Friday, February 13, 2009

ALIEN RAIDERS (2008) d. Ben Rock

Reviewed by Richard J. Trottier

Perhaps it is the still unconquered fear of competing tribes of hominids from our pre-homo sapien history that leads us to still find “alien invasion” films frightening, compelling and entertaining. Maybe it is also the left over hysteria of the Communist Infiltration suspicions of the mid-2oth Century that heaps even more fuel on an already raging fire of fears. For whatever reason, since the advent of the motion picture, but especially after the original “invasion” films of the 1950s, monsters from outer space continue to terrify movie lovers, and the kind that can take over you from the inside and change the essence of your humanity are particularly effective and unsettling. ALIEN RAIDERS may be a brand new addition to this exceedingly robust and celebrated canon of the science fiction sub-genre, but it does just about everything correct that it needs to and comes out in the end to be a startlingly effective film that taps into horror, sci-fi and drama at all the right times and in all the right ways.

ALIEN RAIDERS is the story of a small group of Buck Lake, AZ residents who find themselves trapped inside the Hastings Market grocery store one night before Christmas. At first, their captors appear to be thieves and murderous thugs, but before long the identity of this well armed and even more impressively organized group is clearly just the tip of an iceberg of secrets and sinister goings-on. When the police arrive to handle hostage negotiations, they have no idea of the drama unfolding inside the market, as a search for a deadly infiltration of the very bodies of the Buck Lake unfortunates leads to the realization that terrible things have taken place and that even more horrible events are likely to occur unless Aaron Ritter and his team can root out dark monsters masquerading as civilians and stop their insidious plans.

When I looked at the box art, both front and back, I was immediately wary of what ALIEN RAIDERS had in store for me, but I also noted that Daniel Myrick was one of the producers. My respect for Mr. Myrick’s work gave me hope that he would not allow himself to be party to something moronic and my senses and trust turned out to be well-founded. While there is little about ALIEN RAIDERS that is innovative, for it mines all kinds of tried and true story arcs, it is still a great time for anyone who likes their science fiction liberally mixed with gory horror and intensely taut drama. We walk into the narrative with events already moving at a high rate of speed, but the plot wisely slows down, builds a carefully crafted and patient sense of menace and threat and does so in a variety of ways. Throughout the entire story, there is the ever-present danger of the concealed peril lurking within an unsuspecting resident, one of the great story elements that made John Carpenter’s THE THING such a classic, and it works beautifully here as well without any feel that there is cinematic larceny going on. Instead, the use of that plot point feels like a very deferential nod and it was a good choice. Another well-chosen sampling of a theatrical thread from an older yarn is the tension created by hostage negotiations done in good faith but without the knowledge of what is really happening or what the totality of the outcome could be, ala DIE HARD. This is a central narrative aspect early on and is maintained until we are almost on top of the climax. In addition, the use of a simple setting like a market with people who are embroiled in outrageously uncanny circumstances is right out of THE MIST, another wonderful sci-fi film that mines gems out of lost years. Putting characters into extraordinary situations where their emotional and spiritual mettle is tested time and again is always great way to blend motion picture and dramatic stage performances in a manner that tends to bring success more often than not. Finally, the monster roaming the shadows, picking off its victims inexorably, bloody kill after bloody kill is right out of ALIEN and it still works better to have the half-seen terror than clearly viewing the menace unmasked. It is what we cannot clearly perceive that is always more frightening than what is right in front of our faces.

All of these narrative elements are woven carefully, driven by vivid character interaction, and stitched together in such a way that no one constituent is overly dominant. Instead, a patient and tense tale emerges where the pace intensifies and then settles at intervals, the story structure is sprinkled with blood and guts, gunplay and brutality and under all is the thickly applied dread that no one will survive this nightmare. This is classic “alien creature-feature” going back to films like FIEND WITHOUT A FACE, INVISIBLE INVADERS and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and despite the lack of originality, ALIEN RAIDERS is still a heady cocktail of scares and screams as well as spew and spray. The director talked in the extras about having less time than he would have liked to create the effects that he wanted, but in the end that might have been a good thing. The effects of ALIEN RAIDERS supported the most important element necessary for a successful film, a suspenseful story that has no fat, is well acted and delivers what we all want from a motion picture like this, entertainment. Had Ben Rock been given more time to construct impressive and outlandish effects, they might have detracted from the final product and left us with something akin to JACK BROOKS MONSTER SLAYER, which was all effects and no story.

