A few years ago, I was pleasantly surprised by Grave Encounters, the first feature from the writing/directing team of The Vicious Brothers (Colin Minahan and Stuart Ortiz). They were working with a miniscule budget and an overdone idea, but managed to make a very good little ghost flick. Last year saw them release another film that couldn’t make it past the festival circuit, but, thanks to the internet, is reaching viewers in ways that were impossible even ten years ago.
Extraterrestrial (written by both Minahan and Ortiz, but directed by Minahan alone), like the duo’s previous effort, doesn’t break any new ground, but does prove yet again that just because a film lacks originality does not mean it is a bad film.
Extraterrestrial follows a group of twenty-something college kids who are spending a weekend at a cabin in the woods. Didn’t I just post this review yesterday? I can’t think of how many times I’ve seen a horror flick start this way. It’s a trope that has been done to death, to the point that it’s not really a trope at all anymore. Rather, it’s a way of life for a large subset of the horror genre. The cabin in the woods is an expeditious means to getting a film’s characters into an isolated environment where no outside influences can come along and screw up the plot.
In this movie, unlike most cabin in the woods stories, the young ones aren’t dodging a mass murderer or a horde of zombies. There are no witches or monsters lurking in the wilderness. Rather, the group is witness to the crash of an alien spacecraft, whose survivors menace our poor protagonists. I have to admire the aliens in this regard. It is made clear in an intro scene that the aliens are here to abduct humans for some unknown reason. Despite almost being killed in a crash, these aliens don’t let either the loss of their equipment or a near brush with death dissuade them from their duties. Rather than lean against a tree and wait for the interstellar AAA tow truck to arrive, they get right back to the chase. Had it been me who had just survived a fiery plane crash in the woods, work would be the last thing on my mind. But I digress. The aliens are not the main characters of this film. The people are. The story is told from their perspective.
April and Kyle (Brittany Allen and Freddie Stroma) had planned on making the weekend a romantic getaway. But Kyle had other ideas, inviting along a few friends (Melanie Papalia, Jesse Moss, and Anja Savcic). There’s a whole bunch of drinking and drugging and happy times right up until the moment Kyle proposes marriage to April and she turns him down. It’s a sad drama, and ultimately a pointless diversion, as the alien spacecraft makes its entrance shortly thereafter. I suppose it was nice to have a little character development before the plot really kicked off, but in a movie like this, as with the setting, it just is what it is. Cabin in the woods. Check. Young people out for a weekend of fun. Check. A little personal drama. Check. Tick off all these boxes and we can finally get to the movie part of the movie.
Working within the limited means available, Minahan kept things simple. There are not a lot of appearances by the aliens, even towards the end when a viewer could normally expect a big reveal. That means the film had to rely on the cast rather than any sort of spectacle. The cast were about as able as a viewer could expect from young actors and actresses still searching for their big breaks. Their collective performances did not elevate the film any, but neither did they drag it down. That’s more of a feat than I make it sound. Low-budget horror flicks such as this are notorious for putting pretty people with terrible acting skills in harm’s way, and relying on chiseled features and gratuitous nudity to distract from the acting. The Vicious Brothers, however, are not those kinds of filmmakers. The cast they assembled did their job. But, there were some supporting cast members that feel almost criminally underused.
Foremost among these is Michael Ironside as Travis, a gun-toting, pot-growing, conspiracy-believing Vietnam vet who is the closest neighbor to the cabin. This is the only person in the movie who is packing an arsenal, and who seems somewhat prepared for the arrival of an alien spacecraft. Travis was ripe with possibility, yet Ironside was never let off the leash. He could have run rampant through the plot, better balancing the suspense with moments of dark humor and, maybe, some splattering gore. I consider this a missed opportunity.
Extraterrestrial clocks in at 106 minutes, but it feels a little long. This is mostly due to a final act that, while a welcome shift from the woodland setting, concludes with an ending that was too long and overwrought. It is only near the ending, though, where Minahan’s sense of pacing begins to fray. Before then, this flick moved right along. Setup, action, denouement. Sure, it’s a little paint-by-numbers, but sometimes staying in the lines is fun. For the second time, The Vicious Brothers have made a conventional horror flick that is not bad, but not great, either. I would really like to see what they are capable of should they ditch the formulaic stuff and go wild.