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Tag Team Review: The Hidden

I’ll be wrapping up this year’s birthday project with some help from my man Joseph Sheldahl. Longtime readers may remember his contribution to last year’s birthday project, or the fan edit of Judge Dredd that I reviewed some time ago. Joe is still churning out articles over at Brutal Beta Reviews, specializing in nostalgic geek-worthy curiosities from the ’80s and ’90s. And boy, did he suggest a beauty for this project.

I do what I can, compadre. 

The Hidden was released in my birth year of 1987, which seemed nicely apropos for a birthday project. Even better, the film was written by Bob Hunt; a pseudonym for Jim Kouf, who would later go on to serve as a writer/producer on “Angel” before co-creating and exec-producing a little show called “Grimm.”

It stars Kyle MacLachlan, such a well-known cult favorite that he’s alternately best known as the Kwisatz Haderach, Special Agent Dale Cooper, the honorary mayor of Portland, or the guy who spent the second season of “Agents of SHIELD” tearing it up like he had any chance of winning an Emmy. Seriously, it’s not just anyone who can take part in a bomb like Showgirls and come out unscathed. He stars here alongside another prolific character actor named Michael Nouri, whose credits on IMDB number in the triple digits.

Believe it or not, I had only known Kyle solely from Dune when I first saw this movie. Of course my first reaction was, I need to see more of this guy. That quickly led to things like “Twin Peaks” and so on. However, even with that hefty number on Michael Nouri’s IMDB page, I’m still not overly familiar with him. I do see him here and there in small roles on TV shows and such. My first thought is always, “Hey, that’s the guy from The Hidden!” I wonder if he ever gets that in person sometimes, despite the fact this movie is relatively obscure.

Same here, I confess. The DVD blurb said that Nouri was the guy from Flashdance, and I was like “Oh yeah, he was… um… actually, I’m thinking of Dirty Dancing, who was this guy again?”

Anyway, the movie did quite well at the time of release, grossing $9.7 million against a $5 million budget. Yet that was only enough success to merit a DTV sequel released six years later. Though the film still has its rare few supporters, I’ve never heard it listed among other sci-fi horror films of the time. Everyone remembers ScannersVideodromeThe Thing, and Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly (Aliens, of course, is in a class of its own), but The Hidden never seems to appear on that list. Why is that?

That question is a damn good one given that the internet tends to have a whole chunk of it dedicated to finding older unknowns like this movie, digging them up, and plastering them all over several of those “20 Great Sci-Fi Movies You’ve Never Seen” lists. I often dig into lists like that to find stuff even I haven’t seen before and I find it crazy I never run into The Hidden, like, at all. 

As best I can figure it, the most likely reason is that the antagonist and the central conflict aren’t really all that interesting. The premise revolves around an alien symbiote who comes to Earth, takes over a human body, commits various murders and other crimes, then switches to another body when the one he’s in finally perishes. What is this alien doing here and what does he want? Great questions both.

As far as I can tell, the alien is here simply because it wants things. That’s it. The thing wants a Ferrari, he takes it. He wants to rob a bank, he does it. What would an alien want with cars or money or loud music? Fuck if I know.

He wants things simply because he wants things. That’s a pretty weak motivation for an antagonist, especially when we’re dealing with a story so cosmically epic in scope. Why would an alien (with the entire universe at his fingertips) come all the way out here to indulge in such petty — and quintessentially human — desires?

Actually, I think regardless of how well it does or doesn’t work- I thought it was clever. I always felt it was essentially a rejection of those grandiose and done-to-death tropes where the alien invader is always either here for our resources, or to take our bodies, and usually the two goals overlap. It’s always about colonization and big galactic empires quietly taking us over. Even human killers come in several different varieties. Not all killers have a big grand plan. Some just decide “fuck it, I wanna kill stuff and steal everything I can get my hands on.” I think it’s neat that for once we have an alien with the same mentality. We never see that. I’ll concede though that it does leave the narrative lacking, but I can’t complain personally. I felt it was unique and I liked it.

It certainly is unique, I’ll grant you that. Still, it’s such a damn shame that there’s a disconnect between the alien villain and his human impulses, because I get what the film was trying to go for. In a select few scenes, the filmmakers are good enough to let us know that the alien is supposed to be a metaphor for our own blind greed. It’s all about the politicians, the business executives, and even the horny catcallers on the street who are out to serve their own insatiable desires no matter who gets hurt along the way. It’s a very timely statement, especially from a decade that’s become notorious for excess.

I don’t think the movie even attempted to be that nuanced. I think it was as plain and simple as it was on the surface.  Then again, maybe I just never really thought about it. What was always interesting to me was how, as a viewer, we probably have more in common with the antagonist than the protagonist here.  As part of a consumer culture we’re always looking for the bigger, faster, louder movie. Faster cars, prettier women, more guns, a higher body count. Is that not the entire foundation for the alien’s character?

That’s exactly right. The alien’s adrenaline-fueled desires are a match for our own. That’s my point. And I’d argue that it’s why the alien’s targets include a coke-fueled businessman with more money and ego than brains, a dickhead who sexually harasses women, and a windbag politician (please forgive the redundancy) with presidential aspirations. The message is definitely there, but the filmmakers were good enough not to make it too overt. I just wish they could’ve done more with it than those few subtle nods, however. Unless you mean that the alien was supposed to be a commentary on moviegoers who demand increasingly more out of action films, and I’m not convinced that the film was quite clever enough to go that meta.

Actually yeah that is what I meant, and actually I do agree. I don’t think the film was clever enough to do that — intentionally, at least. But either way, the movie is interesting enough to merit such discussion. It could’ve been a lot worse. Anyhow…

Moving on, there may very well be another reason for why this film has fallen into obscurity: It is very much a product of its time. The fashions, hairstyles, and production design all show the kind of gaudy flamboyance that could only have been acceptable in the ’80s. If this was another way of commenting on 1980s excess, then mission accomplished. But it still dates the film nonetheless.

Even so, it must be said that the film looks really good. The editing is tight, the cinematography looks solid, and the effects (especially the practical ones) hold up surprisingly well. The action scenes are also very impressive, with some wonderfully tense shootouts and some car chases that look extraordinary. Granted, the car chases take place in an LA that’s miraculously void of traffic, but still. Also, the climax brings in a flamethrower as a payoff to one of the dumbest and laziest setups I’ve ever seen. But I can let that slide, because it’s Kyle MacLachlan with a flamethrower and all arguments are invalid.

Couldn’t agree more. This might be the third time I’ve seen the movie, and I don’t think I’ve ever really taken the time to notice how well it’s put together. The action scenes are exceptionally well staged, and you mentioned the editing — I’ll second that. It’s all great stuff. As a result the movie is energetic and snappy. Not a dull moment to be found. And yes, when you got the Kwisatz Haderach with a flamethrower, you can’t do anything but enjoy that shit.

This brings us to the film’s other saving grace: its two leading men. Michael Nouri does a fantastic job, injecting so much personality into what’s otherwise a rote hard-boiled homicide detective character. And as for Kyle MacLachlan, oh my fucking God. He plays another alien symbiote, disguised as an FBI agent with the purpose of tracking down the evil alien. His posture, his expressions, and his tone of voice all make it clear to the audience that he’s definitely not human, yet it’s not so blindingly obvious that we wonder why none of the other characters have caught on yet. MacLachlan expertly walks a very difficult line with this character, playing someone who just barely knows enough about humanity that he can pass himself off as eccentric without raising too many red flags.

Ditto. Kyle does an exceptional job with the part, playing some scenes for small laughs and others deadly serious but all through his character’s odd ways and expressions. This is probably one of my favorite roles of his. And again, I agree, Nouri does so much with so little. He breathes life into what could’ve been just a walking, talking, cliche. His character is probably the thousand and eleventh variation of the ‘tough but sensitive’ cop role. We’ve seen it all before, but somehow Nouri makes the character feel like just that. A character. Not an age-old cliche.

It’s the interactions between the two lead characters that really power this movie, as we watch them develop a working relationship and learn more about what they’re dealing with. They’re both especially good in the shootouts, when they move together and cover each other like seasoned vets. And of course, MacLachlan brings such an inscrutable mannerism to his performance that’s it’s genuinely interesting to watch as he slowly teases out exposition to his partner bit by bit.

You’ll find no argument from me there. Without the chemistry these two had, the movie might have deserved its obscurity. But they have fantastic chemistry and it carries the movie at times. They’re incredibly watchable.

Yet even this “good alien” suffers problems as well. There’s a feud between the two alien species, but we never learn anything about it. We know that the bad alien killed many of the good alien’s loved ones, but we don’t learn why. This whole conflict is the centerpiece of the movie, and it really only boils down to “this alien is good for no reason, this alien is bad for no reason, and the good one has to stop the bad one just because.”

That doesn’t bother me much because, again, I think that’s still just a side-effect of the movie’s fundamental rejection of typical Hollywood alien tropes. It’s always explained ad nauseum why certain characters do certain things. Aliens invade for our resources because they screwed up their planet, and good aliens always dole out the speech about how mankind has potential and love triumphs all — but here is a movie content to boil it down to the absolute basics and trust the audience to follow along and be okay with that. I’m one of the ones who is okay with that. It’s a lean cop thriller revenge movie… with a sci-fi twist. 

As a side note though, I listened to the dialog carefully and I pretty sure that they could’ve been more clear — but I don’t think that there was a feud at all per se. If I followed right, the bad alien’s “kind” are simply predisposed to being this way. If there was any squandered potential, it was in the fact that the story wasn’t equipped to facilitate much elaboration. There were lots of interesting concepts I wanted to know more about as is, and we just don’t get to.

There are certainly benefits to keeping the story lean and only giving out the bare minimum. For instance, it means less time with exposition, which in turn means more time for action. Then again, the film is only 96 minutes long, so it’s not like there wasn’t any room for five more minutes to give a better idea of what was going on. Then again, I’m sure the low budget was a factor in keeping the running time down.

It’s tempting to think that the film demanded a sequel, since there’s so much potential here that could easily have been built upon with another 90-minute entry. Such a shame that the sequel (reportedly) sucked so hard, then.

(Side note: Looking over the film’s Wikipedia page, it looks like Danny Trejo put in a cameo as one of the prisoners. I’m sorry to say I didn’t catch him. Did you?)

I did actually! He was the one yelling and subsequently the one who was promptly shot by the alien. Always nice to see him around.

To be clear, The Hidden is a good movie that really does earn recognition as a hidden gem. The effects hold up really well, the action looks great, and the various plot reveals are paced in a compelling way. And of course, MacLachlan and Nouri are worth the price of admission by themselves. It’s just a damn shame that there was so much untapped potential in the premise of two alien species at war with each other, and the sci-fi metaphor for unchecked greed doesn’t land nearly as well as it should.

I might not agree about the untapped potential bit, because I think it intentionally set out to do something apart from that, and I’m okay with the end result.

Still, if anyone out there is a fan of ’80s monster horror and sci-fi with practical effects, you’ll definitely want to track this one down.

On that, I wholeheartedly agree. 

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