With the exception of the “video cam” segments which are done for an satisfactory reason and I was eventually able to accept despite how grainy and shaky they were, ALIEN RAIDERS is relatively well shot. It is not meant to be a beautiful film, but it does have moments where the tension is thoughtfully elevated by slow pans or patient holds on shadowy corners, dimly lit corridors, murky doorways and above all emotion-wracked faces. While there were some action sequences where some shots were a bit too tight and/or edited more rapidly than I might have liked, ALIEN RAIDERS was clearly created by a director who has a passion for older “B” sci-fi and horror and his respect for the past was evident. The characters were an intriguing lot, a mix of caricatures, archetypes and stereotypes, but not in every case. While most of the characters were not meant to be terribly deep to preserve the sense of mystery and ambiguity of where the story will eventually go, they are still portrayed very effectively by the performers, most notably Carlos Bernard’s depiction of Aaron Ritter, Courtney Ford’s portrayal of “Sterling” and Mathew St. Patrick’s presentation of Detective Seth Steadman. While all the performances were competent or even occasionally impressive, these three were able to form a degree of chemistry, show some dynamism and as a result viewers can relate to their circumstances. While ALIEN RAIDERS does not have a soundtrack that stood out or grabbed me, it really didn’t need one for the essence of this film’s success stems from its contemplative mixture of story ingredients and visual imagery of yore, and on those counts it was a blast.

ALIEN RAIDERS has a surprisingly deep extras menu which I thoroughly enjoyed due to what was said and who said it. Despite the fact that the 8 ½ minute featurette “Hidden Terror: The Making of Alien Raiders” was a little film clip heavy, the mix of cast and crew interviews was pretty broad and their thoughts aided me in attaining an even deeper appreciation for a flick I already liked. Next up was the 3 minute jewel “Blood, Sweat and Fears: Special Effects of Alien Raiders”, which was too short but really gave me a look inside the mind of director Ben Rock and his motivations in making this movie. The next three features are a little unique. There is “Tape 9: Sterling Explains Alien” which a 6 minute uncut excerpt from the “video diary” of Aaron Ritter, some of which was used in the feature film. The next segment, the 4 minute “Tape 12: Spookie’s Job” follows suit in a quirky and unsettling fashion and then there is the 9 minute “Whitney Cam”, which is a MySpace video blog of the character and who she really is. These last three are entertaining and well-conceived but should be viewed after seeing the main feature as they contain “spoilers” in both tone and content. Lastly, there is a Raw Feed Trailers vault containing six trailers, including the one for ALIEN RAIDERS.

It is good to see that the love for old sci-fi and horror is still alive and well in the world out there today. When I see disappointing experiments like QUARANTINE go sadly wrong, it buoys me up to see films like ALIEN RAIDERS get it right. If you remember the days of seeing EARTH vs. THE FLYING SAUCERS, WAR OF THE WORLDS or THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, whether in the theater or on TV, ALIEN RAIDERS may be a movie that will bring back some fond memories. If you are a neophyte when it comes to sci-fi/horror and want to “blood yourself”, this would be a good place to start and then you can dig deeply into the earthy loam of the past afterwards with ALIEN RAIDERS’ predecessors. Whatever you do, don’t skip over this film thinking it is a piece of “straight to video” trash, for it isn’t the case. This should have gotten a theatrical release at the drive-in where something like ALIEN RAIDERS really deserves to take its place alongside its older cousins that braved the trail.

No comments: