A good number of ’80s movies haven’t aged at all well, or have to be taken with a hefty side order of cheese to be appreciated, but The Hidden is not one of them. Perhaps because its feet are firmly rooted in the exploitation arena, it opts not to get side-tracked into attempting to compete with its considerably higher-budgeted peers. On that level, it’s much closer in tone to James Cameron’s game-changing The Terminator, in attitude, pace and no-nonsense thrills.
This is a science fiction movie shot like a cop movie, rather than a cop movie shot like a science fiction movie. You can readily easily see the genre signposts for the picture, from the body horror/possession of The Thing, to the Starman-esque innocence of Kyle MacLachlan’s alien hero, to the spin on the then-at-its-peak buddy cop bickering of the likes of 48 Hrs/Red Heat. But the most appealing aspect of Jack Sholder’s movie is its jet-black humour. This is a picture that knows how to have fun with the various tropes, while still managing to keep its eye firmly on the ball, or slug-like alien parasite.
That’s the bad alien in The Hidden, an uber-icky thing that forces itself into its victims through the most readily available orifice (the mouth), and by possessing their forms continues the popular line of uncanny doubling and otherness that had resurged with Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers and continued with the aforementioned John Carpenter movie. Sholder doesn’t have much time for revelling in the potential paranoia of such a scenario though; he’s focussed purely on advancing the plot, such that the picture’s path is dictated by the succession of forms the creature assumes. Thanks to which, its pursuing human cop Tom Beck (Michael Nouri) becomes increasingly baffled, the explanations offered by FBI guy Lloyd Gallagher (MacLachlan), namely that all these disparate hosts were connected via some kind of impenetrable crime ring, proving unhelpful to say the least.
Doctor: No one deserves to die like that. I don’t care what the man’s done.
Willis: He killed twelve people, wounded twenty-three more, stole six cars, most of them Ferraris. Robbed eight banks, six supermarkets, four jewellery stores and a candy shop. Six of the ones he killed he carved up with a butcher knife. Two of them were kids. He did all that in two weeks. If anyone deserves to go that way, it sure in the hell was him.
The first body we see is future MacLachlan Twin Peaks co-star Chris Mulkey as Jack DeVries (looking like a stock broker gone off the Black Monday rails in glasses and raincoat, he was known for being “a very kind, very honest gentleman”), holding up banks and indiscriminately killing bystanders. Indeed, the violence on the part of the alien is unapologetically, casually brutal. This ET has negligible interest in blending in, aside from furnishing itself with a humans (such that its plan to possess a politician come the finale seems doomed to folly), more concerned with fast cars (“He likes Ferraris”), potentially loose women (“Fuck off” he is told when, as second screen possessed Miller, he kerb crawls, fumbling for his gun in response) and loud rawk music (one hilarious moment sees him return to Miller’s house and put on a jolly country record “I believe in sunshine…’ before abruptly pulling the system out of the wall in disgust). The superb opening chase, very Grand Theft Auto, sees DeVries plough into an old guy in a wheelchair and take no precautions about avoiding police roadblocks (their response is
Miller: I want this car.
Ferrari Salesman: I bet you do, dear.
As mentioned, second victim is, perhaps most effectively in terms of casting, triple bypass patient Jonathan Miller (William Boyett, George C Scott by way of Herman Munster). TV veteran Boyett has a ball with an unlikely sexagenarian sitting in a café blaring a ghetto blaster at full volume, slaughtering salesmen and buyers at a car showroom (the only surprise is that he doesn’t also take their coke) and erupting in unpleasant inner gases, belches and rumbles as the host body begins to play up (at one point, Miller chases a car down a street and is forced to beat his failing heart back into operation).
Gallagher: We’ve got to get to her before she dies.
Beck: Why don’t we wait until after she’s dead?
It’s a great performance, although Claudia Christian’s as the next hose is equally memorable (in a positive way; nothing’s as memorable as her dreadful “I am death incarnate” speech in Babylon 5, but who could make that work, in fairness?), a stripper in an ass-exposing ensemble, accompanied by a glimmer of alien-as-then-topical-sexual-disease subtext when the threat crosses genders and screws a victim to death (the next one is the more Thing-focussed police chief’s dog, however, so it’s only a glimmer).
This alien is revealed as a perfect ’80s consumer, embracing everything vacuous, superficial and materialistic about the decade. Christian’s Brenda Lee Van Buren definitely gets the most sinisterly delivered line in the movie, (“I’m not coming out yet”), although the most sinister look goes to Lieutenant Masterson’s (Clarence Felder) dog, staring at itself in the mirror before attacking its master when he goes to the fridge.
