SATURDAY MORNING B-MOVIE CRAPFEST: “Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe” (1991)

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON 9/12/09

I’ve never quite understood the concept behind the ripoff or the knockoff. Perhaps it’s simply because I’m a moderately creative person myself, and hence it’s fairly easy for me to come up with my own ideas, or perhaps it’s because I’ve never made a dime on any of my creative pursuits, and hence I’m just kind of ignorant of the financial realities involved, but I just don’t get it. I mean, I understand hommages, sequels, re-imaginings, narrative debts of honor, I even understand the rationale behind remakes in some rare circumstances, and I can even understand knockoffs in things like toys (“Ok, so we’ll make them look just like GI Joes, but with slightly different names, and we’ll call them ‘Government Issue Jose’ and the parents will mistakenly buy them for their kids because what parent gives a crap what their kids are watching, anyway? Then we can ride on Hasboro’s coattails”), but in film it’s mostly beyond me. In this instance, I can not for the life of me understand why anyone would be attempting to rip off “The Terminator” in 1991, seven years after the original movie came out. What? Like no one would remember that movie?

The Terminator (1984) was itself a fairly blatant ripoff of an Outer Limits episode from 1964, “Demon with a Glass Hand,” written by Harlan Ellison, and starring Robert Culp: Time Traveler from the future with the fate of the world (Literally) in his hands travels back in time to save the human race, while pursued by nasty killy things from the future, and is befriended/assisted by a 20th century gal from LA. The difference is that James Cameron (A writer/producer/director of unquestionable talent that I none-the-less have very mixed feelings about) decided to rip off Harlan’s story and shift the focus from the Time Traveler to the Gal, turning the story in to an odd riff on the Virgin Mary story: What if the Messiah’s mom was a totally kickass babe, who saved the future with her own two gun-totin’ hands? (And Connor is unquestionably intended as a Messiah figure. It’s no coincidence that his initials are “J.C.”) So while he unquestionably ripped off Ellison’s story as a framework, and there would have been no “Terminator” without “Demon,” Cameron at least shifted the focus and went somewhere different with the story, so at least he’s got that going for him.

“Abraxis,” though, wow. Just a mess. Of course I don’t call this feature “Saturday Morning B-Movie Crapfest” because I’m exposing you kids to Fellini here, now do I?

PLAY BY PLAY

We start out with the future ex-Governor of Minnesota, Jessie “The Body” Ventura, strapped to a chair, grimacing in mock pain, and randomly bleeding while a computer does something to make his skin ‘strong as steel’ and asks him questions. We find out that he’s a 9000 year old alien cop working for some nebulously-defined universe-spanning police agency. There’s a lot of exposition in voiceover form (Delivered in a mock-Noir hardboiled detective style), and then he’s sent by “Warp Wormhole” to earth. There’s some patter from his bosses, two guys in a badly lit control room, one with Robert Smith hair, the other with Early 90s hair (This was a transitional period in the styling industry, after all) discuss how Araxes (Ventura) was once partnered with Secundus (Sven-Ole Thorsen), until Secundus went rogue a century or three back. We’re told that Secundus wants to knock up some earth female so he can produce something called a “Comator,” for nebulous purposes.

On earth, Abraxis and Secundus have a very low-budget fight in the snow-filled woods in upstate New York, until a Pontiac pulls up with some teens in it, and they start to make out. Well, the guy tries to make out, the girl - Sonia (Marjorie Bransfield) - will have none of it. Because, see, she’s the Virgin Mary character, get it? Secundus drags the guy out through the window of the car, then takes Sonia and impregnates her simply by laying his glowing hand on her belly. He then lets her go, and she stumbles through the snow while Abraxis gets the drop on Secundus. Captured, Secundus laughs and says that he’s already won - Abraxis can’t defeat him now without killing the girl, and his own sense of honor won’t let him do that. The two bosses with the disparate-yet-equally-bad hairstyles beam Secundus off to an alien hoosegow somewhere, and Araxes’ “Answer Box” - a little computer surgically implanted in his wrist - informs him that he has two minutes to kill the girl. Abraxis stalks her, finds her, and watches while a balloon inflates underneath her shirt to simulate an extremely rapid pregnancy, watches her deliver the kid, then turns and leaves.

