Category Archives: A Writer’s Take on Movies

Because I watch more TV than someone who wants to write books for a living should.

Movies that Warped Me

It takes a lot to disturb me. That’s not a macho thing, just a bare fact. I’m generally pretty numb to intensity in film. That being said, there have been a few movies in the day that, for one reason or another, fucked my shit up. Sometimes the movie’s just that scary; other times something was touched on that was personal for me.

The following films, in no particular order, all share a single, common trait: they, for whatever reason, all caused me to sleep for at least one night with a light on, when I was younger and more fearful of the dark things that creep in shadow.

Enjoy.

  1. The Exorcist – If you’re tempted to say “But the Exorcist wasn’t scary!” then stop right now, because you’re clearly a liar, and you’ve completely compromised your reliability. “The Exorcist” is horrifying, and a solid example of a truly timeless movie. The themes it covers – faith, love, commitment, struggle – still resonate heavily, forty years after its premiere, and the film’s intelligent exploration of supernatural themes has yet to be surpassed in terms of quality. Plus, JESUS CHRIST; Demon Regan is still one of the all-time creepiest images ever committed to celluloid. The head-turning scene – the first one, I mean, when the demon traps the mother in the room with her possessed daughter – left me terrified of the darkness in the largely empty theater I was watching it in. Later, during a jump scene, a few girls in back screamed, and I’ve never been more relieved to hear screams in my life.
  2. The Evil Dead – The cartoony and hilarious sequels sometimes make people forget how bone-chillingly terrifying the first film is. Halfway in, the characters are whittled down to just one man, ALONE, in a cabin, in an entire FOREST, trapped in a spot of light amid an ocean of isolated darkness, completely cut off from any form of help. Trapped, as the corpses of his friends rise, possessed by hellish demons intent on shredding his flesh, destroying his sanity, and damning his soul. The stark darkness of the film and its overall theme – that “everything dies,” to quote star Bruce Campbell – is harrowing, and no comfort or resilience comes from re-watching it, no matter how many times you restart the DVD.
  3. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – A film that reputedly left some viewers in a state of shock after seeing it, and I can understand why. One is left feeling like they’re watching a horrible carnival of depravity as the family of grave-robbing, cannibalistic murderers butcher and consume the young kids who wander onto their property. The true disturbance comes from realizing that this is a sustained sickness, that this depravity has gone on so long that the family has not only normalized it, but actively endorse the vileness with perverse pride and false virtue. The movie has a peculiar quality of realism to it, as though this is a horror that one has every possibility of stumbling upon while going about the errands of their day, in small town America.
  4. Child’s Play – CHUCKY. I was mortally afraid of this little goblin until I was thirteen, and even now, his image still elicits a certain amount of nervousness in me. The little bastard has the creepiest face imaginable. And save your bravado; for all your talk about how you’d handle a doll-sized psychopath, you’re likely to keep that knife of his in the forefront of your mind as he maniacally swings it in front of himself, slashing madly at your legs, lopping off fingers as you vainly try to defend yourself. And as the knife goes into you, again and again, that freakish, sneering, wild-eyed face will be the last horrible thing you’ll see before you finally close your eyes.
  5. The Innkeepers – An initially light and disarmingly engrossing movie, “The Innkeepers” starts out as light entertainment, as you meet the main character and her coworker, two employees of a hotel that is slowly preparing to shut down. The first half of the film has quirky character development and engaging humor that borders on gentle comedy – and it leaves you completely unprepared for the fear that comes in the second half. Initially the film revels in everything that makes the idea of ghost hunting so intriguing for most people, and then shifts the tone from our fascination with ghosts towards our deeper feelings of horror about them. The effectiveness comes because the film knows exactly how to come after you: by showcasing virtually every dark, horrific scenario that’s ever run through your mind when you’re somewhere dark and alone. The exact nightmare images that run through your mind in those moments play out onscreen, driving a white-hot lightning bolt of recognition through your screaming subconscious.
  6. The Silent House – Forget the fuck-awful American remake. This astonishingly-filmed Uruguayan horror movie will imprison you in whatever bed or chair you watch it from until daybreak. Filmed in one continuous take, by a cameraman named Pedro Lopez (who is able to play his camera like a goddamned flute), the film opens as a father and daughter prepare to spend the night in an old, neglected house, which they intend to fix up for sale. Quickly the girl is cut off from her father and his friend, as whatever dark presence shares the home with them begins to stalk her through shadowed rooms haunted with memory. The Silent House is terrifying, heartbreaking, and breathtaking, and the final image will leave you doubting your own perception of the world.
  7. The Amityville Horror – Though the legendary ghost story is now largely considered falsified, the story itself, taken as fiction, is still terrifying. The themes alone that it explored were unsettling – families turning against one another, the perceived invasion of family units by step-parents, the disconnect between parents and their children, the helplessness of parents to protect their brood from forces greater than themselves – these are deep and cutting themes that strike us on a basic, instinctive level. The film’s RIDICULOUSLY unnerving soundtrack added to the tension, and just hearing it from the other room is enough to make you want to check the shadows with a flashlight. The windowsill hand-smashing scene is cringe-inducing, and the youngest daughter’s friendship with “Jodi” is chilling, as the actions the girl says her imaginary friend encourages grow more and more destructive. And during the film’s climax, as George Lutz fights to save family and dog from the evil presence of the house, the stare of a demonic pig – “Jodi” – drives home how truly unholy the forces at work against the family are.
  8. The Silence of the Lambs – The entire film is a tour de force into the rotten core of human depravity, and it’s brilliantly done. From the unflinching portrayal of the inhuman patients Dr. Lector shares his confinement with – and none of them are human, not anymore – to the shock-inducing scenes of Buffalo Bill’s psycho-sexual torture and madness, one scene truly stood out for me, and drove home the depth of evil that Clarice Starling was up against, from both sides: as she investigates an abandoned storage unit, and opens a long-unused car, she discovers, impeccably preserved, a human head, casually stored with the rest of the junk. The film operates on a level rational minds have to reach to comprehend, and that no one can truly understand, unless they never want to sleep again from the dread such knowledge would bear.
  9. Hellraiser – I feel like this one needs little explanation. “Hellraiser” is a warped tour de force of depravation, mutilation, and decomposition. Those three themes are evident in every frame of the film – from Frank’s unwholesome desire for his niece Kirsty, to Julia’s lust for what is, essentially, a walking corpse, and finally to the deterioration of all things good and virtuous by film’s end. The Cenobites were so visually startling that they became instant icons in horror, with Pinhead’s surreal, nightmarish visage eternally linked to pulse-climbing terror. The uniqueness of the Cenobites – creatures neither good nor evil, but simply nihilistic and carnal beyond human comprehension – disturbed audiences as much as it horrified them. For my money, I can’t imagine anything looking more horrific than Butterball and the Chatterer, though Pinhead unnerves me more for the feeling of calm, torturous precision he exudes. But what really turned my stomach to ice when I first saw this movie was the Engineer, an utterly unholy monster that scaled walls and gave Kirsty Cotton her first glimpse of the perversity she was up against.
  10. A Nightmare on Elm Street – People forget why this film was so effective. Yes, Fred Krueger’s horrifying face helped, as did that unbelievably sadistic glove of his. And the idea that you will die if you fall asleep – making your dark fate completely unavoidable – carries a deep dread with it. But what hit my fear button for this flick is how spot-on Craven was in presenting common nightmares on the screen. The ground turning to mush as you try to run, strangers who are always faster, always stronger than you, can always reach you, worlds where gravity means nothing and anything can menace you – these are presented organically and graphically, and as you watched, you subconsciously realized that the dark figure that stalked your nightmares had been Krueger all along, and that you’ll never be truly safe in your bed again.
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Everything that Was Right, and Everything that Was Wrong, with “The Last Lovecraft”

