Tag Archives: The Thing

30 Days of Madness, Day 28 — Prince of Darkness (1987)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

princedarkness3

“Say goodbye to classical reality, because our logic collapses on the subatomic level into ghosts and shadows.”

Written & directed by John Carpenter.

Starring Donald Pleasence, Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper for about a minute, and a bunch of white people with bad hair.

In my last review of Christine, I lamented how unfairly forgotten and underrated it was compared to Carpenter’s other work. With Prince of Darkness, I get it.

The slow build toward apocalypse is good and tense (at least when Mustache McGee and Lady Hockey Hair aren’t making out and having inscrutable conversations), helped along by Carpenter’s soundtrack and the acting talents of Pleasence as a priest from a secretive Catholic sect and Victor Wong as an eccentric quantum physicist. But then about halfway through it kind of stalls and just plateaus. The freaky things that start happening are undercut by underreaction from characters almost across the board. It starts to crescendo again, but then there are weird scenes that go nowhere, leading to a pretty trifling “apocalyptic” climax. It doesn’t help that the screenplay’s grasp of theology is tenuous at best, so it all feels rather silly.

As with any Carpenter flick, a lot of the special effects are really well done, but the philosophy behind the homeless zombie horde was a bit insulting. Every homeless person in the vicinity of this parish immediately becomes part of a hive mind, but not the scientists or students, because, what, they have better brains and aren’t susceptible? Not until they get physically infected, anyway. There’s even a conversation about it when the physicist is comparing their behavior to that of the ants, which do have a hive mind, and the other bugs and creepy crawlers that start showing up. It just draws an uncomfortable parallel, as if the homeless are on the same plane as the other vermin. It’s not Carpenter’s most nuanced writing.

And that’s too bad, because the idea of crossing the usual Judeo-Christian religious traditions with quantum physics in an apocalyptic plot is unique, and would be fascinating, if the religious part of it was treated with as much respect as the physics part. If only the entire script was as good as that excellent line from Victor Wong’s character that I used at the beginning of this review.

I also said in my Christine review that this would fill the remaining gap in what I consider the “classic Carpenter” era–1976 through the 80s. That is, the era beginning with Assault on Precinct 13, which put him on the map and allowed him to make Halloween, which catapulted him to being one of the premiere directors in Hollywood working in the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres. Through the 80s, he made film after film that cemented him as a cult classic director.

I didn’t start watching R-rated horror and sci-fi until the late 90s. I was in high school, and Escape from L.A. was my introduction to Carpenter, though I didn’t know who he was at the time. I wasn’t even fully aware that it was a sequel. But I developed a kind of affection for that film and for Snake Plissken as a character. I had already been a fan of Kurt Russell. In college, I saw Vampires, and by the time I saw Ghosts of Mars I knew Carpenter’s reputation and had already begun familiarizing myself with The FogThe ThingStarman (which I’d seen part of as a child and was freaked out by it), Big Trouble in Little China (a personal favorite and a film that is more important than it gets credit for), They LiveHalloween, and the original Escape from New York. Unfortunately, Ghosts of Mars was a terrible movie, but I’d become a late-blooming Carpenter fan who figured it was just a case of a master filmmaker losing his edge.

Prince of Darkness isn’t the only film of his from his “classic” era that I’m not sold on. I’m pretty indifferent toward The Fog and found Assault on Precinct 13 too disturbingly violent to be enjoyable. (I just don’t need to see little kids getting gunned down in the street in what is essentially a basic action movie, though an important one. Even with something like City of God, I’d rather not watch that kind of thing.)

Nevertheless, I think Carpenter, even post-Ghosts, remains one the most fascinating and respectable filmmakers in history. Now I need to fill in the pre-Assault and early-90s gaps. And I’m especially interested now to see In the Mouth of Madness. I did not realize until today that it is the third in what Carpenter calls his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” after The Thing and Prince of Darkness. That is a fascinating trilogy of apocalyptic themes–one extra-terrestrial in nature, one mixing Judeo-Christian religious tradition with quantum physics, and the third an exercise in Lovecraftian horror.

Final grade for Prince of Darkness: C

My Flickchart ranking: #1629 (out of 3273, a relative 50/100)

30 Days of Madness, Day 27 — Christine (1983)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

christine

Directed by John Carpenter. Adapted by Bill Phillips from the novel by Stephen King.

Starring Keith Gordon, John Stockwell, Alexandra Paul; and a triumvirate of old-guy character actor royalty: Robert Prosky, Harry Dean Stanton, and Roberts Blossom. (And Kelly Preston.)

I don’t understand why Christine gets so little love. Carpenter’s direction, music, and special effects are as solid as ever. And any film that starts strong, first introducing the eponymous Plymouth Fury just as she’s coming off the assembly line in 1957 and then jumping to 1978 to establish a really interesting and rare best-friend relationship between a nerd and a jock (played well by Gordon and Stockwell, respectively); effectively keeps the suspense up for an hour and a half; and then ends strong on one of the best “or is it?” endings ever, deserves high praise.

My first thought is that, being released right after Carpenter’s masterpiece The ThingChristine could seem a bit of a let-down. But then I remember that The Thing was an even bigger critical and financial disappointment, whereas Christine doubled its budget, and, you know? Sometimes the world just doesn’t make sense. Where hindsight is concerned, Christine is unfortunately sandwiched between The Thing and Carpenter’s other masterpiece Starman.

