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Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Crazies (2010)

Screenplay by Scott Kosar and Ray Wright, based on the motion picture The Crazies by George A. Romero
Directed by Breck Eisner

Timothy Olyphant:  Sheriff David Dutten
Radha Mitchell:  Dr.  Judy Dutten
Joe Anderson:  Deputy Russell

I love being able to write sentences like "It's a real shame this movie didn't live up to the pitchfork murder sequence" when I'm critiquing films. Unfortunately, that statement is a fair assessment of today's movie; if it had sustained its nasty tone for the whole running time it could have been something really special rather than just something rather decent.

When you start a movie with a deserted small town burning to the ground and then cut to "Two days earlier", you're making a couple promises to your audience. Things are going to go bad quickly and end with devastation. Usually that's not the kind of thing people sign up for, but if you're a horror fan it's like a personal promise from the director that you're in the right theater (or have selected the correct DVD for purchase or rental, or have acquired an appropriate totally legit download). It doesn't hurt to have Johnny Cash on the soundtrack for the opening, either; I'm far from a fan of Visionary Director Zack Snyder's take on Dawn of the Dead but the opening credits were marvelous, and the Cash track that he personally chose to accompany his clip show of Armageddon is a big part of the reason that sequence is so effective.

Rather than introducing a protagonist first thing, the viewer gets a look at Ogden Marsh, a small farming community. There's a nice wide main street, a medical clinic and plenty of white people walking around downtown (and one or two driving around on riding tractors on a stretch of highway; a sheriff's deputy passes by one and doesn't flag them down, so it's something people are used to). There's several shots of children here, which makes me wonder how transgressive this movie is going to get, on a scale of one to Who Can Kill a Child?; time will tell if the screenwriter and director will be impressively nasty or not (or if the studio lets 'em be evil--it's a horror movie, but not all horror movies are created equal). But there's also a glimpse of the placid normality that needs to be established before all hell breaks loose and catches on fire. For example, Dr. Judy Dutten lets her young assistant out from work early to catch a baseball game with her boyfriend. Team sports! Rural communities! Young love! What could go wrong?

We find out at the baseball game. The town's sheriff stops by to watch some sportsball and chat with a community leader or two. His deputy notices a disheveled man walking onto Tiger Field (home of the Tigers, of course) in the middle of play. As the stubbly, wild-haired, middle-aged white dude gets closer it becomes apparent that he's carrying a shotgun and looks angry. There's plenty of civilians around to react with mounting fear as they realize what's going on. The sheriff goes out on his own to negotiate with Rory, who looks down at his shotgun like he didn't remember he had it with him. Rory aims the shotgun rather than putting it down as requested, but the lawman drops him with one shot to the chest. It's also telling that the sheriff tries wheedling and commanding before unsnapping the holster on his belt; obviously he didn't want things to end the way they did but he's not willing to take a face full of buckshot either. He's also got unearthly reflexes if he was able to draw, aim and shoot before someone who already had his weapon at the ready could shoot him. And he only fires one shot, which suggests a certain amount of restraint. If it was an action movie, the sheriff would have emptied his gun at the poor doomed sucker (and the film would have presented it as the right course of action).

I wasn't expecting the sudden change of view to that of a spy satellite monitoring Ogden Marsh (pop. 1260, which is going to go down in two days, I bet). We here at Checkpoint Telstar automatically add a star to a movie's rating if there's a satellite in it. Or we would if we used a star rating system. Regardless, we're always happy to see a satellite on screen or merely referenced. Attentive viewers will not references to "Trixie" in the satellite image, which is a reference to the George Romero film that this film is remaking, and "Scarlet Omega", which sounds ominous as all fuck. Then the titles (white text at the bottom of a black screen) and a jump forward to that night at the Finley Funeral Home as the medical examiner lets the sheriff know that Rory's blood alcohol level and anything else in his bloodstream will be known shortly.

Rory's wife and son show up at the funeral home at the same time that Sheriff Dutten is there; he approaches them to express his condolences (although Rory's kid looks like a roided out Steve Zahn, and also like the presence of Dutten's gun is the only thing keeping him from trying to cave the sheriff's head in with his bare hands). It turns out the "drunk dude pulled a shotgun on me" explanation is possibly flawed; Rory's wife says he quit boozing two years ago and was extremely proud of his recovery. She slaps the sheriff (but she does not slap the deputy) and leaves in a grieving huff.

