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Sunday, August 3, 2014

Grabbers (2012)

Written by Kevin Lehane
Directed by Jon Wright

Richard Coyle:  Garda Ciaran O'Shea
Ruth Bradley:  Garda Lisa Nolan
Russell Tovey:  Dr. Adam Smith
Lalor Roddy:  Paddy Barrett

I have to have seen more than a dozen movies that start with something going through Earth's atmosphere at night, a wink of flame in the sky above the planet. But this is the first time I've seen that standard opening shot where the descending object was hitting the skies above Ireland. I bet that actual Irish people who saw this really got a kick out of that opening shot--their country gets to be in the movies a lot, but most of the titles I'm aware of are social-realism dramas, not movies about hungry tentacled things from outer space. And it might well be the first time an invasion drama showed their country as the target. Representation is extraordinarily important in fiction--if you grow up seeing every superhero as a white man and you don't share those traits, you'll never see a superhero that looks like you. I hope the kids in Ireland getting away with watching this when they're too young can imagine themselves as monster slayers now, instead of Americans or Brits.

Also, while we're just on the opening credits, I see that the Irish Film Board and UK Film Council helped pay for this movie. I can't help but think of it as the Gaelic equivalent of the Canadian tax-shelter exploitation movies of the seventies, but even better because the government is paying for the monster effects directly. I'd pay an extra hundred bucks a year in taxes if it meant struggling young independent filmmakers could pinch stuff from Tremors and try to get their foot in the door in Hollywood.

The whatever-it-is that's plunging to Earth is bright blue, which suggests to me that it's either descending at least partially under its own power or possibly just supposed to look alien. It streaks through the night sky over the Sea Harvester, a fishing boat, in a blaze of radiance and splashes into the ocean--again, the water isn't boiling so I don't think it heated up all that much in the atmosphere, which suggests to me a controlled descent. A value-pack of three Threat-Establishing Casualties drive the boat over to investigate it and the viewer gets a look at the filmmakers' knowlege of invading-alien-menace filmmaking tropes.

The first unlucky bastard sees something in the water (though the audience does not) and gets time to scream before getting pulled in. The captain is shining a flashlight (sorry, it's the UK, so he's shining a torch) into the water when he gets impaled and pulled in--this is witnessed by the third casualty-to-be from the wheelhouse--and there's a Wilhelm scream on the soundtrack when he gets yanked into the ocean. The third doomed sailor gets a POV shot dropped on his head--three different ways to kill off a minor character in under a minute, and each one establishing that there's a massively lethal threat in the water, there's more than one, and that the audience doesn't get to see what they look like at this point in the movie. I'm guessing that the writer and director watched a lot of monster flicks when they were kids, and they've learned their lessons on how to tell this story the way the audience expects it. Maybe the Irish channels preferred showing old Universal flicks to old Hammer ones when they were growing up; maybe they picked the story beats of The Monolith Monsters for their film because that would be less recognizable to an Irish audience.

The next thing you do in a monster flick is introduce the people who are going to stop the monster, and our protagonists are a stubbly guy waking up after a bender literally snuggled up to a bottle of whisky (the dregs are his breakfast) and a young woman in a police uniform riding a ferry to the main location. Since I didn't know "garda sociana" was Gaelic for "guardian of the peace", I thought at first her name was going to be Officer Garda. It's on her uniform coat pocket. But it's also on the pocket of the hungover guy that picks her up at the dock next to the "Erin Island welcomes you" sign; he's sullen and makes a concerted effort to make sure that Garda Nolan feels unwelcome and foolish. Nice going, jerk.

After that it's time to show that things aren't quite right in the world, so a middle-aged man walking his dog out in some wonderful field and beach scenery comes across a dozen or so beached dead pilot whales and the peaceful Celtic music on the score gets swapped out for Bernard Herrmann-style minor key strings. Back at the police station Garda O'Shea continues to be a dick while their supervisor welcomes Nolan to the island, and it becomes apparent that the woman is a bit more cosmopolitan than anyone else in the station when coffee is being poured. (O'Shea:  "Milk?" Nolan:  "What kind?" O'Shea:  "...Cow's."). The other officer is leaving for two weeks, as it turns out, and Garda Nolan is there to help out with any rural island law enforcement that might need to get done. And a hissed-whisper conversation between the vacationing cop and O'Shea establishes that he's been letting himself go for a considerable time; Nolan's there at least in part because nobody thinks O'Shea would do any kind of respectable job on his own for two weeks.

