Canada. Directed by Colin Minihan, 2014. Starring Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, Jesse Moss. 100 minutes.

Grave Encounters auteurs Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz (better known as the Vicious Brothers) are back with the Cabin in the Woods/X-Files/Alien mash-up nobody asked for. Brittany Allen heads up to her parents’ cabin in the woods to run some errands for her divorcing parents, but with her boyfriend, bestie and a couple of hangers-on in tow, it turns into a weekend of…well, the sorts of things that twentysomethings always do at cabins in the woods in movies like these. That’s when the aliens show up in their spaceship, probes at the ready.

The above synopsis doesn’t suggest much in the way of potential and the script lives up to that expectation. Too often, the Brothers substitute genuine scares with knowing winks at the audience (the “anal probe” sequence is the best example of this). Allen’s character is the only one given any depth, and for the most part the supporting cast only exists to define her character by comparison–a common flaw of the Final Girl formula. Much of the dialogue is terrible (a heated debate about marriage sounds, for all the world, like one of Matt Walsh’s straw-man arguments), and there’s far too many stupid plot points (the bit with the roman candle made me groan).

That all being said, Extraterrestrial mostly works because of the execution. If you absolutely must have a Final Girl in a film, you could do a lot worse than have Allen play her, and her pluck engages the viewer when the writing doesn’t. (Indeed, almost all the genuine feels in the movie come from her performance and not from the script.) Reliable Canadian supporting players Gil Bellows and Emily Perkins make the most of small roles that never quite get the attention they should. Michael Ironside steals every scene as an off-the-grid libertarian conspiracy theorist with a greenhouse full of sweet leaf.

The only duds in the cast are Jesse Moss, who talks like Jesse Pinkman and looks like Skrillex, and Sean Rogerson, who saddles his sheriff’s deputy with the worst Barney Fife-ish yokel performance since what’s-his-nuts in the first Cabin Fever.

Minihan’s direction also contributes to the enjoyment. In a visual sense, he’s not a particularly distinctive stylist and there’s very little that separates the look of Extraterrestrial from that of any other modern horror movie. But he keeps everything going at a brisk pace (the film feels a bit shorter than its hour-forty running time), his approach to action is coherent and even moderately exciting, and he kept proceedings tenser and more suspenseful than I had expected. The design and effects work look nice from an aesthetic point of view even if they appear exactly as you’d expect them to (no deviating from the Fire in the Sky/“Duane Barry” template here).

Extraterrestrial is a flawed piece of work, too derivative to take entirely seriously. And yet it’s enjoyable enough, if you take it on its own terms.

Extraterrestrial poster

Under the Skin

United Kingdom. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, 2013. Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson. 109 minutes.

There are times when the standard Nightmare Gallery review format–where I start by taking a few hundred words to describe the basic premise and through-line of the film’s story–does me absolutely no good when it comes time to sit down and write, and this is one of them.

If you know only one thing about Under the Skin, you know it as the movie in which Scarlett Johansson plays an alien who seduces and abducts men. Now, chances are you’ve seen at least a couple of other movies that could be summed up using that same sentence, or at least a similar one. If nothing else, you’re reading my blog; I specialize in certain subsets of film, and “movies about alien temptresses” fits into some of those subsets rather comfortably.

There’s no way I can describe the basic premise of this movie without making it sound like something you’ve seen a thousand times before. But that does Under the Skin a great disservice. It reduces the film to its most banal level. None of what is memorable or remarkable about the film comes from that. If you specifically want to see a movie about a sexy alien lady, you’re probably best off forgoing this and instead checking if Species is available on Netflix Instant.

You’ve probably heard Ebert’s old axiom that “a movie isn’t about what it’s about, but rather how it’s about it.” If you want proof of that, here it is.

Despite modern effects, a small amount of grue and a frank depiction of human sexuality, Under the Skin is really an old-fashioned science fiction movie. Most modern SF films are really actioners at heart, with fantastic technological concepts placed on it to give characters reasons to shoot things, blow shit up, and maybe talk a little philosophy during the interludes between shooting things and blowing shit up (Godzilla and Looper being two recent examples). There is nothing wrong with this sort of film as a subgenre and I have enjoyed many films that can be described as such. But in prose form, science fiction is considered “the literature of ideas” and when it comes to the cinematic form of the genre I think we’ve lost some of that over the last couple of decades.

The images that introduce Under the Skin recall the “convergence” and “Star Gate” scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have to believe that’s a deliberate reference on the part of director (and co-screenwriter) Jonathan Glazer. To me, they said, “This a thought-provoking, dialog-light science fiction film, and we’ll prepare you for the experience by using visual quotes from the ultimate thought-provoking, dialog-light science fiction film.”

But like 2001 (and unlike a great many recent films that employ a lot of obscure symbolism in the hopes that said symbolism will make them look deeper and more thoughtful than they actually are), it’s clear what the events in Under the Skin are and what they mean. Glazer admirably trusts the audience to be intelligent enough to sort things out without reams of laboriously contrived exposition. It’s not a film that requires rapt, focused concentration, but it does require you to use your brain a bit.

Mind you, you’re going to want to give it your rapt, focused concentration, because it’s an absolutely gorgeous piece of cinema. It’s beautiful in the way that Kubrick’s films are beautiful, and Tarkovsky’s, and Lynch’s, and Von Trier’s. The flip-side of the “exposition-free, you have to figure it out for yourself” coin is that Glazer is able to tell a story chiefly with images, and so often those images are so brilliant that you will want to fall to your knees and weep for joy that such beauty exists in the world.

These elements that distinguish Under the Skin also ensure that it’s not going to be for everyone. The pace is slow and there’s not a lot of talking, which is not something I had much of a problem with. But I have to think that many viewers are going to see it as “Scarlett Johansson driving around for an hour and then Scarlett Johansson walking around for another hour,” and those viewers are going to find it something of a snooze. I don’t agree, but I do have some sympathy for that viewpoint.

In addition to that, with all the focus on Johansson’s unnamed lead character, I was a bit surprised that it wasn’t more of a showcase for her as an actress. Don’t get me wrong, I think she put in a very good performance (and I’ve never been particularly impressed with her). But a number of actresses were considered for the role and I don’t think many of them would have put in demonstrably worse performances in the role (not even perpetual whipping-girl Megan Fox).

Glazer’s reliance on non-professional actors for the supporting roles also result in a few awkward line readings although I think the verisimilitude the film gains more than makes up for it.

Personal preferences aside, Under the Skin is a genuinely great film that I dearly hope eventually earns the epithet of “classic.” I can’t recommend it highly enough. One of the best of the year, so far.

Under the Skin poster

Almost Human

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.

Almost Human poster