Beware of ‘The Crazies’

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I’m never leaving the coast again. Seriously, if “The Crazies” is any indication of what’s in store for me in flyover country, I’m postponing my “On the Road” tribute trip indefinitely: psychopathic farmers with pitchforks and shotguns, viruses that infect your brain. No sir, the cushy life of a sheltered New York liberal is good enough for me. Although, despite all the peeking around corners and shooting their friends and neighbors, the motley crew of survivors led by Ogden Marsh sheriff David Dutton (Timothy Olyphant) makes fleeing for your life look like a ball.

I won’t say much about the plot, other than that there’s something in the water. And it makes people go crazy, as in “lock your wife and son in a closet and light the house on fire” crazy. When the army invades their small Iowa town to contain the outbreak, it’s up to the bromantic duo of Dutton and his trusty deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson) to lead David’s wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) and a local teenager (Danielle Panabaker) to safety.

“The Crazies,” which is a remake of a 1973 George A. Romero film of the same name, looks and feels like your typical everyday zombie/infection/what-have-you movie, with one notable exception: these bad boys are sentient, calculating and out to get you. This variation makes for some great nailbiter moments; rather than mindlessly rioting in a savage horde to eat your flesh, the poor souls unlucky enough to be infected with the “crazy” disease plot diabolical ways to trap their prey. It starts off when local drunk Rory Hamill (Mike Hickman) walks onto the field during a baseball game with a shotgun, but as the virus spreads, the insanity of the traps escalates to chilling (and often satiric) effect. The pièce de résistance in my opinion is a brilliant scene in which the gang gets caught in a good ol’ fashioned Middle American car wash and has to fight its way out blind.

Like so many other horror films, “The Crazies” shows the inkling of an aspiration to social commentary (there’s something here about trust in the post-9/11 era), but it’s never quite smart enough for us to buy into it. The dialogue is pretty standard horror schlock, which was fine by me because the action and suspense was definitely the fun part. That said, the film seems to takes itself very seriously and could have benefited tremendously from some comic relief. And while I expected Anderson to fill that niche by playing the role of dipshit deputy to Olyphant’s chivalrous sheriff, his character’s complexity was a welcome surprise. In fact, the relationship between Olyphant’s and Mitchell’s characters pales in comparison to the depth and nuance of the sheriff-deputy dynamic.

Even with its lack of laughs, “The Crazies” manages to stay true to some horror cliché favorites (“BEHIND YOU!!!, DON’T GO IN THERE!, WHAT ARE YOU, STUPID?,” etc.) that make the whole ride worthwhile. It’s not a crowning cinematic achievement, but whispering to the characters on screen while squeezing the arm of the person next to you for dear life is a hell of a midterm stress release.

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