(Warning: Possible Spoilers Ahead. I Don’t Really Care Enough About Spoilers to Mark ‘Em Out, So, Y’Know, Eat Me Brad.)

 

Cthulhu vs Dinos

 

            So a friend of mine has been making an effort to build up his tolerance for horror. Being the absolute fanatic that I am for the genre, I’ve sort of become a surrogate compass for this visceral sea that he’s beginning to tread.

            Even though I can pretty much recite the dialogue of any horror movie he’s brought up to me, one he asked me about recently caught me off-guard, shamefully so: a little ditty called “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu.”

            Now, the number of movies based directly on Lovecraft’s work has swollen considerably since his fiction entered public domain about a decade ago. Until then, the rights to his stuff had been held almost fanatically by Arkham House, the publishing company started by Lovecraft admirer / this-close-to-stalker August Derleth. Admittedly, it was Derleth who got Lovecraft’s name recognized in mainstream fiction, but damn the man all the same for chaining his audience down while he did it.

            You have to understand (you have to): Lovecraft completely started the modern era of horror fiction. Not Poe, as some would assume; Poe dallied in the macabre, sure, but his work did not actually start the period the way Lovecraft’s did. And Lovecraft’s touches are everywhere in movies and literature. Hellboy, Evil Dead, comics in general, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the entire works of Stephen King, John Dies at the End, anything mentioning the Necronomicon or the “Outer Gods”…everything. And yet only now is his name even beginning to pop up with any kind of regularity. After years of me silently fuming when folks scoffed at this man’s literary significance, it’s finally becoming clear:

            No matter how original you think your scary story is, Lovecraft probably did it first.