Time to get another monster appearance, but this time it's one stuck in a lobster trap so we don't get a look at it when two lobstermen peer into the trap and try to figure out what the hell it is. Fishermen who set lobster traps on the ocean floor and catch lobsters, not bipedal crustaceans, I mean. It's a monster flick so it could have gone either way. Whatever's in the trap spits (or pisses) in one of the lobstermen's faces but other than the stench there doesn't appear to be any ill effects. The lobsterman who caught it--actually named Paddy, which may or may not be offensive--winds up putting the thing in his bathtub at home, still in the lobster trap. The creature makes some upsetting sounds, but we still don't get a look at it.

O'Shea is driving Nolan around on patrol and they're talking kind of like real people having a mutally involved conversation; it turns out Nolan is normally stationed in Dublin Central, which has a great deal more crime than Erin Isle. O'Shea says there won't be anything to worry about for the next two weeks; Nolan responds with "it's always the quiet places where the mad shit happens". It's a monster movie. She's right, of course. Half the fun in these things is hearing a first-act exchange like this and waiting to see how it'll play out when Garda Nolan gets the meager satisfaction of being correct.

The patrol takes the mismatched pair to the beach full of dead marine life; Dr. Smith the marine ecologist is examining the whale bodies there and strikes a bit of a spark with Garda Nolan (and there's a nice bit of business where they both realize it's not a good idea to shake hands in greeting till he takes his latex gloves off; he's been probing the wounds on the whales' bodies, so yeah, wait till he's not wearing those to say hi). Smith is able to determine that the whales died at sea and washed up on the Erin Island beach; O'Shea finds it weird that they all died at sea at the same time. Smith does too, but he can't really comment on it--there's too many variables that aren't accounted for yet.

Back on patrol, O'Shea has warmed up a little bit to Nolan (I'm guessing because he now doesn't see her as a threat to his job and because she might be from the big city on the mainland but she's still police). She's also quite a square, as it turns out, with O'Shea trying to break the ice with an endearingly terrible joke that goes right over Nolan's head. They wind up at a construction site, with O'Shea calling in a favor in order to borrow the heavy equipment at the site in order to move the beached whale carcasses--and kudos to the film for making O'Shea kind of a jerk but actually a pretty effective rural island cop. One of the construction workers strays off at the beach, finds some creature eggs, and gets dragged into the ocean by a still-not-depicted monster. That scene cannot have been any fun at all for the stuntman, but it's quite effective. The foreman goes looking for Danny the drowning / monster attack victim as the sun sinks down and fails to find him. He does pick up the stray shovel that Danny got sent back to retrieve, though. So at least he's not out a shovel.

Back at the local bar (also the only bar on the island), Garda O'Shea and the lobsterman from earlier in the film are weighing down a pair of stools. There's a little bit of "you like the new cop and you should go talk to her" stuff from the barkeep's wife; O'Shea isn't really having any of it. The lobsterman says he's got a sea monster in his bathtub; O'Shea and the bartender aren't really having any of it from him either.

That night, the lobsterman who got monster pee in his face is dozing in front of Night of the Living Dead on the telly--the requisite "we have seen other horror movies and liked them" moment in this one, plus it's in the public domain so using footage from it won't add so much as a Reul to the budget--and someone's thudding at the door. It turns out to be the construction foreman from earlier, who collapses on the front lawn. The lobsterman goes out to see what's the matter and a bone-spike impales him and yanks him on to the roof to die horribly. His wife freaks out and shuts every door in the house but the chimney is a perfectly serviceable point of entry; exeunt three more minor characters.