The next day, Sheriff Dutten tries to exorcise his demons by doing extremely early morning carpentry on his front porch (there's semi-assembled nursery room furniture in one room in his house; one may safely assume Dr. Dutten is pregnant). At work, a tired and shell-shocked Sheriff gets the call from the medical examiner; there was no alcohol in Rory's bloodstream. He tries to put things together, returning to the high school baseball field while turning over possibilities in his mind. The high school principal is there, sitting catatonically on the bleachers. When the sheriff finally gets his attention the educator mutters something about how the kids will be all right because they're resilient and leaves for the school. And back at Dr. Dutten's office, a woman's brought her husband in for an examination because he's weird and distant (he repeats himself, eventually, when he notices he's in a doctor's office and says he's all right); it's starting to look a lot like Rory was Patient Zero in whatever's going on. That night, the concerned woman and her son see her husband goofing around with some kind of grain harvester in their barn. I was expecting her to get mulched by the thresher (or whatever it is, which is lit to look awesomely dangerous at night). But whatever she--or the audience--was expecting, it wasn't her husband Bill going after their son with a knife. There's some really sweet sound design in this sequence as Bill stalks through the farmhouse over creaking floorboards. And whatever's going on in his head, he's got it together enough to realize that he can't get through the locked bedroom door where his wife and son are hiding. No worries; he'll just splash a few gallons of gasoline around and burn the house down.

Sheriff Dutten gets the call soon after the blaze is discovered--he and Dr. Dutten find Bill out front mowing his lawn by the light of the house, which the Ogden Marsh FD is working on putting out. I can understand the fire chief spotting the empty gas can outside, but that house is way, way, way too still on fire for him to have gone upstairs and found the two murder victims in a closet. Dr. Dutten loses her shit completely when Bill just starts humming "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" with a dead and empty expression. Around the same time, three duck hunters find a drowned paratrooper in a camouflage uniform in the section of wooded marsh that they're tramping through. I bet that has something to do with lots of other events in the film.

At the sheriff's department, Bill is standing in a jail cell, immobile, and has been doing that for hours. Sheriff Dutten recognizes the vacant look on his face because it's the same one Rory gave him before raising the shotgun. Some county patrolmen from Cedar Rapids are supposed to come pick him up (I know a guy in that town who is a black belt martial artist, if they need backup--Hi, Travis!). Out at the drowning site, the medical examiner is checking to see if the dead pilot has any ID on him. One would assume that whoever's running that satellite camera from a few minutes ago knows about the lost plane, but one would also be guessing that planes are expensive and someone should have been looking for the guy by now.

Coincidentally the local who says he heard a plane crash in a bog is also named Travis. He takes the sheriff and Deputy Russ out on a boat looking for whatever he thinks he heard, and keeps asking about what size of a reward he's going to get when and if they find the crashed aircraft. The sheriff figures out that they're cruising right over it and there's a sweet pullback shot revealing that a large transport plane is in the bog; that shot transitions to another Telstar's-eye-view of the locale. "INITIATE CONTAINMENT PROTOCOL" pops up on the screen, though I'm not sure exactly who's being told to do that. For that matter, I don't know who's giving the blinking all-caps sans serif order.

Sheriff Dutten figures things out pretty much immediately, and confirms his suspicions by visiting the town planning office to check out a map and ask someone who knows about the water filtration system in Ogden Marsh--the plane is in the middle of of the town's water supply, and Rory Hamill's house is the closest one to the crash site. Whatever was on the plane appears to be heading into the pipes and out of the faucets of everyone in town. Worse yet, it's quite likely too late to keep people from being exposed to whatever it is. The mayor (who appears to be slightly melting) hops out of his swimming pool when the sheriff visits him to request the town's water supply being shut down. He gets an answer pinched from Jaws and its ripoffs--there's too much money at stake to cut off the water to a farming community during planting season, so the beaches stay open. Er, the water stays on. But over the mild protests of his deputy, Sheriff Dutten breaks into the water tower that supplies Ogden Marsh, shuts off the main valve and sabotages the equipment so it can't be easily fixed.

Back at the holding cell, Bill the catatonic is now Bill the body on the floor bleeding from the nose. The deputy is about to open the cell to check on him when the sheriff holds him back, which is a good things because Bill the immobile body quickly transitions to Bill the screaming lunatic trying to reach through the bars and grab either of the law enforcement personnel. When the sheriff tries to call out to find out what's going on with his prisoner transport the line is busy before he even dials. The internet is down as well--as are everyone's cell phones--so they're down to smoke signals and yelling if they want to contact anyone outside of the town.

