Permanent Midnight is a weekly Complex Pop Culture column where senior staff writer, and resident genre fiction fanatic, Matt Barone will put the spotlight on the best new indie horror/sci-fi/weirdo cinema, twisted novels, and other below-the-radar oddities.
One could say that Joe Begos and Josh Ethier are blood brothers.
It's not that they come from the same father, though. The two Rhode Island natives, both 26, have been best friends for over 12 years years now, bonded by their shared love for the craziest of horror, science fiction, action, and whatever-other-fucked-up-genre films—especially those that include copious amounts of gore and bloodshed. Their mutual affinity for all things cinematically gruesome is on full blast in the new indie film Almost Human, written and directed by Begos and edited and sound-designed by, as well as starring, Ethier. "It's the culmination of every movie we've ever watched together and everything we've ever tried making together," says Begos. "The fact that it's being released is still really hard to believe."
Pitched by Begos as "Fire in the Sky meets The Terminator," Almost Human is as unapologetic as genre films come. Clocking in at a scant 80 minutes, the film wastes no time getting to the "good stuff," as Begos puts it. Within the first 25 minutes, in fact, four people are brutally murdered—one, in fact, gets a knife thrown into his neck before his head gets blown clean off by a shotgun at point-blank range. The killer is Mark (Ethier), who, nearly two years prior, mysteriously disappeared one night in what his friend Seth (Graham Skipper) claims was an alien abduction. The only other witness is Mark's then-girlfriend, Jen (Vanessa Leigh), but she's trying to move on with her life, having settled into a new home with a new boyfriend. But Mark's return to Earth spoils those plans, since he's no longer himself, but, rather, a seemingly brainwashed homicide machine hell-bent on starting a new family of pod people.
If all of that sounds familiar beyond the filmmaker's own Fire in the Sky and Terminator comparisons, it's for good reason. Lifelong genre movie lovers, Begos and Ethier wear their horror movie fanaticism as badges of honor. Or, more specifically, tons of ink. As they proudly displayed during Almost Human premiere last September as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's taste-making Midnight Madness section, they're both partial to horror-themed body art. On Begos' left arm, there's a gnarly mural of a tattoo featuring iconic visuals from Videodrome, George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, and Lucio Fulci's Zombie; Ethier, meanwhile, has images from An American Werewolf in London, Evil Dead 2, Phantasm, Fright Night, and David Cronenberg's The Fly tatted on his own left arm.
Those closest to Begos have always accepted that side of him. When Almost Human made its world premiere as part of the Toronto International Film Festival's taste-making Midnight Madness program last September, his grandparents were right there in the audience, seated amidst the rowdy, sleepless crowd of ravenous genre fans inside Toronto's Ryerson Theater. "They made the six-hour drive from Rhode Island, which was really awesome," says Begos. "My grandfather couldn’t understand why we were screening the movie at midnight. though. He asked Colin Geddes [Midnight Madness' programmer], ‘Why are you playing the goddamn movie at midnight?’ The insanity and carnage on screen didn't bother them, though. "They’ve always known that I’ve been into horror, so the movie itself didn’t weird them out," he says with an appreciative laugh. "They’d babysit me when I was, like, five years old and I’d ask to watch Tales from the Crypt. So at the TIFF screening, they were just happy to see me doing something with this weird obsession I’ve had with horror movies."
An obsession that initially sparked his close, personal, and creative friendship with Ethier. While attending Coventry High School in Coventry, RI, Begos was messing around with short movie-making, while Ethier was passing his downtime as a musician. Ethier offered to help Begos with his films' scores; Begos, checking to see if his new buddy could handle the particular kind of cinema he adored, lent Ethier his copies of the movies Irreversible (which includes an infamous 10-minute rape sequence, among other hardcore imagery) and Leon, the Professional. "I figured that was a good litmus test," he reasons.
Like-minded in his sensibilities, Ethier immediately responded to Begos' movie picks, which made their budding working relationship that much stronger. From their high school days through 2010, the duo worked on an endless stream of short genre films. "When we were 14 or 15, it was stupid shit like ghosts in the woods, but when we got a little older, we started to actually write screenplays," says Ethier. "We did this big epic Friday the 13th fan film, this body-horror film, a surgical Cronenberg-esque movie, a zombie apocalypse movie, a revenge movie with a killer who has a hook for a hand, a time-travel movie, and an alien interrogation movie. We were all over the place."
