Monday, May 11, 2009

The Best Horror Flick Ever!

Ivorismo Rating: ****

Monster movies these days pretty much follow a rigid formula. In that sense, Alien begat The Relic, which begat Event Horizon, which begat Mimic. Each of these movies follow a formula in which a pseudo-scientific setup in the opening leads to a series of shocking scenarios where the heroes are trapped in enclosed territory, a spaceship, vehicle, jungle, subway system or tunnel with a brand-new, vicious monster whose form defies definition and classification and is, until then, completely unknown to man. This monster, usually camouflaged by nature to take on the color and atmosphere of said environment, repeatedly leaps out of hiding places at them, finding new ways to bite, cut, burn, disembowel and, finally, kill the weaker members of the group in ways that make special-effects technicians look brilliant. In the end, however, it always seems to be the smartest person in the group matched in a high-noon-type showdown with the monster. This is the formula, it works, and Hollywood is sticking to it. The finest of all of them is Mimic. If you missed Mimic on its first go-around, I urge you to catch it now.

Still, don’t go to see Mimic if you’re looking for anything novel or new. If, however, you like to find a few new hard-core twists and turns on the same ol’ same ol’ durable old merry-go-round model, a movie like this one works because it has been well planned and constructed. This is hyperbolic I know, but Mimic (1997) is superior to any of its relatives, made before or since. Stylishly directed by Guillermo Del Toro, the film’s visual sense adds a poetic, beautiful wash of texture that suffuses everything so much that it becomes scarier. Having made Spanish- language horror masterpieces in Cronos (1993) and, later, The Devil’s Backbone (2001), Del Toro arrived in Hollywood with the right attitude, bringing in Mimic quickly and below budget. After shooting The Devil's Backbone in Spain, Del Toro did that rare thing, directing the superior sequel, with Blade 2 (2002). After lensing four smash hits Del Toro obeys what ever fancy takes him these days and has made Hellboy (2004), a disappointing Hellboy 2 (2007),and, a third, more cerebral masterpiece with Pan’s Labyrinth(2006). None of them can frighten me like Mimic, though. No other movie can, either.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico in 1968, Del Toro is part of a triumvirate of fine young Mexican filmmmmakers, along with Alfonso Cuarón (¿Y Tu Mamá Tambien? and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarratu (Amores Perros). All three of these young directors are bilingual and have been very deft and clever about turning out well-crafted commercial Hollywood hits to help them raise the cash to make their own films. They take a leaf out of the iconoclastic book of John Cassavetes, who raised cash for his eccentric projects by acting in scores of mediocre, good, bad and indifferent films. Anything to pay for his 'habit'! Mimic may indeed be a bit of fluff compared to, say, Pan's Labyrinth, but, as such, it is marvelous entertainment.

The film begins with television news reportage of a plague which has attacked young kids in Manhattan. Spread by cockroaches, the disease is destroyed by genetic engineering. Susan Tyler, a scientist, played by Mira Sorvino, creates a ‘'Judas Breed’ in her lab. This designer-crafted mutant bug is half mantis, half termite and owns the ability to infiltrate the roach population, infiltrate their nests and kill them off. The designer bug ends the plague. Then three years pass, and now the mutant, supposedly sterile bugs, have, it turns out, kept on evolving.

Nothing new so far, right? We shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature but we do. Yet Del Toro, like our egocentric Dr. Tyler, has added two new kinks in the same old trope. Cronos (1992) concerned a fancy antique Victorian brooch which somehow turns into a tiny savage antique steel vampire bug, Indeed, all of us are instinctively scared when any being shows itself as one thing and suddenly transmogrifies itself into something else. When little bugs and mobile brooches hide out after revealing themselves, most of us get nervous about the idea of sticking our hands into dark unknown places where these little entities might bite and usually do, especially so when children are in danger.

