Suburban Grindhouse Memories: THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET (1984)
A Parable in the Hood!
By Nick Cato
John Sayles is a man of many talents. He was the screenwriter for the original PIRAHNA (1978), ALLIGATOR (1980) and BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS (1980). He also had bit parts as an actor in these films, and is (probably) best known among horror fans as the screenwriter for THE HOWLING (1981). This one-man movie machine has also written film soundtracks, has edited and done various crew work on countless films (Editor’s Note: and he’s directed 17 films so far). But I believe one little gem he directed in 1984 is his masterpiece…and the audience I saw THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET with on opening night would agree.
In the lily-white neighborhoods where the few suburban grindhouses I often mention in this column once stood, you hardly saw patrons who were not of a Caucasian background. These theaters were usually packed with white middle-class guidos (yes, the same types you see today on shows like THE JERSEY SHORE), many who would leave screenings before certain films even reached their halfway point. Thankfully—on occasion—I’d meet up with a few people who were serious about film. Imagine my surprise when an African-American couple sat down in front of me at the (now defunct) Amboy Twin Cinema, arguably the first black couple ever to set foot in a theater on this side of Staten Island. And when they heard my friend and me discussing director John Sayles before the film began, they both turned around and joined in our conversation. It was amazing—here were two people the rest of the theater were looking at, daring them to stare back, and I was having a fantastic film chat with them as the trailers began to unreel (we even spoke for about an hour afterwards out front). Guidos and racists be damned! This was one of the most beautiful experiences I ever had in a movie theater—and to make matters better, the film we were about to see couldn’t have been better on this particular evening.
THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET reminded me of Nicolas Roeg’s THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (1976), only nowhere near as strange. A mute black man with strange-looking feet (played by Joe Morton, who delivers a truly fantastic performance here) crash lands in Harlem in a small space ship. Despite being black and in Harlem, it quickly becomes apparent this guy isn’t on his home turf. Most of the film deals with The Brother adjusting to his new surroundings, and despite the fact he’s from another planet, there’s so much dark humor here you quickly forget this is technically a sci-fi movie. Despite The Brother not being able to talk, we learn he has escaped his home planet where he was a slave. Two “men in black” type guys (both white—one played by Sayles) trail him to earth, but The Brother makes so many friends (in unique ways), that those who are affected by him help keep him safe from his would-be captors.
Sayles shot this on a miniscule budget, but the story makes up for any lack of special effects (one of The Brother’s powers is the ability to remove one of his eyes and use it as a “video camera” of sorts, as well as an E.T.-like touch that is able to fix all kinds of equipment). While Sayles gets his points on illegal immigration and slavery across, the quirky characters The Brother meets help the film’s underlying messages go down smooth and not preachy. This is one of those films that’s hard to describe: while it has gained a cult audience over the years, and it does have its own vibe, it’s not as dark or depressing as most cult films tend to be…and I remember leaving the theater refreshed and in an unusually good mood. Best of all, my two new friends were glad they made the trek to this white theater to see the film, and they couldn’t stop laughing when I told them how many times I had been the only white guy at a Times Square horror or sci-fi flick…
With a nice brawl with the men in black toward the end and plenty of witty dialogue and scenarios, THE BROTHER FROM ANOTHER PLANET was one of those rare gems that I’ve never forgotten…and which continues to impress most who view it today on DVD. Definitely seek it out.
© Copyright 2011 by Nick Cato