The setting is a small-town supermarket. Inside, everything appears to be business as usual until a group of armed assailants barges in at closing time. At first, it appears that they are holding the place up, especially after firing off a few rounds. However, there is a guy nicknamed Spooky who keeps staring intently at everyone, the first tipoff that something else is actually occurring. We soon learn that an alien infestation has taken place and the intruders are, in fact, trying to prevent it from spreading. They know that one of the store's employees has been bodily invaded by the king alien - which could therefore unleash hell should it spawn - but nobody knows which one, except for Spooky, who has the ability to detect the aliens by gazing into the eyes of potential hosts. When he is no longer able to fulfill that duty, a far more disturbing method of detection must be used to figure out who the carrier is.
Meanwhile, outside the store, a local cop (Matthew St. Patrick from "Six Feet Under") heads up what he assumes is a hostage negotiation. Making it more complicated is the fact that his stepdaughter Whitney (Samantha Streets) is in the store. He eventually establishes contact with the leader of the armed intruders and comes to realize that something very strange and deadly is taking place. The question is, can they stop it before it's too late?
Alien Raiders loses a few points in the originality department. The whole idea of people being trapped in a grocery store with bizarre creatures is ripped right out of Stephen King's "The Mist" (as well as Frank Darabont's superb film adaptation). There are also elements that will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen The Thing or Ridley Scott's Alien. There isn't a lot here that hasn't been done before, so even while it entertains, you can't shake a general sense of déjà vu.
That said, the movie at least has the good sense to borrow from great works. It also far surpasses the vast majority of other DVD premiere movies in the genre. The acting is professional, the attempts at humor are successful, and the gore is present just enough to make an impact without ever becoming exploitive. I additionally have to applaud the story's interest in exploring psychological suspense, rather than just piling on the blood and guts. One of the most horrifying scenes finds the store's inhabitants anxiously awaiting their turn to take a particularly grisly test to find out if they are carriers of the alien. Sure, there's a nauseating payoff to the sequence - as there should be in any self-respecting horror flick - but it's the anticipation and dread that makes the scene work. I also liked a plot twist at the end that, unlike many, actually does surprise. Here's the rare movie in this genre that doesn't fizzle out in the final seconds.
I think Alien Raiders would have had a hard time competing theatrically with bigger budgeted, star-studded horror/sci-fi pictures. DVD, on the other hand, seems like a perfect place to discover it. There is something intimate about the story, which takes place in a single setting and mines issues of lethality lurking behind a façade of normalcy. Director Ben Rock provides a solid pace that keeps you hooked, even when the familiarity of the plot elements becomes evident.
While perhaps not the most original or groundbreaking sci-fi/horror picture ever made, Alien Raiders at least succeeds in executing a simple-but-effective formula. It's the kind of movie you can curl up on the couch and watch when you're in the mood for a little atmosphere, a few decent jolts, and a bit of old-fashioned gore.
( 1/2 out of four)
Alien Raiders is available on DVD starting Feb. 17 in widescreen format. The bonus features start off with "Hidden Terror: The Making of Alien Raiders." This is a pretty standard making-of, but it's kind of interesting because of the movie's low-budget nature. Cast and crew offer their perspectives on the production.
Next up is "Blood, Sweat and Fears," which looks at the movie's special effects and creature makeup. Director Rock admits that, had his budget been bigger, he'd have included wall-to-wall gore. Thankfully, his budget forced him to be more creative and mysterious, because that's the right tone for the movie.
Finally, there are three sets of "tapes" - home videos featuring the characters prior to the movie's events. These segments offer some intriguing background material, showing you how they all convened in that grocery store to fight a common enemy.
Return to The Aisle Seat