Friday, 11 January 2013

AVH: Alien vs Hunter

Director: Scott Harper
Writer: David Michael Latt
Producer: David Michael Latt
Cast: William Katt, Dedee Pfeiffer, Wittley Jourdan
Country: USA
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Lighthouse)

In a relatively short space of time, The Asylum has established itself among B-movie cognoscenti as a production company of note. Where others struggle (or take care, depending on your point of view) to put out a film every year or two, The Asylum churn them out. They’re the Poundstretcher of the film industry: stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap.

Starting with a few original pictures in 2004 and 2005, including Udo Kier-starrer Evil Eyes, they gradually found that there was a market for riffs on big screen blockbusters, starting with their own interpretation of The War of the Worlds which benefited from constantly being mentioned in coverage of Spielberg’s opus. Then we had King of the Lost World (the Conan Doyle classic including the giant gorilla scenes that previous adapters had carelessly omitted) and before you know it, along came The Da Vinci Treasure, Transmorphers and possibly the most outrageously cheeky title knock-off ever ... Snakes on a Train.

Up to now I have somehow managed to avoid watching any Asylum products but I’ve had a hankering to sample their wares and the discovery that several titles were being sold in Woollies for £2.97 a pop was enough for me to try some. And I started with this, The Asylum’s take on Alien Versus Predator which was actually released to cash in on AVP2.

It’s important to stress that the phrase is ‘cash in’, not ‘rip off’. This is more about marketing than unoriginality so we’re not talking about anything as blatant as Kannibal but certainly this is more opportune and cheekier than just, say, Roger Corman releasing Carnosaur to ride the dino-interest wave generated by Jurassic Park. It’s possible that there are indeed some people who pick these DVDs up thinking they’re getting the real thing, as it were. Some folk really don’t pay attention. I actually saw a woman returning a DVD of the 1980s animated Transformers movie because she had bought it under the belief that it was the Michael Bay blockbuster - even though that film was still playing in cinemas. Would she have been similarly fooled by Transmorphers? Who knows?

So anyway, my first taste of The Asylum was AVH: Alien vs Hunter. And my god, it’s terrible. However, in the company’s defence I must state that a little post-viewing web-search uncovered the general opinion that this is the company’s worst film ever. So I suppose I’m starting at the bottom, working my way up and when I get round to watching the other Asylum films in my TBW pile I should be pleasantly surprised.

AVH takes the basic premise of AVP and chops a few zeros off the budget figure. And let’s face it, the basic premise of AVP (which I enjoyed; I haven’t seen the second one) was just a bog-standard alien invasion with the twist that two mutually intolerant types of aliens were invading at the same time. In that respect, AVH should be a straightforward, Corman-esque, sci-fi B-movie in which a small group of people in an isolated situation struggle to defeat an alien threat which is picking them off one by one, only with another alien threat bolted on. And to some extent, that’s what we have.

And yes it’s shot cheaply, much more cheaply than you average Sci Fi Channel picture for example although some cash has been spent on name actors. Look, here’s William Katt from largely forgotten superhero sitcom The Greatest American Hero. I’ve got a lot of time for Katt as an actor because he was in House and House IV, providing a link between two entries in an otherwise entirely unconnected (but very enjoyable) franchise. And look, here’s the less famous of the Pfeiffer sisters, who was also in that franchise; House III in her case. She was also in shark flick Blue Demon and - good grief - a biopic of Meat Loaf and she was a regular in Cybill. And either she enjoyed working for The Asylum or she signed up for a two-picture deal because they also used her in their version of Journey to the Centre of the Earth, conveniently timed to coincide with the Brendan Fraser version.