In 2008, Begos and Ethier moved to Los Angeles to give their cinema dreams a legitimate shot. Shortly after the relocation, Begos started working internships with independent directors, to enhance his behind-the-camera skills. Ethier, meanwhile, began training as a professional editor, working under the accomplished Ed Marx, who's edited films from popular indie horror directors like Adam Green (the Hatchet series) and Victor Salva (Jeepers Creepers).
Their own filmmaking dreams, though, never slowed down. In 2010, they secured their first film festival placement: their werewolf short Bad Moon Rising, which screened as part of the UK-based FrightFest's program that year. It was FrightFest where Begos officially decided it was time to make something longer than 10 minutes. "We met all these people who were making half-a-million-dollar movies that seemed to have the same technical qualities as our $1,000 movie," he says. "That convinced us it was time to step our games up and make a feature."
Unimpressed by how most films shot in Los Angeles look the same, Begos and Ethier headed back home to Rhode Island to shoot Almost Human and capture the area's "Stephen King movie vibe." The film was shot in 18 days in the freezing cold temperatures of February 2012, a reasonably short production that afforded Begos just enough time to execute every sick and twisted idea he'd had in his mind for more than a decade.
Favoring in-your-face violence and viscera over long-winded dialogue and patient character development, Almost Human is a lean, mean beast of a do-it-yourself movie. "I wanted to keep the movie brief because the thing I’m still trying to learn the most is screenwriting," says Begos. "I feel like that’s my weakest point, and with this first feature, I wanted to emphasize the stuff I think I’m good at, the most behind-the-camera technical stuff. Plus, with a movie like this, a brutal alien abduction/slasher, needs to be short. Anything over 80 minutes overstays its welcome."
Ever the horror movie student, Begos looked to some of his favorite films for inspiration. "Evil Dead 2 is only about 85 minutes but it’s non-stop, and that’s always been something I’ve loved about that movie. It’s always moving. The same thing with Re-Animator—it’s about 24 minutes into that movie when they’re breaking into the morgue to start reanimating bodies. It moves so fast. Structurally, The Terminator was a movie I looked at a lot. It’s a little bit longer than Almost Human, but there’s not a wasted scene in it."
Which also describes Almost Human, a dark, nightmarish descent into backwoods mayhem that, in no particular order, attacks viewers with the following: an ax being driven into a man's skull, women being chased by Ethier holding a chainsaw, slit throats, the vomiting of blood, nude ghouls tearing out of pods, and, in a bit of nasty fellatio clearly inspired by the severed head going down on Barbara Crampton in Re-Animator, tentacles coming out of Ethier's mouth and latching onto actress Leigh's private parts. It's all fair game. "When you’re making an alien abduction/slasher film," says Begos, "you have the license to do a lot of crazy stuff and people won’t question anything."
There's more where that came from, too. If Begos gets his way, his next film will be a telekinetic revenge movie he describes as "Scanners meets Death Wish," and there's already a character waiting for Ethier to inhabit it. For now, though, the old friends are enjoying the Almost Human ride. The film's distributor, IFC, has them traveling around the country in support of the film, taking part in Q&A's and getting the word out as much as humanly possible.
Some might consider that work, but not these guys. To put their present outlook into perspective, Ethier points out how their Toronto experience went down last September. Instead of pimping their filmmaker privileges to score free passes or attend quieter press/industry screenings, they bought ticket packages and saw more than 30 movies during TIFF, including every single Midnight Madness premiere at 12:00 a.m.
Their publicists didn't understand. "They were like, 'Hey, do you guys want to get dinner and drinks later?” says Ethier. "Or they'd ask us if we'd want to attend any industry events or whatever, and I’d say, 'Well, no, actually—we’re going to see another movie tonight.' We're fans first and filmmakers second. That's how it's always been, and hopefully we'll be able to keep that attitude going."
Almost Human is currently in limited theaters and available via IFC Midnight's Video On-Demand.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
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