Review of ‘Almost Human’ (2013, release unconfirmed)
Alien abduction movies are an interesting sub-genre within horror. They are one of the most popular with low-budget filmmakers, after the slasher and haunted house niches, and as a result there are an awful lot of poor ones. Sadly there is an assumption that with a spotlight, some weird noises and piles of shaky-cam, a decent abduction movie is a given; whilst I openly admit alien movies aren’t really my thing, it’s easy enough to spot one that isn’t up to snuff. Many have tried, few have succeeded. The better ones recognise that, essentially, the aliens are a secondary aspect of the story and that an abduction movie is, at heart, a character driven piece; the confusion, isolation, mystery surrounding an unexplained disappearance is always the most interesting element of this kind of film. Throw in a good dose of grue and a liberal sprinkling of body horror and the audience will be hooked – then you can start with the vibrating cameras, sudden lights, power cuts, and all the usual tropes. It is into this context that, coming off of very positive early screenings, we find Joe Begos’ ‘Almost Human’.
After opening with an alien abduction the story really begins with Seth who, having been initially suspected in the disappearance of his friends Mark and Rob but released due to lack of evidence, is trying to piece his life back together. When strange lights are witnessed by a number of local people Seth believes that visitors have returned and tries to convince Jen, Mark’s ex-girlfriend, that something is afoot. Little does he know that it is not just the aliens that have returned – so has Mark but he’s fetched something a little extra-terrestrial along with him…
The plot of ‘Almost Human’ takes elements from lots of different sources and, as a low-budget production, this is entirely expected. Whilst it is true that there are one or two mild deviations from formula any fan of the genre will correctly identify exactly how things will play out. To its credit I had expected ‘Almost Human’ to give us a longer time where, given the character’s development arc, we were supposed to suspect Seth of being the killer but Begos takes us straight into the action and keeps it coming fairly steadily throughout. It is true however that the movie sags badly in the middle where, although we have an alien badass running about, very little seems to happen and it all feels rather ponderous. That said, it also true that ‘Almost Human’ both starts and finishes strongly; in fact the opening act is so entertaining and fast paced that even when things turn suitably nasty at the end it never really lives up to such a high early marker. It is also worth noting that the film is incredibly short; at 71 minutes plus credits the machinations of plot and character development are somewhat further hamstrung.
Sticking to its low-budget roots ‘Almost Human’ plays with a very small cast. Whilst there is a supporting cast of characters, including one who doesn’t appear until a very brief post-credits sequence, they are only in it for a few minutes here and there; the snarky boss, the friendly waitress, the new boyfriend all appear briefly before fading away again or being brutally murdered as the case may be. The main cast consists of best friend Seth, beardy part-alien murder machine Mark, and Mark’s ex-girlfriend and new object of his alien spawning instinct, Jen. The performances are mixed – Vanessa Leigh fails to convince as Jen, Josh Ethier does well as the villain, and Graham Skipper’s Seth falls between the two stools into forgettable everyman territory.
The true star of ‘Almost Human’ is first time writer / director Joe Begos. He shows a good eye for the retro aesthetic and, with decent shots, fades, and tracking shots, the movie looks great; it is in large part down to his skill that the film feels like a heartfelt homage rather than the rip-off pastiches that so often come out of the indie sector. He also has a knack for violence, uses a cool axe-mounted camera shot for some of the kills, and whilst his camera work lacks flourishes this is to be commended; a low-budget genre movie with the courage of its convictions and such faith in its special effects that the audience sees them clearly, in focus, and for periods of time, is a rarity.
The special effects, one seriously wonky looking severed limb aside, are great and the team behind them have done a lot with very little. The body count, given the size of the ensemble, is rather high with death by axe, gun, rock, hunting knife, and car on show, all of which are convincingly and, in some cases, strikingly realised. There is one scene near the end involving a head being crushed which is excellently done – it must have involved CG as well as practical effects but the whole thing is seamless. When things take a turn for the extra-terrestrial in the final act, the team also throw some retro alien goop effects at us that, although quite hokey, are completely in keeping with the tone. They have also created the fastest removing trousers in cinematic history – it’s a blink and you’ll miss it thing – and some pants that disappear, change colour and reappear at will, so kudos for that too. The score is fairly basic but has some cool nods to the John Carpenter ominous synth stuff from ‘The Thing’ and the sound design is decent. One complaint about the sound however is the noise that the aliens make – it’s equal parts Alien Queen, ‘Jurassic Park’ T-Rex, and industrial shredder – and it is ear-splitting. I know that’s the point but, during the early abduction scene, it plays throughout and it is very difficult to get through without sticking fingers in your ears or your eyes liquefying in your skull.
Whilst watching ‘Almost Human’ I was constantly reminded of two other, very similar, movies. Firstly, it is similar to James Gunn’s vastly superior ‘Slither’ in terms of some of its plot beats although, importantly, it lacks that movie’s sense of fun; ‘Almost Human’ plays it very straight to the point of being rather po-faced and I wonder if, given the low-budget nature of the production, an acknowledgement of the lunacy of it all would have made it less dreary in the middle. Secondly, it has even more in common with ‘Altered’ – directed by Eduardo Sanchez of Blair Witch fame in 2006, another alien movie that, criminally, hardly anyone saw. The same set up, the same small cast and enclosed location, ‘Altered’ is very similar but much better in almost every regard. The three would make a good themed night in with friends but, crucially, I’d start with ‘Almost Human’. It is almost fun, almost gory, almost creepy, but, for me, it is not as good as its early word of mouth would suggest. Give it a go but don’t expect to be blown away; it’s quite good, almost very good, but not quite there. Joe Begos, behind the camera, shows real promise and an aptitude for this kind of work though; with more money and a better script he’ll do great things. As a debut feature ‘Almost Human’ is not bad – it’s just not great either.
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