So there’s money to be spent here. In fact the cast are pretty good overall, the camera-work is not bad and there are some cheap-but-effective digital effects. Now, where has the money been saved? Well, the sound is abominable. Poor sound is often a problem with back-yard indie films but The Asylum are a functioning production company (albeit one with a turnover of about $5.80) and they should be able to do better than this. A lot of the dialogue is simply inaudible. When actors drop their volume, the sound guy seems to drop his sandwich (or the boom guy simply drops off) and we cannot hear what they’re saying. It’s not background noise, it’s just bad soundwork. And presumably because of budgetary limitations, no-one bothered to fix it in post by looping the lines at an audible volume.

Money has also been saved by using some stock aerial footage, by reusing effects shots several times during the film and by having absolutely minimal sets, principally a ‘tunnel’ which is obviously only about five yards long but is shot dozens of times from slightly different angles with slightly different amounts of smoke but no attempt to rearrange the inexplicable amount of netting arranged on the walls.

But mostly the money has been saved by simply not shooting the whole film. Internet gossip, allegedly originating from crew members, is that about 20-25 pages of the script were never shot. As you may know, the accepted industry standard is that a page of script equals a minute of screentime so that’s at least 20 minutes of story, action, characterisation and plot which was missing when editor Matthew Alson Thornbury (director of intriguing sounding superhero short The Death of Hero-Man) sat down at his Avid. The finished film runs 85 minutes which is pretty impressive given that the original script was about 90 minutes (according to the Making Of) meaning that only about 65-70 minutes was (allegedly) shot.

Clearly some trimming was needed anyway because this is a simple plot with simple, one-dimensional characters. Good grief, Charlie Band could have wrapped all this up in an hour (and then stuck a ten-minute credit crawl on the end). But that trimming should have been done before filming started or, if that wasn’t possible, other stuff should have been trimmed than what is missing here. Because despite the sterling efforts of young Mr Thornbury, it is abundantly clear to anyone watching AVH that chunks of the story are AWOL and what remains is in the wrong order.

Just as a frexample, we are told that both the deputies are dead before we are actually introduced to the two deputies. Our central character (played by Katt) wonders how he will escape from the alien threat that he has encountered in the middle of nowhere, then goes back to his house in town to change his shirt - and then apparently returns to the middle of nowhere to continue wondering how he will get away.

That’s part of what makes AVH so fascinating. Sure it’s bad, but it’s bad in a very unusual way. The characters, though slender, are at least distinctive and distinguishable. There is even some decent dialogue in a few scenes. There’s a good film in here somewhere, or at least there’s 75 per cent of a good film. It’s like watching a feature-length trailer for a film that’s only slightly longer.

Bizarrely, AVH reminded me of Evil Calls. However bad director Scott Harper is (general opinion on his other Asylum flick Supercroc is not good, even by the company’s standards), he’s no Dickie Risk-all. But he has achieved something similar in a diametrically opposite way. In my epic review of Evil Calls I suggested that the only way to make sense of the film when viewing it is to assume that it all happens in an alternative dimension where the normal rules of time and space do not apply. And exactly the same assumption is required in order to imbue the story of AVH with any internal logic. What is interesting is that the British film achieves this surreal state by virtue of having been made over several years, constantly changing and adapting without any clear vision of where it was going or what it should be, while Harper’s film looks like it took only marginally longer to shoot than it does to watch. Yet the effect is the same: in both cases time and space are rendered mutable and malleable by the film’s refusal (or inability) to follow basic rules of cause and effect.

I’m not saying that I could or will write 22,000 words on Alien vs Hunter, don’t worry, but if I were to pick it apart shot by shot as I did with that masterpiece, we would be here all day.

So let’s take a look at the characters and the story. Which, let’s face it, should be little more than: spaceship lands, alien kills someone, other people run around, alien chases them, alien is eventually defeated through human ingenuity and/or luck. The end. With another alien bolted on.

Katt plays Lee, a reporter on the newspaper in a little town somewhere in the USA. Already we’re in trouble because how can the town be big enough to support a newspaper when it apparently only has a population of about ten? If this was a tiny place like Perfection in the Tremors films, population 14, one general store, then the limited number of characters would be credible. But this unnamed town has a local newspaper, three law enforcement officials and a flower shop owned by Pfeiffer’s character, Hilary. No-one in town has a telephone (not one that works) and there is no way of contacting the outside world.

