The Intruder Within (1981): Alien Elegy

Matty unearths a small screen sci-fi horror and chronicles the heartbreakingly short lives of its three key creatives. 

Sitting alongside The Dark (1979), Scared to Death (1980), and Italian export Alien 2: On Earth (1980) as one of the earliest Alien (1979) take-offs, THE INTRUDER WITHIN (1981) is a compelling enough monster flick hindered by its TV movie trappings.

‘Alien on an oil rig’, the plot concerns a deep sea drilling crew falling afoul of a weird prehistoric creature in the middle of the Antarctic Ocean. Jennifer Warren and a moustachioed Chad Everett are decent Weaver/Skerritt avatars, their respective parts hybridising both Ripley and Dallas; Blaxploitation hero Rockne Tarkington is a capable Yaphet Kotto stand-in [1]; and Joseph Bottoms adopts the Ian Holm-ish bit of a disingenuous newbie whose motives alternate between suspicious and loony. The proper ‘psychotic Ash’ business is delivered by James Hayden when his character — a walking narrative device also comprised of several John Hurt/Kane lifts — becomes a murderous living breeding ground after a bite from the film’s Facehugger surrogate, the eel-like Nestwatcher. Hayden was tipped for big things at the time of The Intruder Within’s making. Although his screen credits were minimal [2], the critically acclaimed young thesp was a theatre darling — and following The Intruder Within’s broadcast on ABC on Friday 20th February 1981, he landed the plum role of Patsy Goldberg in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Sadly, the epic crime saga was released posthumously. On 8th November 1983, hours after a standing ovation for his performance as the drug addicted Bobby in the Broadway revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo — a show toplined by friend Al Pacino — Hayden died of a heroin overdose. He was twenty-nine years old.  

Despite The Intruder Within’s Xeroxed nature, several lines tease a dramatic depth richer than the rest of the speech-bubble prattle that typifies veteran TV scribe Ed Waters’ otherwise unremarkable teleplay. Warren’s toughness, for instance, is attributed to her being a former child bride who killed her abusive husband — a moment revealed in a darkly comic exchange with a gobsmacked Everett. However, the film’s greatest asset is the tactility of its central location. 

Shot in November and December 1980, The Intruder Within’s exteriors were lensed on a real oil rig in Lake Erie owned by the Underwater Gas Developers of Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada. According to co-star and Port Colborne native Matt Craven [3], filming had to be stopped whenever the seasonably cloudy weather cleared up too much as the lights from Buffalo, New York could be seen across the waters (which, of course, completely shattered the illusion of The Intruder Within’s South Pole setting). Further delays were caused by the slime and ooze used for the monster effects. Due to freezing temperatures, the gloop essentially created an ice rink on the rig’s deck that had to be navigated with extreme care and attention. Interiors were shot in an empty grocery store nearby [4]. 

Discounting reshoots on action comedy Highpoint (1982), The Intruder Within marks the final feature-length assignment of journeyman talent Peter Carter. The son of documentarian Donald Carter, the junior Carter was born on 8th December 1933 in Hertfordshire, U.K. He apprenticed with The Rank Organisation and moved to Canada in 1954. There Carter spent four years as a dogsbody at the Ottawa-based Crawley Films and returned to the U.K. in 1958. He came back to Canada in ‘63 and earned a crust as a production manager, and graduated to the director’s chair in ‘67 when he was tasked with helming an episode of the John Vernon TV series, Wojeck. Carter broke into features with Newfoundland comedy The Rowdyman (1972) (written by and starring iconic Newfie Gordon Pinsent), but his best known pictures remain the ace Deliverance (1972) riff, Rituals (1977), and the aforementioned Highpoint — a troubled production that famously saw stunt genius Dar Robinson complete an astounding seven-hundred foot plummet from the CN Tower in downtown Toronto, then the world’s tallest free-standing structure [5]. Tragically, Carter died aged forty-eight on 3rd June 1982, the victim of a widow-maker heart attack. 

(L – R) Stuntman Joe Finnegan as The Intruder; a clipping from Famous Monster of Filmland, issue #176, which contained an interview with FX man James Cummins; and Cummins with one of his creations.

