Grabbers, or: Irish Tentacle Monsters from Spaaaaaaace

I don’t expect a lot from movies about tentacle monsters, other than there should be plenty of tentacles and that those tentacles should rend many bodies asunder. Grabbers has no shortage of tentacles and plenty of rending, but the big surprise is that it’s an excellent movie. Yes, an excellent movie about tentacle creatures from outer space who terrorize a small Irish island. Bear with me for a minute here.

Grabbers is a film refreshingly free of stereoty….
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…never mind.

Okay, so Grabbers embraces the hard-drinking Irishman thing with all the fervor of a hungry tentacle beast. But it works. The film opens with that familiar shot (think Predator and The Thing) of something entering earth’s atmosphere. After splashdown and after offing the crew of the one fishing boat unlucky enough to be in the vicinity, the tentacle monsters head to the pastoral Erin Island.
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Pretty, innit?

And here the movie takes a breath to do something that not a lot of tentacle monster movies do. It establishes both characters and plot. With subplots, even! It’s a short breath, of course, we’re here for tentacle monsters, not Masterpiece Theatre. But we have enough time to meet the not-so-functional alcoholic Garda Ciarán O’Shea and the straight-laced Garda Lisa Nolan, the latter having been hired while the boss is away to keep the former in line. Garda, by the way, is the Irish word for police.

But something strange is afoot. Pilot whales with weird, tentacle-like marks suddenly beach themselves. A lobsterman named Paddy finds something that is decidedly not a lobster in his trap (and learns a valuable lesson about keeping tentacle monsters in your bathtub). And several people meet their doom courtesy of a much larger tentacle critter than Paddy’s new pet.

It isn’t long before Gardas O’Shea and Nolan, with the help of Paddy and a local marine biologist, figure out that the rolling hills of Erin Island are swarming with tentacle monsters. But these tentacle monsters didn’t check their guidebooks before heading to the Emerald Isle because they’re deathly allergic to alcohol. I won’t give away much more for fear of spoiling an enjoyable movie, but suffice it to say watching everyone cope with a tentacled menace while thoroughly shitfaced is both original and hilarious.

What Grabbers does right is character. It’s not often that I sit through a tentacle monster movie, or any monster movie, and wind up rooting for the humans. But I found myself hoping that a few of these people didn’t get decapitated, exsanguinated, or meet some other tentacled fate (especially Paddy who steals more than one scene). The solid characters raise what might have been a meh movie to a much higher tier. Above all, Grabbers is fun. It’s pizza and beer on a Friday night kind of movie.

Unfortunately, Grabbers is still hard to come by in the US unless you happen to have a region-free DVD player, but I strongly encourage you to track down a copy. Do it for Paddy.

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Bait, or: Just When You Thought it was Safe to Buy Pringles

Thanksgiving is that magical time of year when my countrymen and I embrace gluttony with wild abandon. Prep for this most wondrous feast usually involves a few trips to the grocery store. Most of us just have to worry that the store will sell out of our favorite brand of cranberry sauce. The characters in Bait have to worry about getting eaten alive by sharks.
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Wait, what?

The first 20 minutes of the Australian import Bait are spent giving us some backstory on the main characters, all of whom have enough combined angst to fill a U-Haul. First up is Josh, a lifeguard whose best friend is nommed by a shark (a run-of-the-mill ocean shark, not a grocery store shark) in the first few minutes. Josh’s howls of anguish are comedically overdone, but he does teach us how to properly express grief while on a jet ski.

A year later we find Josh working at a grocery store where he conveniently bumps into his ex-fiancee (the chomped best friend’s sister) and her current boyfriend. We also meet the shoplifter Jaimie, who is working through the grief of losing her mom through lifting sunglasses and what appears to be shampoo (Pantene cures all ills, after all). The cop called to deal with Jaimie is, of course, her dad. There are also the robbers Doyle (Julian McMahon, Dr. Doom from Fantastic Four) and his partner Kirby who has strong armed Doyle into robbing the joint. We also meet the store manager, Jaimie’s boyfriend, a couple of yuppies, and a pomeranian.

So, how do the sharks get into the grocery store? Simple. This happens:
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Bet you didn’t know tsunamis in Australia come pre-loaded with sharks.

And so our motley crew valiantly scales the grocery store shelves, blissfully unaware of the shark swimming placidly among the canned peas. At this point, I’d officially like to nominate the grocery store manager for the Worst Day Ever Award. I mean, who catches a shoplifter, has a gun pointed at his head during a robbery, survives a tsunami, and then has to fend off sharks? That has to be some kind of a record.

