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Creature Features in Review: The Thing (1982)

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Thirty-five years. On June 25th, we will be celebrating thirty-five years since the release of John Carpenter’s The Thing. The review you are about to read, written by the incredibly talented William D. Prystauk, aka Billy Crash, not only the second half of the infamously awesome The Last Knock podcast, but also a teacher, director, screenwriter, and loving husband and friend, has carefully crafted what I believe to be the definitive review of The Thing. I’m glad Bill decided to take on this “creature feature.” For those who know me will be quick to understand, The Thing is by far my most favorite movie.  Not just my favorite horror movie, but my favorite overall film in its entirety. From score to cast to dialogue and landscape to practical effects and most of all its unabashed fearlessness towards nihilism. Disney has spoiled generations of audiences by spoon feeding them a resolution to the conflict and the always dominant hero. But in The Thing, we are denied those expectations, wonderfully so. Not everything has to have a resolution. Not every story must end with the hero defeating the monster. Ambiguity exists in nature and thus should representation on screen, at least sometimes, right?

The Thing

by William D. Prystauk

Introduction

When I first saw The Thing on the big screen, I was overwhelmed by the oppressive nature of John Carpenter’s film as well as its mystery, music, cinematography, and remarkable special effects from Rob Bottin and company, as well as the gripping writing from Bad News Bears scribe, Bill Lancaster. Unfortunately, 1982 was a banner year for strong movies so The Thing didn’t make the final cut when it came to earnings, and Carpenter is supposedly still bitter about his film’s poor performance in theaters. Today, however, the film’s considered a masterpiece by many horror cinephiles, and rightfully so.

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This is not a Remake

Carpenter’s version is not a remake of 1951’s The Thing from Another World with James Arness playing the alien version of Frankenstein’s monster. In this case, the movie deviates from the original tale, “Who Goes There?” a short story spun by John W. Campbell Jr., and leaves fighting the creature to the military still deservedly basking in the glow of a post-World War II world right before the horrors of The Korean War. In the story, scientists resolve the alien issue, though Lancaster’s script calls for scientists and military veterans to try and figure a way out.

Carpenter stayed closer to Campbell’s tale with its shape-shifting monster and the paranoia it caused. The director chose to have a much smaller staff at National Science Institute Station 4 instead of a larger component of men, but he kept most of the major characters’ names. As for Campbell’s tale, it’s actually a bad read due to repetition (he must have referred to MacReady as being “bronze” a hundred times) and from a sad overuse of “to be” verbs. For his part, Carpenter and Lancaster made Campbell’s story shine like gold.

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Who the Hell Are These Guys?

For a science station, the men who work there don’t really fit the bill. Sure, Billings (Peter Maloney) is a meteorologist, Norris (Charles Hallahan) has a broader mind beyond his geology degree, Windows (Thomas Waites) serves as the radioman, lumberjack looking Clark (Richard Masur) handles the dogsled team, Nauls (TK Carter) feeds the crew, and Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to keep everyone healthy. The man who keeps the team in line is Garry (Donald Moffat), who for some reason has a six-gun strapped to his side with a gun belt to match and serves no other purpose than a security guard. Childs (Keith David) is one hell of a mechanic, who can obviously juggle boilers, tractors, and helicopters with ease. The pilots of the choppers are Vietnam vets Palmer (David Clennon), a stoner who one wouldn’t trust to fly a remote control whirlybird, and MacReady (Kurt Russel). Both men suffer from PTSD in their own way, and while Palmer socializes and engages in marijuana, MacReady isolates himself and indulges in scotch. The final part of the troupe is Blair (Wilford Brimley) and his understudy assistant, Fuchs (Joel Polis). At one point, Doc Copper orders Blair “… to start an autopsy right away.” In Campbell’s story, Blair’s a biologist, which makes sense for the movie version, but why would he be a master of autopsy? Since the dogs have no veterinarian, he may also play that role and could have performed necropsies on animals in the past.