Sonia wraps the baby up in a scarf, and walks back to town, giving some serious thought to drowning the child in the river on the way, but ultimately she decides not to. She tells her parents that the baby is hers, and her folks - evidently believing she got pregnant, went full term, and had a kid all in one night - think she’s a slut and disown her. She registers the kid as her own, and tells everyone who asks that she doesn’t know who the father is.

Jump forward five years: The little boy is named Joseph, and he’s very smart, but mute. He’s never said a word, never made a noise, even when he was a baby. He’s getting picked on at school, so the principle - Jim Belushi - has an ineffectual conversation with Sonia about this. Sonia works in the local organic foods shop, where Tommy, the new cop, makes goo-goo eyes at her, but never quite gets up the nerve to ask her out. We also discover that Joseph has some psychic powers that only come out when he’s angry or endangered.

The alien bosses with the equally tragic hair inform us via inexpensive exposition rather than expensive, showy action sequences, that Secundus has escaped his offscreen prison and is returning to earth via a Warp Wormhole. They send in Abraxis. Their wormholes accidentally touch (Which sounds kinda’ gay) and the two of them are deposited on earth, in the water, without any weapons.

From here on out - and we’re really only 15 or 20 minutes in to the movie - it’s all a tedious chase film, with Secundus attempting to find the boy, and Abraxis trying to get there first, and Sonia and Thomas running for their lives. Tommy the cop and his boss weave in and out of this to no great effect, and the Bad Hair Twins turn up at random intervals to exposit on things that have little or no bearing on the story. The bottom line, however, is that Secundus needs a biological computer - a “Comator” - to discover the “Anti-Life Equations,” which will turn him in to a god. Abraxis points out that Secundus already has virtual immortality and near-indestructibility, but Secundus points out that “Nearly” and “Virtual” aren’t good enough: “I will be a god. Anything less is death.” (The one good line in this terrible movie)

Eventually, Kyle Reese - I mean Abraxis, sorry - ends up finding Sarah Connor - excuse me, Sonia - and her son John Connor - Dammit! I mean Joseph, I don’t know what’s come over me - and then they’re on the run from Secundus, who’s frankly kinda’ bad at this whole ‘tracking’ thing. Team Abraxis holes up at a friend’s house outside of town, while Secundus randomly beats up people, scans some people to death that he thinks might have the Anti-Life equation in them (That’s right, scans them to death), frightens a stripper and roughs up some guys in a nudie-bar, and has a genuinely funny scene in a local restaurant where he eats the check at the end, thinking it’s the desert. He also gets taken down - briefly - by Tommy with an Uzi under his coat.

Ultimately, after a whole bunch of pointless running around and heavy-handed bonding scenes between Abraxis and Sonia (Who’s hot for his hulking, bald, pony-tailed frame. Must have been a Lit major), and Joseph, Secundus takes the local grade school hostage and threatens to kill all the kids unless The Comator is brought to him. Both Joseph and Abraxis separately and independently sneak in to the school to fix the situation, and Joseph gets to Secundus first. Secundus identifies him as his son, so to speak, which horrifies the boy (We’re assume. It’s obviously intended to, but we see little reaction on his face. He’s a kid, after all. Cut him some slack.) Then Abraxis breaks in, and we get some badly choreographed fight scenes which are clearly intended to reference Highlander, but don’t, and Joseph runs off. Secundus chases him, and Abraxis informs us that his plan is a long, drawn out game of cat-and-mouse to make Joseph emotionally fragile, and get his psychic comator powers up to the surface.

