(by Dustin Putman
Like a sloppier, bloodier "The Trigger Effect" without that thought-provoking 1996 thriller's sociological implications, "The Crazies" simply goes through the motions as a typical horror movie update (it's loosely based on George A. Romero's cult 1973 original). The premise of a quiet small town quickly going crazy due to a contaminated water supply isn't new—this base was additionally already covered in 1984's "Impulse" and 1987's "The Curse"—but it is certainly a nightmarish enough scenario to be effective if done well. Director Breck Eisner (2005's "Sahara") and screenwriters Scott Kosar (2005's "The Amityville Horror") and Ray Wright (2006's "Pulse") are all over the place, though, unable to find the proper footing, focus and pacing to do it justice. That Eisner replaces true potential under-the-skin frights with a bunch of predictable, ineffective jump scares (some scenes even have two, one right after the other) is lazy filmmaking, thus shining a brighter light on the deficiencies within the narrative. Article continues below
The idyllic Iowa community of Ogden Marsh has a population of just over twelve hundred, but Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant) and his wife, local physician Judy (Radha Mitchell), are pleased with the life they've built there and the baby that's own the way. In a blink, their hopes for the future are wiped out, spurred by a bio-chemical spill from a crashed plane and the subsequent ill effects this has on the residents. As one by one fall victim, becoming homicidal as well as not much to look at, the military swoop in to quarantine the infected and stop the situation from becoming a cataclysmic national outbreak. Their methods soon turn outright deadly as they begin exterminating the people on sight. Desperate to escape the same fate, David, Judy, Deputy Russell Clank (Joe Anderson), and teenager Becca (Danielle Panabaker) set out across the rural landscape, intent on eluding capture and making it to neighboring big city Cedar Rapids in one piece. What they are not sure of is how long it may be before any of them, too, start showing the same symptoms.
"The Crazies" isn't wholly bereft of suspense and gruesome goods, but these moments—like a scene where Judy must hide in a storage room filled with corpses, or another involving an impaled hand—come in between a whole lot of slow-going time out. The setup of Ogden Marsh as a close community is too rushed to make the desired impact when all goes to hell, yet these early scenes still do a good job of raising the sense of paranoia as David and Judy both experience first-hand the odd happenings that have begun to occur. A scene where a farmer (Brett Rickaby) loses his mind and goes after his own frightened wife (Christie Lynn Smith) and son (Preston Bailey) is as scary as things get because of the knowledge that his true inner self genuinely loves and cares for the very people he is suddenly out to kill.
Once the first act is over, the military swoop in, and the four lead characters go on the run, the film's momentum short-circuits. Isolating them for long stretches as they walk through fields serves to show off some attractive landscape photography, but doesn't do much in keeping the viewer's tensions high. From here on out, the "crazies" of the title are too sparsely encountered by the heroes, and then only one or two at a time. The gas-masked government, in fact, is to be feared just as much, but they also are featured more as background extras that pop up from time to time to add extra conflict. With the horror threatening to evaporate to make way for a leaden semi-apocalyptic drama, director Breck Eisner tosses in far too many "boo!" moments as a last resort, and not a single one of them work.
Timothy Olyphant (2009's "A Perfect Getaway") and Radha Mitchell (2009's "Surrogates") are more than competent as actors—both of them have had a number of past standout roles—and they do manage to bring some minor levity to David and Judy, parts that would otherwise be practical cardboard cutouts. Still, they deserve more to work with than what is offered to them here. Joe Anderson (2009's "Love Happens") actually gets a showier role as Deputy Russell Clank, a young man whose splintering psychosis and confusion over who to trust could either be the result of what he has gone through or symptoms of the infection. Anderson brings a ripe intensity to his scenes, even when his character's actions start being determined by script convenience over logic. As Becca, Danielle Panabaker (2009's "Friday the 13th") does what she can—not much—with negligent script development. That Becca—"not yet eighteen," as David describes her—not once even questions where her family might be during their ordeal is purely careless, as it is a line that could have been tossed in anywhere and made a world of difference in bringing a touch of realism to her wafer-thin character. As is, she's virtually just a tag-along with few characteristics beyond the physical.
The thought of being surrounded by people you've known all your life who are no longer themselves is a disturbing notion—all of the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" adaptations have brought this to horrifying life—but "The Crazies" fails to achieve the same feeling for any extended period of time. With the military expediently swooping in and the protagonists left isolated amid barren surroundings wastes countless obvious opportunities to milk the plot, and what the viewer gets instead are a lot of spinning wheels leading to a far-fetched, and then worthless, denouement. It's not that "The Crazies" is awful, it's that it's too middle-of-the-road mediocre to earn a particularly strong reaction either way. In some respects, that's almost worse.