Perfect fodder for a late-night festival audience (especially one prone, as the Czechs are, to spontaneously bursting into generous applause at certain satisfying story beats) UK/Irish co-production “Grabbers,” directed by Jon Wright, played to a raucously positive reception last night at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. And it’s a fun ride, and while it doesn’t reinvent the “Tremors” and “Slither” modern-b-movie wheel, it adds a few neat touches to that formula. It’s a shame it ultimately favours repetition over originality, for as anyone with even a passing knowledge of those films knows, proceedings run on very predictable lines, leaving the more inspired elements of the story frustratingly underdeveloped.
Set, like the brilliant but underseen “The Guard,” in the west of Ireland, and similarly featuring Irish policemen and women (Gardai) as the protagonists, “Grabbers” takes place on a small isolated island off the coast, on which the small town boasts a single pub, a population of sailors, fishermen, and drunkards, and two Gardai. When the senior of the two takes a two-week holiday, the younger (Richard Coyle), himself a perma-drunk alco with little but scorn for his job, is partnered with peppy, ambitious, up-from-Dublin and by-the-book Lisa (Ruth Bradley). At which precise point, of course, a giant squidlike alien that sports grabby tentacles for tongues (hello again “Tremors”) and spawns multiple sluglike offspring (“Slither,” you dog!) starts picking people off, so the mismatched pair are forced to work together to… are you getting as bored reading this as we are writing it? Ok, that’s a little unfair, as the plot details do not adequately convey the level of charm the actors, especially our destined-for-each-other lead duo, bring to rather hackneyed roles. And we haven’t really even got to the big sell yet, the twist of Irishness that obviously made it into the film’s pitch logline and is in itself so inspired that you can see greenlights igniting a mile away: the creature thrives in water, and drinks blood to live, but is discovered to have a violently toxic reaction to alcohol. So the obvious solution, when a storm threatens, no help is available, and no evacuation possible, is to get everyone on the island, in local parlance: pissed, locked, gee-eyed, bollixed, hammered. In a word: drunk.
Honestly this premise is so ripe with potential that we just can’t believe no one’s done it before: a pub’s worth of rowdy intoxicated locals battling alien beasties with nothing but their prodigious capacity for booze standing between them and annihilation? We’re there! But the film falls a bit short in really letting that concept fly as high as it should, or last as long as it should: the plotting gets in the way of the lunacy, such a pity. Far be it from us to encourage less professionalism in anyone’s approach to filmmaking, but for our money, a little less deferential attention could have been paid to the he-has-to-go-there-to-get-that mechanics of the narrative, in favour of a little more time with the assorted batshit poitin-fueled locals taking on an otherworldly menace armed with flamethrowers made out of Super Soakers. Even the ultimate takedown is orchestrated by the two leads, as opposed to the whole community, and in general the film feels like it misses as many opportunities as it takes.
There are occasional laugh-out-loud moments, for sure, and the winningness of the leads makes the inevitable climactic clinch actually rather affecting, but “Grabbers” could have been so much more than the derivative me-too it turns out to be. Thankfully, the films it derives from are themselves a pretty good time at the movies, so while it might not linger with you very long after you leave the theatre, while you’re there at least, it’s a likable way to spend 94 minutes, if not quite a blast. [B]