If you’re the kind of horror fanatic who prefers the road less traveled to the well-worn thoroughfare, you’ve probably also spent your fair share of time backtracking from dead-ends. With the almost mind-boggling array of horror films being released these days, be it studio-supported tent-poles or direct-to-streaming vanity projects, separating the wheat from the chaff has never been a more daunting prospect. While the number of horror films actually released to theaters still seems as small as it’s ever been, direct-to-video/streaming releases are healthier than ever: with companies like Netflix and Amazon looking to scoop up as much content as possible, potential audiences have more choice than we have in some time.
To compound this issue, horror filmmakers have beaten some sub-genres such as found-footage and zombie films into the ground, releasing so much unmitigated crap that it becomes almost impossible to shift out the diamonds. To these over-mined fields that include the possession film, the haunted asylum and the post-apocalyptic wanderer, feel free to add the alien film, whether in its “abduction” or “invasion” variety. As of late, it seems that indie filmmakers are pumping out one alien-themed horror flick after another. Just recently, we’ve had Dark Skies (2013), the “Slumber Party Alien Abduction” segment of V/H/S 2 (2013), Skinwalker Ranch (2013), Alien Abduction (2014), Honeymoon (2014), The Signal (2014), and Oren Peli’s long-delayed Area 51 (2015), along with a host of others that have managed to slither under the radar. As mentioned, sifting out the diamonds in all of the mud is quite the task.
All this, of course, is by way of saying that the Vicious Brothers’ (aka writers/directors Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz) Extraterrestrial (2014) is not only a diamond, it’s easily one of the brightest diamonds that I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in some time. I’ll actually go one step further and, with no hyperbole, state that Extraterrestrial (warts and all) is easily the apex of the modern alien abduction film: the filmmaking duo, along with wunderkind cinematographer Samy Inayeh, have managed to craft a film that is, by turns, gorgeous, terrifying, mind-blowing and endlessly thrilling. Thanks to its impeccable visual effects, amazing costumes and ability to cherry-pick the very best of sci-fi horror gone by, the Vicious Brothers’ ode to little green men looks like it cost roughly 500 times what it probably did. It’s not a perfect film, mind you, but it’s very nearly the perfect alien movie.
Plot-wise, the Brothers’ film stuffs an alien abduction filling into a cabin-in-the-woods casing. Overly serious April (Brittany Allen) and her clingy boyfriend, Kyle (Freddie Stroma), are headed to her family’s backwoods cabin so that she can take pictures in order to facilitate its sale. Without her knowing, Kyle has decided to turn this into the weekend that he proposes and has invited along their friends, Melanie (Melanie Papalia), Lex (Anja Savcic) and uber-asshole Seth (Jesse Moss), to join in the joyous occasion.
The problem, of course, is that no one bothered to ask April what she wanted: turns out, she doesn’t want to marry her high school sweetheart and settle down. She has a job offer in New York and wants to get out there and experience life, neither of which plan really involves Kyle. As expected, this little revelation throws a monkey-wrench into the weekend, causing Kyle to become withdrawn and moody, whereas asshole Seth just gets one more excuse to get blitzed and act like a jerk, in order to “protect his boy.”
Our little close-quarters domestic drama plays out with a larger, more sinister drama unfolding in the background: local sheriff Alan Murphy (Gil Bellows) is investigating a mysterious disappearance that seems to be tied in to a string of local livestock mutilations. He doesn’t necessarily suspect the city slicker kids but he also doesn’t want them stirring up the locals or interfering with his investigation: toss a personal angle into the missing person phenomena (Sheriff Murphy’s wife vanished without a trace) and you have a lawman with an agenda and no time for tomfoolery.
Just when our group of young people seem to have comfortably settled into the kind of restful vacation that might befit Virginia Woolf, however, a fiery meteor explodes out of the sky, screaming right into the nearby woods, where it explodes in an appropriately impressive little display. Upon closer inspection, the group discovers that the object wasn’t a meteor but an honest to gosh flying saucer. To amp the “uh oh” factor to 11, they also notice a set of humanoidish footprints leading away from the crash site…back in the direction of their cabin.
From this point on, the film becomes an unrelenting triumph in building and relieving tension as April and her friends, along with the able assistance of her surrogate uncle/old family friend/pot farmer, Travis (Michael Ironside), attempt to fight back against their other-worldly visitors. From the claustrophobic confines of their cabin “sanctuary” to the surrounding woods and, ultimately, to places that no human has ever gone, the survivors will learn one very important lesson: not only is humanity not alone, we’re not even at the top of the heap.
First off, let’s get the negatives out of the way. As far as the “human” relationships go, Extraterrestrial doesn’t show us anything we haven’t seen a million times in the past, nor does it present us with a group of unique, sympathetic characters: while the young group in the Vicious Brothers’ film doesn’t necessarily fall into the most generic “stoner,” “final girl,” “jock,” et al stereotypes, no one really stands out with the exception of Allen’s April and Moss’ odious Seth. This isn’t the kind of film where one gets wrapped up in the intense interpersonal drama of the characters, let’s put it that way.
