Thursday, June 17, 2010

...And Many More

While George A. Romero's own movies haven't quite been up to snuff lately, I think the first person to tell you about the decency of new horror would be George himself. Take for example his decision to executive produce the remake of his early 'classic' The Crazies. He had to believe that he'd have at least some of the success enjoyed by Zach Snyder's excellent remake of Dawn of the Dead, otherwise why play the game at all? Though I'm in the minority, I think he was wise to play along because though it lacks some of Dawn's urgency and much of the original's screaming political tone, The Crazies is actually one of the most competent and enjoyable horror remakes I've yet seen and belongs just below the likes of The Ring, Dawn of the Dead, The Thing, slightly above Cat People or The Blob and way over The Hills Have Eyes (so you can imagine how far down I Spit On Your Grave and One Missed Call fall). The key here, which most remakes tend to forget, is that if we care about the characters, the general decline in flavor from one generation to the next, is forgivable. By using great characters like Radha Mitchell, Timothy Olyphant and Joe Anderson director Breck Eisner was able to build a sturdy movie that is equally as fun as the original.

The Crazies
by Breck Eisner
David Dutton is the sheriff of Ogden Marsh, Iowa, and in that movie kinda way, that means he basically runs things. He stops by a baseball game while on his rounds and arrives just in time to see Rory Hamill, reformed town drunk, enter the diamond with a far-off look in his eyes and a loaded shotgun in his hand. He tries to talk him into dropping it but in the end has to shoot him dead in front of everyone in the bleechers. His wife and son are beside themselves, not just because Rory's been killed, but because they think David told everyone he was drunk when they know he'd given it up. But Dutton's problems have just started. Across town Deardra Farnum can't find her husband. She goes out to the barn, fearing that he's the one who turned on the industrial thresher, but when she turns it off she hears her son screaming in the house and runs back. She finds him hiding in a closet and the only thing he has time to tell her is that he's hiding from his dad. Seconds later the man finds them and locks them in. Dutton and his wife Judy, the town's physician, are called out to the house a few hours later but by then the house has just about finished burning.

David and Judy are clueless as to what's causing it but everyone in town seems to be going....mad.... Anyway, the answers take their time getting there, but when they do, they bring company. The second call to the sheriff's office is from three hunters, Jesse, Red and Nathan, who, while hunting out of season, discover the decomposing body of a soldier, evidently hung by his parachute. Next step: find the plane he bailed out of. He and Clank, his deputy, take a boat ride out to the marsh near where the dead body was found, the one place it could conceivably have gone down without sending smoke up that people would have seen for miles. Sure enough they find it beneath the still, brown water like a sleeping shark. Dutton shuts off the town's water supply and heads back to town to check on Bill Farnum, who's been sitting in jail since that morning. He seems to have gotten worse; his behavior suggests advanced mental deterioration and he looks as though he's decomposing. Dutton runs home to try and convince Judy to leave town for the duration of the impending crisis situation but their debate is cut short when a gaggle of armed men in gas masks show up and ferry them at gunpoint to the high school, along with every one else in town. Looks like things are worse than David imagined.
They quickly find Clank among the other hapless detainees but things go south right afterwards. Clank is separated after the soldiers run some kind of test on him and the same thing happens to Judy moments later. David is shepherded to a gas station on the way out of town along with the others who tested negative for whatever the soldiers are looking for. David sneaks back to town on the back of a truck and heads straight to the police station to get the gun in his desk, the only one the military didn't seize during their sweep of Ogden Marsh. Other than the one Clank shows up with moments later, that is. And they're going to need every last bullet if they want to get out of town. Bill Farnham, still left in jail (one of the film's few unacceptable lapses in judgment) has one more symptom to share. It seems that after going incurably.....nuts, he dies rather painfully of what I take to be a kind of chemically induced organ failure. So not only do they have to find Judy and get out of town while dodging the men with guns, everyone they couldn't quarantine has gone...insane....and though they may once have been neighbors, now they're a real threat. And if the government knew the effects of whatever they lost in the waters of Ogden Marsh, don't you think it's a safe bet that they've got a big old contingency plan waiting in the wings if the current plan falls through?