Back at the pub (which turns out to also be a hotel), O'Shea decides to invite Garda Nolan down for a drink--she refuses because she's got to work the next day and asks her colleague to recite the alphabet backwards as a sobriety test, which he abdicates, and while he's acting like a drunken jackass he also takes the opportunity to completely ignore his alcoholism, even when pretty directly confronted on it.

Back at Paddy's home, the lobster trap in his bathtub is broken open from the inside, there's an egg in it, and a writhing knot of mottled blue tentacles in a ceiling corner of the loo. Worse than a spider. The thing drinks some of his blood with a tentacle / tongue appendage and jumps on his face but he gets the better of it and stomps it to death on the floor of his bath.

The next morning, Garda Nolan pays for last night's hotel room and the barkeep's wife tells her there's a storm coming during their morning mercantile chitchat. ("Were the gulls flying low this morning?" "No, it was on the telly.") Nolan goes to pick O'Shea up in the morning--at the drunk tank at the station, since he was out cold before she could find his house and didn't really know what else to do with him. Kudos to the cinematographers for making daylight seeping into the drunk tank room look like a hangover, by the way. This might be just a "things from the stars are eating people in a small remote location" movie, but the craftsmen working on it know their stuff. Nolan is horrifyingly chipper as she answers the station house phone; I'm not honestly sure if she's trying to needle O'Shea or if she's always so square and enthusiastic.

Turns out they're paying a call on Dr. Smith, who has the dead alien blood-drinking monstrosity at his lab. The lobsterman wants to name it a "grabber", and the scientist refuses to even consider that because the name has to reflect the animal's genus, not the fact that it has lots of tentacles. Smith is low-key about the fact that he has absolutely no idea what it is, but it's completely unprecedented and foreign to the point that he's not even sure if it's actually dead or not. Which leads the pragmatic Paddy to whack it with a stick, because why not be careful about these things? Smith seems to be enjoying the chance to lecture an interested audience about what the monster is, and demonstrates that it has a bony spike on the tip of its tongue that is used to pierce the skin of its prey, then drains the prey's blood to feed. In the manner of scientists in these movies, Smith is the one who drops the exposition bomb in this scene, pointing out that the monster only needs blood and water to live. He also tries flirting with Garda Nolan a little bit here, and O'Shea is visibly irritated but doesn't act like an asshole about it.

O'Shea has pretty good cop instincts, too--he's the first one to connect the mystery creature to the dead whales and while they're driving past the beach, he spots the construction foreman's car, seemingly abandoned but with the keys still in the ignition. Neither O'Shea or Nolan are big believers in coincidence and check out the foreman's house--which has all the lights on, nobody home, and slates fallen from the roof. Nolan checks out the roof while O'Shea takes the edge off with a quick pull from his hip flask and cascading events result in him just about getting his nose broken from a headbutt when the severed head of a monster victim gets yanked out of the chimney and falls off the roof.

The doctor isn't having any of it when the two police ask him what killed the victim ("The fact that he's just a head?"); it's beyond his country-doctor experience and the best he can do on short notice is to suggest an animal mauling. While they're putting the pieces together, Paddy complains that something knocked a hole in his bathroom wall (and he doesn't seem to notice that the egg that was in the lobster trap in his bathtub is gone). The police and Paddy put their heads together and figure out that the monsters are probably territorial, can only move around on land when it's raining, and might well be living in the totally not ominously named "Black Rock Caves".

Paddy takes absolutely no convincing whatsoever to stay out of the caves while Nolan and O'Shea take a look around inside them. They find bloodstained clothing from the trio of pre-credits casualties while Paddy finds a clutch of eggs buried in the sand. Another sign that the filmmakers are paying homage to American monster movies of the 50s--he pokes them with a stick as soon as he sees them. Never, ever do this. He flinches away when the embryonic monster twitches in the egg. Meanwhile, in the caves, O'Shea shouts hello a couple of times--never, ever do this either--and the male monster drops down from the cave ceiling to terrify the cops and the audience. They get out just in time and O'Shea believes them to be safe because the monster can't get out of the cave the same way they did. Never, ever say anything like that.

