04/27/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Movie Review: The Crazies

It's a corollary of film criticism: The closer to opening day a film company screens the film, the less confidence they must have in the film and, hence, the worse it must be.

That's why most multiplex-filling genre films - a la The Crazies, which opens Friday (2/26/10) - aren't screened for critics until the last minute. Some studios wait until the morning of opening and then have a courtesy screening, so critics don't actually have to, God forbid, pay for a ticket themselves.

The Crazies didn't screen until yesterday and that's the film company's misjudgment. Not that it's a masterwork - but this film by Breck Eisner is taut, tense and veined with just the right amount of humor. It knows what it's about and gets to it, without a lot of fuss or frills.

And that's what makes it work. While there are a handful of action set pieces, most of the film is about tension and release, more tension and more release. There are monsters, but not an over reliance on them. There's an intelligence to the writing that doesn't call attention to itself; as a result, you fall under its spell and get pulled into its spiral of suspense. The result is so much better than you'd expect.

As I said, there are monsters but they are less of a concern than the unseen enemy, something that most zombies-take-over movies never seem to understand. Instead, this film's heroes are running from something bigger, less tangible and less easy to fight than the living dead.

It's called the government, which, I suppose, makes this movie a tea-bagger's delight. Yes, there are even black helicopters, the bane of every lunatic conspiracy theorist's existence since the invention of the helicopter, conspiracy theories or the color black.

The long and short of it is that something is happening in the little town of Ogden Marsh, Iowa. A government aircraft carrying a virulent toxin has crashed in a local lake, though no one saw anything. It's now poisoning the water supply and turning everyone who ingests it into homicidal maniacs, capable of premeditated acts of violence - like locking their family in the closet and setting the house on fire.

But even those who haven't drunk the Kool-Aid, so to speak, aren't safe.