In Grabbers a quaint Irish fishing village is tormented by an invasion of squid-like creatures with round toothy mouths. Once the townsfolk realize that the creatures are allergic to alcohol, they guzzle booze to render their blood toxic and prepare for a final confrontation. It’s intended as a throwback to old-school monster movies from the 80s, and in that vein, it completely succeeds. Grabbers is a fun, fluffy diversion––sort of a hi-grade SyFy Original movie, if such a thing ever existed. It’s the sort of flick you might catch alone at a rainy weekday matinee. But there’s one particular issue that holds Grabbers back. Writer Jason Zinoman would refer to it as “The Monster Problem”.
Zinoman coined the phrase “The Monster Problem” in 2011’s Shock Value, his non-fiction account of horror films of the 70s. “The toughest challenge of every monster movie is making the appearance of the creature live up to expectations,” he writes. As a filmmaker, your monster movie will be more effective the longer you keep your monster off screen. There are exceptions, of course––some movie monsters are so well-conceived, they’re worthy of extended camera time (The Thing and Splinter come immediately to mind). But more often than not, revealing your monster too early takes your movie directly from high scares to high camp. And this is the one (albeit small) problem I had with Grabbers.
During the film’s opening moments, I was curious about which route the filmmakers would take. To show the monster, or not to show? A brief, violent pre-credit sequence piqued my interest, as a man on a fishing boat is jerked into the night sky by an unseen creature. A slim, sharpened tentacle plunges through his torso, there’s a scream and woosh!….he vanishes. Grabbers, indeed. And for the first 15 or 20 minutes, the movie is content to develop its sweet, endearing characters and keep the monster in the background.
Leads Richard Coyle and Ruth Bradley share a genuine chemistry (Bradley‘s enchanting performance is one of the highlights of the movie–~her ability to “play drunk“ is uncanny). The Irish location shots are gorgeous. A few background characters are rolled out, all well-developed and memorable. At one point I realized that I could come to care about these characters and setting, and if things got ugly and frightening later on in the movie, it might be disturbing. But then Grabbers revealed its cheesy mid-budget CG squid monsters, and you could feel the collective tension drain from the Sundance audience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on your preferences. Rather than tease the audience along with the promise of potential scares, Grabbers declares its intentions early on: “I am not a scary movie,” it says, “I am a monster movie.” And as we all know, there is certainly a difference.
I realize it sounds like I’m beefing with a completely enjoyable monster flick, and what’s my problem, right? Why not just leave it alone, let it be what it is? Because a monster movie can be both fun and scary. Don‘t get me wrong, I liked the hell out Grabbers, but if it had revealed its monster just a little less often, and been just a little more menacing in its approach, it could have transcended mere likeability on the way to horror greatness.