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By Vernor Rodgers
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Both movies reviewed in this column are not theatrical releases.  They are available on the streaming services.  

"ATTACK OF THE UNKNOWN"

Yeah, E.T. was sweet and cute and the cordial meeting of humans and aliens in "Close Encounters" was a feel-good moment, but some of us just love to see menacing, killing-machine beasts from outer space -- the xenomorphs from the "Alien" movies and the millions of invaders from "Independence Day" and whatever the hell was going on in "The X-Files."

Director, writer and actor Brandon Slagle ("House of Manson," "Crossbreed") has followed up his last directorial effort, the demonic possession horror movie "The Dawn", with a nice, taut sci-fi thriller in "Attack of the Unknown," where visitors from outer space arrive on Earth with "we come in peace" being the furthest thought from their minds.

Rather than showing the mass destruction, Slagle's script, based upon a story by Michael Mahal and Sonny Mahal, focuses on an LAPD SWAT team unit as it captures a  crime syndicate boss, Miguel "Hades" Aguirre (Robert LaSardo) in a deadly shootout, then is in the process of transporting Aguirre to a county jail when the alien attack gets intense.

Richard Grieco, who some of us older people may remember as Officer Dennis Booker in the late 1980s TV series "21 Jump Street" -- although I most remember him for his menacing performance as a man rendered a feline-ish beast via genetic experiment gone awry in "Tomcat: Dangerous Desires" in the early 1990s -- is Vernon (not often you see gritty, courageous guys named Vernon), a grizzled veteran on LAPD and pretty much second in command under the calm and collected SWAT unit leader Maddox (Douglas Tait). Just before the Aguirre transport detail Vernon is presented some bad health news, which he accepts with a laconic "this is what I get for living this life" attitude.

The SWAT group, still reeling from the loss of a colleague in the Aguirre shootout, suddenly faces new issues when its transport vehicle crashes into a building because the driver and shotgun passenger have been  killed. Quickly realizing that something terrible is transpiring, the team flees on foot, with a vacationer-podcaster, Dallas Zhang (Johnny Huang) in tow. They make it to the jailhouse only to realize they are pretty much trapped in there.

Meanwhile, Aguirre seems to be the only person who is not surprised at what is happening and upon questioning he details a supposed Mexican myth about creatures from outer space coming to Earth occasionally and killing people and wiping towns clean. This is initially dismissed but the reality of the situation leads the people to accept there might be something to this old tale.

Along with trying to survive despite overwhelming odds, there is the underlying dynamic of the SWAT unit instilled with the determination to take a bullet for each other. Hannah (Jolene Andersen) is the only woman in the group but is greatly respected -- and her expertise in electronics comes in handy. These police officers face death with almost a smirking, fatalistic humor while never giving up hope.

As expected, the body count grows and it seems this is the end. But there is always a solution.

Slagle and company took a risk in actually showing the beings in great detail, including the deadly tentacles the creatures use. Watching these aliens stalking around can lead to triggered memories of those laughable space creatures in cheap getups that made old sci-fi menaces-from-outer-space pictures so silly. But these "Attack of the Unknown" foot soldiers are pretty decent in their total lack of character and dedication to their mission.

I have admired directors like Slagle who have been able to produce movies that likely are not lavishly bankrolled but look like crisp productions. The special effects in "Attack," especially the panoramic views of destruction in Los Angeles, are impressive.

A note: Although Tara Reid gets top billing in "Attack of the Unknown," she does not appear until around 57 minutes into the movie. That is all I will say about that.

 

"SKIN: A HISTORY OF NUDITY IN THE MOVIES"

I met actress Diane Franklin in 2013 at Texas Frightmare Weekend in Dallas and she surprised me by urging me to send her a friend request on Facebook. I did and she accepted the request. Since then I have seen Franklin use Facebook as well as Twitter and Instagram to keep her fans apprised of not only her latest projects but those of her daughter Olivia DeLaurentis (TV series "Apocalypse Goals") and more recently her son Nicholas, a musician.

