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It would be easy to dismiss a film like COCAINE BEAR as a silly monster movie of the SHARKNADO variety, but the cleverness and craft at play in this horror comedy perform on a much higher plane. The story’s premise, that of a black bear who accidentally snorts coke and then goes on a killing rampage, is a simple, outrageous one. But it has a sophistication to it, driven by Jimmy Warden’s serpentine script and Elizabeth Banks’ shrewd direction. It may be a kitschy horror film in many respects, but it’s a rollicking good time that knows how to deliver legitimate scares and raucous humor.

The film is based on a true story from 1985 when a black bear happened upon some packets of cocaine from a downed plane in Georgia and went berserk after consuming copious amounts of powder. Banks’ film starts with that inciting incident, but from there the story blooms into a crazy tale with all kinds of unfortunate victims and would-be victims encountering the drug-crazed beast. They include a single mom Sari (Keri Russell) searching for her school-skipping 12-year-old Dee Dee (Brooklyn Pierce) and classmate Henry (Christian Convery); a park ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) on a date with park exec Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson); and drug runners Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) and Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.). They’re out to retrieve as much of the cocaine supply as they can for their demanding boss (Ray Liotta).

Soon, a couple of Atlanta cops (Isiah Whitlock, Jr., and Ayoola Smart) get tossed into the frothy mix, along with a local group of teenage thugs and a couple of ambulance drivers. For the rest of the film’s tightly constructed run time (just 95 minutes total), these folks will cross each other’s paths, as well as that of the marauding bear. The fun lies in all the surprises that Warden weaves into all those encounters, sometimes amusing, sometimes violent. Not everyone’s demise is a foregone conclusion, and some meet their end in ways you’ll never see coming, and they’re often so over-the-top, they’re hysterical. All of Warden’s twists and turns keep things fresh and frightening, and Banks makes the most of every opportunity.

She keeps it all percolating along as her directorial energy matches that of the gonzo bear. Banks’ best-directed sequence occurs midway through the film when an ambulance rescue goes south and ends with such a shocking death it’s more hysterical than horrifying. Banks manages to add some genuine heart to the film too, creating sympathy for more characters than most directors would bother with in such fare. Even the rip-snorting mama bear earns our pity despite all the damage she leaves in her wake.

COCAINE BEAR continues an encouraging trend in horror, evident in this past January’s M3GAN as well, where the main thrust of such films is to create fun, rollercoaster rides for the audience rather than depressing death marches. They’re horror movies, of course, but they’re the kind that you want to watch and maybe even see a couple of times. That sure beats those overly vicious ones where you spend half the time covering your eyes. More power to the enjoyable monster mashes, I say.

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