Written and Directed by: Joe Begos
Starring: Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, and Vanessa Leigh
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
An unspeakable terror has come home.
I don’t want to imply that Joe Begos is wearing his influences on his sleeve for Almost Human, but anyone familiar with the works of John Carpenter will notice a familiar font for this film’s opening credits. No matter how subtly you do it, associating yourself with one of the all-time greats like that takes balls not only for the obvious reasons (talk about setting the bar pretty high) but also because everyone’s been getting in on this retro craze for the past decade (and this is not to mention that Carpenter himself was a homage artist—I bet Baudrillard would be horrified at the layers of simulacra we’re sifting through these days). But hear me out on Almost Human: it’s the real damn deal, an 80s throwback that can walk the walk without scarring your eyes with acid-washed denim or poking you to death with its fondness for a bygone era. It’s just a well-stitched pastiche, much like some of Carpenter’s own efforts.
Friday, October 13th 1987 was a hell of a day for Seth Hampton (Graham Skipper). After watching one friend disappear into a haze of mysterious lights, he frantically relays his story to another buddy, Mark (Josh Ethier). It sounds like the ravings of a lunatic until the same blue lights descend upon Mark’s house and take him into the ether. Authorities are mystified by the events and attempt to pin the blame on Seth, who continues to be haunted by nightmarish visions of his missing friends. Exactly two years later, a particularly strong nightmare convinces him that Mark is set to return. He’s right—sort of. Something resembling his friend appears in the woods, but it’s righteously pissed off and begins to murder everything in its path.
The best thing I can say about Almost Human is that it’s the type of movie where the sight of an axe is exciting because you know it’s going to land in someone’s face soon enough. Okay, maybe that’s not the best thing I can say about it, but it says a lot about what it aspires to be. While its pod people influences are myriad (obviously Carpenter’s The Thing is up on the chopping block along with stuff like Xtro and The Hidden), Almost Human is a slasher film at is core, seeking to do little more than fill up the screen with as many dismembered body parts as possible during its 79 gore-soaked minutes—and that’s awesome. Also, its slasher has the distinction of sprouting a phallic appendage and impregnating its prey for nefarious purposes. It took Jason Voorhees nine movies to learn that trick, and this thing figures it out in half an hour. Just saying.
Like many of his Carpenter-gazing contemporaries, Begos nails the surface-level aesthetics, like the pulsing, synth score (though there’s a little bit of Manfredini-esque ivory clanking in there, too) and the silky scope cinematography. Most importantly, however, Begos also replicates his hero’s knack for economy. Few moments are wasted, and the film’s creepy build-up is perfectly pitched around Seth’s growing paranoia regarding Mark’s return. He wakes up with a mysterious bloody nose, then visits Mark’s wife (who has since moved on) to warn her—he’s sort of the Loomis of the story, with Mark acting as his Myers. Once the latter descends back to Earth, he gets right down to business by stabbing and shooting everyone he encounters as he attempts to return home. Along the way, he drops a requisite amount of cryptic dialogue to hint at his larger goals; Begos knows that you’ve seen this sort of shit as much as he has, so he doesn’t sidetrack his splattery rampage with clumsy exposition.
Instead, Almost Human is about as straightforward as extraterrestrial slasher movies come. A minimalist blast with maximum gore, it’s a tremendously successful splatter flick first and foremost, which is to say the effects are practical and awfully convincing. The various gags fling viscera around, but there’s a slight hint of restraint to keep the proceedings from degenerating into an over-the-top romp. Despite racking up an impressive body count, the film remains convinced that its characters matter, particularly the central trio, and such earnestness is commendable. Almost Human doesn’t mistake affection for an excuse to goof off—you get the sense that Begos and company truly admire the films to which they’re paying homage, so this is a carefully crafted, blood-spattered love letter to them.
Most impressively, Begos scrappily accomplishes this with sheer grit and talent. Clearly, he paid attention to his predecessors’ ability to squeeze blood from a stone. Armed with a fairly inexperienced cast and ominous, chilly New England locales, Begos makes fine use of both by playing off the naturalness of both. The leads make for a strong enough center, but I love how they’re almost swallowed by the unholy, rural wilderness—I didn’t think New England could seem this terrifying without Lovecraft or King’s involvement. It turns out you really just need a burly, bearded guy blowing off people’s faces with a shotgun.
Speaking of natural: holy shit, does this resemble an honest-to-god 80s movie at times. With so many filmmakers angling for a retro aesthetic in the most obvious ways (via faux “print” damage and overpowering grain), Begos (who also serves as the film’s DP) goes in the opposite direction by almost perfectly capturing the look and feel of 16mm. There were times he had me completely fooled, and it’s refreshing to see a director integrate his fondness and nostalgia in such an unobtrusive manner. His influences might rest on his sleeve, but at least he’s not constantly elbowing and nudging the audience to prove himself—he’s just made a damn fine film that feels like it could be a lost dispatch from the late 80s homemade horror circuit.
As such, perhaps the truly best thing I can say about Almost Human is that it feels like it’s being put on by folks that have genuinely devoured and pored over the films that have influenced them. So many of these efforts come off like a parody of an idea of whatever era or genre is being aped, and it’s often a pretty empty experience. Almost Human is anything but. The same can be said of upcoming Blu-ray release, which is absolutely packed with special features. Two commentary tracks headline the supplements; one features Begos and Eithier as a duo, while the other joints them with Skipper and Cory Lockman. A feature-length making-of documentary is the centerpiece of the remaining extras scattered about the disc, such as an on-set visit with skipper, a short film, a photo gallery a few trailers, and a vintage TV spot. Completing the retro experience is the vintage cover art--in an alternate universe, it could have adorned a clamshell box and sat near the likes of The Dead Next Door on the shelf. In this dimension, however, it’s a fine tribute to that age; sometimes, the best homage is simply making a killer movie. Buy it!
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