Out jogging, Lee fails to notice a huge fiery thing falling silently from the sky behind him and crashing nearby - apparently also silently. Town Sheriff Joel (Collin Brock, also in the company’s 2012 Doomsday and 666: The Beast) drives up and offers Lee a ride out to where the thing crashed. Lee, with his keen reporter’s sense, really isn’t bothered by this story so perhaps things fall out of the sky every week in this part of the world. Mention is made later, once, of two things having crashed but we only see one and no-one otherwise mentions another incident.

Elaine and Tammy are a mother and daughter living in a camper van somewhere outside the town. We never see Elaine but Tammy is played by Wittley Jourdan, an Haitian American girl who, if the IMDB is to be believed, started her career as an uncredited extra in The Asylum's Verne knock-off 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea before being plucked from the chorus line to star in this and the company’s Rider Haggard knock-off (and Indiana Jones cash-in) Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls. She is also - under the name Jourdan Wittly, which is how the Inaccurate Movie Database lists her - the editor-in-chief of Haitian-American lifestyle magazine Amour Creole, whose bio on the magazine’s website says that she has worked as a director’s assistant and casting assistant on various unnamed feature films. It must be said that she looks a lot better as a glam business woman than as a trailer trash teenager whose mother has just been eaten by a malevolent extraterrestrial.

Actually we never find out what happened to Elaine despite constant references to her. Tammy of course retains hope that her mother is alive while other characters assume she must be dead. They do find Elaine’s car inexplicably buried underground (reinforcing the apparent Tremors influence on this movie) but no-one checks to see whether the lady is inside or not.

In fact a significant amount of the dialogue on the pages that did get shot consists of people listing who is dead or missing which is ironic because that’s exactly the thing that’s most obviously affected by the desperate attempts to fashion the existing footage into some semblance of a plot. Characters are constantly telling other characters which characters have died and, wonderfully, this never once matches up with what we have seen on screen. We are told that folk are dead who are plainly still alive or who, as mentioned per the deputies, we haven’t even met yet. We are told that neighbours might just be missing by characters who have only recently seen those selfsame neighbours eviscerated by an alien monster. There must be some sort of drinking game in this. It’s marvellous.

When the Sheriff and the reporter get to Tammy and Elaine’s campervan, there’s no sign of anyone and no-one answers the door. Looking around the other side of the vehicle they find... an enormous spaceship half-buried in the ground. The ship is a few yards from the van but apparently didn’t disturb it when it smashed into the ground. But then we already know that this was one of those silent smashes that can’t be heard a few miles away across a quiet, rural valley. Also, it doesn’t say much for the observational abilities of either the journo or the cop that neither spotted this thing from the other side of the campervan.

Something horrible and initially unseen appears and attacks Sheriff Joel. We do actually get a few shots of the beast during this ‘action’ sequence and it’s the one that’s on the left of the DVD sleeve, a sort of humanoid thing with a faceless shell on the front of its head. Tammy now appears and, as previously mentioned, they head back to Lee’s house in town - represented by a stock shot of a suburban clapperboard house - for the reporter to change out of his jogging gear, then they head, somehow and for some reason, back out to Tammy’s campervan. Where the deadly alien is. As you would.

The two deputies whom we have already been told are dead show up in a car which is knocked off the road by a giant spider. Well I must admit, I wasn’t expecting that.

Before too long we have a small group of people holed up in what is either somebody’s house or the newspaper office (the same stock shot is used as was shown when Lee went home to change his sweaty jogging vest). There’s Lee, Tammy and Hilary plus Garrison (Asylum regular Jason S Gray) one of the deputies who was thrown clear and somehow survived, who explains that the other deputy also survived but was taken off by the creature. There is a young vaguely Hispanic chap named Javier (Philip Bak), a young man named Figgus (John Murphy Jr, also in The Asylum’s Universal Soldiers and 30,000 Leagues Under the Sea) who is presumably meant to be a stoner as there’s a couple of references to him growing weed in his basement. But he doesn’t act like a stoner and is never seen either smoking or craving weed. However he does wear a knitted hat like that chap who sings ‘You’ve had a bad day’.

