Habitat (1996)

Rating:

Canada/Netherlands. 1996.

Crew

Director/Screenplay – Renee Daalder, Producers – Pietr Kroonenburg & Claude Leger, Photography – Jean Lepine, Music – Ralph Grierson, Visual Effects Supervisor – Eric Mises Rosenfield, Digital Effects Supervisors – Tom Brigham & Daniel Leduc, Digital Visual Effects – Hybride Technologies Inc, Mechanical Effects Supervisors – Louis Craig & Antonio Vidosa, Makeup Effects – Gordon Smith, Production Design – Claude Pare. Production Company – Transfilm/Kingsborough Pictures/Ecotopia B.V

Cast

Balthazar Getty (Andreas Symes), Laura Harris (Deborah Marlowe), Kenneth Welsh (Coach Jack Marlowe), Alice Krige (Clarissa Symes), Tchecky Karyo (Hank Symes), Brad Austin (Blaine), Chris Heyerdahl (Eric Thornton), Mathew MacKay (Joe Johnson Jr), Kris Holdenreid (Daryl), Daniel Pilon (Walter Strickland)


Plot

The ozone layer has burned away and the world is in chaos as humanity is forced to hide from the burning ultraviolet rays. Plant biologist Hank Symes, his wife and teenage son Andreas move to the new neighbourhood of Pleasanton. However, Hank’s experiments in plant evolution go wrong and he is accidentally electrocuted and transformed into a cloud of buzzing insects, while his plants take over the entire house. Meanwhile, Andreas has become involved with Deborah Marlowe, the daughter of the high school coach, much to the displeasure of her father and Blaine, the bully who sees Deborah as his. Blaine and several others leave Andreas tied up out in the deadly sunrays. Andreas then finds that his father has altered his genes to make him able to withstand the ultraviolet. Next Coach Marlowe, Blaine and government agents descend on the house, determined to stop the noncorporeal Hank and the mutating plant life there.


This Dutch-Canadian co-production is an exceedingly bizarre film. It comes from Dutch-born, Canadian-based director Renee Daalder who once made the cult classic high school revenge drama Massacre at Central High (1976) and then did nothing else for a decade before returning with the very obscure Population One (1986) whose title may well have referred to the number of people who appeared to have seen it, and then another decade later with Hysteria (1996), a horror film set in an insane asylum, and this.

Habitat is a clear example of the failings of the auteur theory – a case of one filmmaker having been given money and allowed to indulge some of their more loopy ideas. What results is a film that defies any easy description. It is like a bizarre conceptual collision between a post-holocaust film, Swamp Thing (1982) and a teen romantic film. There is certainly an attention-getting opening with environment-suited figures surrounding a house out of which staggers a mutating man who turns out to have been infected by mutant pollens – “Spring’s here,” someone comments, which sets up some intriguing resonances about the nature of the world we are in. There is a considerable degree of amusement to the scenes of Balthazar Getty and family moving into their new house, which is promptly taken over by foliage, with Getty sarcastically commenting to his mother: “In case you haven’t noticed, most people don’t have to mow their carpets twice a week.”

The film also gets progressively more campy from there. Most of the cast – from Tcheky Karyo as the father turning into digital dust and floating about like a foliate ghost, to Alice Krige strutting her seductive stuff and Kenneth Welsh as a right-wing bullying sports coach – compete between one another to give the most over-the-top performance. You are not sure if Renee Daalder is sending any of this up or not – the possibility that he is taking it seriously is rather mind-boggling. The film descends to a schlocky extended climax inside the house with several entertaining meltdowns, mutations and scenes of people being devoured by plants, where you can see that at least the makeup people are having a lot of fun. By this point however, any of the film’s earlier pretensions of seriousness have collapsed into irredeemable silliness. The teen romance has many similarities to Renee Daalder’s Massacre at Central High – the theme of a teenager settling into a new high school where he takes a lone stance triumphing over bullies. Laura Harris, later of The Faculty (1998), plays sweetly, giving one of the film’s few serious performances.



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