Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Retro Review: Red Eye (2005)

When Red Eye terrorized screens in the summer of 2005, it was both a return to form and a change of pace for director Wes Craven, a horror heavyweight younger audiences have never heard of (talk about scary, right?). Twenty years removed from his Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) heyday, and another decade from his previous Scream (1995)-fueled career revival, Red Eye was a straightforward thriller with very little blood and a scrawny, blue-eyed villain. Hell it was even engineered like a love story – boy meets girl, boy-woos-girl, boy…terrorizes girl?

There’s probably a gender-in-film essay in there somewhere, but let’s just cut to the knife-weilding chase – Red Eye is a clever concept that both embraces and rebels against horror movie clich├ęs, and it’s clear just how much fun that was for Craven. That love-story twist, nailed perfectly in the film’s excellent trailer, is only the first deviation from the norm in Carl Ellsworth’s tight and self-aware script. Horrors and thrillers live for that 3rd act wow moment. Ellsworth puts it front and center, then leaves his cards face up the rest of the way. Red Eye, unlike its contemporaries, doesn't offer much mystery at all. But it is powered by the most basic horror element – survival...

The boy – played coolly and coyly by Cillian Murphy – is an independent contractor of sorts, a terrorist for hire named Jackson Rippner (wink, wink). The girl is an attractive, career driven hotel manager played by Rachel McAdams. She’s flying home from her grandmother’s funeral when she meets Jackson at the airport, and then suspiciously again on the plane in the seat next to her. “What an odd, romantic coincidence” she thinks. Then he tells her he’s got a guy outside her house with a very big knife and he’ll kill her daddy (Brian Cox) if she doesn’t help Ripner with his lastest terrorist plot.  Wow.  Those big blues eyes sure are looking creepy now, aren't they?

Now she’s trapped on a plane with psycho. What’s a poor, horror victim to do? Kick some ass, that’s what.

McAdam’s Lisa is a somewhat conventional horror heroine, a tough, spirited survivor perhaps a little more capable than the average Jane. But Murphy’s Jackson is a limp and desperate villain, equally mocked and feared. It’s a fun spin on a classic character, and Craven/Ellsworth get a lot of mileage out of it.

So too does Murphy who, on the heels of his leading role in 28 Days Later (2003) and his villainous turn as The Scarecrow in Batman Begins (2005) earlier that summer, was poised as an actor to watch.

Watch him we did. We watched him do very little. Aside from another great creepy spot in Sunshine (2007), he’s largely fallen off the “it” charts. Even Rachel McAdams disappeared for a while after this one, with Red Eye proving to be the final stop in a long run of Mean Girls (2004)/The Notebook (2004)/Wedding Crashers (2005) success. Both were talented actors who’d risen high and fast in the past couple years. Both fell off a little after this.

Unfortunately, so did Craven. Five years later, his Soul to Take/Nightmare on Elm Street rip-off is languishing in extended post-production and he’s spent his time producing remakes of his own flicks and watching the Nightmare franchise restart without him. Now he’s once again relying on Scream for yet another career restart, the fourth installment set to hit theaters next year (am I excited for another Scream? I think so?). He’s a great director, and an icon. Red Eye was a fun flick. What happened?

Only Ellsworth’s career took a positive trajectory after this one, as Red Eye proved to be his calling card, paving the way for Disturbia (2007), Craven’s 2009 Last House on the Left remake and the upcoming Red Dawn rebirth (Wolverines!)

At just 85 minutes, Red Eye is easily digestible, taut and tense and fun. Check it out for the clever script and genre work.

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