There is also in this scene - and only in this scene - a dark-haired woman called Marcy (Darbi Gwynn: Tales from Beyond) who might be Lee’s editor. Her death scene, in fact all her other scenes, must have been in the twenty pages that Scott Harper didn’t bother shooting because as far as I can recall she is neither seen nor mentioned again. She just disappears. Frankly, if she wasn’t in the IMDB cast list I’d be thinking I had dreamed her. (Actually, on subsequnetly watching the trailer I discovered that she gets killed in the next scene, hoiked up into the air by a tentacle, despite neither type of ET possessing tentacles. Still don't know who she was though.)

As no-one can be contacted (Garrison keeps talking about wanting to find his wife, a subplot which does actually pay off later) they decide to head out to the home of the best hunter in the area, a cut-price Bert Gummer named Valentine (Randy Mulkey, who was in a 2005 remake of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari). Because the creature is out there, going outside would be dangerous and they have no transport (despite the big car shown outside the building in the stock shot). But they can get to Valentine’s place through a network of tunnels which I think are meant to be sewers. Of course they’re big enough to stand up in and have a flat floor so presumably they were built by Victorian engineers because nowhere has had sewers like that for a hundred years. There is a concession in the first ‘tunnel’ scene of a small amount of water on the floor but this is quickly forgotten. There are no rats or turds anywhere but lots of netting on the wall which is some sort of minimalist set dressing designed to suggest... something.

Somehow these tunnels lead for no good reason but very conveniently to Valentine’s house out in the woods. Unfortunately the alien turns out to be in the tunnels, clinging to the roof, and he makes a meal out of Javier (leading to a tasteless comment later on about “he likes to eat Mexican”). So going down the tunnels (or rather, the same tiny stretch of tunnel several times) was a bit pointless and they would have been much better off in a car on the surface. When they reach Valentine’s house, the tunnel entrance is represented by the arch of a bridge with daylight clearly visible from the other side. Good grief, that’s not even trying.

Now, a word on the alien monster. It turns out - and this surprised me - that the thing which attacked Sheriff Joel and the giant spider which attacked the deputies are one and the same. During that contretemps outside Tammy’s campervan we were only shown the (admittedly pretty well-made) man-in-a-suit top half of the creature while the shot of the deputies’ car being attacked was too brief to spot that the spider-thing had a sort-of-humanoid torso attached to it. And as the whole point of the film is that there are two aliens, I assumed we had seen both of them.

But no, the other alien - the Hunter - turns up once they’re out in the woods. This one - who looks absolutely nothing like the thing on the right of the DVD sleeve - is humanoid, dressed in black with a big, frankly wobbly-looking gun. I know I’m not the only person to have spotted the similarity to Zeram although some folks (who presumably have never seen Zeram) have compared the Hunter rather oddly to Sgt Kabukiman. Trust me, it looks like Zeram, not Kabukiman. I don't know what that is on the sleeve. There's a much clearer image of it on the back of the sleeve which is reused on the DVD menu. Ironically it looks a lot better than what they used. The spaceships on the sleeve also don't feature anywhere in the film.

Valentine is a slightly psycho guy who has a teenage daughter called Freckles (Jennifer Couch: Shadowman) and we get a scene of the Hunter attacking Valentine’s house in which everyone runs outside to watch, then is ushered back inside after a bit. For no reason at all. Valentine and Lee then head off into the woods where they meet up with three other hunters: Marty (production co-ordinator Matthew Bolton) who gets killed almost immediately, Styles (stuntman Josh Tessier) who carries a bazooka and even loads it at one point but never uses it because presumably that was on one of those missing pages, and Two Fingers (Kevin Kazakoff: Hell to Pay, Girls Gone Dead) who seems even more psycho than Valentine.

