All posts by idmp

Korean Cinema — Thirst

By Nathanael Griffis

Interesting fact: this poster was censored. The Korean versions are a little more scandalous.

I couldn’t keep myself away, so I watched another Korean film. Once again it has Kang-ho Song, and I liked it. I know you get it by now. I want to watch any film he’s ever been in, but nonetheless I’m still inclined to convince you that you must watch Thirst. Now, for those of you young kids who don’t remember and have been infected by Twilight, vampires are scary, bloodthirsty monsters. In recent years I’ve been frustrated to see vampire movies go one of two ways: either the teen-infused soap opera fable where some monsters are good and the original legend is desecrated, or poorly made horror films where vampires are thoughtless monsters (see Daybreakers, or don’t). Thirst stands so far above both these genres that it ranks up there with Interview with the Vampire, Dracula, Shadow of the Vampire, and Nosferatu.

What makes a good vampire movie is an examination of the basest of human desires amplified into some evil formative monster. What’s so fascinating about Thirst is the small twist of a religious priest becoming a vampire. Through an unfortunate blood transfusion, Priest Sang-hyeon (Kang-ho Song) becomes cursed/blessed as he turns into a vampire. His carnal lusts increase, but they start out small and slowly become out of control. At first he’s content with sucking the blood from a comatose man, but that doesn’t compare with freshly bitten blood. At first it’s enough only to gaze at his friend’s wife Tae-ju (Ok-bin Kim), but eventually he must have her. At first it was enough to live his life alone, but his hermitage isn’t as gratifying as having Tae-ju as his vampire bride.

This Vampire bite brought to you by Toshiba and Ethan Allen.

Thirst is another excellent film from writer/director Chan-wook Park. The camera is used wonderfully, and it has a strong sense of reality that adds to the horror. This idea of a realistic monster is hard to achieve and is so frequently missed, especially in vampire films. Twilight, True Blood, and the later Vampire Chronicles movies like Queen of the Damned all butcher this idea. It might look cool to make a vampire run real fast and seem to be a blur, but it takes away from the frightening aspect. It renders the monster too fantastic and therefore more distant. The vampires in Thirst start as humans, and struggle with their humanity throughout, and grow into monsters with only slightly altered powers (light also kills them, which is key, but it shouldn’t have to be). They can jump farther and heal quicker, but none of these things seem unrealistic, because Chan-wook Park doesn’t use CGI but wire effects, and it flows much better. It allows him a cleaner shot as well.

The shots are beautiful as always. Especially the stark contrast of the vampire’s white-washed lair that becomes blood-stained. Lit with halogen lights, it places vampires in the most unlikely of settings, a blisteringly bright room, and turns it into a horrific scene. The scenes in these white-lit rooms and houses signify the greater themes of the film. There’s a real sense of combating moralities and instincts–opposites collide and seemingly coalesce but are always in constant struggle. Park shows us that there is a darker side inside of us that can be unlocked, in this case by the monstrous vampire’s blood, that we’ll always have to contend with, but he never suggests we don’t have choice. Hope in this film is found when the priest decides to take control and finish the vampire problem.

This film is an amazing example of horror and how to make a monster movie. The performances are nuanced across the board. The images are disturbing, the gore is horrific, and sexuality serves the film rather than being abused by it; overall it’s an amazing look at monsters and the terrifying repressed nature of humanity. It’s scary to think that one could desire to become a vampire, but Thirst returns substance to the argument by making vampires truly frightening and morally complex. I highly recommend this movie, but with this caveat: it is full of gore and sex (to be expected in horror and vampire films), so it’s not for the faint of heart. So what do you guys think. What makes a good vampire film? What are good vampire films?

Okay, how do I explain this scene? They're sleeping, and the guy in the middle has a rock. Look, you had to be there.

The Old Toy Chest — Captain EO

By Tom Kapr

The Old Toy Chest: In this series, I review movies I loved when I was a kid but have not watched since childhood–sort of like digging out my old toys that I haven’t played with in a while. (Unburying them, so to speak, in keeping with prevailing themes on this site.) These movies are generally from the 80s and early 90s (the era of my childhood), and they generally are films with which current audiences (i.e., current kids) are not familiar. I will be critiquing them through both the nostalgic eyes of the child within and the lens of the mature *snicker* film critic into which I’ve grown. I hope many of you will remember these films with fondness from your own childhoods.