As if having Josh & co trapped on the grocery store shelves wasn’t enough to keep us occupied, we also get to follow along with three people and a pooch trapped in the carpark (where there is also a shark). Two of these folks have the most waterproof car in the universe. Seriously, you could drive that thing to England.

The people on the shelves eventually realize they’re not alone. The water is rising, but slowly. Through various, and occasionally hilarious, plans to escape/ensure their safety, these people practically throw themselves into the waiting jaws of the great white. If you ever find yourself trapped in a grocery store with a shark, take a lesson from Bait and for the love of God, stay on the shelves! (I was reminded of the In Living ColorStay in Your Car!” sketch from years ago.)20121119-235407.jpg
(What could possibly go wrong?)

Bait is not earth-shatteringly good, nor does it suck. The premise is ridiculous, there’s lots going on, and the actors try a little too hard to play it straight. That said, it’s a fun way to kill a Friday night. And anyway, it has sharks in a grocery store. You know you want to see that.

Stay tuned for next week’s review of Grabbers, or: Irish Tentacle Monsters from Spaaaaace.

Chernobyl Diaries, or: Midnight in Antarctica During a Lunar Eclipse

What are the three creepiest places on earth? I’d have to go with La Isla de Munecas (look it up if you don’t want to sleep tonight), Poveglia (ditto), and Prypiat. Prypiat, the Ukrainian town abandoned when the Chernobyl reactor blew in 1986 is absolutely one of the creepiest places ever.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, if you’re making a movie set in Chernobyl, Chernobyl should be a character in and of itself. They couldn’t film in Prypiat, because Prypiat is still contaminated. You can go there with the proper permits, but even the company that runs tours recommends you go in with a Geiger counter, protective suit, and “clothes that fully cover your body.” So while I support director Oren Peli’s decision not to give the cast and crew cancer, there are still plenty of places out there that could be made Prypiat-esque with a little window dressing.

I went into this movie expecting a slow burn, a movie that captured, at least a little bit, the pervading sense of tragedy and loss that surrounds the Chernobyl disaster. An eerie movie that melds the reality of Prypiat with fiction. A movie that’s creepy. Chernobyl Diaries is not creepy and it’s definitely not scary. Without giving away who/what is supposed to be scary in Chernobyl Diaries, I’ll sum up the plot.

Chernobyl Diaries centers around a group of kids cavorting through Europe who make a pit stop in Kiev to visit one guy’s brother. None of these characters are likable, and not one has the sense to say “eff that” when the brother gets the brilliant ideal to check out Chernobyl with the totally-not-sketchy tour guide, Yuri. So, our intrepid band of morons set off on a magical mystery tour of Prypiat.

The first scare has four legs. Assuming you don’t have a deathly fear of dogs (and even if you do), which one of these would you least want to encounter while walking through Chernobyl?

This guy?

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Or this guy?

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Yeah. Bear in mind that there is an active wolf population in Chernobyl. And Peli could have gone with scraggly wolves, with mutant wolves, hell, with glow in the dark wolves. Anything made of wolf would have gone over a lot better than remarkably healthy and cute dogs. Or if the wolf budget was that low, throw a little mud on the pooches. Make them scruffy and scary and mangy. The kind of dog you’d expect to encounter while day tripping through Prypiat.

Once the “real” scares start you can’t tell what’s going on. Not in the “holy crap what IS it?!” way, but in the Mr. Magoo way. Pictures speak a thousand words so here are two screencaps from my DVD:

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Few scenes are shot in daylight, completely squandering opportunities to set a really creepy trapped-in-a-desolate-and-radioactive-ghost town mood. The rest of the movie plays out with all the ambiance of midnight in Antarctica during a lunar eclipse. Most scenes are obliterated by either near-total darkness or an actor shining the flashlight directly into the camera, much like a cop at a traffic stop.

Oh, Chernobyl Diaries, I wanted to like you. I so, so wanted to like you. I would have liked you if you were mediocre, even. The final scare provides a meh ending to a sub-meh movie. So if you have the hankering for a creepy abandoned place movie, go watch the superior Session 9 while you wait patiently with me for someone to make a Chernobyl movie that’s actually frightening.

Photo Credits:
Wolf Picture German Shepherd Picture