CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Hangar 18 (1980)
That's the opening card of another cult movie I love, 1980's Hangar 18. I actually saw this low-budget sci-fi thriller from Sunn Classics in a theater with my parents when I was eleven years-old, and it has stayed with me ever since; powerfully so. I also have a personal connection to it: My grandmother was born and raised in Big Spring, Texas, where the film was shot. Today she lives in Midland, which isn't far from Big Spring...or Hangar 18!
Anyway, this action-thriller arrived in the post-Watergate environment, and is one of the first "government conspiracy" movies involved with outer space, NASA, and the like (the other title I can think of, off hand, is Capricorn One ).
Hangar 18 is also a fascinating forerunner to The X-Files, featuring such story elements as alien abductions, alien colonization and government cover-ups. There's even a stylistic similarity: Hangar 18 features many of those on-screen data blurbs that provide facts on settings, on the time and place events occur (like Bannon, Arizona, 11:20 pm, for example) -- just like The X-Files. Of course, I love the film too because Darren McGavin - the original Carl Kolchak - stars as Harry Forbes, a key protagonist. It even looks like he's wearing Kolchak's white running shoes...
Hangar 18 tells the tale of two NASA astronauts, Lou Price (James Hampton) and Captain Steven Bancroft (Gary Collins). A shuttle mission to launch a military satellite goes horribly wrong when a UFO interferes in the mission. Lou and Bancroft return to Earth after the death of a comrade, Colonel Gates, only to discover that the government is pinning his death (and the failure of the mission...) on them. The government is systematically erasing all evidence that the UFO existed, and behind this effort is the Karl Rove of his day, White House Chief of Staff, Gordon Keen (Robert Vaughn), who is concerned about President Tyler's tough re-election battle in two weeks.
While the two astronauts attempt to locate evidence of their fantastic story about the UFO, in secret the military has actually taken possession of the downed saucer, and moved it to a military base in West Texas, to a lunar receiving facility called Hangar 18. There, a group of scientists, led by Harry Forbes (McGavin) attempts to unlock its myriad secrets. What they find inside the craft is astonishing: an alien abductee, alien transmissions revealing "designated landing sites" on Earth, and even -- ultimately -- the secret origin of mankind.
But when the astronauts get too close to the truth and as election day draws near, Gordon Keen decides it's time to destroy the evidence of the cover-up, once and for all.
Recently, I had the chance to discuss Hangar 18 with its director, James L. Conway. In the 1980s Mr. Conway also directed another cult classic of the horror genre, The Boogens, and recently he's been Star Trek's go-to-man for important "event" episodes. He's helmed many Star Treks, including Deep Space Nine's fourth season premiere "The Way of the Warrior," which served as a re-introduction of the series and incorporated the Worf character. He also directed "Broken Bow," Enterprise's pilot, and today serves as executive producer for the WB's Charmed.
When we spoke, I just had to ask Mr. Conway about his experiences directing Hangar 18. He remembers working for Sunn Classics, and producer Charles Sellier in Park City, Utah, where the company was headquartered:
"We sold Grizzly Adams to NBC as a TV series," Conway sets the scene "and we shot it in Park City. It was so beautiful there that we said 'instead of living in L.A., let's base out there.' So we did, and from 1976 until I left in 1981, we lived in Park City. We did Grizzly Adams, and we also made a deal with NBC for thirteen movies of the week. While we were there we did The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Last of the Mohicans and a number of things."
"This was a non-union company in the middle of Utah. Everybody in it was in their twenties. Most of us didn't have any real Hollywood experience, and it was 'learn as you go.' Everything from Bible Stories to Westerns to science fiction...there was nothing we thought we couldn't do. It was a great learning experience for all of us."
"At the same time," the director continues, "if you remember Sunn Classics, they also did a lot of docudramas. They did In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah's Ark, and Beyond and Back: The Bermuda Triangle. It was a film distribution company as well as a TV production company, and we wanted to get into more dramatic films, instead of docudramas, so we made Hangar 18."
For a low-budget science fiction film that's 25-years old, Hangar 18 holds up remarkably well in 2005, especially in terms of its ambitious visualizations. For instance, the special effects are all quite good for the time (particularly the miniature of the space shuttle), and I also noticed that there was more than a nod to accuracy (particularly in the use of retro rockets, the angle of the shuttle's planetary re-entry, and the use of archival footage of the test orbiter Enterprise.) According to Mr. Conway, this was no coincidence.
