Friday, June 25, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Altered (2006)

My friend and fellow blogger, Jim Blanton (at Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion) recommended Altered to me last week, following my review of Eduardo Sanchez's Seventh Moon (2008). I'm glad he did. This is another almost under-the-radar post-Blair Witch effort from the talented director, and one consisting of tremendous ingenuity and intensity.

Altered -- which was released directly-to-video -- is likely one of the weirdest "revenge" movies you'll ever see; one with some great genre twists. Fifteen years after a group of redneck buddies were abducted by aliens at isolated Nixon's Farm, three of them (Cody, Otis and Duke) -- armed with bear traps and shot guns -- return to the scene of the crime to bag themselves one of the offending extra-terrestrials.

In the film's first scene, set in the dark woods, these hillbillies unexpectedly prove successful in their unusual quest and bind the offending, captured alien up in duct tape. They drag the injured creature to the secure compound of their former buddy, Wyatt (Adam Kaufman), who was also abducted by the aliens, but spent more than two, terrifying days in their presence...and now deeply fears them. Wyatt's girlfriend, Hope (Catherine Mangan) calls the police over the situation, but before the local sheriff can get there, a night of terror ensues.

Specifically, one of the rednecks, Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington), becomes infected by the alien's blood and his flesh begins to rot off a layer at a time. The aliens also possess hypnotic mental powers, and so the captive from another world manages to hypnotize and take control of Hope for a duration.


And then, there's the incredibly disgusting scene in which the escaped, slobbering alien monstrosity leverages his freedom by yanking out -- and playing tug of war with --Otis's (Michael C. Williams) large intestines...

But the thing is this: Altered is a really, really low-budget effort, and Sanchez -- in the honorable tradition of many great B-filmmakers -- makes the most of this financial shortfall by limiting the locations but not the scope of his story.

In other words, Altered basically revolves around seven characters (including the alien), and only two or so locations, mainly Wyatt's garage/work-shop.


It's a pressure-cooker, and the tension in the film quickly expands to unbearable levels as Wyatt and his friends battle over how to handle the restrained alien.

Wyatt -- who shares an enigmatic mental link with the beings -- senses that if human beings kill an alien, they'll put us all down. "You know what happens when an animal kills a human?" he asks Hope. "It would be a goddamn massacre." Wyatt sees it as his job to rein in his overzealous buddies and even protect the alien...at the same time that he hates and fears it. Kaufman anchors the film with his intense, human (and humane) performance, a superb turn from an actor I recall seeing on episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars.

The angry, irrational Cody, meanwhile, seeks revenge for the death of his brother Timmy fifteen years earlier, during the first encounter with these green-skinned, monstrous creatures. His father actually blamed Cody for Timmy's death, and Cody has lost his very family over the aliens. This sub-plot gives the film one of its few humorous scenes; a macabre and ghoulish punch-line with a char-broiled alien corpse on a front porch.


As far as the other characters, Hope, in some sense functions as a surrogate for the audience: she just wants to get out of the house alive. Otis and Duke, by contrast, seem to be seeking emotional closure over the event that haunts their lives and their dreams.

Director Sanchez succeeds here (despite some dodgy alien make-up, particularly in one scene involving the alien behind a bed post...) because he adheres rigorously to the tenets and outline of the revenge picture. In basic terms, this movie is about a hostage and hostage takers. In the tradition of the genre, the hostage eventually wins over some of his captors, not by cajoling and appealing to their humanity, ironically, but by mentally/psychically taking them over; by brainwashing them. And -- also in adherence to the conventions of the revenge pictures -- the roles in the film are constantly shifting. The hunters quickly become the hunted, as they bicker pointlessly amongst themselves. And the prey, in the end, pulls a surprising and nasty coup de grace that you won't see coming.

Within the revenge film formula, the director of Altered keeps us on edge by continuously tossing up curve balls.

The redneck characters, for instance, are not the sharpest tools in the shed (especially Otis...) and they keep making very basic mistakes in their care of the alien, mistakes that more educated, less angry, less emotional folk might not make. For instance, they keep forgetting to close and lock doors behind them; they keep crossing the red line of paint on the floor around the alien that they are not supposed to breach, and they keep taking their eyes off the captive.

And then there's the alien himself, who is vicious, fast-moving, cunning and may be part of an elaborate strategy to locate and re-abduct Wyatt. In other words, the wounded alien may have permitted himself to be caught on purpose, so that the aliens could finally locate Wyatt (who lives in the woods and has surgically-extracted a weird, clicking biological implant.)

On top of all the narrative uncertainties and twists, Sanchez gleefully piles on extreme violence and especially gore. Altered pulls no punches in terms of upsetting, gory imagery...and it is all handled extraordinarily well, and in welcome practical terms (no CGI, thank you.) The alien, at least in dim lit, is terrifying. In one sequence, the savage creature ambushes Wyatt in a blood-soaked bath tub, and then skitters out of the tub, after the human...and it's enough to make you crawl out of your skin. It's just too bad the alien could not remain hidden or in half-light more often.

