There’s nothing more horrible than one’s own body decaying; whether it be illness, the passage of time, or in the case of The Carrier (1988), a virus on inanimate objects causing people to sizzle, smoke, and deflate like dollar store water wings at Six Flags. Unlike an amusement park however, The Carrier offers no pleasures for its cast other than sudden and irreversible weight loss; for the viewer it offers up myriad strange and wonderful regional delights.
Released by Magnum Video in August, The Carrier actually had some good reviews, highlighting the quirkiness of the storyline and its offbeat delivery; which is nice to hear, as its combination of wtf, low budget shenanigans, and questionable craft could be construed by some as low rent trash. These naysayers would be wrong.
We open in the little berg of Sleepy Rock, Oregon in the 1950s; a dance is going on in the church, and in walks Jake Spear (Gregory Fortescue), our James Dean surrogate whose folks died in a tragic fire that everyone blames on him. SIDEBAR: they also blame the misfortune on The Black Thing, a mythical beast roaming their countryside. Jake is soon tossed out of the fete, and is soon comforted by Treva (Stevie Lee), a local girl, before heading back to his shack in the woods. As fate and plot contrivances would have it, The Black Thing (which looks like nothing so much as a man in a bear costume) attacks Jake before he guns it down in the night.
But due to the nasty scratches from The Black Thing, Jake carries a horrible disease; any inanimate object he touches becomes infected, and anyone in turn who touches said object quickly turns to Sizzlean. Already ostracized by the community, Jake feels even worse as the tiny town becomes hysterical and turns on each other trying to find the carrier. Also, apparently cats are being used to find out where the sickness has hit. And everyone runs around covered in plastic, sides are taken, lines are drawn, chaos ensues. What will happen to Jake once everyone finds out he’s The Carrier?
So what we have is a cross between Romero’s The Crazies (1973) and a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible done by a very sincere and eager troupe of young filmmakers; outbreak scenarios have been around horror a long time, but The Carrier is utterly earnest in its Message – Mass Hysteria In The Age of Aids – and I think they should be applauded for that, even if the budget hampers the film somewhat.
The performances are not great in The Carrier; nay, they’re by and large not very good. But again, there’s an earnestness that works in favor of the production; just imagine a gung-ho high school troop taking on a too-big-for-their-britches morality tale and you’re halfway there. Fortescue goes for a Dean brood but awkwardly ends up going Knotts broad; Lee evaporates on the screen as his love interest, and only Steve Dixon (as the town doctor) really shoots for the rafters. But it doesn’t matter, as everyone is striving for competence and coming up short; and that isn’t punching down: it gives the film a genuinely weird charm that’s hard to resist.
The same reasoning doesn’t completely apply behind the camera, however; writer/director Nathan J. White in his one time at bat is competent and good at setting up a scene (with considerable help from Sam Raimi’s frequent cinematographer Peter Deming), he handles the very limited effects well, and keeps things moving. Dialogue is perhaps not his strong suit; this could be a chicken and egg situation though, as it’s hard to say how these words would sound if they were given a fighting chance. White is definitely trying to relay a call to tolerance with The Carrier; perhaps the AIDS metaphor is apt due to just the time frame, but the film is steeped in a paranoia and fear of the outsider that is hard to overlook. And he succeeds on that front in wonderfully ridiculous ways; as the town splits into factions, plastic wrapped and towels covering their heads like third grade shepherds in a school pageant, they engage in full out war two steps removed from the street fight in Anchorman. This is what I mean: their fighting starts over custody of the cats to use in the battle against the disease; I know a lot of cat lovers, but none who’ve exclaimed “choose…cats or DEATH!” (At least they’ve never said it around me.) It’s this kind of atilt anarchy that sets The Carrier apart; the seriousness is continually being undercut (or rather, invaded) by left field barrages of insanity, which only endears the film to this viewer more and more as it progresses.
The sparse effects work helps; a deflating hand here, a lot of smoke there, the occasional limb lopping, and the constant sound of sizzling bacon are enough to get the point across that things are nasty. It’s rare to find a horror film where the effects are the most subdued part of the film, yet here we are.
The Carrier is not a film that bothers with subtlety or nuance, and honestly why should it? The intention is clear, even if the coaster has a few loose tracks and the car is misshapen with shaky wheels; you’ll still make it to the turnstile, but you definitely won’t forget the ride.
The Carrier is available on DVD from Code Red.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: PRIVATE PARTS (1972)