There are two common pitfalls that most horror films fall in. The first pitfall is a poorly told story, because filmmakers are counting on audiences to only care about the horror aspects. It sometimes feels like the main concern is to make sure there are enough teenagers having sex and cats jumping out of the shadows instead of telling a great story. The second pitfall is the over-reliance on cheap scares, like fast moving figures in the foreground accompanied by stingers. When horror filmmakers aren’t trying to startle audiences, they’re grossing them out with over-the-top gore. The fact that horror films still exist as a lucrative genre means that these pitfalls are actually incentives for filmmakers on a tight budget since there is a large enough population of moviegoers who only need this bare minimum to be entertained. Once in a while, however, there comes along a horror film that can be appreciated by anyone. The Crazies is that film.
Ogden Marsh is a small farming community with a close-knit population of simple American ruralites. David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant) is the sheriff of this tiny town where he lives with his wife, Judy (Radha Mitchell). One morning, while taking in a local high school baseball game with his deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), a man walks onto the field, brandishing a shotgun. Dutten is forced to kill him. Unfortunately, the incident isn’t isolated as other acts of violence begin sprouting up around town. After a dead pilot and military plane are found crashed in the nearby creek, the danger becomes apparent as phone lines are cut, cell phones lose their signal and mysterious, unmarked government vehicles are seen surveilling the town. Worse yet, the townspeople have all seemingly lost their minds and have turned into bloodthirsty killers, prompting military involvement to control the situation. Caught in the middle of the firefight are Dutten and a handful of survivors, trying to escape Ogden Marsh.
Fans of the source material will recognize The Crazies as a remake of the 1973 film by the same name by George Romero. His films typically dealt with “monsters” that looked like people, but didn’t behave like people. There is something disquieting about dealing with an unreasonable person. Throw in “sadistic killer” into the mix and you have an excellent formula for horror. What elevated Romero’s films above the fray of other horror movies was the irony that it was the reasonable people who were the greatest danger. In this incarnation of The Crazies, the military – with its methodical procedures, sophisticated technology and overwhelming numbers – makes for a deliciously formidable obstacle.
The Crazies is definitely a horror film, but it isn’t horrific in the traditional sense. The majority of the scares are fair, with only a few cheap shots where the audience is focused on the background and something suddenly passes by in the foreground. In fact, The Crazies is less scary and more unnerving. There’s something very disturbing in spending time with characters as normal people only to see them as crazed maniacs later. This choice was smart on the writers’ parts since it gave a face and some personality to the villains rather than lumping them all indistinguishably as “crazies.” The gore is also presented adequately rather than gratuitously. Audiences won’t have to stomach limbs and heads being hacked off or intestines being spilled. Some of the more tasteful shots keep the viscera off-screen and rely on the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks. All in all, every scene is watchable without feeling watered down.
The entire cast is excellent all around and it’s nice to see some fresh faces. Joe Anderson turns in a strong performance as the faithful deputy and his mental degradation throughout the film walks the line between stress and madness to keep the audience guessing about him. Radha Mitchell and Timothy Olyphant are wonderful in their roles and it’s nice to see that they were given some room to flesh out their characters. They don’t always agree. They bicker. They can be strong in the face of insurmountable odds, but they can also be fragile when they’re overwhelmed with emotion. Ultimately, they’re easy to be sympathetic to, which is a hallmark of excellent, natural acting.
The best part of The Crazies is how well it uses the “setup and payoff” convention. The filmmakers have a knack for setting up a threat, distracting the audience from it and then reminding the audience in surprising ways. Other setups are slowly resolved throughout the course of the film, making the pay off feel organic rather than gimmicky. The end result is a film universe that actually feels alive.