HALLOWEEN is a great film, but THE THING has always been my favorite Carpenter film. It is one of the movies I first saw as a kid that turned me into such a big horror fan. It’s revolutionary special effects helped bring the horror/sci-fi genre into a new era and created a challenge for future filmmakers and art directors to surpass. It elevated the original, THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, ( Howard Hawks, 1951,) from a creature feature into something new and genuinely terrifying.
In preparing to write this review, I watched both THING films and the 2011 prequel. It is interesting to see the different approaches. The prequel is better than I thought it would be. It incorporates elements from the other two versions. I particularly loved the main character listening to Men At Work’s, “Who Can It Be Now?” I prefer Carpenter’s version, written by Bill Lancaster. The story is more fleshed out and it is stronger visually. Hawk’s film focused on the fear of what is beyond Earth. Carpenter’s film is about our fear of each other. It is a nightmare of an early 80’s world trapped in a stalemate of a Cold War and the threat of nuclear destruction.
Special effects are not the only thing that makes this film stand out. Carpenter and cinematographer, Dean Cundey, create an atmosphere of isolation and paranoia from the start with opening scenes of an empty expanse of snow and mountains surrounding the small research base in Antartica. The crew is cut off. They lose their only means of transportation and have no communication with anyone outside the base. They turn on each other, not knowing who is human. Carpenter’s version is also reportedly closer to the original 1932 novella, “Who Goes There?, “ by John Wood Campbell, Jr.
In the film, helicopter pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell,) and the rest of the crew are surprised when a Norwegian helicopter chases a dog into their camp. The pilot tries shooting the dog, accidently shooting one of the men, gets shot himself while the other passenger blows the copter up with a grenade. In an effort to understand what happened, the crew goes to the Norwegian camp only to find it destroyed. They discover that the crew had excavated a UFO in the ice and had found an alien body. They bring the mutated corpse back to their camp, unknowingly setting up their own destruction. They soon realize the alien can imitate anything it touches. It can be any one of them.
THE THING is full of great scenes. The dog/thing mutation in the kennel was the work of Stan Winston, but he is uncredited because he didn’t want to take anything away from Special Effects Creator, Rob Bottin. The Thing creatures are extraordinary. A grotesque combination of alien insect-like tentacles and human body parts; each piece trying to break off and become it’s own creature. The scene I will always remember is when Copper (Richard Dysart,) is trying to save Norris. His hands break through Norris’s chest, which becomes a giant mouth with teeth, biting his arms off. Then Norris’s head breaks off and grows spider legs and antennae, skittering across the floor.
Again, it isn’t just the animatronic effects that make this a great film. It’s how the characters interact with each other, the uneasy camaraderie in the beginning that quickly deteriorates into mistrust and finger-pointing. No one knows who is the good guy. I like how the sense of entrapment is heightened by the storm and the constant howling of the wind, as well as the claustrophobic feel of the facility. The hallways are narrow, the rooms are small and cluttered; the characters spend the film almost on top of each other. Also, when the characters are bundled up outside, you can’t tell them apart.
In the end, THE THING is more than horror or sci-fi. It becomes a mystery whodunnit as well. The film ends like a chess game with the remaining opponents waiting for each other out until one reveals himself or death takes them.
Kim McDonald lives in Charleston and loves all things horror. especially foreign horror. She is a new reviewer here on Machine Mean, but she is not stranger to the art of movie reviews. Kim also does work for LOUD GREEN BIRD, tackling some of horror’s greatest treasures, giving readers a deeper retrostpective on films like “The Iron Rose,” “Baskin,” “The Conjuring 2,” “The Witch,” and many more. You can follow Kim @dixiefairy on Twitter and you can follow her blog, Fairy Musings, here.
And as always, if you enjoyed what you’ve read here on Machine Mean, please subscribe to our mailing list by clicking on the FREE BOOK image below where you will not only receive updates on articles and new book releases, but also a free anthology of dark fiction.
