Your roach problem just got a whole lot worse.
Picking up the DVD case, two things immediately catch your eye: (1) the title They Crawl is prominently emblazoned with little cockroaches scurrying within the letters; and (2) the marquee listing of "Fright Flicks." Put the two together and you deduce you're about to watch one of those mutant-bug movies that were so popular back in the days of old.
But, you know what? This isn't one of those films. Yes, there are bugs that are running amok, but that's just a portion of the formula. The full recipe also includes a strong dash of present-day genetic engineering. Yes, that's right! It's a delightful foray into blending campy bug movies with genetic manipulation. Instead of some freakish nuclear mutation causing the bugs to run rampant and attack humanity, it's man tinkering with animal DNA that unleashes a deadly roach plague upon the City of Angels. But there's still one little surprise left in the recipe, and it would make Mulder proud.
Facts of the Case
90% of the world's mass is bugs.
In Los Angeles, strange things happen every day. Today, two seemingly unrelated and bizarre events are going to cause Detective Gina O'Bannon to believe that the Trillion cult has come back to town and is once again partaking in ritualistic murders. The first event centers on the death of a city bus driver. Seemingly attacked while on his route, the driver ends up destroying dozens of cars before crashing through a building. If that isn't unusual enough, the driver's body is found many yards away from the wrecked bus; but how it got there adds to the confusion as the lightly bruised and intact body is almost without blood and definitely without any internal organs. The second event concerns the death of a young drug dealer. At first his death doesn't seem odd, but once you dig past the surface, many peculiarities arise. Originally it was believed the young man died in an apartment fire; however, police soon find particles of Semtex H—a military grade explosive—on the scene, and they also learn that the body is also drained of blood and sans internal organs.
Detective O'Bannon is the first to make a connection and leads the charge to find out who or what is behind these murders. Along the way, O'Bannon runs into the second victim's brother, Ted Gage (Daniel Cosgrove, Van Wilder, Valentine), an Army Ranger who has quickly deduced that his brother died of unnatural causes. The two are soon unwitting partners in the quest to discover the peculiar connection in these crimes. Their investigation will lead them to the unbelievable conclusion that cockroaches have begun to attack man.
This is a "B" movie that has been given "B+" treatment.
I've surfed through enough cable channels in my day and have seen many bug films, and I'm quite certain that almost every bug has been mutated and gone berserk in a campy creature feature. Spiders seem to be the overall favorite, or perhaps that's my interpretation as I'm extremely arachnophobic and spider flicks give me quite the shiver. That's what I was expecting from this disc (not the shivers but the bugs—well, maybe the shivers too), yet this film takes a slightly different angle and doesn't focus all of its energies on the bugs. Instead, this film is more of a murder mystery—though it's no mystery to us as we know that cockroaches are doing the killing. But even before we get to that point, the first minutes of this movie show you that it's not going to follow that campy "B" movie pattern, and it's going to try to take a slightly different trail. When the film opens with a rather significant (and surprisingly believable) scene of a bus destroying a city block, you begin to wonder where the bugs are. When the film moves to the death of the drug dealer with the top floor of a building going up in a terrific fireball, you're pretty sure this isn't going to be a run-of-the-mill bug bomb.
But don't be fooled because it isn't that much better than a true "B" movie. Though the film looks better than average, you still get a weak script riddled with painful dialogue that gets played out by mediocre actors—which is everything you'd come to expect in a bug movie. But I have to stop saying that, because this is barely a bug movie. Only the audience knows of the cockroaches, and our main characters are schlepping around looking around for human killers. And, worst of all, our roaches only kill half a dozen people. That's no menace! That's not a bug movie! That's barely a short story. If you have a bug movie, set in Los Angeles no less, you want your bugs to be here, there, and everywhere, eating people and generally being a pleasant nuisance to the residents of that smog-filled haven. But no; not here. Our film instead wanted to take a higher road, skipping any tongue-in-cheek humor, leaving out the most of the bugs, and inserting this vast murder mystery plot. Where's the camp? Where's the bugs gone mad? Where are the stupid humans who need to be eaten?
