Horror comedies are notoriously difficult to get right...
...Leaning too heavily on either side can lead to disastrous results: too many jokes will undermine the frightening atmosphere you’re trying to create, and an abundance of scares might make the comedy feel out of place, or worse, fall flat. Useless Humans, a mishmash of comedy and sci-fi horror by director Stephen Ohl and writer Travis Betz, suffers an identity crisis throughout most of its run-time but manages to still entertain thanks to a few notable performances, fun creature antics, and a ton of heart.
Brian (Josh Zuckerman) is a mild-mannered underachiever who has big dreams of starting his own commercial space travel service but is stuck doing grunt-work at an observatory. On his thirtieth birthday he travels to his family’s cabin to spend the weekend drinking, smoking, and whooping it up with some long-lost pals from college. Unfortunately for them, their party is soon crashed by an alien that’s siphoning off all the electricity it can find to power a strange device. After realizing that the otherworldly creature must be executing some sort of nefarious plan, the friends join forces with two hidden-agenda-tooting mystery women and try to save the world.
When one of the first sounds you hear in a movie happens to be a theremin, you can expect it’s going to be a fun watch. It also signals a certain level of self-awareness on the filmmakers’ part, and both elements are evident in Useless Humans. It plays a bit like a 90’s coming-of-age flick, but for a generation that’s all grown up and trying to figure its shit out. The characters all feel like folks you might know in your own circle, whether it’s Louis (Rushi Kota) and his struggles to deal with both his marriage woes and new role as a father, Jess (Davida Williams) whose needy scumbag boyfriend has pushed his way into their friends-only get-together while simultaneously attempting to cheat on her, or Alex (Luke Youngblood) who is happily content living a life of complete chaos. However, relatability aside, don’t expect the film to make any deep statements about what it means to come to terms with your expectations of life as you get older. Its primary goal is to entertain its audience, and it succeeds to varying degrees.
First and foremost, if you’re a fan of the “person in an obvious rubber suit” subgenre of sci-fi horror, then you’ve hit pay dirt with Useless Humans. I know I am, so basically any scene featuring the alien (which resembles the iconic “greys” extra-terrestrials but with blue skin and pulsating light-up temples) was a delight. The creature’s design is fun and James Croak (the actor within the costume) plays it in a way that feels reminiscent of the scenes in The Creature From The Black Lagoon where the iconic Gillman does its darndest to look intimidating while lumbering towards one of its victims. But just when you think the beast’s campiness is in danger of sucking all the scares out of the picture, a gore gag like it punching a hole through someone will remind you that, cheese or not, this alien has bite.
While the genre characteristics of the film work well, the humor found in Useless Humans isn’t as consistent and throws off the horror-comedy balance. This is most evident in the banter between our heroes, where the jokes come at you almost incessantly. Few of the gags are especially hilarious, but some are salvaged thanks to the casts' efforts (Youngblood especially shines in this department) while others are cringeworthy (Louis’ episiotomy bit is tasteless and kind of cruel). These comedic scenes are an example of the problem at the heart of Useless Humans: it never strikes a consistent tone. There are moments where it seems like the movie is trying to say something about what it’s like to enter a new phase of adulthood but then interrupts itself with a joke about getting wasted. Then, while everyone’s getting blitzed and it seems like we’re firmly planted in the comedy camp, the alien shows up and mauls somebody. We never linger on any of these elements for longer than a few moments, so the overall experience feels muddled.
It’s a fun muddled though, if that makes any sense. Useless Humans isn’t high art, nor is it trying to be, but when it hits its stride the results are a lot of fun. There’s an obvious chemistry between the actors, some genuinely inventive moments (space alien + beer bong = pure cinema), and a creature that would be right at home in The Horror of Party Beach. If that’s not enough to entertain you for an hour and twenty minutes, then I’m not sure what is.
Useless Humans lands on VOD July 14th from Quiver Distribution.
By Pat Brennan