            His entire catalogue can be contained in a single volume, and his literary influence was limited to a magazine and a small number of friends, acquaintances, and colleagues in his lifetime, but he’s everywhere. His friend Robert E. Howard created Conan the Barbarian, whose adventures occasionally featured battles with Lovecraftian entities. Lovecraft is likely the first writer to have ever blended aspects of horror with aspects of science fiction, and invented the sub-genre of cosmic horror. His works also popularized the notion of networking one’s fiction to create a sustained continuity, in Lovecraft’s case his popular “Cthulhu Mythos” (or “Yog-Sothothery” as he facetiously liked to put it). Such literary continuity heavily influenced modern prose and comics, particularly the latter medium’s reliance on fictional intercompany “universes” for the setting of their narratives. Stephen King’s magnum opus The Dark Tower strongly utilizes this framework, paying homage not only to Lovecraft’s literary style, but also the phonology of his naming schemes. (Side note: the Men in Yellow, the Hoi-Poi, of King’s work are references to Hastur, Lovecraft’s fictional “King in Yellow”.)

            So, yeah, he’s way bigger than you imagined. Even if you’re obsessed with him, he’s even bigger than what you already knew. Feelin’ stupid? Well ya shouldn’t, ‘cause it’s always fun to learn new things.

            Just like it was for me when I learned about “The Last Lovecraft.” This relatively recent little gem tells about H.P. Lovecraft’s last living descendent, a man named Jeff (whose lineage isn’t explained, though is commented on appropriately, since Lovecraft never had any children). Jeff is completely disillusioned with the world. A bully as a kid, Jeff has grown into a miserable bastard who squanders his life in a cubicle, panics when approached by women, and sees absolutely no room in the world for either magic or adventure. His friend Charlie does his best to keep Jeff’s sense of wonder and optimism alive, but Jeff, the asshole, won’t have any of it.

            Enter into his life a mysterious old man, the last surviving member of a council formed by H.P. Lovecraft himself to combat the demented forces of evil he documented in his writings. The man hands off a talisman, a mysterious component to a key that will awaken the ancient alien god Cthulhu from his slumber in the sunken continent of R’lyeh. Calling bullshit, Jeff is astonished when Cthulhu’s monstrous minion Starspawn attacks, killing the old man and sending Jeff and Charlie on the run.

            Enlisting the aid of Paul, a Lovecraft nerd whom Jeff bullied mercilessly as a kid, the trio head into the desert to find the salty seaman (hehe) Captain Olaf, who possesses knowledge on how to defeat Cthulhu’s efforts for good. But the ancient god’s reach is vast, and the three young men soon realize they may very well be in WAY over their heads.

RIGHT: The Main Characters (Actually, All the Characters)

            Starting on Jeff: the typical “Average Guy” character, Jeff breaks the mold in a few ways. First, he’s kind of a dick. A bully as a kid, Jeff is quick to deride anybody he doesn’t agree with, and frequently ridicules the people around him. He’s not without his virtues, of course; he’s determined to keep the magical relic from falling into the wrong hands, and is more than willing to fight for what’s right. But it’s actually refreshing to have a main average dude break the “Rocko” archetype by being a little bit of the jerk we’re all capable of being.

            His friend Charlie also breaks a few molds. Typically, the buddy sidekick is a little dumber or more socially awkward than the hero, but not Charlie. Charlie proves to be considerably more sensible than Jeff (though he does have a few vital dumbass moments), is more sexually successful, and though an-out-and-out nerd for comics and action figures, Charlie obviously enjoys life way more than Jeff. Again, a nice break from convention.

            Their additional compatriot, Paul, breaks a few conventions on the “geek” character himself, as he is quick to criticize the “cool kids” if they fuck up, and is shown to be a man of action to an extent arguably greater than the two heroes. Also, a reference to Jeff breaking Paul’s arms as a kid comes full, cruel circle in the latter half of the movie. Paul is also completely aware that the geek world he loves is mostly fiction (mostly, as parts of it become obviously true in the film), and readily acknowledges his own socially stunted growth throughout the adventure. A nice break from the “not-aware-he’s-lame” character we see so often.

            And God bless Captain Olaf.

            Side-RIGHT: The Fish Rapin’

            You don’t actually see the deed itself, but Olaf’s hilariously haunted account of the night he was violated by the spiny “Deep Ones” is a treat, capped by his warning to Jeff and Co. that by opening this can of worms, they’re in for a heapin’ pile o’ fish-rapin’.

            “They got a hankerin’ for mating with mortal folk.”

            Also, the creepy, chubby motel clerk, a minion of Cthulhu who loves stuffing birds Norman Bates style, is suitably terrifying when he propositions Jeff for some good ol’ fashioned anonymous sex.

            “This is my sex face.”

            I dare­­ you to hear that line and not startlaughing from the awkward horror of it.    Especially when you imagine it being said to you. (As a dude; I can easily see it being legitimately terrifying to a woman, in a completely non-hilarious way.)

RIGHT: The Comic Book Recounting of Cthulhu’s Reign

            Comic style intros and back stories get done a lot lately, but it makes sense for a frenetic but low-budget action flick to use this technique. This movie’s effects were pretty impressive, but it’s obvious they only had so much money to do them on. Blowing their wad on the back story could have severely hurt the rest of the film.

            Plus, the visual is still balls-awesome. It opens with Cthulhu murdering a pack of dinosaurs, and waging war against rival aliens with the skull of a Triceratops. Awesome.