October 21, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Reviews | Tags: 1982, Aliens, Charles Hallahan, cult, cult classic, cult film, dark, David Clennon, Donald Moffat, film, Fright Fest, fright fest 2016, Guest author, Halloween, Halloween Movie Marathon, halloween reviews, Horror, horror reviews, Joel Polis, John Carpenter, Keith David, Kim McDonald, Kurt Russel, Loud Green Bird, movie reviews, nihilism, nihilistic, Peter Maloney, Reviews, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, Rob Bottin, syfi, T. K. Carter, The Thing, Thomas G. Waites, UFO, Wilford Brimley | 11 Comments
It’s my personal opinion that the phrase ‘cult classic’ is overused. It’s a phrase often applied to movies that are mainstream successes, purely because they happen to be a bit odd. For example, I find labeling anything David Lynch has been involved in from Twin Peak on as ‘cult’ just… well, wrong. I like David Lynch’s work, a lot, as it happens. But cult? Dude’s a mainstream success, albeit one who has managed to do that without compromising his artistic vision. Which is utterly awesome, and all respect and praise due.
But it’s not cult.
Cult, IMO, needs to be small. Obscure. Flawed. If everyone on your friend’s list has heard of it, it’s not cult. It’s just a cool thing you like.
And basically, I’m not a cult guy. My ear isn’t to the ground enough for that – I’m too busy failing to skim off the cream of the mainstream offerings out there, in any popular culture genre, to have any realistic chance of finding some deserving second or third tier band or movie or TV show to enjoy. By the time I come across something, in other words, it’s generally by the above definition no longer cult – it’s broken out, reached a critical mass, if you can dig it. It may have been ‘cult’, but by the time I find it, chances are good it’s graduated simply to ‘classic’.
Except then, they’re Parents.
Parents released back in 1989. It was made for $3 million and grossed $870,500 box office. It got a brief US DVD release, and so far none at all in the UK. It stars Randy Quaid, in I think his best screen performance, and probably no-one else you’ve heard of. And by sheer fluke, I saw it on TV in the UK, as part of a horror movie season on one of the broadcast networks – BBC2 or C4.
Now, Parents is undeniably a goofy movie. It’s set in the 50’s, in whitebread suburbia, and that’s an inherently goofy setting. Randy Quaid, is, well, Randy Quaid, and though he exhibits a level of restraint in this film that becomes actively creepy, there’s still an essentially goofy quality to, well, him.
The brilliance of Parents is how it recognizes a great but underexplored aesthetic truth – goofy is only a very thin sliver away from creepy.
I mean, think about it for a second and it immediately makes sense. Grotesque is what happens when you twist caricature up just another half inch. Turn the volume up to eleven on an old cartoon and the distorted sound will become harsh, grating. The tragedy is when I stub my toe, comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die.
That said, I’m struggling to think of a movie that gets and exploits this better than Parents.
It start’s with Quaid, for me. That 50’s buzz cut, the serious glasses, and his early, misplaced humor with his son. It’s a brilliant performance, by turns utterly buttoned down, the kind of icy calm that makes you instinctively nervous, through to behavior so exaggerated past comedy it turns into creepy, without ever landing on ‘normal functioning human’. When we look back of the culture and advertising of the 50’s, there’s an inherent eerie, pod person aspect to it these days, especially when it comes to the rigid enforcement of gender norms, and totalitarian representation of the nuclear family as the irreducible final form of society, of humanity. Parents nails that vibe perfectly, creating a suburban environment where every smile looks like an upside down scream, where the perpetual sheen of sweat on Dennis Quaid’s forehead seems to give the lie to his preternaturally calm voice – and yes, where the increasing insistence of Michael’s parents that he eat up the unidentified meat they serve him for dinner takes on an almost screamingly sinister tone, even as the actual words and actions could as easily be those of exasperated parents as… well… as what, exactly?
