Review: ‘Almost Human’ brings alien probes to the Ryerson for Midnight Madness

TORONTO – Joe Begos is a time traveler.

Oh, sure, he’ll deny it, and he’ll try to claim that “Almost Human” is a new film that he made with creative partner Josh Ethier and an enthusiastic cast including Graham Skipper and Vanessa Leigh, and he’ll say that he shot it on a Red 4K camera and that his DI artist helped create a 16mm look for the thing, and he’ll say it’s a loving tribute to the DIY indie slasher films of the ’80s, but I know the truth. This film was made in 1987 and then somehow Begos fell into a wormhole, got transported to the present day with his finished movie, and now he’s passing it off with this elaborate cover story. I mean… which is more likely? My version, or the notion that this talented bunch of loonies pulled off this straight-faced an homage down to the smallest detail?

One of the things that distinguishes Midnight Madness is the broad spectrum of things that Colin Geddes programs each year. I feel like every night, he’s reaching out to a slightly different audience, trying to make sure that whatever flavor of crazy you like, he’ll have it for you at some point during the week. I’ve used the word “slick” a few times this year to discuss “Oculus” and “Afflicted,” and there’s nothing wrong with throwing a layer of technical polish onto these movies. But there’s a totally different kind of horror film that I love equally, especially in the ’80s, where it seemed like anyone who could throw together a few gallons of fake blood, a girl willing to take her top off, and a bunch of friends to run equipment could make a horror film, and “Almost Human” comes from that school. This movie doesn’t just love those no-budget gore fests… it is one, without a hint of ironic distance and without any desire to rewrite the rules. This is an act of pure, unflinching love. Sure, it’s rough in a few places, and it looks like they shot so fast at times that they just went with whatever take they had for a line, and not everyone in it is particularly suited to acting, but there’s a passion that is undeniable, and a giddy joy that comes through in the sheer act of invention.

The film opens on October 13, 1987, and here’s how quickly I knew I was tuned in to the wavelength of Begos and his cohorts. The font he uses is the same instantly recognizable font that John Carpenter has used on many of his movies. Seth Hampton (Graham Skipper) pulls his car up in front of a friend’s house and runs to the door, banging on it, freaked out and screaming for his friend to let him in. Mark (Josh Ethier, who also produced and edited the film and even handled sound design) answers, and Seth rushes inside, babbling about a light from the sky and something that took their friend Rob and a noise and something following him. Mark tries to calm him down, but by that point, Mark’s girlfriend Jen (Vanessa Leigh) is awake, concerned about whatever’s happened. Before Seth can convince them that he’s not crazy, there is a blast, a deafening noise, and as Jen and Seth writhe in pain, something seems to direct Mark to walk out into the front yard, where a beam of light hits him, and he vanishes.

“TWO YEARS LATER.” Everything about this film feels like an ’80s horror film, from the extensive use of newscasts to download exposition, the time jump from the cold opening, and the use of actors who all appear to be friends or family or people who just volunteered to help. I’m not being insulting when I say that the film has a certain amateur charm. I just mean that everything about it feels begged, borrowed, or stolen in that way that happens when someone decides they have to make a movie, resources and money be damned. Every dollar they have is on the screen. Every hour they had to shoot is reflected in the breathless energy of the thing. And, yes, the film wears its influences rather nakedly, but they’re not just riffing off of one film, and they’re not doing it in an imitative way. Instead, it feels like Begos learned his rhythms as a writer/director from soaking up every slasher movie he could find, and this is his whole-hearted attempt to make one for real, not just to pay tribute.

Begos described the film last night as “Fire In The Sky” meets “The Terminator,” and I’d say that’s a pretty accurate broad strokes description. While a few other character show up, the majority of it is just Seth, Jen, and a very different version of Mark that shows up naked in the woods, covered in goo, two years after that initial disappearance. Skipper’s a good choice for the lead, because he’s got eyes the size of dinner plates, perfect for communicating how off-balance he feels because of what happened at Mark’s house that night. I also have to give props to Vanessa Leigh for her role, which features at least one “Holy Crap!” moment that should give her plenty to discuss with Barbara Crampton should the two of them ever meet. And Ethier is effective as the returned Mark, obviously rewired by whatever took him in the first place.

If you had shown me this film without any backstory and told me that it was from the ’80s and just never really got a fair shake at that point, I would have believed it. While the film is shot digitally, it perfectly captures the look and feel of a micro-budget movie from that era. Begos seems gleeful about staging all the various nastiness in the film, and his attention to detail should please genre fans from the first time they see his production company’s logo in front to the post-credits sting that perfectly captures the optimism of most low-budget filmmakers.

In addition to the feature last night, there was a surprise for the audience ahead of time. Gareth Evans, who was here with his film “The Raid” two years ago, sent along a clip of a major scene from “Berendal,” the sequel to “The Raid.” it is the introduction of one of the film’s new villains, the aptly named Hammer Girl, as she takes on an entire group of Yakuza in a subway car as they attempt to protect someone from her. Evans is my pick for the single most exciting action director working right now because of the way he follows the energy in his fights and the love he exhibits for building gags that pay off every part of the setting, every possible prop, all of it working to make the audience cheer and wince and scream with each blow. Evans also wished Geddes a happy 25th anniversary, and I would say that this entire week has felt like a celebration of this outstanding showcase that is part of each year’s festival in Toronto. Colin Geddes makes dreams come true for filmmakers that might otherwise never get a fair shake, and last night, watching Begos on that stage with his friends, watching him introduce his grandparents who were in the audience, and just seeing how much it meant to all of them to be there, it’s obvious that Geddes just changed another handful of lives.

As always, it was a pleasure to be there to see it happen.

I’ve got one more Midnight Madness screening tonight, and then I’m out of here tomorrow. It seems to have flown by, and yet my last week is dense with new treasured moments.