Having been born in the early 1980s, I simply can’t remember a time when Michael Jackson’s presence wasn’t everywhere (except for these past two years, of course). I wasn’t a fan; in fact, I wasn’t even allowed to listen to his music when I was a kid. My mother found him disgusting, what with all the crotch-grabbing and whatnot, but since we had a TV in the house (yep, just one), being influenced by the man and his music was inescapable even for a sheltered kid like me.

As an adult, I’ve developed an appreciation for Jackson’s work. I’m still not what you’d call a fan, but I love certain songs of his, like “Billie Jean,” “Rock with You,” and “Smooth Criminal.” I have Thriller in my library, and I appreciate that Jackson pioneered the long-form music video with the title track of that album. But to this day, I’ve always kind of thought of him as Captain EO.

That's not a special effect on Michael's shoulder. That's the idea fairy that would whisper into his ear and drive him to do things.

Captain EO was probably the only Michael Jackson product I was allowed by my parents (begrudgingly, I’m sure) to embrace as a child; after all, it was the cool new thing at Disney World’s EPCOT Center, and we were on vacation. Various Disney parks were the only places you could see the 17-minute short film — in the first example of “4D” (innovated by the film’s writer/producer Rusty Lemorande), in which the film is shot and exhibited in 3D and supplemented with in-theater effects to amplify the experience. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, with a score by James Horner and two new songs by Jackson, and featuring Anjelica Huston as the villainous Supreme Leader (though it’s never explained why the “leader” of the good guys is the villain), the film has a lot of pedigree.

I recently re-watched Captain EO, having seen it before only once in the 80′s. And I have to say… pedigree ain’t everything.

The film opens on a shot of a meteor spinning slowly through outer space toward the camera… IN 3D!!! Suddenly a laser blast reduces it to astro-dust and a quaint-looking spaceship flies into view. Once inside the ship, we find that it’s populated by various Muppet rejects. (This would have been a perfect venue for Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. However, the Jim Henson Company had nothing to do with the production. Captain EO was released as a Disney parks attraction in 1986; the Walt Disney Company did not acquire the Muppets until 1989. Two years later, they unveiled Muppet*Vision 3D at Disney-MGM Studios, which itself was only two years old. It was another example of the Disney Imagineers’ pioneering “4D” technology, and is overall a much better film experience than our current subject.)

These pseudo-Muppets make a lot of noise until they are silenced by the entrance of our hero — Captain EO himself. How this captain came to have such a strange crew of small aliens and robots is anyone’s guess. Captain EO immediate commands the room with his boyish, almost whining, “Listen!”

Clearly inspired by H.R. Giger's Alien design. Later inspired the design of the Borg Queen. And so we are all connected in the great circle of sci-fi.

Michael Jackson really looks like he’s trying hard to act, like he’s aware every second that he’s in a movie. Actually, it’s more like he looks like he’s constantly thinking, “Woohoo, I’m in a cool science fiction movie! The Star Wars guy is sitting right over there! Eee-heee!” then does a twirl, and throws his jacket off his shoulders and then flips it back on again — only, you know, in his head. In the meantime, he’s squeakily commanding his crew. The arrival of enemy craft trying to shoot them down only makes his voice squeakier. Michael Jackson’s squeak-singing always annoyed me, though he was a great singer underneath it all. His line-readings, however…

Commander Bog shows up on some sort of holographic intercom, and the actor playing him, Dick Shawn (himself known more as a singer), manages to ham it up with just his face more than Pauly Shore ever could with his entire body. Bog commands the crew to complete their mission: to locate some homing beacon, find the Supreme Leader (again, why they need to find their own leader is never explained), and give her some mysterious “gift.”

There’s some blatant Star Wars rip-off scenes (Lucas is one of the few who can rip off his own movies) as EO’s ship somehow manages to out-fly all the enemy ships and literally land on the homing beacon. To make a 17-minute story short, the crew is kidnapped by a bunch of stormtroopers in a junkyard and taken to the Supreme Leader, who lives in a dark industrial complex of some sort and turns out to be a spider-like woman who drops out of the ceiling like one of the Alien aliens and sentences EO to 100 years of torture and his crew to death.

EO finally unveils his “gift” — and it turns out his “gift” is an on-the-spot music video for “We Are Here to Change the World.” Michael Jackson’s — uh, I mean, Captain EO’s — sheer awesomeness is enough to turn the Supreme Leader’s troops into groovy background dancers. After some poorly choreographed tussles with some tougher bad guys, EO goes back to dancing and finally uses the power of song to turn the Supreme Leader into Anjelica Huston. The ugly industrial setting melts into a bland paradise not unlike the Mount Olympus of the old Clash of the Titans.

Michael's "gift" to the Supreme Leader -- and, as we are meant to believe, to the world.

And EO and his crew dance off into the sunset.

I imagine a lot of this was more impressive on a big screen with 3D glasses on and special effects literally moving through the theater, but just as a film, it’s really cheesy. It’s a glorified music video, and not one of Jackson’s better, which is a pity considering it’s directed by the man who gave us The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. And it has some of the trippiest imagery this side of a David Lynch film.

My recollection of seeing Captain EO as a little boy is a mix of wonder and embarrassment — leaning much more heavily toward the embarrassment, mostly as a result of all the lascivious dancing and my mother sitting right there disapproving. Plus, I have a vague memory of being a little uneasy over the appearance and tone of the Supreme Leader. I remember the whole thing being very dark in tone, but of course at the time I liked the annoying little not-Muppets. What can I say, I was a kid in the 80s — I thought neon-colored baggy pants and slap bracelets were awesome.

Captain EO may not be a good film, but it does deserve to be remembered as a unique pop culture artifact. It’s definitely representative of its time and place, for better or worse. And though it is not currently available in any official capacity for home viewing, you can watch it in its entirety (albeit in boring old 2D) here.

Still hard to believe these three ever sat in a room together.

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10 reasons why I’m looking forward to September (part 2)

By Tom Kapr

In part 1, I wrote about seven films being released in September that should be getting wide release, but there are three more films I’m looking forward to next month that are listed as getting a limited release–meaning I’m not sure if they’ll be coming to a theater near enough for me to go see them, or if they do, when exactly that will be.

Nevertheless, here are the three limited releases to round out my 10 reasons:

Director Gus Van Sant’s new film Restless is getting a limited release on September 16. The IMDb’s synopsis reads, “The story of a terminally ill teenage girl who falls for a boy who likes to attend funerals and their encounters with the ghost of a Japanese kamikaze pilot from WWII.” Come on, that plot sounds fantastic. And that teenage girl is played by Mia Wasikowska, who after her phenomenal performances in The Kids Are All Right and Jane Eyre is one of my favorite newcomers. (She was also one of the better ingredients in Tim Burton’s misguided Alice in Wonderland.)

The other two films get their limited releases on September 30: writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter and Eli Craig’s Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon plays a family man who starts seeing visions of the apocalypse, but doesn’t know whether they are real portents of things to come from which he must protect his family–or if he himself is the impending threat to his wife and children. Another of my favorite up-and-coming actresses, Jessica Chastain, co-stars. (I recently saw her in The Help and The Tree of Life, and she was amazing in both films. I’m hoping she gets an acting nomination this season for The Tree of Life. I hope the same for Mia Wasikowska for her Jane Eyre performance.)

This final film on my list not only has one of the best titles ever, but has a premise that excites me more than maybe any other for this month. Tucker & Dale vs. Evil stars Tyler Labine, Alan Tudyk, and Katrina Bowden, known for their characters on the TV shows Reaper, Firefly, and 30 Rock, respectively. Now here is the premise from IMDb: “Tucker & Dale are on vacation at their dilapidated mountain cabin when they are attacked by a group of preppy college kids,” turning the entire genre on its head. I love it already. Add Alan Tudyk to anything, and you automatically make it better (he had the one truly inspired comedic moment in Transformers: Dark of the Moon); and it will be fun to see Katrina Bowden out of her 30 Rock short-shorts (that sounded better before I wrote it) and in a different setting where she can show off her comic timing.

So there are 10 reasons why I’m looking forward to going to the movies next month. The Rant Pad will be back on its regular schedule come September, with Steve’s articles appearing on Mondays (he’ll be into the home stretch of his apocalyptic film series), Nate’s appearing on Wednesdays (he’ll be continuing with his series on adaptations), and my own articles appearing on Fridays. I’ll be starting a new series called “The Old Toy Chest,” where I’ll be looking at movies that I haven’t seen since I was a kid that had a big influence on my childhood. Also look for more Buried Cinema articles, and possibly more reviews of terrible horror movies (though nothing on the scale of what I did last October).

Thanks for reading!

10 reasons why I’m looking forward to September (part 1)

By Tom Kapr

On September 2, sci-fi thriller Apollo 18 finally will be released. This “found footage” film about the “truth” of NASA’s moon expeditions has been pushed back a few times since it was originally slated for release this past March. Truly good found footage films are rare since the genre essentially began with The Blair Witch Project back in 1999 (Cloverfield is a towering exception, and Paranormal Activity is not too far behind), but I am always drawn to the genre for its pure visceral experience. Here’s hoping for a good one–in space.