"The space shuttle had not yet flown," he recalls "so we went down to Cape Kennedy, and NASA was very open and wonderful with us. We went into the prototype they had, and they spent a lot of time with us. The visual effects were very primitive by today's standards, but at the time, they were pretty darn good. I see that movie now and I wish it could have been made today instead of then, because visual effects being what they are today, it could have been such a movie..."
Of course, for those of us who love films from the late 1970s/early 1980s Hangar 18 is quite a movie. It captures perfectly the prevailing Zeitgeist of the time, particularly with its bent on Nixonian government plotting. "Obviously, the government was the bad guy in Hangar 18," says Conway. "There were little political things involved there because it was post-Watergate and nobody trusted the government."
I particular, I admire this film and its makers because it is so ambitious from a visual standpoint. There's not only a climactic chase (and stunts and explosions...) with a tanker truck in the film, but a solid grounding in film grammar, and Conway reveals things in an interesting fashion. For instance, there's a (ghoulish) shot early in the film that is just terrific in its staging. The decapitated body and severed head of Colonel Gates floats weightless towards the camera, and as it goes by in the foreground, the shuttle is revealed in space, in the distance (background). An effects shot of this depth is a surprise enough in a low-budget movie, but I love the macabre touch of the helmeted head floating weightless side-by-side with the body. It's gross, but great.
Hangar 18 also boasts a number of great "jolts." At least three, actually. There's a scene aboard the captured spaceship wherein a storage closet bursts opens and an alien pressure suit lunges forward suddenly. Then there's the moment when the alien pilots (dead) are revealed in their chairs, their inhuman eyes glaring at the camera. To this day, I also remember my Mother jumping out of her seat in the theater during the well-orchestrated sequence involving an ambulance, and an alien abductee suddenly awaking. In all, it's a highly effective and interesting mix.
Another aspect I've always appreciated about Hangar 18 is the production design, particularly the highly detailed alien saucer. There's something about it that just seems - I dunno - believable, from the monitoring system to the laboratory to the alien language (based on ancient Mexican heiroglyphs). In 1980, I wascertain this is exactly what a flying saucer would look like.
"We did a full-scale mock-up of that," Conway remembers. "We shot the picture in Big Spring, Texas, which had a closed air base. It was in the middle of nowhere, and it was really a pretty bleak space to spend three months. But [production designer] Paul Staley built a full-size spaceship, which we put in the middle of this big hangar..."
But if Big Spring was a bleak place to make a movie (and it is...there's nothing there!), Conway nonetheless made the most of the experience, and enjoyed working with his cast, which includes Robert Vaughn, James Hampton, Gary Collins, Darren McGavin, Stuart Pankin and Joseph Campanella.
"I loved Darren McGavin," Conway explains. "He is one of the greatest guys, and I was a big fan of The Night Stalker, and working with him was a thrill. He was full of energy, and had a lot of great ideas. It was a wonderful cast all the way around. A lot of the people in that show I had worked with on other Sunn Classic Pictures, so we were very much like a family. We made so many movies and TV shows that if someone worked with us and we liked them, we would just cast them again and again."
Interestingly, director Conway would one day discover that his time spent on "aliens" landing in the desert was not over. "Ironically, many years later, I directed a Deep Space Nine called "Little Green Men," and in that episode, some of the characters came down and were involved in the same sort of incident. It was the Roswell story, and they were arrested and all this wonderful stuff happened, and it was really fun for me to do the story all over again, at least from a Star Trek point of view."
Today, you can find Hangar 18 on VHS, but not yet on DVD.
"When Sunn Classics was bought by another company, it was then bought by another company," Conway sheds some light on the complicated situation. "I sort of lost track of who owns what. When I came to Los Angeles to work for Aaron Spelling full-time in 1996 and I started digging around, I found that Spelling owned all of the Sunn Classic titles, because one of the companies they bought had owned them. So I got in touch with the people there, and I got them to release The Boogens and Hangar 18 on VHS, and now I work for Paramount, and it's all owned by Paramount...so Paramount owns Spelling. So I'm trying to talk to these people and see if we can get both titles to come out on DVD. But the rights don't become available till the end of the year or so..."
Anyone who grew up with The Boogens and Hangar 18 realizes there's an audience out there for these titles on DVD, so we can hope that the situation gets ironed out soon, and we can enjoy our DVD widescreen version of these films.