Writer-director Nick Gregorio’s latest post-pandemic sci-fi thriller Old Strangers is the newest entry into the slew of body snatcher films which taps into the primal fear that people around us are not who they seem to be. Set against the backdrop of a post-lockdown world, it recounts the age-old story of friends reconnecting from the past to rekindle their relationship in a secluded mountain town and things taking a dark twist and turn when they stumble upon something strange and alien in the wilderness. This old-wine-in-a-new-bottle winds up as a missed opportunity for its abysmal and hollow plotline, meaningless and one-dimensional flat characters, and foreseeable and unsurprising closing.
This minimal atmospheric mystery opens with an SUV speeding up the isolated highway around Big Bear Lake in Southern California with the voice-over of DJ Midday Mike (Andy Riesmeyer) giving a rundown on how the town’s economy is suffering due to lockdown and encouraging people to pay a visit before the town shuts down for good. Into this sequestered mountain town, three old friends reunify after an extended quarantine to enjoy nature away from the digital world of the internet and zoom. We meet a cheerful, vape-sucking Sarah (Madeleine Humphries), playful and spirited Michael (Ted Evans) and a seemingly gratified Danny (Colton Eschief Mastro). They sit around a campfire swapping stories and catching up on their respective lives. Danny is downcast when he talks about his recent breakup with his wife Katie and how rough quarantine had been on his relationship.
The trio barely finished declaring how they missed each other when the camera shifts and move off into the woods with ominous background music cautioning us about something lurking in the dark. The next morning, they embark on a hiking trail enjoying the crisp air of the outdoors. Suddenly, Michael steps on something gooey and slimy which they speculate as an insect nest. They see countless such egg-like shapes and an intrigued Danny touches one of them and gets stung by one. Michael tells Danny impulsively, “If this is a horror movie, you’re dying first.” Danny’s finger gets infected soon and he goes missing the next day. When he returns, he starts acting strangely and becomes emotionally unavailable as if he has been replaced by an emotionless alien duplicate. What happens to the trio afterwards forms the rest of the narrative.
‘Old Strangers’ clocks just over an hour-long move swiftly but predictable at every turn of the page running low on tension and tenterhooks. This relatively low budget affair can boast about the montage of VFX shots throughout the film that explicates the origin and invasion of an extraterrestrial life form that takes over humanity resulting in the loss of emotions and sense of individuality. Restricted to an incredibly small cast and the singular location of the mountain town, the atmosphere of exposed isolation and the dread of danger is prevalent.
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Considering the number of films that have already been made in the same spirit of alien parasites and group minds such as Don Siegel’s critically-acclaimed classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), Slither (2006), and the recent Assimilate (2019), Old Strangers lack imagination and fresh ideas in the development of the plot. The film employs the overused and overfamiliar plot points of alien objects, strange and awkward behaviour, disturbing dreams and visions, characters disappearing and reappearing, and cold-blooded and controlled clones lacking free will. With too much of a pedigree, this bloodless effort is a naive imitation effort that can only be summed up as a harmless replica.
One aspect that stands apart from its predecessors is the placing of the movie right in the middle of this changing contemporary world during the pandemic. And ‘Old Strangers’ utilizes the same scary element of the virus as something out there that can spread, beyond our science, and beyond our ability to contain. The film is an allegory for our fear of losing ourselves when something otherworldly is spreading, growing and feeding on our pain. The conversations between the characters give a laid-back tone to the film but the interactions also throw light into the harsh realities of relationships, the claustrophobic feeling of quarantine life, and the need to prioritise people. The film also functions as a social criticism echoing the feeling of isolation that comes from our lack of trust in our community.
Unlike the other movies in this subgenre, there is no graphic display of blood, gore or violence. The cinematography by Blake Gaytan is commendable for the flawless and satisfactory shots of an asteroid travelling through space and in bringing the tilt-shift effect that offers a large depth of field. The intense and loud score by Zane Guidon is excellent as it singularly brings out the terror even in the most cliched situations. The performances of the lead roles were decent but could have gone up a notch if they were not shallow and flat characters with little substance. Old Strangers, in a nutshell, is an overwrought and poorly structured narrative that rides on uninteresting side plots and ill-executed screenplay and characters.