October Horrorshow: Attack the Block

There have been a fair amount of unintentional comedies in this year’s Horrorshow, but this film is the first of the year where the jokes are intentional. It’s not just a horror/comedy, though. It’s also sci-fi/action, and crosses over into a few other genres should one wish to delve even deeper.

Attack the Block, from 2011, comes to us via writer/director Joe Cornish. It tells the story of a group of youths who defend their South London estate block from an invasion of monstrous, glowing-teethed, black-furred aliens.

The youths in question are a bunch of would-be thugs led by the quiet and pensive Moses (John Boyega). He’s the closest to an adult in the group, even though he’s only fifteen. The rest of the group are just playing gangster, while Moses seems to have some real aspirations to a life of crime. They’re just typical prancing teenagers, should one be inclined to ignore the felonies. They are Pest (Alex Esmail), Dennis (Franz Drameh), Jerome (Leeon Jones), and Biggz (Simon Howard).

The way the group is introduced to the audience, by mugging co-star Jodie Whittaker’s character Sam, doesn’t exactly endear one to them. But the tone of the film shifts seconds later with the arrival of the first alien. The boys decide to kill it, setting off the chain of events that dominate the film.

Viewers don’t have to wait long for the aliens to present themselves and start wreaking havoc on the residents of the tower block. Along the way we are introduced to other colorful characters that live in or have ties to the block, including Hi-Hatz (Jumayn Hunter) who is a caricature of a black gangsta; Ron (Nick Frost), who presides over a marijuana grow in the block; and Brewis (Luke Treadway), a shiftless 20-something who lives off of his father’s money. Each contributes their own humor to the overall absurdity of the film.

The most prominent feature of the film for audiences here in the states, besides the aliens, are the accents and colloquialisms of the main cast. Being an urban film as much as an alien invasion flick, Cornish didn’t pull any punches when it came to how kids in South London speak. It’s an endless stream of local slang, wrapped in an accent that has moved significantly away from the Queen’s English. I had to watch it with subtitles. It’s also played for laughs, exaggerated to the point it’s one long joke that spans the entire film.

The performances from the cast are the key to making everything work, though. They could have just descended into a bunch of yelling. With teenagers, it’s possible. But Cornish kept things tight, and every single one of the kids nailed their part. It’s quite impressive. There wasn’t a bad read among them. Cornish also had a deft storytelling touch, making sure we don’t hold any of these characters’ flaws against them. If it weren’t for the fact that Sam is also integral to the plot, it would be easy to forget just how we first saw the group.

Finally, there are the aliens. This isn’t a Hollywood blockbuster with a 9-figure budget. This was made for the modest, by film standards, cost of £8 million. That meant Cornish had to save money where he could. The effects team did their job with the aliens. The fur they are covered with is as black as can be, making most of the creature a void without detail. Combined with most of the effects shots happening in shadow, the effects team saved loads of resources in rendering, without sacrificing the appearance of the CGI. It’s a clever solution.

Attack the Block is one of those rollicking films that just never lets up. It was a financial failure on release, but I don’t think that can be blamed on the film itself. It’s quite good.