            Though I would have liked for them to stick to the fact that Lovecraft wrote prose, the comic angle the filmmakers utilize works for the frantic energy the movie works to achieve.

RIGHT: The Monsters

            The Deep Ones are the stars of the effects budget. Completely creepy and stealthy, they are spiny, fanged horrors that totally look like they’re capable of fuckin’ some shit up. And they do. A lot of it.

            The hybrids – the abominable offspring of human and Deep One lovin’ – are equally great, particularly my favorite, Lamprey Man, whose sucker mouth and hands stick to Jeff’s car like perverse plungers during the first attack scene. Seeing Jeff peeling him off with a crowbar was solid gold.

            Starspawn is a small point of contention for me, but not enough to be significant. In the stories, the Star-Spawn are lesser members of Cthulhu’s race, subjects who work to spread the influence of his cult throughout the cosmos. Admittedly, Starspawn in the film could just be one of many, but it’s implied he’s simply one of Cthulhu’s biggest and baddest singular generals. Nevertheless, he works really well as a villain, and like I said, it’s a stupid point to hold anyone over a barrel for. Plus, when Starspawn unleashes his true form, a massive, squid-like beast, the CGI is impressively done when it is used to render him.

RIGHT: The References

            Particularly my favorite: “Whoa, guys, I don’t think I’m ready to roll the nine-sided die just yet.”

            Explanation: In “Call of Cthulhu: The Role-Playing Game,” a nine-sided die is used to measure how much sanity is gained or lost by a player-character in the game. In the movie, Paul briefly wonders if he’s just let two crazy people into his grandma’s house when Jeff and Charlie clue him in that the Mythos is real.

            Ahhh, it’s nerdy! Nerdy awesome.

WRONG:  Ehhh…Not Much

            At all, actually. This is a solid little film, and I hope enough money comes of it for a sequel. It’s tightly paced, professionally edited, and visually dynamic. A+

WRONG, BUT NOT IN THE MOVIE: “Birdemic”

            The trailer at the beginning of the DVD for the film “Birdemic.” The killer birds are obvious cut and paste jobs that statically hover in the air while they flap / swing their wings. If this is a purposefully bad movie…it, it just has to be, guys…then this could be awesome. If not, then we must figure out a way to potentially smite this video pimple from the complexion of the Earth.

            Look up “The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu,” and rev your lulz motor. It’s gonna be a giggly night.

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Everything that Was Wrong (and Some Things that Were Right) with “Green Lantern”

            Though “Green Lantern” has gotten nearly universally negative reviews (particularly among comic book fans), the movie wasn’t the complete creative abortion some would have you believe. True, Hal Jordan’s initiation is rushed, Parallax was introduced far too early, and every attempt the film makes to be glib only serves to grind it further into the superficial mess of mediocrity that it is. And it is bad, mind you. Really, really bad. But aspects of the film shone with a surprising brilliance, and I hope, from a writer’s standpoint, that they’re maintained when the inevitable reboot rolls around.

Wrong: Hal Jordan is the Only Talented Green Lantern

            Admittedly, he is our hero, but c’mon, are you guys really trying to say that he defeated Parallax – a creature with the power to annihilate worlds, which had previously killed EVERY Lantern it had faced before – “not despite his humanity, but because of it?” Last time I checked, you couldn’t load humanity. Also, humanity? What about the fact that these guys are powered by willpower, not kindness?

            Some have tried to argue that Hal’s true strength is his ingenuity, and that the movie only tried to showcase that Hal as an individual is simply more tactically effective than the other Lanterns. Unfortunately, such a mindset on the part of the writers harkens back to the old days of Star Trek, where it was always the awesome humans who teach the dirty, dirty aliens a lesson in being human. It’s kind of bigoted, when you think about it, and if aliens turn out to be real, we’re going to look like a bunch of self-righteous jerks.

            The thing is, there was absolutely no reason for Hal to be able to defeat Parallax by himself. He’s untrained throughout the entire film, so he is literally the absolute weakest Lantern as of the timeframe of the movie. And his ingenuity? Why would he be so much smarter than the alien guys? The idea behind the Green Lantern Corps is that each Lantern is a highly accomplished operative. Geoff Johns specifically wrote against the “nameless non-hero cannon fodder” mindset. But in this movie, apparently the Corps consists of Hal Jordan, and 3,000 dumbasses.

            Even Abin Sur and Sinestro, portrayed as extremely skilled and naturally talented, basically just point their rings and say “BANG!” at any bad guys that show up. But luckily, Hal Jordan looks like us, so it won’t confuse us too much when he gets to some thinkin’ and moralizin’.

Wrong: For an Accomplished Test Pilot, Hal Sure Suffers from a LOT of Psychological Issues

            I get it. It humanizes the hero when you show that behind the seemingly fearless façade is a complicated man with unique, personal fears to overcome. And exploring the difference between courage and fearlessness is a solid direction for the premise of the character. But when you’re crashing multi-million dollar aircraft because you randomly want to remember how your daddy died, you need to seriously reevaluate your career choice.