When Dr. Taylor’s mutant bug disappears into big box of shredded paper, she reaches in with her hand to find it, my butt puckered up tight. Of course, she screams when she gets bitten. When two little hood rat kids who collect bugs for Dr. Tyler think they know their way around the subway system, our anxiety travels with them. At the same time, there's a local shoeshine man whose kid plays the spoons in such a manner as to mimic the clicking sounds of the Judas Breed: Mimicing the mimic. These kids, we know instinctively, will, in all innocence, stumble upon a full measure of evil without ever understanding the stakes they’ve entered into. This kind of strategic storytelling, a bubbling soup of withheld suspense, is very effective. As both Hitchcock and Frankenheimer knew well, waiting for an explosion gives the viewer a far better thrill than actually seeing one.

No way I'm going to give away too much of the plot, dear reader, Still, what I can say is that the insect predators, who are never actually seen until late in the film, really do shiver our timbers as we, bit by bit, incrementally ascertain how they have learned to mimic. A word also about the visual machinations created by Del Toro's clever use of locations in Manhattan's subterranean world. Instead of locking us forever into dark, claustrophobic tunnels, as a more monomanic director like Ridley Scott did with Alien, Del Toro creates an abandoned subway station with a vaulted ceiling and overhead windows; utilizing many locations he later recycled for Hellboy, his underground world, despite being of Victorian origin, takes on a kind of Jules Verne-ian timelessness. Indeed, there's a fantastic shot where a scientist, trapped below, looks up to see people walking in the daylight above—so close, and yet so infinitely far away.

Mira Sorvino's casting in the role of the scientist has been criticized in some quarters, perhaps because of the success she had as the daft, giant hooker in Woody Allen's Mighty Aphrodite. Make no mistake, although she's six foot-something, moves a little awkwardly and owns liquid faun eye, Sorvino uses these inadequacies to convey a smart, savvy scientist who is forced to pretend to know everything and hopes she got it right. All because so much of what she does intuitively flies in the face of a conservative academy and her own need to pry research money out of venal politicians. I particularly love a scene where, after they've killed one of the giant mimic insects, she grabs a handful of insect goo and authoratively shouts, ``Here! Quick! Rub it all over yourself!'' And they do. And it saves them!!! And you can't help but wonder why you ever doubted her in the first place.

Jeremy Northam plays her husband, also a scientist, well, his American accent quite convincing; Charles S. Dutton is a relentlessly, belligerent, cloth-eared sociopathic subway guard privileged in owning a lot of information about the underground system; Josh Brolin, before his twangy performance as Dubya made him a star, brings in some deft comic relief as Northam's coroner's office cop/buddy, and the eternally handsome Giancarlo Giannini, his face a topographic map of dissolution, is the shoeshine man, father of the rainman kid who survives thanks to his savant's gift for mimicing the mimics. It's a stellar cast. Good enough, to convince that this hokum could be real. Indeed, F. Murray Abraham's wry cameo as Sorvino's old professor/mentor, gleefully takes pleasure in cautiously taking issue with her statistical use of absolutes. Science, it seems, can be just as easily be debunked by use of reason as its parallel nemesis, religion. Insects, he insists to Sorvino as she talks the talk about the inbred redundancy of her pet Judas Breed, find a way to adapt and evolve, no matter what obstacles are in their way. This is a pretty convincing trope for a simple old school horror flick. Kudos to Del Toro for finding the story by Donald A. Wolheim in a S.F. magazine, and then adapting it with Matthew Robbins.

Mimic is the shining top dog of its genre. The notion that an insect might conceal its presence by hiding, in plain sight, as it were, in the disguise of a tall, eccentric, bohemian trendy stalker sounds absurd. But the scene in the subway, where Sorvino is temporary relieved by the thought that her stalker is not the mimic bug, but, rather, a rapist, may be the best bit of bait-and-switch horror ever filmed. The utter disbelief on her face as the flying monster carries her away to its nest in the scene that follows will make your jaw drop. Del Toro is a director whose authentic visual sense draws us into his story and then, after utilizing the standard ingredients, truly makes the same ol' sausage seem fresh and very, very scary.


swoozie said...

I just added it to my Netflix list...thanks!


ZombieDante said...

You seen any of those Carlos Reygadas films yet?

Unknown said...

It's in my Netflix queue, too. Great review!

Ivor Irwin said...

Thanks, ZombieDante. I'm gonna check Reygados out!