Monday, October 18, 2010

The Crazies

The longer a TV series goes on, the more likely it becomes that the quality will decline. In order to keep the viewer interested, writers and producers will keep on coming up with more and more outrageous things. Unfortunately, this has the effect of undermining what initially made the project successful, and viewers lose interest despite their efforts.

As I said, that happens a lot with long-running TV shows. It is seldom that we get to see it happen in a movie with a run-time of less than 90 minutes – however, The Crazies manages to achieve this dubious honour.

It starts out well enough, with a series of strange murders befalling a small American town. Of course, it is highly derivative – even for a remake, which almost by definition will be derivative. The use of a Johnny Cash song over the opening credits mimics a far superior remake of a far superior Romero film. The burning deaths represent a scenario that has been used time and time again in everything from horror films to weepy TV movies. And the scene in the undertaker's references both The Fog and, in the grisly sewing up of the pastor’s mouth and eyelids, the pilot episode of Millennium. Of course, the more weird the deaths become the more it all resembles a film adaptation of an early James Herbert novel, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it just means that credibility has been left us for the duration of the film.

Then the US government becomes involved, and the film takes its first nosedive. First up, it stretches credibility that the US government – which failed so spectacularly on both 9/11 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina would be able to mount the sort of operation depicted in this film. Secondly, the developing mystery of the place crash is largely abandoned, only to be resolved in the blandest of bland ways in the final third of the film. Finally, there is some heavy-handed symbolism – like the potentially infected being herded around in cattle trucks – that is frankly tacky and inappropriate even for a “B” Movie like this one.

Introducing the US government as another enemy in the film has the effect of sidelining the titular “crazies”. Sure, they crop up every now and again throughout the rest of the film, but they are only there to offer inventive deaths only to be dispatched with almost tedious regularity at the last minute by the deputy sheriff. Yes, I get that the real monsters can sometimes be the humans rather than the monsters, but this hackneyed and clichéd point has been beaten to death ever since Romero first made Night of the Living Dead. This film doesn’t add to the idea, it just regurgitates it with an almost criminal lack of flair and inventiveness.

And then the movie disintegrates into a tedious runaround as the ever-diminishing band of protagonists run from both the government and them there crazy people. However, the film has an admirable determination to eject any shred of credibility from its plot with the final revelation that, if you are caught in a nuclear blast, all you have to do to survive with little more than cuts and scrapes is to be in a truck driving in the opposite direction to the explosion. Turns out the CND was worrying about nothing – nuclear blasts aren’t all they’re made out to be. My intelligence would have been utterly insulted had it not been turned off pretty early on for the duration of the film.

Finally we end up with the heavy-handed hints that what we’ve just seen is about to be repeated in another town. All I could think at that point was “thank God the film’s over and I don’t have to watch that happening”.

To be fair to the film it was well directed, with some great action set-pieces and acting that, while it was nothing special, was equally not jarringly bad. And as always, I can hear the objection in the back of my head “it was a horror movie. What were you expecting? A great film?”

And the answer is “well, yes”. Horror as a genre is much abused by studios desperate to make a quick buck from an easy to make genre with an almost guaranteed audience. To do so, they sacrifice much of what would actually make a film great. The Crazies is a prime example of this. It basically seems to be saying “fuck characterization and fuck the plot – as long as we have a few decent action sequences that contain moments to make the audience jump we’ll be fine”. Except the film won’t be fine – it will be anything but. The Crazies doesn’t have characters, it has meaningless empty ciphers designed to provoke audience reactions through empty signifiers – he’s the sheriff, he must be good, he’ll survive. She’s the sheriff’s wife, a doctor and pregnant – she’s definitely good and will survive. And so on until you don’t care about any of the characters because they are so bland as to be instantly forgettable. And the film lacks an internal logic – in fact it never seems to quite work out what it wants to be – monster movie, zombie movie, conspiracy chiller. Of course, it could be all three at the same time (see REC) – but that would involve weaving the plot strands together rather than lumping one type of event after another with no real attempts to link them and hoping no-one notices.

The point is horror movies can be great – they can have strong internal logic, a coherent plot behind the scares and fully developed characters. See The Exorcist, Dawn of the Dead (either version), 28 Days Later and The Shining for examples. However, if you can’t be bothered to provide this, then you do have to question just why your audience should bother with your film at all.

And with The Crazies it would be my recommendation, sadly, that you just shouldn’t bother. Not only to watch the film, but to make it in the first place.

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