It was Diane Franklin who made me aware this documentary, "Skin: A History of Nudity in the Movies," in various social media posts. Directed by Danny Wolfe, who also co-wrote it with Paul Fishbein, "Skin" is an unabashed look at the evolution of nudity in film that is rich with commentary from historians and critics as well as performers -- women mostly of course -- providing their insights on taking off their clothes for scenes, and the ramifications.

Franklin appears to have more screen time than the other actors and actresses in the film and offers her thoughts on the positive and negative aspects. Among her observations early in the documentary she says, "As an actress, once I did nudity, I went from being a girl to a woman. . . I became an actress to an artist."

Wolfe presents historical information from such people as Mat Gleason, an art historian; Jonathan Kuntz, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; Irv Slifkin, author of "Groovy Movies"; Thomas Doherty, author of "Pre-code Hollywood"; Barry Kemelhor, publisher of Celebrity Sleuth magazine; Amy Nicholson, film critic at KPCC; David Del Valle, historian and author of "Lost Horizons Beneath the Hollywood Sign"; Liz Goldwyn, of the Sex Ed podcast, director of the documentary "Pretty Things" and granddaughter of movie icon Samuel Goldwyn; Joan Graves, senior VP and chair of the rating organization MPAA; film critics Mick LaSalle and Richard Roeper; and Russ Meyer biographer Jimmy McDonough.

Many students of film are familiar with the history of nudity in movies. It has been kiddingly suggested that 20 minutes after the technology of moving pictures became a reality someone came up with the idea of filming people nude, thus those classic short strips of men and women strolling around unclothed. In a way, Thomas Edison helped usher in nudity in films. Falsely claiming he invented the movie camera -- it actually had been created in Europe -- he nevertheless was able to obtain the patent and then set up The Trust, which enforced the decree that those making movies had to pay a fee for the privilege. This triggered a movement toward independent production, the early version of the indy film market that would be able to skirt the content codes of later decades.

One of the ways filmmakers could inject nudity in films was to exploit the Supreme Court decision that nudity per se was not obscene. And in the early years, nudity was acceptable if the person being filmed was not moving. This helped propel Audrey Munson into superstardom of the early 1900s as she would be undressed, but simply posed. However, Munson's life was tragic. She attempted suicide but ended up living 104 years, mostly in a sanitarium, which helped fortify the conviction that posing nude was a sin that led to ruin.

Indeed, nude scenes in those early decades of the 20th century were devoid of sexuality, with the exception of Cecil B. Demille's "Sign of the Cross," which did show some lackluster orgies. But the most sensational scene was that in the movie "Ecstasy," in which Hedy Lamar would forever be known as the first mainstream actress to go nude. And even that scene is more comical than erotic, as while she is skinny-dipping in a lake, the horse on which she has draped her clothes wanders off, forcing her to scamper through the woods in the buff, trying to track down the wayward animal.

In the movie "Wings," the first-ever Best Picture Academy Award winner, Clara Bow is in a scene that shows a glimpse of toplessness, but it is a standard scene of someone caught in a room either partially or fully undressed, frantically trying to cover exposed body areas.

The film industry did decide to regulate itself and hired Postmaster General Will Hayes to be in charge of content guidelines, hence the Hays Code, which was established with the association of the Catholic League of Decency.  But for years it was not enforced. The film industry used such strategies as to make movies about native cultures, known for various stages of undress, which led to Tarzan being able to skinny-dip with Jane, the first nude scene in which a body double was used.

By the 1930s, the production code became more powerful under the guidance of Joseph Breen and things were pretty tame until the 1950s, when the nudie films came out. Mostly cheap and meant for limited booking, these films, primarily set in nudist colonies, were pretty boring. There is only so much excitement in seeing naked people cavorting in swimming pools or playing volleyball.

