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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Gremlins knockoffs live again in the alien impregnation horror-comedy <i>Snatchers</i>

Gremlins knockoffs live again in the alien impregnation horror-comedy Snatchers

The condemned: Snatchers (2019)

The plot: Comedy-horror, as regular readers of this column (or regular horror fans in general) know, is a difficult needle to thread, tone-wise. If you don’t strike just the right balance between elements, the horror moments squash the humor, and vice-versa. Which is probably why most efforts in this subgenre just decide to fall on the sword of comedy. Leaning so hard in that direction, the horror mostly functions as a silly element of action or carnage to break up the goofiness. Tension and scares are tough to sustain, but a shitty pun or someone walking into a glass door? Those are renewable resources!

Snatchers is no different. The film is a gross-out comedy in the John Waters vein, campy as all get-out and partaking of plenty of retro stylistic flourishes to add to the outré sense of amiable lowbrow laughs. But the horror aspect actually works at times, the creators borrowing liberally from some of the masters of horror-comedy—Joe Dante and Sam Raimi, to be specific—with a creature-feature narrative that would feel right at home amid the Dante knock-offs of the ’80s. Oh, and it also features multiple alien births (from a human womb), decapitations, and the annihilation of an entire police station by a six-inch high parasite creature—so, you know, good stuff.

The film centers on Sara (Mary Nepi), a high-school junior who has recently joined a clique of popular kids and, in the process of seeking higher status among her fellow adolescents, left behind her nerdy former best friend, Haley (Gabrielle Elyse). After sacrificing her prior commitment to avoid sex until college by sleeping with her ex Skylar (Austin Fryberger) in order to win him back, Sara soon realizes she has a big problem: Within 36 hours, she’s extremely pregnant—like, ready to pop. In an effort to keep the situation a secret from her mom, Skylar, and the rest of the world, Sara recruits Haley to take her to the free clinic, where, instead of fixing the issue, she gets far worse news: The thing growing inside of her isn’t human. After the tiny alien being flies out of her body (severing the head of the clinic doctor in the process) and manages to control a nurse by possessing them, Body Snatchers-style, the girls escape and get even worse news. There’s a second creature inside Sara, and the first one needs it in order for both of them to mate and begin a process of reproduction that would eventually spin out of control.

Needless to say, Sara and Haley really don’t want this to happen. (Though Sara still has hopes of keeping everything that’s happened from her mom: “Priority one is keeping this quiet. Priority two is my overall health and well-being.”) After Sara and Haley go to their weird older friend Dave (Rich Fulcher) to try and help abort alien number two, the cops arrive and take the pair in, only for the original alien to arrive, tear apart the precinct, and take possession of Sara’s mom in order to pull the other alien from Sara’s womb and run off to let it nest and grow. The girls soon realize these weird sex aliens need willing hosts who will happily get it on with no thought to consequences—cue popular girl Kiana’s back-to-school party that night. Sara and Haley have to weapon up, head to the party, and stop the aliens before they infect and kill every kid in town, followed by the world.

Over-the-top box copy: “Giddily entertaining horror comedy,” offers up a blurb from Variety at the bottom of the cover. I don’t know if it quite made me giddy, but I could see another being moved to giddiness. The back of the blu-ray doubled down on similar praise: “Delightfully quirky, bloody, razor-sharp horror comedy.” Again, don’t know if I’d go that far, but it is quirky and bloody, and even occasionally razor-sharp with a few lines (and severed body parts), so I’ll allow it.

The descent: The publicity materials for Snatchers describe it as “Aliens Meets Mean Girls,” which was what first caught my attention. It then gives the one-sentence logline as a movie that “follows a status-obsessed high school teenager who loses her virginity and finds herself pregnant the next day… with an alien!” That is exactly the kind of stupid we here at Home Video Hell like to sign up for immediately. Sure, we’ve been burned by wannabe horror-comedies before, especially ones that fancy themselves “razor-sharp,” which is too often shorthand for “clunky references abound in this script!” But we’ve also found The Velocipastor, so we’re batting around .500 these days.

The theoretically heavenly talent: You wouldn’t know any of the main people, by and large. Gabrielle Elyse was on a Nickelodeon show, and Nick Gomez, who plays the cop investigating the situation, has been on everything from The Walking Dead to Treme, but generally in smaller roles. Honestly, the biggest name here is someone who is only in the final film by virtue of having to retcon a proof-of-concept short into the feature film—Transparent’s Amy Landecker. More on that shortly.

The execution: Snatchers is best approached with mellow expectations and a tolerance for cornball humor. In other words, it’s a great movie for when you’re a little drunk, a little high, or generally capable of investing only so much effort into the viewing experience. I found myself laughing and rolling my eyes in equal measure, which probably means I should’ve been in one or the other state of altered reality when I watched it. Lord knows, the movie doesn’t exist in our reality, so much as it does one where every teenager is just patiently waiting for a gap in the conversation to deliver a bitchy one-liner, usually at a louder volume than necessary and referencing something at least a decade old—you know, like a usual high-school kid. (When Sara is trying to come up with a plan to deal with the second alien still in her stomach, she quips, “I can’t just Juno around town with this thing.”)