Still, Christine deserves more praise and recognition. It’s a solid thriller. And it’s a solid thriller about a murderous car, AND teenagers. By all rights, it should have been terrible.

I’ll delve more into Carpenter’s body of work in my next review (because I’m watching Prince of Darkness next, which will fill in the last gap in my “classic Carpenter” viewing), but my only real final burning question about Christine is: What heterosexual man in his right mind would turn a blind eye to Kelly Preston? I found this to be the most fantastical aspect of the film.

Final grade: A

My Flickchart ranking: #511 (out of 3272,  a relative 84/100)

30 Days of Madness, Day 13 — Xtro (1982)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

xtro

I took several screencaps. I decided this one was the least likely to give anyone nightmares.

Directed, co-written, and scored by Harry Bromley Davenport, who has maybe the most British name of any horror director.

SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.

I remember reading about this film when I was a teenager, in an encyclopedia of movie monsters, if I remember right. I was both intrigued and horrified, and so has this film remained in my mind, a film I’ve long wanted to see yet felt hesitant about seeing. All of a sudden it was not only in the discussion for my horror viewing this month, but free for the viewing on YouTube.

Davenport must have fancied himself something of a John Carpenter. And if so, he’s done Carpenter proud as far as this film’s atmosphere and visual effects go. The effects are astounding–gruesome and bizarre as imagination will allow, but astounding. Scenes are blocked and edited extremely well, and I have to give credit to Davenport, cinematographer John Metcalfe, and editor Nicolas Gaster. They’ve crafted a hell of an alien horror flick.

Unfortunately Davenport’s Carpenter-esque synth-laden musical score is one of the worst I think that I’ve ever heard (the opening riffs sound like something from a Super Mario Bros. game but less nuanced), and the acting is often sub-par. The effects are right up there with Ridley Scott’s Alien of 1979 and Carpenter’s The Thing, released just months prior in 1982, but the story isn’t. In fact, I’m still not sure what the story is. A man disappears into a strange light and reappears three years later (and by reappears, I mean, crashes to earth, kills some people, impregnates a woman with a sort of ovipositor, and is then moments later born from that same woman as a full grown man–and yes, it is one of the most disgusting things I’ve ever seen in a horror flick).

The man finds his wife and son, who take him into their house against the better judgment of the boy’s surrogate father, who is a tool, of course, despite the fact that his misgivings are more than well-founded. Son catches dad eating his pet snake’s eggs and runs away. Dad chases him and injects something into him with his mouth. And that’s when things start to get weird.

About 45 minutes into this, which was already one of the stranger movies I’d seen, things took a really bizarre turn and just kept getting weirder. But this is where my spoilers end.

It can be fascinating to trace a film’s lineage, so to speak. Xtro was so clearly inspired by Alien, yet if you look at the design of that creature in the screencap above, you can see almost a prototype of Ripley’s “baby” from 1997′s Alien: Resurrection. I would not be surprised if Jean-Pierre Jeunet was inspired by Xtro when crafting the third sequel to the movie that inspired Xtro.  And so we are all connected in the great circle of cinema.

Final grade: C

My Flickchart ranking: #1894 (out of 3259, a relative 42/100)

A Buried Cinema review — They Live

By Tom Kapr

John Carpenter is one of my favorite writer/directors of science fiction, fantasy, and horror cinema. From 1978 to 1988, he made some of the best, most memorable, and most influential films of decadeHalloween was so influential that it popularized an obscure sub-genre of horror with which we are now are so regrettably familiar, the slasher film. Escape from New York was likewise instrumental in popularizing the dystopian anti-hero. Starman is one of the few films about a benevolent alien coming to earth that isn’t pure kiddie fare, and makes some of cinema’s most profound statements about humanity. Big Trouble in Little China had a firm hand in bringing kung fu into American movies. And then there is The Thing, arguably the greatest and scariest movie about a malevolent alien coming to Earth ever made.

There are two things you’ll see that are constants in John Carpenter’s classic thrillers. The first and more obvious of the two is his practical effects, which put to shame many of today’s films of the genre. The second is his pacing, which lets the tension build up slowly but steadily until all hell breaks loose. They Live is no exception.

 

 

The basic plot is that an alien race has taken over Earth through subliminal messages and live among us disguised as humans. On billboards, in magazines, on T.V., everywhere humans look, there are subliminal messages that say things like “obey,” “marry and procreate,” “watch T.V.,” and “stay asleep.” A drifter named Nada (played by Roddy Piper) gets ahold of an underground human resistance group’s special sunglasses, which allow him to see the aliens and their messages for what they truly are. In one of my favorite moments, he looks at the cash in a man’s hand and sees that what it really says is THIS IS YOUR GOD.

 

 

The alien effects are as basic but as effective as can be, and are trademark John Carpenter. And, in keeping with Carpenter’s patient pacing, we don’t actually see the aliens until about a half-hour into the film. It gives the audience time to become complacent with the world’s normalcy, much like the characters in the film. When Nada is assaulted by a couple of aliens disguised as police officers, he takes them out, then takes the fight to the alien leaders. The final half-hour is almost constant gunfire and very violent, but always moving the plot forward as Nada seeks to stop the signal that is keeping the city’s inhabitants blind to the truth.

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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…!”