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Ten Word or Less Review: The Orkin man wouldn’t stand a chance.

It would take a very unorthodox imagination to consider Mimic a genuine classic, all-time great horror film.  However, it is a safe bet to say that it is the best movie yet made about giant, mutated cockroaches.  Written and directed by now widely respected Guillermo del Toro, Mimic stars Mira Sorvino, who had just won an Oscar working for Woody Allen, Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham, future Oscar nominee Josh Brolin and several other actors of no small reputation.  That’s an unusual amount of talent on hand for a movie about killer insects which would at first glance not look out of place as the SyFy channel, Sunday night crap, creature feature starring Richard Greico and Debbie Gibson.

It’s winter in New York and children are dying of a disease spread by the city’s most prolific and indestructible inhabitant, the cockroach.  Lying in shrouded hospital beds, the children struggle and fight for life, many losing the battle.  Dr. Tyler (Mira Sorvino) is a renowned entomologist brought into the situation with the hope she can find a way to eradicate the disease spreading pest.  If nuclear bombs can’t kill a roach what chance does little Mira have?  She eventually engineers and unleashes the Judas Breed, a huge, creepy, cross bred super roach, into New York’s underground ecosystem and within months the disease spreading cockroaches have been terminated.  Eat your heart out Orkin man.  Dr. Tyler’s mega bugs should die off as well and all will be right in the world.  Of course that doesn’t happen.  This is a horror movie and Frankenstien’s ghost must always live on.  Cut to three years later and a Chinese priest is being chased to his church rooftop by cloaked men who make clicker noises.  He falls to his death and his corpse is subsequently dragged away into the sewers below his church.  Those supposedly dead mega roaches are just a few evolutionary steps away from blending in with the wolves of Wall Street.

Dr. Tyler is now hitched to fellow scientist Dr. Mann (Jeremy Northam) and the two are moving along with life, contemplating parenthood.  Dr. Mann gets brought to the church because found in its basement are scores of Chinese refugees suffering from yellow fever and ranting about dark angels.  It isn’t too long before Mann figures out something besides fever is amiss.  To cut to the chase, husband and wife scientist slowly figure out that the Judas Breed is alive and well, 6 feet tall and capable of loosely impersonating your typical pervert in a trench coat.  These super mutated insects are inching toward the surface, feeding on New York’s unlucky subterranean population of people and lost pets with an eye towards moving out to the Hamptons, and everywhere else.

Unceremoniously released in 1997, Mimic is a fine example of how to take a B-movie idea and attempt to execute it with A-level skill.  del Toro is a virtuoso craftsman of atmosphere and even though he had vision impaired producers nipping his heals the entire time, he still managed to pull off a consistently creepy monster flick.  Mimic is played completely straight and never once treats its goofy premise as the Mansquito level joke most would be inclined to take it for.  del Toro very much emulates the pacing and creepiness of Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, as well as that movie’s gooiness, drenching his film in grimy shadows and rain.  He wisely keeps his creature(s) just out of sight as long as he can and works with his actors to give the experience a small, convincing emotional core.  The movie will be a chore for those with lesser dispositions as del Toro avoids any kind of onslaught of the outright gory, instead going for a vibe of the thoroughly queasy.  This viewer made the poor mistake to eat dinner in the middle of the movie.  Bad idea.  Two foot long, dead baby roach monsters do not make for good meal time entertainment.

Mira Sorvino makes a decent lead for a movie like this.  She may fall into the ‘too pretty to be a scientist’ cliche but she brings just enough presence to the screen to make it work.  The very cute actress had won an Oscar for Mighty Aphrodite two years prior and Mimic was part of her short career as a leading lady.  She’s capably backed up by Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham in the mentor role, Italian character actor Giancarlo Gianinni as an unlucky shoe shiner with an autistic grandson and the always sturdy Charles S. Dutton, probably suffering a small amount of deja vu after being in Alien 3 a few years before.  Not everyone is aces though.  British bore Jeremy Northam underplays his husband/scientist part so much he almost vanishes into the gothic backgrounds that del Toro and his production are so dedicated to perfecting.  And yes, that is future Jonah Hex star Josh Brolin in the thankless part of cynical cop.  It would be another decade before the Coen Brothers elevated Brolin from the purgatory of obscure supporting roles which defined his career for many years.

Mimic was the first English language effort of eventual Hellboy helmer, Guillermo del Toro.  An Oscar nominee for his classic Pan’s Labyrinth in 2007, the then cloutless and Hollywood untested filmmaker is known to have had a difficult experience making the film, clashing with his 12 producers over the direction and tone of the movie.  As sustainably creepy as Mimic mostly is, it missteps in places and the fault likely lies at the feet of some of those 12 meddlers.  del Toro, a master at crafting creepy movie creatures, also hits a wall when his clicking, slimy, man-sized bugs are rendered and exposed in CGI.  The mysterious, unsettling bug men become fuzzy, dimensionless CGI hackwork.  del Toro also tries hard to be a rule breaker but he can’t get his movie to ignore all the genre cliches that come with this kind of territory.  He gets away with brutally offing a couple of bug collecting kids but he can’t divorce Mimic from a predictable, unsuitably optimistic, ending.  It works to a point but an unfortunate adherence to the blow it up and leave the theater conclusion is all we get.  In a video interview on the disc del Toro gives a description of Mimic’s original ending which was never filmed.  It would have been a far more accomplished and unsettling conclusion to a film which has ample amounts of accomplished and unsettling elements. 

Released to Blu Ray last year, Mimic now appears to us in a Director’s Cut, but this is no radical scene one re-edit with scores of lost footage.  del Toro has gone back an reinstated several scenes he was forced to cut in the original theatrical version, as well as reorganizing others.  Having not seen the film in many years I have to confess that spotting the new scenes and adjustments wasn’t obvious to me.  The run time has only been lengthened by about 5 minutes and the film still feels like it did 15 years ago when it first appeared, creepy, unsettling but just a bit off as a whole.  These minor alterations give the movie modest gains but Mimic can never completely be as the director wants it.  In a rare, honest video interview found on the disc, del Toro makes it clear that the version he wanted to make was never shot.  His clashing with producers and studio heads forced him to conceed many things.  The ending mentioned above is a prime example and who knows what else was lost due to interference and unwanted meddling.

Mimic will never be regarded as some kind of penultimate horror movie experience.  It’s an engaging, gross little movie that gets under your skin and should be easily appreciated by fans of atmospheric  horror movies.  Appreciators of giant insect cinema should also hold a place for it in their admiring hearts.  It is a very respectable creation but it seems destined to have a life as no more than a curious footnote in the career of a man who went onto to bigger and better things.  Whatever you think of it, it will always remain an interesting case of ‘what if’ cinema.

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