Bear v. one tough woman in the wilderness. Who'll emerge victorious?
No Telling. 1991. Directed by Larry Fessenden. Screenplay by Larry Fessenden & Beck Underwood.
Starring Miriam Healy-Louie, Stephen Ramsey, David Van Tieghem, Richard Topol, Ashley Arcement, Robert Brady, Susan Doukas, Ward Burlingham, J.J. Clark, Stanley Taub, Francois Lampietti, and John Van Couvering.
Glass Eye Pix.
Not Rated. 93 minutes.
Larry Fessenden has long been a filmmaker in which I’ve had intense interest. There’s a quality about all his films, no matter how far apart thematically or plot-wise they may be, I’m consistently drawn in by and after every watch, regardless which movie, I usually find his stories on my mind for days.
The first time I saw a Fessenden film was about a decade ago – more like 11 years ago, to be exact. I saw his flick Wendigo on a whim. It was being screened by some group in St. Catharine’s, Ontario where I went to school at the time. There’s a mysterious and eerie air to that movie I couldn’t compare to anything else, at least nothing I’d seen at that point. Not only that, I was going to film school and his filmmaking struck me as such a beautiful, natural process. After seeing more of his work, eventually getting the chance to see Habit, Fessenden became a beacon of light in the indie world. Because his movies, while low budget compared to Hollywood, didn’t feel low budget. He makes use of interesting locations, as well as talented actors to make all the horrific and sometimes completely terrifying aspects of his writing come across.
No Telling is perhaps some of his best work, honestly. Though it isn’t a comment on his skills – he’s always improving, like any true artist. But I find most interesting here the weight and execution of what he’s getting across in this film. Plus, there’s a lovably indie quality to this film which gives it a subtle, special quality. Certainly Fessenden doesn’t appeal to everyone as it is. At the same time, if any of his movies might divide people it is this one – paced with a wonderfully slow burn, there are some intensely gruesome moments in terms of animals; something a portion of people appear to have trouble with. Either way, be prepared: it’s a great non-conventional horror movie.
Geoffrey and Lillian Gaines (Stephen Ramsey/Miriam Healy-Louie) move into a a house during the summer, out in the countryside. Geoffrey is a scientist. He does top-secret work in his barn where a lab is setup. His artist wife Lillian becomes friendly with an activist named Alex Vine (David Van Tieghem), which becomes more frequent as time goes on.
Soon enough, though, Lillian begins to wonder what it is exactly her husband does out in the laboratory. Some days she barely sees him at all. Others, he’s there yet not really, or he sweats uncontrollably, nervous and awkward around any other people. Once Lillian manages to get into the secretive lab, she sees pictures of dissected animals, she finds one of the old traps, and their relationship begins to crumble.
In the same vein as Mary Shelley and her mad Dr. Frankenstein, Fessenden’s No Telling pits man against nature, man against man, and even woman again man.
The basic look of this film is actually incredible. Funny enough, the cinematographer David Shaw actually did nothing after this movie, which is a shame. Though, he did operate Steadicam on a film in’95. It’s crazy because one of the first things I enjoyed about No Telling was the look. The Blu ray comes courtesy of the Larry Fessenden Collection, only recently released; also comes with Habit, Wendigo, and the Last Winter, as well as a ton of extras including short films, music videos and lots of commentary. Really this Blu ray collection is a fucking treasure.
No Telling‘s audio and picture are both unbelievably perfect. The exterior shots are something to behold, then there are great contrasted shots of shadowy goodness inside the barn-laboratory and even at times in the house itself. Again, I’m so amazed Shaw didn’t go on to do more work as cinematographer. Between him and Fessenden there is a wealth of beautifully composed shots, interesting camerawork (angles particularly) and an all around nice style.
