The Thing, directed by John Carpenter

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Based on the John Campbell novella, “Who Goes There,” “The Thing” has a doozy of an alien monster, a gigantic, ancient UFO that crash-landed on Earth thousands of years ago, an isolated scientific research facility in Antarctica …and Kurt Russell in a sombrero.

There was so much that was great about this movie. Well, let me rephrase that — the monster in this movie was great. The Thing was an extraterrestrial lifeform that could assimilate other lifeforms and then imitate them so perfectly these imitations fooled the real people who’d known them for months. Once everyone realizes just how talented this creature is, paranoia sets in big-time. It could be any of us, says one of them. And they’re right.

The good things about this move (for real, this time) – the monster — special effects by Rob Bottin, with an extra-special appearance by Stan Winston on the dog-alien – superb. Since it could literally be anyone, or anything, Carpenter obviously had a lot of fun with it. My favorite monster-form is a toss-up between the head that sprouts spider legs and scurries off to hide, and the one that bites off the doctor’s arms in the middle of an autopsy of one of the victims.

I also loved the setting. I have some kind of “thing” about isolated Antarctic research stations – they just seem really creepy and very isolated to me. I can’t think of a worse place in the world to run into an alien monster, because if the monster doesn’t get you, the cold and snow will. (You know, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining reminded me a LOT of an Antarctic research station, especially once the snow started falling.)

What I didn’t love about the film – mostly Kurt Russell’s character, MacReady. This guy is supposed to be a helicopter pilot, and yet, as soon as things get a little crazy, his character takes charge and starts pushing everyone around. Also, in an attempt by the director to let us know MacReady is an alpha male, Carpenter dresses him in a leather bomber jacket and a sombrero. In Antarctica, where the average low temperature is – 59 degrees Fahrenheit. And MacReady wears that outfit pretty much through the whole movie. Sigh.

In a situation like that — because what if MacReady had tripped and broken his neck in the first scene, or something —  I expect there to be a leader of the scientific team, if not a couple of them, depending on what’s going on at the station. Nope. There is a sorta-military guy, the station commander, Garry. However, even though he has the only gun, he spends most of the movie looking lost and uncomfortable.

Which brings me to my next bitch. The cast of this movie was all guys (this was 1982, after all, before the invention of women scientists), and, except for Kurt Russell, they were all solid character actors. However, because of their backgrounds (character actors don’t get as much screen time as the lead actors do); these guys were weirdly stiff and constipated-looking. It was as if they weren’t used to having the camera trained on them for the entire movie. (Russell had been playing the “leading man” ever since his Disney days, so he was relatively “natural”.) Honestly, even for scientists, they were annoyingly grim and tongue-tied. If “socially-awkward nerd” was what these actors were going for, they kind of overshot the mark, in my opinion.

To sum up – the monster was terrific. The setting was good. The acting was sluggish. And the sombrero was stupid.

But go watch it anyway.

P.S. For all my near-sighted friends who said, “Gee, I didn’t even notice the hat…”

kr-thing-hp

 

“An American Werewolf in London,” written and directed by John Landis

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I just finished re-watching this movie from 1981, and I was frankly surprised by how well it’s held up. I was also glad to see, once again, the original version, and not the “sanitized for my protection” censored version that always pops up on TV this time of year.

The story is about two American college students on a backpacking tour of Europe, starting in England. Friends David Kessler (played by David Naughton) and Jack Goodman (played by Griffin Dunne) decide to stop in a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb, hoping for some hot food and friendly company on a dark and stormy night. They get neither, or course, and when they foolishly inquire about that strange pentagram carved in the wall, you can feel the temperature in the room drop about sixty degrees. Feeling unwanted, the boys head back out into the night, with only the ominous advice to “Watch out for the moon” and “Stay on the road” to send them on their way.

They wander off the road, as irresponsible American backpackers are wont to do, and get lost.  Then they get attacked by the monster on the moors – a werewolf. Jack Goodman is killed, but David Kessler escapes death when some of the men from the pub show up and shoot the werewolf. Kessler wakes up in a London hospital three weeks later, disoriented and telling a crazy tale about being attacked, not by “a lunatic” as the official police report says, but by a giant dog, or wolf. Oh, and he also starts getting visits from his old, dead friend, Jack.

Jack’s visits were some of my favorite parts of this movie. Even though he is a steadily deteriorating corpse, he always manages to say something funny.

The special effects in this movie — specifically the werewolf transformation scene, and Jack’s gradual slide into decay – won Academy Awards, and rightly so. Rick Baker’s work was awesome.

Special effect aside, however, my absolute favorite part of this movie was the soundtrack. Consisting of a bunch of rock and roll classics, all referring to the moon – Bobby Vinton’s “Blue Moon,” Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” – these tunes were a genius addition to the film. Where oh where, you ask, was Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London”? Nobody knows.

A couple of things about this movie that bugged me was the astonishingly naïve Nurse Price (played by Jenny Agutter) who, like an idiot, falls for her crazy patient and then brings him home once he’s out of the hospital.  Sigh. I expect that kind of reckless abandon from a doctor, but a nurse?

Speaking of doctors, I really, really, really disliked Kessler’s doctor, Dr. Hirsh, who was so patronizingly dismissive of the nurses at first. But then, for some reason, he decides to investigate Kessler’s story – even going to the trouble of visiting The Slaughtered Lamb on his day off – and suddenly, he’s a character I grow to like. He even treats Nurse Price like an equal (or at least a fellow human being) by the end.

One of the best throwaway bits in this movie involved that strange porno movie playing in the theater near the end where Kessler meets up with Jack again, and Jack has brought along some of Kessler’s werewolf victims from the previous night. The porno movie seems to be nothing but a bunch of sex and nudity interspersed with wrong number phone calls, and mistaken identity encounters. Hilarious.

This film was famous for being both funny and horrifying, and while it definitely was both of those things, it also felt a little abbreviated.   The ending was abrupt and unsatisfying, I thought.  Instead of some kind of closure, we’re treated to Kessler’s naked, bullet-riddled body lying in a London alley surrounded by his girlfriend and a British SWAT team. The End.

Really, John?

I kind of expected more from the guy who gave us “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, and the outstanding “Blues Brothers.” But what do I know?

“Alien,” directed by Ridley Scott

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Basically a monster movie set in space, this movie broke so many of the horror genre rules that audiences are still reeling.

The story is set far in the future. A commercial mining ship, called the Nostromo, is heading back to Earth after an unknown period of time. Its seven-member crew is in stasis until the ship receives a mysterious transmission, a possible distress signal, originating from a nearby planetoid. The ship’s computer, Mother, wakes up the crew. Per company policy they are required to investigate, so they land on the howlingly hostile surface, damaging their ship in the process. A few of the crew members – Dallas, Kane, and Lambert — head out to track down the source of the signal. They find a derelict alien ship that has crash landed nearby. Inside are the enormous remains of an alien pilot, its chest burst open from within.

Back on the Nostromo, Ripley has just figured out that the signal is a warning, not a plea for help. And around the same time, Kane discovers a huge chamber full of strange, alien eggs on the derelict ship. Dropping down into the mist-covered space to get a closer look, Kane is attacked by a creature that springs out of one of the eggs, dissolves the faceplate of his helmet, and attaches itself to his face, all in the space of about two seconds. Upon their return to the Nostromo, Kane and his rescuers are allowed back inside when another crew member, Ash, defies the quarantine rules.

From this point on, the crew of the Nostromo are pretty much screwed.

Oh, but what a lovely way to go.

First of all, the monster, a.k.a. the “alien”, is unlike any other monster we’ve ever seen – it is sleek, gorgeously alien, and sexy. This monster is no lumpy mess of mismatched parts; no giant furball bound to the phases of the moon as if caught in the world’s worst period; no social outcast with a weird lust for human body fluids — this creature is an artistic pairing of form with function. If it were a car it would be the 1956 Jaguar XK140.

