Cool spoof of cheapo drive-in scare fare manages to honor its body-snatching ’50s roots while striking into sharply original territory. Result — something like David Lynch with a sense of humor and history — is a provocative, frequently hilarious hybrid that’s smart enough to connect with urban auds, whether college-fresh or old enough to remember the originals. Pic reps major breakthrough for heartland helmer John Paizs, whose wacky vision has long been buried in the snowdrifts of Manitoba. His tone may be too subversive to go below U.S. Bible Belt, though, since he takes so many irreverent belts at the Bible.
Alongside an appropriately tacky look, “Top of the Food Chain’s” chief appeal is in its delightful ensemble work, led by casting coup Campbell Scott as a pipe-smoking atomic scientist (from the Atomic Academy, no less) straight out of the Church of Bob. With his pipe, trim admiral’s beard and black horn-rim glasses, his Dr. Karel Lamonte shows up in the weird town of Exceptional Vista — located somewhere between New Imbroglio and Fetus — just when the local TV tower gets hit by a big meteor.
Have aliens landed? It’s hard to tell when the residents are already as strange as local sexbomb Sandy Fawkes (“Love and Death on Long Island’s” wonderful Fiona Loewi) — who’s like June Cleaver as played by Betty Page — and her oh-so-close brother, Guy (Tom Everett Scott), who always seems just a bit behind the beat. There’s only one policeman (Hardee T. Lineham), and he’s more obsessed with Sandy — and with spanking the odd lawbreaker’s bottom — than with solving any crime. The mayor (Bernard Behrens) is a wizened old-timer given to exclamations like “By the holy fruit of sweet Mary’s womb!,” while his old pal (Peter Donaldson) is a religious nut convinced that creatures called the Reclaimers have come to punish people “lured from the path by brightly colored boxes” — meaning TV. And then there are those creepy traveling salespeople checked into Sandy’s hotel; funny how they don’t have any samples of the vacuums and banjoes they say they’re selling.
Turns out the critters are slimy, blue-blooded aliens who don’t give a fig about the human soul but do find our flesh pretty tasty. So when several munched-up carcasses show up “in the hilly, lumpy-bumpy part of town just outside of town,” our man of science clenches his pipe and swings into action — if you call bathing with an inflatable likeness of yourself action.
Scott’s droll, off-kilter delivery anchors the movie neatly, and his uptight, falsely confident persona does set off a kind of “cool fusion” with Loewi’s feline warmth. The rest of the players are well matched, thanks to the vision of writers Phil Bedard and Larry Lelond and the helmer (who hasn’t done a feature since 1985’s cult fave “Crime Wave”) that somehow makes this visit to the uncharted reaches of the Twilight Zone ring right, if not exactly true.
David Krystal’s sometimes brassy music captures the paperback-book-cover abstraction of such Eisenhower-era scorers as Elmer Bernstein, and vet Hong Kong lenser Bill Wong (“Rouge”) brings a chopsocky touch to the purposely underlit scenery. Not everything in the script works, but there’s so much irreverent, movie-loving stuff flying at you, it hardly matters. Real belly laughs come only occasionally, but the chortle-out-loud factor is almost 90%.
“Food Chain” flags only once, in the final stretch, but that leads to one of the most quizzical endings in years — a deceptively happy, watch-the-skies seg in which Dr. Lamonte thanks God for offering us the life-saving gift of television — which, as it happens, does destroy aliens.