Obviously, when you look at this film’s alternate title The Frankenstein Complex, you can easily see – even without doing so – there are roots of this story growing out of Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein. Lots of interesting things happening in this movie, courtesy of the tight screenplay from Fessenden and Beck Underwood. Naturally, this comes out from the young doctor and his experiments. However, the movie takes it further into the idea of man playing god using animals as his subject. You can clearly see how Fessenden feels about animal experimentation; at the same time, he makes a good point for the side of the scientist, as well. As I mentioned earlier, there are a couple particularly savage shots where Geoffrey (Ramsey) is in his barn-lab doing work that might get touchy for anyone sensitive seeing animals in horror movies. But this only serves to create a weird character in Geoffrey, the heinous doctor working out in the isolated farmlands on who knows what sort of mental medical experiments.
The whole film is very heavy in theme. We watch this doctor and his wife sort of spiral into a descent towards a place where life is dark and dangerous. To compliment such darkness, again it’s the camerawork and the style of Fessenden which make it all compelling. One specific shot I can’t stop thinking of comes after Geoffrey puts a few small metal traps out to catch animals around the property – as Lillian is upstairs, the snap of a trap comes in the distance and then a red filter takes over the visuals, slowly cutting and cutting, editing towards shots of a fox (or something similar) baring its teeth, no doubt caught in the trap’s jaws. Very, very effective and such a neat moment. I was caught off-guard, in such a perfect sense. Made my eyes widen and excited me with all its horror. This is only one of the awesome sequences out of this fascinating film.
This is one of my favourite Larry Fessenden films. I’ve seen them all now, especially since getting this collection it’s been easy. 4.5 out of 5 stars, none less. No Telling has a ton of spooky horror, but it isn’t conventional like jumpy stuff. Nor is there a lot of the typical sort of reliance on genre tropes. What Fessenden does here is a create a unique and intensely modern story using Mary Shelley as a very basic framework. Too many seem to pass this off as a mere retelling of Frankenstein. It is so much more. Just take a chance and watch this excellent little indie horror. It will compel and disturb you and surprise you even.
Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers. 1989. Directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard. Screenplay by Shem Bitterman/Dominique Othenin-Girard/Michael Jacobs.
Starring Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell, Beau Starr, Jeffrey Landman, Tamara Glynn, Donald L. Shanks, Jonathan Chapin, Matthew Walker, Wendy Foxworth, Betty Carvalho, Troy Evans and Frankie Como. Magnum Pictures Inc./The Return of Myers/Trancas International Films. Rated R. 96 minutes.
The Halloween series gets worse after the 4th installment, even lots of people might say that was a bust. Me, I enjoyed it. Starting with this film, Halloween V: The Revenge of Michael Myers, the brutal psychopath reality of Myers himself began to be diluted. Though I love the connection between Michael and his niece Jamie, the writers tried to go too far into the supernatural aspect of Myers – he always had a sort of inhuman, or superhuman quality about him, but it was best left a mystery like in the original; he was pure evil.
With this sequel, the series starts on a long descent into obscurity. Though, I did love the remake and partly enjoyed its sequel from Rob Zombie, even if many hated it and loathe him for even touching Halloween. But as far as the original series itself goes, after this one it gets pretty bad, embarrassing almost. This movie doesn’t have full coherence at its side. That being said, I do love the suspense and tension still present in Michael’s character, his lurking and his casual sneak behind the scenes unnoticed. And it’s always nice to see Dr. Loomis, no matter how cranky a bastard he may be after all these years hunting evil.
One year following the events of Halloween IV, Michael Myers (Donald L. Shanks) has survived the shootings of the previous year’s Halloween night. Little Jamie Lloyd (Danielle Harris) has gone mute after attacking her own stepmother. She’s confined to a children’s hospital, treated for her psychological trauma. It becomes apparent to Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasence) that Jamie is exhibiting a type of connection, a mental link with her uncle Michael. As the psychotic slasher kills his way back to try and finally kill his niece, Loomis and the other Haddonfield residents try to band together in order to safeguard the lives of those who matter most from walking evil.
But as he’s so often proved before, nothing seems a match for Michael Myers. He is the living, breathing, walking presence of death. He will have what he wants.
Michael Myers is a feral, savage beast. He coldly kills the man who looked after him once collapsing after coming out of the river. Not that I expected any less, but still – cold blooded. Starting with the previous film, Halloween IV, Michael already started to exhibit pretty harsh, violent strength. From the beginning with Carpenter he was always an unnaturally strong slasher, but in the last movie the savagery of his kills began amping up. There was already the thumb through a guy’s forehead. Here, it isn’t only the intensity of the kills themselves, there’s an even worse sense of Michael’s vicious nature coming out. He’s becoming a worse evil than ever imagined, if that’s entirely possible. So, one of the positive things I can say about this sequel is the fact Michael sort of changes, at least in a slight sense, as a horror movie slasher. Okay – it’s not huge literary character development. Could be worse, though.
Then there are some excellent little sequences full of fear. For instance, when Jamie (Harris) is running through the hospital, thinking uncle Michael is right on her tail and trying to kill her, there’s a good deal of suspense and the heart gets pumping. Of course she’s only imagining it, and the big jump comes as you almost expect Michael to be there. Instead it’s a maintenance man, a nurse behind him, each looking for Jamie. I thought that was a solid scene, subverted expectations.
Another scene I liked is when Tina (Wendy Foxworth) goes out to the car, expecting her boyfriend Mikey (Jonathan Chapin), only unbeknownst to her it’s actually Mikey Myers in the mask she bought – it was super tense, I honestly didn’t know how the scene was going to go and I constantly feared for Tina’s life, every step of the way. Really effective few moments, even tied up with Jamie and her strange psychic connection with Michael, because there are moments cutting to and from Jamie/Tina which make it all the more nervous for the audience.
On top of that, I do like the Thorn Cult people prowling around. Adds something extra. While I’m not a fan of the supernatural-ish angle happening, their presence is definitely creepy. Seeing one of them walk out after Loomis heads downstairs in the old Myers house, another passes out onto the street in another shot between the Jamie/Tina ordeal – I find it dark and foreboding. I guess the positive aspect of this, what I’m trying to get at is, that if Myers and his story has to be continued with these sequels, it’s at least interesting the writers tried to conjure up a backstory with more depth than originally intended. Not saying it’s better than just the faceless slasher, the mysterious psychopath. But if it’s got to be kept going, at least make it interesting and a little fresh.
An important aspect of this movie is the fact Danielle Harris was a great actress at such a young age. Even with the silliness of the psychic link between her character and Michael, she did a wonderful job. The fact Jamie was mute for the first half of the film made for some interesting acting, which I enjoy to the fullest. She brings across the struggling, traumatized little girl in Jamie so well. I still find Harris to be a quality actress, even a good director now, even if the films she acts in aren’t always the best. At an early age, Harris was able to prove herself and add something interesting to Halloween V in a slightly bland sequel.
Aside from Harris’ performance and the handful of creepy scenes, there’s not a whole lot else going on. The kills are decent here and that gives the movie something else to rely on. Most of the acting holds up, but it’s really Harris and Donald Pleasence – of course – who hold up that end of the bargain. If the writers hadn’t leaned into the psychic connection it may have been better: the whole cult thing was cool, it just should’ve been turned into something different other than what it later became in further sequels; I always imagined it cool if a cult began to worship Michael instead of what started to happen after this movie. I love all the Jamie-Michael stuff, but it wasn’t best served being turned into a supernatural thriller style plot device.
I can’t rate this Halloween installment any lower than 3.5 out of 5 stars. It is nowhere near any of the best this series has to offer. Still, though, I think there are some good moments of suspense, lots of tense scenes. Instead of jump scares this film relies on a nice performance from Danielle Harris, the return of Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis, as well as a slow pace. If the story were better I could’ve definitely given this a half star (or more) extra. However, the plot in this movie begins to make the series get silly and bad as the sequels push on. Either way I don’t feel this movie deserves the hate it gets, nor is it a masterpiece. It’s just a fun sequel despite its flaws.
The House by the Cemetery. 1981. Directed by Lucio Fulci. Screenplay by Lucio Fulci/Giorgio Mariuzzo/Dardano Sacchetti, from a story by Elisa Livia Briganti.
Starring Catriona MacColl, Paolo Malco, Anioa Pieroni, Giovannia Frezza, Silvia Collatina, Dagmar Lassander, Giovanni De Nava, Daniela Dora, Gianpaolo Saccarola and Carlo De Mejo. Fulvia Film. Rated R. 87 minutes.
I came to Lucio Fulci about ten years ago, after seeing City of the Living Dead. His classic look, the effects, an insanely nasty sense of style – how could I not enjoy his films? After that one, I found The Beyond, which is tied with A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin as my favourite of his work. So I made my way through everything by him I could find. Though his movies aren’t perfect, I find them perfect for me, for horror. They’re not full of grand metaphor, they aren’t even particularly complex in plot. What Fulci offers is a visually pleasing aesthetic, crossed with the brutal qualities of his own personal horror movie madness.
The House by the Cemetery isn’t his best, though, it’s nowhere near his worst. While many might have you believe it’s overrated, or that it’s “typical Fulci”, I say that’s nonsense. Especially those who think it’s “typical” of him – what’s wrong with typical Fulci? He’s a classic horror filmmaker, his style is all his own. Added to that, there are always solid gore effects, you can count on that. This film has all the earmarks of Fulci with a bit of inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft and other sources.
Essentially, this is Fulci’s version of the haunted house horror.
Norman and Lucy Boyle (Paolo Malco/Catriona MacColl), along with their young boy Bob (Giovanni Frezza), move into a home belonging to a colleague of Norman’s who committed suicide; he plans on researching the house itself, as well as the other previous owners. Soon enough, Bob sees a young girl named Mae (Silvia Collatina), but only he can see her. She tries to warn him of the danger in the house. No one will believe him, certainly not his mother. Eventually a woman comes to take the position of babysitter for Bob – Ann (Ania Pieroni) shows up out of nowhere for the job.
Things slowly get scarier in the old house, as Norma and Lucy discover a Dr. Freudstein once lived in their new home, around the turn of the century. He was a Victorian era doctor who performed illegal surgeries and experiments. This leads to more gruesome discoveries around the property, as the past comes alive and tears its way into the present.
When the movie’s filmed in English, yet still dubbed in post-production for some odd reason, you can’t expect it to be an outright masterpiece. Can you? No. So, when you watch The House by the Cemetery I’m not saying you’ll be blown away by all the technical aspects. Nor am I saying the story makes perfect and complete sense. Not in the slightest. What I am saying is that Fulci manages to do excitingly eerie things with atmosphere, as well as the fact he does his best to include some proper gore to wet the whistle of all those gore hounds out there.
My favourite part of this film is that atmosphere. The overall tone is grim. There’s something common to Fulci, I think. Every movie feels hopeless, not an ounce of actual happiness and figurative light manages to make its way into these stories he tells. Which is perfect for horror, and why I’m always inclined to enjoy so many of his films. The House by the Cemetery has the pretense of having those happier moments in the beginning, but the immediacy in Fulci’s presentation of the horror going on inside the house sets the tone quickly. It reminds me of how George Romero starts Day of the Dead with that neat, brief little dream sequence; sets us on edge from the start, almost like a visual manifesto. From there, Fulci works on us with his imagery alongside an unusual and exciting score from Walter Rizzati. The aesthetic of the film is, again, very Fulci.
I mean, even the scene where Norman (Paolo Malco) gets attacked by a bat becomes something intensely horrific. It latches onto his hand for what seems like ages. Finally, after a tough wrestle with it as everyone watches in horror, Norman stabs the things, blood pumping everywhere. The mark it leaves is savage. Such a normal event like finding a bat in the basement – something which happens plenty to people around the world – transforms into the stuff of nightmares. Such is the power of Fulci. He doesn’t have to be doing anything extraordinary in terms of plot or story in order to make things interesting, or in this case pretty nasty.
I’ve seen a lot of people complain about the story, like the plot is completely nonsensical. Not sure why so many complaints. There’s not much going on here to really need to comprehend. It’s a haunted house style horror movie, there are reanimated corpses in the house – chaos and supernatural terror ensue. What’s so tough to get? Not saying that everything is tied up into neat little packages and the screenplay rounds off every edge it fashions. But seriously – I don’t get the labels of incoherent other reviews have put out there. Does not make sense. There’s a surreal nature to this creepy house of Fulci’s, I feel The House by the Cemetery is like a fever dream full of haunting images. As I said earlier, this is like the past meets the present. The visceral entities of the house’s past come alive to keep taking lives, to keep Dr. Freudstein in business and corpses for experimentation, surely. Is that not the whole point? Just can’t get my head around why people feel the need to criticize Fulci here when the movie isn’t trying to be anything more than it is: a creepfest with nasty kills and a grim tone.
Despite all my love for this Lucio Fulci film, I do find a lot of the acting – aside from Catriona MacColl who is always fabulous – pretty damn bothersome, and tiring most of the time. Regardless, I still say this is a 3.5 out of 5 star horror movie. It’s got a nice dose of gore, the typically awesome and gnarly horror expected of Fulci. Not only that, the story is creepy enough to keep things going; no matter what people say about its supposed incoherence. Mainly, it’s just not an overly complex plot or anything. It has the goods to satisfy a haunted house movie craving, on top of that the blood and vicious bits will keep the hounds at bay. Not Fulci’s top horror, but like I said it’s light years away from being the worst. This is a good flick for Halloween and it’s a generally good one to take in if you’re getting into Fulci, or if you’re into him and have yet to see it because of Negative Nancies and Davie Downers saying this is overrated, or yadda yadda whatever else they say. Judge for yourself! Let me know what you think in the comments, I’d love to hear other perspectives, as long as you’re civil – then this Dude abides.
The Haunting. 1963. Directed by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Nelson Gidding; based on the novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson.
Starring Julie Harris, Claire Bloom, Richard Johnson, and Russ Tamblyn. Argyle Enterprises. Rated G. 112 minutes (Black & White).
Whatever the equivalent of a Renaissance Man in film, it certainly was Robert Wise. He crossed over genres and did so many incredible movies in the span of his career that it’s almost not even sensible. Not nowadays, even with lots of great filmmakers popping out here and there.
Think about it – The Curse of the Cat People, The Body Snatcher, The Set-Up, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Somebody Up There Likes Me, West Side Story, The Haunting, The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, and even Star Trek: The Motion Picture. That’s not even all of them, just the good ones (except for the first Star Trek).
Wise has that classic sensibility about his filmmaking. Here, he uses such beautifully constructed angles and lighting, shadow, to create a haunting feeling. His ability to put us in the perspective of a character is uncanny. The Haunting is not just a ghost story, nor is it simply a typical haunted house horror movie. Wise constructs a supernatural type film around very psychological premises. Working off the excellent novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, the screenplay by Nelson Gidding is woven finely and Wise makes it something intimate, as well as very universal. Though we spend so much time getting into the head of one particular lead character, the story and its trappings draw on a widely held fear – one that comes out of wondering what lies beyond the veil of death.
Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) plans on conducting experiments concerning ghostly entities. He is able to secure the use of Hill House: a legendary home built by Hugh Crain (Howard Lang) for his wife, though now supposedly haunted after he was plagued by the deaths of his wives.
Markway invites several people to come to the house, all in the name of studying fear specifically. Two women, Eleanor (Julie Harris) and Theodora (Claire Bloom), along with a young man named Luke (Russ Tamblyn) come to Hill House in order for Markway to start experimenting. However, not long after her arrival Eleanor starts to lose her grip on reality. Not too long and everything begins to get more terrifying, not just for Eleanor but for every living person who comes into contact with Hill House. No telling if any of them will make it out of its walls alive.
I don’t care what anyone says, some of the old school film techniques are the best. For instance, just the way Wise creates a disorienting feeling with simple methods instead of using any elaborate effects is part of The Haunting‘s charm. Early on, after Eleanor reaches the house and everyone’s settling in, she has a sort of panic attack and the camera dips, giving us an inverted look at her as she screams out. It’s such a deceptively simple shot, but god damn if it doesn’t work proper. Even so far as very quick angles and switches of point-of-view, which Wise executes flawlessly. Particularly there’s a scene where Eleanor goes back to her room alone, lying on the bed, then the camera moves from above her looking down to a shot next to the bed, no edit. Such a smooth switch and it just has a nice look. Lots of modern horror is so concerned with pushing a scare on you and throwing it in your face. Wise lets a lot of the psychological effects of the noises, the ghostly whispers (and so on) really sit with you and he twists and turns things about as you’re sinking in it. Again, it’s the fact we’re so often thrown into Eleanor’s perspective I find the film is so creepy. You eventually get a sense of something terrifying happening, even in the times Eleanor is with someone else and the ghostly presence is banging a door or shaking something – it still feels very much like we’re riding along with her specifically. I enjoy all the characters, it’s simply the way the story is told and how Wise is able to give us such a close, intimate feeling of seeing things through her eyes.
So much of the psycho-horror comes out of the innovative filming and creative editing, such a spooky overall product. Wise deliberately wanted to throw people off, so there are cuts where characters walk through a door on the right only to enter through the left of the screen, thereby confusing any sense of understanding the layout of Hill House (so remember this people when you think about Kubrick’s The Shining). I love that because it adds another purposefully, and awesomely, eerie sense of disorientation.
One of my favourite moments in terms of technique is the staircase. We get that neat shot, strangely creepy, where the camera seems to zoom down through the stairs. As per commentary on The Haunting Blu ray, this was achieved by basically using the staircase as a dolly and sending the camera down slowly, then once in reverse the effect came out weird and highly effective. Just like another shot where Eleanor is alone, thinking to herself and letting the thoughts of dead Mrs. Crain get in her head, then the camera sort of zooms down at her from high above, her wide and screaming mouth open – then a quick cut to Dr. Markway grabbing hold so she doesn’t fall off the balcony. This quick bit is so unsettling, it draws you closer and closer towards Eleanor’s mindset.
The performances are all pretty top notch, classy style acting overall. Of course it’s Julie Harris as Eleanor who steals the show. Without her ability to portray such a damaged, fragile woman, the plot wouldn’t have been able to take hold. Not only does Wise put us in her shoes visually, her skills as an actor take us the next leap forward. She’s very quiet and subtle at moments, then others time there’s a fire inside her, in her eyes, and it rises up quickly. Harris has wonderful range and displays it, fine-tuned here.
Further than that, this movie had a great depiction of a lesbian woman for 1963. Usually there’d be a foolishly stereotypical version of a gay woman in other big films. Instead, Theodora (played by Claire Bloom) comes off elegant, feminine and not someone trying to lure the only other woman around into a sexual encounter – funny enough, the 1999 remake sort of retracted all that and made her into a hound for pussy, but whatever, that movie was awful. This one, though, it really did good things for the character. That’s just another example of a nice addition to the source material. Jackson is very, very present throughout this adaptation. But Gidding and Wise have their hands in some places where it counts, including Theodora’s character and the in-depth focus on Eleanor and her mental state.
If there were ever a quintessential haunted house-style horror movie, it is absolutely Robert Wise’s The Haunting. 5 stars, hands down. I can never see this movie enough. It’s especially good for Halloween, but every day is good for horror. This will sink in if you let it. Too many people today are getting desensitized by gore and blood. But that is not the epitome of horror. The real creepy stuff, the genuinely unsettling horror movies, they’re the ones that slowly climb into your brain and don’t let go. They’re the things made up of well crafted writing, careful direction – both in terms of cinematography, editing, and also regarding the design aspects of the house, the look of it all. The Haunting has every bit of this, and more. You need to experience this Wise masterpiece in Blu ray, it will blow your mind. Excellent horror and one hell of a classic.
John Carpenter’s The Thing. 1982. Directed by John Carpenter. Screenplay by Bill Lancaster, from a story by John W. Campbell Jr.
Starring Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, Richard Masur, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, and Donald Moffat. Universal Pictures/Turman-Foster Company. Rated R. 109 minutes.
It’s hard to choose a favourite filmmaker. For me, and for many, there are tons of great directors out there. Especially when you consider the different genres. I often have a hard time saying I like one director – who happens to stick with a certain genre – over another, simply because I feel particular directors are best within certain genres. Still there are a handful of them I’d place at the top of my personal list.
One such filmmaker is John Carpenter.
Not only does Carpenter direct, he is a master of his craft. Something I’ve always admired about his style is that he likes to do his own scores, which is a big part of his overall aesthetic (funny enough – this movie isn’t scored by him: it’s the prolific Ennio Morricone, so fucking awesome regardless!). He pretty much has what I’d call an auteur style. Nobody does horror-thriller as good as him.
The Thing brings all of the best aspects of Carpenter together, alongside the solid performances of the likes of Kurt Russell and Keith David, as well as Morricone’s wonderfully suspenseful and effective score. This is not just one of the best horror movies from the 1980s, it’s one of the best horror movies. Ever. What starts out like a tense thriller evolves into a horrifically existential science fiction film, all based on John W. Campbell Jr’s short story “Who Goes There?” (also the basis of this 1951 film). I can never get enough of the dreadful, isolated horror Carpenter brings out in this movie. There’s a reason people always talk about this one. And a damn good reason Carpenter is a master of horror.
At an American base in the Antarctic, a chopper chases a dog across the snowy mountains equipped with a man holding a high-powered rifle. When the American crew – including R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley), Childs (Keith David) +more – come out they discover two crazed Norwegians. One tries to throw a grenade but blows up their chopper. The other, aiming for the dog, shoots George Bennings (Peter Maloney), so one of the crew shoot him dead.
At first it seems as if the men simply went insane up in the wilderness. However, after the dog transforms into a hideously deformed creature, MacReady and the crew start to deal with a situation beyond their control. Some sort of virus seems to be spreading, but no one is able to tell who it’s infecting – moving from person to person, The Thing inhabits anyone’s skin it wishes.
Will any of them survive? And if they do, is it really them?
Carpenter really sets up his atmosphere well, in every film. Almost none better than The Thing, as he starts out first with a long cinematic stare into space. From there we move to the Antarctic wilderness, vast landscapes of nearly nothing except for the white snow stretching on for miles and miles. It’s an appropriate way to give us that immediate sense of isolation. Once the exterior isolation is setup, Carpenter moves inside to where all the human elements of the story come into play. Then, furthermore, we start to get their sense of isolation – from the moment you see Mac drinking, playing around on the computer and then dumping a couple shots of J.B. into it, there’s an obvious idea of how sick this guy is with his lodgings up north. It only gets better from there, but I’ve always thought the film’s opening sequence really made the isolation sink it quickly, yet easily.