So Altered engages your intellect with story possibilities at the same time that it knowingly upsets your stomach. For a horror enthusiast, that's a potent combination. The film is not at all slick, and not very polished, unlike so many horror products of modern vintage. Altered is messy and a little rough, a loud, jangling affront to the senses. If you're in the mood for a dedicated, old-fashioned, balls-to-the-wall B movie with more guts than greenbacks, this is it.

Sanchez shares an important quality with Quentin Tarantino, I noticed, while watching Altered and Inglorious Basterds back-to-back. Both men are able to vividly present stories about huge, globe-spanning topics (an alien invasion and world war, respectively) in intimate, personal dimensions.

In Inglorious Basterds, we never actually see much of the war effort (there are no scenes of actual combat). Similarly, in Altered, we spend most of the time in a cluttered garage, dealing with Wyatt and his buddies' feelings of powerlessness, victimization and anger over their alien experience. There is constant talk of the aliens returning in force...but the film doesn't ever show much of that invasion. Still, the idea of aliens "putting us down" looms over the film like a dark shadow, and adds a layer of menace to the proceedings.

Again, some of the alien effects (and spaceship effects) in Altered are admittedly not-so-great. But the writing, the performances and the overall, almost-hysterical mood of the piece combine to make this a memorable effort, nonetheless.

Seven characters. One room (basically). And lots of gore: that's a recipe that really seems to work for Sanchez, and the surprising ingenuity and terror of Altered made me wish that the Sy Fy Channel would take a look at adopting this brand of template. The network keeps making all of these stupid, underwhelming "original movies" that function primarily as cheesy camp. What Sy Fy should do instead is take its small budgets and limit the setting and stars of its films, while maintaining a sense of scope and seriousness.

That's what Altered does, and that's how it achieves so much with so little.

9 comments:

  1. It's been a few years, but I really enjoyed Altered as well. Had not heard of Seventh Moon but will be checking it out now. Thanks for an interesting review.

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  2. I've lost a bit of stomach for these pictures, but this sounds really quite good and I do like to give them a look now and again. Besides I LOVE aliens and do enjoy a good sci-fi/alien hybrid now and again.

    John, terrific point about the SyFy channel and their operating template. It would be fantastic to see them replace the dodgy effects and drivel they produce for something more impressive like this. I would welcome it.

    Films like this and Splinter [comes to mind] really make for some crazy good fun.

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  3. Slasherfan: Seventh Moon is definitely worth checking out...very intense. The only thing is that it is entirely vetted via shaky-cam (which Altered is not), and I know that technique impacts some people adversely (though I enjoy it when it is done well [REC, BWP, etc.]...).

    Sci-Fi Fanatic: This one definitely requires a strong stomach, my friend. It's pretty gory (and my review didn't even mention the ankle that gets cut-up by a bear trap...). But, Alteredis also an example of good, solid, scary low-budget filmmaking.

    Sy Fy is getting a lot of publicity out of its upcoming Tiffany vs. Debbie Gibson movie, or some such nonsense, but I just wish it would actually make a good movie for a change; either a sci-fi effort that really illuminates some aspect of our world; or a horror film that truly terrifies (like Altered). As it stands, these original movies on Sy Fy are just kind of ridiculous...

    best to both, and thanks for the comments,

    John

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  4. Tiffany vs Debbie Gibson. Good grief.

    They have reached new lows.

    What next, Spears vs Aguilera in Batoid vs Squirrel Monster?

    Truly awful stuff John. Embarassing even.

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  5. Sci-Fi Fanatic:

    I totally agree with you: a new low. And they were skimming the bottom of the barrel already in terms of their original movies.

    The masterminds behind Sy Fy seem to think that the horror genre is purely kitsch and nostalgia, with giant insects and faded D-list celebrities duking it out. It's embarrassing...and insulting to boot.


    Best,
    JKM

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  6. Thanks for this groovy, well-detailed post. I gave up on this on a night of depressed netflix streamer searching, and think I need to go back and give it another chance, and it's all thanks to the magical Muir!

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  7. Hi Erich,

    Thanks for the comment!

    I understand what you're saying about giving up on the film: there were some moments where I thought the movie got a little off-track; but it always re-focused with gore and strong performances and intensity. My wife liked Altered less than I did because she felt that the characters kept doing stupid things. I openly acknowledge this is the case on at least two occasions, but these characters are not the sharpest tools in the shed, so I guess that's how I dealt with it.

    But I suppose I just viewed Altered as a go-for-the-gusto powerful B-movie that apes the revenge movie formula. It's in that spirit that I recommend it!

    And I love "The magical Muir" remark! :)

    best wishes,
    John
    Best,
    JKM

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  8. Hey John!
    Glad to see you liked Altered! I think your assessment is spot on. It occasionally hits some budget limitations, but it's the spirit and overall smarts of the enterprise that carry it off.

    The real news behind it, Seventh Moon, Believers, etc., is that Myrick and Sanchez were not one hit wonders. They have a knack for making minimalist epics. Can't wait to see what they do next!

    Best, Jim

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  9. Hey Jim:

    Thanks for the recommendation, my friend. You are exactly right: Altered thrives on its spirit and overall smarts. That's a very good way to say it, I think!

    I also agree with you about Myrick and Sanchez. What I've seen so far after BWP establishes them as talents to reckon with.

    Thanks for the comment buddy.

    best,
    JKM

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