Mean Girls, for all its loud colors and splashy attitude, isn’t a particularly campy film. Its emotions and action are grounded in a kind of reality. In keeping with its stylistic forbears, by contrast, Snatchers is exceedingly campy. Broad humor and heightened dramatics make it a bit like a Ryan Murphy joint (shades of his short-lived Popular), while the horror pulls it back into the splatter-heavy vibes of previous rubbery creature features. The CGI is blended mostly smoothly into practical creature effects, making for a far superior monster (monsters, really) than most low-budget horror films these days, relying almost wholly on computer effects to make up for the pittance of a budget, an inverse of the days when no money meant you better get good at using a glue gun and paper mâché. To wit: I love how the little froggy alien creature is obviously a practical effect labor of love, even as his movements get aided by CGI. Here he is demolishing said police station:

On a related note, about that random appearance of Amy Landecker for a single scene: As it turns out, the hospital scene where the alien is first born, kills the doctor, and sends the kids fleeing out the door was actually a proof-of-concept short film, made to secure funding for the full-length project. Writer-directors Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman, along with writer-producer Scott Yacyshyn, somehow managed to land the actor for their short. Whether for budgetary reasons or simply because it’s one of the better scenes even when compared to everything shot subsequently, the creators ended up retro-fitting the movie around the short, meaning it appears in full as part of the finished movie. The overall edit is pretty seamless, despite literal years going by between short and feature film, so kudos to whoever was responsible for continuity in makeup and design.

As you can see from that birth scene, the twin influences of Dante and Raimi are all over this thing. A little of Dante’s madcap silliness and pacing here, a dollop of Raimi’s camerawork and structure there. But the screenplay feels like a direct descendant of latter-day Waters, as it flits from text-message jokes to vagina puns to a climax that finds Haley saving the day by electrocuting Skylar right in his erect penis, after the alien has possessed him and is trying to kill Sara (no loyalty to mom among these aliens, that’s for sure). Watch this brief struggle and see if it doesn’t feel like a paradigmatic blend of Raimi and Waters, ending with, well, a blender.

But even the little moments are set in a cartoonish reality in which believability is sacrificed on the altar of comedy any time there’s a chance for even a little joke. When Sara arrives at school the day after having sex with Skylar, she gets morning sickness and mood swings, leading to initial panic she could be pregnant. The home pregnancy test is supposed to be a blank circle if you’re not pregnant, and a smiley face if you are. Since Sara is pregnant with an ancient alien spawn that gestates in only 24 hours and births a day after that, the movie figures you’d rather a sight gag than any coherent earth logic, so here’s what shows up on the pregnancy test:

Illustration for article titled Gremlins knockoffs live again in the alien impregnation horror-comedy Snatchers

The absurdist universe in which the film takes place is maybe best exemplified at the moment right before that climactic fight at the back-to-school party thrown by Sara’s awful new bestie, Kiana. (Who didn’t love back-to-school parties in high school? Did they exist? Were you invited? Let me know, some of us were a little busy listening to Sonic Youth and wondering why nobody understood how deep we were.) Sara and Haley bust in the front door, loaded down with alien-fighting gear and ready to rumble, and they’re greeted with an inexplicable needle-scratch-on-the-record moment. Was the cable connecting the MacBook to the speakers tied to the front-door handle with a string? Was every person at the party tied to the door as well? It’s really the only way to explain this without throwing up your hands, taking an especially large hit from your water bong, and shrugging, “Whatever, it’s a comedy.”

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: While Snatchers is an above-average entry in the horror-comedy realm, it’s not good enough to enter any sort of canon of proudly retro campy-splatter flicks. From the overly lit staging to the blunt-force editing and broad humor, it’s a bit too sophomoric to rise above its place. Still a place it does have, and that place is “playing at 2 a.m. when you’re deciding if it’s worth it to DoorDash a frozen pizza and a bag of Tostitos.”

Damnable commentary track or special feature? Both! The trio of guys who wrote, directed, and produced this thing are longtime sketch comedy compatriots, a fact that makes itself painfully clear when the commentary track begins playing and they find it the height of hilarity to do bad impressions of every single crew and cast member who worked on the film. You know, inside jokes! Those are hilarious to everyone, right? There’s a behind-the-scenes feature that offers the usual grab-bag assemblage of talking heads and snippets from production, mostly to showcase the stunt and effects people, which honestly is at it should be.

However, there is also a “Snatchers blooper reel.” What is this blooper reel composed of? Oh, mostly people goofing around, making silly faces, that sort of thing. One thing there is not? Actual bloopers. This is a trend I find infuriating, one that which makers of blooper reels NEED TO LEARN. Messing up a take with something unexpected or funny is a blooper. Making wacky faces to camera in-between takes is NOT A BLOOPER. Dammit, people. I will die on this hill.

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.