Written by: The Vicious Brothers
Directed by: Colin Minihan
Starring: Brittany Allen, Freddie Stroma, and Michael Ironside
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
They do not come in peace.
Alien horror—by which I mean honest-to-god terrifying stuff involving aliens—is something we could use more of. Blockbuster-sized invasion movies have their place, but I’ll always be partial to the likes of Fire in the Sky and even Dark Skies. Watching aliens destroy the world is like going to the demolition derby—it’s somehow more delightful than it is horrifying. But a UFO hovering over some backwoods hole-in-the-wall terrorizing unsuspecting victims? That’s the real shit. I mean, have you seen Fire in the Sky? The autopsy scene alone has been nightmare fuel for a good two decades now.
Something tells me the Vicious Brothers have seen that and countless other films (alien and otherwise) because they’ve blended about a half-dozen familiar ingredients into Extraterrestrial, a film that manages to be a fairly creepy cabin-in-the-woods riff where the participants choose “alien invaders”—for about an hour, anyway. After that point, Extraterrestrial goes so big that it can’t help but careen right off the rails, and, while this is an error of ambition, it’s a misfire all the same.
It starts out quaintly enough, with April (Brittany Allen) heading to her parents’ cabin for what she presumes to be a weekend retreat with her boyfriend Kyle (Freddie Stroma). Before the couple make it out the door, their friends crash the place and announce that they’re coming along for the ride at Kyle’s request. Suddenly, a romantic getaway turns into a debauched party that attracts even more unwanted guests when a UFO crash-lands in the surrounding woods. With their craft destroyed and in flames, the alien pilots—who have been haunting the area from above--begin to stalk their prey on foot.
A slasher movie with aliens is pretty inspired, and, for a while, Extraterrestrial works well enough in this mode, even if the Vicious Brothers have fallen into the trap of trotting out most of the genre’s clichés (read: obnoxious characters who are as irritating as they are stupid) to little effect. Still, even that works in the classical sense, so long as they’re being set up only to be knocked down in the most gruesome and horrifying fashion imaginable. The trouble comes when Extraterrestrial stops just short of this and suddenly presumes you care about the drama unfolding between April and Kyle (in short, he’s ready to settle down, but she’s just received a new job offer in New York). There’s a moody, suspenseful sequence where the camera prowls about the cabin as the cast attempts to outwit an alien—and then it quite literally blasts off into completely different territory.
And while the new direction isn’t completely unwarranted, it arrives with a tonal whiplash. When you spend most of the film eagerly awaiting the gruesome demise of a bunch of noxious goofballs, it’s jarring to actually consider them as actual, sympathetic characters. Allen and Stroma actually manage to just rise above this shift, however briefly: they’re easily two of the most affable in the group, and even their rote drama becomes palpable when one is captured, leaving the other to watch on helplessly as a UFO disappears into the night sky. That’s legitimately bone-chilling and is enough to at least carry the audience to an effects-laden climax more befitting a blockbuster (only it’s been impressively pulled off with a fraction of the budget).
Things spiral out of control when this doesn’t prove to be enough: one minute, you’re invested in this couple’s reunion, the next you’re witness to the graphic pay-off to an earlier anal-probe joke. Extraterrestrial banks on tugging at viewers’ heart strings and tickling their funny bone all at once—not an altogether impossible proposition, of course, but the Vicious Brothers have trouble striking the right balance, particularly during a ludicrous climax that goes for one twist too many. Imagine the end of Night of the Living Dead but played for dark humor (and set to the tune of a cover of “Spirit in the Sky”), and you can begin to understand how Extraterrestrial loses its grip. It’s all just a little too cheeky considering the rather emotional detour the Vicious Brothers take just before they reveal their glib hand.
The scattershot finale is indicative of how Extraterrestrial is all over the map. In addition to the core group of five friends, a subplot has the town sheriff (Gil Bellows) investigating the rash of disappearances in his town. Specifically, a woman (Emily Perkins in a thankless role) has recently lost her family to the alien invaders, a development that provides the sheriff with ample evidence that something eminently bizarre is afoot. However, despite too instances of convincing footage and his own wife’s mysterious disappearance over a decade ago, he and his irritating deputy remain skeptical hardasses until it’s too late. Internal logic seems less important than shuffling the audience from one scene to the next—Extraterrestrial is a film that moves without thinking, and it would prefer if you didn’t, either.
Still, a lot of the individual elements are fun in a vacuum. The aliens themselves are wonderfully retro grey men flying vintage flying saucers and forcing people to blow their own faces off via mind control, while Michael Ironside pops up as a backwoods conspiracy theorist with a massive weed stash (how often can you describe that sort of character and have it not be the creepiest thing about a film?). As filmmakers, The Vicious Brothers have evolved beyond the found footage conceit of the Grave Encounters series; with the exception of some sporadic camcorder footage, Extraterrestrial traded that in for sleek scope compositions and increasingly elaborate set-pieces. Given how small the budget must have been, their commitment to practical effects and well-placed CGI is remarkable. Extraterrestrial is proof that films don’t need to lean too hard on the latter, especially when many low-budget efforts don’t try to go nearly as big as this one.
Pulling all of these elements together proves to be too much of a task, but knocking a film for being too ambitious is hardly the most biting criticism. Extraterrestrial doesn’t quite deliver on its promising premise, but I’d rather a film do that in the service of trying to outpace itself rather than simply going through the motions and falling short. Scream Factory have given its own seal of approval with a nice Blu-ray release that features a commentary with the Vicious Brothers, Allen, and actress Melanie Papalia, an 8-minute making-of featurette, 7 minutes of deleted scenes, and a trailer. For the Vicious Brothers, this is a decent rebound after Grave Encounters 2, which was a sophomore effort in every sense of the term—Extraterrestrial might get away from them towards the end, but that’s better than falling on one’s face right out of the blocks (which is to say this one doesn’t open with Youtube reviews of their previous film).
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