There’s a scene at the very end of 1993’s (I guess now) classic alien abduction thriller Fire In The Sky where Travis Walton (played by loveable everyman D.B. Sweeney) takes his former best friend Mike Rogers (played by unfortunately only a human and not liquid metal killer robot Robert Patrick) for a ride out to a field where Travis was abducted by aliens years ago. Rogers expresses nervousness at being there, to which Travis, giving his best aw shucks grin, reassures Mike that, “they won’t be comin’ back”. He then winks at him (I think) and quips, “I don’t think they liked me very much.” Now, in a perfect world, here’s how that exchange would have played out:
“C’mon Travis,” Mike implored, “this place gives me the creeps lets get on out of here.” Travis laughs, his eyes crinkling in that way that melted the hearts of girls all the way from Snowflake to Heber. “Relax, Mike”, he chuckled, shaking his head at his friends fear, “they won’t be back.” Suddenly, all the warmth drains from his eyes, and his boyish features harden. His gaze becomes icy and unfocused, and Mike realizes Travis is seeing somewhere far further than the pine forest surrounding the scrub brush field. “But if they do come back”, he said, his voice barely a gravely whisper, “I’ll be fucking ready for them.” He turns, and Mike sees the .357 revolver tucked into Travis’ jeans. Cut to black as Metallica’s “Ain’t My Bitch” blasts over the credits.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world and that ending will exist only in my head and my heart (for now). But, fortunately for the weirdos of the world who would love to see D.B. Sweeney enact Marsalles Wallace levels of justice upon the gigantic malevolent scurrying fetuses who kidnapped him, we have Eduardo Sanchez’s overlooked, unappreciated, and underrated gem Altered. Released in 2006, Altered is a film I’ve often pointed to as evidence that not only is Sanchez not a one hit wonder, but he is also not a one trick pony. He could have given up on filmmaking after the ungodly success of The Blair Witch Project or simply churned out another carbon copy film to try and recreate that success, but instead he made Altered, a creepy little creature feature packed to the gills with suspense and paranoia. Apparently, writer Jamie Nash began the project as something of a Troma-style comedy, before realizing the potential for it to be a straight-laced horror film and thus the comedic elements were wisely done away with.
The plot of Altered is simple: fifteen or so years before the start of the film, five good-old-boy style teenagers were abducted by aliens on ‘Old Man Such And Such’s’ farm, but only four of them returned. The fifth died in the experience. Three of the guys swear to exact vengeance on the aliens while the fourth, the default leader of the clan Cody, goes into hiding. Years later, the three avengers capture a lone alien and bring it to Cody to persuade him into joining them in torturing this thing to death. Cody, still haunted by what happened, tells them that not only is killing this thing a bad idea because it could very well start an intergalactic war that would obliterate the planet, but also that the alien let them catch it because it knew they would lead it to him, Cody. And thus the paranoia kicks in and all hell breaks looses. The alien is a sort of McGuffin for much of the movie, and the characters don’t need much prodding from it to turn against each other. But, unsurprisingly, they do, and things get really really messy from there.
Altered is one of those strange movies that, by all rights, more people should know about, but it does have its shortcomings; The acting is a bit over the top, with much of the cast chewing their lines for all their worth (although Paul McCarthy-Boyington as Cody is fantastic), the creature FX leave much to be desired, and the film’s use of the F-word would make Scorsese blush. But, for some reason, I just love this movie. It’s really weird in a way I can’t pin down. There are a handful of truly suspenseful scenes. Sanchez is very adapt at the slow burn approach to horror, in which you know some terrible scare is right around the corner and even though you think you’re prepared for it you know you’re not. And if you’re a gore hound, there’s one scene that makes my stomach clench up even writing about it. Likewise, he succeeds at brilliantly bringing to life the old adage of “the best laid plans of mice and men”: everything the characters do falls apart, and not because they’re incompetent, but simply because they’re dealing with something literally out of this world.
While I don’t think the movie succeeds in really establishing the concept of humans as nothing more than guinea pigs for some unfathomable other power, it does so enough that, when the abduction is spoken of, it’s unsettling. The movie doesn’t try and overextend itself by showing any abduction scenes, nor does it really delve into what happened to the men on the ship, which I think was a wise narrative choice to keep the experience as something personal for the men to simply live with and not talk about any more than they had to. Also, from an aesthetic viewpoint, what could Sanchez show us that would outdo the last fifteen minutes of Fire In The Sky? In regards to alien experimentation scenes, the race was won twenty-five years ago by that film. Boyington hits it out of the park portraying a man who is truly haunted by what has happened to him, to the point that I almost want to see what it was like for him immediately after he returned back to earth and had to deal with the aftermath of it all, and the rest of the cast do a good enough job of selling us the idea that they were all once a tight knit group of friends that had a bond shattered by something inexplicable and he, Boyington, is now the outsider to a group already outsiders to the rest of their small town because of their abduction.
What makes this film truly interesting is the idea of a group of people who have clearly been ruined by some ghastly event in their shared past. It’s a shared trauma that continues to bind them together. It could be seen as a metaphor for any number of things, be it sexual assault, loss of a family member, etc., but the film successfully shows how each and every one of these characters is in some way damaged or truly broken by what happened to them all those years ago, building upon the sad reality of this group shared trauma. What makes it even more of a “human” story is that ultimately it’s not the pain of being abducted by aliens that has damaged these men; rather it’s that, while they all came back from it, they couldn’t save their friend. They’re not angry Travis Walton-types out to avenge their (supposedly) missing five days; they’re more like Paul Kersey on an extended bender out for justice for their dead friend. I can’t help but think that if every single one of them had survived the abduction it would have been something they would occasionally talk about to each other rather the life ruining mile marker it became. And rest assured it’s very clear that several of these men have not adjusted well to post-abduction life; indeed, the character whose brother died at one point makes it clear his family has stopped talking to him, believing that he was somehow responsible for his brother’s disappearance.
Eduardo Sanchez made several great movies, and it was only relatively recently with his bafflingly horrible Exists that I finally admitted he didn’t have a perfect record as a filmmaker. But, still, most people associate his name with The Blair Witch Project. Which is fine; it’s a great movie. However films like Altered and Lovely Molly prove he can reproduce the terror of his debut, and I think if you stop consuming his films after The Blair Witch Project you’re doing yourself a great disservice. If you want a scary little creature feature this Halloween season, I cannot recommend this film enough.