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Doc Talk | Peter Keough

Flint graduation, ‘Alien’ investigation, schlock celebration

A scene from “Memory: The Origins of Alien.”

There have been many fine films about the end of high school, from “American Graffiti” (1973) and “Dazed and Confused” (1993) to “Superbad” (2007) and “Lady Bird” (2017). But try finding one featuring African-American students.

James Blagden and Roni Moore’s documentary “Midnight in Paris” may be the first such film, and it is exceptional also because it barely refers to race. Rather, it celebrates with whimsy and a gritty eye for detail the experience of kids preparing for, enjoying, and recovering from the universal rite of the senior prom.

The title refers to the theme of the 2012 prom at Flint North High School, in Flint, Mich., and focuses on six students. But the event is also a community affair, with families, businesses, and neighbors joining in to make it memorable. A large, festive crowd lines the street as the promgoers arrive in limos and party buses and march into the auditorium like celebrities on a red carpet.

The night ends blearily in a motel room, where the participants conclude a post-prom party at dawn. They look at the future with hope and some trepidation, as well they should. In the following years the school will close, the city’s drinking water will become toxic, and the country will take a dark turn that continues to the present day.


“Midnight in Paris” screens as part of the DocYard series Oct. 21 at the Brattle Theatre at 7 p.m. It is co-presented with the Roxbury International Film Festival. A Q&A with Blagden (in person) and Moore (via Skype) follows the screening.

Art imitates myth

Alexandre O. Phillipe’s “Memory: The Origins of Alien” opens with a view of Delphi, and then descends to caverns beneath the ruins where the razor-toothed Furies arise intoning the terrifying words from Aeschylus’s “Oresteia,” “The reek of human blood smiles at me.”


This scene seems eons and galaxies away from Ridley Scott’s “Alien” (1979), but by the documentary’s end Philippe makes the connection between the two clear, and many other such connections besides, some convincing and some specious but all thought-provoking and entertaining.

It starts with the initial vision of co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, which passed through the hands of such directors as Walter Hill and Alejandro Jodorowsky, until it reached Scott. Searching for someone to design the sets and the alien itself Scott settled on the grotesquely visionary Swiss artist H.R. Giger, whose meticulously rendered and hideously chthonic images were inspired in part by the horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft and the canvases of Francis Bacon, in particular the latter’s 1944 triptych “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.” Bacon was haunted by just that line from the “Oresteia.”

Phillipe intercuts quips and observations from critics, scholars, and those involved in the making of the film, including Scott, cast members Tom Skerritt, and Veronica Cartwright, and Giger. He also includes scenes from the film, both in front of and behind the lens, clips that circle about and are inexorably drawn to the film’s infamous “chest-burster” scene. That’s when the title extraterrestrial makes its abrupt appearance in the middle of a jovial dinner enjoyed by the crew of the spaceship Nostromo.

Isn’t that also the title of a novel by Joseph Conrad? Who also wrote “Heart of Darkness,” an inspiration for Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” (1979) which came out the same year as “Alien,” both of which are critiques of the hubris of colonialism? So goes Philippe’s slyly structured, serendipitous free associations, making the case that “Alien,” like all such seminal works, is a snapshot of its time and a glimpse into the depths of myth, art, and the imagination.


“Memory: The Origins of Alien” screens at the Brattle Theatre Oct. 25-28.

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Life imitates schlock

Emerson College alumnus David Gregory’s “Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson” suggests that, like “Alien,” Adamson’s B movies reflect the subconscious of their audience. That is, if you overlook the microscopic budgets and total lack of artfulness, talent, or taste. Adam’s oeuvre combined softcore porn, gruesome violence, and utter incompetence to provide filler for double bills at grindhouses and drive-ins.

His business strategy was brilliant and sleazy. When one of his films bombed or faded at the box office he’d retitle it, add reshoots or footage from his other movies or movies made in other countries, and edit it all together with blatant disregard for continuity or common sense. In short, a recycling process not much different from the blockbuster/franchise model dominating Hollywood today.

To save money he’d get people to work for free or on the cheap, and attracted big names before they were famous, like the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond (1977 Oscar winner for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) or big names that had seen better days, like Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, and J. Carrol Naish. Russ Tamblyn, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Peyton Place” (1957) and was Riff in “West Side Story” (1961), is interviewed in the film, warmly recalling his performances in films like the 1969 “Satan’s Sadists” (a favorite of Quentin Tarantino) and 1971’s “The Female Bunch” (“There’s no level at which ‘The Female Bunch’ is any good,” raved Roger Ebert.)


But, as recalled by some of Adamson’s collaborators, other washed-up stars had less pleasant experiences. In “Frankenstein vs. Dracula” (1971) Lon Chaney Jr. had throat cancer and couldn’t speak, so Adamson had him just grunt, no doubt an improvement over the dialogue. In the same film Naish plays a leading role but couldn’t remember his lines. He had a glass eye so when he reads the cue cards with his wobbly good eye the effect is eerily affecting. All-in-all, as an auteur Adamson lies somewhere on the schlock spectrum between Roger Corman (who is a shrewd interviewee in the film) and Ed Wood Jr. Or maybe below both.

After retiring, Adamson developed a fascination with UFOs. When he suddenly disappeared, in 1995, some speculated that he might have run afoul of a government cover-up — or maybe the aliens themselves. The media touted the mystery as an ironic variation on one of his own lurid films. In the end the truth proved to be merely sordid and mundane, a story beneath even Adamson’s standards.

Gregory’s fascinating, fast-paced film mixes its interviews with gleefully terrible clips from Adamson’s films, and despite its deceptively glib tone unfolds a tragic and suspenseful detective story offering a glimpse into the trashier corners of the collective unconscious.


“Blood & Flesh: The Reel Life & Ghastly Death of Al Adamson” will screen at the Somerville Theatre at 6 p.m. on Oct. 20. The director will attend the screening.

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Peter Keough can be reached at