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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Tiny Invaders (originally published 6/03)

As gruesome as movie monsters can be, there’s one thing you have to give them. Even if you can’t kill the average matinee monster, you can at least run away from them. The threat they represent is tangible and corporeal. They’re generally big, ugly, loud, and probably smell bad. That’s what I’d call fair warning.

Much more disturbing to me are the real life malefactors that have quietly and insidiously been invading the bodies of people around the world over the last few months to infect them with SARS. What can you do, after all, when the monster that threatens your life is much too small to see? When you can’t know if the precautions you’ve taken were adequate until it’s much too late?

Naturally, the dramatic potential of this type of tiny invader has not escaped filmmakers through the years. If you’ve stayed indoors with the shades pulled since the SARS outbreak, might as well pass the time by watching some entertaining films about public health calamities. It will give you something to do while you’re waiting for your drinking water to boil.

“The Andromeda Strain” (1971). You will perhaps not be surprised to hear that Michael Crichton was out ahead of the curve on this one. Although he didn’t write or direct this adaptation of his novel, the spirit of his book is well represented. The story centers around a group of scientists who are called together at a super-secret government facility dedicated to the control of unknown biohazards. This place is like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention on steroids, high tech to the nth degree. The assembled scientists are brought together to figure out how to deal with a virus brought back by an experimental space probe. It killed every inhabitant of a small, isolated town except for an infant and a sterno bum. Can the docs isolate their common immunity factor before it’s too late? The climax is a typically harrowing Crichton nail-biter. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's promotional trailer.

“Pursuit” (1972). Crichton again. This one is a TV movie based on “Binary,” one of the books Crichton published under the pseudonym “John Lange.” The premise is that a crazed terrorist is threatening to release a deadly nerve gas in a city that is hosting a political convention. The excellent cast includes Ben Gazzara, E.G. Marshall, and William Windom. Crichton himself directed.

“The Crazies” (1973). In a much lesser-known film, George Romero tried a variation on his “Night of the Living Dead” formula with this sardonic biohazard tale. When the military accidentally releases a virulent biochemical weapon, contaminating the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town, the results are pure Romero. This particular bug causes violent insanity before it actually kills, leading the infected citizenry to maim and brutalize each other before succumbing to the disease.

“The Cassandra Crossing” (1977). Have you noticed that all the titles so far are from the 1970s? What can I tell you, we had a thing for disaster movies back then, from overturned ocean liners to buildings on fire to imperiled airliners. Sooner or later there had to be a train disaster movie, and this was it. The plot involves terrorists on board a European express train, but the ante is further raised by the fact that the terrorists have been exposed to the plague. While the military types, as represented by Burt Lancaster, try to deal with the terrorists, the medical types, as represented by Richard Harris, must try to cope with the spread of plague through the train. It’s all a bit far-fetched, but fun if you’re in the mood.

“Panic in the Streets” (1950). I wanted to throw this one in just to prove that the 1970s didn’t have a complete lock on this kind of film. Richard Widmark stars as a public health doctor with the unenviable task of tracking down a murderer who probably contracted pneumonic plague from his last victim. It’s as tense in its own way as anything Michael Crichton ever dreamed up. Best of all, it was directed by one of the legends of the industry, Elia Kazan.

You should be able to find each of these films on the shelves of one of your local video stores. That’s assuming, of course, that you’re willing to risk leaving the house to go and look for them.

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