This is perhaps a rhetorical question (I certainly hope it is), but is there any self-respecting movie fan who doesn’t like George Romero’s work? His contribution to horror film is so large that it marks a point where fans can say before and after Romero. Before Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, horror cinema was considered the domain of trashy filmmaking after the end of the Universal monsters era. After Night, all filmmakers realised that the genre could tell great stories, yet deliver a message at the same time. The influence of Romero’s work can be seen in how William Friedkin directed The Exorcist after his Best Picture and Best Director Oscar wins for The French Connection. All of a sudden, horror was considered reputable, and without Romero, the genre would have taken a longer time to gestate from ‘trash’ in mainstream eyes. The man is fully deserving of his title ‘The Grandfather Of The Zombie.’
In this light, Romero is an easy target for Hollywood remakes. His films are not only terrific and highly influential, but if you look at his track record, anytime a mainstream company has funded one of his films, they don’t get what they want. Romero is a highly opinionated man with ideals that give him a love-hate relationship with Hollywood, whose ideals are often contrary to his own. Anyway, The Crazies is an interesting choice for a remake, considering the topic matter, more relevant today than it was in 1973. Overlooked in its day, The Crazies can be seen as a major influence in films today such as Danny Boyle’s classic 28 Days Later and Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. And just so you know going into it, this is not a ‘zombie’ movie, okay!
The film is set in the fictional town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. In this town, “the friendliest place on earth”, a baseball game is underway, business as usual. However, after his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson) spots a local carrying a weapon, the town Sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant) is forced to kill the man after being threatened with the weapon. The next day, David and his wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), the town doctor, notice strange behaviour in the residents. Later that night, one of her patients burns his wife and son in their home. Soon after, while investigating the discovery of a pilot’s body, David and Russell find a cargo plane submerged underwater. David concludes that there is something in the water doing this to the town residents. Phone connections go down, and strange surveillance vehicles appear around the town, a mystery no doubt to be unravelled.
Just to clarify on the off, the film is not entirely faithful to the Romero original, but this isn’t a simple case of taking liberties with a good idea. One of the best things about this interpretation of The Crazies is the incredible atmosphere. The production designers on the film have done an amazing job of transforming this town. I won’t tell what it is transformed into, but in all aspects of the process, the design is done well. Also, many of the other features of the filmmaking jigsaw fit together in creating this mood of impending doom. It ensures that The Crazies is not just a run-of-the-mill horror film and has something of merit.
The screenwriters Scott Kosar and Ray Wright do a decent job of adapting Romero’s original script to a different context. Unlike many Romero remakes, The Crazies remains a political film. There is deeper meaning to this film beyond its horror pretensions. Also, in a move that pleases me greatly, especially considering the large slew of bad American horror films, it is not afraid to challenge its audience. This film does not avoid hard material, the opening half-an-hour shattering the idyllic town with some really nasty incidents. Also, as the film progresses, the mood remains the same, going headlong down the same course. It is a consistent and strong film in this aspect, and Kosar and Wright have come up with a good few of their own ideas to maintain this mood.
I mentioned the merits of the production design, but the audience would not be able to notice these if it were not for the work of cinematographer Maxime Alexandre. Alexandre portrays the town of Ogden Marsh with some crisp imagery. Everything has a sheen to it, really setting the tone for the film. Of course, when everything goes tits up, the illusion is shattered. We are bombarded with some really horrific images, Alexandre inviting us in as a participant to the action in some really good scenes. There is a simple scene in a car washing machine that is incredibly effective, shot from the inside of the car. It is at moments like this that the chaos is best experienced.
The final thing that I would like to say positively on The Crazies is the acting. Now, there are by no means any great performances. However, a number of the central actors do a fine job. Timothy Olyphant in particular I was impressed with. The last film I reviewed with him was the rubbish A Perfect Getaway, in which he played a character not unlike someone Bill Paxton might have played in the 80s. Once again, the similarities return, but despite being reminded of Paxton, Olyphant proved that he is a fine actor. Having seen him play a refreshing villain well in Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free Or Die Hard, take your pick), it is great to see him do a good job in a lead role. He makes a potentially boring character likeable, and he is a watchable screen presence. Also, Radha Mitchell, despite playing a stock character, does a good job as Judy. The various emotions that her character is going through are conveyed well and understandable.
