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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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Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): Movie in Review

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Read the following quote: “They’re already here! Help! You’re next! They’re coming! They’re coming!” Disturbed? Bothered? Maybe a little scared? Well, you should be. This quote is meant to knock you off kilter. In this 1978 remake of the classic 1956 “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” there are no pulled punches. With a surprised PG rating, the fear is turned up high, not with over-the-top gore or practical effects (though there are some really haunting scenes) or naughty language, but with an idea, a very real idea of not knowing the people around you. Who are they? We don’t know. You don’t know. But they’re odd. They talk without speaking. They look cold and calculated. The city is as it always has been, but slowly and surly those unknown faces are being replaced with even stranger ones. Stoic. Everywhere. And always watching.

Before we delve into this review, here’s a quick fire synopsis to jog your memory:

“This ‘remake’ of the classic horror film is set in San Francisco. Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland) assumes that when a friend (Brooke Adams) complains of her husband’s strange mood, it’s a marital issue. However, he begins to worry as more people report similar observations. His concern is confirmed when writer Jack Bellicec (Jeff Goldblum) and his wife (Veronica Cartwright) discover a mutated corpse. Besieged by an invisible enemy, Bennell must work quickly before the city is consumed” -Wiki
Due to the paranoia built incredibly with shots filmed directly on the streets of San Fran, director Philip Kaufman was heralded as an iconoclast, breaking the walls of normalcy and showing us a world we no longer recognize, our own non-fictionalized world. Kaufman didn’t take us into a small California town where everyone knows your name, as in the original Don Siegel film, no, he took us into a sprawling city where recognition is hard to come by. In San Francisco, people are too busy to stop and listen to Harry “Jerry Garcia” play the banjo or to pet his bulldog and drop of few cents into his jar. A man can get run down in the street and people crowd with looks of disinterest. Vandalism can occur and witnesses simply pull the blinds close. Bizarre folds of webbed dust, as if something had been shredded, molted, or decayed, are being collected throughout the city in truck fulls, yet no one seems the wiser. Kaufman is brilliant in the way he adds his brand of creeping horror throughout the movie, building tension until we cannot help but run with the band of friends as they do whatever it takes to survive, to remain who they are, to not fall asleep. Another brilliant aspect of the film that needs to be mentioned (as it plays on our fears), the systematization of the camera, the shaky cam, putting us, the audience, right smack inside the movie, was wonderfully done. This is a remake worthy as a successor to the 1956 black and white commie-fearing original. But if we stop and ponder a moment, is Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers really a true remake or even a reboot as we know them today, or is this movie more of a continuation of the first?
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Let me back up.

Remember the quote at the beginning of our discussion? That quote comes from a very odd character, one you may recognize, if you’ve got a good eye. At the end of the 1956 film, producers felt on edge to leave the movie with the writer’s original script as Doctor Bennell walks down the freeway, shouting, “They’re here already! You’re next!” Instead, they added the scene which implied the FBI rescuing America, rushing in and destroying the invaders. The quote at the beginning is from the 1978 version, with notions of 1956, where we find the leading cast members driving in the city and theorizing. Matthew Bennell is attempting to calm his love interest, Elizabeth, who is convinced something is terribly wrong with her live-in boyfriend, Geoffrey. “He’s just…different,” she says. All of a sudden, a man dashes out and lands on the hood of Matthew’s car. He’s grey haired with wide bloodshot eyes and looks eerily like Dr. Miles Bennell from that small town in California. Panicked, he begs for help. Realizing, no help will be given, he warns Matthew and Elizabeth…”They’re here,” he shouts. “They’re coming!” And he dashes off, only to be run down in the middle of the street. This little scene is the most genius one in the film. Not saying there aren’t other more jarring scenes, because there are, but this one is superb because it ties together the past to the present.

The scene also implies that the events of 1956 did not end with the salvation from the hands of the FBI, but the invasion has continued to grow, slowly, and now, those “pods” have set sights on the budding metropolis of San Francisco, and as we see during the dockside events in the 1978 Invasion movie, as the “pods” are being loaded into the ships docked at port, the world seems to be their game. While in 1956, the invasion event was isolated to the small town… that’s simply not the case anymore.