September 9 sees the release of the newest team-up between director Steven Soderbergh and headliner Matt Damon. The premise of Contagion is nothing new–the threat of a potential deadly worldwide pandemic (see Wolfgang Peterson’s Outbreak or any number of much cheaper films)–but it’s never been done with Soderbergh’s personal style or with a cast that includes Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, Laurence Fishburne, and John Hawkes. The trailer gives away one of the film’s most shocking moments, but somehow it only makes me want to see this more.

September 16 has what is possibly the most exciting film of the month. The plot of Drive may sound like a Jason Statham film–”A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong” according to the film’s IMDb page–but the director is a well-respected if not well-known creator of some gritty, intense films; and the cast is headed up by Ryan Gosling, one of the most interesting and exciting actors of the past decade. Christina Hendricks, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Carey Mulligan, Oscar Isaac, Albert Brooks–this is an amazing cast. This could be the indie film to put to shame most Hollywood action-thrillers. And it already has a rating of 9.0 from more than 1,200 viewers on the IMDb. I cannot wait for this film.

September 23 has yet another exciting, low-profile action film in Machine Gun Preacher, which at first sounds ridiculous until you realize that it is a biographical account of, again according to IMDb, “Sam Childers, a former drug-dealing biker tough guy who found God and became a crusader for hundreds of Sudanese children who’ve been forced to become soldiers.” And that it’s directed by Marc freaking Forster, whose every film is a complete departure from the last and has a track record of quality that any director would kill for, including Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland, Stranger Than Fiction, The Kite Runner, and Quantum of Solace. Lead Gerard Butler could finally break free from his own less than stellar record.

Also being released on 9/23 is a more family-friendly film, but one that could actually be really good. Charles Martin Smith directs Morgan Freeman in Dolphin Tale in “a story centered on the friendship between a boy and a dolphin whose tail was lost in a crab trap” (IMDb). I’m looking forward to seeing a well-made inspirational tale. Plus, dolphins are awesome.

September 30 also has two major releases I’m having trouble choosing between, in terms of which I’d rather see. One is 50/50, a comedy/drama in which Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character deals with his cancer diagnosis with the help of his friend, played by Seth Rogen. With talented beauties Bryce Dallas Howard and Anna Kendrick in the mix, and the reliable presence of Anjelica Huston, this is a cast I am truly anticipating.

On the other hand, In America director Jim Sheridan directs Daniel Craig, Naomi Watts, and Rachel Weisz in a mystery-thriller about a family that moves into a house with a violent past. Dream House is not a horror, but has potential to be truly horrifying in its more down-to-earth mystery plot.

In a couple days, I will write about limited releases Restless, Take Shelter, and the delightful-sounding Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.



Classic Adaptations — Pride & Prejudice vs. The Count of Monte Cristo

By Nathanael Griffis

The classic adaptation: making every student’s life easier and every teacher’s life more frustrating. A movie will never be able to capture the grace and complexity of Austen or Dumas, but they try anyway. It’s a wonderful way to be introduced to a story, or to see a visual interpretation of a story, and frequently they turn out alright, because their source material is hard to ruin (watch out for the upcoming Three Musketeers in 3D, though).  For this installment of my series I’ll focus on the importance of theme and conciseness, two aspects that I think are crucial to adapting a classic work.

Pride & Prejudice

Keira Knightley couldn't help but think of Colin Firth while kissing Matthew Macfadyen.

Joe Wright had worked in television for three or four years directing miniseries when either presumption or genius inspired him to adapt Pride & Prejudice as his first feature film. Naturally Universal and Focus Features said sure, because people will watch a Pride & Prejudice movie no matter what. You must remember, this is a story so beloved that it inspires meta-fiction and continuation novels even today. Then in 2005, Joe Wright delivered a perfect example of a classic adaptation. The key to an adaptation is to balance cutting and keeping. Basically, it’s the world’s toughest editing job. You will not please everyone, and some people may bemoan the loss of this or that character, but if you can capture the theme and character of a 500-page book in a two-hour span, you’re successful. This is exactly what Joe Wright and screenwriter Deborah Moggach did.