            In the film, Jordan’s dad died when Hal was a kid, with Hal forced to watch as his father’s plane crashed and exploded. However, in the ensuing decades, Jordan matures, faces his demons, and utilizes his intensive training to keep his emotions in check when flying in simulated combat conditions.

            Ha! Kidding. He freaks the fuck out mid-flight, and saves himself only when it is beyond possible to maybe not let the crazy-expensive plane crash and burn. Also, the film makes a point of letting you know that lots of people lose their jobs to cover the expense of the plane that Jordan annihilated. You’re so AWESOME, Hal.

            And apparently, Jordan has a habit of doing this. What, does nobody ever make a note of that glazed, faraway look he has to have every time he climbs into a flight suit? Seriously, GROUND THIS GUY. I’m pretty sure the company he works for is breaking a few laws by letting a pilot who is literally suffering from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder go “WHHEEEE!” in experimental jets.

Wrong: Parallax Was Introduced WAY Too Early. Also It’s Krona, for Some Reason

            And he looks like poop that grew dreadlocks. Seriously. Poop.

A.)  Krona is a substantial enough villain on his own, and did not need to be fused haphazardly with another character.

B.)  Parallax’s power in the comics is literally cosmic in scale. The character would have been better served showcasing a seasoned Hal Jordan’s leadership skills, especially once other Lanterns like John Stewart and Kyle Rayner had been introduced.

C.)  In the comics, Parallax is beautifully rendered as a golden-colored, insectoid space dragon. It’s terrifying. In the film, it, and I’m not kidding, looks like floating poop that grows dreadlocks. It’s supposed to look like smoke encasing a body of fire, but it doesn’t come off that way.

Wrong: Hollywood Refuses to Acknowledge the Dramatic Potential of Non-Pretentious Comic Books

            We thought we’d been saved from the days of “Superman III” and “Batman & Robin,” and actually, we can still breathe easy for a little while. But Hollywood’s recent uncharacteristic pattern of letting directors with artistic integrity (Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, Chris Nolan) handle classic comic characters (Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Batman, respectively) briefly gave us the impression that they no longer confused stringing bright lights and loud sounds together for the ability to make movies. Moviemakers who lured audiences through actual talent gave us these characters as we’ve wanted to see them for a long, long time, and it felt really, really good.

            Tragically, Hollywood has had a relapse, and they’re currently rescinding into a mindset of punishing directors for taking these subjects seriously. They apparently can’t be bothered by the fact that the intelligently (nay, expertly) conceived “The Dark Knight” netted $1 billion dollars in revenue, and sold more tickets than “Avatar.” Nope, fluke, that’s what that was.

            They’re like that annoying, sneering bitch in high school who always called your love of comics “little kid stuff.” They’re convinced they know how the world works, even while they slide closer and closer to asking others for their cold French fries just to survive.

Wrong: Abin Sur says Exactly ZERO Words

            If I remember correctly. No, wait, he has like three lines, I think. Still, for such an important guy, they sure don’t bother concerning themselves with fleshing him out.

Wrong: Hector Hammond needed more screen time, and should have been the only villain.

            For such a solid villain, Hector Hammond is tragically reduced to a shy, stuttering nutcase, despite a promising entrance in the film as an intelligent, self-assured man who resists doing the wrong thing. Halfway through, he is leering at Blake Lively, muttering to himself, and growing daddy issues out of thin air. Also he has a goiter, for some reason. And he screams. A LOT. At first it’s out of pain from his transformation. Later, I swear he does it simply because things just kinda suck right now. Jesus, shut up.

            As a villain, Hammond could have carried the evildoer quotient fine on his own, but as it is, he is simply a throwaway putz who gets ‘et by the big beastie in the finale. Sad.

Right: The cast was Solid, Despite My Hatred of Tim Robbins. (Michael Clark Duncan was PERFECT as Kilowog, as was Geoffrey Rush as Tomar-Re

            That pretty much sums it up. Everybody did a great job, despite the God-awful attempts at glib dialogue that had been scripted for them. MCD and Captain Barbossa need to show up again when they reboot this hot mess.

Another Wrong: Everything Got Accepted Way Too Quickly in This Movie

            Seriously, upon witnessing an extraterrestrial being die directly in front of him, Hal Jordan is so immediately okay enough with what he’s witnessed that he lays his BARE HANDS on the guy and just straight-up buries him. That must have taken him hours. He probably prayed a little too. Why not, it’s customary?

            Lively immediately slips into conversational mode seconds after discovering Jordan’s cosmic alter ego, and his “nerdy” friend is inexplicably portrayed as knowledgeable about alien life forms, despite the film explicitly stating no other aliens have ever visited Earth, ever. But guys, he’s nerdy! He automatically knows this stuff!

            That’s not how it works, Hollywood. You don’t get to magically know alien technology just because you really like Star Trek.

            The whole movie was too rushed, actually, to the point that the awesome “Green Lantern Oath” failed to raise even a single goose bump on me both times it is recited.

Right: Small Scientific Details

I may be the only one who cared, but I was pleased as punch when the film visually acknowledged the fact that the Sun’s atmosphere is actually hotter than the surface itself, by way of Parallax disintegrating before actually contacting the star. Points to you, fact checker guys. Major points.

Right: The Powers Are Portrayed Really Well

            The constructs, the physical embodiment of the power of the Green Lanterns, was done well. Very well. Imaginatively well. Though the portrayal of Parallax sucked, the techniques Jordon uses to dispatch the villain are pretty ingenious. Also, when Kilowog created a small sun, complete with its own gravity, I nerdgasmed at the attention paid to that scientific detail. I may give this movie a lot of flack otherwise, but that power ring business was WELL DONE. Jets, machine guns, jackhammers…just, just SWEET.

            Except the Hot Wheels track he creates to save a crashing chopper. That part was stupid.

            That part was really stupid.

            That part was tremendously stupid, actually.

–          Sean

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Film Review: “The Thing”

A while back I said I’d review an all-time favorite monster flick if someone shared a favorite of their own. Happily, the film shared was a lock-in for my “All-Time” list. And because I feel like this movie is so horribly underappreciated (though most modern viewers and reviewers are making up for past injustice in strides), and because I want people to see the upcoming prequel with the appropriate amount of respect, I give you my take on:

The Thing

John Carpenter’s remake of Howard Hughes’ “The Thing from Another World” was far more faithful to the source material than its predecessor, the classic novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. (Available in its entirety here.) However, that didn’t mean that Carpenter was spiteful of the older film; on the contrary, the film was such a favorite that he utilized scenes from it in his landmark 1978 independent film “Halloween.” Of the scenes used, one was the opening title, which, in an act of loving and artistic admiration, Carpenter recreated in his remake.

The Original

The Hughes production made use of the story’s location simply to exploit the isolationistic aspect of the story, as well as the singular dangers that unrestrained hubris presents to society. A precursor to the claustrophobic “Alien” (1979), The Thing from Another World helped build a sense of dread through the use of an inescapable environment (in this case, the Antarctic wasteland). The characters had no hope of escape; destroying the monster was literally the only option.

The film, released in 1951, kick-started the silver age of science fiction in cinema (and, by proxy, in B-Roll cinema as well), though it is little more than a “monster on the loose” picture. There is a slightly heavy-handed message about the dangerous frontiers science had recently opened (culturing unknown alien life was used as a parallel to atomic research) and the need for practicality to overrule unrestrained hubris (there’s that damn word again), but it is, at its core a “boogedy-boogedy” kinda flick.

The Titular "Thing"

James Arness says "Boogedy-boogedy."

Though a sentimental favorite to sci-fi lovin’ Baby Boomers everywhere, it shared little thematic or storytelling relation to Campbell’s 1938 novella. In “Who Goes There?” Campbell’s extraterrestrial is a shape-changing, amorphous entity who assimilates organic matter as a means of ensuring reproduction. In layman’s terms, in ate you, and used your tissue to make more boogedies.

And it copied you. Since the Thing of Campbell’s books is vulnerable while feeding, it must hide in plain sight by using a trick acquired via its feeding process: replicating the genetic sequencing of its victims. AKA: shapeshifting.

And it doesn’t just look like you, it thinks like you, talks like you, goes on tangents like you. It is you. And the only one who realizes it isn’t you is you, right as it proceeds to devour you…

Which can put a horrifying new spin on the concept of "The Stranger."

Campbell was renowned for introducing emotional depth to mainstream science fiction, which save for the works of H.G. Wells, was heretofore a genre more concerned with being science-ish than story-ish. “Who Goes There?” is a landmark example, exploring themes of despair, paranoia, and trust in just over forty pages. Though its short length does cause the story to suffer, it’s still a powerful piece of quickie fiction.

When Carpenter approached his remake of the Hughes’ film, he came to the project with a mindset of creating a more faithful adaptation of the Campbell novella. Set again in Antarctica, the remake greatly reduced the cast of characters, and increased the atmosphere of dread by setting the film before an oncoming winter storm. The men in Carpenter’s film weren’t just isolated; they were completely and totally cut off, and their small numbers drove home how alone they were in their plight.

Flare

The darkness is closing in.

The film starts right off letting you know something is…off. A helicopter is chasing an innocent-looking sled dog across the snow, its sniper passenger taking potshots at the poor, lonely husky. The dog’s pursuers are relentless, the chopper giving crazed pursuit through snowdrifts and blizzard winds.

The men, Norwegian researchers, scream what sounds like gibberish at the workers in an American camp, before shooting wildly at the dog. Not understanding the Norwegian language, the American men can only use lethal force to neutralize what they see as a very real threat. Little do they know that the real horror has safely infiltrated their midst, in the form of a quiet, adoring dog…

Dawww, who's a precious wittle...

GAH!!!

