Kids vs. Aliens vs. Tolerance For Intentionally Crummy Cinema

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Kids vs. Aliens vs. Tolerance For Intentionally Crummy Cinema

Watching directors learn from project to project, leaving traceable arcs of growth through their careers, is one of the strongest pleasures a critic can experience. On the other hand, watching directors stubbornly maintain their cases of arrested development is grating in equal measure, an implicit message that growth is for suckers.

It wouldn’t be fair to expect Jason Eisener, or anyone else, to equal, say, Martin Scorsese’s journey from Boxcar Bertha to Silence. But Eisener has been making the same kind of movie since his first in 2005, with little to distinguish Kids vs. Aliens, his latest feature, from the fistful of shorts he’s made since his last feature, Hobo with a Shotgun. Grain pockmarks the images. The camerawork is messy. The production design looks cheap. This is, if not the point, then the means by which Eisener movies happen, and the sensibility he funnels those means into: Fuzzed-out, topsy-turvy, low-fi B-movie simulacra.

Kids vs. Aliens expands on Eisener’s contribution to 2012’s V/H/S/2, “Slumber Party Alien Abduction,” an especially unpleasant quickie where a group of teenagers are kidnapped by howling gray extraterrestrials and a terrier dies for its troubles as the segment’s camera pup. It’s the worst stretch of that all-timer anthology film, so naturally fate has seen fit for Eisener to take the opportunity to inflate it into a feature. Granted, Kid vs. Aliens only runs 70 minutes. But 70 minutes is long when their basis is an omnibus short that’s less than half that duration, and feels even longer given the stretches between limp holdover material and people being bathed in caustic alien goo.

The brief here is the same as in V/H/S/2: A boy and his buddies throw a wrench in the works for his older sister and her own pals, and then aliens break into their house and start dragging them off for unseen Fire in the Sky shenanigans. The boy is Gary (Dominic Mariche); the girl is Samantha (Phoebe Rex). Kids vs. Aliens starts out with the siblings making movies, which can only be awkwardly described as “rough-hewn 1980s fantasy-wrestling-sci-fi action,” with Gary’s best friends Jack (Asher Grayson) and Miles (Ben Tector) as a warm addition to the basic framework. But Samantha’s a teen, and she has teen longings, specifically for Billy (Calem MacDonald), a Hot Dude and also the local bully. It doesn’t take long for Samantha to ditch Dominic for Billy’s abs and rebel attitude. It takes much, much longer for aliens, hinted at here and there over the movie’s first half hour, to show up and crash the wild party Billy cajoles Samantha into throwing at her house while her parents are away on business.

As expected, Samantha springs into action to save Gary and the gang, who get nicked, as do Billy and his band of goons. Less expected is the slog to the movie’s main attraction, where Samantha lives out that 1980s wrestling fantasy by chopping down aliens with a sword. That’s the tone a movie like this should strike far sooner than halfway ‘til the end credits, and Eisener drags his feet getting there, without maintaining a consistent tone, either, undecided between primal fear and Goonies riffing. Predictably, festival reactions out of both Fantastic Fest and Beyond Fest have called the film “fun.” But it’s hard to have fun with movies where the identity is fickle, and the pursuit of amateur aesthetics is overbearing. For a specific crowd, that’ll do. For people accustomed to digging through genuine trash, molding over in the vast dumpster of handmade horror cinema, it’s a bigger ask.

In fairness, Eisener does deliver his movie’s essential promise, with Gary, Samantha, Miles, and Jack kicking gray-man ass amidst gross-out effects. Eisener himself is an important figure in contemporary horror, too: His entire filmography, mixed as it may be, is a living, breathing reminder that horror’s essential ingredients are the drive to make it and a group of likeminded friends to make it with. Horror needs that kind of spirit. But horror needs innovation, too, and Eisener hasn’t pushed himself since his 2013 short “One Last Dive,” the scariest movie he’s ever made, and terrifying even with a 70-second runtime. Kids vs. Aliens is a harmless trifle. A filmmaker with this many years under their belt should have more to show for themselves than that.

Director: Jason Eisener
Writer: Jason Eisener, John Davies
Starring: Phoebe Rex, Dominic Mariche, Calem McDonald, Asher Grayson, Ben Tector, Emma Vickers, Isaiah Fortune
Release Date: January 20, 2023

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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