Man Vs (2015)

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Back in the days before cable television released the kraken, the three major networks made their own budget-minded movies that were broadcast on different nights. “The ABC Friday Movie of the Week” or “The CBS Tuesday Movie” and such like.

Usually these were formulaic dramas for aging network stars like Rock Hudson and George Peppard, but occasionally something supernaturally cool would come down the pipe. Who can forget Kim Darby fighting off vicious pygmy horrors in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, or Bo Svenson on the trail of an abominable yeti at a ski resort in Snow Beast (recently remade)?

While they weren’t cinematic jewels, these small-screen frighteners succeeded in leaving a mark on impressional minds (like mine) that were allowed to stay up past bedtime  “just this once.” Filmmaker Adam Massey’s talents were honed by his work in television, and in this case, his instincts for tension and pace are solid as cement.

Massey (A Lobster Tale) has directed over 200 commercials, and he brings that lean efficiency to Man Vs, a harrowing sci-fi/horror/reality show hybrid that scores a lot of points from all over the court. There are some obvious flaws to be found, but the watchability here is very high, as we witness the disintegration of an arrogant TV show host who slowly tumbles to the fact that he’s not alone in the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario.

Leading man Chris Diamantopoulos is spot-on as Doug Woods, a sort-of Bear Grylls Lite forced into mortal combat with an extra-terrestrial predator while trying to film his own Mickey Mouse survival  series. His transition from control freak to just plain freaked-out is expertly rendered—the supposedly self-reliant Woods nearly wets his Patagonia rain pants when he realizes he’s the one being stalked for s’mores by a largely unseen enemy. “Why couldn’t we have picked the Bahamas or Santa Barbara?” he laments to his camera. 

Perhaps the enemy should have remained unseen. Among the previously mentioned flaws are the anticlimactic appearance of a nondescript CGI alien predator (complete with that familiar chittering) at around the one-hour mark. Also, the idea that a guy camping for five days could be the basis of a TV show simply isn’t credible. Dude! Haven’t you seen Alone or Naked & Afraid? The bar has been raised.

In spite of its shortcomings, Man Vs delivers an action-packed happy meal without unnecessary plot contrivances, not to mention a first-rate reluctant hero. Diamantopoulos plays Woods as a gutty, resourceful protagonist despite being obviously scared shitless by the severing of contact with civilization. 

Sidebar: I was entertaining a story idea about a survival show that turns supernatural after seeing a recent episode of Naked & Afraid that had the contestants cowering in their shelter because they thought they’d glimpsed a man in a ceremonial mask watching their camp. It was a genuinely unnerving moment, and the incident was never explained. It’s a juicy concept, and Massey got their first.   

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Harbinger Down (2015)

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No need to beat around the bush, Harbinger Down is an above-average homage to John Carpenter’s The Thing, set aboard an Alaskan crab boat, skippered by Lance Henricksen. The story goes, that the film’s creature effects team, ADI, apparently worked on the 2011 prequel of The Thing, only to see their contributions largely cut in favor of CGI.

Harbinger Down, written and directed Alec Gillis, is a crowd-funded production that gives ADI’s shrieking, flailing aliens some needed screen time. The results are nothing Rob Bottin needs to lose any sleep over, but are nonetheless far superior to the usual CGI gravy flopping around on SyFy network these days.

Welcome aboard the good ship Harbinger, a Bering Sea commercial fishing vessel, with the roomy interior of an oil tanker. Seriously, my family is in the fishing business, and I’ve never set foot on a crab boat with so many winding passageways.

Henricksen plays Graff, a grizzled old salt, who don’t take any lip, either from his feisty crew, or his granddaughter’s research team, who’ve hopped aboard to study whales or something. (If wardrobe had been on the ball, they would have given Lance a captain’s hat and a corncob pipe to complete his Popeye’s Pappy ensemble).

Along with a few tons of Dungeness, the Harbinger hooks some space wreckage that contains the remains of a Soviet craft, complete with a frozen cosmonaut carrying a hostile alien. You know, mutating space organism, it can look like anyone, lots of tentacles, you either freeze it or burn it. Sound familiar?

