In some regards, Breck Eisner’s new film The Crazies is the horror genre’s The Hurt Locker. What exactly do I mean by that boldly nonsensical statement? We’ll get to that in a minute.
But first I want to talk about a few horror film cliches that crop up in the final half-hour of The Crazies. The first two-thirds of the movie is an exercise in unrelenting tension, suspense, and terror, but then it resorts to three stereotypical horror cockups that deflate part of the film’s achievement and effect… One, the car that worked flawlessly for the past several scenes when our survivors weren’t in immediate danger? Yeah, of course the engine doesn’t start once they’re under attack. Two, under extreme stress and terrified that the infected will pop up and attack? Yeah, of course you want to sneak up on your fellow survivor without saying a word, put your hand on their shoulder, and then when they shit their pants out of utter terror you say “relax, it’s just me.” Three, you’ve been attacked and surprised repeatedly by infected folks, you only have one weapon, and you’ve just come upon an area that looks deserted? Yeah, of course you want to tell your unarmed wife to “wait here, I’ll be right back.”
That’s lazy goddamn writing people.
The Crazies centers on a few days in the life and death of a small Iowa town. (More of the latter than the former of course.) We open on a devastated main street filled with burning cars and dead bodies before jumping to two days prior and a Little League game already in progress. It’s an idyllic scene with friends and family enjoying themselves on a beautiful summer day. We meet Sheriff Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) who’s also the town doctor. Dutton and his deputy (Joe Anderson) settle in for a few minutes of coffee and baseball… when a man enters the field with a shotgun.
From that point forward the movie turns the tension knob to eleven and rarely lets up. (It also turns the creepy knob to a high seven.) The suspected drunkard with the shotgun forces Dutton’s hand (and trigger finger), but the sheriff becomes suspicious when the autopsy shows an absence of alcohol in his system. Another previously sane man burns his wife and young son to death, and it’s not long before the root cause for these slight personality disorders comes to light… a military plane has crashed in a swamp outside of town, and its deadly payload has spilled into their water supply. Yes yes, it’s another movie where the government screws up and the military can’t be trusted and if you’ve seen Linnea Quigley dance naked in a graveyard then you just might know how it’s going to end. Or not. And even with the ‘military as evil and untrustworthy government tool’ trope in full effect you will be fully engaged and invested in the survival of our dwindling heroes.
That high degree of tension and suspense I speak of is where the comparison to The Hurt Locker resides. No, I’m not claiming this slick and effective horror flick is on the same level as Kathryn Bigelow’s award-winning war drama, but they do share in the degree and amount of pure, arm-wrest clenching, edge of your seat anticipation. Once the crazies start crawling out of the woodwork every scene becomes a possible jump scare (legitimate ones, not “the dog has to go outside to pee so let’s make that a jump scare” kind that they had in The Wolfman). We’ve already seen a child burned to death so we know no character is truly safe from a violent end, and we also know that anyone can become infected… add in a faceless military presence attempting to “contain” the situation and you have a terror, suspense, and gore-filled ninety minutes of entertainment.
Director Breck Eisner returns to feature film-making after serving a five-year sentence in movie jail for belching Sahara onto the world in 2005. The man obviously made good use of his time in the joint with classes on shot framing, set pieces, and more. His next two films (per IMDB anyway) are also remakes. Flash Gordon I can do without, but while I continue to love David Cronenberg’s The Brood there’s definite room for improvement. If Eisner can bring the same high degree of competency and suspense-building to that film that he manages to show here, we may get one more remake that manages to surpass the original. And that’s a rare breed.
The film’s only real issues reside in the final thirty minutes as mentioned above. Every other aspect of the film is a success… Olyphant and Mitchell continue to prove that they’re both charismatic and believable in extreme situations. The score by Mark Isham is playful at times and methodical at others (and almost John Carpenteresque in its effective simplicity). The movie makes you fear and mistrust your neighbor, your government, and your self. The dialogue feels true more often than not, never expository, with brief flashes of wit or humor. And the end simultaneously leaves you feeling hopeful and doomed.
If Eisner (and writers Scott Kosar and Ray Wright) had avoided the terribly obvious and painful cliches in the final third of The Crazies it would be one of the best domestic horror films of the past several years. As it stands though it’s still a scary and tightly wound little horror thriller that will leave you wide-eyed and on edge. And that’s a good thing.
The Upside: Incredible tension; Olyphant is a fantastic everyman; legitimate scares; some nice touches of humor; solid score
The Downside: Horror movie cliches in final half hour; could have used a few more establishing scenes to get to know more of the side characters
On the Side: Olyphant probably won’t be appearing in Scream IV, but he will be seen next in the FX network’s modern day western series, “Justified.”