At 2008’s H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival in Portland, the Best Feature Audience Award—and the lion’s share of the acclaim—went to Alien Raiders, a scrappy little $2 million HD horror film that never mentions Lovecraft or any of his creations. Like many of the features that play the annual fest, Alien Raiders is more about capturing the feel of Lovecraft’s work—the intrepid but out-of-their-league investigators facing a vast unknown, the battle against vast, powerful, and above all indifferent creatures—and transporting it into the present day. With that inspiration and aesthetic in mind, Alien Raiders is a slick, propulsive little action film first, and a creature-feature second. But it channels all the smarts of people who’ve seen a lot of horror films and know the clichés, and are necessarily out to substitute cleverness and craft for big-budget effects.
Alien Raiders’ big twist on monster movies in the Species mode is that it elides over a lot of the usual backstory and buildup, trusting that viewers have been there before and can ably fill in the blanks themselves. Instead of following their supernatural investigators through a tedious setup of exploration and revelation, screenwriters David Simkins and Julia Fair jump straight into the action, approaching the story from the point of view of a bunch of shoppers and employees at a small-town grocery store, particularly bagger Jeffrey Licon and his crush object, pretty, bored checker Samantha Streets. At closing time, a group of gunmen take the store hostage and start behaving like veteran horror-action heroes—shooting people who make the wrong moves, making a raddled drug addict touch people and determine whether they should be killed, forcing everyone to drink milk by the quart, and so on. Normally by the time things get that desperate in a monster movie, the viewers have followed the information-gathering that made such acts seem logical, but Simkins and Fair stick with the baffled civilians as they get drawn into someone else’s madness and a lethal game of “Who’s the Martian?” Instead of the wish-fulfillment drama of an alien-shoot-’em-up, they force their audience to consider what it’s like to be an extra in a monster movie, endlessly confused and endangered by single-minded monster hunters that seem far scarier than the supposed monster they’re after.
The conceit and the hostage drama that follows are unusual enough to carry Alien Raiders (which is far better than its generic title) through the opening buildup to the point where it turns into a shoestring version of John Carpenter’s The Thing. Director Ben Rock works around his budget limitations well—his cinematography is surprisingly sharp and deep, given the digital medium and the low-light conditions, and he finds ways to open up his claustrophobic setting and make the film seem bigger than it is. The acting is unexceptional, but competent enough to draw sympathy toward the civilians, then turn it into a tug-of-war as the monster-hunters’ desperate humanity emerges. Raiders is the kind of nervy, exciting small-scale project that calls Hollywood’s love of big-budget effects extravaganzas into question; for every Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, we could have 75 lovingly made, subversively intelligent little films like this. Like the fight against Lovecraft’s many unknowns, it’s no contest.
Key features: Some so-so making-of featurettes, excerpts from backstory-laden home movies glimpsed briefly in the film, and some purposefully ironic but not very funny fake MySpace v-log entries by one of the characters.