For a few minutes, “Arcadian” basically becomes “Aliens” on an Irish farm with Nicolas Cage in the Ripley role. That might be the best elevator pitch I’ve ever heard. You know if you want to sign up for that or not. Don’t get me wrong. This is not James Cameron-level filmmaking, but it is an effective creature feature that avoids a lot of the traps of post-apocalyptic horror (which has really been a thing lately, especially at this year’s SXSW) and delivers on its premise. It truly feels like “The Walking Dead” and now maybe “The Last of Us” have spawned a wave of films about how humans respond when civilization collapses—“Arcadian” is one of the better entries in this growing genre about how screwed we all are.

“Arcadian” opens with Paul (Cage) fleeing what is obviously the end of the civilization, represented by sirens and explosions buried in the sound design, off in the distance. In a hiding spot, he cradles two infant twin boys. Cut to fifteen years later, when Paul lives with his teen sons Joseph (Jaeden Martell) and Thomas (Maxwell Jenkins). We’re introduced to these characters in a moment of panic as Thomas hasn’t returned home from the nearby Rose Farm, and the sun is going down. It’s clear that people don’t like to be out after dark.

A brief bit of character development at a table sets up the fact that Thomas is the more instinctual, risk-taking brother, while Joseph seems more intellectual, interested in figuring out how to progress beyond just survival. The trio boards up all windows and doors at night, moving to a higher floor, and then something tries to get in, leaving scratch marks on the door that look like moving blades were trying to chop it down. Those aren’t your ordinary wolf claws that did that. After spending a bit too long with the cute Rose daughter Charlotte (a very effective Sadie Soverall), Thomas falls as he’s running home, getting stuck in the woods after dark. Dad goes out to save him. Things get really weird. And then director Benjamin Brewer and writer Michael Nilon drop their bomb in one of the best genre scenes in a very long time. Without spoiling it, let’s just say it involves a sleeping Joseph, an open panel in a door, and a wide shot that feels like it goes on forever in order to ratchet up maximum tension.

It turns out that what’s out in those woods is absolute nightmare fuel. It feels like Brewer asked his creative team to bring in every creature design idea they could and then just said, “Let’s just do em ALL.” At its core, the monster kind of looks like a primate produced an offspring with a xenomorph. There’s the almost crawling, twisting energy of the H.R. Giger monster but there’s so much hair and teeth and I don’t even know what. One of the main reasons “Arcadian” works is that Brewer knows how to hide his budget in quick shots of the creatures that don’t feel like cheap obfuscation as much as terrified glimpses. You don’t want to see this thing all at once. You couldn’t handle it. Every time, you think you know what the Hell these things are, they have a new level of insane design. In one of the death scenes, it just becomes a never-ending maw of teeth and fluid and blood and who the hell knows what. There have been some truly mediocre creatures in horror films lately, and “Arcadian” proves how essential it is for the things that are supposed to terrify the character to be, you know, actually terrifying.

Having said that, there are some choices in “Arcadian,” especially early, that work against it. It feels like Brewer was too nervous that people would get bored during the set-up, and so he goes full shaky-cam with cinematographer Frank Mobilio. There’s no reason for early scenes in a film like this to be shot like a Bourne movie. And Cage-heads should be warned that this isn’t really his movie as much as Martell, Jenkins, and even Soverall’s. They’re all good, but I worry that people going in expecting another “Mandy” will be disappointed. This is subdued Cage, one who knows that he’s more of a support for his young co-stars, the human and the creature.

Ultimately, “Arcadian” might not have much character development or world building for some people, but, again, the creature design overwhelms that common flaw in this genre. There’s no time to talk about why the world fell apart of even develop much of a personality when THAT comes knocking every night.

This review was filed from the premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. It opens nationwide on April 12th, 2024.

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