Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
February 2014

Almost Human

Almost professional

Its impulses are in the right place, but 'Almost Human' lacks the on-camera talent to pull its ambitions off

Almost Human
IFC Midnight
Director: Joe Begos
Screenplay: Joe Begos
Starring: Graham Skipper, Josh Ethier, Vanessa Leigh, Jami Tennille, Anthony Amaral III and John Palmer
Not rated / 1 hour, 20 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

Almost Human knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be, which only goes to show how woefully unprepared it is to pull that off. It announces its intentions from the opening moments, as John Carpenter's opening-credit font pops up on screen, accompanied by a John Carpenter-like score. A car comes screaming down the road, the night sky and forest trees looming above.

So far, so good. The mood is set and the danger is already palpable.

And it all falls apart the second the actors appear on screen. I cannot overstate how ill-equipped and uncomfortable every member of the cast appears to be. It genuinely comes across like a student film whose director just got some of his friends together to play the parts because he didn't have the time or inclination to find anyone who could act.

When a character bursts into a suburban home in the film's opening scene, rambling about a friend getting abducted by a light in the sky, he does not look nervous because his friend just got abducted by a light in the sky - he looks nervous because he just realized there's a camera pointed at him and he doesn't know what to do. You see that same awkward and uncomfortable look from the cast over and over again; it feels like a group of first-time actors reading through a friend's screenplay as a favor.

It's enough to thoroughly detract from a movie that is otherwise, if not necessarily successful, at least confident in its ideas and delightful in its cinematic influences and taste. It resides within a long sci-fi/horror tradition concerning possession and violation of the human body. It's a specific kind of abduction story, one whose otherworldly aggressor is insidiously tied to the physical form. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers link obviously springs to mind (although the purpose or end-game in this case is much more obscured), but its stylistic roots lie more in '80s and '70s horror, with its primal nastiness and gore, crossed with the under-the-skin supernatural creepiness of The X-Files (right down to its musical cues).

The invasive method by which the unlucky few in Almost Human are attacked is directly reminiscent of Alien and its rape imagery, not to mention the primordial sacs of flesh that result as the possessed become reborn as new and more powerful beings.

It all begins on that aforementioned night, late 1987, when Seth (Graham Skipper) suddenly shows up at the house of Mark (Josh Ethier) and his girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), insisting that their friend Rob has just been abducted, and that something is after them, too. Mark assumes it's a prank, but within moments the electricity has gone out and the house is bathed in a soft blue light. Then comes a piercing, high-pitched buzz that leaves all three writhing on the floor in agony, until Mark suddenly, and calmly, gets his bearings, walks outside and disappears.

Two years pass, and the strange incidents of that night have faded into local myth. Seth is doing menial work at a hardware store but, despite only a vague recollection of the proceedings at Mark and Jen's house, has a hard time keeping it together. Nightmares and nosebleeds are a part of his regular routine. He's on anxiety medication, and is a serious enough patient that he can name-drop himself to his doctor's receptionist and get squeezed into the schedule no matter what.

Jen has moved on since Mark vanished and is now engaged to Clyde (Anthony Amaral III) with a somewhat steady job waiting tables at a local diner; she hasn't seen Seth in quite some time. There's some measure of bad blood between the two; with her memory a bit fuzzy, she initially accused Seth of being involved with Mark's disappearance before the investigation was ultimately dropped.

But Seth shows up at the diner one afternoon desperate to talk to her, insisting that the dreams he's been having lately are eerily reminiscent of those he had in the days leading up to the incident back in '87. He believes that Mark, somehow and some way, will return. And that something bad - very bad - is about to happen. That's about as detailed as he gets, but he's certainly accurate. That afternoon, Mark is discovered, naked and slimy, out in the woods by a pair of hunters, and - armed with ungodly strength and a howling, debilitating, high-pitched shriek - proceeds to kill them both and make his way back to town, and back to his old life.

Writer/director Joe Begos draws from a wealth of reference points, and puts his own personal spin on a lot of recognizable tropes and ideas. But when it comes to actually staging the drama, his skills don't pass the test. A few sequences in particular are poorly conceived and terribly blocked, even as they impress with the quality of their special effects and art direction.

He proves even less capable of handling his cast. As flawed as the movie is, it's intriguing enough that it could have been partially salvaged if an actor or two had livened things up. But no. They all come across as completely overwhelmed by the fairly modest requirements of the script, making sure the grotesque looniness of Almost Human comes across as amateurish as possible.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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