The creature is found out when it is caught attempting to assimilate the facility’s other dogs, but not before it is able to hide amongst the men and assimilate one of their number. And so a paranoid race against time ensues. Trust breaks down, tension turns to rage, and self-preservation leads to isolation and seclusion from others. Any of the men could be the monster in disguise, and none are willing to risk their safety to trust, or aid, their fellow man.

*Spoilers ahead.*

The film explores the depths to which the human capacity for distrust can take us. The men in “The Thing” are not only willing to allow their colleagues to die, they are willing to kill each other for their own survival. Loyalty goes out the window with this running loose:

Lab Monster

Carpenter’s usual habit is to exclusively write his own music for his movies, but “The Thing” was an exception, with the film’s score written and performed by Italian film composer Ennio Morricone with Carpenter serving as an uncredited co-writer. The music, low-key and constant, underscores the palpable dread oozing through the film, and gradually builds in intensity as the film nears its climax, unconsciously driving our tensed nerves deeper and deeper into the film’s bleak narrative.

The effects are world-class, but went unappreciated in their day due to an unusually high outbreak of stupidity in critical circles in the 80s. Yeah, they’re goopy, but it’s hard to imagine how a creature that can literally fold its own body like paper can be anything but.

Unfortunately, even today there are some who refuse to look past the shocking special effects (created by technical genius Rob Bottin, with aid from maestro Stan Winston in the infamous Kennel Scene) to see what the film truly is: a study on the nature of paranoia. Suspicion is fine; it’s what keeps people safe and alive. It’s what makes trust so valuable when it is earned. But paranoia is an entirely different bag. Paranoid people turn on friends and loved ones, and value their own pathology more than reason or rationality. Paranoia kills, inside and out, and this is brought to physical embodiment through the titular monster in “The Thing”

Not only does the film explore the nature of distrust, but the monster itself is a powerful metaphor for the monstrous capacity for violence that exists within people. Arguing against this is seemingly futile; it is this capacity for violence that breeds our potential for distrust. And often, when we discover something dark about the nature of those we know, it is usually with horror that we regard this new shade in which we see them.

It is only when there is no hope of survival that the men realize what must be done. This creature cannot escape, no matter what. If it reaches the mainland, all Hell will break loose. It is only when the point of their survival is mooted that the men realize the pointlessness of their destructive paranoia. All that matters is stopping the creature, and only by banding together, and placing their total trust in one another, can the men hope to foil the monster’s machinations.

The effort is dangerous, but vital. Several of the men die pursuing the creature, but the hunt is relentless; they know it has to die.

The iconic final scene brings home the message of the futility of paranoia. Having dynamited the entire camp in an effort to annihilate the creature, only Macready (Kurt Russell) seems to have survived. Temporarily warmed by the fire, Macready waits for the freezing cold with a surviving bottle of whisky. Stumbling towards him comes Childs (Keith David), earlier suspected of having been assimilated by the Thing. Macready and Childs hold one another in the sights of their flame throwers, each convinced of the other’s monstrous conversion. Eventually the two men come to a realization: it doesn’t matter. There is no way of knowing if either are the monster, and even if there was, it would be pointless to destroy each other now. Realizing the futility of their distrust, the two men share a drink while waiting for the encroaching storm of winter.

“The Thing” is a masterpiece. I consistently hold it to be one of the greatest American science fiction films ever made, hitting a home run in every category the genre sets out to explore. And when others stop to think about it, I’ve noticed they’re pretty quick to agree. The acting is engaging but believable, the setting claustrophobic to the level of suffocation, and the pace hold you so tightly you can feel its claws digging into you. It’s a movie that definitely makes you want company when you watch it, even if it does leave you wondering about who exactly you’re seeing it with.

– Sean

(P.S.: Hit up Netflix and watch this beast! Then go see the remake in October and tell me whether or not to see it…and then sigh when I go see it anyway, no matter what you tell me.)

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Monster Movies

Filming on “Tar” starts in about a month, I think. My babe’s gotta finish lining up the documentary she has to film before she gets to the oogity-boogity business. I still plan to get some “Making of…” video in between meeting my horrible, hobo fate, but don’t expect very much quality. She’s the videographer between us, not me.

“Tar” is a pretty straightforward monster story, in the style of the old school “Monster on the Loose” tales that I loved as a child. Monster movies, particularly giant monster movies, have always held a special place in my imagination. I’ve loved them with a religious zeal ever since I was five.

“The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” is what started it. Watching ridiculously handsome Kerwin Matthews fight off cyclops and skeletons and giant, two-headed, man-eating vultures was an experience bordering on spiritual rapture. To this day, I still haven’t been moved by a movie the same way I was by “The Seventh Voyage.”

The Dragon vs The Cyclops

It's definitely on my "Best Things Ever" list.

Harryhausen also gave nightmare-addled ten-year-olds the “Beast from 20,000 Fathoms:”

Rargh!

Eat the cop! EAT THE COP!

Which inspired Tomoyuki Tanaka to give us this guy:

GODZILLA!!!

