Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special-event releases. This review comes from the 2019 SXSW Interactive Festival.
There’s an entire subgenre of horror cinema about the fundamentally terrifying nature of pregnancy. And countless films hinge on teenagers, especially teenage girls, inviting certain doom by having premarital sex. The horror-comedy Snatchers, which debuted at this year’s SXSW, combines both tropes — then filters them through a high-school-comedy setting.
Snatchers is based on a short film and a later micro-series that premiered at Sundance in 2017, featuring the same cast, but expanding the story, which its stars referred to as “Mean Girls meets Alien.” The film is neither as sharp nor as scary as that description suggests, but it still delivers a unique premise and some entertaining riffs on both body horror and teenage drama.
Monster movie crossed with high school sex comedy. Unrelated to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the Hideo Kojima cyberpunk game Snatcher, or several other similarly named works.
Sara (Mary Nepi) is a teenage girl mourning a breakup with her shallow ex-boyfriend Skyler (Austin Fryberger). When Skyler gets back from a trip to Mexico, Sara tries to rekindle their relationship by having sex for the first time. And because we’re watching a horror movie, the consequences are dire.
Sara wakes up heavily pregnant a day later, then births a murderous arachnoid monster that’s somehow connected to Skyler’s Mexican vacation. Even more horrifying: she’s still gestating something else. Along with her geeky friend Hayley (Gabrielle Elyse), Sara looks for increasingly dangerous ways to stop the monster without damaging her dubious relationship with Skyler or revealing the pregnancy to her mom.
The cultural dynamics around teen sex and pregnancy. Snatchers’ best humor comes from the contrast between its apocalyptic horror elements and Sara’s social priorities — she’s hosting a parasitic creature that might end the world, but she’s more worried about being judged for her life choices. Her concern isn’t unreasonable, either. Faced with a bizarre, scientifically impossible change to her body, her first instinct is to climb out the bedroom window to hide from her mother, who was a teen parent herself.
And unlike in many horror movies, Sara’s near-fatal mistake isn’t really having sex. It’s falling for a hopelessly self-centered boy, treating his desires as more important than her own, and blaming herself when things go predictably wrong because of his thoughtlessness. Snatchers isn’t highly developed commentary, but it tells a culturally relevant story about a young woman minimizing her needs to avoid any perception that she’s high maintenance in a relationship, even when the need in question is figuring out why there’s a cryptid in her uterus.
With the right expectations, it works. Snatchers has buckets of gore and a premise worthy of David Cronenberg, but it isn’t a scary movie; it’s a satire of high school, but not a biting one. And the film’s strong points are diluted by broad clichés from both its genre traditions. For every distinctive idea, there’s a generic joke about how science teachers are socially maladroit geeks, or high school girls are catty. The dialog is sometimes clunky, and Sara’s teen speak — where being inexplicably pregnant is totally cray — can feel corny and grating. (Even if this is accurate, up-to-the-moment lingo, that doesn’t make it more compelling.)
The main characters are also driven more by tropes and plot necessities than real personalities. Sara is part of a snobby clique in the vein of Heathers or Mean Girls, but she’s too much of a blank slate to establish what she’s doing there, beyond generating convenient conflict with Hayley. And Hayley feels limited by her role as a level-headed straight man (or woman), with her unflappability only really paying off in the film’s weirdest moments.
Sara’s infatuation with Skyler works surprisingly well, though — mostly because we’re supposed to see their relationship as irrational, and Skyler is so hyperbolically airheaded that he’s clearly readable as a caricature. For viewers who had regrettable crushes in high school, it might even be a little uncomfortable watching Sara rationalize his obnoxious attempts to be cool and funny.
And Snatchers generally avoids easy gags about women’s bodies, focusing instead on the weirdness of Sara’s situation, the cultural baggage around pregnancy, and the frequently undignified ridiculousness of sex. This film could have been smarter or more distinctive, but it remains a generally good-natured comedy about the trials of being a teenager — albeit one with a lot of severed limbs.
R for all the swearing and sex jokes expected from a (relatively tame) raunchy comedy, plus all the cartoonish gore expected from a horror B-movie, including one genuinely cringe-inducing bit of eye trauma.
There’s no release date, but the Snatchers series was distributed on Warner Bros.’ Stage 13 online video platform, and some sort of streaming release in the coming months seems plausible.