Day the World Ended (2001)

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The passing of Samuel Z. Arkoff was inevitable, but that didn't make it any less of a blow. Arkoff did more for horror, science fiction, cult film and even mainstream cinema that can be gauged. Not only did he give a number of film pioneers their start, he revolutionized the way films were made and marketed, sometimes not in that order. With James Nicholson, he headed American International Pictures and oversaw several decades worth of the great drive-in classics. He passed away in 2002, at the ripe old age of 83. Rest in peace, big guy, we'll miss you.

One of his last projects was the Creature Features line. The idea behind Creature Features is pretty interesting. It started out as a collaboration between Arkoff and Stan Winston, someone else who was greatly inspired by AIP.

The original plan was to remake many of the old studio classics with updated special effects and release them for cable television. They did something similar in the 60s which led to such Larry Buchanan opuses as THE EYE CREATURES, ZONTAR THE THING FROM VENUS and IN THE YEAR 2889, a remake of - yes, DAY THE WORLD ENDED. It worked before, so why not again?

But as the directors were getting signed and the screenwriters were brought in, it very quickly took on a life of it's own. The films made for the Creatures Features line start with the title and maybe have some vague reference tucked away somewhere in the script, but after that it's anyone's guess. They use the title as the premise and allow the writers and directors to branch out from there, however they want. Oh sure, it smacks of shameless exploitation, but this is Arkoff we're talking about. Are we really going to complain about the use of old titles when many of his films have actually lifted entire reels from earlier releases? This is a wonderful idea in keeping with the spirit of classic drive-in entertainment.

Which leads us to the all-new DAY THE WORLD ENDED. Now, before I start on the review proper, I need to admit a certain amount of bias. I love Nastassja Kinski. Really, absolutely adore her. Not only is she possibly the most radiant person to walk the earth, she is also extremely intelligent and talented. I'll see almost anything she's in which has led to a great amount of personal pain. Since the beginning, she has generally appeared in some incredible films, many average films and even more films that are the bottom of the barrel. If you ever wanted to see a prime example of talent being wasted, look at some of the straight-to-video sludge Kinski has been subjected to over the past ten years or so.

Thankfully, while no TESS or PARIS TEXAS, DAY THE WORLD ENDED is better than most recent Nastassja efforts. We open with Kinski (who still looks great) playing Dr. Jennifer Stillman, a child psychologist about to set up shop in a quaint small town. Small towns have always been good fodder for horror films. Sure, it's hard to take the police seriously in those funny hats, but that's beside the point. They are picturesque and inviting, but isolated and unfamiliar enough to make all sorts of sordid conspiracies more plausible. If this idea was on the way out in the eighties, David Lynch corrected that forever with BLUE VELVET.

She gets to know a troubled little boy named Ben (Bobby Edner), who seems to be ridiculed and persecuted by both the children and adults in the town. He is looked upon as a freak. When he talks about his father being from another planet, it doesn't seem to help matters any. Nor does it help that he says his dad is coming back for him, and for revenge. Oh yes, he can also make people bleed without touching them. Easy to forget stuff like that.

Since his mother's mysterious death some years before, Ben has been cared for by the town doctor, McCann (Randy Quaid). He seems to have a genuine love for the boy and helps bail him out when he gets in trouble, but he seems to have something to hide and asks Stillman to mind her own business.

Then things really heat up. Ben sees a shooting star and swears his alien father has returned from him. And then the murders start happening, murders that seem focused on a select few townspeople. Is the alien daddy story for real or could it be something even more complex?

The tapestry of this small town is made up of a lot of familiar faces. There's Randy Quaid of course. Also on board is Harry Groener (Mayor Richard Wilkins on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER) as the sheriff. Once you bring in Stephen Tobolowsky (GROUNDHOG DAY, SNEAKERS), it's clear that this film has more character actors than you can shake the corpse of Slim Pickens at.

The small town also has some of the quaint charm of earlier archetypes. Most endearing is the fact that they don't have any yellow police tape for the crime scenes, once the bodies start piling up. It also uses the archetype of the insidious small town well. The victims are targeted for a reason, and it all seems to revolve around a seemingly innocent child.

The film does fail in some unexpected areas. Most surprising is the sub-par job by Stan Winston and his underlings. There are a couple shots of the monster where the old beast does look menacing. This is mainly when the eyes are visible. But for the most part, the monster and some of the surprisingly graphic killings are very unconvincing. The gore is on the level of some 1980s low-budget efforts and it makes the mistake of actually pulling you out of the story.

The other complaints are minor. There are times when Dr. Stillman seems a bit too pushy in trying to get Ben to reveal his past. She has the best intentions of course, but let's remember she did just arrive in town. You might want to survey the case for a couple weeks before trying to dig up some Deep Childhood Trauma. There are also a couple small town vignettes that transcend amusing and become downright silly, particularly when Dr. Stillman becomes a suspect in murders she would be physically incapable of committing.

But what is most interesting about DAY THE WORLD ENDED is what a pleasant surprise it is. This is a very psychological horror film with some great characters. It delves into Ben's psychology and how others react around him. Does Ben fixate on wild fantasies to make up for a parents absence, or is a dangerous parental force really settling old scores?

Director Terence Gross (HOTEL SPLENDIDE) creates a great atmosphere of paranoia and skillfully switches between the horror as seen through Ben's eyes and the horror as seen by the newcomer, Dr. Stillman. Just when we are comfortable in a pattern, he turns the tables on us. We think the terror is regulated to the woods. Not so. We thing that the monster only comes out at night. Uh-uh. Surely, there's safety in numbers? Wrong again.

I'm a big fan of the original DAY THE WORLD ENDED, which I saw as part of a Roger Corman triple feature years ago, at the Walker Art Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. While tipping it's hat to it's roots, this new version goes off in it's own direction that is nonetheless respectful of the original's tone.

Some B-movies of yesteryear were torn between the need to supply some shameless entertainment with the desire for something deeper. That is the aura captured here. It may be far from what Nastassja Kinski is capable of, but DAY THE WORLD ENDED is a fine film in it's own right. Genuinely creepy and a real find for people who can't decide between psychological terror and popcorn-munching exploitation.

Reviewed by Scott W. Davis