Ti West’s offbeat ghost story “The Innkeepers” and Joe Cornish’s alien-invasion riff “Attack the Block” each benefit from a heavy measure of subtext. In West’s semi-comic outing, a young woman’s obsession with the apparent hauntings of the titular inn comes to represent her own lack of direction. She grows fascinated by the afterlife because her real life is a total bore. British comic Cornish, in his directorial debut, takes a road less subtle by pitting a group of teen gang members against carnivorous alien invaders. By saving the neighborhood, hoodlums become the heroes.
In both films, young people face off against abnormal powers in acts that symbolize a transition to maturity — a theme that West explores particularly well. Cornish, meanwhile, takes a page from the Joe Dante playbook by using sci-fi/action-genre zaniness to bring his setting to life. Set in a small urban region of South London, “Attack the Block” focuses on nine teens, all newcomers whom Cornish cast from locals in the area. In the first scene, the group energetically mug frightened nurse Sam (Jodie Whittaker) shortly before an dog-like alien critter crashes to Earth beside them.
After killing the thing in a nearby shed, they head for their nearby weed supplier (Nick Frost) to celebrate. When more extraterrestrials start falling from the sky, the carefree bunch decide to embark on a killing spree, only to find themselves facing much more dangerous invaders. The soon find themseves holed up in an apartment complex, alternately evading and assaulting the carnivorous beings as their own numbers dwindle. Over time, hardened gang leader Moses (John Boyega) joins forces with unlikely ally Sam to survive the night.
The stakes never go that high in “The Innkeepers.” West, who demonstrated a penchant for extensive build-ups in “The House of the Devil” and “Trigger Man,” continually makes it unclear if the inn actually harbors a ghost or if his heroine (Sara Paxton) has simply imagines it. Both she and her hilariously frazzled co-worker (Pat Healy of “Great World of Sound”) want to believe in supernatural affairs for the thrill factor alone.
In “Attack the Block,” the aliens show up in the first few minutes and stick around the whole time; like everything else dangerous in the gang’s collective lifestyle, the boys initially find the rush of invasion extremely cool, until the lethal ramifications of the showdown set in.
Both films keep the details surrounding the fantastic events relatively trim. That’s a very good thing in “Attack the Block,” since the aliens are its lamest conceit: black masses of fur, neon blue teeth and little else. Did Cornish create the extraterrestrial details as an afterthought? Even the dialogue suggests as much. “Maybe there was a party at a zoo and a monkey fucked a fish,” says Frost’s character.
Still, his action-packed plot moves fast and is consistently enjoyable, giving a sense of play to the creature-feature entertainment mold of “Gremlins” and other American monster movies of the 1980s. Executive produced by longtime Cornish collaborator Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead”), it benefits from visual polish and an economical pace. In the contrast between the 15-year-old Moses and the middle-class Sam, Cornish tells a survival story about class struggle without turning preachy. By the time it ends, “Attack the Block” has transformed into a parable about how people of varying socio-economic backgrounds can learn to get along, or die trying.
HOW WILL THEY PLAY? “American distributors are worried about the language,” Cornish said at the SXSW midnight premiere, referring to the local dialect of the gang members. “With 20 years of hip-hop culture and then ‘The Wire,’ did you find it difficult?” A resounding “No!” came in response from the audience. Cornish replied: “Then tell your local distributor.” Indeed, “Attack the Block” has enough goofy fun and reliable sci-fi conceits to supplement the intriguing production history, which should help it find a decently-sized American audience. “The Innkeepers” will have an easier time attracting both buyers and genre fans, who are already committed to following West’s output.
“Attack the Block”: A-
“The Innkeepers”: B+