Director: Joe Begos
Running time: 80 minutes
Film festivals, by nature, are designed for the hardcore cinephiles. Casual moviegoers most likely have little interest in spending seven to nine hours of their day seated inside a movie theatre, watching films with actors they've never heard of and made on the cheap. Especially the festival in question features indie films with titles like Septic Man, Greatful Dead, and Witching & Bitching. But if you're the kind of film lover who'd flock to see movies with those titles? Well, then Fantastic Fest—held in Austin, TX, every September through the unbeatable, cinema-junkie-catering Alamo Drafthouse theatre chain—is your Mecca, and lo-fi flicks like Almost Human are what you hope to see: crazy, no-holds-barred genre passion projects made by fellow movie buffs who beam through the post-screening Q&A sessions with the zeal of Elvira on Halloween.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Joe Begos, Almost Human gets by on endless charm, albeit of the gory, extra-violent variety. The 1980s influences aren't exactly hidden—in everything from its sound design to visual aesthetic and plot, Begos' film is an anything-goes homage to the early works of directors John Carpenter and James Cameron, movies like The Thing (1982) and The Terminator (1984), the latter being cited by Begos when he describes Almost Human as "Fire in the Sky meets The Terminator." That sales pitch is spot-on. Opening in October 1987, Almost Human jumps right into the thick of its sci-fi mayhem, with protagonist Seth (Graham Skipper) speeding down an empty backwoods road, clearly fleeing from something horrific. He arrives at his best friend Mark's (Josh Ethier) house, waking both Mark and his girlfriend, Jen (Vanessa Leigh), up in the middle of the night. Seth's frantic, raving—something's taken their friend Rob, he pleads, and now it's after him. Something from the sky. Something that quickly shows up, via beams of blue light and piercing noises that make people go near-Scanners exploding head, and takes Mark away.
In true '80s fashion, and after an expository opening credits sequence full of ominous news reports, a title card flashes: "TWO YEARS LATER." Seth's now a bit of a paranoid recluse, while Jen has a new boyfriend and is functioning as a diner waitress. But then people start dying in slasher-movie ways, causing Seth to fear that, somehow, Mark's back. He's right, except that Mark isn't home and ready to ask how his buddy's last two years have been, or crack open any celebratory beers—he's gone full-alien-killing-machine, slaughtering people at random, dragging to the basement of his old house, and probing their corpses with the slimy tentacle that shoots out from his mouth as he emits one of those piercing squeals, all while en route to get vengeance on Seth for not helping two years prior and reclaim his bride, Jen.
That's about as deep as Almost Human gets narratively. At only 80 minutes long, it's briskly paced, getting down to its first homicide by the 15-minute mark and never looking back away from the slithery carnage. Almost Human's breakneck speed, however, doesn't allow for much in-depth characterization—each person, namely Seth and Jen, is one-note (the scared, reluctant hero; the shell-shocked love interest), thus making the emotional stakes minimal. And once both characters come face-to-face with Inhuman Mark, Begos spends the remainder of the film's 20-odd minutes in erratic action mode that oddly starts to drag. What could have been a killer 60-minute ride gets padded out into an uneven 80-minute feature. It's the inevitable byproduct of beginning Almost Human with such tireless insanity—even a young John Carpenter himself would've had difficulty trying to successfully extend Almost Human's thin story beyond its inherent means. There are only so many ways you can kill anonymous characters, throw fake blood at the screen, and exploit alien probes before you've exhausted the hook. Though, to his and his leading lady's shared credit, Begos does subject Leigh to a cleverly nasty moment of cunnilingus that deserves mention alongside Barbara Crampton's decapitated-head-fellatio in Re-Animator (1985).
Full disclosure, though: These qualms didn't become apparent until hours after seeing Almost Human. In the moment, while seated with multiple other people who, like the filmmakers, live for this type of sci-fi/horror debauchery, it was impossible not to ride with Begos and all of his fan-fueled indulgences. Like Eli Roth's Cabin Fever (2002) and Adam Green's Hatchet (2006) before it, Almost Human thrives on its creator's unbridled enthusiasm—you're aware of the novice director's rookie limitations, and can't help but notice the film's rough-around-the-edges vibe and flaws, but it's also tough to not appreciate Begos' willingness to hold nothing back. Almost Human is one-dimensionally brutal and violent because, made for little money by a crew of friends outside the Hollywood system, it's the film Begos has been building towards his entire life. And you get sense that he and his buddies went kitchen-sink status here under the assumption that Almost Human could very well be the only movie they ever get to make. So why not go for broke?
Considering that IFC just bought the film off the strength of its recent Toronto International Film Festival premiere, don't anticipate Begos to disappear into that black hole that swallows indie directors on a daily basis. The genre community is buzzing about Almost Human, specifically over Begos, and rightfully so—for all of its storytelling defects, Almost Human is tightly directed, and he's able to transcend the film's minor effects budget to deliver more than a few "Did you just see that?" images. Which, really, is exactly what folks dedicating their full days to cinema-obsessive events like Fantastic Fest desire. Experienced in the right setting (i.e., a crowd packed with excitable, possibly inebriated horror and science fiction fanatics), Almost Human will—like Mark, its very own lethal weapon—kill everything in sight. Figuratively speaking, of course.
Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)