The acting is fine, if a little unmemorable, although Ironside and Sean Rogerson both manage to chew a fair amount of scenery: Ironside’s Travis is a great character, however, brought to vivid life by an iconic character actor, whereas Rogerson’s Deputy Mitchell is a blustery, loud-mouthed and very silly caricature. Allen and familiar-face Bellows are constantly sturdy, although I’ll admit that Papalia and Savcic sort of blurred together, in my mind: they just didn’t get much to do, aside from the stock “run and react” options.
There are also a few moments where the editing and/or cinematography gets a little too flashy for its own good: one particular shot featured so much focus-shifting that I would have assumed the operator was having problems if the rest of the film hadn’t been so impressive (more on that later). I’ll also freely admit that the hand-held camera stuff doesn’t work at all, especially when held side-by-side with the actual cinematography: it’s like touching up a Picasso with ketchup rather than paint. The film also has a tendency to over-rely on the soft/loud dynamic of the modern jump scare, leading to numerous moments that are telegraphed by audio stings or ridiculous increases in volume.
And that, folks, is pretty much the downside to Extraterrestrial. The upside? Everything else. The film looks absolutely astounding: from gorgeous, evocative establishing shots to cleverly revealed shocks to immaculately composed frames, cinematographer Samy Inayeh goes way above and beyond the call of duty. It helps, of course, that the film’s visual effects (both CGI and makeup/costuming) are jaw-dropping: when combined when the absolutely state-of-the-art camera-work, Extraterrestrial is as immersive as any mega-budget Hollywood sci-fi film.
In fact, the first full reveal of the massive space craft reminded me of nothing less than Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977): there’s a genuine sense of awe, grandeur and spectacle to Extraterrestrial that is almost completely missing from other indie sci-fi/alien films. Say what you will about the Vicious Brothers’ grasp on the human dynamics of the story: the technical aspect is so astounding that it should, automatically, vault them into the upper echelons of the “event picture” biz.
This sense of perfect visualization continues with the actual aliens, which are pretty much the apex of the traditional “gray-headed, almond-eyed” alien in pop culture. The aliens, here, aren’t so different from other depictions of said types but they inhabit the film in a purely physical way that feels real, refreshing and, ultimately, rather terrifying. I was immediately reminded of the ways in which Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park (1993) felt so organic and “physical”: Extraterrestrial feels the same way, which is pretty much the antithesis of the current “green-screened-to-death” trend.
While the Vicious Brothers’ and their excellent crew absolutely ace the technical aspects of the film, there’s another, even more important aspect that they also nail: the claustrophobic atmosphere. Unlike most alien abduction films that aren’t called Fire in the Sky (1993), Extraterrestrial is genuinely, absolutely frightening. It’s actually frightening on several levels: it perfectly hits the “something in the background” vibe of modern horror films but it also digs in on a deeper, more existential level. There are moments in the film, particularly in its final 20 minutes, where it honestly feels as if the Vicious Brothers are letting us peer into the howling maw of madness: I don’t have to tell you how exhilarating that is, I’m sure.
As I’ve mentioned several times, Extraterrestrial isn’t an especially ground-breaking film, plot-wise: it’s not difficult to see the Alien (1979), Fire in the Sky and Night of the Living Dead (1968) references. The most important thing to remember, however, is that all artistry is theft: it’s what you do with the ill-gotten gains that makes the difference between trash and treasure. In this case, the Vicious Brothers have taken a laundry list of their influences and spun them into something that feels complete and whole on its own, regardless of the foundation its built on.
Lest I seem like an overly supportive stalker, let me conclude by stating that I had seen the Vicious Brothers’ debut, Grave Encounters (2011), some time before I saw Extraterrestrial and wasn’t overly impressed. While the film had its moments, it also didn’t really strike me as anything more than another “found-footage in a creepy place” film, which we already have plenty of. Based on that experience (I’ve yet to see the sequel), there is absolutely no way I could have predicted Extraterrestrial: suffice to say, the level of growth, here, is roughly the same distance between adolescence and adulthood.
Is Extraterrestrial one of the best films of the year? Not at all, although it at least has the finish line in sight (unlike a basketful of films that I won’t mention). Is Extraterrestrial the film to beat for modern, indie alien films, however? I’ll stake my damn reputation on it. There a level of craft and imagination that’s impossible to ignore: if filmmakers can get “discovered” and jumped into the big time based on Youtube videos, here’s to hoping that they can still do it the old-fashioned way…you know, by creating a great, memorable film. If we don’t see the Vicious Brothers directing a tent-pole picture within the next few years, I’ll buy and eat an entire haberdashery.
Catch Minihan and Ortiz on the small stages while you can, gentle readers: something tells me the Vicious Brothers are going to be doing a helluva lot of headlining in the near future.