We live in paranoid times.
When I first started at the University of North Texas, I lived in the Bruce Hall Dormitory and every day, I could count on the fact that there would be at least one fat and bearded resident in the lobby talking about how 9-11 was an inside job and how the only reason we were in Iraq was so Dick Cheney’s buddies could get rich.
By the time I graduated, everyone was convinced that the Republicans were going to steal the election from Barack Obama. Some people, of course, were hoping that was exactly what would happen because they were convinced that Obama was actually a Muslim from Kenya.
With each passing year of the Obama administration, there’s been a new conspiracy theory. Some people claimed that Obamacare was actually a Socialist plot. Others said that the Koch Brothers were behind the Tea Party. Meanwhile, Occupy Wall Street spoke ominously of how 1% of the population exploited the other 99%. As I sit here typing this, there is undoubtedly a desperate Obama partisan somewhere who is writing up his 100th blog post claiming that the Republicans somehow sabotaged the Obamacare website.
And, of course, living and working in Dallas, I am constantly reminded of the biggest conspiracy theory of all time. In just a few days, it will be the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and you better believe that my hometown is currently being invaded by wild-eyed men who are incapable of uttering a sentence without including terms like “grassy knoll,” “military-industrial complex,” and “coup d’etat.”
Yes, these are paranoid times. Nobody trusts anyone. All motives are suspect. With each passing day, it seems that more and more people are convinced that their daily failures and fortunes can all be blamed on shadowy forces. The world is a random place where a billion stories play out at once and not a single one of them is going to have a happy ending. People cling to their paranoia for much the same reason that some people cling to their concept of God. It gives them a false sense of security and reason in an otherwise chaotic universe.
As for me, I may not be a believer in conspiracies but, at the same time, I do find myself fascinated by both the theories and the films that they occasionally inspire. If movies ultimately serve as a reflection of society’s secret fears, insecurities, and desires, can it be any surprise that so many movies seem to be just as a paranoid as the audiences that go to see them?
For that reason, I am proud to announce that today is Day One of the 44 Days of Paranoia! For the next 44 days, we will be taking a look at some of the best and worst conspiracy-themed and paranoia-inducing films ever made.
Let’s start things off by taking a look at the 1979 sci-fi conspiracy film, Clonus (a.k.a. Parts, the Clonus Horror).
Clonus opens on a compound the looks a lot like a community college. Living on the compound is a group of people who all appear to be extremely friendly and trusting. Every single one of them has a permanent smile plastered across his or her fresh faces. They spend their spare time jogging, working out, and — well, that’s about it. At the same time, none of them smoke, drink, or do anything else that could possibly cause any damage to their bodies.
So, at this point, you can probably guess that they’re either Mormons or they’re clones. (If you’re not sure, take another look at the film’s title…)
When the clones aren’t busy jogging, they’re talking about how much they hope that, one day, they will be allowed to go to “America.” There’s actually something rather touching about how excited they all get whenever they hear that one of them is getting sent to America. They’re a bit like the rubber aliens in Toy Story, putting all of their faith in “The Claw” and its ability to lift them up to a better life. Of course, what the clones don’t realize is that “going to America” is just a euphemism for being put under sedation and having their organs forcibly removed.
Eventually, one clone (played to awkward blank-faced perfection by Tim Donnelly) starts to question just why exactly he and his friends are being kept on the compound. He eventually escapes and discovers that not only has he been in America all along but that he only exists so that the rich and powerful can harvest his organs. Donnelly meets an idealistic journalist (Keenan Wynn) who happens to be acquainted with the family of a sinister presidential candidate (played by Peter Graves). When Wynn and Donnelly threaten to expose the truth, they find themselves targeted by the U.S. government which, in typical conspiracy-film style, is more than willing to kill to protect its secrets.
If the plot of Clonus sounds familiar, that’s because Michael Bay pretty much remade the film in 2005. In fact, Clonus director Robert Fiveson felt Bay’s The Island was so similar to his film, that he filed a lawsuit for copyright infringement. But whereas The Island was the epitome of a film that was more expensive than memorable, Clonus is an effectively creepy little film that, though dated, is still occasionally even thought-provoking. Though it may have been the result of the film’s budgetary limitations, Clonus eschews flashy effects for atmosphere and even the blandness of some of the locations adds to the film’s sense of low-key but palpable menace. If ever one needed proof that a low budget can occasionally be the best thing to ever happen to a film, Clonus is that proof. The film is generally well-acted and, best of all, it all builds up to one of those wonderfully downbeat endings that appear to have been so popular in the 70s.
Much like another recent and similar film — the excellent Never Let Me Go — Clonus works because it’s disturbingly plausible. It’s a bit of a cliché to say that a film makes science fiction feel like science fact but Clonus is one of those films that accomplishes just that.