Austen’s plotlines are nothing special. There are no surprise twists or turns. She writes deep, relatable characters into a relatable situation and taps into our desire for acceptance and love as the plot unfolds. The real charm of the 2005 version is in its somewhat modern take on theme and character. For example, versus the much-lauded 1995 BBC version, Elizabeth Bennett’s fiery independence is more focused on and played up in this version. The 1995 version is more accurate, and more capable of accuracy because of its longer running time, but less effective because, to be honest, Elizabeth Bennett is not as relatable in the 2005 version. Much of this should be attributed to Keira Knightley’s amazing Oscar-worthy performance; she somehow managed to combine Victorian morals with modern sensibilities and philosophies realistically. We don’t question her strange behavior or refusal to be controlled by social norms, because Knightley’s performance is so honest and believable.

Elizabeth Bennet as the focus is what makes this version so wonderful. The main flaw with the BBC version is that Darcy overshadows everything, making a wonderful female-character-driven novel into a patriarchal story. Part of that is Colin Firth’s fault for being so good, but the other part is a lack of understanding of theme. Joe Wright knew he had to focus on characters recognizing their inherent flaws and inability to look past the surface of a person to create a genuine film. The love story is an amazing process to see unfold. It’s not in an immediate twinkling of an eye or a dance at a ball. Jane Austen tapped into the very heart of love. It has no prejudice and it humbles human beings to become vulnerable, but it doesn’t happen magically or immediately. A lot from the novel is cut (the running time is barely over two hours), but these basic themes are kept and drive the film. The cinematography and art direction are astounding, the script is succinct, and the supporting cast is wonderful.

What’s interesting is that I could say these same things about The Count of Monte Cristo. So why is it a bad adaptation?

Jim Caviezel being a jerk and refusing to help Richard Harris dig out of prison.

The Count of Monte Cristo

For all intents and purposes, I enjoy The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s an exciting period-piece revenge-thriller. I’m breaking my own rule here about separating the source material from the adapted material, but so be it. I understand this movie can be enjoyed and even seen as a good movie; but it is not a good adaptation. Remember what I said about theme and conciseness? A good classic adaptation captures the entirety of a novel because it keeps the central themes central to the film. This adaptation, I suspect, is based on the SparkNotes. I get the feeling director Kevin Reynolds knows that Edmond Dantès gets wrongly imprisoned, escapes, finds treasures, changes his identity, and kills those who imprisoned him. What he misses is the implications of what revenge does to a human being. If you’ve seen the movie, you might be left at the end with a sour distaste for Dantès, and you might think that revenge is a bad thing and does more damage than good, but this is little more than a theme of any revenge thriller.

The movie takes more from other Hollywood films than it does the book. Stars Jim Caviezel, Guy Pearce, and Richard Harris are amazing. Luis Guzmán turns an amazing character into a comic relief waste. What they miss, and spoiler alert here, is the complexity of everything Dumas presents in the novel. The prison sequence is maybe 90 pages, for starters; in a 1000-plus-page book, it’s barely a blip. In the film it’s a major focus–a good sequence, but basically a training montage. We see hints of Dantès’ obsession with revenge and his ability to plot, but what we miss is that he is more consumed with revenge than a desire to get his wife and daughter back. Dumas in his novel is trying to show us that revenge becomes the primary concern for a man bent on it. Dantès does drive his wife and his son away in the book, because he’s obsessed with achieving the gratification of his plan. It’s a deep look at the self and what it means to be a damaged man, and what happens when one tries to repair that.

Even more than this, though, Dantès is obsessed with violence in the book. I’ll never forget the scene where he watches two men in a knife fight and takes pleasure in the slow gruesome death of the loser. Revenge drives a person towards violence and away from others. In the movie we see the drive towards violence certainly, as Dantès kills Fernand Mondego (Guy Pearce) at the end, which is different from the darker ending of the book where Dantès drives Mondego to kill himself because he takes more pleasure in Mondego’s suicide than in murder. In the film he gets what he wants and revenge wins. In other words, vengeance is seen as having some consequences, but it’s an okay response that will give you what you want and desire. This goes against the Dumas novel entirely. If it weren’t for the existence of the novel, The Count of Monte Cristo would be a fun, enjoyable revenge thriller–but it shouldn’t been merely that.

Next I’ll be looking at modern updates of classic literature with 10 Things I Hate About You and Clueless.

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Scary Movie Alien Countdown: The #1 Scariest Movie Alien of All Time

By Tom Kapr

We finally made it to the end of the countdown. Here, after a quick recap of the other films discussed in this series, is my “Number 1 Scariest Movie Alien of All Time.” Watch and enjoy.

