A Strange Harvest: Alan Rudolph’s ‘Endangered Species’

Reviews / May 23, 2019

GRASSO: When our esteemed editor-in-chief recommended we look this week at the little-heralded-nor-remembered Endangered Species from 1982, I was cautiously optimistic. A B-movie starring Robert Urich, JoBeth Williams, Paul Dooley, and Hoyt Axton about cattle mutilations, shot on location in Colorado and Wyoming? I consider myself well-versed in movies about UFOs from the late ’70s and early ’80s, and the fact I’d never heard of this one was a real shock. To my further shock, the film was amazing: fascinating as both a time capsule of the early Reagan years and as a piece of weird outsider art/conspiratorial agitprop. In fact, in Mutant Chat this week I called Endangered Species “the last great 1970s political conspiracy thriller”; with a few days to mull over this assessment, I stand by it even more assertively. Endangered Species seamlessly and expertly weaves together all the threads of cattle mutilation lore as they currently stood in 1982, all while engaging the kind of B-plots that are characteristic of similar movies from this time period: a shoehorned (and slightly icky) romance between the two leads, a plucky teenage character for the teens in the audience to identify with, and a good chunk of edgy blood and gore (not just from the aforementioned mutilated cattle).

So I just have to ask before getting into the details and why I loved this trashy piece of late-night ’80s cable fare—Kelly, how in the hell did you find out about this thing?

ROBERTS: I remember this flick from the video store, but I never watched it (not that I remember, anyway) until about a year ago. Conspiracy films became a genre unto themselves after Watergate, as did UFO films after 1977’s Close Encounters. Endangered Species merges both—one of the few examples of such before The X-Files (1980’s Hangar 18, produced by exploitation experts Sunn Classic Pictures, is another). The campy elements are there, for sure, but overall I agree with you, Mike: this is a very interesting portrait of ramped-up paranoia during the high Cold War period that hits a surprising number of now well-known genre staples: “silent” black helicopters, chemical and germ warfare, keeping up with the Russians, moving vans that disguise shadowy government conspirators, references to satanism. Although the script can’t quite live up to the premise, the opening sequence that moves from a herd of cows in rural Colorado to a herd of humans rushing through the streets of NYC makes the point perfectly clear: our government makes no distinction between cows and people; we are all dumb beasts whose purpose is to be sacrificed for the preservation of the bastards in power.

MCKENNA: Jesus but it’s been a while since I last saw a mainstream film that felt as out-of-control as Endangered Species. I had a vague recollection of watching it, but apparently it was one of those false memories engendered by spending too long staring at the VHS covers down the rental shop, hence it was totally new to me. It comes on like an aggressive cross between a self-aware B-movie and an oddball independent cinema artifact, so it’s no surprise that director Alan Rudolph was a protégé of Robert Altman. Prior to Endangered Species, Rudolph had made a string of low-budget, intelligent, critically acclaimed films in a variety of genres. And Endangered Species is fucking great, despite the many odd and sometimes unpleasant things about it, which include what can’t help feeling like a bit of a cavalier attitude to animal welfare and Robert Urich’s awful yet incongruously multifaceted “hero” Ruben Castle. Castle is one of the most irritating and borderline repellent protagonists I can remember seeing posited as a good guy and romantic lead, despite which he’s given to flashes of grace and insight. Given Rudolph’s smarts, it’s intriguing to wonder if the character wasn’t a deliberate piss-take of bullheaded thuggish machismo—in fact, it’s sometimes hard to tell whether Endangered Species is actually stupid or just playing at it.

You mention Close Encounters, Kelly, and in some ways the whole film almost feels like a compelling satire-mashup of Spielbergian motifs, from the casting right down to the Sugarland Express-like motorcade of cars that provides the film with one of its most memorable images, as well as the disguised trucks containing government technology, like the ones used to ferry Francois Truffaut’s benevolent scientific staff across the US, though here ferrying something much less benign.

Rudolph’s direction is lucid and kinetic, the editing surprising, the acting pretty great, and the script off the wall enough to have its moments, but what is perhaps most surprising about it— especially given how early on it’s made clear that the UFOs are a cover for military–industrial complex shenanigans—is that Endangered Species somehow manages to remain oddly frightening (thanks in part to a deeply unsettling score by Gary Wright) and convincingly transfers the eerie atmosphere initially engendered by the non-sequitur aerial shots of rampaging livestock and rumors of heifer-lasering ETs to government conspiracies equally inhuman and incomprehensible.