Given the premise, the script is little more than an afterthought, though Gillis misses the opportunity to create some much-needed distinctive supporting characters, by making sure that any and all dialogue is played hopelessly straight.

This is why Carpenter’s characters, stranded in the Arctic, or Ridley Scott’s characters, trapped in outer space, (definitely some Alien in this critter’s cinematic DNA), are memorable ones. They way they conduct themselves under extreme pressure (“I ain’t going with Windows, man!”), tells us everything we need to know about them, their final witticisms forever burned into our memory banks.

Here, the crew is just a bunch of nobodies, with the exception of ol’ reliable Lance, and perhaps Winston James Frances, as Big G, a courageous giant, the Harbinger equivalent of the Nostromo’s Parker (Yaphet Kotto). Nope, nothing new here, but Harbinger Down passes the time with flying colors.

Almost Human (2013)

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It’s no work of art, but writer-director Joe Begos has successfully crafted a nifty low-budget, alien-abduction thriller. If you can get around some amateurish acting and an uneven plot that provides few answers to nagging questions (e.g., Where do these aliens come from and how come we never get any idea of what they’re up to?), Almost Human delivers decent gore and a respectable body count.

Rural Maine citizen Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappears one evening after a visit from his buddy Seth (Graham Skipper), who seems agitated in the extreme over the disappearance of another mutual friend. Mark’s house is bombarded with weird lights from the sky accompanied by horrible, paralyzing banshee shrieks, and neither Seth nor Mark’s girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), who witness the abduction, has any idea of where Mark has gone.

Two years later, Seth is a nervous wreck while Jen has moved on with her career (waitressing at the local greasy spoon) and her love life, getting engaged to Clyde (Anthony Amaral III), who presumably furnishes her with a more stable, down-to-earth relationship. The long-missing Mark is soon discovered nude and freezing in the woods by a pair of hunters, who quickly become the first casualties of his alien-augmented rampage.

In an interesting turn, Mark chooses to keep his victims close in order to secrete goop all over them and transform the newly departed into not-very-capable killer zombies. He’s also got a plan to get back together with Jen and start their own little litter of star-spawn.

If expectations are kept to a minimum, there are enough shocks and jolts in Almost Human to keep the viewer engaged—if not exactly enthralled. There are even a few subtle nods to The Thing, Evil Dead and Reanimator lurking in the details, if you need additional stimulation.

The Dark Side of the Moon (1990)

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In space, no one can hear you yawn.

Sadly, this cheezoid mashup of Alien and The Thing features no Pink Floyd in the soundtrack. In fact, The Dark Side of the Moon has precious little going for it, although its depiction of a “futuristic” space ship from the Year 2022 is good for some snarky horse laughs. Really? Steam pipes? And the electronic consoles are constantly misfiring and shooting off sparks while the teensy monitors look like they would be more at home hosting a spirited game of Pong. Oh well, you get your perks where you can.

A small crew of mostly no-name talent (headlined by John Diehl, Cruiser from Stripes, and Joe Turkel, Tyrell from Blade Runner) finds itself adrift on the wrong side of the moon where it encounters a derelict space craft that has mysteriously appeared direct from the Bermuda Triangle (*eyes roll*). It’s lone occupant is a shape-shifting creature that turns out to be… THE DEVIL!

Yes, there are spoilers aplenty here, but trust me, you will not be watching The Dark Side of the Moon for its agile plot twists. It’s cheap, boring, ineptly written, and offers nothing whatsoever in the way of frights. Director D.J. Webster’s idea of cinematic finesse consists of extreme closeups of the cast, in case you were wondering how their pores are holding up in the vacuum of space. Listen carefully: Not every artifact from a bygone era is worth saving.

Prometheus (2012)

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An ambitious and overwrought failure. Whereas Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) surely ranks among the upper tier of 20th century horror cinema, it’s “prequel” is more like a latter day George Lucas Star Wars gewgaw: too acutely aware of its own lofty place in our cultural consciousness, and as a result, trips all over itself trying to catch lightning in a jar a second time. Prometheus looks sensational, but the story is pure hash, and it’s certainly not horror, despite occasional horrifying imagery. Sadly, it’s another example of corporate hubris: a big-budget, hastily rewritten spectacle that no one knew what to do with.