Not only the isolated feeling, either. With the Norwegians chasing the dog, the chopper exploding after a fumbled grenade toss, adrenaline is flowing hard. The tension is instantaneous and you’re already champing at the bit for what’s coming next. The music, the cinematography, the actors – all pistons are pumping. Carpenter is good for this usually. Again, though, I’m inclined to say one of his best instances is here in The Thing. Carpenter’s sense of atmosphere and tone is so important to what makes him great, as well as unique in the horror genre.
While most Carpenter movies have stellar effects, The Thing boasts such an innovative and terrifying creature. It’s truly epic (a word that is overused improperly; I used it in seriousness). Honestly, after the dog becomes that hulking, massive monster, the first time I witnessed it I was awestruck for a minute or two. I still am, really. Such good effects, plus it’s unexpected. Even as I watch it again now, for the who-knows-how-many-times, there is an aspect to that scene I always find reels me in. Plus, afterwards there’s the scene with Dr. Blair (Brimley) dissecting The Thing; even the look on Brimley’s face, his disgust, it makes you almost smell the nasty reek of this alien creature’s insides. Downright incredible, these special effects. From start to finish this movie has such carefully crafted practical effects, you can’t help but admire the work put in.
The entire film isn’t built on effects, nor is it solely leaning on horrific elements to make its mark. Only other stuff Bill Lancaster wrote was Bad News Bears-related. With The Thing, adapted from Campbell’s short story “Who Goes There?” (great read by the way – check it out), Lancaster did some solid work. The screenplay is tight, it’s mysterious and has a ton of suspense, which the master Carpenter draws out perfectly with his style. There are genuinely creepy aspects I find unsettling. Such as when the crew starts watching the grainy videos, then they make their way out to the crater where the ship is sunk down, I find that entire portion so impressive! Morricone’s score is beyond perfectly fitting, it has that classic horror movie feel to it and at the same time there’s stuff you could call very archetypal Morricone (a.k.a dig it). So I’m actually amazed Lancaster did so well with this script, considering he’s never done anything else science fiction or horror. Hats off. Put into the hands of Carpenter this story soars to a new level of terror.
There a few performances in The Thing which help it greatly. Kurt Russell, obviously, is one of the reasons this movie kicks ass. They could’ve put a lot of actors in this role and it would’ve been all right. But with Russell there’s that little extra charisma, he’s tough and yet there isn’t some kind of superhero-ness about him. He gets afraid like anyone else in the same situation. Russell and Carpenter work well together, this may be the pinnacle; I dig Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China, but there’s something so perfect about this movie I can’t help single it out as their best collaboration. Then on top of Russell’s skill, Keith David does a nice job – he also did They Live 6 years later with Carpenter, wish he’d been in more of his films. And as much as Brimley gets shit for the “diabeetus” kick, he is spot on here; that scene when he flips and everyone tries to bear down on him, I always thought it was a great moment and shows how well Brimley can play a good character when he wants. Plus his fit lends to some more of the isolated, desolate feeling happening from there on in. All around excellent cast.
The Thing is a 5 star film. Without any shadow of a doubt. There’s so much happening. Above anything else, there’s a supremely existential terror flowing throughout almost every scene. Once The Thing takes hold, nobody knows who is who, who to trust, and it moves from one person to the next, some times even to animals. So there’s this incredibly dreadful horror at play. Then you throw in John Carpenter’s tense style, Ennio Morricone and his suspense-filled score, a well written screenplay with good actors to play it all out. What a mix!
If you’ve never seen this, my god, get out and watch it soon. Not only that, read the original short story by Campbell, as well as see the 1951 adaptation The Thing from Another World, which was a huge influence on Carpenter overall but especially for this film (obviously). I can never forget this movie, and it’s one I’ll put in any time I need a real creep.
ASYLUM BLACKOUT is a tense and atmospheric horror-thriller about a group of workers trapped inside an asylum when the lights go off, where they're picked off one by one.