Film review by: Witney Seibold
For those of you who read my reviews regularly (both of you), you may have noticed a pattern whenever I bring up exploitation movies, in that I’m currently experiencing a general malaise when it comes to modern-day horror and “B” films. I feel that we lost something vital when films moved to CGI, making special effects look slick and neat and clean, when sloppy and dirty and practical always (in my mind) looked better and had a greater impact. Nothing looks worse than CGI blood. What’s more, the tone of “B” films has seemed to have gone through a tonal shift that I object to. Back in the late 1980s (during my formative monster movie consumption years) exploitation movies seemed to be more straightforward in their need to entertain; As a general rule, “B” films were fun. These days, “gritty” and “realistic” seem to be the words of the day, and a lot of otherwise fun explosion/nudie flicks are bogged down by a tonal earnestness that makes them dull.
That complaint acknowledged, I’d like to declare that Jason Connery‘s “51,” a recent straight-to-video, Sci-Fi-Channel-distributed cheapie is actually really solid and fun. It’s a monster film that uses its limited resources to its advantage. It’s fun, wicked, scary, and has some of the best looking monsters I’ve seen in recent horror films. I think it helps that the monsters are all actors in rubber suits, rather than dull, jerky CGI creations. Also, with a limited budget for special effects, not not being able to afford dozens of action sequences, the filmmakers instead focused on dialogue and setup, giving the characters a lot more texture than a lot of its peers. “51” may not be Earth-moving or even excellent, but it’s a sight better than many of its cynical and “gritty” contemporaries. It’s actually, dare I say, a huge blast to watch.
The military, represented by the snarling Bruce Boxleitner, have decided to let a group of reporters into Area 51 for the first time in decades, to finally dispell the rumors that there are alien creatures being housed there, ever since the infamous 1948 Roswell UFO crash. The reporters are suspicious of the military’s motives, but are cordially shown around, and they discover nothing strange. Even the bored army grunts upstairs (Jason London and Rachel Miner, who, these days, looks like Sasha Grey’s older sister) have never seen anything weird or untoward at Area 51. Of course, the military really is keeping aliens there, and, as per our knowledge of B-movies, it’s only going to be a matter of time before the monsters escape and begin picking off our cast one-by-one.
There are four aliens in “51,” and they are all excellently designed. One is a gigantic, exoskeleton-encrusted beastie with sharp teeth and extended front legs. Another is the typical “Grey” alien we see in most abduction stories, only with a real human mouth, and a disturbing aperture in its face. Another is a shape-changing alien that, in its normal state, looks like a veiny, human-shaped wad of silly putty. A cool conceit about the shape-changer is that it can only repeat dialogue it’s heard others say. It lets the viewer get in on the investigation, and calls attention to the usual cliches of monster movie dialogue. If the monster can repeat cliched lines like everyone else, how do you tell who is who? Gotta say something original, right?
The Sci-Fi Channel (and I refuse to call it “SyFy”) has been somewhat successful in recent years making a long string of completely cheap and not-at-all-fun goofy undersea killer animal flicks (“MegaPiranha” was the latest, I believe), and while I appreciate the B-movie monster tradition they’re exploiting, much of these movies seem to be cynical and ironic movies, clearly banking on clever casting and goofy titles to sell to hipster twentysomethings who aren’t even looking for something of quality. With “51,” though, they’ve come upon something earnest, solid, good-looking and fun. Teenage genre fans, take note: This is one of the good ones.