Russ Meyer then showed up on the scene with his silly "The Immoral Mr. Tees," a movie he made in four days at a cost of $24,000. The plot, in which a man, injected with novocain at a dentist's office suddenly can see all the women around him naked, allowed the nudie to break through the barrier of the nudist camp. So the era of the nudie cuties was born. Interestingly, a woman name Doris Wishman directed such nudie cuties, usually featuring a generously endowed star named, of course, Chesty Morgan.

A subset of the nudies were those with a bit of menace, the monster nudies that eventually led to the gore nudies of Hershel Gordon Lewis, considered the granddaddy of the sex and murder horror films that took off in the 1980s.

When Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren brought nudity more into the mainstream, things began to loosen up. Such movies as "Blow Up," "I Am Curious Yellow" and "The Pawnbroker" were helping mainstream Americans accept nudity in movies, and with that, foreign films, much more revealing, were being released in the U.S.

Naturally, there came a need for a rating system to help the potential viewers know more about the content and decide whether their children should see a movie. The upper level rating of R and X were supposed to be enforced as to prohibit children under age 18 (or 17) from being allowed in movies unless accompanied by an adult, or in the case of X, not at all.

The ratings system allowed for more gritty and violent movies like "Midnight Cowboy" and "A Clockwork Orange" to not only be released widely but also critically acclaimed.

By the end of the 1970s, movies with nudity were pretty common. The one problem with the ratings system was that the adult film industry pretty much stole the non-copyrighted X rating, labeling its movies with X ratings, causing a clouding of what was a mainstream adult-oriented movie and what was just pornography, hence the readjusting of the code that introduced the NC-17 rating.

Interspersed within "Skin" are comments from actresses -- and actors like Malcolm McDowell, Eric Roberts and Bruce Davison -- on their thoughts and experiences in doing nude scenes.

Kristine DeBell, who starred in an initially X-rated version of "Alice in Wonderland" in the early 1970s, says her experience during the filming "was a journey into sexual discovery. I was young and I could relate to it."

She admits she really did not know what she was signing on for, "but it was a role. I was a character and that character had to be naked." She expresses her delight that the movie later was released on video in a trimmed down R-rated version, thus making it more mainstream.

Camille Keaton, who starred in the vicious "I Spit on Your Grave," is a horror convention favorite who willingly talks about this film, which is probably the first female revenge flick in which her character, sexually assaulted by four men, extracts some nasty avenging.  Keaton says the role allowed her to be vulnerable but also resourceful and "could kill." The nudity, she admits, was a concern, "but there was a lot of respect" on the set.

Malcolm McDowell, who was a pacesetter with male nudity in the movie "If," says that it was his idea to have a full-nude sex scene in that movie but when it came to shooting it was somewhat reluctant. He did it anyway and noted that an assistant director actually walked off the set. McDowell also starred in "Caligula," a Roman Empire movie of decadence that also featured John Gielgud and Peter O'Toole. McDowell admits to being aghast at the movie when he saw it, noting that producer Bob Guiccione, also the publisher of Penthouse, "had no taste. Just look at his magazine."

Linda Blair says that after "The Exorcist" she did have a hard time finding work other than movies in which she was a haunted young woman, usually put in peril. She agreed to be in the movie "Chained Heat," at a time when women-in-prison movies were being churned out. Blair's experience was not a pleasant one. Regarding a scene in which her character is sexually assaulted by the warden, played by the late John Vernon, she recalls "He (Vernon) did not follow the rules of working with stunts. He hit me HARD. That was NOT OK." Blair says "The movie I signed on for was not the movie we were filming. They kept giving us script changes, and I'm thinking, This is not OK with me." Her co-star in the movie, Sybil Danning, points out, "If you didn't agree to do something, you didn't work."

