Friday, March 27, 2015

My take on "The Thing" (1982) directed by John Carpenter

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

A parasitic extraterrestrial lifeform that assimilates other organisms and in turn imitates them. The Thing infiltrates an Antarctic research station, taking the appearance of the researchers that it absorbs, and paranoia develops within the group.” –from Wikipedia
Strength of Character: C+

R.J. MacReady is our hard-ass pilot protagonist as portrayed by Kurt Russel. He doesn’t have any backstory to speak of, none of the characters do. They just are who they are. It works for the most part, but at times I wanted a little more emotional attachment to the people being killed, and the best way to achieve that would be through more attention to character development. It would’ve made for a more devastating film.

Nice hat, MacReady. You're a real trendsetter.
The more you think of the characters in this movie the more frustrated you become. They are at some U.S. outpost in Antarctica, we gather, but for what purpose? Are they soldiers? Because they don’t act like soldiers with their complete lack of discipline and command structure. They certainly are armed like soldiers, with a whole cache of weapons and explosives including two flame throwers.

There are two doctors, doctor Copper and doctor Blair, but their purpose at the facility is never really explored. And why do they have some computer that can play a version of asteroid and somehow determine the threat posed by these alien cells?

But most of these questions didn’t occur to me with my first viewing. These came up recently as I was hyper-aware and critical of the characters. Ultimately this movie isn’t about its characters, it’s about The Thing. We only care about the characters enough to remember who’s who during the epic wire-in-the-blood scene.

Genre Strength: A

Speaking of the wire-in-the-blood scene, the plotline of the infiltrator is as compelling here as I’ve ever seen it.  It added a psychological element to the film, a thought-experiment on trust and distrust.

This movie, much like “Alien,” uses isolation as a vehicle to horror. The characters are as stranded and alone as possible, far from help, far from civilization. That sense of isolation sets the audience on edge well before The Thing starts to have its way.

The Thing itself is a macabre masterpiece. There’s a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics that called the “Uncanny Valley.” Described on Wikipedia as “When features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers.” I think you can see this at play with the design of the puppets in this movie. They are just recognizable enough to send a chill down your spine.
And those autopsy scenes were delightfully disgusting. They did a great job with the prop work.

Thematic Poignancy: C+

Who can you trust if someone amongst you is a doppelganger? More of a thought-experiment than a theme, perhaps, but it is a chilling reminder of just how hard it is to know what people are hiding.

Could you sacrifice yourself for the greater good? The survivors at the end choose to do it, but the decision comes a little too easily. I would’ve liked to see some more teeth gnashing, or for one of them to be far less on board with the plan.

Overall this wasn’t a film with a deep well of poignant themes, but that’s ok. It didn’t really need them.

Entertainment Value: B-

The movie is an undeniable horror classic, but it is also imperfect. There’s some cheesy lines delivered by Kurt Russel like the cartoony: “Because it’s different than us, see?” and the line delivered while holding a stick of dynamite that’s about to explode in his hand, “Yeah, fuck you too!” The 80s were more forgiving of this sort of thing, I know, but it only earned an eye roll from me. Did I mention he’s holding lit dynamite that is about to explode at any moment?
But to focus too much on the negatives is to ignore the positives, and there were many. The grotesque props and puppets are the literal stuff of nightmares. The eponymous Thing is consistently equal parts frightening, gruesome, uncanny, and depraved. John Carpenter hit it out of the park with this one.

Random Notes and Final Grade: B

*Windows wipes a scalpel on his pants to sanitize it during the wire in the blood scene. If that’s the sterilization procedure anyone who goes after the infected guy is actually The Thing via that dirty scalpel.
*You would think they’d all stick together once they know they’re all human. As soon as someone is alone all bets are off.
*It was nice way to play with the emotions of the audience at the beginning when we see the helicopter shooting at that dog. I wanted to hate those guys and love the poor dog, we all did, I think.