There's a cool shot of Sheriff Dutten walking down an empty Main Street that wouldn't be out of place in a George Romero movie and a woman singing a hymn to herself while riding a girl's bicycle around. That's the only other human being around, or so it would seem before the POV switches to a camera taking surveillance photos of the singing woman and the uneasy sheriff. Some noise from the funeral home draws Dutten's attention and he finds a mutilated cadaver and a living priest with his eyes and mouth sewn shut. He snips the sutures on the man's mouth just in time for him to whisper "Behind you...", which is not something you ever want to encounter in this kind of situation. The medical examiner clocks the sheriff with a piece of equipment before trying to slice him apart with a bonesaw. It's a short, nasty fight that ends with the M.E. slipping on his own blood and collapsing, and the bonesaw skipping after the sheriff like a loose Thing-Cutter.

That night (and I think we're on the third night from "Two Days Ago", which means the movie isn't particularly well put together, which is a real shame) the argument between the Duttens re:  staying to help or leaving to get away from the crazy people is interrupted by Dr. Dutten noticing someone outside. Sheriff Dutten has his gun out when he goes to check the situation out, which shows that he is learning from his past experiences. He's checking out the shed / garage / metal implement storage building when he hears his wife scream for him; when he runs outside to help her he's mobbed by a dozen or so men in camo-pattern biohazard suits pointing rifles at him. He gets disarmed and bundled onto a school bus along with a bunch of other Odgen Marshers and driven off (Deputy Russ is there; he tried to flee to Cedar Rapids to get help from Travis and ran over a spike strip). The bus is driven to a huge outdoor encampment at the high school, where it looks like a substantial number of the townspeople are confined behind fences. The sheriff and his wife get bustled through a series of tents (the deputy is hauled away by soldiers for reasons that are not apparent; just after that, a screaming terrified child is yanked away from his mother and taken away). Dr. Dutten puts it together that whatever is affecting everyone (her vote is a virus) causes temperature spikes, and that's how the soldiers know who to pull away and who to let go. Of course, right after she mentions this the temperature check performed on her shows that she needs to be hauled away for her own safety and the safety of everyone around her.

Dr. Dutten gets the least reassuring gurney ride since Jacob's Ladder before getting shuttled into a plastic-walled surgical theater and sedated. Her husband wakes up in a livestock transport truck and shuffled along Main Street. Soldiers are handing out ID cards and issuing wristbands but nobody in authority is explaining just what the hell is going on yet. Dr. Dutten wakes up in what I presume is the high school gym, inside a plastic tent and strapped to a hospital bed in a room with dozens of other people similarly secured. Some of them are coughing, spitting up blood or laughing. None of that makes me feel good. Just outside of town the uninfected Ogden Marshers are being herded away; the city planning guy drops some exposition that one family trying to get out past a roadblock was shot dead by the military (which means that the innocent Americans in this version of the story are on the receiving end of Iraq War tactics, just as the original film was a Vietnam parable). The sheriff is going to go back into town to find his wife; the planning office guy is leaving without his.

He's going into a spectacularly bad situation--the infected have driven through one of the containment fences and shot up several of the soldiers; the military is pulling out and abandoning everyone. The soldiers and doctors beat feet as fast as you can in a positive-pressure inflated biohazard suit and evacuate. The ROE for the escape appears to be "shoot on sight", another taste of the war of choice in the Middle East that informs the politics of this film. Back at the sheriff's station, all the weapons have been removed from the storage locker, but he's still got a revolver and some ammo in his desk. Deputy Russ shows up and the pair almost shoot each other before realizing that they're both sane. They hatch a plan to rescue Dr. Dutten--who had a high temperature because she was pregnant, not from the mystery virus--from the high school containment facility.

Meanwhile, back at said containment facility, thinks quickly take a turn for the shit-tacular. Dr. Dutten is trying to comfort her office assistant (unconvincingly telling her that things are going to be okay) when a scraping sound announces the arrival of one of the homicidally insane infected. Turns out that the high school principal has gone past the "confused and distant" stage and comfortably into the "kill it if you see it" stage of the disease.

I'd like to take a moment to talk about an article I came across while writing a film studies paper for Dr. Henry Aldridge at Eastern Michigan University; it was called "The Poetics of Horror" and it gave me the lens through which I have viewed horror films for the last decade or so. The author (and I wish I could remember their name) set forth a theory that horror films are not about vampires or werewolves or any of the other standby monsters; instead, a horror movie was concerned with the loss of control over the characters' destiny. Colossus:  The Forbin Project was one of the movies specifically mentioned--it had the sets and plot and trappings of a science fiction movie but was entirely about the loss of control for every human being once the titular computer was switched on.

