‘Attack of the Unknown’ (2020) Movie Review: A Fresh Spin On Classic Horror

When news first broke that the Mahal brothers, Michael and Sonny (read our interview here), were beginning pre-production on an alien invasion story titled Attack of the Unknown for their third horror endeavor, I was skeptical. To be clear, my dubiety was no reflection of the Mahal’s talent as screenwriters and producers. Afterall, this brotherly duo brought us the hysterical B-horror comedy Bus Party to Hell (read our review here) in 2017 and last year’s enticing indie flick, Art of the Dead (read our review here). My reservations stemmed from sci-fi horror visions of this magnitude being a bold move for any indie project. How do you create an alien invasion targeting the vast city of Los Angeles on a modest budget? Apparently, you go all in launching the biggest, most valiant indie crowdfunding campaign of your filmmaking career to-date.

As the Mahal’s campaign exploded onto the indie scene, the brothers announced some big hitters to join their cast including Robert LaSardo (Clint Eastwood’s The Mule) and Johnny Depp’s co-star from the 21 Jump Street TV series, Richard Grieco. More anticipation was ignited with the announcement that Universal Studios backlot in Hollywood would be used for production. Not too shabby for an indie feature, eh? And with notable indie filmmaker Brandon Slagle (House of Manson (2015 – read our review here), Crossbreed (2019 – read our review here) in the director’s chair, Attack of the Unknown was set to pull out all the stops and put a fresh spin on the classic alien invasion flick.

Grieco stars as Vernon, a SWAT team member who receives daunting news while dealing with a divorce and the death of his colleague, Mills (Charles Solomon Jr.: Love on the Run). Needless to say, life has our pending hero trapped in a corner.

Grieco brings a sense of sincerity and bravery to a character facing dreadful odds which are about to tip even further against him. As Vernon, his team leader, Maddox (Douglas Tait: Annabelle Comes Home 2019 – read our review here, Hellboy 2019), and the rest of the SWAT members transport Miguel ‘Hades’ Aguirre (LaSardo), the crime boss responsible for Mills’ death, tensions run high as they travel through Los Angeles. Playing his part to perfection by countering Grieco’s flawless performance, LaSardo exhibits antagonizing arrogance with smug digs and remarks directed at his captors every step of the way. He is the type of villainous asshole you love to hate. However, the mission takes a dire turn when a giant alien spaceship appears in the sky hellbent on vaporizing the City of Angels.

Attack of the Unknown poster artwork

When the alien spacecraft arrives, there is no Independence Day waiting period of hoping they come in peace before death rains from the sky. As chaos and disaster strike, the SWAT team crashes their vehicle, forcing Vernon, Maddox and their team to rush Aguirre into a nearby county police detention center. Regrouping zombie apocalypse-style, they discover that comms are down with no access to functioning vehicles. The SWAT team joins forces with local law enforcement officials and a civilian tourist named Dallas Zhang (Johnny Huang). With the help of Police Chief Weller, portrayed by Robert Donavan (Art of the Dead)—who unleashes his inner John “I love it when a plan comes together” Smith from The A-Team—the group evaluates their grim situation. As questions are tossed around, the band of survivors decides they must learn more about their predatory threat. One individual among them may hold the key to a legend that unlocks deadly truths about the intergalactic visitors. And another just might carry the secret to killing Earth’s new bloodthirsty enemy.

Although some smaller CGI scenes are only marginally better than a direct-to-SYFY movie, it’s clear that the Mahals and Slagle still made excellent use of Universal Studios’ backlot and available resources. Larger scene shots of a pre-disaster L.A., a destroyed city landscape and imagery of an invading spaceship boost production quality to make the film much closer to a Hollywood level production. Adding an outstanding, gruesome touch to the bloodier scenes is the special effects team, whose horror game is strong for this production.

Attack of the Unknown SWAT team

Another praiseworthy element from Attack of the Unknown is the aliens themselves. The sinister appearance of the film’s unworldly antagonists, which was further enhanced by the Mahal’s go-to cinematographer Michael Su, could have come off as cheesy. In an attempt to make a more serious, modern alien invasion film, the last thing you want is to be compared to old Godzilla flicks, no matter how beloved those kaiju classics are. However, the costume designers made something menacingly unique, with my only big complaint being a missed, suspense-building opportunity leading to a full-on reveal.

Robert LaSardo as Miguel ‘Hades’ Aguirre antagonizes Richard Grieco as Vernon

Other elements that could have used improvement include extended dialogue and possible rewrites to further highlight the alien attack strategy with our society’s hindrance of being so tech reliant. Some character backstories could have been more fleshed out to enhance their development and intensify certain emotionally dramatic moments. Of course, there are also some little things left unexplained … which entertains the possibility of a sequel.

All complaints aside, this Mahal and Slagle team-up production features a worthwhile story seasoned with a touch of humor and a clever twist more sensible than M. Night’s H2O-vulnerable aliens attacking a planet full of water. Driven by outstanding performances by Grieco and LaSardo—with noteworthy performances from supporting cast members including Jolene Andersen (Drone Wars 2016, Casual TV series), who adds a badass woman’s touch as SWAT member Hannah—Attack of the Unknown is an ambitious, fun ride for indie lovers. And what’s a Mahal Empire production without a cameo by Tara Reid (read our interview here)? Yes, the queen of sharks, snakes and apple pie is back for her third Mahal Empire appearance.

Tara Reid as Elizabeth

With the crazy, surreal events making headlines within the last several months—including The Pentagon’s declassified UFO footage—the Mahal brothers’ timing with Attack of the Unknown couldn’t have been more perfect. Attack of the Unknown is an apocalyptic sci-fi horror featuring blood-sucking aliens that just seems fitting for the year of 2020.

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