10 March 2010

The Threat Down

Vague observation of America's Fox News Channel has basically taught me that the American right wing has two major fears- being killed in their beds by the "stoned slacker" government, and God's apparently inevitable reprisal of the book of Revelation. It's slightly unfair to the people of Texas then that both are being catered to in two horror thrillers screening right now- The Crazies and Legion. Political and religious terror aside, let's take a look.

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.
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In The Crazies, bad shit is happening in the idyllic small town of Ogden Marsh, to put things simply. After a very public incidence of what seems to be suicide-by-cop rocks the community, a number of other deaths and murders begin to cause trouble for guilt-ridden sheriff David Dutton. The febrile terror that sweeps Ogden Marsh seems to stem from a crashed plane in the river, contaminating the water supply, and soon David and his pregnant wife Judy are fighting for survival against everyone they know, but more imperatively, against the government itself.

Horror remakes usually do not pan out. The only other good one is arguably Zack Snyder's reworking of Dawn of the Dead, and so a trend may be emerging in that The Crazies is also adapted from a George A. Romero film. Yes, it's getting a rare thumbs-up for a horror remake. Timothy Olyphant and Radha Mitchell have played roles like theirs before, but manage to make the film about character rather than about the interspersed jump-scares and usually ineffective central conceit. I cared enough about what was going on that I actually forgot how the ending of this film is flagged up in one of the trailers. If the advertising has to spoil the film, it always helps if there's a little more to the finished product, and happily there is.

Although The Crazies surpassed my low expectations, I have to say it's not without its flaws. The aforementioned central conceit should here be that everyone the Duttons know have suddenly gone insane and started killing people. Instead, it's more about the government killing people, which is a much less frightening thread for a film like this- as with most of Romero's films, it worked at the time because of the social subtext. In the wake of Watergate, it was accepted that the US government wasn't always honest, and Romero capitalised upon that. In a modern context, it's only as scary as The Constant Gardener, and the film becomes a little more like an action thriller with some zombified jump-scares every now and then. Not that there's no dignity in jump-scares for the horror filmmaker, it's just that the film doesn't linger in the memory so much for having eschewed the horror value of your close friends coming out to eviscerate you, with no hope of escape or negotiation.

But you know what? The Crazies is a generally solid and diverting horror thriller. The best remakes embed in their audience an interest in the original source, and this one did get me interested in Romero's film. Olyphant and Mitchell gamely rotate between firefights, zombie struggles and interrogations and there are some fairly engaging stunts and plot developments throughout. There's also a skein of dark humour running through the film, best typified by the music that director Breck Eisner opted to play over the end credits. It's not the frenetic or dumb film that its title suggests, and should satiate horror fans and casual film-goers alike.
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Elsewhere, there's the apocalyptically dumb Legion. Adapted from what I think is probably the earliest instance of science-fiction (the Book of Revelation), the film sets the imminent apocalypse in a base-under-siege context inside a remote diner curiously called Paradise Falls. The hotch-potch of people inside include a quarrelling family, a grizzled atheist and a pregnant woman who might just be mankind's salvation. Dedicated to protecting them is the archangel Michael, an Uzi-wielding renegade who finds himself at odds with the Almighty for his faith in humanity.

If I were to say that this is a Christmas film, you'd probably think I was taking the piss. But no, despite the sun-scorched landscape, the date at the beginning of the film is December 23rd. And with a pregnant woman who doesn't know the father of her child and the second coming imminent- if you can't guess where this is going, you're the Holiday Armadillo. The thing is, Legion very often skims around explicitly saying such things outright. The diner being called Paradise Falls put me more in mind of the jungle vistas of Up than foreboding of the end of the world. The majority of the religious stuff seems to linger in the subtext a little, a subtext that is really out of place in a film this dumb.

Yes, you read right- angels carry Uzis in this film. No celestial empowerment going on here, it's just... Uzis. Paul Bettany is a real trooper with the material he's got, but Dennis Quaid and Kevin Durand come off less well by snarling and grumbling their way through. And in fairness, if you don't laugh at the shot of a tall and muscular Durand clad in an armour vest with big angel wings, leaping through the air and screaming as he swings a big CGI mace around, you have no soul. Unintentional hilarity peppers the whole film, particularly in an early bit where a fight with a possessed old lady recalls Spider-Man, but a choice of weapon recalls the slapstick of Reeves and Mortimer.

Elsewhere, Legion is let down by the most leisurely pace imaginable. This is not the kind of film where characters should have time to sit down, stop the plot and talk about their past. If that was going on against the plot, then perhaps, but no! They just stop the plot! In the middle of the apocalypse! A key example of Legion's surfeit of dialogue comes in a scene where Dennis Quaid messes about with the reception on the diner's TV and a channel's emergency placeholder comes up, emblazoned with the words THIS IS NOT A TEST. Chef: "What is it?" Quaid: "I think it's some kind of test." Mom: "I don't think that's a test." Three entirely worthless lines that are undercut by the very words THIS IS NOT A TEST. The audience can read!

For all of its problems, I have to say that when Legion is on form, it's terrifically entertaining. It's bad, but as discussed with All About Steve, that's not a reason to avoid seeing a film. If it's bad and boring, like Knowing or Premonition, two similarly pseudo-religious horrors, then certainly avoid it like the plague. Admittedly, when the plot stops every once in a while, it can get a bit dull. But there's certainly enough inadvertent funnies in Scott Stewart's script that it's still incredibly entertaining. It's distinctive for that, and certainly not for its plot. Its narrated bookends and protector plot line are reminiscent of The Terminator, the base-under-siege by possessed gribblies goes all the way back to Dawn of the Dead, and the whole thing plays like a straight version of Dogma.

No one's going to take its religious themes entirely seriously, and it's almost entirely brainless, but for the sheer audacity of its failings, Legion just scrapes a pass for me. I did mention All About Steve, which won a Razzie for Sandra Bullock this weekend, but if we're using the uncomfortable enjoyment of that review as a yard-stick, this is far more entertaining. It's funnier than it is scary and the action comes in too seldom to make it an action film, but in this mess of a film there's a lot of entertainment value and a brave stab at the whole endeavour from Paul Bettany in the central role. Awful, but not godawful, Legion is a pleasure that's as guilty as sin.
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Of the two, Legion is definitely more fun, but The Crazies is better for thrills and chills, even if it is somewhat outdated. I would recommend either of them, albeit in very different ways, so if you do see them, why not share your thoughts on the films/reviews in the comments below?

Next up, I'll be taking a look at Crazy Heart and Ondine, by the somewhat tenuous link of Colin Farrell's involvement in both. There's a clusterfuck of films coming to cinemas on Friday though, including Shutter Island, Green Zone, The Bounty Hunter and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so I can't really predict beyond that.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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