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There are so few remakes nowadays that are as brilliant as this one, if we can even call Invasion of the Body Snatchers a remake, just as it is difficult to call John Carpenter’s The Thing a remake as well, though he has testified, calling his work as such. One would think, given the way remakes and reboots are the norm today, someone within the echelons of Hollywood would remember the key elements from classic remakes of original films. To make a remake great, or even attempt to create something even more grandiose than the original, as we’ve seen in Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there must be a balance between disassembling what made the original great, understanding those themes and nuances, and then reassembling the components into something new. And of course we would hope the remake was thoroughly thought-out and warranted as well.  If the balance is done right, the remake shouldn’t feel like a remake at all, but another “title” movie. Personally, I don’t even like using the term “remake” for films like these. If the balance is done right, I’d rather call them “continuations.” But I know I am in the minority with such notions.

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Originality, of course, is the name of the game, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers has it in spades. The relationships are what sold me. Donald Sutherland as the hardnosed Health Inspector, who is as sharp as a razor with snobby overpriced restaurant owners, always with a keen eye for rat turds, but is soft as rose petals and somewhat blinded with his love interest, and unavailable by the way, Elisabeth Driscoll, played by the fantastic Brooke Adams. Watching them on screen is mesmerizing. How he loves her, yet understands he cannot have her, but still wants to protect her. And how can we forget the dynamic between pop-psychologist Dr. David Kibner, played by late-great Leonard Nimoy and Jack Bellcec, a not-so-popular (or even published writer for that matter) philosopher who scoffs at how easily Kibner pumps outs books; also one of Jeff Goldblum’s earlier roles by the way. I found it very interesting how the first of the friends to put the mystery together, though perhaps she went a bit far in her “Worlds in Collision” and “Flowers in Space” paranoia, was Nancy Bellcec (played by Alien star Veronica Cartwright), Jake’s wife, who at the end (SPOILERS!) is the sole survivor of the small party of friends. And it gives me even more pause in how she survived. Every time she is swallowed up by the crowd and separated from Matthew and Elizabeth, we assume she was “taken.” However, there she is, she turns up unscathed because she has learned to “act” like one of the “pods.” Though how much of that is really an act, I wonder. When Matthew and Elizabeth are discovered, unable to hid their humanity and doing a poor job “blending in,” Nancy quietly disappears into the mob as they turn on her friends only to turn up again at the end. What does her character tell us? What questions does she raise? Perhaps, that to survive a world in which individuality has faded into a common core one must assimilate similar behavior of the so-called “hive mind…” It certainly begs the question of what the original writers were thinking (be it fear of Communism or fear of Conservatism), and of course what was Kaufman thinking as well.

To all of these questions, I imagine, we must answer for ourselves.

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With a face only a mother could love, Thomas S. Flowers hides away to create character-driven stories of dark fiction. Residing in the swamps of Houston, Texas, with his wife and daughter, his debut novel, Reinheit, was soon published with Shadow Work Publishing, along with The Incredible Zilch Von Whitstein, Apocalypse Meow, Lanmò, The Hobbsburg Horror, and FEAST. His military/paranormal thriller series, The Subdue Series, including Dwelling, Emerging, Conceiving, and Converging, are published with Limitless Publishing, LLC. In 2008, he was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army where he served for seven years, with three tours serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2014, Thomas graduated from University of Houston-Clear Lake with a Bachelors in History. He blogs at machinemean[dot]org, where he reviews movies and books on a wide range of strange yet oddly related topics. You can hide from Thomas by joining his author newsletter at http://goo.gl/2CozdE.

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THE HATEFUL EIGHT: movie in review

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Lets take a ride on the wagon wheel to Minnie’s Haberdashery. And before we pick up any strangers along the way, let me forewarn you, though I plan on keeping this review as spoiler free as possible, don’t get mad if I let a few things slip from here to there. Okay? Okay. You’ve been warned. THE HATEFUL EIGHT is as you may have guessed, if you’re a fan of this particular type of movie, and this type being very much a Quentin Tarantino movie, is his eighth film, with Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds before that. With this new adventure behind the pen of Mr. Tarantino, we’re brought into the western/frontier world of a very recent post-Civil War America. After watching his last film, Django, I suspected Mr. Tarantino would be making a return to frontier/western film-esk America. If you’ve seen that film, then you may agree, with the story and the characters, he seemed to have a lot of fun with his screenplay and directorial duties. This new film runs nearly 3 hours, and the pace is one of the more interesting or “telling” aspects, pointing to an otherworldly reference, mentioned in other reviews by more talented reviewers than myself.  Our eyes first witness a white landscape with a very large snow capped mountain. From there, we then get to spend, about an hour or so, inside the wagon with one John Ruth (Kurt Russel), Maj. Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), Sheriff Chris Mannix (with a running jag how no one believes he’s really the sheriff of this town everyone’s trying to get to), and imprisoned outlaw, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) before finally arriving at the Haberdashery. The conversations are what you may have come to expect from a Tarantino film, filled with plenty of adult language, the use of the N-word, and exposition. If you can stomach all this, well…as the saying goes, you’re in for one hell of a ride.

