That was pretty good. I'd heard it described as "Jack Sholder's ass-kicking flick The Hidden", which seems like a reasonable summary to me. I'd also heard that its plot gets ripped off wholesale for Friday the 13th part IX: The Final Friday, which made this a must-watch since that's next in my Friday the 13th marathon. It's not the most obvious target for ripping off, being a film I'd never heard of and hardly a genre landmark like RoboCop or Aliens, but personally I had a good deal of fun with it.
It's a body-swap movie, basically. The alien bad guy can take people over like the Thing, but only one at a time and once he's inside a body he's very hard to kill and isn't shy about walking into an entire station full of cops, like the Terminator. Bullets will hurt it, but not a lot. Its native form is a huge disgusting alien parasite, which managed to freak out one actor so much that the man refused to watch the stop-motion animation of a model of himself being orally violated by it and instead left the room. He's a fun villain, with slightly zombie-like body language. Amusingly at one point he takes over a dog and the film's producers somehow found a dog that could do twitchy alien acting. It manages to be quite a threatening dog, actually, but in a completely un-dog-like way.
What's unusual about our extraterrestrial is that he doesn't behave like most alien invaders. He doesn't really have any goals beyond having a laugh and killing anyone who gets in his way. For a while I was wondering why an alien should want to rob banks and record shops, but I soon realised that he's simply antisocial and has the mentality of a five-year-old. If he wants something, he takes it. He rarely bothers saying anything more complicated than "I want your car" or "I need the keys", but even that's an unusual amount of effort by his standards when he could just be simply killing the person he's talking to. Most surprisingly he even appears to desire Earth women, but I hope that's simply because he's discovered that sex is fun.
That's our bad guy. Pitted against him are Kyle MacLachlan as an FBI agent who knows all the answers and Michael Nouri as a local homicide cop. MacLachlan is sensibly reluctant to let slip even the slightest smidgin of truth about what's really going on, but understandably this doesn't endear him to Nouri. Personally I thought the good guys were well drawn. The cops' banter is funny and there's more emotional depth than you'd expect in this kind of film, with Nouri taking MacLachlan home for dinner. Nouri has a wife and daughter. MacLachlan used to, until they were killed. The acting's respectable as well, with MacLachlan taking his part seriously and Michael Nouri winning Best Actor at the Catalonian International Film Festival for this in 1987.
If nothing else, Jack Sholder seemed to have a knack for picking actors who'd later go on to iconic genre roles. As well as Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, we also have Claudia Christian as a stripper seven years before she'd be Susan Ivanova in Babylon 5. If you've ever wanted to see her dancing in a top so flimsy that it's effectively transparent, this is your chance. That's if you haven't dug up her nude Playboy shoot, of course.
All this is good. The film works well. I don't know if you'd call it action or horror, but the best description is probably both. I'm now wondering in fact why I'd never heard of this film before, or in other words what's keeping it down in the second rank of genre flicks rather than up there with the classics everyone's heard of. It won some awards, after all. As well as the aforementioned acting prize for Nouri, Jack Sholder took home a few film festival prizes for Best Director and The Hidden was nominated for best film at a couple of them. Reasons why the movie isn't better known...
(a) maybe a lack of star power? It's not directed by a name like John Carpenter or James Cameron, while its heroes are TV-level actors rather than an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Bruce Willis. It's not even part of a franchise, which can lend a kind of borrowed immortality since a brand name is likely to have a profile higher than its component films might have deserved individually.
(b) it's not trying to be anything more. That's the big one, I think. It's never less than good, but it's equally never threatening to take that final step up to greatness. The plot is pretty much what you think it's going to be. People and aliens try to kill each other for 95 minutes, then it ends. There aren't any surprises in the finale, which kills the alien in what's simply an action sequence. There's a postscript afterwards that has more emotional depth, but a stronger film might have found a way not to separate them like that. Then there's the fact that the alien thinks like a toddler and looks incapable of any plan more complicated than "kill the suckers". It's hardly a supervillain. Halfway through it decides that it fancies the idea of being the President of America, but there's no way it could have ever got there except by body-hopping every five minutes. It certainly couldn't run an election campaign, for instance.
The film has a sequel, by the way. It came out in 1994 and its first fifteen minutes are simply the last fifteen minutes of The Hidden, except for some additional shots spliced in of a dog getting infected to explain why the alien menace isn't dead. After that the film kills any surviving characters who might have been too expensive (i.e. all of them) and... oh, you don't need me to say any more, do you? It sounds bad enough for even me to avoid and I'll watch sequels to anything.
There's one bit near the end that puzzled me. Why golden energy? Maybe we're looking at more sophisticated technology, or else maybe Sholder just didn't want to show us another big disgusting bug. Because of this I think there's wriggle room as to what we're seeing.
Overall, this is a good film. It's not great, but you can't always have greatness. Instead it's a good solid action movie with a nifty SF hook and also a decent amount of time being spent on character. Even the alien itself gets characterisation, with an occasionally surprising relationship with its own biology and an early scene of him getting himself a car that went on much longer than I'd expected. "He likes Ferraris." You get to know these people. The film is fun, cool and deserves to be remembered. I'd recommend it.