GRASSO: Kelly, you’re right: this really is a sui generis artifact of ufology at the outset of the ’80s, one that really bridges two distinct eras in the field. As the 1980s progressed, tales of close encounters were rapidly leaving behind encounters of J. Allen Hynek’s third kind (where entities can be sensed or glimpsed) and becoming more and more likely to be abductions where perceptions of the experiencer’s sense of reality were changed: i.e., encounters of Jacques Vallée’s fourth kind. The suspicion that the U.S. government might be in some ways covering up or working in cahoots with the UFOs also dates from the 1980s, as the Majestic-12 hoax documents began circulating a year or two after Endangered Species was released. (One of Majestic-12’s biggest proponents, investigative reporter Linda Moulton Howe, was also one of the earliest journalists to cover the cattle mutilation phenomenon.)

But ultimately I can’t think of another film from this period that is so decidedly Valléean in its almost fractal unfolding of putative UFO phenomena. In his 1979 Messengers of Deception, Vallée spends quite a bit of time looking at cattle mutilations in the American West. At the time, the classic mutilation event was over a decade old: the case of Snippy the Horse in 1967. Vallée examines how the costly mystery of the cattle mutilation phenomenon in the latter half of the ’70s gradually turned these ranchers from initially believing that UFOs were responsible to eventually believing some kind of government conspiracy was behind the mutilations. These streams of anti-government conspiratorial thought obviously flowed together with existing suspicion of government interference in ranching and land management in the West that would feed into the militia movements of the 1990s and beyond. (It’s interesting to note that JoBeth Williams’ Sheriff Harry character deputizes the entire town at the end of the film to confront the shadowy base on the edge of town; the idea of the posse comitatus was hugely inspirational to the anti-government militias forming in the West at this time.)

But let’s concede this much to the ranchers: their cattle were dying, and they had some reason to suspect government experiments. In Endangered Species, the paramilitary forces are abducting and experimenting on cattle to test biological weapons to be used against the Soviets. (This is probably the best place to note that both Peter Coyote’s and Dan Hedaya’s black ops operatives emit real sleazy menace in every scene they’re in; they don’t get much screen time, but for me they were by far the best part of the film.) These mysterious operatives are utterly dedicated to these experiments for “patriotic” reasons. In Coyote’s confrontation with Hoyt Axton’s big-time rancher, it’s obvious that Axton’s character’s patriotism was a big reason for his collaboration with the cattle mutilators (“I’m a patriot, Steele; I’d do anything for my country”), but after the murder of town newspaper editor Paul Dooley to keep the coverup intact, the black ops boys have gone too far for his tastes. “And you’re not in Guatemala takin’ pot-shots at barefoot natives,” Axton says to Coyote, putting the black ops conspirators firmly in the sphere of the CIA. It’s no surprise that Axton eventually dies a gruesome death; after a black-bag team taints his toothbrush with a mysterious agent, his guts literally fall out of him as an out-of-control hemorrhagic illness ravages his system. Obviously, we’re meant to be reminded of the kinds of domestic ops performed by CIA programs like MKUltra here, but it’s also interesting to see a bioweapon on screen in 1982 that is very similar to the Ebola virus (discovered by scientists in 1976). Government conspiracies involving Ebola/Marburg viruses were also au courant in the 1990s, as were beliefs that the U.S. government either had deliberately engineered or released the AIDS virus into the U.S. population at the end of the 1970s.

ROBERTS: I need to mention E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial here. Released exactly two months before Endangered Species, Spielberg’s film also featured government agents (in this case, the FBI) spying on American citizens and actively seeking to keep the truth from them, prepared to use violence if necessary. Ultimately, the agents are portrayed as benevolent, even paternalistic, their boss (played by Peter Coyote!) revealed to be much like idealistic kid-hero Elliott—as well as a potential father figure to him. Endangered Species does not cop out in such a way (as Spielberg did in 2002 when digitally replacing the FBI’s guns in the chase scene with walkie-talkies, a tragic mistake he later rectified), and is much more disturbing because of it, as you guys mention. While a number of popular ’80s films take on the military-industrial complex and conspiracy, to some degree—The Manhattan Project (1986), The Philadelphia Experiment (1984), WarGames (1983), No Way Out (1987)—only John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) and Endangered Species offer an outright rejection of Reagan’s manipulative idealism.

The film missed an opportunity with JoBeth Willams (who had just starred in 1981’s Poltergeist), whose character we expect to be a man when she’s introduced as newly elected sheriff “Harry.” The camera follows her as she walks to the podium to get sworn in, her long hair tucked up under her hat. For a while, Harry gets to show off her investigatory chops, and even challenges Urich’s claim to hero status, until the predictable “Does she ever wear a dress?” comment gets trotted out, and she takes a backseat to a stock character (the burned-out, drunk NYC cop who’s dictating his first hard-boiled novel into a mini tape recorder).