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When witnessing the game room scene, it’s clear the men are often “standoffish.” Nauls, who a second ago was resting in his cot and watching TV with Palmer, plays pool with Clark. Windows fumbles with the newspaper from the couch, while Norris, Bennings, and Garry play poker. There’s no banter, no noise, and clearly no fun. It’s as if all these guys did something heinous and were sent to Antarctica to cool down for the “first goddamn week of winter.” Yet, they not only have handguns and shotguns at the ready, and at least one German rifle from a Norwegian, but they also have three flame throwers and dynamite. Doesn’t sound like a science station. Could it serve as some Cold War outpost? If so, this expansive complex can certainly support more men, and one wonders if abandonment of the facility looms on the horizon thanks to budget cuts.

The Thing Itself

The boogeyman in The Thing differs from the average creature feature antagonist. Each monster has a weakness, or so it seems, and once the human hero figures that out, the monster will be destroyed. In this case, the alien can replicate someone’s cells, absorb their language and mannerisms, and apparently the knowledge they have stored in their brains. Worst of all, it can seemingly infect anyone at any time (more about that later).

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Our intrepid crew doesn’t know which part of space the creature came from, but thanks to Norris, we know it’s ship crashed down onto the continent about 100,000 years ago. Beyond the being’s extensive hibernation, the ship proves to be a massive one, unlike the smaller craft in the 1951 film. What we don’t know is if this was a ship built by the Thing and his or her people, or if the creature got onboard and overwhelmed the entire crew with its cellular replication. Later in the narrative, we learn that the creature tries to recreate his craft on a smaller scale with the same look as the original. Since the Thing can absorb knowledge, and since we don’t know its age or where it’s been, this may be the optimal ship design it had discovered from its journeys across the cosmos.

Oddly enough, the creature ends up away from the ship on higher ground. This can certainly happen because the topography changed due to plate tectonics and maybe volcanism, but what did the Norwegian team actually dig up? If the creature crashed in Antarctica and went into hibernation after a short walk, it certainly didn’t overtake a human at the time. Too bad the Norwegians hadn’t filmed what this Thing actually looked like. But they did videotape the outline of the ship, and they unearthed the craft thanks to thermite charges. In the movie, one may think they blew up a massive hole the size of Rhode Island, but that would have displaced tons upon tons of ice and rock – and would have certainly registered on Norris’ seismograph at the station (there has to be one). The point is that MacReady and company, for some reason, land on a ridge above the ship and rappel down.

And once the creature thawed, it went to work on absorbing the Norwegians and its dogs.

The Other

The greatest element to the short story and both films is the element of “The Other.” As we discover in many science fiction and horror movies, the other is a xenomorph (“a strange form” by definition or an “alien” or “monster”) that either must be assimilated or destroyed. What is fantastic about this tale is both creature and human are “The Other.” Humans don’t belong in Antarctica and neither does that Thing. Since the “human others” can’t determine what the monster is, it can’t be assimilated and must be killed. The “alien other” wants to assimilate the humans, yet destroys them in the process.

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To see something like this in cinema is rare, though one finds such a human-xenomorph “other” combination in Ridley Scott’s Alien. The human component doesn’t thrive naturally in space, and though the alien creature comes off as the bad monster, the humans did bring this entity upon themselves in a “curiosity killed the cat” theme, though Jonesy lives to hiss another day. Unlike The Thing where destroy versus assimilate comes into play, Alien is all about kill or be killed.

Communication’s Down

Windows couldn’t connect with McMurdo (where he refers to the outpost as number 31 just like MacReady, instead of 4). The men of the station are in conflict about who should lead and who shouldn’t be trusted. But there is absolutely no communication between human and Thing.

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This horror turns into a cat-and-mouse game between human and alien. Yet, if the creature just wants to survive and escape in a ship, why didn’t it simply ask for help? When MacReady addressed the members of the camp and realized they all weren’t infected because they would have jumped him, why didn’t he ask what the creature wanted? After all, it’s a stranger in a strange land, and “probably not in the best of moods” after portraying a xenomorphic popsicle for too many centuries.

