When Ricky Gervais made his controversial remarks in 2008 that British cinema hadn’t “cut the mustard… since about 1950”, he was not merely attempting to ingratiate himself with American filmmakers, though that was likely an intention. He was promoting a popularly held, if erroneous, belief that there are certain genres Hollywood’s affluent studios are better equipped to produce than their counterparts across the Atlantic. It is entirely appropriate, then, that Edgar Wright was the first to rebuke Gervais with his blog post listing 101 British films he personally cherished, which had been made since 1950. Wright had, after all, helmed 2004’s Shaun of the Dead, the horror-comedy which made back over seven times its original budget, and led to several imitative efforts that aped Shaun‘s style but not its success: Severance, The Cottage, Lesbian Vampire Killers and Attack The Block. To that list one can now add Jon Wright’s Grabbers.
Shaun of the Dead‘s volatile mixture of laughs and scares reverberates throughout Grabbers, a standard monster movie in the vein of Tremors and other 1950s-throwbacks: on an isolated island off the coast of Ireland, a squid-like creature is discovered, coinciding with the gruesome death of some locals. This baffles the police force and an inexplicably-based marine ecologist, until they determine not only that this creature has a much larger, carnivorous relative roaming the vicinity, but that these newly-christened ‘Grabbers’ (perhaps in an homage to Tremors) are allergic to alcohol. Thus, by ingesting severe amounts of booze, the inhabitants of Erin Island are insusceptible to threats from the invasive creature and its offspring.
Credit must be given to screenwriter Kevin Lehane for conceiving of a horror scenario in which the one renowned social characteristic of the Irish is a prerequisite to the plot. On paper, the idea of remaining intoxicated – as opposed to alert – in order to evade danger is a neat subversion of genre conventions, on a par with Ken Selden’s Cherry Falls, where virginal teens are targeted for execution over their more promiscuous peers. Sadly, Grabbers squanders this opportunity, burying it under drab aerial shots of vehicles gliding along country roads and an overbearing musical score from Christian Henson. There is nary a scene in the film without Henson’s ubiquitous sub-Danny Elfman noodling undercutting the action.
If Shaun of the Dead is the film to which Grabbers is most indebted, John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard runs it a close second. Irish viewers, particularly those of a rural background, may take umbrage at the depiction of a coastal village as teeming with incoherent yokels, whose exclusive social outlets are the church and the pub. JM McDonagh and his brother Martin, both born-and-bred in London to Irish parents, have been accused – by the Sunday Independent’s Emer O’Kelly, among others – of perpetuating the myth of the Irish as a nation of drunken, barbarous simpletons. Grabbers does little to distance itself from this stereotype. At one point, the film’s hero, Garda Ciarán O’Shea (Richard Coyle) attempts to destroy the remnants of one of the creatures by setting it alight, despite the protests of Dr. Smith (Russell Tovey). When this ignition sets off the ceiling sprinklers, the English-accented Smith quips, “you really are Irish!”. The film is not without its witty observations of colloquial Irish dialect – one character suggests selling the corpse of the monster on “the eBay”, another proffers “wine gums” when asked for a mint – but these are sandwiched between too many pandering instances of “feck”, “gobshite” and “bollocks”.
A large amount of the production’s reputed €4 million budget appears to have been spent on the admittedly impressive CGI effects. These are certainly a step-up from previous ventures into the Irish horror film genre, such as Billy O’Brien’s Isolation, though they lack the warmth of the more practical creatures as seen in the likes of Tremors. The ‘Grabbers’ themselves owe something of a debt to Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, with their spindly limbs and circular rows of fangs. Sadly, there is little sense of fear generated throughout the film, with most deaths signposted far too early to cause any real shock.
While one can admire the efforts of Lehane to elevate Irish cinema into the realms of the fantastical, Grabbers is a deeply disappointing work. The final shot hints at a follow up, à la Critters or The Blob. However, only the most optimistic filmgoer would hold their breath for Grabbers 2. And for once, it would be refreshing to have an Irish-set film forego an obligatory reference to the IRA.
Grabbers is available to rent in Ireland from November 9th, and to buy from November 30th.