There’s something about a good, slimy monster movie that hits just right…
…Hailing out of Spain is directing team Raul Cerezo and Fernando Gonzalez Gomez’s The Passenger (La Pasajera), which just premiered at Panic Fest 2022 and delivers all of the goopy alien terror you can handle.
Written by Luis Sanchez-Polack (with additional development by Asier Guerricaechebarria and Javier Echaniz), The Passenger takes viewers on a road trip with crass misogynist Blasco (Ramiro Blas), an ex-bullfighter turned driver escorting stressed out mother, Lidia (Cristina Alcazar), her prickly daughter, Marta (Paula Gallego) and religious nurse, Mariela (Cecilia Suarez) to a town miles away. The trip is going as well as you’d expect—which is not very well at all—when an accident leads to the group taking in an injured woman off the road. Things turn from bad to totally fucked when they learn that their new passenger has been infected with an alien virus transforming her into one pissed off creature.
Honestly, I’ve had worse family road trips.
Part of the charm of The Passenger is that it feels like one of those trips with your parents, where you just want to put in your earbuds and drown out your bickering family with something angry, with a performance from Gallego that channels that frustration to a T. You can’t blame her, either, because these characters are obnoxious—in a fun way, mind you—in particular Blasco, who reveals himself to be a “caveman” as the two women refer to him. Blasco is about as backwards as they come. Trapped in “the good old days” of his life, he’s a man with an anger towards women, referring a few times to females as “vicious”, and you’d better believe there’s a conversation about how feminists are just angry.
You’re probably thinking, “Blasco sucks,” and you’re right, but Blas brings an infectious charm to the character that makes you love to loathe him. Marta senses it as well, which adds an odd sweetness to the film as this unlikely duo begins to bond. All of these characters are scarred in some way, both obvious and hidden, and there’s a great sense of understanding between Blasco with his blind eye and Marta carrying the scars of an accident on her cheek. Now, is it a little frustrating for Blasco to be portrayed as the “hero” of the film, especially considering recent events? Oh yeah. Is it weird watching this sexist dude become closer to Marta? For sure. But both actors share an endearing chemistry that comes off more like a father and daughter, a relationship each is missing in their lives. The entire group is made of fighters struggling to push through the darkness, and we end up rooting for all of them, even Blasco.
Well-developed characters (likeable or not) are just part of the appeal of The Passenger, as the filmmakers also infuse the film with a sense of humor that keeps things entertaining, even when the script begins to fall into a slump. Fog machines working overtime and a corny (though fitting) sci-fi score from Alejandro Roman, The Passenger understands well the nostalgic slice of 80s sci-fi horror camp that it is to such a degree that you can practically sense the filmmakers giggling and having a blast off camera. Cinematographer Ignacio Aguilar employs imagery to heighten the spooky vibe, with some beautifully crafted split-diopter shots (my favorite), Dutch angles and…well, you get the picture. This goofy monster movie doesn’t wink directly at the camera, but it is loaded with visual jokes like an “Alien on board” bumper sticker on Blasco’s precious “Van-essa”—heh—that cue viewers into the fact that you can’t take this film too seriously. It’s meant to be a silly throwback to an era of warbling xylophones and slimy practical effects and more or less nails that vibe.
Of course, the creatures are key in a film like this, and the slime-coated fiends of The Passenger are just the right amount of gooey and gross. Looking like your average Night of the Creeps slug-heads, they aren’t all that different from anything you’ve seen before, but man, are they nasty. The petroleum jelly budget for The Passenger must’ve been through the roof, because these things drip more nauseating drool than a rabid Saint Bernard. Legitimate scares are few and far between, with the film settling for more of a gross-out factor to get butts squirming in seats. If you can already feel your stomach swirling, don’t worry, The Passenger contains your usual coats of slime and shiver-inducing methods of infection by the alien parasites, but isn’t heavy on grotesque gore.
Leaning so far back that The Passenger stumbles into 1980s alien horror comes with its own invasion of problems. The filmmakers tend to play into familiar tropes without much interest in subverting them, meaning that the film is more like a comfort food snack than a uniquely satisfying meal. It’s fun and homey in that familiar, slimy touch sort of way. Intentional or not, part of the silly nature of The Passenger is characters making the worst decisions imaginable, including splitting up not once, not twice, but at least three times. My eyes nearly fell down my throat, they were rolling so far back into my head at some of the forced “choices” made by our heroes. The Passenger also falls into a pit of pacing problems in the second act that it never quite crawls out of.
While it may be a run of the mill, small scale alien invasion film without much new to offer, The Passenger is still squirmy good fun with a touching story at its gooey center, lifted by inspired direction and a charismatic cast of entertaining characters. Hop on in with The Passenger. It’s a bumpy ride, but an enjoyable journey nonetheless.
By Matt Konopka