Which I mentioned because this sequence illustrates that idea brilliantly. It's hard to come up with a situation where a character has less control over their fate than Dr. Dutten here--she's strapped to a hospital gurney in a room full of infected people who will go crazy at some point in the future. She's uninfected--as far as she knows--but neither she nor anyone in the film has any idea how communicable the bioweapon is. The army has fled (which means that she was potentially looking forward to starving to death or dying of thirst while in the safety restraints) and a blood-spattered man she presumably has known for decades is walking around aimlessly, dragging a pitchfork on the ground, and occasionally pausing to stab one of the restrained and infected patients to death.

The sheriff puts two slugs in the principal a half second or so before his wife was going to get murdered; he and deputy Russ release his wife and the office assistant from their gurneys and head out to try and get to a truck stop that was being used as a processing center to get the uninfected out of town. There are dozens--if not hundreds--of bodies on the ground outside the school and the deputy realizes that he lives closer to the tainted water than his boss. In case there wasn't enough of a threat from the crazies and the soldiers (who are undoubtedly under shoot-on-sight rules of engagement now) there's the possibility that the guy with a shotgun is going to slowly lose his marbles and become one of the monsters.

And there's another neat setpiece where the duck hunters from before are out shooting random people and throwing their bodies in the back of their blood-drenched pickup truck; it's hard to say how much of their original personalities any of the crazies retain, but these guys are out having fun doing what they're doing (and the line about expecting one victim to "dress up real nice" is sick and wonderful).

The four survivors get to the McGregor place (Dr. Dutten's assistant is dating Scotty, the McGregor kid) but Mrs. McGregor and Scotty exit the movie courtesy of biohazard-suited soldiers who shoot the son when he comes to his mother's aid--the military wanted to haul her off somewhere when they checked her temperature and it was elevated--and the mother when she runs to her child's body. Then someone takes a flamethrower to the bodies, as a precaution. And this gives the Duttens yet more confirmation that they need to stay the hell away from the military. Dr. Dutten has an elevated temperature because she's pregnant, but it doesn't look like anyone's in an exception-making frame of mind right now.

Although the sheriff is, as it turns out. The quartet, hiding in a barn, grabs the soldier that comes in to check and the barest drips of exposition are delivered--the soldiers haven't been told anything about what's going on, and the shockingly young-looking guy behind the gas mask says his unit wasn't even told which state they were being deployed to. He's not taking his orders particularly well, and promises not to tell the other soldiers about the hiding foursome if they let him go. Russ seems particularly on edge and ready to shoot during this confrontation, but so far he's listening to his boss's orders. The survivors live to flee another day and pick up supplies at the Dutten residence. And that's almost the last stop because Rory's wife and son have been waiting there to kill the sheriff; they've also got super-nasty infected red veins all over their chalky, grey faces. The sheriff takes a knife through the hand while struggling for his dropped revolver, and my notes for how he gets out of that predicament just say "he sees his pain as some new injection and rises above human limitation". He also winds up with blood-to-blood contact with Rory's wife, so I'm guessing he's going to get Crazypants Fever before too long. Oh, and Russell shoots the barely-breathing bodies of Rory's wife and son five times to "make sure", so it's safe to say he's starting to become symptomatic.

The group fixes up a barely-functional old cruiser in the Duttens' garage and heads off for the truck stop; they're not on the road too terribly long before Russell starts suspecting other people in the car of being sick and things almost come to blows (or worse, a gunfight in a four-person car) when a military helicopter buzzes overhead. They hide from it in a car wash but the office assistant thinks she sees someone also hiding in the structure, which then turns on and will inexorably spit their car out where anyone can see it. It turns out there are also two infected in the car wash and there's a pretty cool "trying to get out but there's no traction" sequence; Becca the office assistant doesn't make it out of the car wash alive thanks to some horrible, horrible luck. And when everyone gets out of the car to fight the infected and try to save her, the cruiser rolls out of the car wash and is incinerated by the helicopter; obviously, the pilots were not fooled by the party driving into a large shed and just waited for them to leave.