Back at Smith's lab O'Shea makes a tactical decision to pour petrol on the dead(?) specimen and set it on fire, over Smith's protests. So the sprinklers go off and the two cops and the scientist quickly reenact one of those "the Three Stooges are plumbers" shorts for a little bit. And now the monster in the lab has been soaked with water, which means that if it was only torpid things are going to jump off. Which they do--O'Shea winds up being the lucky chosen as the thing jumps in his head and he staggers around the lab looking like Jerry Lewis wanted to adapt The Call of Cthulhu as a comedy. The other two manage to haul the monster off of him, and when they're getting ready to beat it to death with a chair it throws up the blood it drank and collapses to the floor. The trio beat the monster to death at some length.

Paddy wanders back in, apologizing for not being any help during the monster attack and O'Shea puts the pieces together further. He's a little bit drunk, since he's been trying to hold off the DTs while at work. Paddy was much more intoxicated when he was attacked, and the alcohol in his blood hurt the monster to the point where an elderly drunk could beat it into torpor by himself. Thus O'Shea figures out the secret weapon--drink enough and the creatures won't attack you. Or if they do, they'll stop because they're drinking poison blood.

Unfortunately nobody can call in the cavalry because of the oncoming storm. If they can survive through the night, everyone on Erin Island should wind up all right. But there won't be any help from the mainland and Smith points out that the "booze = monster poison" plan is an untested theory. But it's the best one they have at the moment. And speaking of best bad options, O'Shea decides to hold a lock-in at the pub, get the entire population of the island (that is still there, and not on the mainland for the festival mentioned for one line in the first act) in there, booze up and try not to get killed by the monsters. Oh, and they can't tell any of the other islanders about the monsters or there will be a panic, and panics can get people killed just as dead as a space octopus blood fiend thing can. O'Shea offers to be the one guy staying sober in order to protect everyone else, but Nolan points out, not unkindly, that he's "a dependent alcoholic organizing a piss-up in a brewery", which means that sobriety is not in the cards for him, even if he's got the best intentions in the world.

Right after O'Shea puts his foot down and says he'll be staying sober, Garda Nolan says she's a teetotaler who's never been drunk in her life (which means I have something in common with one of the protagonists of the film). So--in order to save everyone's lives the raging boozer has to stay try and the abstainer has to get lit up. I have every confidence in both of them.

Science comes in to play--Smith needs to know exactly how drunk everyone needs to be in order to repel the attacking monsters, so Garda Nolan is pressed into service. She's in good physical shape and doesn't have a drop of alcohol in her, so when she consumes the same amount of booze that Paddy had the previous night they'll be able to test her blood and find out how much everyone needs to put away in order to protect themselves from the space creatures. It turns out that a BAC of .20 is lethal to the hatchling space beast that Smith had in his lab; the bartender estimates that it'll be ten shots apiece for everyone in town in order to shield themselves (more or less, depending on body weight). And full marks to Ruth Bradley in this scene; she's not overplaying the drunken faces she pulls but she sells the idea that she's utterly hammered quite well. There's a bit where she goes through an inebriated rainbow of the emotional spectrum that lands perfectly.

The announcement at the end of Mass in the island's church goes spectacularly poorly, and there's some neat role-reversal comedy where O'Shea is forced to be the voice of reason and reconciliation while Nolan gets belligerent and can't stick to a story for exactly why there's going to be a party. Eventually O'Shea gives up and just says he's buying. That works, sure enough. And the party really does look like fun. Everyone not in on the "don't get killed by monsters" information is singing and having a great time together and the room is crowded, but not oppressively so. Meanwhile, in the back room, the conspirators are stockpiling their weapons, including a pellet gun with no pellets, a frying pan, a board with a nail in it (really), a flare gun, and a Super Soaker filled with petrol as an improvised flamethrower. Remember, everyone using these devices is going to be drunk twice over and in a room full of innocent civilians...

The party's in full swing when the doctor has to go outside for a piss, and the music gets good and ominous after Paddy points out that he's only had two pints and isn't nearly drunk enough to be safe. Which isn't good news when dozens of little baby space monsters start flopping and squirming up the lawn as he's outside, and the rain is coming down nice and heavy. They only need water and blood to live, and he's got at least one of those things. Intervention from the two police gets the doctor away from the hatchlings, but the towering daddy beast makes incredibly short work of him. At least he finds out exactly what killed the decapitated guy from before.