Mariel Hemingway, who made an impression in "Personal Best" (1981) as an Olympic athlete who has a relationship with another female athlete (Patrice Donnelly), says she had to fight hard to get the role of Dorothy Stratten, the Playboy playmate eventually murdered by her boyfriend Paul (Eric Roberts), in "Star 80" because director Bob Fosse thought she was too tomboyish for the part. The fact that Hemingway had breast augmentation led to stories about what an actress is willing to do to get a job in a movie. But Hemingway says when she got the implants, "I got them for me."

Diane FranklinDiane Franklin, who wrote in her autobiography, "Diane Franklin: The Excellent Adventures of the Last American French-Exchange Babe of the '80s," wrote that being raised in a family of European descent meant she had no qualms about nudity but admitted in the book that she had trepidations about the nudity required in her role as Karen in "The Last American Virgin" and whether it was a wise career choice for her. Regarding the love scene she has with Rick (Steve Antin), she comments that she loves the scene. "It was slow and beautiful," she says, stating that it added the aspect of romance in what might  be seen by young men as just an opportunity to see a naked woman.,

Despite her willingness to do nude scenes, Franklin recalls "I didn't want to be a typecast as someone who just did nudity.

"I didn't know if anybody would take me seriously or let alone give me roles that would not make that demand," she adds.            

Sean Young, who was nude in "No Way Out" with Kevin Costner," says of being undressed in film, "It's double-edged. You want to be attractive enough (to do them), but not exploited."

Betsy Russell, of "Private School," adds this sentiment regarding being nude on film, "When am I ever going to look this good again?" and enjoys the idea of it being permanently on film.

Brinke Stevens, known in horror fan circles as a Scream Queen, looks with levity toward nudity, pointing out a continuity error in the shower scenes in "Private School" in which she is seen in the shower, then in the locker room drying off but in a following scene is back in the shower. She says "I did so many shower scenes I always thought of myself as the cleanest actress in Hollywood."

Director Amy Heckerling of "Fast Times at Ridgmont High" says that in the 1980s, studios would require certain amounts of nudity in movies. Didn't care how they were done, as long as they were there.

While some actresses, like Shannon Elizabeth, credit doing nudity with helping their careers, others admit to being reluctant and some report unfortunate consequences of doing nudity.

Cerina Vincent, who is featured as Areola, the foreign student in "Not Another Teen Movie" who is nude in every scene she is in, reveals she was not sure she should take the part. The comedy aspect of the film made it easier, but after the movie was released she endured some backlash, notably from fans of the Power Rangers TV series wherein she played the Yellow Galaxy Ranger. "Dealing with the world judging you afterward was something I was not prepared for," she says.

Rena Riffel, known for her duet nude dance with Elizabeth Berkley in "Showgirls," likened the scene to "jumping off a cliff, a small cliff." She said the scene turned into "a kind of soft-core porn performance," and in the aftermath her work in "Showgirls" had a negative impact in her relationships.

Perhaps the most harrowing after-effects of being nude in a movie were suffered by Erica Gavin, star of Russ Meyer's "Vixen."

"I wasn't ready to walk into a theater and see myself naked that big . . . and I attribute that night of the premiere to me becoming very ill, to the point I almost died. Seeing myself that big on a screen, I became totally anorexic and I was down to 76 pounds." Fortunately she has recovered.

"Skin" takes a look at the current sentiment in the film industry, with political correctness and the Me Too movement making the industry take precautions in dealing with nudity. Indeed, Alicia Rodis is an intimacy coordinator who says she is getting more work as filmmakers now are stepping lightly to make sure there is no exploitation or backlash regarding nudity in films.

Says Diane Franklin, actresses now "can choose to do nudity or not. If a woman's comfortable with it, that's great; and if they don't, that's fine too. It doesn't mean you're going to be given more or less opportunity. It just has to do with who you are."

"Skin" is a little more than two hours long, and is crammed with so many insights and film clips it is a worthy effort and really should be part of the library of a serious film buff.


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