But don’t come expecting high octane action. You’re not going to get that. Instead, you’ll get a colorful mix of exposition told without the need of repetitive flashbacks. In a somewhat risky move, especially with today’s attention-deficit-disorder generation, Mr. Tarantino allows the characters to interact as naturally as conversation. Conversation, imagine that! And while some of the interaction seemed awkward and forced, we have to be somewhat honest here, isn’t most conversation forced and awkward? Or am I such a recluse that natural conversation seems wholly unnatural? Hmm… MOVING ON! After spending a lengthy, what I found to be quite comfortable, amount of time in the wagon, shooting the breeze and sharing stories of past bounties, nicknames, Lincoln letters, and Civil War exploits, we finally arrive at the crux and final stage of our play…oops, I mean movie. That’s right. We get the wagon. And we get the Haberdashery. No exotic local, no trip around the world, not even a walk downtown. Nope. And why? Django at least trotted across the rural south. And Basterds carved swastikas throughout Germany and France. Well, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is not a wide-birth story, its a story about suspension as well as vengeance. Its a classic “who-done-it” with the added benefit of being a western paranoia story. And one of the best ways to invoke the dread of paranoia is to isolate the cast…and the audience. And there’s another reason too…

My “otherworldly” reference before was a nod at what a few other reviewers have claimed regarding this eighth film by Mr. Quentin Tarantino. And I’ll flat out say it here, people are claiming that THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a homage to John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece, THE THING. When I heard this floating around the web, it pretty much sealed the deal. I was going to watch this movie. And I’m so glad I did because they were absolutely right. Besides the obvious markers, the opening sequence with the white landscape and snow capped mountain, isolated “cabin” with a male dominate cast, the only woman technically being Daisy Domergue, and I’m not sure if she is really counts as a lady, there are other THE THING identifiers. The biggest and best is the musical score. As advertised in certain cycles, Ennio Morricone gave his all in the fantastic musical score for THE HATEFUL EIGHT,  even including unused music from, you may have guessed, THE THING. And its very very noticeable and awesomely chilling, invoking the very essence of paranoia, and filling the audience with the same dread and distrust the characters are struggling with.

Here is a mere sample of the overture:

From here, there’s not much I can reveal without giving away too much. There is a certain level of dark humor to the movie. I found myself laughing several times…though admittedly, looking around in the movie theater, I was the only one. And there was some gore, which I thought played wonderfully with the whole THE THING nod. All the characters were fantastic, all but for one…and he wasn’t entirely terrible either, just didn’t really need to be in there. Michael Madsen makes an appearance through the second half of the movie. He plays the role of John Gage, a rough but silent “cowboy” archetype. And yes, much like in all the roles Madsen plays in Tarantino pictures, he’s a man of few words. And perhaps that’s fitting for a “western” type movie, but I just didn’t see that great of a performance from him…its hard to describe without ruining it. He acts as he always does, its not bad or all that great, I guess…maybe he wasn’t really used as much as he could have been. He seemed pretty much in the background for most of the movie while all the others were for the most part front in center. I had the vibe Madsen was just there because he’s buds with the director…and its sad, because as we know from previous Tarantino films (Reservoir Dogs), he can play a really sinister “man of few words” guy.

Well…in summary, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a fantastic show, well worth the price of admission. For fans of THE THING, this movie needs to be on your “must watch” list. The musical score alone with make you giddy.  And if that don’t, then a certain scene involving Kurt Russel, when he says, “One of them fellas is not what he says he is…,” will.

