Written and Directed by: Nathan J. White
Starring: Gregory Fortescue, Stevie Lee, and Steve Dixon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Cats or death?!"
Regional filmmaking has always been a curiosity dating back to the days where drive-in circuits would provide a platform for hucksters who managed to scrounge together largely homespun productions, yielding a bounty of bizarre “how-the-hell-did-this-get-made?” films. With the advent of consumer grade technology and VHS, would-be filmmakers didn’t even need the guarantee of wide distribution to go out with friends and family to unleash their id right there on camera—whether it really needed to be or not. And this is when things got really weird, as 16-mm and Hi-8 odysseys began to pop up out of the woodwork, with many going on to achieve cult infamy despite—or perhaps because of—their idiosyncrasies.
Arriving out of this tradition is The Carrier, a delightfully strange little number out of Michigan, the state that spawned arguably the decade’s biggest homespun horror in The Evil Dead. And while Nathan J. White’s scrappy effort is a far cry from Sam Raimi’s game-changer, it’s charming all the same because I can assure you there’s nothing else quite like it. If nothing else, you can almost always count on that with these productions: there’s a reason they could only hail from a non-studio environment, as they often feel like deeply personal, eccentric transmissions that’ll never quite be fit for mass consumption.
So it is with The Carrier, a legitimate oddity. A wistful opening narration takes us back to 25 years ago, to some alternate Rockwellian America, specifically the, er, sleepy town of Sleepy Rock. A tiny hamlet nestled in the middle of nowhere, Sleepy Rock is a devoutly religious town, what with its church socials and zealous Bible-thumpers. One of its more jaded citizens, however, is Jake (Gregory Fortescue), a sad sack who mopes about town, a liquor bottle always in hand (or awkwardly tucked in his front shirt pocket). And with good reason: his family farm just burned down a few weeks ago with his parents trapped inside. Even worse? He started the fire in a drunken stupor, making him the town pariah. Nobody wants to have anything to do with him, and he’s even bullied by a pack of assholes—despite the fact that everyone involved is clearly in their twenties.
It gets worse for poor Jake. Rumors also insist that some monstrous beast stalks the old farm grounds, and it turns out not be complete yokel nonsense when the creature attacks him one night. Soon after, a mysterious plague strikes the city, with random inanimate objects suddenly capable of devouring people my melting their flesh via contact. The development sends the town into mass hysteria in an attempt to protect themselves by any means necessary—even if it means covering themselves from head-to-toe with garbage bags to avoid contact. They’re also paranoid about rooting out the carrier who walks among them transmitting the disease, completely unaware that it’s Jake, who is already their sacrificial lamb anyway. Not the swiftest bunch, these Sleepy Rock folks.
I suppose that’s The Point, as it were: these bumpkins work themselves up into a paranoid fervor, determined to smoke out the evil among them, even if they destroy themselves in the process. The Carrier feels like a 10th grader was really inspired by The Crucible and wanted to chase its themes and add a body-melting disease into the mix. To be fair, I can’t say with any confidence that I wouldn’t have done the same thing at that age, so I can’t exactly dismiss it out of hand. But just like that description implies, it’s an awkward, clumsy attempt at trying to articulate sophomoric musings about the evil that men do and whatnot. Calling it “obvious” is overstating things, and it’s all the more precious because it’s otherwise so nonsensical—The Carrier sort of reminds me of a conspiracy theorist who sounds smart for a couple of minutes before you realize he’s just rambling.
Of course, at least it has something to say (it might even function as an AIDS parable, given the time period), and it attempts to do so in the most charming way possible. Where most of these homespun 80s productions shot for infamy by appealing to rubbernecking gorehounds, this one barely bothers. In fact, you spend the first bit of The Carrier wondering if it isn’t missing a trick by indulging its gory potential. While you’ll occasionally see a prosthetic smoke or melt (well, deflate), the eventual puddles of visceral largely remain off-screen, left to your imagination as characters look on in horror. Surely, a little bit of over-the-top gore is exactly what this sort of thing needs. White doesn’t really think so, though, and his approach is actually a little more daring. I imagine just about anyone with enough gumption to mount their own production like this could toss in heaps of gore in the hopes of crafting something memorable. More difficult is crafting something genuinely charming in its eccentricity, but this is where White excels in spades.
So, no, you don’t remember The Carrier for any particularly gruesome outbursts. You remember it for its bewildering dialogue, bizarre character interactions, and the general feeling that nobody involved actually ever interacted with humans on a regular basis. You remember it for Jake, this poor son of a bitch who’s ostensibly the hero but kind of sucks at it—though not as bad as the town sucks at figuring out he’s the titular carrier. You remember it for the band of tykes just scrapping to survive both the disease and a pack of especially high-strung, ruthless adults with no compunction about silencing these little shits by any means necessary. You remember wondering “hey, wasn’t there a giant fucking monster (with grunts and growls provided by Bruce Campbell!) in this movie at one point?” But mostly, you remember it for cats. Lots and lots of cats. See, it turns out felines are especially adept at figuring out which items have been tainted by the carrier, so the eventual warring factions in town start hoarding them up and even waging battles over them. Who needs ridiculous gore when you have some kind of vaguely post-apocalyptic Yojimbo shit involving cats and people wearing garbage bags?
Best of all, White is completely serious about all of this. Sure, it’s obviously a bit of a gas, but it’s played with a mostly straight face and isn’t designed for maximum quirk. Jake—especially his perpetually pained face—becomes an avatar of the film’s sincerity: here’s this handsome, All-American kid (who looks like a cross between Anton Yelchin and Henry Cavill to modern eyes) who’s constantly beating himself up over being a drunken lout as his hometown rips itself apart over a disease he’s spreading. You can’t help but feel sorry for the poor bastard, even when White clumsily insists on turning him into an honest-to-god Christ figure towards the end. In no way does he exactly earn this, but you kind of have to let him have it—if nothing else, it’s absolute proof of just how seriously insistent The Carrier is about being about something, right down to ending with the same contemplative narration that opens the film. As the film closes, one of the survivors claims she was left “with nothing,” which isn’t exactly true: after all, she lived to relay the story of The Carrier, which is the gift that keeps on giving.
Sandwiched somewhere between The Evil Dead and Back from Hell on the Michigan DIY horror spectrum, The Carrier is perhaps best described as one of the best films MST3K never riffed on. I don’t say that because it’s bad, as few of MST3K’s targets rarely actually are; rather, The Carrier is exactly the type of singularly weird gem the show often turned up in its heyday (and, if Cry of the Wilderness is any indication, in its newly resurrected form too). Rough around the edges, yet striking in its utter strangeness, it’s fit to be gently, lovingly needled because it’s far too sweet to incite actual mockery.
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