If you ever need to explain to someone the difference between horror movies for the mainstream and those for fans or horrorphiles, look no further than a key scene in Breck Eisner's The Crazies. Eisner's film, a remake of the 1973 George Romero movie of the same name, is unquestionably mainstream, and that's not a bad thing, either here or in general. But a few minutes into the story, one of "the crazies" descends upon a medical ward where several characters are bound immobile on gurneys, and begins to kill them one by one with a pitchfork.
The difference between this film and one you'd typically find on the bottom shelf of your local video store, and probably the top of a must-see list for diehard horror fans, is exemplified by the way this scene is shot: Eisner shoots each murder from underneath the gurney, showing the blood, but doesn't dote on the impalement itself. Eisner's emphasis on the suspense rather than the gore is the reason for the entire sequence's effectiveness, and the effectiveness of the movie as a whole, and it may also mean the difference between a big weekend at the box office and the eternal glory of cult fandom. But as a well-made thriller that works without requiring replacement fingernails or a barf bag afterwards, The Crazies is the kind of horror movie you can enjoy being scared by.
Timothy Olyphant (The Perfect Getaway) stars as David Dutton, the sheriff of a small Iowa town who stumbles across evidence of a mysterious epidemic after several locals begin to demonstrate odd, violent behavior. Enlisting his physician wife Judy (Radha Mitchell), her nurse Becca (Danielle Panabaker) and David's deputy Russell (Joe Anderson), David desperately attempts to preserve order and protect the remaining citizens who haven't been affected by the "infection." But when the military cordons off the area and begins detaining townspeople, David and his small group of survivors flee into the countryside in order to figure out what's really going on, and, hopefully, save themselves from murder at the hands of the infected or the military.
Eisner makes a near-fatal mistake early on by choosing a Johnny Cash song for the opening scene of the film (evoking Zack Snyder's credits for Dawn of the Dead), but as a director he obviously favors tension over its release, and otherwise quickly manages to find a comfortable groove building suspense as David, and the audience, begins to uncover increasingly dangerous scenarios involving maniacal, zombielike townspeople. (What actually differentiates these monsters from zombies is the fact that they are not only alive, but vaguely sentient.) In one scene, a character flees a chugging wheat thresher and then a knife-wielding relative, only to find herself in a much more dangerous situation after she thinks she's safely hidden herself.
Eisner's affection for classic horror tropes, as opposed to the cut-to-the-chase (and cut-to-the-cut) antics of other contemporary directors, establishes a palpable atmosphere – an uneasiness and a doubt that pervades in every scene, whether the characters seem to be in danger or not. The result is a film that's actually fun to jump at, whether you were genuinely surprised by someone jumping out or expecting it, rather than dreading the next demonstration of brutality, or more often, blaring, cheap foley work.
While the first half of the film is pretty brilliantly constructed, its breezy pace makes what follows feel somewhat lethargic by comparison, and the finale doesn't quite pack the same wallop as some of those earlier scenes. Additionally, Radha Mitchell's performance as David's wife Judy feels painfully out of place. Not only is her character written poorly, suggesting through unexplored behavior and flourishes an alternate end for her character that isn't realized, but Mitchell pitches Judy differently than where the rest of the actors seem to be working, and becomes the target of impatient viewers' ire rather than sympathy.
But again, in a crowded theater on opening night, with girls leaping into boys' laps, little of that matters, because it's an audience movie – the kind of experience that people can enjoy without worrying about real nightmares afterward. That said, of course, there may be only limited appeal for folks who want their cultural commentary, and their cutting tools, slicing closer to the bone, and shot in close-up. But as an example of clever, creepy, effective mainstream horror, The Crazies promises a bloody good time at the movies, even if you don't see all of that blood up on the screen.