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by Eli Kroes

You might not be familiar with the term 'Z-Movie,' but if you grew up in the 90's, chances are you've seen one. They're the beyond-low-budget monstrosities that teased you from the walls of the mom-and-pop video store. Usually, the films themselves could never live up to the pictures on the videotape boxes (because this was way before your fancy 'Digital Video Discs' and 'Blu-Rays') but occasionally you'd find something truly unique. 'WEIRDO FLICKS' will clue you into some movies which 'unique' doesn't even begin to describe...

'Stalker' - 1979, Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky

This movie certainly isn't low budget, and it isn't cheesy in any way, but it's definitely strange, and thus qualifies for a review.

Andrei Tarkovsky is one of Russia's most celebrated film-makers, having directed the 1972 epic sci fi film 'Solaris,' along with several other excellent 'art' movies. This one is DEFINITELY an 'art' movie, but it's got a coherent storyline and it's very slow, but certainly not boring.

The one thing I can say is that this film is HUGE. Every single shot makes you feel small, and makes the characters seem minuscule. And, like most of Tarkovsky's films, it seems like an art photograph come to life. It might have minimal props and effects for a sci-fi flick, but it makes up for it with gorgeous settings and by legitimately making the viewer feel uneasy.

The story is fairly simple, and that's the point. It's actually a simplified version of a famous Russian sci-fi novel called Roadside Picnic. Basically, it's set in a dystopian-style future after SOMETHING has caused the government to block off a large area. It's implied that most people think a meteor landed, but others seem to lean more towards an extraterrestrial visit (it's noteworthy that in the novel, it IS an extraterrestrial visit.) Initially, the government sends troops to take care of whatever happened, but people begin disappearing and eventually the area is just blocked off.

Certain people make a living as 'stalkers,' leading the adventurous (or the uninspired) into the forbidden area and sneaking past the troops who guard it. Interestingly, the word 'stalker' originated from the novel.

So, The Stalker leads a writer and a scientist into 'The Zone,' as it's called, and proceeds to take them on a wild journey through a creepy and deserted wasteland. Even though their destination (a room that supposedly makes wishes come true) is right across the border, they must take a complicated path to appease 'the zone,' and keep it from lashing out at them.

Well, this is what The Stalker says, but it is unclear if he is simply crazy, or if the danger is real, because nothing really happens to the characters when they rebel against him. Or rather, it is unclear whether the things that happen are created by The Zone or the characters.

Like I said before, it is very slow, and most of the story is revealed through conversations between the three main characters. There is an excellent scene where they ride on a railway pushcar in complete silence, aside from the clicking of the tracks.

If you are interested in film as art, this is a bona fide classic. And, if you are simply looking for an engrossing sci-fi adventure, it works as well, but you might find yourself pondering the ending for a number of days.

VHS photo by Toby Hudson.