Friday, August 19, 2011

Top of the Food Chain

After a 15-year hiatus from making feature films, Canadian auteur John Paizs returned with a wickedly funny, little-seen 1950’s alien invasion parody, Top of the Food Chain (1999). He was no stranger to deconstructing genres as he had satirized the B-crime/noir previously with Crime Wave (1985). However, this film actually featured two recognizable name actors with Campbell Scott and Tom Everett Scott. Sadly, they could not save this gem from obscurity where it has been languishing on home video. However, it was the beginning of a cycle of films that parodied ‘50s B-movies, along with Psycho Beach Party (2000), The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (2001), and more recently Alien Trespass (2009). For my money, Paizs’ film is the funniest of the bunch as it pokes fun at the repressed attitude towards sex that was indicative of that era and brings the kinkiness right up front with hilarious results.


The town of Exceptional Vista looks like the aftermath of a George Romero zombie invasion: deserted, abandoned cars littering the streets with run-down-looking buildings everywhere. It seems that the Fine Nuts factory (“The finest nuts in the western central northeast.”) closed down and moved to Left Hemisphere some time ago with almost all of the other businesses following suit. What a perfect spot for the beginning of an alien invasion! A hapless fisherman is the first victim when he encounters a beautiful woman who asks him, “Would you like to perform the copulatory act with me?” The fact that her come-on is right out of a science textbook should send up a red flag but it’s too late for this backwoods angler.

A few of the remaining townsfolk hang out at the general store where they complain about the lack of television reception. Among them is Mayor Claire (Bernard Behrens), a character who seems to be channeling Star Trek’s Dr. McCoy with incredulous exclamations like, “By the beheaded John the Baptist…” or “By the blessed fruit of Mary’s womb!” The beautiful Miss Sandy Fawkes (Fiona Loewi) shows up with news that Dr. Karel Lamonte (Campbell Scott), the most brilliant atomic scientist at the atomic academy, will be staying at her motel. She encounters him lurking at the back of the store, perusing a pig fetishist magazine (called Pig Parliament no less?!) He is the typical brainy scientist albeit with some kinky twists that become apparent later on.

Dr. Lamonte soon encounters other significant townsfolk. There’s Officer Gayle (Hardee T. Lineham) who takes an instant dislike to the professor. Guy Fawkes (Tom Everett Scott) is Sandy’s dimwitted brother with whom she seems to have an incestuous relationship. Also staying at the motel is Michel O’Shea (Nigel Bennett), a little too-friendly traveling salesman who specializes in vacuums. In most alien invasion films it is the people who act strangely that we suspect are from another world but in Top of the Food Chain everyone is odd.

While hiking through the lumpy bumpy part of town outside of town, Dr. Lamonte discovers the decomposing remains of someone and dutifully informs Gayle and the mayor. Meanwhile, the townsfolk are being picked off by the aliens. Just who are they? Is it, as Mr. O’Shea speculates, some sort of man-eating Sasquatch-type thing roaming the countryside, or quite possibly a gang of genetically engineered serial killers, possibly devil worshippers?

Campbell Scott doesn’t do many comedies but displays fantastic comic timing in this film as a straight-laced (sort of) scientist. The actor nails the stuffy, uptight archetypal ‘50s egghead with uncanny fidelity, right down to the authoritative voice all these characters seem to have, which makes his kooky dialogue that much funnier. The 1990’s were a great decade for Scott as he appeared in such diverse fare as Singles (1992), Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), and The Spanish Prisoner (1997). Top of the Food Chain demonstrated his knack for broad, farcical comedy.

Canadian television screenwriters and co-producers Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde (Kung Fu: The Legend Continues) were looking for a director with the right sensibilities for their unusual screenplay and happened to catch John Paizs’ first feature film Crime Wave one night on pay T.V. and were taken with its deadpan humor and faux-Technicolor look. They wanted Top of the Food Chain to have the same look. Afterwards, they knew he was the right person for the job. He was sent a copy of the script in 1994. Paizs developed his comedic sensibilities directing episodes of the T.V. show The Kids in the Hall whose oddball, often surreal humor was perfect for this film. He described it as “an amalgam of a certain kind of rural comedy and the 50’s sci-fi picture. Or as a sort of cinematic platypus.”

The filmmakers called Campbell Scott’s agent and asked if he was interested in being in the film. He was drawn to the project for the chance to work with Paizs after seeing and enjoying Crime Wave, and to also dispel the notion that he was not funny. He also had a fondness for old ‘50s monster movies and used to watch them on T.V. as a child. “It was perhaps the only era where science was considered sexy.” Lalonde and Bedard had previously cast Fiona Loewi in the T.V. series John Woo’s Once a Thief and were impressed with her work and cast her in the film. She had done a lot of dramatic work and was drawn to this film for the chance to do something different, funnier.

Top of the Food Chain took years to finance because it was such unusual project but producer Suzanne Berger found a wealthy investment banker in New York City who wanted to invest in a film. Scott signed on a week before production began and this helped secure the last bit of financing the filmmakers needed. The film was shot over five weeks in the summer of 1998 in a former G.E. factory in west-end Toronto. Paizs encouraged Loewi to improvise and she “sexed up the character to a degree not seen on the page,” the director remembered. She said, “we were allowed to experiment – Campbell and I would make up our own little bits.”

The production mostly eschewed CGI in favor of old school prosthetic and animatronic effects mostly because of the small budget they had to work with but also to give the film a campy, retro feel. F/X and makeup artist Paul Jones tried to keep the opticals to a minimum, “so all the transformation in the movie is in the camera.”

In his review for Variety, Ken Eisner wrote, “Not everything in the script works, but there's so much irreverent, movie-loving stuff flying at you, it hardly matters. Real belly laughs come only occasionally, but the chortle-out-loud factor is almost 90%.” The Montreal Gazette’s John Griffin wrote, “With any justice in this darned old world it will become the cult movie about cult movies by which all cult movies about cult movies are judged.” The Toronto Star’s Peter Howell wrote, “Paizs and his cast obviously had a ball making this film; at times they can barely keep straight faces. But they make this cheeseball roll, if a little too slowly at times. Most impressive are the retro-riffic special effects, which are better than you'd expect for a movie with a budget of about $1.98.” However, the Calgary Herald’s Katrina Onstad wrote, “Despite some smiley moments and good intentions, Top of the Food Chain never generates the big laugh payoff. In comedy, that's an issue.” In his review for the Village Voice, Dennis Lim wrote, “the movie seems curiously off-target, like a spoof of a spoof, and for every moment of throwaway lunacy, there are too many that turn Mystery Science Theater-style lampoon into heavy lifting.”

No matter how ridiculous things get (and they get pretty wacky), the cast plays it straight, never winking knowingly at the camera, which makes the crazy dialogue they say even funnier. Bedard and Lalonde’s script is very clever with many laugh-out loud moments. These guys are obviously big fans of ‘50s B-movies as they serve up many of their clichés and then poke fun while also celebrating them. This is an affectionate satire. They have a deliciously warped sense of humor that comes out in their dialogue, which apes the often stilted speak of those old films. Much like Psycho Beach Party would do a year later, Top of the Food Chain takes all the sexual subtext of those old B-movies and brings it right to the surface with hilarious results. It is one of the funniest, little known alien invasion spoofs with a perverse sense of humor that gives it an added zing. When it was released on home video in the United States it was unfortunately renamed Invasion! and deserves to be the kind of cult film that people quote from fondly.


SOURCES

“Acting: The Sweet Hair After.” Toronto Star. March 8, 2000.

Files, Gemma. “Cannibals from Outer Space!” Eye Weekly. September 9, 1999.

McKay, John. “Sci-Fi Success.” Hamilton Spectator. September 10, 1999.

Schaefer, Glen. “Sexy Star Sizzles in Sci-Fi Film.” Vancouver Province. March 16, 2000.


Top of the Food Chain Production Notes. 1999.

4 comments:

  1. Well this is a B movie I've never heard of, but it's one that falls comfortably into the category that I've long explained away as "guilty pleasure." I am intrigued by the story you relate here and will do some investigating from this end. As always an acutely comprehensive and appreciative piece.

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  2. Sam Juliano:

    A guilty pleasure for sure. It is a fun film and funny as hell with an inspired performance by Campbell Scott.

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  3. Absolutely one of the darkest and funniest films ever committed to celluloid! Completely oddball and fearless, and funnier than nearly any film coming out of America in recent memory. Took a Canadian film to show 'em how it's done, eh? Hard to find, though, but seek it out and you will well rewarded with a bizarre mix of Monty Python, David Lynch, and 50's B-movie schlock.

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  4. Eric Chu:

    Well said! I couldn't agree more. This is a hilarious oddball film that deserves to be discovered by a larger audience.

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