Saturday, February 27, 2010

Movie Review: "The Crazies"

Originally published in the 2/28/10 edition of The Source.

There's snow on the ground and spring is less than a month away, but it feels like Halloween at the movies.

For the third straight week, a horror movie is one of the major cinematic releases. And while this week's latest stab at the macabre - a remake of George Romero's 1970s thriller "The Crazies" - lacks the haunting beauty of last week's "Shutter Island," it is a much more effective and terrifying creature feature than the ill-fated "Wolfman."

Ogden Marsh, Iowa is typical Movie Small Town, USA. It's a quaint little farming village awaiting the high school baseball team's first game of the season, an event that Sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) looks forward to each year. It's a good thing he's there, because a resident with a blank stare in his eyes and a rifle in his hand shows up looking to disrupt the game. Two days later, the town is rocked again when another resident inexplicably burns down his home with his wife and child inside.

Dutton, along with his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) quickly piece together that something has poisoned the town's water supply and is now turning the town's peaceful citizens into methodical, silent maniacs, killing their neighbors without really understanding why. Things get even worse when the military unexpectedly shows up, quarantining the town and ushering the uninfected out while dealing with the infected in insidious ways. When David, who is uninfected, is separated from his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), he heads back to Ogden Marsh to take on the Crazies and the soldiers intent on keeping the outbreak silent.

Obviously, for a Romero remake, there is an element of zombie film to "The Crazies." Regular people get up and start walking around with homicidal intentions. The twist here is that the folks are not dead and, in some cases, appear to retain their memories and personalities, giving things a creepier undertone. Yes, it's still scary to see an average person stalk our heroes in a barn; it's even more chilling to hear them dispassionately discuss their intentions as if reciting their grocery list.

But director Breck Eisner ("Sahara") deserves credit for not going the easy route and making it a straight horror movie. Just when David is confronting the town mayor and the film looks like social politics will be the villain, it takes an unexpected left turn when the military swoops in and proves to be just as dangerous as the Crazies - their name for the infected. One of the film's most terrifying moments comes when the Army swoops into Ogden Marsh, rounds up families and sets up internment camps at the local high school. There's great suspense in a sequence where Judy, strapped to a stretcher, watches in horror as a Crazy breaks into the school armed with a pitchfork and dispatches her helpless neighbors.

Eisner shows a strong flair for telling a solid genre story, knowing when a slow burn is more effective than mass havoc, and being able to milk a scene for suspense, amp up the terror and effectively use gore instead of gratuitously shoving it in our faces. He's a bit too fond of the jump scare, but that can be forgiven, as the jumps in this movie are effective. He doesn't bog the film down in needless back story, but also is able to maintain the haunting atmosphere that small towns necessarily provide in these films in a way that is reminiscent of some of Stephen King's work. He also gets solid work out of his cast, particularly Olyphant in a rare heroic lead. The actor, famous for his villainous roles, has an intensity that serves his character well and Eisner is smart enough to not let his characters make the stupid decisions that so often plague the genre.

And that's really all there is to say about "The Crazies." There's no deeper meaning, no desire to be an iconic horror movie. It simply tells a solid story and does it with the right amount of intensity and terror. It's a thrilling, fun little ride that has a refreshing intelligence to it. From behind the safety of a movie screen, Ogden Marsh is one nice place to visit.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.