If I sound bitter, it’s because I am. After shelling out $17.25 to see Prometheus in IMAX 3D, and another $15 for a bottle of water, a small popcorn, and a box of M&Ms, I was treated to a movie that reached for the heavens—and pulled a muscle doing so. Scientific sweethearts Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and her partner Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) find some provocative cave paintings that lead them to outer space aboard the titular vessel in search of “the engineers” who may have created mankind. Naturally, there is a crew to escort them, but they’re a flimsily drawn bunch that includes Janek, the sturdy captain (Idris Elba), Vickers, a cranky company bitch (Charlize Theron), and David, an affable, secretive mandroid (Michael Fassbender). Naturally David’s protocol and that of the corporation aren’t exactly in perfect sync. After a few years in cryo-sleep, the crew awakens to find themselves hovering over the planet depicted in an assortment of prehistoric murals. Shaw and Holloway are gung-ho to “meet their makers” but they end up badly disappointed. Welcome to the club!

Once again, Prometheus is fairly sumptuous in the high-tech eye candy department, but the failure of writers Jon Spaights and Damon Lidelof to come up with a character we can invest ourselves in weighs heavy. Noomi Rapace as Shaw is the best of the lot, but most of the time it seems like various attributes of Ripley, Dallas, Ash, and Parker  are simply doled out sparingly to everyone on board. It’s like looking forward to a gourmet meal and getting pricey, reheated leftovers.

Furthermore, it’s easy to see that there isn’t a firm hand at the wheel. My goodness, how many back and forth trips between the ship and the alien station are there? It feels like half the movie is spent getting into and out of space suits and then very slowly trekking to the next location. The suffocating atmosphere of dread and isolation that made the original movie such a tension fest, is nowhere to be found. Instead, there’s a forlorn flourish of heroic horns, ala John Williams, that wells up every now and then as if to remind us that this is meant to be an epic tale of exploration and valor, you know, like Star Wars. I suspect that too many opinions and too much studio meddling scuttled this ship, because Prometheus ends up way off course.

Attack The Block (2011)

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Even my girlfriend watched this and enjoyed it—and to say that she dislikes horror movies is like saying the Koch brothers aren’t too fond of organized labor. (I was trying to think of some really zippy metaphor to reel you in. This is the best I could do. Sorry.) Barbara (that’s her name) looked up Attack The Block on Rotten Tomatoes and was impressed that it received a “90 percent fresh” rating. But I really hooked her when I told her the movie reminded me of Misfits, an insanely original BBC superhero (sort of) series we’re currently addicted to.

Indeed, the two share a strategic reliance on anonymously industrial council-block housing for scenery, as well as a charismatic cast of scruffy young tearaways to inhabit it. Here, a gang of not-too-scary teen hoodlums led by Moses (John Boyega), encounter a strange critter while out patrolling their neighborhood. (Patrolling means mugging young women and setting off fireworks, mainly.) The gang corners the beast (“looks a monkey mated with a fish”) and kick it to death. Fantasizing about selling the specimen to the highest bidder, the kids pay a visit to dope dealer Ron (Nick Frost, who runs off with every scene he’s in) to smoke and unwind. Unbeknownst to our “heroes,” a whole battalion of bigger, meaner, and hungrier aliens are en route to find out what happened to their advance party.

The ensemble cast, led by Boyega, and ably supported by Frost, Jody Whittaker, and Alex Esmail, is fantastic. It doesn’t matter if they’re brawling, fleeing, or getting stoned—these kids are as resilient, resourceful, and honor-bound as any John Wayne posse. Writer-director Joe Cornish (part of the Edgar Wright/Simon Pegg/Nick Frost Brit Pack) acquits himself quite well. His dialogue is fast and funny, the pace is breakneck, and the aliens—agile wolfish anthropoids with no eyes and glowing teeth—are brilliantly realized. Attack The Block effortlessly balances a monster movie premise with deft action-film finesse and Western movie heroics. I will watch it again. And so will Barbara (probably).