#10. Battle Los Angeles (2011)

#9. The Blob (1958, 1988)

#8. Star Trek: First Contact (1996)

#7. Star Wars Episodes IV & VI (1977, 1983)

#6. Predator (1987)

#5. War of the Worlds (2005)

#4. The Thing (1982)

#3. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978)

#2. The Alien series (1979, 1986, 1997)


Scary Movie Alien Countdown #2: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

By Tom Kapr

You’re investigating a shipwreck. You find a strange egg. As you’re examining the egg, it begins to hatch. Suddenly, a crablike creature jumps out and latches itself to your face. It sticks an ovipositor down your throat.

You’re in a coma. You wake up. The creature that had attached to your face has fallen off. It appears dead. Aside from a sore throat, you feel remarkably fine.

Until dinner, when you start to feel a strange feeling in your chest. It begins to hurt. It hurts a lot. The pain is unbearable. You feel like your being stabbed from the inside. Finally, your ribcage bursts and the young creature that has been lain inside you for gestation erupts.

You’re the first victim. The rest will meet their deaths at the jaws, claws, and deadly acidic blood of the full-grown beast.

It is no wonder that H.R. Giger’s xenomorph from Alien is the single most terrifying extraterrestrial being ever put on film. Nor is it a wonder that screenwriter Dan O’Bannen and director Ridley Scott’s 1979 outer-space horror flick is the single greatest haunted house movie ever, and is consistently at the top of the list when discussing alien horror.

One would be remiss not to include in the same discussion James Cameron’s action-packed 1986 sequel Aliens, which pitted sole human survivor of the first film Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and a platoon of Marines against an entire colony of the vicious xenomorphic parasites (meaning they take on certain morphological characteristics of the living creatures in which they are impregnated). It also introduced the aliens’ mommy, in one of the most effective third-act reveals ever. And of course, it ends with the iconic mano a mano battle between one very pissed-off Ripley and one very pissed-off alien queen.

Later incarnations of the Alien xenomorphs are equally terrifying, though the films they inhabit are less iconic and of lesser quality (though writer Joss Whedon and director Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Alien: Resurrection is underrated, for its style, its story, and the direction in which it takes the concept of the xenomorphs).

So what is the #1 scariest movie alien of all time?….

The Basic Adaptation: Holes vs. The Golden Compass

By Nathanael Griffis

If a book does well enough that it becomes known by a sizeable amount of people, there starts to be talks of a movie, because fans of the book will see the movie almost without any discernment. I know I did with The Golden Compass. A book’s success peaks the curiosity of a reader. Will it make a good movie? The script is basically half written, and if you’re lucky you might have the author on hand to write it anyway. This is the basic adaptation. People like the book; why not tell the story on the screen. Things will have to be changed for sure, but who cares? It’s not like movie audiences complain.

In recent years there has been a binge of turning young adult fiction into movies, so much so that not everything even makes it to the theaters. (For example, see Rob Reiner’s Flipped, which is a decent movie based on a decent book.) Sometimes this gives us wonderful tales that translate well to the screen, surprisingly so, like Holes; and other times we’re left bitterly disappointed with The Golden Compass.

Sigourney Weaver as the Warden, Jon Voight as Mr. Sir, and Shia LeBeouf as Stanley Yelnats.


As I rewatched this movie, and reread the book, which is an easy read for anyone who has two days to kill, I was amazed that this movie was done so well. The cast is definitely part of it, but to rest the movie on the young, mostly untested shoulders of Shia LaBeouf was daring. Of course, Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight, Patricia Arquette, and Tim Blake Nelson help out greatly. They also get top billing, and are the main cast draws of the film. Strangely enough, director Andrew Davis broke out of the action-thriller genre (he made The Fugitive and a few Steven Seagal movies) to make a mature family mystery movie. The true genius here is that they hired Loius Sachar, who stretched his writing muscles and adapted his own novel into a screenplay.

Hiring the author probably helped in numerous ways, but the greatest is probably that the adaptation could remain in the same vein and spirit as the book, but change it to best fit a visual style. There are numerous changes made, but it would be hard to notice them if, say, you hadn’t just finished reading the book a day ago. Sachar actually adds more visually humorous scenes and a few jokes are more played up. The beginning is smartly different and shows that Sachar understands film as a visual medium. In the book the first three chapters are basically exposition, but are told with such a whimsical style that they’re engaging. The movie opens on an image of a boy willing being bitten by a rattlesnake to escape Camp Green Lake. The opening three chapters do get included later on in the movie, but Sachar recognized that he had to engage his audience visually first, and a rattlesnake bite does this.

Don't dig and drive, kids.

