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Top of the Food Chain

(AKA Invasion!) 1999, Starring Campbell Scott, Lorry Ayers, James Allidi, Nigel Bennet. Directed by John Paizs.

Top of the Food Chain marks the triumphant return of Winnipeg cult director John Paizs. It has been almost 15 years since Paizs directed his only other feature film, Crime Wave. This film is an exciting chance to see Paizs flex his rusty directing skills with a subject matter that will be familiar to his fans.

Just as Crime Wave gently spoofs the B-crime/noir genre, Top Of The Food Chain plays on 1950s science-fiction films. You may be surprised to hear that unlike Crime Wave, this film was not written by Paizs, but by a couple TV writers, Phil Bedard and Larry Lalonde who wanted him to direct. I can only wonder what surprises a John Paizs script for this concept might have, but the material here is not that bad, and frankly better than I was led to expect from the film's lukewarm reviews. The film presents us with a strange world of secret government agents, sexual indiscretion, religious idolatry and men with female names.

The story involves a mysterious comet landing in the small town of Exceptional Vista. After sweeping through the desolate main streets (the town has been experiencing hardship ever since the nut factory shut down), we see the meteor land just a few kilometers away in a scene almost directly out of It Came From Outer Space. At the same time, television reception in the town goes all haywire, and a fisherman named Jan disappears after meeting a beautiful woman.

From there we get to meet some of the townspeople hanging out at Mr Binkley's general store such as police deputy Dana and religious zealot Mr. Kim Hickey. While discussing the TV situation, the town's most " sexually aware" female citizen and motel owner Sandy Fawkes comes in to tell them about a visiting scientist from the Atomic Academy. It turns out that Dr Karel Lamont (expertly played by Campbell Scott) is in the back of the store reading a magazine called Pig Parliament, and Sandy takes him back to her motel, The Fawkes' Den.

After a brief run in with the head of police, the insane Officer Gail, Sandy and Dr. Lamont arrive at the motel. There he meets Sandy's dim-witted brother Guy and a creepy (male) vacuum salesman named Michelle O'Shea. That night, as Dr Lamont outlines his hilarious ideas for "cool fusion" over dinner, the fisherman's wife is killed. Like her husband she is apparently consumed by an alien who is never quite seen due to some predatory point-of-view shots.

The next day, the Doctor finds a bloody mess of a corpse just outside of town, as well as a toothpick like the one O'Shea was chewing on the previous day. He also meets another guest at the hotel, a well dressed woman with a black suitcase named Chris Martin who presents herself as a banjo salesperson. Chris and the Doctor rush into the Exceptional Vista Lodge Banquet to tell Officer Gail and the lecherous mayor of Exceptional Vista about the body. But in another part of town, Mr Binkley is killed and half consumed at his general store.

As the bodies continue to pile up, Dr Lamont finally realizes that the deaths are caused by aliens trying to get to the top of Earth's food chain. He decides to rally the remaining townspeople in an effort to not only save the town, but to revitalize Exceptional Vista's nut industry. And he manages to fall in love with Sandy as he does. But is Sandy the only apple of Dr Lamont's eye?

This film really needs to be appreciated to be seen, but needless to say if you are a fan of 1950s science fiction like I am, you will find this a very pleasant spoof with lots of good chuckles. Top of the Food Chain pokes fun at 1950s science fiction films not by ridicule, but by attacking some of the attitudes. For example, any time danger is afoot, Dr Lamont tells all the women to stay inside and lock the doors, and he often makes statements like "If authorities keep the truth from us, it's for our own good." Rather than trying to be make political and moral statements, these are well intended jokes which are not harped on or used in the condescending manner of Hollywood blockbusters.

his film was made in a small town north of Toronto, and I think I have been to the "bumpy, hilly" part of Exceptional Vista. I watched this film just after seeing the 80s remake of The Blob, and it helped me appreciate the Canadian sensibility of this film. I would even go so far as to point to Top Of The Food Chain as a critique of American individualism as represented by Dr Lamont and his antiquated attitudes. This is further illustrated by the end of the film, where Dr Lamont proves ineffective against the aliens.

The look of the film is very pleasing, with most of the home furnishings looking like they have since 1972. Which makes sense, because Exceptional Vista is supposed to be a town that has lost it's main industry. Canadians will love the depressing scene at the lodge which is pure Paizs. Roller rink organ music plays while bored couples dance and suck back various green food items from the all-green buffet. It's all very reminiscent of the party in Crime Wave, and I can only hope it's a peek into what might be down the Paizs pipe.

Despite it's unenthusiastic critical reception and quick video release, this film is worth checking out. Because if nothing else, Top of the Food Chain is a ray of hope. A hope for an all-new, all-Paizs film sometime in the near future.

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