I sigh and settle in for yet another long, boring chase - but no! - we jumpcut to the end of the chase, when Secundus corners Joseph in a big abandoned warehouse, and then Abraxis comes in for another badly choreographed fight scene. Joseph freaks out, and we get some pyrotechnics as both the space cop and the rogue space cop are hurled from the building. Abraxis is hanging by his fingertips out the window, and the boy is on edge. “I couldn’t tell if he’d try to help me or blow me away,” he says, but ultimately, Sonia runs in and gathers up the boy while Abraxis pulls his own damn self up. He’s a big boy now, after all. After this anticlimactic climax, we get the obligatory lame ‘last gasp’ scene where Secundus isn’t dead, just pinin’ for the fjords or whatever, and he attacks Abraxis. Abraxis tries to twist his head off, but can’t, so ultimately he scans Secundus to death looking for the anti-life equation. Secundus disintegrates, and the Bad Hair Twins tell Abraxis to come home, but he tells them that Joseph is valuable enough that someone else might come after him, so he needs a full-time guard, and he’d like to be the guard. Also, he’s resigning from the force and staying on earth so he can have him some hot, burning Sonia-love and be a daddy and all. Oh, and can he please keep his answer box? He can? Great!

Tommy and the cops arrive and ask him if he’s really an extraterrestrial cop - this is really more a lucky guess than anything else, at various points, Tommy’s also said the guy is FBI and CIA - and Abraxis admits that he used to be, but he’s just Terrestrial now, and the drive off in Sonia’s car. As they drive off in to the sunrise - or sunset - it’s winter, so it’s kind of hard to tell in upstate New York - Sonia says “I’m glad you’re staying,” and as the last line in the movie, we hear Joseph’s first words, “Me too.”

THE END

OBSERVATIONS

Basically substitute “Aliens” for “Time Travelers,” and “Antilife Equation” for “The guy who eventually defeats Skynet” and “Upstate New York” for anything remotely visually interesting, and this movie IS the Terminator. The only real shift is that the action takes place while the Virgin Mary is pregnant in The Terminator, and During the Flight To Egypt in this version. Hell, we’ve even got the entirely-coincidental similarity that the ‘big name’ in both the movies went on to be governors.

It is amazingly, amazingly low budget - I’ve seen Fan Films with vastly higher production values than this. There are no real sets here - the houses are all really people’s houses, the cars are all their real cars, the small town is really a small town (Though I suspect it may be a Canadian small down, rather than an American one) - this can, in the right circumstances, add an engaging cinema verite feel to film, which is one of the things that the dogme movement tried (And mostly failed) to accomplish. None here, though, boy. Every scene feels about as spontaneous as a sorority girl’s photo album, with ten or twelve copies of the same picture, taken over and over again because one or another of them thinks they blinked when the previous snap was taken. It’s flat and dead, and curiously rushed and slow at the same time.

Sven-Ole Thorsen is actually kind of good in this movie. He’s clearly not an accomplished actor - he’s generally a bodybuilder and a stunt guy - but he’s got a kind of natural charisma to let him carry scenes like the one in the diner that otherwise would be just as flat and pointless as everything else in the movie. Curiously, he’s been in *fifteen* Schwarzenegger films in one capacity or another! He was the Russian General in Predator, for instance, and plays a gangster in Red Heat (Which also has Jim Belushi in it). His most prominent role is as “Tigris” in Gladiator.

Marjorie Bransfield is pretty and likeable enough as the Linda Hamilton wannabe, she even has the same hair Hamilton had in Beauty and the Beast. The few scenes where she actually gets to act show some genuine charm, but there’s not a lot of range here, and the scenes where her and Abraxis are sort of coming on to each other lack chemistry. I get the feeling one of the major purposes of this movie was to advance her career - there’s a ‘deliberate favor’ to much of the proceedings - but even when she’s front and center in the film, the direction and shot composition and stuff are so flat that it doesn’t really feel like she’s ‘front and center.’ She was married to Jim Belushi at the time this movie was made, which explains his out-of-nowhere cameo in it. They divorced a couple years later. She only made one movie after this, and as far as I can tell, this is her only staring role. I wonder if she was actually an actress, or if she was just given cameos in Belushi’s movies because she was his wife and always hanging around anyway. It’d be interesting to know.