With three interweaving narratives, numerous characters with complex back stories, and a strange mystery like few others that deals with racism, selfishness, and society’s response to crime, it’s amazing that this film is so compact and successful. No shot is wasted, no line of dialogue unnecessary. The first scene with Jon Voight’s “Mr. Sir,” (one of the best names ever, by the way) is a perfect example. Stanley (LeBeouf) learns that Mr. Sir has a frozen scowl on his face, used to drink, and considers Stanley worthless. We also learn of the Warden. We don’t see her till about the middle of the film, but her presence lingers in every scene as the threat that controls the boys. As a film, it has enough depth for parents, enough mystery and action for teenagers, enough thematic depth for the pretentious filmophile, and plenty of fart jokes for the wee little ones–a perfect example of a basic adaptation done right.

The Golden Compass

Holes is a beloved Newberry Award-winning classic. The Golden Compass is also a widely beloved classic. More dense than Holes to be certain, The Golden Compass is a lofty book to adapt, but they accomplished a similar feat with The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, so why not? What is frequently so frustrating about a bad adaptation is that while you’re watching you’re saying to yourself, why’d they change that? Why not do it this way? For the majority of this film, with the only exception being the polar bear fight near the end, I was shaking my head with those exact questions. Gone is all the mystery, the grandeur, and even the controversial themes. There was no reason to get mad about the atheistic world view of the book when this movie was released, because it’s all but whitewashed out here. Dust might as well be dust, because there’s no real examination of original sin or free will involved in the mystical concept. Dust is just pretty CGI stuff, and you can cut or something with a pretty CGI laser thingy.

This is Nicole Kidman: She can stare with menace, touch railings seductively, and has breasts.

The main problems seems to be twofold. The movie tries to cram everything in and moves at such a breakneck pace that the mystery never has time to settle and intrigue us. If you hadn’t read the book, you’d wonder every 15 minutes who this new character is and why you should care. They also take the Hollywood way out and think action means story. The action is mundane at best, too choreographed and constrained to be exciting.

The movie is well cast but poorly acted. Sam Elliot seems to be just abusing his awesome accent. Nicole Kidman is showing off her bosom. Eva Green wants to do something more, but showing off her bosom as well seems to work. Ian McKellen as a voice actor imbues little might into Iorek the fearsome polar bear warrior. It’s as if he did the entire script in a few takes. Only Daniel Craig comes out unscathed, mostly because he’s not in the film much. As for the child actors–if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

For all the controversy this film stirred up, it fell flat and incapable of delivering any substance to back it up. There is no sense of pace or transition. They took the bare bones of the story and presented it thinking that would do, but that’s not enough. You have to understand that film is very different from the page, and the two art forms require reshaping. They should have changed more, rearranged more, and focused in on character and presentation with more strength. Don’t ditch the complex theology and themes, or you’ll lose what captivated readers in the first place. And finally, when you have an astounding cliffhanger that changes your perception of everything in a book, and you choose to cut it out of the movie, your film deserves to fail. The ending of The Golden Compass was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever read. I literally had to pick up The Subtle Knife immediately and start to read it. So naturally it makes sense to ignore this and end on a boring fade into the sunset that is disgustingly pedestrian.

Next I’ll tell you why Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is amazing, and why The Count of Monte Cristo would be good if only it weren’t based on a book, when I discuss classic period piece adaptations.

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #3: “They’re here already! You’re next!”

By Tom Kapr

The “they” referred to in Dr. Miles J. Bennell’s infamous rant are, of course, the emotionless pod people of the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, remade as another classic, to even greater effect, in the 1978 version. I wrote about these two films once before, for Day 17 of my 30 Days of Madness series this past October; the following is an amended version of my earlier article.

They really just want us to get our roughage.

Jack Finney’s novel The Body Snatchers, which started as a serial in Collier’s Weekly in 1954, has been adapted to film four times: first in 1956 by screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (who also wrote the 1947 film noir classic Out of the Past) and director Don Siegel (the man behind the iconic 1971 Clint Eastwood crime-thriller Dirty Harry as well as John Wayne’s 1976 swan song The Shootist); second, in 1978 by screenwriter W.D. Richter (who also wrote one of my favorite camp comedies, Big Trouble in Little China) and director Philip Kaufman; third, in director Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers in 1993; and most recently, in The Invasion of 2007.

The 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a brilliant exercise in McCarthy-era paranoia (Joseph, not Kevin). The 1978 version is just as brilliant a horror film but with a less optimistic outlook on the future of the human race, replacing McCarthy-era paranoia with post-Watergate paranoia and adding a healthy dose of public health-focused parallelism. It is rare for both an original film and its remake to be so high and so close in quality (though this is the second time on this list that it’s happened).

