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Atomic Brain Invasion
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by Jay Seaver

"A cheery-enough throwback."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2011 BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL: It's fair to look at a movie like "Atomic Brain Invasion" and sigh. Another one of these things? After all, to put it bluntly, the people with legitimate first-hand nostalgia for 1950s sci-fi flicks are dying off, and going the spoof route just seems unsporting. Writer/director Richard Griffin splits the difference, making a throwback sci-fi flick that's kind of funny, but occasionally seems to miss opportunities.

It's the 1950s, and this small New England town seems typical. Sure, the occasional mushroom cloud on the horizon probably should make the residents wonder just exactly what sort of velocipedes the army is working on at the Bicycle Testing Ground. That's not the only strange thing going on, though - something has crashed in the woods where the local high school has a field trip. Among those teenagers are misfits Sherman (David Lavallee Jr.), Kevin (Daniel Lee White), and Jim (Colin Carlton); academically inclined cutie Betty (Sarah Nicklin); and Lukas (Michael Reed), son of the general in charge of the army base (David Erin Wilson), who is having a hard time dealing with the fact that Betty doesn't like him nearly as much as Sherman. As slimy aliens infiltrate, another group of aliens lands - good-looking teenage ones (Alexander Lewis, Alexandra Cipolla, and Ruth Sullivan), asking to be taken to the king. They can't mean Elvis (Brandon Luis Aponte), can they?

Look at the credits of Richard Griffin and his cast, and you'll see a lot of overlap. This is a group that has been cranking out horror movies on a fairly regular schedule, and this time around they wanted to make something less R-rated. On that count, they succeed; it's a pretty mild movie, with no swearing, not much even the easily-horrified fifties moms in the cast would find terribly suggestive, and what violence there is more likely to involve puppets and glowing green goo than graphic blood and guts. In that way, Atomic Brain Invasion is a tends more to the pastiche than the parody; it respects the 50s monster-movie conventions much more than it mocks them.

Of course, it can't help but make fun much of the time, and sometimes they could have done with pushing it a little harder. While the kids are often played as kind of broad and maybe oblivious, the characters are at their best when they poke each other with something a little sharp. For instance, Lukas isn't nearly as funny as a dim-bulb bully as he is when he's playing weird, eccentric, and perhaps in a deep, dark closet. A conversation by the ladies horrified that kids might be going to that rock & roll concert rather than their pie-baking contest is a little obvious, but General Bedfellow commenting during a lecture that "we don't know a lot about radiation, and most of what we do know is wrong" is funny because it jabs at present-day scientific ignorance on film and in life as much as it does the past. Heck, Elvis is funnier the nuttier he seems. Basically, every time Griffin, co-writer Guy Benoit, and company go for the screwy, bizarre joke, it works a lot better than just repeating formula.

As one might expect from a group that has been something of a repertory company for the past few years, the cast works well together. Lewis, Cipolla, and Sullivan especially make for a fun comedy team; though not talking is their gag early on, they do actually get funnier as they open their mouths. Sarah Nicklin is fairly enjoyable throughout as the girl much more aware of what's going on than the boys around her (well, most of the time), although David Lavallee Jr. goes a little too broadly geeky as Sherman. Not so much that we start rooting for Lukas, of course - Michael Reed steals his scenes by pushing the character farther in terms of being screwed up.

Familiarity also helps for Griffin, who knows what his cast and crew are capable of and what he's got for resources. The film has a bright, colorful look to it, and the filmmakers do a nice job of getting a slightly exaggerated period look without overdoing it. The effects are pretty darn serviceable for a movie with a fairly low budget, and while Griffin doesn't have a lot of scale to work with, he's not bad at directing action at all - the shootouts as the alien brain monsters attack are crisp and well-put-together.

The end result is pretty decent, which is something of a triumph (most of these movies are awful). The retro-sci-fi homage/spoof picture is an inherently silly little subgenre, but this one does all right in making that work for it.

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originally posted: 04/10/11 14:24:28
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2011 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.

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