My Review: 5/5

 

 


The Thing (1982): 32 year review

The Thing, 1982.

The Thing, 1982.

When asked what my favorite scary movie is, the geek in me knows there are just too many gory and spooky films to choose from. There are bunches and bunches of awesome horror out there, but,for better or worse, John Carpenters The Thing is one of my all time favorite horror movies. There are few horror movies that I can watch over and over without ever getting bored. Some horror movies are seasonal, such as: Friday the 13th is typically reserved for Friday the 13th’s or anytime during the summer, Halloween is reserved for Halloween, Gremlins is during Christmas, and so on. There is something about The Thing that keeps me coming back. From the opening scene with the space craft crashing into the earths atmosphere, to the seemingly innocent snow dog running from a deranged Norge gunman, and the discovery of the still smoldering Norwegian base camp, the setup reels you in and doesn’t let go.  As we watch these scenes progress, we’re given little nibbles of foreshadowing (death, isolation, and an otherworldly discovery in the Arctic tundra) and the ever present somber tone, beautifully captured in the movies main musical score (some of Carpenters best musical scores), all this sets the pace and mood till the final conclusion.

 

Released during the summer of 1982, Carpenters take on John W Campbell’s novella, “Who goes there?” faced steep competition from other sci-fi releases, including: E.T. and Blade Runner. The Thing held the #8 spot during the summer blockbuster season and garnered some rather harsh criticism for being overtly graphic and agonizingly slow. The Thing presented a message that just was publicly receptive at the time. As George Romero has commented on the film, it was an era when we had little trust for those around us and ourselves; however, The Thing has since grown in popularity (mostly with horror geeks) and through the decades has established an impressive cult following. What Carpenter once called his “biggest regret” has now been named amongest the best in science fiction and one of the scariest movies in horror. This proves again how inconsequential box office rating are compared to how good a horror movie really is. In my eyes, The Thing could have eaten that nerd E.T. and assimilated Rick Deckard; however, apparently The Thing was a creature before its time.

Instead of going through the movie, giving away key plot develops that you could be discovering for yourself, i’ll go through the parts of the movie that impressed me the most. The Thing, as I see it, is one of the best science fiction horror films ever to grace cinema. The only other contender is Dead Space, a game which is fundamentally similar to The Thing, but hasn’t yet been made into a live action movie…not yet at least…and since we’re on the subject, who could pull off a Dead Space film other than John the master of horror Carpenter? (I know its just an internet rumor, but wouldn’t it be amazing for him to direct Dead Space?) Anyhow, this is all beside the point. Lets get back to the subject at hand. As we discussed in the opening of this review, The Thing comes at us with the perfect setup, the small little bits of information, drawing you in, forcing you to beg the question: What the heck is going on here?!? The best part is how isolated the characters are in the story are. Nothing tops old man winter to make one feel all alone!

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And isolation is a classic backdrop for any horror story. Separate you’re characters from the world and odd choices will ensue when conflict rises. The Arctic adds the feeling of  vulnerability; in contrast, a swampy humid location would typically coop stories about madness. However, The Thing isn’t so much a story about madness; its more about paranoia. Cut off from outside help characters become forced to take matters in their own hands, making isolation (or closed environments) the best way to heighten the feel of terror.

 

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As far as characters go, John Carpenter could not have picked a better actor to play anti-hero MacReady than Kurt Russel. Other than Escape from New York, Big Trouble in little China, and Star Gate, The Thing is one of my favorite movies with Kurt Russel at the helm. His portrayal as the ruffy, drunk camp pilot, with a keen leadership ability during a crises, was spot on and completely believable. The same could be said regarding the rest of the actors, including both Wilford Brimley and Keith David. Each and every character was perfectly portrayed without the cheesy need of explaining who does what. Unfortunately, many horror movies fail with simplicity. You do not need to explain every single detail; let the story explain who the characters are through their actions. Just a little something to consider whenever you write your next screenplay: less is more.

