Imagine if zombies weren’t just outright observable walking vegetables and it were a little harder to tell when the change happens? There’s countless variations on the theme, but The Crazies manages to be really unnerving by adding a dose of mental unrest in with the formula. After a strange toxin infects the water supply of a small town, people begin showing symptoms of instability, psychosis and then full on murdering each other at random. The town Sheriff (Timothy Olyphant), his Doctor wife (Radha Mitchell) his deputy (Joe Anderson) and a survivalist girl from town (Danielle Panabaker) band together to escape not only hordes of townsfolk infected by this mania, but also the military brought in to ‘contain’ the situation. It’s a hectic, ultra-violent affair with a doom laden apocalyptic vibe and plenty of explosions, but the real scares lie in the disconcerting way that otherwise simple townsfolk just start to slowly lose it and act mentally disassociated, before getting downright homicidal. Especially effective is a scene where a woman is helplessly strapped to a hospital gurney and one of the crazies slowly enters the room, the dread is palpable and it’s a true scene of horror. Scary stuff.
John Carpenter’s The Ward isn’t a particularly remarkable film, and it’s certainly not a very scary one, but there are aspects that I really enjoyed, one of which being the excellent original score, which Carpenter actually didn’t compose himself, for once. The film gets off to a great eerie start with opening credits that are the most evocative sequence of the whole thing, leading into the tale of one seriously disturbed chick (Amber Heard) who finds herself in a whacko mental institution, plagued by the ghost of a restless former patient. A befuddled Doctor (Jared Harris) knows more than he let’s on, of course, and her fellow patients are similarly tormented by the phantom. Here’s the thing: it’s well plotted, acted and executed, save for one thing: it’s never scary. Not once do the hairs on the back of your neck stand to attention, and a horror film should have that. I loved the psychological sudoku of an ending, but even there there was no creep factor to be found. Her fellow patients all have parts to play, including Danielle Panabaker, Laura Leigh Claire, Mamie Gummer and a standout Mika Boorem who steals the show from Heard right in the final act. Works as a thriller, padded with atmosphere here and there, but could have done with a better dose of chills to sweeten the deal.
There are a few films Kevin Costner has done in which he has really been allowed and been willing to test the boundaries of what is usually expected from him in a role. 3,000 Miles To Graceland and Eastwood’s A Perfect World are fine examples. Perhaps the finest though is Mr. Brooks, a dark tale that showcases the actor in a terrifying turn and the last type of role you would picture for him on paper. Opposites are paramount in acting and cinema as a whole, and it’s that type of contrarian casting choice that can lead to a performer’s finest hours. In this case it’s certainly one of Kevin’s best outings, and casts him in a frightening new light, or should I say dark. Here he is Earl Brooks, husband, father, businessman and all round stand up guy. Except fpr the fact that he moonlights as a methodical and psychopathic serial killer. He sees it as an affliction, and is almost ashamed of it, whether by a tiny flicker of a soul he may have, or simply by the standards impressed onto society. He’s efficient, cold and hopelessly addicted to the act of murder. His alter ego, or ‘dark passenger’ as the scholars say, is a cynical persona called Marshall, brought to life by a scary William Hurt. “Why do you fight it, Earl?” he drawls in that committed, laconic snarl that only Hurt can do. There’s shades of his character from Cronenberg’s A History Of Violence here, affirming my belief that Hurt is a pure acting prodigy and masterful of both the light and the dark within his craft. Earl has a daughter too (Danielle Panabaker) who he has worrisome thoughts about, and a picture perfect wife (Marg Helgenberger). One can’t keep the turbulent nightlife of the serial killer a secret for one’s entire life though, and pretty soon people start to catch on. A nosy Nelly (Dane Cook) catches a whiff of Earl’s crimes and lives to wish he hadn’t, and a keen Detective (Demi Moore) begins to piece the puzzle together as well. Earl is as clever as he is murderous though, covering his work and tying off loose ends with gut churning gusto. Costner carries the film terrifically, a man who is at once both uncomfortable in his own skin yet fits it like a glove when the camera dutifully bears witness to his killings. He’s like a tiger who really can’t change his stripes but wants to shield them from the judgment of others, and of course his own persecution. The scenes of murder are skin crawling in their frank, fly-on-the-wall nature, no slasher cinematics or gimmicky set ups here, just the icy horror of a predator extinguishing human life to sate the beast, and the nightmarish inevitability of death. Those scenes paint Earl in a horrific light, but the film doesn’t try to convince us he’s a monster using any usual methods, it just presents to us this man, his acts and his life surrounding them, without discernable condoning or condemning. It’s cold, it’s clinical and it’s one of the best serial killer flicks out there.