If imitation truly is the sincerest form of flattery, R.W. Goodwin must be one of the sincerest people in Hollywood. (Some might say he wouldn’t have much competition.) His “Alien Trespass” tries to copy a typical sci-fi horror movie of the late 1950s as accurately as possible. And it largely succeeds. It has moments of deliberate fun-poking and inside joking: when toward the close an alien called Urp is referred to as “Marshal Urp,” anyone who remembers Hugh O’Brian’s television series of the day will chuckle, and when a theatre is featured showing “The Blob,” the comparison is forced down your throat.
But Goodwin’s movie isn’t an outright spoof or send-up, like “Eight Legged Freaks.” Or an effort to turn B-movie shlock into an A-movie blockbuster, like “Arachnophobia” or “Alien.” It’s truly a scene-by-scene, almost line-by-line homage, an affectionate tribute to a genre the director and his cohorts obviously love, with nods to more examples of it than one can count.
The formula is tried-and-true. A spaceship crash-lands in the California desert near a small town. It disgorges a one-eyed crawly beast with one huge red eye and a tentacle, looking a bit like the absurd carrot-shaped thing from Roger Corman’s “It Conquered The World” (1956), that has the power to turn invisible and consumes people, leaving only a puddle of goo in their place. It’s escaped from its captor, the aforesaid Urp, a sort of intergalactic policeman who takes over the body of Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), the tweedy, pipe-smoking astrologer who’s first on the scene in order to track down the Ghota, as the creature’s called, before it can reproduce and annihilate all life on earth.
The usual assemblage of other characters get involved. There’s Ted’s wife (Jody Thompson), and the waitress (Jenni Baird) who’s initially incredulous of his story but eventually becomes his (that is, Urp’s) helper. There are the unbelieving cops—about-to-retire chief (Dan Lauria), hard-ass veteran (Robert Patrick), and a couple of callow deputies. There are the teenagers—squeaky-clean sweethearts Dick (Andrew Dunbar) and Penny (Sarah Smyth), and their rebel wannabe pal Cody (Aaron Brooks). There are a pair of hayseeds (Jonathan Young and Michael Roberds). And more: a sci-fi obsessed kid and his babysitter, an old drunk who lives with his dog in a broken-down cabin near the crash site, a little girl playing in her backyard and her skeptical mother, patrons at a diner and the audience at the theatre showing “The Blob.” Everything they do and say will have a familiar ring to anybody who watched the pictures it’s emulating during the Eisenhower years; even Louis Febre’s score, complete with theremin obbligato, mimics those from the fifties flicks.
Despite all the care, though, and an opening “newsreel” meant to suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that the picture was one that was actually made fifty years ago but suppressed by the studio and never released, “Alien Trespass” feels phony. Perhaps it doesn’t want to be camp, but it inevitably becomes so, because the very effort to replicate its models is so knowing that it comes across as insufferably arch. It doesn’t wink at the audience ostentatiously but seems constantly to be doing so subliminally. And since it can’t stray from its predetermined path, it can offer no surprises. Indeed, doing the expected is all that it’s about.
And that pales pretty quickly. The movie is actually pretty well put together, if you consider it on its own terms. That newsreel is cagily assembled. The performances, though they’re like sketch sets, fit the foreordained mold; David Moxness’ photography uses lots of old-fashioned sweeps and rear-projection shots to ape the period style; the props and costumes are carefully chosen. And that score is uncannily on point.
But ultimately the effect isn’t all that dissimilar from the one Gus Van Sant achieved in his 1998 scene-by-scene remake of “Psycho.” This isn’t as slavish a copy, of course—it cobbles together bits and pieces from all sorts of sources, from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to “I Married a Monster from Outer Space.” But after awhile it seems nothing more than an exercise—a loving one, perhaps, but one that even the most nostalgic fan is likely to find genial but pointless. A much more successful example of this sort of thing was “Slither” (2006), which was equally precise but came across as less aware and thus looser and more fun.
We’d all love to turn back the clock and relive past pleasures. But none of us can—including Goodwin. Fortunately, the movies that “Alien Trespass” copies are still around. By and large they aren’t very good, but they’re still corny fun. More so than this attempt to clone them, actually.