It should have stayed in space: A critical review of “Almost Human” (2013)

It was my own fault. Someone says: Colin, go watch this movie, I want to hear your thoughts on it. Any movie upon which someone wants to hear my thoughts is probably pretty messed up.

Well, someone said they wanted to hear my thoughts on “Almost Human,” a sorta sci fi horror thriller. The film is equal parts road rage slasher and “Alien” ripoff, which itself is kind of an accomplishment. While that sounds like an interesting premise – a creature feature version of “And Then There Were None” on a derelict space cruiser perhaps? – that’s not quite this flick. Everything’s a bit squishier than that.

The current top review of “Almost Human” on IMDb begins with the line: “Nothing subtle occurs in this movie.” That single sentence is a better review than anything I could write, but here goes. Two years ago – in 1987 – chubby white dude Mark (Josh Ethier) went missing on an evening when mysterious lights were spotted in the skies above rural Maine (the film was really shot in Rhode Island, but we won’t hold that against it). Now it’s later, and Mark is back from beyond to bother his old pals Seth (Graham Skipper) and Jen (Vanessa Leigh). He’s using axes, chainsaws and a stolen SUV to build a pile of bodies, all in the service of some sinister alien agenda, because I guess just out-and-out murdering people isn’t sinister enough.

For those familiar with indie horror, looking at the cast and crew of “Almost Human” will result in seeing a few familiar names. Writer/director Joe Begos also wrote and directed “Bliss,” and actor/editor Ethier also acted in “Bliss” and edited “Gretel & Hansel.” I liked both those films. They were visually stylish and ultimately felt like they had something to say.

“Almost Human” is neither of those things. It’s not stylish, unless a bunch of medium close-ups and a lack of tripod counts as a visual style. It is gleefully gross, but if that is a visual style, then “8MM” and “Freaked” are cinematic cousins.

It also doesn’t have anything to say. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as this blog will hastily attest. In fact, for the film’s first half, when it feels more like a slasher (or an adaptation of “Falling Down” that’s completely divorced from reality), it’s actually pretty fun. When you’re urging the film’s obvious villain to hurry up so he can murder more people, that’s a good sign. Are we running low on shotgun shells? Are we slitting too many throats with a hunting knife when we have a perfectly good chainsaw? Those are questions I’m happy to ask. They certainly seem more worthwhile than asking why the film sports all these eccentric affectations: nosebleeds, psychic transmissions and extraterrestrial visions. The breakneck pace makes those easy enough to gloss over or simply accept as goofy attempts at spooky atmosphere.

When the film dribbles into its second half, when it tries to lean hard into the “Alien” vibe, that’s when this blog starts to actually feel uneasy. At that point the buoyant murders are out of the way, and the film becomes a dreary attempt at cat-and-mouse stalking and shocks-for-the-sake-of-shocks trauma. The climax in particular – and the film’s rough treatment of Jen therein – becomes a bit much. Look, I’m typically insensitive toward any sort of cinematic violence, so I’m not sure why this stood out to me. Maybe I’m becoming more of a prude as I get older (says the person who also begged the antagonist to throw a bloody chainsaw through a car window). More likely I’m more frustrated by the bad script. Alien-haunted Mark has to shove his alien-haunted dick into people to turn them into gooey pod peopleā€¦ somehow. I get that. So how come everyone else got an alien wang to the face, but Jen gets one in the hoo-ha? That’s not even logical within the confines of the film’s own narrative.

The critter that’s possessing or possibly taken over Mark acts like it has a plan, but whatever that plan is isn’t clear to me. He wants to take over the town, or so he says. So a barn-full of awkward pod people is going to do that? OK, why not. This clearly isn’t a big town, given how fast rumors travel (reports of a double homicide at a gas station take approximately six minutes to hit the hardware store). So then what, after you’re the mayor of pod-ville? Where is this going, Mark? What’s the big picture? Step one is pod people; is step three profit? Are you Pinky, Mark? Cos you sure as shit ain’t the Brain.

A meaningful cosmic horror sidestep of this would be that Mark doesn’t know what his plan is, but he’s compelled to do awful things by visions from beyond. That would be interesting, a commentary on human smallness in the big picture, and it would at least engage some of the film’s earlier eccentricities, but it would also require some thoughtful scripting, which the film does not have. Ultimately, the script isn’t meaningful; it’s just mean-spirited.

Whatever. I’m being that guy, the one I’m normally complaining about in these types of situations. Logic is to “Almost Human” as a cozy yule log is to survivors of a house fire. The first half, when nothing had to make more sense than shotgun vs. skull, works well. That’s all fine. Fast-paced, gory and eccentric is pulp horror I wanna watch. The second half of the film is when things slow down enough that I start to ask questions about why anything is going on. It’s also when I can’t figure out who precisely would want to watch this pulp horror. The title of “Almost Human” presumably refers to the antagonist of the film, but perhaps it’s better description of the target audience.

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