Directorially, The Intruder Within finds Carter in generally fine fettle and serves as a decent supporting text to the above-noted Rituals owing to their similarly minded passages of suspense and near identical depictions of bonded individuals tightening their camaraderie in the face of a seemingly unstoppable enemy. Where Carter struggles is reconciling his flair for terror with the inherent limitations of the TV movie form. Dialogue is frequently captured in stagey mid-shots and close-ups, and the all-important monster carnage is fleeting and difficult to see. As evidenced by the accompanying pictures, the final iteration of the eponymous intruder in the film’s last reel is incredible — but it’s so dark on screen that you can barely identify anything save for the odd tooth or glistening patch of flesh. Given that The Intruder Within hasn’t had a fresh transfer since the days of VHS [6], it’s hard to say whether the mulchy presentation is the result of poor mastering or because of a stylistic quirk (cf. Peter Hyams’ The Relic (1997)). Obviously, explicit gore, violence, and the kind of gloopy extraterrestrial mayhem codified by Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) and The Thing (1982) is non-existent — an expected symptom of the censorship imposed on boob tube fare of the period. Nevertheless, ABC executives held The Intruder Within in high regard and briefly considered financing a sequel.

The Intruder Within’s wunderkind FX artist, James Cummins, detailed his experience on the film and its lengthy gestation in the pages of Starlog and Famous Monsters of Filmland:

Having arrived in California to study animation at the California Institute of Arts in Valencia, the wannabe make-up wiz ditched school and put together a portfolio of ghoulish masks. The portfolio bagged Cummins a job with latex-slingin’ maestro Tom Burman which, in turn, led to working with another industry giant, Stan Winston, when Burman and Winston recruited him for their joint gig, The Exterminator (1980). Fast-forward a few months, the now twenty-year old received a phone call from a pal, Henry Golas, who said that Furia/Oringer Productions needed help for a TV flick they were prepping called ‘The Lucifer Rig’. Cummins acquired ‘The Lucifer Rig’’s script, and he and Golas spent a weekend designing a selection of monsters and sculpting a bust of their main creature. Furia/Oringer loved their work and hired them, only for development of the film to be paused during the three month 1980 actor’s strike. Enamoured with the project — which was also titled ‘Panic Offshore’ before The Intruder Within stuck — Cummins and Golas pressed on regardless, surviving on a petty cash fund as they refined their fabrications and assembled various other props and gags. Frustratingly, when the strike finished and The Intruder Within finally got going, Cummins and Golas’ designs were junked three days ahead of shooting when Furia/Oringer decided they wanted something more explicitly Alien-esque. Filming was postponed and Cummins and Golas were given three weeks to overhaul everything. Beaten by the clock, they settled on something they’d initially tried to avoid for the monster’s final stage: a man in a rubber suit. With no one cast in the role, Cummins, Golas, and Pat Burns — who jumped in at the eleventh hour — built the suit around a mannequin left over from John Frankenheimer’s mutant bear caper, Prophecy (1979), which Burman provided them with. Stuntman Joe Finnegan (Apocalypse Now (1979), Just Before Dawn (1981), RoboCop (1987)) was eventually cast — but Cummins, already feeling shafted, experienced additional disappointment when he was told that he wasn’t allowed to operate or apply any of the FX on set in Canada due him being non-union (The Intruder Within was a union shoot). Cummins was permitted to “keep an eye on things” in an advisory capacity but walked after ten days when it became “too painful” watching another crew muck about with his and Golas’ work. 

Post The Intruder Within, Cummins teamed with Winston again on Dead & Buried (1981) and Heartbeeps (1981) (he provided lab work for the former and character designs for the latter); teched for Burman on The Beast Within (1982) and Cat People (1982); crafted the beautifully cartoon-y spectres for House (1986); and went on to write and direct cult hit The Boneyard (1991). Alas, like Hayden and Carter, Cummins’ career was cut short. He died on 1st December 2010, aged fifty-one.  

[1] Incidentally, the Black Samson (1974) star had previously played a rigger in miniseries Roughnecks (1980).
[2] He popped up as G.I. #1 in Armand Weston’s dreadful haunted house shocker, The Nesting (1981), and his brief scene in William Friedkin’s Cruising (1980) was deleted.
[3] Craven’s Canuxploitation resume extends to kooky slasher classic Happy Birthday to Me (1981) which wrapped two months before The Intruder Within started filming.
[4] Some amusing symmetry: the shooting of another ‘Alien on an oil rig’, Proteus (1995), took place in an empty supermarket nearly a decade-and-a-half later.
[5] The late Robinson did the record-breaking feat twice: once for Highpoint and again for TV doc/personal profile The World’s Most Spectacular Stuntman (1981), where the height was increased to nine-hundred feet.
[6] The Intruder Within was released on video on either side of the Atlantic by Trans World Entertainment in 1985, after the theatrical release of the company’s own Alien variation, Creature (1985).

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