Largely ignored in American theaters—despite raves from the online outlets and a half-hearted grassroots campaign—Joe Cornish’s cheeky Attack the Block hits Blu-ray/DVD just in time for Halloween. For fans of horror comedies and creature features, Cornish’s modestly scaled tale of London street thugs fighting shaggy brutes from space definitely qualifies as a treat instead of a trick.
Deriving its inspiration from classics as varied as The Warriors, Tremors and Predator, Attack the Block sets its sights on the world of 80’s genre fiction and comes up with a modern day counterpart that can stand on its own. This is a sharp-witted, well directed and tightly paced monster movie that doesn’t put on airs of sophistication. Credit Cornish, who stays true to the spirit of the midnight movie premise and still finds time for some on-point commentary.
Moses (John Boyega) is a Council Estate street hoodlum living in South London and running amok with his posse of like-minded teen miscreants. On the night the film opens, Moses and gang are in the process of mugging unsuspecting nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) when a flaming meteorite smashes into a parked car. What climbs out of that burned cinder is a feisty, ill-tempered extraterrestrial that incites the hooligan rage of the teens and Sam is left forgotten on the street, while they run off to bash its head in. And they do. Ten minutes into the picture, and Moses and the other boys are lugging a dead, leaking alien beastie through the streets of their ‘block’ and back to the top floor apartment of their drug supplier, a mercurial pothead played by Nick Frost.
Of course, there’s more going on here than the punks realize. When the isolated attack gives way to a full-fledged meteor storm right out of a golden age sci-fi matinee cheapie, the kids get excited and go gather their weapons for another round of critter-smashing. In their juiced-up bloodlust they realize too late that the new guard are a bigger, shaggier, deadlier caste of creature. And there are more of them. Soon, the jet-black ‘gorilla wolf muthas’ are murdering the police, implicating Moses with the local drug lord, and eating their way through the ‘block’ person by person. When the boys end up barricaded in Sam’s apartment, the whole crew realizes they need to work together if they are ever going to survive this night.
Sketched out in broad details at first, and acted with pluck and hard-edged energy by the young actors, Boyega especially, this delinquent crew is interesting long before they are endearing. To begin with, they are wholly unlikable; a few of the kids earn laughs and smiles, but most of them are out of the picture early. Even in the film’s later chapters we feel some sympathy for them without really individually liking anyone. Cornish has the good sense to let them be irresponsible thugs whose phony street patoi and half-baked social excuses are as hollow as the empty meteorite shells that start littering the parks and sidewalks of South London.
Moses, for his part, has to start taking responsibility for his hand in this monstrous invasion, and a late-in-the-game twist reveals he’s more to blame than he’d like to think. When he’s given a crossroads choice of living up to his biblical namesake or running away like he’s always done, actor Boyega channels the frightened man living inside the stunted child. He’s supported by a great cast of younger actors who share the burden of making the film feel real and plausible. Whittaker makes a good adult foil, and her surprised expression when Moses skewers one of the intergalactic bruisers with a samurai sword is priceless. Frost is little more than a glorified cameo but he gets a few laughs, while Jumayn Hunter, as his boss Hi-Hatz, casts a formidable shadow. The scene stealers are Sammy Williams and Michael Ajao as Probs and Mayhem, two absurdly young kids who want so badly to be a part of the alien war they fill their super-soakers with kerosene and head out into the darkened block looking for trouble.
Cornish has a background in comedy, working often as co-writer with Edgar Wright, and while Attack the Block has some in common with Shaun of the Dead, it’s more of a straightforward genre effort than that film was. There’s a good number of scares and hair-rising action scenes and the gore is surprisingly sophisticated and effective. One bit with the creatures slowly stripping the layers of their victim’s face is deliciously old school in its approach. The monsters are wholly unique in the annals of the b-movie bestiary and I was impressed with the imagination and ingenuity used to bring them to life on a small budget. Performance dancer Terry Notary creates the motion capture and then some minimalist digital effects render the aliens visually singular, imposing menaces.
There’s a visually striking nightmare sequence towards the end when a pack of the things are hell-bent on catching Moses and he runs through the hallways of the complex, their glowing fangs nipping at his heels. A pulse-pounding and atmospheric score by Basement Jaxx helps the picture cruise merrily along, gaining heated momentum as it goes. Cornish creates an intuitive geography for the block itself, so much so it might as well be a character in the movie. It is clear there’s danger here, for everyone alike, long before it’s suspected there are any hoary mutant wolves hiding in the night.
There’s a point where Attack the Block gets to the end of its inspiration and exhausted the story it wants to tell. Thankfully, the director is in tune with this fact and gets out of our way before all of the magic is gone. This is admirable. Cornish isn’t shooting for the moon, his aim is modest and true. He hits the mark. I enjoyed Attack the Block for what it was, and had a great time with its monsters and its human characters. I was even moved to think about the obvious but incidental parallels between the mindset of Moses and his street-lurkers and last summer’s London riots. Cornish is getting at something there too, but if you miss it that’s fine. As long as you got a load of those freaky flippin’ aliens. This movie is big fun. Believe.