United States. Directed by Joe Begos, 2013. Starring Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh. 80 minutes.
On October 13, 1987, Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappeared from his house in Patten, Maine. The last people to see him alive were his best friend, Seth Hampton (Graham Skipper), and his fiancée, Jen Craven (Vanessa Leigh). Seth’s account of the last time he saw Mark (a wild claim that Mark was taken by unseen forces in a beam of blue light) was universally dismissed–although the disappearance did coincide with a power outage and sightings of strange lights in the sky throughout the region.
Two years later, the people of Patten once again see lights in the sky, and suffer a cut in power. The next day, the news reports that the corpses of two hunters were found murdered in a forest, stripped of their clothes and weapons. Another victim, a gas station proprietor, is reported in due course. The killer apparently stole a truck from the location, and its driver is likewise presumed dead.
The authorities have no leads on a suspect. Nobody knows who the killer is…except Seth. For days, he’s suffered nosebleeds and violent nightmares and visions, and is now convinced of a terrifying truth.
Mark Fisher has returned…except he’s not the same Mark Fisher who was taken on that October night. And he’s on his way back to Patten, coming for Seth and Jen–but not to kill them. His goal is far more horrific than murder.
For me, it’s very rare for a horror film to work almost entirely on the basis of its incident and imagery. First and foremost, I tend to respond to character–writing and acting, or some combination of both. If I believe the characters, primarily how they respond to the presented situations, I believe the entire movie even if the story fails to make sense, the photography is lackluster or the effects laughable.
I won’t follow that paragraph by asserting that Almost Human works on the basis of incident and imagery only, because it doesn’t. Writer/director Joe Begos’s feature début has more going for it than just that. But I must admit that the film has several flaws which I overlook because those two elements of the production work so well for me.
Begos wears his influences on his sleeve, explicitly pitching the film as “Fire in the Sky meets The Terminator” (his words), and making references to a canon which includes the ’78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing. These influences are almost universally sourced from the late ’70s and the entirety of the ’80s, right down to setting (rural Maine…Stephen King much?) and Andy Garfield’s explicitly Carpenter/Howarth-esque score. Almost Human is unabashedly “throwback” horror even if most of the stylistic hallmarks of the subgenre are missing.
Begos paces the film well through its first two acts and most of its third, keeping the suspense high–the one exception being the film’s final scenes (the movie doesn’t so much end as grind to a halt). He also punctuates the plot with a number of gruesome and discomfiting set-pieces. He understands which bits of nastiness should be shown and which should be kept off-screen. The effects work is top-notch and includes an alien-rape scene which stuck with me for days afterwards.
These are all fine things for a film to do well, but it’s time for me to get back to the paragraph that started this section: characterization and acting. The characters’ responses to situations often lacks credibility, which damages a couple of crucial sequences. Dialog is purely functional, and characters often deliver the same pieces of exposition over and over: Seth, in particular, seems to spend most of the film’s first third impersonating a broken record.
Combined with this are uneven performances coming from two of the movie’s leading threesome, Graham Skipper and Vanessa Leigh. Their performances, when taken overall, aren’t outright bad, but are plagued with awkward or stilted moments. An early conversation between Seth and Jen, for example, feels like the two actors weren’t even on the set together.
Leigh’s response to Jen’s rape is a particular sticking point: she’s just been violated in a particularly revolting way by a (presumably) alien being in the form of the man she nearly married, but she shrugs it off like she tripped and fell. I have a lot of respect for Leigh for the whole sequence (particularly if she didn’t use a stunt double for the grossest part of the scene), and Begos’s script is hardly blameless, but it still drains this highly charged scene of a lot of its power.
The only universally strong major performance comes from co-producer Josh Luthier, who transforms the schlubby lumberjack Mark into a terrifying, unstoppable killing machine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mark Fisher joins the company of Victor Crowley or Leslie Vernon in the canon of late-model slasher villains.
And yet, I can’t bring myself to turn in an unfavorable review of the Almost Human because when it works, it works beautifully. It’s got some genuinely horrifying content and kept me on the edge of my seat most of the time. Everybody involved gives it their all and nobody fucks around like it’s some lark. Yes, it has its flaws. No, it probably won’t become a cult classic or a shining example of what the genre meant in the mid-’10s. But it should find an audience that will appreciate it.