You know for all George A. Romero's cautious bidding, I don't think I read one straight forward positive review of The Crazies when it was released earlier this year. To be honest it's no surprise that critics didn't fall over themselves praising it, even if it's a much, much better film than anyone I consulted seemed to think it was. The reasons are numerous and slightly complicated. Someone, I can't remember if it was Scott Tobias or Noel Murray, said that to remake The Crazies would be like remaking 1973: The Movie what with it's references to Ohio State and Thích Quảng Đức. In one sense that's true, but the beauty of The Crazies and the best of what I like to call 1970s Cinema Paranoia is that they were zeitgeist films that got down to your level and attacked you on your street and in your home. I Drink Your Blood, Rabid and No Blade of Grass haven't aged terrifically, but the sort of loose thematic relevance that raised it slightly above its dumber competitors is what made them so much fun. To think of David E. Durston counting on people's fear of Charles Manson to react to his very silly gore film has a kind of old-fashioned show-biz charm to it. The English speaking world may have been trying to hold onto Free Love and conservative values respectively to pull themselves out of the tailspin of the late 60s but George A. Romero and the other directors of my favorite paranoid horror films of that era were still pointing fingers, even if only some of them had any intention of backing up their anger with reasoning. Romero was one of them. The reason that the original Crazies works because beyond just being a blast with its over-the-top side-players, zany editing, break-neck pace, and cutthroat bordering on sleazy attitude towards its characters is because of its leads. Clank, David and Judy may just be cyphers but Romero cared enough about them to get us to fall in love with them, warts and all, until they inevitably met with tragedy (star-crossed lovers were SOL in cinema paranoia). My point is that you can replace Nixon with Bush and have a perfectly logical retread, but what's the point? You could make a film faithful to the style but then you end up with confused tripe like M. Night Shyamalan's The Happening. So what do you do with a film like The Crazies? Smooth out the edges and make a proper movie. Unlike A Nightmare On Elm Street or The Last House On The Left, the premise can support it. The Crazies '73 was a metaphor with legs, its remake is a real movie, and fuck all y'all, it's a pretty damn good one, too.

So why didn't anyone like it? My guess is because the scares we do get aren't specific to the story being told and because the politics aren't as loud. The plot hits all the correct beats of Romero's original and adds a few of its own including a harrowing stop at a carwash, but the reason it works is because Breck Eisner has built a solid atmosphere for his leads to walk through. Unlike Romero's Evans City, Eisner's Ogden Marsh is as a real place with real people. The stuff that makes the horror work, but crucially never approach the domestic cruelty of something like Funny Games, is that leads Timothy Olyphant, Joe Anderson and Radha Mitchell are allowed to have organic conversations with the other residents. Romero's film didn't need you to believe that David and Judy had been living in the same town all their lives, they were perfectly happy to tell you that just to let you know that small town america was on the chopping block - hence terms like 'star quarterback' and 'war hero'. Thankfully the script by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright keeps that shit to a minimum, and in true Ken Russell fashion, Eisner has Olyphant and Anderson kind of breeze through any cliched dialogue. The pace of the conversations helps the movie greatly, as in the scene where they ride out to the swamp to find the plane. The rhythm of their speech is natural and they come across like human beings. When an angry Olyphant shouts at Mitchell in frustration at the car wash, nothing special is made of it; these things just happen and she gets that they're in the middle of something stressful. When he later sits across from her and gently tells her that essentially he'll kill himself if that's what she wants to do, it works just as well, even if the edge in his voice tells you he wouldn't exactly be happy about giving up. And kudos once more to Radha Mitchell for proving herself the genre's most capable actress. I have never not loved her performance and here she's the heart and soul of the movie. I truly believe a pregnant Radha Mitchell could have saved Hostel or The Wolfman.
All this is well and good, you tell me, but is it scary, you boring fuck? Yes, even if it cheats a little bit. There are so many switcheroo scares in this movie that I lost count. You know the ones. There is an agonizing build-up to something terrible, but at the last minute a gunshot changes the outcome. What I wasn't counting on was how expertly Eisner made me forget he was just going to keep doing that. By the third or fourth time I was mad, but that I couldn't tell if it was at Eisner for doing it again or myself for not being prepared says that maybe I was just having fun. Beyond that there are some very creepy set-pieces like the freezer, the thresher and the hostage that keep the tension up. The film's political message is muted in comparison to the source material but its easy enough to decipher. The military are Bush-sanctioned torture campaigns given carte blanche in America's heartland (think Guantanamo or Abu Ghraib). When you pull the masks off you find terrified privates just following orders, as you would anywhere in the middle east - does that excuse their behavior? Eisner isn't as interested in this. I'll tell you one thing, though, the sight of a boy and his mother being shot to death and then burnt by flame-throwers on their front lawn really frightened me and continued to sit in my stomach. If Kosar and Wright had hit the point about the American military and the gun-toting American public a little harder, The Crazies would have been elevated above horror and into total relevance a la The Road. Seeing as how more and more Americans are being arrested in possession of fucking assault rifles and missile launchers on their way to see the President speak and the right-wing grows ever more hateful and militant by the day, the scene on the lawn isn't something I can comfortably write off as impossible, which frightens me more than I can say. Thus Nathan, Red and Jesse are our tea-party enthusiast gun-nuts. Though they seemed affable enough before they's not hard to see the virus in their case being too much television and willful ignorance. So you can choose to see The Crazies as a raised eyebrow at the racists who would rather kill their democratically elected black president like junior CIA assassins than receive health-care because that's what the voices on TV have instructed them to think or simply as a taut, well-made movie. Either way, I think both Breck Eisner and George A. can be proud of The Crazies. It'll certainly do until someone makes more zeitgeist horror films. God knows we need them, because the world outside is starting to look like a fucking movie.

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