The 1978 version is more committed to its concept, however–that concept being that a life form from outer space comes to Earth and spreads in the form of pods that grow another version of you that replace you while you sleep, another being that is identical to you in every way and even retains your memories. Much like in The Thing, it is an alien life form that assimilates your human form, but the difference is that this alien is not malicious. In fact, this alien has no feelings whatsoever. The alien in The Thing would kill you and then camouflage itself as you. The Body Snatchers invade under the pretense that they are making a better you. A you with no emotions and therefore no pain, no anger, no jealousy, no war, no maliciousness; no passion, no joy, no elation, no compassion, no love. I can think of no more frightening an invasion than one that would replace us all with unfeeling replicas, and in fact, Invasion of the Body Snatchers of 1978 may be the scariest alien invasion film of all time. (Yet there are two more spots left on this list….)

1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also has the bonus of some absolutely astounding practical visual effects that, again much like The Thing, still hold up against anything released today. It contains some of the creepiest images ever created, and possibly the single most terrifying final scene in movie history. Watch it if you dare. But don’t fall asleep….

Next on the countdown: “I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”

Scary Movie Alien Countdown #4: “Nobody trusts anybody now… there’s nothing more I can do….”

By Tom Kapr

(Spoilers ahead….)

In the opening scenes of John Carpenter’s The Thing, two men in a helicopter are chasing a husky through the Antarctic wilderness, shooting at it with a rifle and lobbing grenades at it. When I first saw this film, my initial reaction to this introduction was one of disgust toward the men in the helicopter, and some hesitation about the film in general. I have a deep and abiding love for dogs, and something approaching a deep and abiding hatred toward anyone who would commit senseless acts of violence against dogs. In cinematic terms, I tend to hate movies that show dogs meeting gruesome or violent deaths. For example, I hate Tony Scott’s film Revenge, in part because it is a silly film, but mostly because of a graphic close-up of the “hero’s” yellow lab being blown away with a shotgun, a consequence of his affair with the wife of a mobster (the “hero’s” affair, not the dog’s). (On the other hand, I am a sucker for Independence Day and always get a thrill from that ridiculous slow-motion shot of Boomer the golden retriever jumping to safety just in the nick of time as a fireball roars past behind him.)

Doggone aliens, always trying to invade Earth and whatnot....

So, getting back to my inaugural viewing of The Thing, when the husky reached the American scientific research compound and Donald Moffat’s character blew the rifleman’s eye out with his pistol, in effect saving the life of the dog, I felt relief. The dog was safe. (A man was dead, but we can save a discussion of the moral implications of valuing the life of a dog over that of human being, however despicable, for another time.) It is not until twenty minutes later that we learn the truth, in the kennel, as the mysterious husky’s face suddenly splits open, revealing the true nature of the beast beneath, and an entire team of huskies has to suffer the consequences; the truth, that our heroes have quashed what was in fact a last-ditch, desperate attempt by the now-pitiable, eyeless-and-dead rifleman to stop a violent and cunning alien life form from further invasion of our planet.

Kurt Russell and company spend the remainder of the film wondering who is still human and who might be the alien in disguise. The Thing is unquestionably the masterpiece of John Carpenter’s science fiction filmography, a perfect blend of alien terror, body horror, and psychological suspense as the characters try not to turn on each other while knowing that no one can trust anyone, because anyone could be the monster. And this monster is one of the best in history, terrifying in both idea and execution. The creature effects, created and designed by Rob Bottin (with a crew that included the late great Stan Winston), still hold up after nearly three decades, putting to shame most current science fiction films and all their computer-generated imagery. Truly great practical, or in-camera, effects will almost always outlast CGI, which, even when done well, usually has an aura of un-reality about it.

I can sum up the horror of the monster in The Thing in one sentence: Nothing in cinema ever was or ever will be quite like a human head scurrying across the floor on spider legs.

My migraines, personified.

On a final note, the “husky” in the beginning of the film is one of the best performances by a dog in the history of movies. Played by Malamute-Wolf mix Jed (who also starred in The Journey of Natty Gann and White Fang), every movement seems deliberate, every facial expression full of thought and meaning. The human cast is fine, and Kurt Russell is one of the greatest, but performance-wise, Jed steals the show. Rest in peace, Jed (1977-1995).

Next on the countdown: “They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next, you’re next…!”