"Let's burn some shit down."

Who, admittedly, started out as the bad guy. But when I first saw him, he was fighting this thing:

GHIDORAH

King Ghidorah, the definition of "unstoppable."

Giving me a concept of monsters as “good guys” that hit me like a stone. These scary, destructive things were fighting to save the world, not to destroy it. Silly now, but for a six-year-old, that’s heavy stuff.

Gamera, a flying, fire-breathing turtle, continued this theme, albeit it in a more exagerratedly campy fashion:

Wheee!

Wheee!!!

Though Shusuke Kaneko quickly put a stop to that in his late-90s reimagining:

Yes please

Yes, please.

 American films after the 1960s skimped on giving us our giant monster thrills. The closest we ever got was a remake of the ooky classic “The Blob,” (since it just keeps growing, I usually lump the Blob into the giant-ooky category) which unfortunately was destined to remain an underrated masterpiece. Unlike the creeping unstoppability of the original, this Blob was a fast, vicious, intelligent predator, and absolutely nobody was spared by this thing.

Ouch
Characters eliminated by the ravenous mass included the kind-hearted, small town sheriff, the pretty, lonely barmaid, and the plucky child sidekick, shown above.

 Eek. On the non-giant side of the monster coin, the aliens of the “Alien” films have always been my favored extraterrestrial menace. And I’ve noticed something: sci-fi purists almost always favor the Predator, whereas Alien fans tend to favor stories that lean towards the horror genre.

xenomorph

Can't imagine why.

 I usually lump Freddy and Jason in the monster category, but that usually opens a technical can of worms that almost always ends in whiny, annoyingly specific arguments with people who completely overlook the value of iconicity, so I’m just gonna skip that.

Anyway, while we work on “Tar,” and while I finally set about finishing Finer Points, tell me what your favorite monster is in the comments, and let me know why that film sticks out in your mind the way it does. After you guys respond (all two of you), I’ll set up a review of an all-time favorite of my own, and we’ll see how it goes. (Shut up, Brad, it’ll be awesome.)

– Sean

P.S.: Original story post coming soon.

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Zombiethon

Zombies seem to have been a pretty prominent theme for me this week. As I work to wrap up “Long Weekend,” I’ve usually had a zombie flick rolling in the background. And when I can’t find a zombie movie, I play Creature Feature’s “Aim for the Head,” or read John Green’s Zombicorns again. Zombies are all up in mah shit this week.

Crunch Punch

ALL UP IN MAH SHIT

I like zombies. Love ’em, in fact. Always have. They’re hypnotically horrifying, awesome by the very nature of their existence. Vampires are alright, and I dearly love werewolves, but zombies…zombies are where it’s at.

I think it’s the versatility that zombies present that tends to fascinate filmmakers and writers. Before special effects were able to give us awesome, corpse-y zombies…

Zombie Face

RARGH!!! I smell like eggs!

…we usually had to just accept voodoo “actually just really, really high slave labor” zombies, a la “White Zombie.” (The Lugosi movie, not the metal band.) Which is fine, but audiences needed more to make zombies a real force of terror.

Enter “Night of the Living Dead.” THE zombie movie, and the movie that introduced America to modern horror in cinema. These zombies still looked like people, but only barely. There was nothing really “human” about these things.

Little Zombie Girl

OM NOM NOM

 And just like that: BOOM. It was the age of the zombie, baby.

Other works have left their mark. Marvel’s Simon Garth, from Tales of the Zombie, was a heroic, if tortured, zombie who was virtually indestructible.

Simon

Hotter than Edward

The Return of the Living Dead series of films (well, the first three, anyway) more thoroughly explored the challenge of killing that which is already dead, by giving us zombies who weren’t stopped by the typical “destroy the brain” approach. Also, they were pure freakin’ nightmare fuel.

Tarman

For instance, this guy's right behind you.

The Dawn of the Dead remake famously made its zombies fucking sprint for you. Luckily, Simon Pegg helped to bolster our confidence a little by exposing some of the goofier aspects of a zombie uprising (for instance, naked zombies).

Whenever I write anything dealing with zombies, I try to make them as unstoppable as possible, if only to make the zombie threat as prominent as possible. Not that they shouldn’t be used as literary tools or anything. Incidental zombiedom can be fantastic. Blog project Allison Hewitt is Trapped (click the link to read, or look for the book if ya want) is a quirky bit of genius in that regard. But my ardent love for zombies makes me focus entirely onthe zombies, to the point that I want to explore every practical and fantastical element about these amazing, horrific monstrosities.

Captive

Though I do draw the line at bondage...

The popularity of zombies is refreshing.  Though vampires and werewolves still have their scary moments (werewolves decidedly more than vampires of late), it’s hard to take the “monster” out of zombies. They’re lean, mean, sometimes green abominations, and by virtue of epitomizing the greatest human fear (the fear of death and dying), I doubt we can ever really tame them, even in our imaginations.

Are you ready to paaaaarty? It's party time!

Cue 45 Grave.

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