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Combine this body with a kind of “molecular acid” for blood, and the Alien is nearly unstoppable. They don’t dare shoot it, or blow it up, because its acidic blood can, and will, go right through the hull of their ship. So what can they do to get rid of it? They decide to trap it and jettison it out into space.

And this is where things in horror-genre land start to get a little wobbly, because the heroic captain, Dallas, climbs into the ventilation system in an attempt to herd the alien into an airlock so they can blow it the hell into space … and he gets ambushed by the alien. And dies. Even worse, his next-in-command is Ripley, a woman. Who goes on to be the only survivor. What??

Believe me, in 1979, when this hit the theaters, you could literally hear the needle scratch across the cosmic record of reality. I mean, it was LOUD. For the first time ever, women in horror were not the stupid, annoying, half-naked victims, but the heroes.

The screenwriter of “Alien”, Dan O’Bannon said this about the movie:

“One thing that people are all disturbed about is sex… I said ‘That’s how I’m going to attack the audience; I’m going to attack them sexually. And I’m not going to go after the women in the audience, I’m going to attack the men. I am going to put in every image I can think of to make the men in the audience cross their legs. Homosexual oral rape, birth. The thing lays its eggs down your throat, the whole number.'”(1)

 Pair this level of evil intent, along with the best tagline ever — “In space no one can hear you scream”  — and you see why “Alien” is the best monster movie, ever.

 

  1. Dietle, David (January 2, 2011).“Alien: A Film Franchise Based Entirely on Rape”.CrackedArchived from the original on March 2, 2011. Retrieved October 10, 2016.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, by Max Brooks

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This is the story of the world’s first, and hopefully, only zombie holocaust. It’s a collection of private stories told by survivors about ten years after the initial viral outbreak that eventually brought the world to its knees. These stories are presented in an effort to “humanize” the events that were officially chronicled, and presented to the UN, by the researcher who collected them.

Brooks’ tale follows the unbelievable chain of events in roughly chronological order, from the beginning to the aftermath. Every personal story is like a brightly-colored skein of yarn, which the author ultimately fashions into a fascinating story-garment. From the Chinese doctor who stumbles across Patient Zero while on a house call in the middle of the night in a town that had no official existence; to the soldier who barely survived The Battle of Yonkers (in a classic example of a military clusterfuck); to the blind hibakusha who was saved from a zombie by a bear – we meet an international cross-section of survivors – good people, bad people, people “in the know” who should have known better, and people who did “know better” but who couldn’t seem to stay out of their own way (thinking here of that group of celebrities on Long Island who televised their nice, cozy sanctuary to the whole world, much to their eventual regret).

I loved so much about this story — the different voices, the realistic detail, and the clear-eyed gaze with which Brooks looks at his fellow human beings. I can honestly imagine every single horrible event he described actually happening – the guy who created and sold the false zombie vaccine, Phalanx? Definitely. The horribly jaded former White House Chief of Staff who belittled and minimized the early Israeli report on the outbreak, and then denied and covered up the mess when it hit America? Ditto. The illegal organ transplant doctor who helped the outbreak take root in South America by giving a wealthy patient a zombie-contaminated heart from China? Bitch, please.

However, for every realistically awful thing Brooks describes, he matches it with some realistically nice moments — like the Indian fisherman who rescued a struggling swimmer, and then refused to take any money from him; and the downed pilot who got “saved” by a voice on the radio that refused to let her quit. There were many others, too.

My point is, that Brooks’s story is an amazing, multi-layered, cleverly constructed bunch of bits that somehow manages to be one of those wholes which is greater than the sum of its parts. However, for the reader who wants to skim through the book in typical grad student fashion — gleaning the “important parts,” and getting the “gist of it” – this book will thwart you at every turn. It can be, and is, absolutely maddening that way.

