Monstrous Consumerism: A Look at The Hidden

Released in 1987, The Hidden makes no apologies for being what it is: a gritty genre flick out for a joy ride, replete with action set pieces and over-the-top violence (nine out of ten fans will use the word “flamethrower” when asked to offer a brief description of the picture’s content). We aren’t ten minutes in when the first big chase starts, complete with a car hurtling into a sheet of plate glass and the two men who are carrying it across the street. The high octane action of The Hidden is also anchored by that time-honored movie stand-by: a pair of mismatched buddy cops, reluctant partners who bond en route to saving the day. So what makes it special – more memorable than the dozens of other films in the same vein that loaded up video store selves in the 1980s, shiny guns and bright orange explosions splashed across cardboard sleeves on rows of VHS tapes? Part of the appeal of The Hidden is that it embodies these familiar genre tropes with great energy and humor, clipping along at a good brisk pace and topping everything off with a nifty sci-fi twist. Michael Nouri plays Tom Beck, an L.A. cop and family man investigating a string of crime sprees in the city. A young Kyle MacLachlan, fresh from his descent into the suburban hell of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and a few years away from his defining role as Special Agent Dale Cooper on Lynch’s TV oddity Twin Peaks, also stars as one of our heroes. Like Cooper, MacLachlan’s character here carries an FBI badge, but in this case it’s only a cover – his Agent Gallagher is actually a benign alien who’s hunting down the murderous body-switching extraterrestrial creature that killed his family. Beck and Gallagher’s uneasy partnership is the heart of the film and punctuated by great bits of winking humor (When Beck’s wife asks Gallagher where he’s from, he simply points upwards. “What’s that?” she asks, “North?”), but the body-switching villain that gives the film its title is well worth examining as well.

The nasty creature wreaking havoc here – a grotesque, insectlike being with slimy tentacles – is all raging id. Devoid of any grand plan of world domination, the creature proves that nefarious extraterrestrials have earthly desires too. It’s able to possess any body, human or otherwise, that it pleases, but its concerns remain base and consumeristic no matter what guise it’s in. Fast cars, loud music, and the thrill of the kill are on the short list of things that it’s interested in (giving director Jack Sholder, and his audience, a chance to revel in the cheap thrills and condemn them at the same time), and its stops in LA – from a bank heist to a record shop, auto dealer, and strip club – are pretty telling. “He sees something he wants, he steals it. If something gets in his way, he kills it,” Gallagher tells Beck. The creature’s attacks are bloody, impulsive, even juvenile. Spying a red Ferrari that it likes, the alien repeats, “I want this car,” and refuses to register the possibility that it can’t have it, staring blankly and killing without remorse until it gets what it wants. Gallagher’s only insight into the violent theft is comically simple: “He likes Ferraris.” That’s all the excuse necessary to start a killing spree.

As it cuts a swath of destruction through the city, the evil alien consumes bodies most rapidly of all; human lives and human bodies are made disposable in a great many action films, but rarely as selfconsciously as they are here. The consumeristic villain sees human beings only for their physicality, snuffing out lives thoughtlessly and using bodies up. Lured by an advertisement proclaiming, “12 Beautiful Girls,” at the Harem Room strip club (already in the skin trade), the alien pulls over ready to shop for a new body at a place where they’re already on display and leers are expected. The creature settles on a scantily clad woman as if she were another souped-up sports car. In an apropos bit of mise en scène, a shoot-out that follows between the heroes and the stripper-turnedevil- alien even takes place within a mannequin factory, where arms and legs lie about waiting to be bought and sold. Onion A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin, puts it this way: “The Hidden’s villainous extraterrestrial chameleon emerges as the ultimate ‘80s consumer run amok: a being of pure desire with a taste for the finer things (it makes a point of stealing only expensive sports cars) that lives for the moment and doesn’t care about the consequences of its actions.” The creature can certainly be read as embodying all of the very worst that the Greed Decade had to offer, making the fact that it can be anyone, including a high-ranking government official, all the more pointed. In moving from body-tobody, the creature also manages to move up the city’s chain of command, remaining unrepentantly vicious while gaining instant wealth, power, and protection. Chillingly, by the end of the film the creature has decided that it wouldn’t mind running for president of the United States. Thus, this cracking good B-movie comes with a trace of frightening social critique. In The Hidden’s grim vision of 1980s America, a respectable exterior can shield a ruthless killer, and insatiably destructive appetites can have most any face.

U.S., 1987. 96 min.,
New Line Cinema.

Victoria Large Written by: