**Content Warning: Photosensitive audiences may want to avoid this picture due to high frequency of strobing and flashing lights.**
Director Jason Eisener’s career is a collection of short and feature-length stories, either made as a standalone or part of an anthology. He’s contributed to The ABCs of Death (2012) and V/H/S 2 (2013), but what audiences may really know him from is the exploitation ultra-violent dark comedy Hobo with a Shotgun (2011), itself born out of a fake trailer attached to Robert Rodriguez/Quentin Tarantino double bill Grindhouse (2007). Like Hobo, Eisener’s latest project began as something smaller, the short film Slumber Party Alien Abduction (2013), which now takes form as the feature-length Kids vs. Aliens (2022). It premiered during Fantastic Fest 2022 and is set to attack theatrical and home-viewing audiences this January. Feeling home-grown from start to finish, Kids vs. Aliens hits that nostalgic sweet spot of being young and finding something broadcasting late at night that you likely shouldn’t be watching and yet can’t turn it off. It’s wild and rebellious, though not as gnarly as one may hope.
In a small town resides Gary (Dominic Mariche), his older sister Sam (Phoebe Rex), and Gary’s friends Miles and Jack (Ben Tector and Asher Grayson Percival, respectively). Led by Gary, the foursome makes backyard movies, their latest being a battle between road warrior-like protectors and humanoid dinosaurs bent on world domination. Gary thinks his biggest problem this Halloween is the arrival of Billy (Calem MacDonald) and Billy’s two goons interrupting their shoot, but something worse is coming, something from another world, and it wants their skin.
Running roughly 75 minutes, Kids vs. Aliens wastes zero time setting up tone and getting into the action. First, the script from Eisener and John Davies (Hobo with a Shotgun) establishes the alien arrival and their sinister threat before jumping over to Gary and his filmmaking team, complete with shifted visuals denoting a lo-fi, almost CRT (cathode ray tube), feel. Of course, this is just revealed to be Gary’s movie, but a lovely residual texture that speaks to the style of the film persists. This creates a vibe that screams mayhem over logic and it’s in this service that the bulk of Kids follows from visual style, narrative, and special effects. Speaking of, much of the special effects in both Kids and Gary’s film rely on the kinds of prosthetics, application, and creature design work that are simple on their face yet are empowered further by a willing imagination. One may not feel particularly chilled when the audience gets a good glimpse of the alien visitors, but what Eisener’s creatures do to their prey will most certainly instigate so wiggles in seats.
A downside, though, to the runtime (even as it’s a quick in and quick out) is that it shorts a great deal in order to get to the reason why audiences are signing up in the first place: the mayhem. So while Gary, Sam, and their crew are fully formed and Billy’s crew are likewise easy to hate with what we’re given, the way things go down between both parties before the aliens attack would make greater sense if there was some time spent exploring them. Now, there’s a long-standing tradition of kids making bad choices, especially when horny, but a lot of the tension between Gary and Sam is created by Billy, who they only seem to have just met (like us), and there’s literally nothing about Billy that implies a willingness to betray someone’s trust for this dude. MacDonald plays Billy with the kind of charisma that makes the way he gets away with things believable, but the script keeps reminding everyone what an asshole he is, so the inevitable sibling rift necessary to create interpersonal and dynamic tension in the script doesn’t land with as much sincerity as it clearly intends. Then again, Kids is about as interested in emotional investment as your average creature feature and there’s nothing wrong with that. In the end, audiences want mayhem and Eisener does bring it, even if there’s a lot of setup before the audience gets what they came for. Do be advised that Kids is not nearly as gruesome as Hobo (sorry gorehounds), but Kids possesses several gnarly moments that’ll tickle that twisted part of your brain, with one particular takedown being a brilliant bit of woodworking producing a wince-inducing squelch.
Ordinarily, when something occurs in a film that might upset some viewers, a warning of some kind is placed at the top of a review and that might be it. In the case of Kids vs. Aliens, we need to go a step further by being as clear as possible: much of the film involves either flashing lights or lighting shining toward the camera (flashlights or ambient). Because of this, more photo-sensitive viewers may want to avoid this film entirely, no matter their desire to watch a brand-new midnight movie, as the frequency of this may prove too much quickly. At the start, it’s mostly used as a means of creating tension through discombobulating the senses as the aliens shine their light from a distance. However, later, as the Halloween party kicks off that serves as both character conflict and preparation for an alien attack, the set location features a constant strobing light. Of course, with all of this happening at night, the characters carry flashlights which, much to this reviewer’s frustration, were almost entirely pointed in the audience’s direction, moving in a sweeping motion. Luckily no migraine was triggered post-watch, but I did go to bed with a headache.
Ultimately, if you buy-in on this kind of homegrown adolescent terror trip, you’re going to have a good time. It’s boisterous, foul-mouthed, and grotesque, like the better Halloween-related slashers, it’s just executed on a smaller scale, making use of the audience’s imagination to overcome some of the limitations. In short, Kids vs. Aliens is an underdog in all senses. The good news is that if you dig this and a sequel gets greenlit, Eisner and Davies are already thinking a few steps ahead. To get a sense of it, make sure you don’t skip out before the credits wrap.
In theaters, VOD, and on digital January 20th, 2023.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.