Its final victim is Senator Holt (John McCann), as whom it offers similarly succinct views on its career goals as discussing cars (“I want to be President”). En route, Sholder evidences an efficient, punchy approach to editing during a police station shootout that recalls Arnie’s earlier rampage as the T-800.
And if Gallagher’s decision to accost Holt during a press conference is perhaps injudicious (a gathering involving the most security personnel and people that could take shots at him), armed with a flamethrower, conveniently introduced as an incidental two acts earlier – Chekov’s flamethrower? – Sholder stages the sequence highly effectively in slow motion (quite how Lloyd explains everything away isn’t broached, since surely no one’s going to believe his story of alien slugs, even confronted by the smouldering evidence).
Gallagher: I read minds.
Beck: What was I just thinking?
Gallagher: That I’m full of shit.
Gallagher: Not really, you’re pretty simple to read.
This was only MacLachlan’s third movie role, after rather disappearing (along with everyone else) in Dune and then make a much stronger impression as the feckless innocent in Lynch’s Blue Velvet two years later. Here he takes full advantage of the opportunity to test his comedy chops, albeit in deadpan style, and he and Nouri have strong chemistry, the latter constantly confused and combative, the former calm, cool and, well, slightly alien. There isn’t much to the sensitive ET we haven’t seen before, although it’s a nice touch that Lloyd is a flipside to his opponent, also liking fast cars (“What did you do, steal it?” asks Beck; “Yeah” replies Gallagher nonchalantly), and not above possessing bodies (although he surely did this without killing anyone who wasn’t already dying… didn’t he?). In addition, he can’t take his alcohol, leading to amusing fish-out-of-water confusion on how to deal with Alka-Seltzer and aspirin as they relate liquid.
Gallagher: What I’m after is still out there, and I don’t know where to start.
MacLachlan is also able to add an unmassaged but effective emotional undercurrent; Lloyd has lost his wife and child to the alien (and his partner), setting up the curious ending in which the stricken Beck is taken over by Lloyd (via an ethereal blue life force, rather than anything gross; good aliens are beautiful, while bad ones are hideous, just like people). It’s a morally suspect decision (since he’ll now be deceiving Tom’s wife that he is the same man), but also a curiously touching one; Tom’s daughter, whom Lloyd earlier communicated with telepathically, is shown to recognise and accept that her father is now the alien (telepathically).
Gallagher: I guess a career in the police didn’t really prepare you for this, did it?
Beck: Yes, it did.
Nouri’s role as jaded cop Beck is grumpily spartan in comparison to his co-star and, like James Caan in Alien Nation, Nick Nolte in 48 Hrs, and Jim Belushi in Red Heat, he is confronted by a new partner who is in his own way even more maverick (even if, in Alien Nation’s case, it’s just by being alien). But Nouri runs with it, making the baffled cop an asset rather than an irritation (he and Sholder did not get on, though). Everyone here does good work, in fact, with a cast including Ed O’Ross (villainous turns in Lethal Weapon and Red Heat around that time), Lin Shaye as the senator’s aide (now best known for Insidious franchise) and even Danny Trejo (playing, against type, as a criminal) furnished with a singular line of “Yo, hippy, what kind of dude are you?” before being blasted with a shotgun.
Sholder was coming off the ill-received Freddy’s Revenge at the time, and has expressed the view that this is his best movie. It isn’t hard to agree, since at this point there was only potential ahead that quickly dwindled into unmemorable TV movies (12:01 being a rare exception). He saw the picture as a police procedural, invoking Sidney Lumet, and a readily recognisable connection. Writer Jim Kouf has fared much better, with writer-producer credits on Angel and Grimm (Sholder reportedly did a rewrite, adding the element of Beck’s daughter). Jacques Haitkin’s work as a cinematographer was mostly in the B-movie genre (including a number of pictures for Wes Craven). There’s a very much of-its-era score from Michael Convetino (I like it, at any rate) and strong editing from Michael N Knue (currently working on the Marvel Netflix series) and Maureen O’Connell.
Perhaps the only surprise about The Hidden (I haven’t seen the sequel), given the current magpie penchant for seizing any vaguely cult property, irrespective of its actual commercial potential, is that this has spawned neither a remake (although Fallen comes close) nor a TV series. It could be because, unlike many of its plusher peers (Alien, The Thing, Predator), the actual creature isn’t particularly iconic. In Sholder’s movie it’s the performances and the action, and the sense of humour, that count most.