In the grand scheme of things, considering by nature I am against horror remakes, The Crazies was a pleasant surprise. However, despite this, there are fundamental problems at the film’s heart. Earlier I praised the script, good in some aspects, but in others it flops. Though the film does have a conscience, taking on challenging topic matter, outside of this, the script is murder-by-numbers. Each of the characters, regardless of how well they are acted, are stock characters built to work around an interesting concept. More importantly, the plot goes in the directions that one would expect a horror movie to. The thing about films, and this is of great importance for the horror genre, is that there are groundrules and expectations made to be broken. Despite challenging topic matter, The Crazies doesn’t break any fundamental rules. If the audience is a castle, the script is like pygmies throwing sticks and stones, then deciding to give up on their conquest. Also, the ending is handled horribly. I know it is similar to the ending of the original film, but it is one of those horror film ‘it’s over, but not really’ kind of copouts. It ends up making the screenwriters seem as though they were lazy and patched on an ending. The lead-up to the ending is great, but the film fails to draw to an appropriate close.
Unfortunately, for a film so well shot, it is edited with a true lack of effort. It is not that it is a bad example of editing, but Billy Fox does for the editing what the screenplay does for plot. Horror film is a genre that has certain expectations, especially for cine/horror literates in the wake of self-conscious films such as Wes Craven’s Scream series. I know that this was fifteen years ago, but the films solidified for mainstream audiences long-standing horror film precedents. As such, when it comes down to a horror film, people are able to guess that ‘something’ is going to happen through the editing. It becomes a bit more frantic and things are a bit blurred etc etc. Billy Fox’s work on The Crazies goes down this line, and we are more often than not able to guess what is going to happen before it does. On another note regarding editing, there is a moment on the highway when the characters come across a car and start getting supplies. During this scene, the cuts are frantic and unnecessary. Fox does come across as trying to play editing tricks, but he does it whenever it is not asked for or required. As I said, it’s not bad editing, it’s just editing with a good few stupid mistakes.
Finally, if I am to mention one more of the film’s problems it would be the original score by Mark Isham. For starters, it is a dull, uninspired and boring score. For a man who in the past has made great contributions in the past as composer on horror films such as The Hitcher and The Mist, this is poor work. And I’m not judging it in the context of his previous work. I was unaware of his scoring these films until reading the Wikipedia profile. However, if you take The Hitcher and The Mist, films where the score contributes without end to atmosphere, this does the opposite. While the cinematography and production design attempt to create a self-contained universe, the score is like the battering ram at the castle gates. It consistently threatens to destroy the illusion of cinema in this film. Also, like certain other elements, it does exactly what you expect it to. In ‘scary’ moments, it builds up to a crescendo of all the usual tricks expected, sustained loud notes as we witness something particularly horrible etc. Furthermore, for a film that attempts to remain tonally in the ‘impending doom’ category, it does not do any favours bringing out the ‘feel’ music. Being a film with human emotions, we must ‘feel’ for our characters and ‘pity’ them, and perhaps even ‘cry.’ The worst failing of the music is that it is overt and telling us what to think.
The Crazies, despite many problems in editing, original score and screenplay, is a good, solid horror film. As far as ideas, the film works, and doesn’t shy away from challenging material. Also, it is well shot and has some tremendous production design. Apart from the interruptions from the previously listed categories, the best thing about The Crazies is that there is an atmosphere of consistent ‘impending doom’ that genuinely. It is a rare instance of a horror remake being a good film, that does attempt to do its own thing, and is a meritable work.
The Thin White Dude’s Prognosis – 6.2/10
The Thin White Dude’s Self-Diagnosis – Good good, (the Re-Animator theme tune stuck in my head!)