Meanwhile, the others - that’s, um, Tammy, Freckles, Garrison and Hilary I think - escape from the house through a trapdoor and crawl on their hands and knees through a small tunnel that connects in some way with the network of big tunnels they were in previously. You know, the one with the alien in it that ate Javier. They spend some time walking down the same tiny set again and again in slightly different ways before finding themselves in a room which is instantly identified as being inside the alien spaceship. So these tunnels connect directly into a ship which is stuck in the ground at a crazy angle near Tammy’s campervan? There is much speculation during these scenes about how the alien hunts: is it attracted to movement or sound or smell? All of which is entirely pointless but helps to pad the scenes out a bit.

I’ll mention here - because I can’t recall whereabouts in the film it occurs and the thing is so higgledy piggledy that it doesn’t really matter - a scene in which Lee and Valentine find Sheriff Joel’s car, not outside Tammy’s campervan where he left it but parked beside a shack from where they can see the campervan. With an enormous alien spaceship behind it and dwarfing it. Which neither Joel nor Lee noticed when they drove up there at the start of the film.

Time and space. Different dimension. It’s the only explanation.

So anyway, Hilary and co find themselves in the alien spaceship where there is a dead spider-alien. It is entirely unclear whether this is the spider from outside or a different one, nor is it clear whether this spaceship belongs to the spiders or the Hunter until the Hunter wanders in at the end of the scene. Fortunately, he doesn’t spot these four people hiding round the corner who then scoot outside, taking with them an alien gun and a couple of pieces of shell ripped off the spider-corpse.

They meet up with Lee, Valentine and Two Fingers, Style having bought it by now. Garrison gets killed at some point too. We have occasional repeated shots of the spider alien scuttling through some trees and there’s a certain amount of running around and shooting although there are only a handful of very occasional shots where either of the extraterrestrials is on screen at the same time as a human.

Eventually it all sorts of end somehow. The spider-alien gets shot, I think, by one of the humans wielding the stolen alien gun - which makes a mockery of the Hunter who has the same sort of gun and has singularly failed to shoot the creature. After everything wraps up anticlimactically, there is a strange epilogue of the Hunter in his spacecraft removing his mask to reveal that he is human. He cracks open a can of beer and lights up a fag. What’s that about?

So it’s obvious that this is a mess but it’s a mess which has a perfectly decent film somewhere underneath. It’s like looking at an incomplete jigsaw and being able to recognise that if all those pieces weren’t missing it would be a terrific picture. After all, a ‘small group of humans hunted by and eventually defeating an alien’ story (with another alien bolted on) is straightforward enough, an off-the-shelf plot, and all it needs to come alive is half-decent effects, reasonably interesting characters, a few gory deaths, some tension and a zinger in the dialogue every now and then. That’s not too much to ask.

Ultimately AVH fails not because of any technical or artistic defects (apart from the lousy sound) but simply because Scott Harper didn’t shoot a quarter of the script. Harper is a visual effects guy by trade - this and Supercroc are his only directing gigs - with a CV that includes The Nutty Professor, Supernova, Zathura: A Space Adventure and a couple of earlier Asylum titles, Snakes on a Plane and Dragon. Presumably he did some okay effects work for them so they agreed to let him loose on directing a couple of films. I’ve seen some very unkind things said about the man, attributed to AVH crew members but they’re hearsay and I won’t repeat them. For all I know, Harper is a much misunderstood guy.

However, I think it says something that the ‘filmmakers’ commentary’ on the US DVD (not included on the UK disc) does not feature Harper or writer/producer (and Asylum co-founder) David Michael Latt. Apparently the commentators are line producer Nick Everhart (who subsequently directed 2012 Doomsday and Omen remake cash-in sequel 666: The Beast) and 1st AD Justin L Jones, who has AD-ed on pretty much every Asylum production since the company was set up.