Without any women on the station, one may think the crew was being macho or stubborn, but the reason runs deeper than an emotional state and posturing, though both of those elements certainly exist in the narrative. Like the alien, the humans are also predators, and that’s why communication between them never took shape. It’s a fight to the end, pure and simple. Think of it as any competition where one squares off against an opponent – to the death.

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Even so, a little communication could have gone a long way, but that would have made for a different kind of film, and one that wouldn’t be worthy of review for this category. By the way, ET phoned home in 1982 on June 11, and Carpenter’s film came out two weeks later as Spielberg’s friendly alien continued to captivate little kids and their parents nationwide.

Getting Infected

This has been a point of contention for many The Thing fans: Who got infected when, how, and even why? A meme showed Blair tapping a pencil against his lips after the autopsy. Hmm… However, the answer is far simpler: They were all at risk of infection the moment they unwrapped the creature with two faces, akin to the theater masks of comedy and drama, looking outward with one connected tongue. Doc Copper in all his medical expertise asked, “Is that a man in there?” when he and MacReady dug up the monster and brought it home to infect everyone else. Clearly, no quarantine protocol was in effect.

When they unwrapped the frozen creature, with the heat of the room, water evaporated from the body and Blair backed off from the stench. After all, the Thing began to defrost once inside the warmer helicopter. Now, as MacReady proved later with another item from the book, that each cell was a creature on its own, who knows what flew into the air and made its way through the mouths and nostrils and into the lungs of the crew. Yes, some became infected (though we really don’t know when), and others did not (though we really don’t know why), but airborne infection seems to be just as likely as bloodborne in this case.

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Due to each component of the Thing being its own individual entity, this creature may be its own entire civilization. In 2015, Robin Corey, a biochemist, wrote that there are 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, not including bacteria. This means that once the Thing takes over a human host, that can make for one hell of a population. Blair had calculated that we’d all be infected in 27,000 hours, which is a little over three years, but there’s an excellent chance that infection, or assimilation, would happen much faster.

The End

There are many more mysteries packed within Carpenter’s amazing horror, but that’s for another time. The important thing is to watch the film and become a prisoner like the others, trapped “a thousand miles from nowhere” without a radio, and a heavy storm that prevents anyone from escaping even on foot. This is what the horror genre is meant to be: isolated and frightening with a sense that there’s no way out.

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Carpenter tips his hand that there’s little hope for our characters right from the beginning. The opening shot after the credits is that of a sheer rock face. The camera lingers there as if to say it’s too foreboding and not scalable. We see the Norwegian helicopter flying over the rock as it heads towards its own doom, but it’s clear that our “science” crew won’t make it out of the station alive.

In the film, we’re left with a couple of characters waiting for what might possibly come next. We don’t know if one is infected or if either one of them is. We do know, however, that they’re both not infected because an alien greeting most definitely would have been different. And in the brownish light of a fiery night, the camera pulls back from the pair and we fade to black. In the television version, after the camera pulled back, we see a dog leaving the station, bookending the film in excellent fashion. Maybe it doesn’t really matter who was infected since all is lost.

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Thankfully, The Thing survived its poor and undeserved theatrical showing and keeps bringing the scares and incredible in-camera effects to new generations of horror fans. Whether you’ve seen the film once or a thousand times, keep your eyes peeled for the multitude of little mysteries that neither the characters nor the audience can answer (Who got to the blood anyway?). Revel in ambiguous horror that delivers on every level, including bottom end gloom from the renowned Ennio Morricone’s doom-ridden composition, and the excellent cinematography from one of the best, Dean Cundey. Carpenter created something for the ages, and for fans – human or otherwise.

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William D. Prystauk (aka Billy Crash) cohosts THE LAST KNOCK horror podcast on iTunes and at http://crashpalaceproductions.com. He’s in pre-production of a dramatic science fiction feature film he’ll shoot in Seattle with his company, Crash Palace Productions. When he’s not listening to punk rock and leaving no sushi behind, he indulges in the food group better known as chocolate. Follow him on Twitter as @crashpalace, and look for him under his real name at LinkedIn, IMDb, Amazon, Behance, and at http://williamdprystauk.com.

