Mysterious goings on in an otherwise boring, small town is a popular trope in sci-fi and horror. It injects some life into a previously lifeless area for its inhabitants, and something you’ve seen countless times over the years. Whether experiencing a monstrous invasion in Slither’s Wheelsy, North Carolina, a zombie infestation in The Dead Don’t Die’s fictional Centerville, or a curious amalgamation of the two in Assimilate’s Moulton, Missouri, small towns are often ripe for the picking by whatever foe their respective film’s screenwriters have conjured.

Two twenty-something high schoolers, Zach and Randy, are trying to make it big on YouTube. Intent on filming the place they call the most boring town in America, they wander the streets of Moulton, hidden cameras in tow, showcasing what life is really like in such a small, nothing town. When they encounter the stranger-than-usual town pastor, stumble upon a neighbour with a mysterious wound on her leg, and a small creature bursting out of the window, Zach and Randy take it upon themselves to investigate – and indeed document for the world to see – these mysterious goings on.

Assimilate has something of an originality barrier to overcome. Because of the premise’s popularity within the genre, attempts must be made to stand out from the over-saturated crowd. Built into its premise is a found footage style of filmmaking owing to our protagonists’ documentation of the town but, rather frustratingly, Assimilate never commits to one idea. Throughout, it awkwardly cuts between paint-by-numbers wide shots and more invasive found footage without real rhyme or reason to do so. One of the film’s more engaging sequences – when Zach and Randy are trapped in a poorly lit barn – is one filmed almost entirely through their phone cameras, heightening the tension and any potential scares that could come our way. By hopping between the two formats, Assimilate lacks an identity; while found footage has its fair share of critics, Assimilate would surely have benefitted from committing to a more distinctive style.

That isn’t to say Assimilate is entirely without merit, visually. There are effective moments sprinkled throughout as the central mystery is slowly unravelled; a surprise reveal from inside a washing basket is effectively executed, a remarkably tense walk through a busy town square, and an impressive shot of our suspicious pastor standing in front of a pile of burning carcasses are more than enough to suggest impressive work behind the camera from director John Murlowski and his cinematographer, Damian Horan. Most impressive, though, is a miraculous, practical set-piece in which the local town sheriff, Josh (Cam Gigandet), has his house flipped by the all-too powerful monsters surrounding it. All shot in-camera, our characters doing their best Troy Bolton in High School Musical 3 impression as the house rotates around them, with lamps, pictures, tables, and a whole sofa falling around them was brilliantly well done and an easy stand-out moment in an otherwise conventionally made film.

Assimilate is buoyed, too, but its main cast. Joel Courtney and Calum Worthy have a very believable chemistry as Zach and Randy, respectively. Despite only being with the characters for a limited time, their friendship is well-established, and it’s made abundantly clear that they would do whatever they need to for one another. Joining them is Kayla (Andi Matichak), to round out their Harry, Ron, and Hermione archetypes. Following a family tragedy to force her into the mystery, Kayla is given a far more personal stake in discovering the truth and, as such, her character has genuine agency in the plot, operating as far more than the obviously foreshadowed love interest for Zach.

Assimilate does have a lot of things going for it with its handful of impressive sequences, engaging central performances, and a mystery that sucks you in far more than anticipated. The problem, however, circles back to the lack of originality. There were countless sequences that were aped from previous, better films. The tense walk through the town square, for instance, is a blatant riff on the sequence in Shaun of the Dead when Shaun and co. dress up as zombies to walk to the Winchester. The web series element for Zach and Randy has one-too-many similarities to the vastly underrated Scouts Guide to the Apocalypse. Even Pastor Greg (Terry Dale Parks) feels like a distant relative to Danny Huston’s vampire leader in 30 Days of Night, even including a distinctively demonic yell for back up.

While the film’s mystery may intrigue, and a few of its sequences may impress, Assimilate’s lack of originality compared to many of the films in the small-town horror genre mean you’re unlikely to remember it soon after the credits have rolled.

Rating: ★½

ASSIMILATE BECAME AVAILABLE DIGITALLY IN THE UK AND IRELAND FROM APRIL 12, 2021