Inside the back room of the bar, everyone tries to work through their various combinations of alcoholic stupor and pants-shitting terror to get the flamethrower lit and the door barricaded. The barkeep goes out for a suicidally brave/stupid charge, and the pilot light of his weapon goes out in the rain. And now the gigantic monster knows where everyone is. Good plan, Brian. Also the taps are dry, and the spare kegs are outside. And when Smith goes out to get a photo of the monster it turns out that it can smell the toxins on his breath, and even if it's smart enough not to eat him he's not immune to every other form of damage (his exit from the film is nastily funny, a reminder that you just shouldn't trust a big killer space beast; it's also a callback to all the scientists that thought they could communicate with the space beings in movies going way the hell back to The Thing From Another World in 1951).

The party gets moved upstairs when the hatchlings get into the bar; they'd almost be cute if they weren't so maggoty. The sound designers deserve some credit for the goofiness and menace of the little boogers. O'Shea finally clues everyone in to what's going on, and the breathalyzer results show that they're sobering up and running out of time to deal with the monster. A quickly improvised plan (use the construction equipment that hauled the whale carcasses away to grab the monster and keep it out of the water so it'll die when the sun comes up) is put into practice, but only the single drunkest person in the room has any chance of getting away from the big Grabber outside in order to do it, and O'Shea isn't going to let his colleague take that risk. Which she insists on doing anyway. And while going on her mission, manages to take out the bar's fusebox with a stray nailgun shot and plunges the building into darkness. Then things get REALLY bad when a dropped lighter and a floor full of spilled liquor combine their powers to set the building on fire.

The two cops borrow the bartender's pickup truck and get to the construction company's headquarters, and after a series of cascading problems manage to shove the giant Grabber into a gravel pit and drop an earth-mover on top of it. So it's pissed off and hurt, but not dead. But they've got a flare gun, a pile of rusting chemical drums and Paddy's bottle of homebrew on their side and the monster doesn't stand a chance. And, in the manner of the old fifties monster flicks, the two leads fall in love as the morning breaks, having saved everyone's lives. And then the waves break over the shore, washing up against another clutch of Grabber eggs buried in the sand, ready to hatch. But if you read this blog, you knew that was the only possible final shot of this movie.

Man alive, I'm glad I saw this one. Grownup actors, high stakes, a fantastic looking monster (I especially like the rolling motion that the male Grabber used to get around on land), escalating threats and the heroes triumphant at the end. And the cinematography is fantastic--lots of shots of the natural beauty of the island and some great lone-cop-car-driving-on-a-lonely-road sequences that emphasize just how isolated everyone is when the trouble starts. Instead of a lonely house or a shot of the whole island from the air, it's the two protagonists in a Garda SUV as a tiny moving speck on the screen and it's a really cool way to suggest to the audience that they've got to depend on their own wits and whatever they've got with them to make it through the attack. And hey, nobody got yanked out a window like I was expecting, because that's really more of a seventies cliche and this movie was using monster flicks from two decades previous as its template.

It's amazing what you can do when you have directors and actors who don't feel superior to the material (check out the 1998 and 2014 American takes on Godzilla if you'd like a crash course in the difference between the two approaches). And the humor in the film arises from character, not from zany people yelling crazy crap. Thought and care went in to setting up the menace, setting up the people who had to respond to it, and setting up the solution. I thought the flare gun was going to be used to detonate the petrol-filled squirt gun, but I was wrong. Everything they did use to kill the main monster was set up earlier in the film; structure and dialogue and some indestructible old Irish drunks make the movie as enjoyable as it was. And since it's a movie from the 2010s rather than something from half a century ago, O'Shea's alcoholism is never the source of humor in the film (though it comes close a couple of times). If anything, he's the movie's tragic relief.

I wonder...I wonder if my friend who used to run the 3-B Theater site has seen this one, and how many cans out of a six-pack he'd rate it. I'm guessing it's a full six. Of Guinness, of course.

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