I also loved the movie based on the book. And while very different in structure – the movie actually had a traditional story-line structure – it still managed to remain true to the book, while adding little bits of its own (scary-fast zombies, I’m looking at you).

It’s funny, but I read an interview with Max Brooks concerning this book, and its predecessor, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead. Mr. Brooks, son of immortal funny man, Mel Brooks, actually fears that the zombie apocalypse could really, really happen, and that he wrote these books as way of coping with that fear.

So whether you love it, or hate it (or think it might actually happen someday), it’s hard to deny that there are some real pearls in here.

 

Brooks, Max. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. Print.

 

“Night of the Living Dead,” directed by George Romero

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I chose the original 1968 version of this movie for two reasons – the original is almost always the best version, and it was free on “On Demand.”

A lot has been written about this movie since its release. It’s been called the “first-ever subversive horror movie”; critiquing   American society, the military, racism and our involvement in Vietnam (Wikipedia). And although it never used the word “zombie,” it launched the entire zombie media franchise that followed, continuing even up to the present.  Adults were appalled by the gore and utter nihilism of the film. Teenagers loved it for those very same reasons.

There were a number of things I liked about “Night of the Living Dead”. The monsters were mysterious in makeup and origin – what the hell were they, really? And where did they come from? The radio newscaster kept babbling, “They look like ordinary people. They look like us.” Which is apparently scarier than monsters that just look like, well, monsters. There was some vague attempt at explaining the reason behind what was happening – something about a radioactive space probe returning from Venus that was deliberately exploded in the Earth’s atmosphere once the radiation was detected. So, stray Venusian radiation gently wafting down to Earth causes zombie-ism. Who knew?

I also liked how the hero of this movie just happened to be a black man. Duane Jones, a former university professor, played Ben as a calm, resourceful and intelligent survivor.  The actor refused to play the role as it was originally written – Ben was supposed to be a simple, uneducated truck driver — so he re-wrote it. Talk about subversive!

I liked the zombies, which were called ghouls in the movie. They were not the full-fledged, foot-dragging, “Braiiiinnns”-moaning zombies we’ve all come to know and love, but the seeds are there. To me, Romero’s zombies looked more like stunned survivors of a nasty hit on the head than re-animated corpses, but they were chillingly relentless. Once they knew what you were (alive and tasty), and where you were (hiding in some silly, old car, or in an abandoned farmhouse), there was practically no stopping them. That was good and creepy.

However, I am sad to say all that monster-y goodness pales in comparison to the sexist depiction of Barbra. She was okay in the very beginning when she and her brother, Johnny, arrive at the cemetery for their annual visit to their father’s grave. Even when Johnny teases her with the iconic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbra,” she is sympathetic. After all, anyone can have their one thing that makes them just wimp out. That’s fine. Totally understandable. But why, oh why, does Barbra appear to lose her mind once Ben shows up? I didn’t time it exactly, but I estimate that, once he appears at the farmhouse (chased by zombies) and starts to barricade them both inside, Barbra spends the next twenty or so minutes silently falling apart. She can’t talk and she can’t help with anything useful. From then on, she’s just scared. And useless. And ridiculous. I hated her. I wanted to grab her and shake her until that stupid blonde wig fell off her head. The other women were almost as bad. The mom in the basement, Helen, was a cypher. The sick- daughter-turned-zombie, Karen, actually does something – she eats her father’s corpse, which is all kinds of crazy-Freudian.

Yes, I know it was only the Sixties – way too soon for kick-ass female characters to be appearing in movies – but honestly, George, while you were being all “subversive,” and hiring a black, male lead to head your otherwise all-white cast, would it have killed you to maybe think outside the box just a little bit more, and not make Barbra such a fucking dishrag?  dishrag

Sigh.

 

Sources:

Night of the Living Dead, from Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_of_the_Living_Dead. Accessed 5 October 2016.