Jessie “The Body” Ventura is certainly no Peter Boyle. Odd comparison, I know, but I found myself distracted by how much the two of them look alike, particularly in the unintentionally creepy scene in which a shirtless Abraxis sits up in bed telling stories to Joseph. He’s not always so wooden, he’s going for a Mr. Spock fish-out-of-water feel here, to emphasize his alienness, but between that and the flat direction, it’s just not working for him. Surprisingly, Ventura has had a long and moderately successful career in films, and I’ve even seen three of them - Predator, Batman and Robin, and The Running Man - but I’d completely forgotten he was in ‘em. I’m assuming from his flexography that he’s part of Schwarzenegger’s core posse, since he consistently seems to get cast in small roles alongside Der Governator and Sven-Ole. Even though none of these guys are exactly master thespians, and they’re clearly practicing a form of nepotism, I still find it all rather charming. Pitty the movies are mostly crap, though. "So. Vhat are you boys doink dis veekend?" "Sven and I are flying to upstate new york to costar in a cheap ripoff of one of your more iconic films." "Outrageous! Vill dere be Canadian Hookerz?" "Undoubtedly! Und Beer und vaffles too!" "Sven sure likes the waffles, doesn't he?" "Ya." "So, anyway, Arnie, I was thinking about how you're always saying you might want to go in to politics, and..." "Later! First tell me moah abowt zees vaffles and beer!"

There’s no real gore, and very little profanity in the film - mostly of the “What the hell?” kind - so I was pretty surprised that there’s a pointless little dustup in a nudie bar with a stripper on hand at the time. Granted, we don’t actually *see* anything you wouldn’t see at a hotel pool, but it seemed a bit out of place. Sure enough, I’ve since found there was a gratuitous nude scene in the movie, but it was cut out after the initial release. Sarah James is the stripper, in her final film role, of only three or four. I‘m always interested to know why people who‘ve got bit parts in two or three movies give up and drop out of the biz.

The “Answer Boxes” implanted in to Abraxis and Secundus’ wrists are very clearly modeled on the “Lenses” implanted in the Galctic Patrol from the Lensman saga by E.E. “Doc” Smith. In fact, the notion of semi-eternal galactic cops itself is obviously an open rip off of that series as well.

“Abraxas” is, of course, an ancient magic word a’la “Abra Cadabra.” It is occasionally claimed to be an Egyptian Demon, or possibly the Devil, and was commonly used in medieval alchemy, and is sometimes invoked in modern Satanism, but modern Satanism is 99% total hokum anyway, so it’s just a case of them appropriating an ancient word to spook people with. Still, it's a word with generally negative connotations, so it's an odd choice for a hero. In actual fact, no one’s quite fully aware of the origins or meaning of the word, but a good place to find out more info about it is here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraxas

“Secundus” is an old, rather generic Latin name. It literally means “Second son.” The feminine form is “Secunda”

The “Anti-Life Equations” that Secundus is searching for is obviously the same Anti-Life Equation that Darkseid the Destroyer is searching for in DC Comics, and for pretty much exactly the same purpose: He’s already a small-g-god, he wants to capitalize that first letter and rebuild the universe in his own warped image.

So as terrible as it all was, and as pointless and obvious a knockoff of Terminator (and hence Demon with a Glass Hand) as it all was, and as much as I didn’t like it, it kind of took me back to those heady days immediately after college where my friends and I sat around writing incredibly half-assed low-budget ‘thrillers’ that were not at all thrilling in hopes of becoming the next…uhm…well, I don’t know who, exactly. Somebody who got famous by writing and directing films like these. I want to say Robert Rodriguez, but he actually has talent, and none of us did, so obviously, we can’t use him as a model. I guess the fact that I can’t name anyone shows how naieve we all were in those days. In any event, this movie was written and directed by someone named Damien Lee. He didn’t make much of an impression on me as a writer or director - nearly all the exposition in this film is simply supposed to give the illusion of a fleshed out backstory and a cohesive universe, but nearly all of it is completely irrelevant to the plot - and I’ve never seen any of the other films he’s done (A surprisingly large number), nor am I likely to see them, but there was a time a couple decades back when I would have gladly killed or died to have his career.

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