The After Dark series comprises several horror films, one of which is 51. The preview promised both horror and gore. The gore was adequate but comparatively tame, and I’ve experienced more horror having a urine test. To borrow a riff from the MST3k treatment of Laserblast, the makers of 51 used a technique called ‘tension extraction’.

The basic plot is that, under pressure from the American media, the US Armed Forces put on a special tour of Area 51 to two highly regarded journalists, and two camera persons whose acclaim is not specified. The tour of Hangar 18 commences and most of the people are killed and/or eaten by the aliens, until the aliens are themselves dispatched from the land of the living.

51 seemed to be three films patched together. The first or central story. Going by time onscreen, it’s the journalists being chivvied around the base and lots of ancillary characters being killed. Area 51, in Nevada, is operated by the Air Force, and it’s unclear why Marines are stationed there.

The second story involves one of the four ALFs (Alien Life Forms), who has been living in underground level 2 of Hangar 18 for 25 years. This ALF is a metamorph, a being who can look and sound like anyone he touches. I say ‘he’, because the lycra bodysuit, pink with purple veins, the actor wore leaves little to the imagination. ALF (whose name we aren’t told but it probably isn’t Gordon Chumway) lives a life most of us wouldn’t much object to: listening to his favourite music, being occasionally gassed and injected (in the head) twice a day with a liquid lunch.

For some reason, ALF goes methodically berserk, unknowingly but nonetheless inconsiderately at the same time as the tour. He begins with his doctor. There are two Marines in the room with automatic weapons but despite this sensible precaution, they fail to be ready with said weapons. Having taken on the form of the doctor, ALF wrestles with him until the real doctor is shot by one of the Marines, whose admirable precision with the rifle is offset by his inability to tell who the actor is, despite the alien having transmogrified in front of him five seconds ago. (We know the real doctor is shot because we’ve been told the alien has blue blood. The doctor’s visceral spatter is red.)

ALF tackles the second Marine, shifting shape to mimic his appearance. (I grimaced as the word ‘tackle’ recalled to me the egregious bodysuit.) The lackwit first Marine again shoots the wrong target, and is then deservedly killed by the alien. This makes him worthy of a Darwin award; although had he survived, he should have received an honourable mention.

ALF then goes somewhere looking for something. It’s difficult to tell where and what, and not just because after the first ten minutes we don’t see him for the next hour or so. But as human nature is to view people different from us as one-dimensional, the writers decided that ALF’s modus operandum in pursuit of this goal is to kill humans, if indeed that isn’t his raison d’être. What ALF is looking for we don’t discover until the end of the film: the autopsied and dissected body of one of his kind, possibly his mother, as the film he is calmly watching when the remaining humans find him seems to involve a Caesarean section. He is watching this film beside the same body. Maybe the makers thought it would be a nice touch to have the corpse there, forgetting the autopsy happened 25 years ago.

We can all understand ALF’s desire to escape his white, impersonal (‘inalienable’ might be more apropos) cell and kill various people on the way – what office worker hasn’t dreamed of it? – but his only apparent reason is vengeance on those who either murdered his kind, or at least dispassionately dismembered them. The problem is, he doesn’t discover this until later, so what started his homicidal dalliance is a mystery, unless he is telepathic and/or can travel back in time.

There are four aliens, did I mention? The second alien can best be described as looking like Elmer Fudd forty-eight hours after a hearty beating. Like ALF, ElF has psychokinetic powers, but ElF can also talk and is, on the whole, civilised and thoughtful. Not the sort of chap who, like ALF, will sit in a mental fog for 25 years until one day wondering, “What happened to the rest of my people? Maybe I should kill a few humans, escape, kill some more humans, and find out.”

ElF attempts to help the humans until he discovers that the military deliberately shot down his spacecraft, incidentally killing his fellow crew member. So he channels his inner Darth Vader and chokes the colonel, who sputters a little. The remaining shutterbug, cowering in a corner, says, Hey, I’ve got a video camera. Oh, but no, it was destroyed. I’m still holding onto it though. But we can still, like, escape and tell your story. ElF considers, It’s an adequate proposal I suppose, so okay. The colonel drops to the floor, gasps, and ends up being killed later anyway. Foregone conclusion, I thought.

The third story was aimed at filmgoers who thrive on dramatic character interaction. It missed the target. While what I shall call ‘the action’ was going on underground, on the surface a character drama was not so much unfolding as being splattered in soggy lumps. The chief protagonists here were two Marines (or possibly soldiers but I wasn’t paying much attention by then), one of whom gained notoriety as a hero who unwillingly took the glory of merely surviving some unmentioned conflict, and who naturally bore the blame when the true story came out. The other Marine, who isn’t particularly inventive, had previously shot himself in the foot to escape going into battle. Of course they become heroes as they destroy two other extra-terrestrials: malevolent, neither terribly fast nor intelligent, but strangely successful at killing soldiers. Actually that description applies to both these two Marines as well as to the ETs, which look like a cross between the big lizard thing in Alien and an artist’s impression of a pterosaur, topped off with the face of a demonic, carnivorous cherub.

To be blunt, the acting was uninspiring; or maybe it was just the enervating Gestalt effect of the film. As each character was introduced, I thought, “Ancillary/ to be killed; will survive; love interest”. That is, I started to do so, but it wasn’t long before my enthusiasm to do so was sapped.

The plot had all the twists of a petrified banana; the props were not half bad, except for the weapons. Boxes of TNT were used to destroy the second landstrider/Alien alien but C4 is the current explosive of choice: surely a pack of C4 would have been better? The only kinds of projectile weapon seemed to be M16s and pistols. Not a shotgun in sight; and the single advanced weapon in the installation was never used.

How would I rate this film? I give it two eviscerated John Hurts out of five. It was gory, which I’m not a fan of anyway, but boring. Even during what would be classified as the chase/hunt/scary scenes, I and my two friends were wondering what other videos we had. We were able to crack a few jokes at the expense of the film though, so the experience wasn’t totally pointless.

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