The 1980s are one of those decades beloved by horror fans. Whether it’s the success of the genre itself during this time period or the cheesy yet beloved nature of many of the 80s horror features, it’s safe to say that there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to horror directors paying homage by setting their films in the decade. One such recent example is Joe Begos’ Almost Human, which made its debut in the Midnight Madness section of TIFF this past week. Although I didn’t get to see it specifically at midnight, I caught a screening the next day and it’s safe to say that the 80s horror fiends have a new flick to claim as their own.
Almost Human tells the story of a small town in Maine where one night in October 1987 Mark Fisher (Josh Ethier) disappears in a blue flash of light and leaves his best pal Seth (Graham Skipper) and girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) in a state of disarray. Two years later, a string of murders start to make their waves in the quiet, woodsy town and Seth and Jen’s lives are upset once again with the return of Mark. What is he? What happened that fateful night? And why does Seth keep getting nosebleeds?
- The Performances – One thing about most indie horror is that due to a lack of proper funds they often sacrifice good acting and a certain visual quality in favor of cheesy effects and gore galore. Thankfully, although Almost Human does have some of those qualities, the acting is pretty damn fantastic. Graham Skipper centers the film by giving a perfectly terrified turn as Seth. He’s getting nosebleeds and hasn’t been able to live a normal life since Mark’s disappearance, and we feel his angst and nerves every step of the way. Josh Ethier also gives a quiet confidence to Mark, clearly an ode to Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character. As the female lead, Vanessa Leigh gives her Jen a sense of vulnerability that kicks into high gear once she learns that Mark is back in the picture but rest assured, she gets to kick a fair amount of ass as well.
- The Effects – Although in the Q & A following the film Begos stated that he cringed at a few of the effects during the screening, I’m pretty sure the audience didn’t quite have the same reaction. The low-budget effects are quite fun, particularly the alien tentacles that end up on parts of the body that will almost certainly make your mother blush. There’s a good amount of blood in the film as well which is all the perfect shade of red, and the additional creature effects certainly provide the film with a certain amount of creepy atmosphere and 80s cheese that work together to create a film that is a whole lot of fun.
- Cinematography – Handling the cinematography himself, Begos certainly didn’t leave much up to chance and it certainly shows. Serving as writer, director, and cinematographer would certainly be intimidating for any indie director making his feature debut, but it’s clear that Begos’ confidence in his ability is certainly not lacking. The film looks great, Begos having shot on the RED camera and then adding some 80s grain in post. While many indie horror pictures reek of amateurism, Almost Human reeks of confident filmmakers who know exactly what they are doing.
- Sound Design – With the sound design handled by none other than Mark himself, Josh Ethier, it’s safe to say that Almost Human embraced the indie horror experience to a tee. From the fantastically unsettling scream that emanates from Mark’s mouth, to simple touches like the sound of a static television, Ethier’s design gives the film all the atmosphere it needs.
- A Fantastic Sense of Fun – The best aspect of Almost Human is its willingness to entertain the audience without forcing itself into full-blown parody. While the film certainly has it’s fair share of 80s-ness, it’s never in a cheesy manner that takes you out of the experience. It’s never camp and it’s continual ability to embrace the alien abduction subject matter in a confident manner goes a long way.
- Nothing in particular stands out, but… – Like most indie horror films the budgetary constraints certainly have an effect to a degree, but thankfully for the most part Almost Human avoids the overwhelming majority of these pitfalls. While there are certain moments where you can see license plates that clearly read Rhode Island instead of Maine, it’s hard for me to get on the case of a film shot not too far from where I live and made by people who clearly understand the horror genre in a way that perhaps even I don’t.
Joe Begos loves horror films and it doesn’t take an expert to see that. At the Q & A, he wore his Basket Case t-shirt with pride and had an arm full of hardcore horror ink that certainly made any aficionado in the audience jealous. With each subsequent question shot his way, it seemed Begos’ confidence only grew. He knew the kind of film he wanted to make and that’s abundantly clear from the final product that graces the screen. Any time a new indie horror film comes along, the distinction between the good and the bad films is often made apparent by just looking at the individuals behind the scenes who made the film possible. You take one look at Joe Begos and you know: Almost Human is an indie horror flick borne out of love. And yes, it’s a damn good one.