Before his name became inextricably associated with blockbuster disaster picture fare like Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and the execrable American Godzilla, Roland Emmerich made an incredibly bizarre little movie called Joey, or, as it was known in its American release, Making Contact. (I first heard of Making Contact thanks to this list.)
Making Contact is essentially every Steven Spielberg/Amblin Entertainment movie of the 80s all wrapped up into one film and passed through a James Wan filter. There are elements of Poltergeist, E.T., The Goonies, *batteries not included, and just about everything else you can imagine. The story concerns a young boy named Joey–hence the film’s original title–whose dad has just passed away. He’s either just turned 9 or is maybe 11? The version I watched said 9, but various write-ups say 11, so who knows? Anyway, shortly after his dad’s death–we see the funeral in the film’s opening shots–Joey begins to develop telekinetic powers, and talks to his dad on a red plastic toy phone in a sequence that is so reminiscent of Poltergeist as to be borderline ridiculous.
Joey’s bedroom is essentially wall-to-wall 80s pop culture touchstones. He’s got Return of the Jedi sheets, there’s Smurfs and Pac-Man and Donkey Kong stuff, and lots more. The first manifestation of Joey’s powers involve all of his toys sort of coming to life in a scene reminiscent of the “Trumpy you can do magic” bit from Pod People, including a fairly creepy song about someone calling him on the telephone, a fantastic little robot named Charlie who sort of looks like R2-D2, as well as a stuffed critter who looks a lot like Alf, even though Alf wouldn’t be on TV until the following year.
Later in the film, all of Joey’s Star Wars toys attack the requisite mean kids, while near the film’s climax the leader of the mean kids dresses up like Darth Vader to give a speech. There’s actually a recurring motif of Vader’s helmet which is sort of odd.
Anyway, the robot, Charlie, who appears to be more sentient than the other toys, goes exploring in the creepy house that’s just next door, and discovers a ventriloquist dummy in the basement. Joey brings it home, but the dummy is predictably evil, disrupting phone lines, demonstrating the same sorts of telekinetic powers that Joey has, and showing us his back story on a floating television. Most of the rest of the film is occupied with the conflict between Joey and the dummy, whose name is Fletcher, though there are plenty of digressions for things like government research teams in shiny vans and white jumpsuits and a trash can monster who actually looks a little bit like a scary E.T.
I’m just going to go ahead and commit to this: Fletcher is the best evil ventriloquist dummy in the history of evil ventriloquist dummies. Not only does he look great and have crazy magic powers (and a monocle!), but, while he does occasionally talk, more often when he opens his mouth he just makes this noise like uuuuuurrrggh. (Fletcher isn’t the only one, either. Charlie, the little robot, is also pretty great.)
While the movie starts out in heavy Spielberg territory, by about the halfway mark–in the longer German cut, which is the one I watched–when the government research guys and local cops and everything show up and start crawling all over the house, it goes full bore Spielberg. There’s loads of optical effects of blazing, hovering lights. There’s clouds gathering and swirling ominously. The whole nine yards.
The film’s climax gets pretty epic, too, involving an enormous maze underneath the scary house–or maybe in another dimension, or both–complete with what I think are supposed to be manifestations of the various kids’ fears, which include a giant rock monster, a living corpse, a killer hamburger, and none other than reprise by Darth Vader himself, complete with lightsaber. Before the end, we’re also treated to a fantastic scene of a giant stone version of Fletcher rising up above the maze, which is pretty ridiculous and wonderful.
Unfortunately, it’s a little bit hard to figure out what the hell is going on most of the time–maybe it would have helped if I spoke German, but the subtitles certainly didn’t seem to know–but it also doesn’t really matter what’s going on, because whatever it is is delightful. This is another movie that I hope someone like Scream Factory releases in a nice Blu-ray special edition. In the mean time, maybe I’ll check out Emmerich’s other, similar-sounding feature from a couple of years later, Ghost Chase, and let you know how that goes…
[This post previously appeared on my Patreon.]