'Snatchers': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Courtesy of SXSW
Likeable but a bit stale in more ways than one.

A high school student copes with giving birth to a monster in Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman's reformatted web serial.

A horror-comedy PSA about the perils of teen sex and the importance of staying true to one's real friends, Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman's Snatchers rewards a wayward high-schooler with not just one but two unwanted babies, both of which spring from the womb trying to kill every human they encounter. Though good-humored and gory enough to please some auds in fest-circuit Midnight programs, the film's lack of broader appeal may be demonstrated by its tortured path to the big screen.

It took a long series of emails with several publicists and producers to confirm that what SXSW bills as a world premiere is somewhat less fresh than one might assume. Though all available reps denied it at first, this film (which began as a feature pitch, then was bought as an episodic series for mobile platforms, then was reconfigured as a feature) consists largely of material shown over two years ago at Sundance. More than half the film screened in 2017's Midnight Episodic Showcase; when the series' planned second and third seasons fell through, producers shot a second half to wrap things up as a feature. The good news is, the seams don't really show.

Sara (Mary Nepi) is a basic sellout at school, having dumped her old pal Hayley (Gabrielle Elyse) to be part of a popular clique run by Ashley Argota's shallow Kiana. Seemingly allergic to rejection, she does a moral 180 when her doofus boyfriend Skyler (Austin Fryberger) says he has outgrown her. She knows that's code for "I want a girl who'll put out," so the virgin slinks over to his place one night to win him back with a sure-to-be-quickie.

The next morning, she's vomiting in the hall at school; hours later, she has a belly the size of a basketball. By the time she makes it to an OB/GYN, the baby's ready to arrive. And what an arrival: It shoots out of her body, rockets straight through the doc's skull, and starts bouncing around an examination room filled with shrieks and gore. Before long, the grody little thing — like an Alien facehugger with a dead-eyed little head atop it — is attaching itself to any ambulatory human it finds, controlling its victim with a stinger plunged into his spinal cord, and doing maximum damage. Amazingly, the mother lives. But there's something else moving inside her — maybe a twin that doesn't want to come out yet?

Forced to ask herself which of her friends might be useful here (telling her mother what's happened is out of the question), Sara pairs up with Hayley, and it's a good thing for everyone involved. Not only does Hayley know, um, a veterinarian who might help finish this pregnancy business; but Elyse is the most engaging of the young thesps onscreen, with an animated face reminiscent of a twentyish Maya Rudolph.

The two girls set off on a rough-night adventure, during which they're forced to admit what has happened to Sara's mother (JJ Nolan) — who's furious largely because she made the same mistakes when she was a kid. Sans the bloodthirsty extraterrestrials, obvs.

Speaking of "obvs," the three dudes who wrote the script are pretty cray-cray in their attempt to capture the slang of today's teen girls. Is their dialogue intentionally off-kilter for comic effect? Did it sound less dated in 2017? Presumably it was meant to be as tongue-in-cheek as the creature FX by Chris Hanson, who embraces practical monster work even when his puppetry makes Gremlins look state-of-the-art. In a second half (the most recently shot scenes) focused mainly on action and escape sequences, Snatchers underuses its appealing older castmembers (Nolan and the likeable Nick Gomez) but milks a good gag or two out of younger ones. Its level of laugh-scare-ick energy never approaches that of the genre pix that inspired it, but for something that was almost stuck being consumed in eight-minute chunks on cellphones, it's a credible debut.

Distributor: Make Good Content
Cast: Mary Nepi, Gabrielle Elyse, Austin Fryberger, JJ Nolan, Nick Gomez, Ashley Argota, Amy Arburn, Amy Landecker, Rich Fulcher
Director: Stephen Cedars, Benji Kleiman
Screenwriters: Stephen Cedars, Benji Kleiman, Scott Yacyshyn
Producers: Paul Young, Eric Fisher, Scott Hinckley, Elli Legerski
Executive producers: Stephen Cedars, Benji Kleiman, Scott Yacyshyn
Director of photography: Nate Hurtsellers
Production designers: Rocky Jackson, Ying-Te Julie Chen
Costume designers: Liz Pecos, Mary Wuliger
Editors: Stephen Cedars, Benji Kleiman
Composer: Christopher Doucet
Casting director: Sherie Hernandez
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Midnighters)
Sales: Paul Young, Make Good Content

96 minutes