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.