Code Red // 1988 // 99 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Tom Becker (Retired) // October 29th, 2010
I'm a prisoner of my own skin!
There's much I don't know, but I usually know this: whether or not a movie I'm watching is any good.
But The Carrier has me stymied. I really can't decide whether this is a work of genius or inanity -- a brilliant social satire or something thrown together on a yellow legal pad after too many Jack and Coke backs. I'm leaning toward the latter, but you never know...
Our story takes place in some sort of rural locale where everyone knows everyone else. The odd man out is odd man Jake (Gregory Fortescue), a loner whose parents died in a fire that he apparently started -- some say intentionally.
The other hot topic of conversation is the mysterious "black thing" that's been spotted skulking around town. Some (the macho male populace, mainly) laugh it off as a rural legend. But one night after downing about three quarts of bourbon, the elusive black thing breaks into Jake's cabin and savagely attacks him. Shocked by the beast, which resembles an angry monochrome panda, Jake hits it with a lantern, and it catches on fire, and -- well, it disintegrates, is what it does. Before its demise, it leaves three long scratches on Jake's chest.
It's left something else on Jake, because every time Jake touches something -- a telephone pole, a book, a cabinet -- the soundtrack makes an ominous hissing sound. One day, a grizzled geezer picks up a book that Jake had touched -- One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, to be precise -- and the book starts to eat away at his hand. He runs into the center of town, and dozens of people milling about there for no apparent reason scream in horror at the malevolent work of the beloved Dr. Seuss classic. The sheriff goes so far as to have a fatal heart attack over the whole thing, but one resourceful towns person simply grabs the nearest cleaver -- and yes, there is a nearby cleaver -- and does a little emergency surgery on the geezer's arm.
Sacrificing a baby chick to the terrors of the killer read-aloud book, the town's doctor determines that the thing is...well, he doesn't really determine it cohesively, despite laying out his primitive findings at a hastily called town meeting at the local church, where the townspeople sit in the audience muttering indecipherably, alternately nod and shake their heads, and occasionally catcall. Basically, the doctor says that this is some weird virus that attaches itself to inanimate objects, and advises the non-receptive crowd to protect themselves by wearing plastic. For reasons left unexplained, a preacher follows the doctor and announces that this is some sort of God-gifted curse and that everyone must stick around and deal with it. His explanation makes even less sense than the doctor's, but it inspires the townsfolk to hoot and holler in approval, as though they were cheering on the virtuous combatants at an Oral Roberts-sponsored roller derby.
Since the only bridge to the rest of society has been knocked out in a storm, the village is pretty much on its own in dealing with this unnamed and mysterious affliction.
People take the plastic-wearing advice only so seriously, until a local goon assaults a bar wench. When she tries to steady herself by placing her hand on a contaminated tree, she begins a smoky disintegration, and her assailant follows suit. This drives home the point that the virus is a contact sport, and soon, people are desperately swaddling themselves in shower curtains, trash bags, and Saran Wrap. In no time flat, the town is factioned off, with one side cloaked in black Hefty bags and the other in clear plastic upholstery covers. The clear plastic people have cats, which the Hefty bag brigade covets -- cats, you see, can do a little recon. If they walk on an object and become sizzling grue, it means that said object is contaminated, and it gets tied off with a red ribbon.
The cat crisis escalates to full-on war, with the Hefty baggers threatening "Cats or Death!" to the upholstery covers.
Jake, in the meantime, is using his secret "carrier status" to his own advantage.
OK, The Carrier is a ridiculous movie, but it's not really a "bad" one -- not in that casual, sloppy way that low-budget movies are generally bad. It's really well shot -- there's some truly beautiful stuff here -- and there are some cool set pieces, and while the acting is pretty amateurish, it's never offensively so. Plus, it's an interestingly original concept. The film at times resembles the "paranoid thrillers" so popular in the '50s, and there seem to be some serious ideas at its core.
But it's the "serious ideas" that ultimately cause problems here. At first, I thought this might be a late '80s AIDS allegory, with Jake an unwitting Patient Zero caught in a swarm of religious and political posturing. Unfortunately, this interpretation doesn't come up in writer/director Nathan J. White's lively commentary; instead, it seems he was shooting for standard -- and heavy-handed -- social commentary, with the once-peaceful community devolving into a "mob rules" mentality when faced with a daunting crisis. Religion is clearly a big factor here, as the spewing preacher and discussions of God pop up every few minutes, along with a couple of "Christ Crucified" shots of our deadly hero. While White might have had some serious intentions, the encroaching outlandishness ends up nullifying them -- I mean, how seriously can you take a film that gives you a bunch of people dressed up in trash bags screaming "Cats or Death?" Plus, with a bunch of already unfamiliar actors covered head to toe in plastic, it's impossible to tell who's who, and the climactic battle between refuse and recycling fails to work as a polyurethane Ran, coming off more ridiculous than exciting.
Good, bad, or indifferent, I'm glad this is here, and props (again) to Code Red for not only releasing this obscurity but giving it a worthwhile release. The transfer and audio are pretty good, and as a supplement, the commentary is entertaining, and there are a few fun trailers here as well.
No, it's not genius, it's not even close, but it's a weird and quirky little film that's worth checking out.
I'll give it a not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Code Red
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1988
MPAA Rating: Rated R