Keep up with Billy Crash’s many exploits by following his site!

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Universal Monsters in Review: Abbot & Costello Meet The Invisible Man (1951)

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Vaudeville comedy has a certain kind of charm. An allure that brings in audiences for a quick laugh. An appeal developed by legendary talents, such as The Three Stooges, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd, to name a few of the pillars that made up the vaudeville slap-stick house. For Abbot & Costello, their era of fame started in 1940, with One Night in the Tropics, and ended with Dance with Me, Henry, in 1956. Lou Costello, the bumbling “dim-wit” of the duo, would eventually pass away in 1959, leaving Bud Abbot, the “straight man” of the pair, searching for a new partner in Candy Candido, but eventually calling it quits because, “No one could ever live up to Lou.” Bud passed away in 1974. For me, I think the 1940s is really when the duo shinned the brightest. It was an era of heighten stress due to the war in the Pacific and in Europe.  War time audiences were looking for distractions from the woes of loved ones deployed and of uncertain outcomes in the development of world powers. Our featured film for this review is Lou and Buds second to last Universal Monster flick, released in 1951, and you can begin to see the struggle of defining their roles in a new era. The movie itself plays out as part mad science, part detective/noir, part boxing, and part loony tunes. As our honor guest reviewer has pointed out in his review below, there moments of genuine entertainment, but for the most part, the film was dragged out and ultimately boring.  Well, I shall not delay any longer, lets see what our guest writer has to say.

 

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man

By: Lewis Duncan

 

I have to admit, the Abbot and Costello films were never something I went out of my way to watch or indeed find copies of in recent years. They linger in my memory, part of my childhood, part of growing up and watching whatever the grown-ups were watching. In our house, it was either Westerns or War films, both which I hated until I discovered Clint Eastwood.  Black and white films were to be snubbed as old and boring. It wasn’t until I discovered the genius of the Marx Brothers that I gave black and white a chance. I think it was my Granny’s fault. She used to eat them up. I remember her doing the ironing in the living room with the television blaring on a wet Saturday afternoon. I would be on the sofa reading a Beano or playing with Star Wars figure and these great brays of laughter would echo around the room. It was the television. Something on there had got her going. I was intrigued.

The Marx brothers made me laugh out loud and although it wasn’t until my teens that I appreciated the genius timing of Groucho’s gags and the on-screen chemistry between the brothers,  I still needed to see everything they had done. Thankfully my uncle had just purchased a VHS video recorder and would rent various video tapes at the weekend. One of those tapes was ‘Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein’. I can remember enjoying it without knowing what I know now and how it featured some of the greatest names in cinematic history. Looking back, I really enjoyed watching it but don’t ask me to tell you the plot. Kids don’t do plot. They do slapstick and action and Bud Abbot and Lou Costello did it perfectly.

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Having been asked to write a review of a film I was given a list of possibles. I chose ‘Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man’ for one reason and one reason only. I had never seen the film. I had heard of it but I had never actually watched the thing. Also, I’ve never reviewed a damn thing in my life apart from a few lines here and there on Amazon about books I’ve read so bare with me.

The title itself suggests horror but we know it’s not going to be an all-out horror flick is it? No, of course not and to be honest there isn’t any horror in the film whatsoever. It’s a comedy, it’s a vehicle for Lou Costello and Bud Abbot to showcase their vaudeville skills and put them on the big screen and they do it perfectly. Don’t they always?

Since agreeing to review this, I’ve sat down with the laptop, loaded up the film and ate some crisps and drank some soft drinks, clear head required and I must say each time I’ve watched the movie it has been as enjoyable as the first. Even that Universal music during the opening credits gets me going. Big old Earth spinning around is a definite cue to go grab some nibbles because you know you’re in for a treat, you’re in for a quality hour and a half’s entertainment. They just do it right.