Friday, March 20, 2015

My Take on "The Wolfman" a novelization by Jonathon Maberry

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

“The Wolfman” by Jonathon Maberry is a novelization of a 2010 film of the same name directed by Joe Johnston, and written by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. It follows Lawrence Talbot as he tries to discover the truth behind his brother’s murder at the hands of a werewolf, only to become afflicted himself. The review that follows is of the book by Maberry, and not the movie.
Strength of Character: C

Lawrence Talbot is handsome man with a dark secret, a troubled past, daddy issues, and a whole trunk full of issues with women. He is admirable at times, pitiable throughout, and occasionally more than a touch dull. I never developed a strong connection with the character, and struggled to become invested in his story.

Sir John was the standout character. His personality took over the room in every scene, and I missed him whenever he was absent. The patriarch of the Talbot family is the right mix of domineering, implacable father, and mad huntsman. Not to mention being the true villain of the story, with the possible exception of the lycanthropy itself.

The other cast of characters struggled to become more than two dimensional, with Gwen Conliffe being the character who suffers most from it. Lawrence’s eventual love of her is the point on which the climax of this story hinges, but as a reader I never found any affection for her myself. She is presented more as an idealized woman than an actual person, and is given to flightiness and an inexplicable and indelible love for her recently deceased husband’s brother. A love for which she harbors no guilt.

Genre Strength: B-

The transformation scene and the ensuing slaughter at the asylum is a fantastic scene. I saw the film years ago and it was the only thing that stuck with me, as I expect it will be the thing that stays with me most from the novelization. It is brutal, shocking, and downright fun in a terrible sort of way. The cocksure Dr. Hoenneger’s confrontation with the reality of the werewolf is just the sort of moment horror fans delight over.

Well, that's not good.
The gothic flair and dark tones of the novel add to its strength, if it is all a bit of a tired trope. If you are a fan of this movie, the book is a fun way to revisit the film with some added depth. It is difficult for me to imagine what it would be like to experience this story for the first time through this novel, but I admit I may have enjoyed it better that way. I’m interested to read the reviews of my classmates who came to the book before the film.

Regardless, the pacing flagged into the sluggish realm at times and I found myself losing interest. Good horror grabs you and never lets you go, so I can’t give this a glowing score.

Thematic Poignancy: B-

Lycanthropy and werewolves are a fascinating symbol for man’s fear of his own base nature and his potential for insanity. The Beast is our primal selves, shrugging free from the confines of decency and society and embracing the pursuit of essential hungers. This book explores these themes well, but I am hard pressed to claim it takes the conversation into places unknown or unexplored. I don’t blame Maberry for this, since it a likely symptom of the limitations of adapting a movie into print.
Werewolf Transformation 2, by Andy-Butnariu

Entertainment Value: C+

I’ve already touched on the inconsistent pace and relative weakness of certain characters, so I won’t rehash them here. I will say that the wanton brutality of the werewolves described feels definitive, as if Maberry captured the true horrific power of the creature that so many have tried and failed to describe.

I enjoyed reading about the werewolf as I always imagined one, as a being of pure animalistic power that mirrors the raw beauty of Mother Nature herself.

Random Notes and Final Grade: C+

*Singh’s death occurring off page was a disappointment. Overall, I didn’t like the handling of his character, and it felt like he had earned more agency within the plot.

*The moment where the posse of townsfolk believes they have the creature trapped, only to discover how horribly false that assumption is, was another standout.

*I find it difficult to give Maberry a lot of credit for what happens in the novel, because I know it’s merely a novelization of the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self. It makes this a tricky novel to review.

*All hail Samson the Irish Wolfhound

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Take on "Alien" directed by Ridley Scott

A moment’s preamble:  In June of 2014 I began graduate school at Seton Hill seeking an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. This term I’m enrolled in a course that focuses on MONSTERS, and as a part of that course I’ll blog on each book/story/movie covered.

I'll break each review down into 4 parts: Strength of Character, Genre potency, Poignancy of themes, and Entertainment Value. For each of these I will assign a letter grade. My reviews will contain **SPOILERS**

“Alien (1979):
A highly aggressive extraterrestrial creature that stalks and kills the crew of a spaceship.” –Wikipedia
Strength of Character: A+

How can I give this film less than an exceptional rating? This is the introduction of Ellen Ripley, one of the best characters in modern science fiction. She is smart, courageous, empathetic, and above all, oozing with agency. Agency is a word us writers like to throw around about a character’s ability to drive the plot through action, as opposed to bouncing along in the wake of the SS Plotship.