 

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Reading through some of the old reviews, the one thing that had turned most critics off in the 80’s was the very thing that made this movie a legend, the use of traditional special effects. Oh, and don’t worry, i’m not going to go on a rant here regarding CGI and traditional, but let me just say, comparing the original 1982 with the recent prequel, Carpenter’s will always be better because of his employment of hand crafted monsters, instead of computer simulations. For me, traditional effects are able to gross me out more than CGI; and its all because of the real factor, knowing somewhere out there in some back lot studio garage, these painstakingly crafted Things are still there, waiting to be rediscovered and sold in some Hollywood auction.  Call me a horror snob all you want, but can you honestly disagree that when the Norris-Thing’s head started spouting spider legs, the sound and image didn’t make you cringe? This memorable scene was an unforgettable moment in horror. Norris has a heart attack, or seems to, and poor doc Copper steps in to save his life, only to lose his…and his arms! The Norris-Thing’s transformation was the second best monster moment in the movie, topped only by the Blair-Thing at the end of the movie.

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Despite what others critics have said, the effects do not overpower the story, nor are they over done. The story, etched in paranoia, is still very potent. Well into the second day, folks at the United States National Science Institute Station 4 rapidly become suspicious of each other. The Thing, as they discover, can assimilate any biological life it comes into contact with… “It could be anyone of us…” is a phrase said once or twice around camp. Eyes dart between old friends and anyone acting or doing anything out of the ordinary is called into question.  Who is friend and who is foe? Who can I trust? As MacReady told Blair, “Trust is a hard thing to come by these days.”

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Not knowing who can be trusted magnificently adds to the feeling of isolation. Who’s got your back if the only person you can trust is yourself? In this respect, Carpenter brought out a lot from Campbell’s original novella, “Who Goes There?” Beside the Norris and Blair-Thing’s, the Bennings-Thing, with its thunderous scream, echoing out into the winter storm, was one of the creepiest moments in The Thing, and an excellent moment of paranoia. The effects were minimal here, there wasn’t much of the monster to see. The scary part was that Bennings was the first –known– member of station 4 to become absorbed by the alien. And as Garry so eloquently pointed out, “Bennings was my friend….I’ve known him for ten years.”

Though this review is without a doubt positive, that doesn’t necessarily mean the movie isn’t without its imperfections. There were a few bumps in the story that threw me off. The biggest one was when MacReady and company discover, or assume, the Things plan to go back into hibernation as it waits for the spring rescue crew to arrive. To this, MacReady plans to “heat things up around here,” which I wasn’t sure if he meant to burn the Thing or to heat up the camp so that it couldn’t go into hibernation…see where i’m going? Their in the antarctic, the fire will eventually extinguish and the Thing will still be able to hibernate. However, if you’ve been following our heroes development through the movie, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that MacReady isn’t really thinking straight, he’s sleep deprived and extremely paranoid. Endings can be the hardest part in a story to pull off without upsetting the audience. Everyone has an opinion. And though MacReady’s plan didn’t quite make sense to me, it was still an excellent and believable ending. They know their going to die, they just want to ensure the Thing dies with them.

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The bottom line: The Thing is obviously a favorite. My review is glowing. The Thing is a favorite not only because of my love for the 1980’s or John Carpenter flicks, but because of its sheer intensity as a horror movie in general. Every aspect of this movie screams horror: a movie thriving on classic macabre motifs (isolation and paranoia) to deliver something uniquely chilling, which is: Who can we trust? If you are a true horror fan, of any caliber, you really need to watch this movie. Some folks may argue and say Halloween or Prince of Darkness was Carpenter’s best work; however, it is my humble opinion that The Thing was Carpenter’s best. The only hiccup in the story, for me at least — other folks may spend countless hours trying figure out and make sense of every single thing said, which is pointless — was MacReady’s plan at the end of the movie. However, sometimes these imperfections can actually make the story more believable and besides, isn’t the point of horror for its characters to make dumb decisions that do not always work out in the end and they have to do something different to save the day or fail doing so because of said dumb decision? Sure, The Thing wasn’t a box office success, but who cares? Since the 80’s, The Thing has become enshrined as one of the most important horror-sci-fi films with one of the longest lasting shelf life any film can hope to accomplish, which is to say, timeless. And regardless of what some critics are saying, The Thing was not a remake of the 1951 classic film The Thing from Another World. Carpenter’s take was actually more true to the original novella that spawned both movies. However, Carpenter being the classy guy that he is, payed tribute to Christian Nyby’s film with a few added easter eggs.

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So, however you can, either buying it, renting it, borrowing it, or streaming it, watch this movie! You will NOT be disappointed.