Thursday, September 21, 2017

Welcome to Willits: Fighting Aliens in the Emerald Triangle

Tin foil hats—they’re not just for conspiracy nutters anymore. An alien abduction survivor will deck out his terrified niece Courtney in an aluminum foil skull cap as a defense against extraterrestrial mind control. Clearly, Courtney is one of the few sane ones her family, just as Jeremiah is really the only decent dude in the group of college friends camping not far from Uncle Brock’s cabin. These two kids really ought to get together in Trevor Ryan’s Welcome to Willets (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Old Brock has lost it. Who knows, maybe he really was abducted, but the subsequent post-traumatic stress and paranoia have completely unhinged his psyche. Aunt Peggy either humors him or has come to share his delusions. They hope the “aliens” will not bother them while Courtney is staying with them, but when the obnoxious Zack starts prowling around their Emerald Triangle pot grove, it triggers all the wrong responses in Uncle Brock’s head. Soon he starts to suspect the understandably freaked out Courtney is acting under alien influence, so they tie her up and chuck her into the closet.

Surprisingly, the Ryans, director Trevor and screenwriter Tim, do not play a lot of is-he-or-isn’t-he, are-they-or-aren’t-they games. Notwithstanding his flashbacks, it is pretty clear from early on Uncle Brock is just completely off his rocker. Bill Sage, who is no stranger to horror movies, is perfectly cast as the crazy uncle. You could almost call it a throwback performance that is more sadly tragic (and acutely human) than scary.

However, the real highlight of the film is a series of cameo appearances from Dolph Lundgren as a fictional shoot-first-and-then-shoot-again-later TV cop (on the show Fists of Justice), whom the aliens periodically use to issue threats to Brock, at least in his head. As you would expect, whenever Lundgren is on-screen to lunacy cranks up to eleven. In all seriousness, it is time for the Academy to recognize Lundgren’s contributions with an honorary Oscar. He is a survivor, who has made key contributions to the Rocky, Expendables, and Universal Soldier franchises. He fought commies in Red Scorpion and sharks in Shark Lake. He is also a prominent activist in the real-life fight against human trafficking, which makes him more of a humanitarian and a better actor than that screeching, over-acting Meryl Streep, so there is really no excuse to deny him the recognition he is due.

So, anyway, Willets is basically a crazy-hicks-in-the-woods movie, but it has a great cast. In addition to Lundgren and Sage, Rory Culkin probably takes on the role he was born to play as Possum, the drug-addled, conspiracy theory-spouting drifter, who awkwardly tags along with Jeremiah’s shallow pals. Garrett Clayton is spectacularly obnoxious as the entitled Zack, while Anastasia Baranova and Chris Zylka are appealingly earnest and grounded as Courtney and Jeremiah.

The key art for Willets makes it look larky, but it is very much a human-scale genre examination of human foibles—until Lundgren struts on-screen. It is a relatively simple narrative, but it is distinguished by several memorably colorful performances. Recommended for horror fans and Academy members (who should also check out Lundgren in the sensitive demon-hunting drama, Don’t Kill It), Welcome to Willets opens tomorrow (9/22) in New York, at the IFC Center.