I would be remiss not to mention the fact that she was a female protagonist at a time where that was extremely rare for science fiction. I don’t mention this last because I find it less important. Socially, I believe it represents a milestone. This character blazed a trail through acid-bleeding xenomorphs and sexist thoughts alike (are they so different?). But don’t I don’t want to lose perspective here, Ripley works as a character first, and even in a perfect world where sexism no longer exists, this character would still be every bit as memorable.

The crew of the Nostromo is lively and intriguing as well. They are real people (well, except for the android), and represent normalcy and familiarity amidst a setting that is so, well, alien. They want to go home, hate the bureaucracy of “the Company” and gripe about pay. We all can identify.
Oh, you poor souls.

Genre Strength: A+

This movie was a trend-setter for both science fiction and horror. Watching it now, from the perspective of a desensitized 2015 horror movie fan, much of the elements in Alien seem predictable. The false ending is a prime example. Today’s viewer sees it coming because it has been done to death so much it should wrapped in white linen and jettisoned into space. But “Alien” is itself one of the prime reasons this type of ending is so popular. I refuse to look at this film through the lens of all the imitators and see it as somehow derivative.

The film’s pacing is superb, using atmosphere and subtlety to intrigue the audience. The open, cold vastness of space is a cosmic horror in its own right. Silence is the soundtrack for much of the film, letting our own fears echo in our ears instead of a score. “Alien” piques our curiosity. Then curiosity eats the cat with that mini extendo-mouth.

This movie is more Horror than sci-fi, and although the sequels lean further away from the original's horror, the franchise still represents a link between the two genres that is indelible. It essentially created an entire sub-genre of film and video games.

Thematic Poignancy: A+

So much has already been written about this film’s themes I won’t even pretend to give an exhaustive analysis of them here. But upon watching this movie for approximately the 82nd time this was what I picked up on:

The artwork that started everything.
There is the obvious parasitism. The male-rape was genius at the time, a way to take the horror conventions that had been victimizing women for so long and turning the tables on the male viewers in an unexpected way. Fear of pregnancy for both sexes, especially rape-induced, furthers takes that horror to another level. Thrown in for good measure, we get the soullessness emotionlessness of machines, the fear of artificial intelligence, and the destructive boot heel of bureaucratic greed.

The art design of H.R. Giger uses the set and creature designs to visually reinforce the themes and motifs.

Entertainment Value: A-

This movie was a low budget borderline B-movie at the time it was made. This forced direction Ridley Scott into using scale models, practical effects, and physical sets. The result helps make this movie relatively timeless. We are seeing a return to this sort of production today as filmmakers begin to realize that an over-reliance on graphics actually dates a move in a way that a practical, physical effect never will. This works well for the most part, but the low budget could not be completely disguised in a few scenes. The unconvincing android head of the science officer is chief among them.

“Alien” is a hugely entertaining and memorable film. Voted onto many “Top Movie” lists. What else is there to say?

Random Notes and Final Grade: A+

*The alien does look pretty fat and slow moving in light of the later movies, but I can’t fault this film for it. This is the origin.

*This anecdote is one of my absolute favorites about this film: “For the filming of the chestburster scene the cast members knew that the creature would be bursting out of Hurt, and had seen the chestburster puppet, but they had not been told that fake blood would also be bursting out in every direction from high-pressure pumps and squibs. The scene was shot in one take using an artificial torso filled with blood and viscera, with Hurt's head and arms coming up from underneath the table. The chestburster was shoved up through the torso by a puppeteer who held it on a stick. When the creature burst through the chest a stream of blood shot directly at Veronica Cartwright, shocking her enough that she fell over and went into hysterics. According to Tom Skerritt: "What you saw on camera was the real response. She had no idea what the hell happened. All of a sudden this thing just came up.” –Wikipedia

* Crew expendable.