Flight to Hell (2003)

This is the fourth of Alvaro Passeri’s films I have seen.

And so far it is the only one which disappointed me.

Passeri was a veteran special effects expert from the Italian film industry who decided in the mid-Nineties to make his own movies.  The five he created were all made on ridiculously small budgets, with all the usual flaws so common in Italian films — poor dubbing, bad voice acting and dubious acting in general — but they have a certain manic guilty pleasure genius because he was so eager to put whatever crazy images he could think of up on the screen.

I suspect the first of these, Plankton [Creatures from the Abyss] (1994) had the largest budget, and it is a mind-bogglingly weird, almost hallucinatory film, with some truly hideous creature creations and a bizarrely lush research vessel setting.  He followed it with what is probably his greatest film, Il chicco d’oro [Fantastic Games] (1998), a curious mashup of Star Wars (or at least Starcrash), The Princess Bride, The Neverending Story, and a children’s Christmas film, only far stranger than that suggests.  He and followed that with The Mummy Theme Park (2000), which recycled many of the sets and props of the earlier film in a strange adventure film featuring ancient mummies turned into…amusement park cyborg animatronics?

Only in Italy, folks.

His budget looked a bit more limited in that film, but he still managed to create a unique fantasy world, even if many of the practical tricks were fairly obvious.

Which leads us to Flight to Hell.

It is a simple enough story: it seems like yet another routine flight aboard Roulette One, a flying luxury casino, carrying two millionaires and their girlfriends, as well as the devious casino manager who plans to rob them blind with computer-aided high tech cheating.  But then the plane flies into a mysterious cloud and they end up with horrible monsters on board which then proceed to eat or take over the passengers and crew.

It isn’t too hard to spot the resemblances to Alien and The Thing, but then you could say that for Creatures of the Abyss as well.  And I will point out that some of the creature work is excellent, particularly the full size stop motion animated creature and the shadows of the creatures crawling through the big light fixture.

Once again, most of what we see has been tinkered with one way or another, with a lot of set extensions and model work.  The movie was obvious shot — or at least released — on film, and it seems impossible that he could have made a film with this many effects if we assume that it was done using standard optical compositing.  This has led some to believe that he made the film on video then made a 16mm print for theatrical release, but my personal suspicion is that he used a lot of old school in-camera tricks — like hanging models, front and rear projection and perhaps even the Shuftan process to shoot these live.  I spotted one obvious trick in the shots of the Captain and Co-pilot at the navigator’s station, where you can see, in the doorway behind them the cabin of the plane.

Only, if you look closer you will note that the door isn’t a door, it is a mirror, complete with frame.

He repeats one of his favorite tricks from Fantastic Games and The Mummy Theme Park when he tracks past all the rooms on the plane, giving us the impression that they are all connected when many of them are just the same set redecorated or a matte or model.  As the plane is shorter than the control rooms in the Theme Park, or the layers of cells in Makeb’s lair, it isn’t as impressive as it was in those films, although he also has fun with the similar shot showing the same rooms, only through the portholes of the plane from the outside.

There is clearly some CGI here, although I think it is mostly used for the various displays, the virtual chess game, one creature morph scene, and perhaps for some of the scenes with large numbers of small creatures.

Which are also the least impressive part of the whole film.

Well, other than the optical distortion effects used for some of the characters’ transformations.

But then, those creatures might just have been animated as black blobs, as Hitchcock did in some of the scenes in The Birds.

Which, yes, you can count as another obvious reference.

Another curious detail can be seen in the trip through Vegas early in the film, which is all special effects.  It looks quite good, and might even fool anyone watching on a television screen.  But you’d think that a few minutes of stock footage would have saved him a bit of money.

Although that would mean that you wouldn’t have the fun of creating your own tabletop Vegas.

As in Creatures of the Abyss, we get mirrored tiles on the floor, another dark and spooky basement (well, cargo hold) where there shouldn’t be one, and a fair amount of gore, all of it practical as far as I can tell (although I’m not as sure about the green blobs of stuff that gets into the plane).  This, however, makes it stranger that there is no nudity in this film, only one woman in her underwear, and a few bits of sex with nothing naughty showing.

And who ever heard of an exploitation film without a few bare boobies?

All this is bookended by a wraparound sequence borrowed from a classic Fifties Sci Fi film — although I do like the little twist which suggests that we might get off this particular merry-go-round.

It all looks quite good, in a strange, unreal sort of way (which is helped along by the glaring rose red walls in the airplane).  I don’t think there is as much CGI as some people do, although that’s because he used so little of it before.

And it may bother you if you notice that a couple is making out in a room which everyone will have to go through if they want to get from the casino room to anything else in the plane, including the galley, the slot machines, and the video arcarde.

But it isn’t as weird and crazy as I’d expected.  What really made the previous films stand out was the ridiculous choices he made, the absurd details, the inexplicable settings, and there just isn’t much of that on display here.  The high-tech computerized cheating is a nice touch, but not that far from what might have shown up in more ordinary thriller films of the era, and the plane just comes across as a fancy plane (without the absurd luxury of the High Tech airliner in Lost in the Pacific (2016).  Not that Al Passeri could have afforded sets that big!)  I’m not entirely certain why I found this one so disappointing, although I will point out that the horrible monster action just isn’t as varied or impressive this time around, with only one big monster, and the hordes of smaller ones mostly unimpressive unless you see one close up and standing still when it is definitely a model, rather than animated.

Oh, well.  You can’t win them all.

I just hope the fifth — and final – Alvaro Passeri film, Psychovision, is as good as his first three…



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The Rivets Zone:  The Best SF Movies You’ve Never Seen!



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