Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: We greet the hostile extraterrestrial visitors of The 5th Wave with more movies about alien invasions.
When scripting a low-budget horror movie, a filmmaker has to keep their monetary limitations in mind. Minimizing locations helps, as does pruning the cast down to its essential elements, because people and places cost money (which is why so many horror movies center on a small group of people in an isolated location). And while a resourceful special-effects artist can do a lot with limited resources, the zipper on that alien costume is still going to show in HD. That leaves the creative team with two choices: Lean into the cheapness, à la Troma, or utilize some (usually flashy) technique to dazzle the audience. The former can be funny, but the latter is more ambitious.
For his third low-budget feature, Pod, writer/director Mickey Keating took the latter route. Keating’s sleight-of-hand strategy is to push the intensity of the film to its breaking point, in an attempt to elevate what otherwise would be typical cabin-in-the-woods fare. At only 76 minutes long, with a couple of dialogue scenes deleted Pod could work as an especially violent episode of The X-Files, particularly with the classic alien-invasion imagery—foil-covered windows, government spooks in trench coats—invoked throughout the film. Make that an episode of The X-Files directed by Joe Swanberg, as the intensity applies not only to the movie’s brisk pace and shockingly realistic violence, but also in the tense family dynamics that drive the story.
Dean Cates stars as Ed, the responsible sibling who’s more like a parent figure to his emotionally unbalanced sister Lyla (Lauren Ashley Carter), whose hysterical outbursts that can be a sticking point for some viewers. But Lyla is positively functional compared to their brother Martin (Brian Morvant), a schizophrenic Army veteran who’s spent time in mental institutions and who appears headed for another psychotic break. After Ed receives some disturbing voicemails, he and Lyla head up to the family cabin to check on Martin, where they find that things are already much worse than they thought. Not only has he been engaging in some pretty intense self-harm (those who find tooth trauma upsetting, consider yourselves warned), he has something—or maybe someone—that he calls a “Pod” trapped in the basement.
It’s not clear whether Martin’s behavior is the result of his illness, or PTSD, or if government experiments really have scrambled the signals in his head—until, in one spectacularly violent outburst, it is. The truth about Martin’s claims is revealed in one almost unbearably suspenseful scene, followed by a very special appearance by Larry Fessenden once all hell breaks loose. Pod is by no means a perfect film, and Keating’s approach is more successful in some areas than others. But it’s refreshing to see an up-and-coming filmmaker who’s really, truly trying to scare you, and it’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here.
Availability: Pod is currently streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Amazon, Netflix, or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major streaming services.