Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
Every town has its weirdos. Y’know, the ones your parents told you to stay away from. Well, in Wyatt‘s neck of the woods, he and his close friends are considered the weirdos. Everyone’s heard the rumors about what happened to them, but none of them know the truth. This month, Nightmare on Film Street is all about the horrors of space. We won’t be leaving Earth for this edition of Freaks of Nature, but, in Eduardo Sánchez’s Altered, terror has most definitely arrived.
It’s been fifteen years since a small town in Hale County was rocked by a young boy’s passing. Wyatt (Adam Kaufman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer), a reclusive man gripped by paranoia, comes to find his three estranged friends on his doorstep one night. Cody (Paul McCarthy-Boyington), Duke (Brad William Henke, Wounds), and Otis (Michael C. Williams, The Blair Witch Project) have brought something that they caught in the woods. Secured by chains and a duct-taped welding mask, the cause of all four men’s lifelong trauma now rests in Wyatt‘s garage.
It’s soon revealed that the bound captive is in fact an extraterrestrial. And a dangerous one, at that. The lone being hails from the race of aliens who are responsible for Cody‘s brother’s death. When Timmy died and was found buried in the woods all those years ago, Wyatt and his friends claimed it was all the work of aliens.
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“This severe creature feature is unlike many others […] From pulling at your innards to dosing you with a fatal infection, this space invader is transparently evil.”
That is, until Wyatt said otherwise to avoid sounding crazy. Although he wants no part in whatever revenge plot Cody and the others have in mind, Wyatt has no choice but to get involved when the malicious alien breaks free.
Originally slated to be a horror-comedy called Probed, Altered ended up being as humorless as it is dire. This severe creature feature is unlike many others. By that, it is a reversal of the formula we all know—instead of being abducted and experimented on by the aliens, the humans get the jump on the little green man. Of course, their doing so is really a twisted way to find closure with the horrible event that forever changed their lives.
The story is mainly confined to Wyatt‘s remote home, which feels like a world away from civilization. The state of his house — ample security lights and weapons, towering stacks of documents, and a stash of mementos that remind him of Timmy — suggests Wyatt‘s been living in constant fear all this time. He’s not the stereotypical, stark-raving madman who was beamed up by a UFO. Wyatt is rather conventional in both looks and personality. He lacks the backwoods charm of his pals, but it’s plain as day he’s no less disturbed than Cody or the others.
Speaking of, Wyatt‘s friends seem like they’d be a bunch of good ol’ boys fueled by beer and skirt-chasing. While that may be true for Cody, we learn that these men are more than just colorful tonality and profuse ammo. There is an overt and one-sided bitterness between Cody and Wyatt as the the former blames the latter for their sullied reputations. Yet, beneath that extant animosity lies an unspoken loyalty.
“The bond between these men is considerable, and the lengths they go to for one another in a bad spot is inspiring.”
The bond between these men is considerable, and the lengths they go to for one another in a bad spot is inspiring. Each time someone is harmed by the villainous martian, there is a sensible moment of care and tenderness between the characters. It’s substantially sensitive writing for such a brutal movie.
Aside from the main four men, there are two other players caught up in this vendetta. Wyatt‘s girlfriend Hope (Catherine Mangan) is directly put in harm’s way, but she remains his ‘ride or die.’ As for the local sheriff (James Gammon, Silver Bullet), he unfortunately shows up at the wrong place at the wrong time. The importance of these other characters greatly vary. However, both are there as an anchor to reality. The aptly named Hope is a reminder of everything Wyatt has to live for, whereas the sheriff could represent the past. All the doubt and ridicule Wyatt and his pals endured all those years, embodied in one grizzled lawman, is now helping them fight a bona fide alien.
In the last several decades, there has been a sizable turnaround in how aliens are potrayed in the media. Once sadistic and invasive, movies like Arrival have made them misunderstood and almost endearing. Well, Altered completely shuns that notion. The E.T. here is one hellish beast of many with a taste for pain and destruction. From pulling at your innards to dosing you with a fatal infection, this space invader is transparently evil. It and its ilk have not come in peace nor do they want to better their existences by studying us. The only reason Wyatt and his buds don’t off their prisoner is because his comrades will then launch an all-out assault on the planet. Writer Jamie Nash’s refusal to romanticize aliens is a return to classic depictions of unearthly visitors.
The visuals in the movie are a step above other indie horrors. The alien antagonist is essentially a man in a suit, and it surely shows in the wrong lighting. The attention to its facial features and articulation makes this otherworldly outlander a menace to behold. With Altered also being knee-deep in physical torment and violence, there is a commendable use of practical effects and makeup. For instance, the suppurating quality of the body horror within is exceptionally nasty. There are bouts of CGI that are a clear indicator of the times, but they’re brief and honestly humble.
“Moody, emotional, and anxious, Sánchez serves up a distinct alien horror that stays true to his vision.”
Eduardo Sánchez had a lot to live up to after co-directing the phenomenon that is The Blair Witch Project. This was his first solo feature, and, for what it’s worth, the movie is more successful than not. Moody, emotional, and anxious, Sánchez serves up a distinct alien horror that stays true to his vision. It may have gone under the radar, but one doesn’t have to look to the skies just to see how good Altered truly is.