There are many films I’ve watched in my life where a criticism like “That looks like it was made in the 1980s” would be delivered as a scathing detriment. But it’s a genuine compliment for a film like Joe Begos’ Almost Human, a throwback horror that isn’t bogged down by fake-out scares, self-aware characters, or wall-to-wall CGI effects. It’s an indie creature feature that wears its pulsating heart on its gore-splattered sleeve. I can’t deny that it’s marred by many of the same problems that plagued direct-to-video slasher and monster movies in the ’80s, but I flock to all ports in this storm of paranormal and possession-filled horror flicks, only outnumbered by teenaged savior dystopias.
With zero backstory to go on, the film opens with Seth (Graham Skipper) bursting into the cabin of his friend Mark (Josh Ethier) and his girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh), paranoid about a bright blue light in the woods. Soon, an ear-piercing screech blares and characters’ noses start to bleed, as Mark calmly walks into his own abduction. Quick, intense, and to the point. This is the feature debut for Begos, who also wrote the screenplay, and this opening is one of several moments in the film that prove his ability to key up suspense even in situations whose outcomes are insanely predictable.
Which is good, because Almost Human is not a film built on twists or mysteries. Two years after that fateful night, Mark reappears in the woods, naked and covered in grossness. Well, it looks like Mark and it sounds like Mark, when it isn’t emitting its own eardrum-gouging wail. In his mind, his life is exactly as he left it, and he is intent on reconnecting with Jen. It just happens that he murders a bunch of people along the way in hopes of repopulating the planet with the same kind of creature that’s growing inside him. And Seth inevitably tries to stop him.
That’s what this movie is. And on one hand, that’s great, because it isn’t trying to be anything more complicated than that. But on the other hand, it’s as derivative as a handshake, and I kind of want something more complicated than that. Which is a testament to the way Begos handled things, as the cinematography and effects are exemplary of a film with a far wider release than the one it received. I also could have done with a slight touch of humor, as so much of the screentime involves people being miserable for one reason or another. Seth, whose life turned to shit after the night Mark went missing, is particularly pained during the scenes he’s in, when he just “knows something is wrong” because his headaches are causing blood to shoot out of his nose.
As far as the performances go, no here is Academy worthy, with Ethier’s performance of murderous glaring standing out. Also, many of the supporting actors are pretty hamfisted, but everyone generally matches the expectations that come along with a lot of modern indie sci-fi horror. The complete lack of teenagers is always welcomed.
The excellent practical effects are better than I was ready for. Mark’s manner of passing the alien growth along to other hosts involves a strange bit of oral impregnation. More than once I found myself whooping into a closed hand, gleefully reveling in disgust. Mark isn’t very sanitary when it comes to dispatching his victims, and at one point Begos pulls off a stellar “axe to the head” shot that also elicited a physical reaction. These are moments that simply cannot happen in the plethora of supernatural films that have come out in recent years, so the more physical mayhem that happens in the limited amount of monster movies we see, the better. I could have done with another half hour of it to replace some of the other scenes, but you take what you can get.
Recalling (if not exactly comparable to) such films as The Thing and Species (or even Slither), Almost Human is a decent midnight movie to drink a beer to, and the lack of screenwriting polish is balanced by quality direction and a pretty solid score. It could have used a few overall themes and side plots, but when your film has a giant bloody swathing tongue kicking off the climax, you can’t really ask for much more.