The pared-down group walks off for the truck stop, for lack of a better destination. Sheriff Dutten wants to carjack an approaching police SUV but doesn't explain his plan to Russell, who throws a spike strip out that destroys the speeding land yacht's tires and causes a multiple rollover one-car accident. The sheriff hauls the injured driver out and prevents his deputy from executing the man on sight; in exchange for this consideration, he wants to know what the hell was on the crashed plane. The intelligence officer, or whoever he is, has enough time to explain that a weaponized virus codenamed Trixie was on the airplane, supposedly going to a CDC incinerator in Texas when the pilot brought it down in the reservoir. He says the incubation period for Trixie is 48 hours; after that point if you haven't got it you're not going to get it. He doesn't get a chance to explain whether or not it's a bloodborne pathogen, airborne or sexually transmitted before Russell shoots him in a fit of pique.

Right after the accident, interrogation and murder Russell starts exhibiting paranoiac tendencies and pulls a gun on his boss, ordering the Duttens to walk ahead of him so he can see them. The sheriff eventually outsmarts him and clocks him (which cannot have been any fun with the knife wound going all through his hand) and the deputy realizes he's got the bug. He asks if he can still walk with the group for a little while after he's been disarmed. They walk till nightfall and encounter a military operation full of floodlights and biohazard-suited soldiers; Russell uses his last couple of marbles serving as a distraction so that the Duttens can flee through the cordon. They make it to the truck stop where the PA offering sale bargains reminds me of the disembodied speaker voice in Dawn of the Dead telling nonexistent shoppers that they can get a free bag of hard candy if they buy enough stuff in the next half hour.

Of course the pair splits up at the truck stop like a pair of idiots who have never even heard of a horror movie before, but the only thing that happens is Dr. Dutten's discovery of semi trailers full of napalmed corpses. Turns out the processing center at the truck stop was just turning people into corpses, not separating the uninfected from the doomed. That's a significantly harsher revelation than I was expecting, and I wish the film lived up to it (it's about twenty minutes too long and has great setpieces but bad connections between them). The sheriff goes off to pick up gear and look for the keys to a big rig in the truck stop's garage; his wife splits off again (again!) to drink water and not notice the creepy dude in the kitchen while she's rehydrating. Sheriff Dutten overhears something on the radio about a ten minute countdown and ready status (pinching the final act from Return of the Living Dead, I bet) and goes to pick up his wife and get the hell out of Dodge.

Turns out the duck hunters are at the truck stop, and set the lights to "flickering and dim" while they look for their prey and we get yet another "hide from the lunatics" sequence, a "sneak quietly" sequence, a "discover another body" sequence and a "the keys to the truck are in the pocket of the dead driver" bit. It's just taking too long at this point, and stretching the suspense past the point where I care. And that's before the "grabbed by a crazy and fight your way past him" bit where the sheriff gets yanked under the truck by a previously unseen gigantic strong dude.

On the road and listening to the countdown over a military walkie-talkie, the Duttens drive away and wonder why nothing happened when it hit zero, just before the mushroom cloud wipes Ogden Marsh off the map behind them. Let's hope there weren't any other survivors the movie wasn't following in there, right? The truck gets swatted off the road by the blastwave and the pair get out of the crumpled cab of the truck (and I really think that hand injury should be affecting the sheriff at this point). They stumble off uncertainly into the night, lit by the fires consuming their home town in an admittedly quite neat shot. The next morning they find their way to a field on the outskirts of the promised land (Cedar Rapids), but that eye in the sky from the first act sees them approaching it and another containment protocol has to be initiated (which might work better than the first one, because as far as I can tell neither one of the Duttens are actually infected with Trixie). Too bad about the 128,000 other people living there.

Alas. This one was almost nasty enough and just plain too long for me to give it an unqualified recommendation. I was afraid it'd be similar to the Dawn of the Dead remake where the politics were removed but it's got a distrust of authority figures that makes a lot of sense after the six and a half years of the Iraq War, which was still in progress at the time the film was released. And is still going on, of course, but without Americans in it at this point. Maybe the 2044 remake that will be informed by the land war in China will work out better.


  1. Ha, 10 points for did not slap the deputy.

    It has been a few years but I remember this movie fondly. I have a soft spot for Olyphant ever since Deadwood, though, so that might be skewing things rose-colored.

    Loved the pitchfork scene.

    (Was the principal also in Deadwood? He looks like the junkie who worked for Cy Tolliver.)

  2. Good eye--the principal was indeed in Deadwood and I didn't even notice. Olyphant's a really good actor who communicates rage exceptionally well. I just think the material let him down here. The pitchfork scene was the absolute highlight of the film.