It’s not clear, of course, and it remains unclear for most of the film’s 81 minutes running time. It’s the internet age, so you can look it up if you want, but I’m not going to spoil it here, and my firm advice is that you shouldn’t either, if by the end of this you decide to give the film a spin (spoilers: you should ). One of the reasons I think this movie deserves far more attention and love than it gets is precisely the way in which it spins out the central tension of what, exactly, the hell is going on in this family, well past the point where most movies would have come down on one side or the other.
A lot of that ambiguity is possible because of the kid. Michael, played by Bryan Madorsky, is about as far from a Hollywood leading child actor as you could have found in ‘89 (though he wouldn’t have been out of place one of the gangs in Stranger Things). He’s a quiet, shy, pale, awkward kid, with a vivid imagination that leads to some fairly spectacular nightmares. These sequences are beautifully shot, and yeah, they are a lot less impressive post The Shining, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still effective. Steal from the best, and all that.
Beyond the very good, and occasionally actually brilliant direction, the kid turns in a superb performance. Mirroring the wider ambiguity of what the hell is (or is not) going on with his parents, Michael is straddling that line between quiet and withdrawn, imaginative and disturbed (as I write that last, I wonder if that even is a line, or just positive and negative spins on the same phenomenon). He’s certainly a misfit, which in the hyper-conformist atmosphere of the 50’s setting places the viewer in a constant state of anxiety for his wellbeing. This is further amplified by intentionally showing us a sequence where his parent’s behavior is understandable to the viewer but incomprehensible to him, further fueling his imagination and nightmares, and for the audience heightening our anxiety as to what the truth of his situation might be.
The other strength, for me, is the movie doesn’t cop out. It plays out the tension as long as it can – indeed far further than most movies would dare to – but ultimately, the ambiguity is utterly dissolved, leading to a final fifteen minutes of high-stress horror. Again, the cast performances in this sequence are brilliant, as are many of the directorial decisions – the film didn’t have a massive budget, but some very imaginative choices with camera positioning and movement really help elevate some of the closing scenes.
In summary, Parents is a movie long overdue a critical reappraisal – it’s a smartly made, well acted, quirky horror movie, and one where most of the horror is based on psychological tension, generated by the potential gap between the kid’s perception of the world and reality. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not a gore fest, but if you’re a fan of 80’s horror in general, and this one passed you by, I think you could do a lot worse than treating yourself by hunting it down and checking it out.
If for no other reason than it unambiguously qualifies for the title ‘cult classic’. And it’s probably the only one I’ll ever be able to recommend. 🙂
PS – If you HAVE seen the movie, and want to hear me in conversation with a couple of other film enthusiasts pulling the movie apart in gleeful detail (including some quite dark suppositions about what the central themes might be metaphors for), check out They Must Be Destroyed On Sight! Podcast episode 70 http://tmbdos.podbean.com/e/tmbdos-episode-70-tommy-1975-parents-1989/ . In fact, check them out anyway. They’re brilliant.
Kit Power is no stranger to Machine Mean. He was reviewed for us both The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and the forever classic Monster Mash Pinball Game. Mr. Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary. In his secret alter ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as the frontman (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo. He is the published author of such works as,GodBomb!, Lifeline, and has contributed to numerous anthologies, including The Black Room Manuscripts, Widowmakers, and upcoming Easter Eggs and Bunny Boilers. You can read Kit’s review of Bridehere.
And as always, if you enjoyed what you’ve read here on Machine Mean, please subscribe to our author mailing list by clicking on the FREE BOOKimage below to not only receive updates on sales and new releases, but also a free anthology of dark fiction.
October 13, 2016 | Categories: Horror, Reviews | Tags: 1989, black comedy, Bryan Madorsky, creepy, cult, cult classic, dark, film, Fright Fest, fright fest 2016, goofy, Guest author, Halloween, Halloween Movie Marathon, Horror, horror comedy, horror reviews, Kit Power, movie reviews, obscure, Parents, Randy Quaid, Reviews, Satire | Leave a comment