There are some other smoking guns, not least that although the website for Harper's company Sharper Effects (cited in the AVH credit block) lists Supercroc and his other Asylum effects gigs, it doesn't mention AVH at all. The closing credits start with a stand-alone credit for 1st AD Jones, suggesting that his contribution was considerably more than expected. Editor Thornbury gets the unusual credit 'additional story notes' while he and David Michael Latt share an 'additional VFX' credit.

This picture’s cinematographer Mark Atkins has directed three Asylum pictures (to date): Evil Eyes, Halloween Night and Allan Quatermain and the Temple of Skulls. Creature design is shared between Aaron Council (who was inside the top-half-of-the-spider suit), Jeff Farley (Arena, Totem, Voodoo Academy, Evil Bong, Ice Spiders, Deep Freeze and various latter-day Puppet Master sequels - plus Babylon 5 and the American Red Dwarf pilot), Neil Kennemore (Frankenstein vs the Creature from Blood Cove) and Robert Miller.

By any standards, AVH: Alien vs Hunter is terrible although I don’t feel that it’s arrogantly terrible like some other movies. If one bothers to scout round the web and dig up the basic production history of the film, there’s a certain pathos and watching it becomes like cheering on the disabled kid on school sports day. He’s never going to win but at least he’s willing to give it a try. If 20 pages or more really did go unshot then this must have been borderline unreleasable. That the folks at The Asylum chose to release it anyway says something, not just about their attitude towards their audiences but also about those audiences themselves. I suppose it mostly tells us about the industry.

The Asylum is a production line. They pump out these films which meet a minimum quality threshold and as long as they do indeed meet that threshold there’s little incentive to make them better. At this level of production and based on this marketing model, I can’t imagine that extra money invested would be proportionately rewarded by extra income. Stack 'em high, sell ’em cheap. AVH must have been absolutely on that threshold but the decision was evidently made that it would be more profitable to release it in this form than to just dump it or rehash it into a different picture. These guys are making a living at doing this - and providing good employment for a bunch of actors and crew - so I guess they know what they’re doing.

Has watching AVH put me off trying other Asylum movies? Heck no. I need to watch more of these things to compare them with this film.

Finally, a note on the DVD which includes a ten-minute Making Of consisting of interviews with Mulkey and Pfeiffer and montages of behind-the-scenes stuff. Director Harper is conspicuous by his absence although he is pointed out with a large arrow in one brief shot, sat on the ground while people work around him. There is also a three-minute selection of the usual unfunny 'bloopers' which is probably all that could be gathered if, as Pfeiffer claims, most things were shot first take. Embarrassingly, both DVD extras get the films title wrong, calling it AVH: Aliens vs Hunter. The trailer calls it AVH: Alien v Hunter and a clapperboard seen in one shot just calls it Alien vs Hunter which is how most places list it but I'm sticking with the variant that is used on the Asylum website.

Also included are trailers for Monster, Transmorphers, Snakes on a Train (which misspells 'venomous'), 666: The Beast, Invasion: The Beginning (a UK retitling of Body Snatchers knock-off Invasion of the Pod People) and one non-Asylum title, Marc Buhmann's aquatic zombie flick Dead in the Water. All look bonkers and all look better than AVH.

The back of the sleeve has one of those spurious unattributed quotes that might just trap the unwary: "The ultimate Alien vs Predator"! and the unsubstantiated claim 'From the special effects masters of Fantastic Four!' Hmmm, a big FX-heavy movie like that would use pretty much every digital effects artist in LA at some point so maybe one or more of the guys on this film coloured a few pixels on that blockbuster. But there is no evidence of this anywhere. And one final, last mention for the copy on the front of the sleeve:

'Battlezone Earth'!

I mean, if you're going to try and intimate some connection with a big budget movie at least choose one that's not the most notorious turkey of modern times. Or maybe by that point they just thought 'sod it' and added those two words as a subtle hint about the quality of what was inside...

MJS rating: D
Review originally written 21st July 2008

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