This article is part of our coverage of the 2022 edition of Fantastic Fest, taking place from September 22-29. In this entry, we’re chatting with director Jason Eisener about his latest throwback horror adventure, Kids vs. Aliens. Follow along with our reviews, interviews, and features from the fest in our Fantastic Fest archive.
There’s a particular rush Jason Eisener is chasing with Kids vs. Aliens. It’s an energy caught somewhere between a haunted house and an amusement park ride. He’s not looking to bottle the jumps and jolts you experience when you turn a corner in a corn maze as a chainsaw-wielding maniac lets his machine rip mere inches from your face. He wants to capture your body’s flight that comes after. The director craves the speed of “Let’s get the F outta here!”
Kids vs. Aliens follows a wild pack of children who spend their free time making cheapo monster movies in their backyard. They’re trying to pull the weirdo stories out of their head and put them before a camera. It’s less about whether or not they find a screen and more about documenting their imagination, proving to themselves that they’re far more interesting than the bored teenagers who mock them.
Gary (Dominic Mariche) knows his movies are dope. He only wishes his big sister Samantha (Phoebe Rex) would recognize their radness in front of Billy (Calem MacDonald), the cute, scumbag boy she’s crushing on. The adolescent rituals are upon them (Parties! Drinking! Sex!), threatening to ruin Gary’s filmmaker origin story. When he turns his camera toward the bullies, exposing their banal atrocities, Gary hopes to dampen Samantha’s desire to belong. It’s a good trick, and then the aliens crash the party.
Those who’ve seen a Jason Eisener flick can imagine what these poor kids are in for. Hobo with a Shotgun delights in a grotesqueness stained with an eighties grain, and Kids vs. Aliens isn’t looking to upset the aesthetic. Instead, Eisener jabs a heavy adrenaline dose into the experience, supercharging the film’s brisk seventy-five-minute runtime.
Kids vs. Aliens‘ first draft appeared as the short film Slumber Party Alien Abduction in the horror anthology V/H/S/2. With an even smaller timeframe to operate within, Eisener wanted to accomplish a ride, one inspired by an actual motion-simulation attraction crafted by one of his favorite horror movie directors.
“Stuart Gordon made this Aliens ride,” says Eisener, “which is one of those things where you sit in a chair, and it’s a film, but it makes you feel like you’re going through it. I wanted to create a similar experience, even though it’s not a footage movie, but I wanted it to have that haunted house ride feel. I wanted to see these kids go through an experience that has people getting melted and seeing aliens getting cut up. All that stuff. I like seeing their perspective through a horror scenario.”
Stuart Gordon’s Aliens: Ride at the Speed of Fright was an interactive movie simulator that briefly ran in San Francisco and London from 1994 to 1995. Starring Gordon’s frequent collaborator Jeffrey Combs, the ride barely lasted twenty minutes but left a tremendous impression on those strapped in. Once the guest planted themself in their chair, they were off, and they didn’t stop until they unbuckled. Jason Eisener wanted that for his short, and he wanted that for Kids vs. Aliens. The only difference between the movie and the simulator? Not every kid survives the endeavor.
“I try not to hold back on the kids,” says Eisener. “If they were adults, I would want to treat them the same because I see them just as strong and as inspirational as any adult could be. I don’t know. I like the idea of seeing kids go through more of an adult experience.”
Without tripping into spoiler territory, Kids vs. Aliens makes space in its climax for a sequel. While you could probably imagine a follow-up to Hobo with a Shotgun, Kids vs. Aliens is the first Eisener film where you’d be seriously disappointed if we didn’t get a second bite. You’ll want to see the frame that comes after the fade-to-black.
“It’s a horror movie,” he continues. “I wanted to leave people with the same kind of feeling that it was like when I did the short film, but I have these dreams of making another one. If people like it and they tell Shudder and RLJE Films that they want to see another one, we are ready to get back there and start shooting the next one right away. We already got it mapped out. There’s a lot of breadcrumbs left in the movie that leads into the next one.”
One doesn’t consider Eisener a sequel guy, so it’s surprising to hear him speak this way. Yet, he’s never been one to let a good idea peter out in another format. Kids vs. Aliens not only began its life as a V/H/S/2 segment but as an extension of a previous project, a project with deep ties to his youth.
“For me,” says Eisener, “it was a way to exorcise a lot of the things that I’ve been really inspired by. A couple of years ago, I was pitching on the Masters of the Universe movie, and I did a huge deep dive because that was the first thing I was into as a kid. I re-emerged myself into that, and I didn’t get the gig or whatever, but it stuck with me, and I realized I wanted to make something of my own that’s like that, or that could expand outward like Masters of the Universe and She–Ra. Kids vs. Aliens has its own little universe too.”
A franchise is only as good as its toys. So, as Jason Eisener constructed Kids vs. Aliens, he did so with the fantasy that Kenner, Mattel, Playmates, or somebody could build a whole action figure line around it. Gary and Samantha should ascend to their true plastic form, complete with kung fu grips and dropkick action!
“There’s literally a playset in Kids vs. Aliens,” says Eisener. “I call it the Slime Throne. And, you know, every toy back in the day would have a little slime thing. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a toilet thing where you put slime on them. Masters of the Universe had the slime pit with that skull.”
Kids vs. Aliens is an aspirational adventure. It’s the movie every child imagines their life could become at any moment. Gary and his buds have the most epic treehouse/barn arena. They have the gnarliest gadgets, and the films they’re making in their backyard would give adult Steven Spielberg a run for his money.
Eisener’s fulfilling kid fantasies all around. His audience’s kiddie fantasies. The fantasies of his child actors. Most importantly, however, are his own. Finally, he can be the kid his kid-self always wanted to be.