with its narrative focus. Even if it doesn't measure up to something like The Terminator or Die Hard, it shares with those films a philosophy of action that's stripped down for speed.

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Anonymous said...

Big fan of THE HIDDEN. It's inaccurate however, to say that it was 'barely released in theaters'. It opened in over 1,000 theaters and grossed the equivalent of $21M in today's money.

Tito Catalan said...

I've been a fan of "The Hidden" since I first saw it on cable TV in the late 80s' Just recently watched a new, HD rip of this movie and was amazed at how well it still plays out: fast paced, gory, witty dialog, black humor, etc. Though with a budget visibly lower than 1987's ROBOCOP, "The Hidden" can play as its bright little cousin. Both films hold amazingly well today, are lightning fast paced and deal in concepts (like what makes us human) that are still very much in vogue in today's sic-fi flicks (Like "The Matrix" or the superb new "Blade Runner 2049").
Although films like ROBOCOP and The Terminator garner all the praise in 80's cutting edge sic-fi, "The Hidden" can very well stand up there with those cult classics.