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So here we go, Lou Costello, or Lou Francis as he is called in the movie, is skipping, tripping and dancing up to graduate from Detective School, misses the chair and falls on his arse. The start of it. Lou is informed by his partner, the very brilliant straight guy of the duo, Bud Abbot, that he slipped them twenty bucks to let him graduate. I think this is the first time of many that Lou looks directly at the camera. I have my doubts about that though. It’s a fun thing to do in a film and an fourth wall effect I love but I sometimes wonder if Lou actually relies on prompts from off-screen. I guess we’ll never really know.

Anyway, the unlikely detective duo are in their office when the boxer, Tommy Nelson walks in, all cagey like and makes a phone call. It’s Lou that recognizes who he is. Bud is still in the dark. That old straight guy/fun guy thing really working full speed.

Tommy needs to go to the Doc’s place and ends up getting injected with invisibility serum. He needs the comedy duo to help find out who murdered his manager, a murder in which he has been convicted of. They agree and drive him to meet Dr. Phillip Gray, the posh doc played brilliantly by Gavin Muir. His accent is just sublime. I just wish he was in the film more.

The Doc refuses, the cops arrive, and Tommy takes the serum on his own. It doesn’t work straight away but it eventually does when he is alone with Lou and the handshake scene is priceless. It’s the first glimpse of how the invisibility effects are going to pan out. They work, there is no denying that. I don’t think there is one moment throughout the film that features the invisible man that you think, yeah, I know how they did that or I can see the strings. It doesn’t happen. I won’t list them here but each invisible man sequence is perfectly done and when you watch it you will agree. Be it spaghetti or playing cards.

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A character that has to be mentioned is the detective played by William Frawley. His lines are sharp, delivered well and his frustration with Lou is just class. He sends him to a psychiatrist and Lou ends up hypnotizing everyone he comes across in a scene which includes a reference to a nursery rhyme about mice running up a clock. Again, I don’t want to give much away but it’s funny as hell.

This is where the film falls into two segments, the build-up to the big fight and the fight itself. We find Lou and Bud in a fancy restaurant with Tommy (invisible) at the table. They order food and the food scenes are the funniest and best scenes in the whole film.  It is also the first time we see that Tommy might be starting to lose his mind a little. He gets this huge ego thing going and Lou and Bud try to keep him cool. It doesn’t work and all hell breaks loose in the restaurant, resulting in Tommy getting knocked out by some revolving doors. They get him back to the Doctors. Tommy is full of remorse, well acted by Arthur Franz who is a constant star throughout the film. A straight talking guy that compliments Lou and Buds slapstick brilliance.

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Here we go then, fight night. You know what’s going to happen. Fight scenes will ensue, Lou Costello will camp it up and bounce about the ring like a fool but it will entertain you, it will make you smirk, maybe not laugh, but smirk and the bad guys will get their just reward. I can’t be bothered detailing all the scenes and quotes that matter, there’s no point. If you want to watch it then do so. I recommend that you do.

I’d like to say one final thing about this film, Abbot and Costello Meet The Invisible Man, this is not a horror movie, it’s not even a comedy. It does entertain, it has those old moments, those, ‘Why, I outta…’ moments, but that’s standard with an Abbot and Costello film. You know what to expect. Did I enjoy it? Yeah, of course, I did but I’m not going out of my way to talk it up like a lot of folks do. It is what it is. I’m a fan but if I had the choice of spending my Saturday afternoons watching this or a Marx brothers film, I would go all out Groucho. That’s just me. I like horror and this isn’t. I like comedy and this is dated. Worth a watch on a rainy Saturday afternoon if you have nothing else to be doing but  don’t go out of your way to check it out. It is what it is. Too much film on a really slim plot.

My rating: 3/5

LewisDuncan

Lewis Duncan is an up and coming writer and graphic artist. You can find his work on numerous book covers recently released this year, including books by Dawn Cano, Duncan Ralston, and myself (Thomas S. Flowers). He also has upcoming projects with the likes of Kit Power and Rich Hawkins. Some of Lewis’s publishing work includes Violent Delights, in which he co-wrote with Dawn Cano. He is an avid reader and supporter of fellow indie writers. His artwork is stylized in a retro, space-age grunge, 70s grindhouse. You can follow Lewis on Facebook to keep up with all his latest work.