Ah, but I'm almost forgetting the delicious twist that would make Mulder happy. In addition to this rather drawn-out "mystery," as our intrepid heroes come ever closer to the truth, it turns out that the whole roach problem is nothing but a vast government conspiracy. Yes! Since there are so many bugs on our planet and they are simply everywhere, he who controls the bugs has a huge army at his disposal. So, once you figure out how to get the beasties to do what you want, you are all-powerful. Introduce the government who is manipulating college geniuses all around the country to do their bidding, and sooner or later one of them will figure it out. Tada! Our friends at "City U." have figured out the secret to cockroach communications!
*insert eye roll*
What a load of rubbish. What a terrible and easy path to take. What a sad throwback to the already dated claptrap of the invisible government conspiracy. (Don't get me wrong; I do love the occasional government conspiracy, but I prefer them in non-bug-related settings.) This is supposed to be a bug movie: the title says so and so does the marquee on top of the DVD case. Cockroaches are supposed to be infesting every nook and cranny of the movie, getting in the way, causing people to faint, and making men scream like little girls. This is what I believe is the new wave of bug films: less bugs and more mystery. Well, I for one don't like it.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, this film looks better than most "B" movies. Someone gave these people some dollars that were well spent on many aspects of the film: good sets, solid locations, nice special effects, and cool explosions. While the script and acting as pretty miserable, Director John Allardice, in his film debut, is also better than you'd expect. He uses a variety of techniques, some I'd even call "sophisticated," to move his film along. Allardice also decided to steer the course away from camp to serious drama/horror, much to my obvious dismay. Unfortunately, that decision really makes this a slow, plodding film. It's dull and just not worth your time.
So how does all of this look and sound? Presented in anamorphic widescreen, this transfer exhibits no flaws: no artifacting, no pixelization, no edge enhancement, no nothing. However, there is a significant problem. The downside of the video presentation is that everything is too dark, like someone turned the brightness down way too low. It's quite distracting and obscures too much of the detail in the film. Thus, while the colors are accurate, they're muted; sharpness is subdued; and the blacks are not well defined. This could have been an excellent transfer if only the black levels had been properly balanced. For the audio, your only choice is a 2.0 Dolby Digital track. This is a decent track with clear dialogue, good use of bass, but limited dynamics and range. Every now and then, the sound gets a touch hollow, but it lasts just a few seconds. With some of the action sequences (and explosions) in the film, a 5.1 mix would have been a great addition.
There's only one bonus feature on the disc, and that's an audio commentary with director Allardice and producer/co-writer Neil Elman. The two gentlemen are very proud of their work, and they believe they've created a very solid film—as most directors and producers believe. Their commentary is very dry, with little of interest to even the most avid fan of this work (if there is such a thing—no offense). About the only thing that stands out during the talk is when Allardice mentions working with Mickey Rourke, who makes an unexpected cameo in the film. That seems to have been quite an interesting day for him.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the least respected genres of film is the classic bug movie. In the 1950s, they were a mainstay of theater and everyone loved to watch these wonderful creature features. Today, these films are mostly considered camp and not worthy of viewing. Fortunately, this film works to transcend that reputation with a well-produced film that includes all the fun elements of those movies of the past with insightful new elements from today's cinema. By including thought-provoking conspiracies and a complex murder mystery with mutant bugs, this is not only a fun film but one also worthy of repeat viewings. One can only hope it revives interest in this dismissed category.
On the one hand I was surprised by the quality of the film's production, yet I was dismayed on the other hand by the weak story and dreadful acting. In the end, my consternation won the contest and rightly reminded me that this movie is bad—and not bad in the good way. This movie is quite simply not worthy of purchase or of rental. About the best use I can see for this clunker is for it to end up on MST4000, if that were to ever be produced. Though I haven't gone into any details about the "climax" of the film, I promise you that it is certainly replete with enough logic holes, hideous acting, and simply stupid ideas to keep MST writers busy for hours.
They Crawl is found guilty on all charges and is hereby sentenced to work as an Orkin man for the next thirty days.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director John Allardice and Producer/Co-Writer Neil Elman
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