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Friday, May 22, 2020

‘Species II’ Is a Sleazy, Gory, Nutty Creature Feature Masterpiece [We Love ’90s Horror]

The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.

Recently, I discussed the original Species on my podcast GenreVision and we mentioned how much we love the sequel, Species II. This led me to revisit the 1998 follow-up and compelled me to shift my intended lineup for this column.

Because Species II isn’t just a fun movie. It’s a film that is in dire need of rehabilitation.

Directed by Peter Medak (The Changeling), Species II is not some cheapy made-for-TV quality sequel. With an estimated production budget of $35 million, Species II ran with the overwhelming success of its predecessor and went all out on what it thought audiences liked about the original. And what did Species II think viewers wanted?

Sleaziness and over-the-top effects.

The original Species had an aura of salaciousness surrounding it thanks to its marketing and overall premise – a human/alien hybrid is trying to have sex in order to reproduce – but the finished film isn’t nearly as smutty as its reputation would lead you to believe. That ain’t the case with Species II. This flick is even filthier than you expect!

One of the first big effects scenes is centered around a sex scene involving sisters. Our antagonist goes to a motel that’s specifically for hooking up with prostitutes. A character is killed by what can only be described as an alien penis tentacle. If tawdry and vulgar elements are what you want, Species II delivers in spades.

However, that’s not the category that deserves the most acclaim. Steve Johnson’s FX company returned for the sequel and essentially had free reign over which effects they wanted to do as practical gags. Thanks to this, Species II is a relentless assault of gooptastic creature effects.

Let’s run down just some of the practical effects you’ll see in Species II:

  • Alien baby head bursting out of a pregnant woman’s stomach
  • Blood tentacle ripping out a doctor’s guts
  • 15-foot tendril erupting from a stomach and suffocating a man
  • Incredible head explosion from a shotgun blast
  • James Cromwell impaled by a tentacle that exits through his throat
  • A barn full of pulsing cocoons
  • Two Giger-esque aliens that end up having strobe light cocoon sex
  • Giant bipedal monster who can split its head in two
  • Nipple tentacle

While that list isn’t everything in the movie, it’s a good indicator of how wild a film Species II is as a creature extravaganza. If you’re a fan of gonzo effects and monster madness, you need to give this movie a look.

Still, it’s understandable that some folks might not click with the base pleasures of Species II. If so, I urge them to look at what the story is about. The main villain, Patrick, is a heroic astronaut and son of a senator, Judson Ross. After becoming infected with alien DNA after the first manned mission to Mars, he returns to Earth and begins having sex with pretty much any woman he wants. His father tells him that he doesn’t care about Patrick’s indiscretions as long as he doesn’t let it affect Patrick’s career trajectory, which his father hopes will be the President of the United States. When this scene takes place in Judson’s office, we can see two portraits mounted on the wall in the background. The men in those portraits? John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

Species II is talking about how the sordid secrets of men in power are excused or covered up, and this is often at the cost of the integrity of women. Species II isn’t as vapid as its surface would seem. The opening credits feature a spaceship branded with logos from Pepsi, Reebok, Sprint, and Miller Lite. It isn’t subtle commentary but it does prove the movie has more on its mind than just being trashy fun.

It should be noted that very few actors from Species II have anything nice to say about the movie. Michael Madsen returned for the sequel and infamously called it, “a crock of shit.” You can tell that Madsen is less than enthused in the film, but that’s a shame considering the rest of the cast seems game for this bit of drive-in entertainment. Mykelti Williamson takes what is easily a stereotypical characterization for a black role and somehow manages to slay the part. Every time he’s on-screen and being made to say some facepalm-inducing lines, he spins it into comedy gold and totally endears us to his character. James Cromwell can’t help but be magnetic and professional, and he acts as something of a sub-villain by refusing to do what’s right in order to help his son. As Patrick, Justin Lazard can come off as unintentionally comedic at times – his line reading after he’s asked what it was like to walk on Mars is undeniably clunky in the best of ways – but he has a Christian Bale iciness to him that suits the character well. We also get an appearance from Peter Boyle as an institutionalized kook who has all the answers. Any movie with Peter Boyle can’t be all bad. And George Dzunda is a colonel who looks like he stepped out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Bless.

But, the most interesting performances and story come from the lead women, Dr. Laura Baker (Marg Helgenberger) and Eve (Natasha Henstridge), the new clone of Sil from the first movie. Eve is being experimented on to find vulnerabilities in the alien species, and it’s clear that Dr. Baker is trying her best to accomplish this while also caring for Eve. There’s so much to this dynamic that works and that’s due to genuinely solid performances from Helgenberger and Henstridge. There are also really cool sci-fi ideas present in their story thread like a military laboratory that has to be staffed entirely by women in order to decrease Eve’s mating instinct. That is a movie all on its own! And Eve fulfills a much more sympathetic arc than Sil did in the original. While I wish we spent more time with Eve and Dr. Baker, what’s in the movie works.

In all honesty, I can’t conceive of someone not enjoying the master level trashiness of Species II. It’s one of the sleaziest, nastiest, goriest, nuttiest studio sci-fi/horror movies ever made. The audacity on display in this mainstream marketed feature film is beyond impressive. We will never see this kind of movie get released by a major studio ever again. It’s a pageantry of practical effects, its pulpy approach to obscenity is so out of fashion that it reaches ridiculous heights, and it’s a clear love letter to bold sci-fi/horror creature features.

It’s time to grade Species II on its own B-movie merits, and from my perspective, it receives a resounding A+.


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