MCKENNA: It’s true, the very talented JoBeth Willams isn’t used anywhere near as well as she could have been, and the situations the script puts her in range from patronizing to offensive, but despite that she still manages to give a performance that radiates humanity and realness. Playing Urich’s daughter, Marin Kanter (who also appeared in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains the same year) is great too, as are all the various minor characters who evoke a convincing milieu of dickhead provincial bureaucracy.

In fact, Endangered Species is such a monster that even the poster’s a rocker, bringing together the lights in the sky from the alternate posters for E.T. with a light-grid (which appears in the film as part of the black ops tech used by the baddies) reminiscent of 1981’s Looker, giving it something of the feel of a summa of the zeitgeist. The whole thing quite clearly bears the greasy fingerprints of its executive producer, Zalman King. Better known for his screenplay for 1986 wank-fest 9½ Weeks and the erotic thrillers he subsequently directed, King had given a great performance four years previous to Endangered Species as the protagonist of Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine—another sort-of-countercultural horror-conspiracy movie—and was one of those people who seemed in some strange way to have the pulse of the unwholesome side of the popular culture, for better or worse. Endangered Species is yet more proof of that odd talent.

Another thing that struck me was the language used by the villains of the piece—a realistic-sounding form of the clinically euphemistic combat talk (which, like the conversations between scientists in 1980’s Altered States, makes you aware you are listening to professionals) that has now become commonplace but that feels surprisingly ahead-of-its-time in the context of the film. It not only gives Endangered Species a sheen of accuracy but also makes you wonder just how much this compellingly detached way of speaking about death and killing—because it is compelling, unfortunately—has contributed to normalizing, to whatever small extent, the kind of thinking that lies behind it.

GRASSO: As I said at the outset, Endangered Species feels a lot more like ’70s thrillers such as The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor than your typical 1980s VHS fare. Even the ambiguous ending pretty much assures us that greater and more momentous injustices committed by U.S. government-aligned forces will likely continue, long after the credits roll. But it does diverge from those classic 1970s conspiracy thrillers in an important way: instead of the protagonists being crusading journalists (Paul Dooley’s newspaper editor dies about halfway through), the protagonists here are a pair of cops. JoBeth William’s Sheriff Harriet character, as mentioned before, is a woman who can get things done and has the nominal trust of her fellow Coloradans (even if there is the whiff of sexism around the way she is treated at a climactic town meeting). But Robert Urich’s vacationing New York City cop is straight out of street-level 1970s films. While he’s not the same kind of maverick hero as Al Pacino’s Serpico, he’s a salt-of-the-earth schlub, reminiscent of ’70s protagonists such as Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One-Two-Three. But ultimately both protagonists are cops, and I think that’s worth noting as we move from the Nixonian Seventies to the Reaganite Eighties.

To echo what Richard said above, the film certainly is visually interesting for its budget and limitations. The high plains landscapes and slowly decaying small-town streets evoke the period exceptionally well, when America’s small towns were beginning to feel the hollowing out by global capital. The implicit confluence of shadowy government forces with local and international capitalists (in form of Axton’s rancher, the sinister big rigs, and the cattle mutilators’ headquarters, a U.S. missile silo eventually sold into private hands after the first round of U.S.-Soviet arms treaties in the late ’60s) is probably one of the most interesting sub rosa themes in the film. The film’s editing, especially around the repeated ubiquitous cattle abductions by helicopter, is solid as well. And the occasional use of computer graphics eschew the frequent cheesiness inherent in most ’80s films and give us a believable look at what the advanced surveillance and medical systems that the black ops personnel use might look like. Even Gary Wright’s offbeat synth score helps convey a feeling of technological alienation (although I chuckled at the inclusion of a character singing along to “Dream Weaver” on the radio). I maybe wouldn’t go so far to say that Endangered Species is a lost classic, but it’s a fascinating document that tells us more about the state of American conspiracy theorizing in the early 1980s than a lot of bigger, better-known films from the period.

4 thoughts on “A Strange Harvest: Alan Rudolph’s ‘Endangered Species’

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  4. I thought it was pretty awesome to see an actor the caliber of Robert Urich, and an actor/ legendary singer the caliber of Hoyt Axton star together in a movie. As far as i know, this is the only movie they ever co-starred in, am i right or not?. I always remember Robert Urich when he played “Dan Tanna” in the show Vegas, i used to watch that when i was younger all the time.

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