Tuesday, June 26, 2007

ALTERED

Guest Review by James Chambers

The fact that ALTERED (2007) did not get a theatrical release is a sad glimpse into the state of horror cinema these days. But then I guess this flick had a few things going against it: a lack of big stars, a modest use of CGI (at least as far as I could tell), a distinctive style and vision, and a healthy respect for its audience and genre. ALTERED is a monster movie, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a long, long time, and while it’s not perfect, it does deliver a tight, atmospheric, creepy, and fast-paced horror story. Considering today’s Hollywood brain trust seems to think that "horror" equals star-powered crap like GODSEND or HIDE AND SEEK or unjustifiable remakes like BLACK CHRISTMAS, THE FOG, and THE WICKER MAN, it’s no surprise that the mainstream movie industry might not get something like ALTERED. But then, really, the best horror movies have almost universally come from independent filmmakers for going on close to four decades now.

What surprises me most, though, is that the word-of-mouth I’d heard about ALTERED was all negative. Maybe Sanchez’s pedigree as one of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT creators drove expectations sky high and people simply couldn’t be satisfied no matter what he delivered. In my case the opposite held true. I never thought much of BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, beyond being impressed with the massive hype that manufactured its status as a horror icon. For my money both the CURSE OF THE BLAIR WITCH and BLAIR WITCH 2: BOOK OF SHADOWS hands down beat the original, which I’ve only ever found to be entertaining at best.

So to some extent I watched ALTERED in search of proof that Sanchez had the chops to tell an actual horror story sans gimmicks and marketing madness. And, yes, he does.

The premise of ALTERED is simple: Years ago a group of friends were abducted by aliens. Most of them were soon released, but two were kept for several days, and one of them died. Three of the abductees have been staking out the woods where they were taken ever since, and now they have actually captured one of the aliens. With revenge on their minds, they bring the creature to the compound of the other surviving abductee, where they’ll determine the fate of their prisoner. But the alien is not going down without a fight.

The extraterrestrials in ALTERED are no knobby-limbed puppets who come in peace; they’re vaguely reptilian, mean as hell, and downright scary. Their motives are inhuman and thus unclear, but they’re unmistakably malicious. The movie makes no bones about the fact they’ve been screwing with these guys for years, leaving them little choice but to hit back even though the battle may ultimately be hopeless.

ALTERED quickly revs up to a suspense-charged, claustrophobic night terror seasoned with the kind of surreality that characterizes so many real-world reports of alien encounters and abduction experiences. It draws effectively on alien/UFO lore as it plays out its "turning-the-tables" twist that makes the otherworldly visitor the prisoner this time. And, as in so many alien accounts, there is a fair amount left unexplained here.

And that perhaps marks both the movie’s greatest weaknesses and one of its greatest strengths.

Audiences looking for a neat explanation for everything they see on-screen will be disappointed. ALTERED is very much a slice out of a larger story that is mainly alluded to; it is one night in the lives of people involved in a phenomenon that has been going on for years and will clearly continue even after the credits roll. Unaccountable strangeness occurs. Answers and explanations are ambiguous. Characters learn only fragments of the truth, and maybe, if they live long enough, they’ll someday come to know the whole picture.

Therein lays the horror of ALTERED —to be isolated and caught in the grip of an unending nightmare, only vaguely aware of the part you are meant to play, and unable to every fully escape it. That’s not to say that there is no logic to the story. There is, but the filmmakers have wisely chosen not to make us privy to it all—all the better to preserve the mystery. They also avoid the pitfall so many other movies stumble into of offering step-by-step explanations of things the audience can better deduce on their own. There are, however, some minor plot holes, which I’ll refrain from describing for fear of giving too much away, but they didn’t spoil things.

Suffice it to say that ALTERED is a genuine horror flick, rich in mood and unflinching without being gratuitously gore-drenched. Among its many virtues is the fact that the alien is played by an actor decked out in practical SFX rather than a glorified, motion capture, CGI video game character. And what a wonderful difference that makes.

Given its direct-to-DVD release it’s unlikely ALTERED will immediately find the audience it deserves, but I hold out hope that, with time, it will come to be recognized as the important genre entry that it is. I also hope Sanchez doesn’t take another eight years to deliver his next feature.

BUY: Altered