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The Thing (1982)

Right behind Michael Mann, John Carpenter is my favorite filmmaker of all time.  The diverse range of films he has given the world are entirely unique and wildly entertaining.  In 1982, he ventured to pay homage to one of his favorite filmmakers, Howard Hawkes, by helming a re-adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. short story “Who Goes There?”  Hawkes had done so previously in 1951 with The Thing From Another World.  What Carpenter gave us is what I consider the best film he’s ever made.  A grippingly effective science fiction horror film with an amazing atmosphere of slow building paranoia and sickening alien gore.  John Carpenter’s The Thing became a classic of the genre due not only to a solid ensemble cast, but an elite crew that make this such a fantastic film that continues to hold up thirty years later.

In the winter of 1982, a twelve-man research team at a remote Antarctic United States research station discover an alien life form that was buried in the snow and ice for over 100,000 years.  They soon realize that not only is it still alive after a deep freeze burial and a fiery defeat by a Norwegian camp, but that it has the ability to imitate any living thing to exact detail.  Before they know it, the alien organism has infiltrated their camp, posing as any number of these men.  Paranoia and distrust runs amuck in this isolated compound as no one knows who is human, and who is The Thing.

Time always seems to be the best judge of quality.  Upon its release, The Thing did poorly.  This was because 1982 was the summer of Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, and many dark science fiction films did badly in the shadow of that wondrous, fantastical film.  Blade Runner, which opened the same weekend as The Thing, also suffered at the box office because of this.  However, since then, The Thing and Blade Runner have become two of the most revered films of the genre garnering massive praise, and are recognized among the best works from directors John Carpenter and Ridley Scott, respectively.  They are both amazing films in different ways, but have both influenced the genre immensely.

Beyond anything, what stands out the most in this film are Rob Bottin’s amazing creature effects.  What he achieves puts him on the same level with the absolute best in the business.  Effects master Stan Winston also lent a helping hand in a sequence or two, but Bottin is the main man responsible for the richly disgusting slimy alien gore and mind blowing physical creations here.  The detail he put into his work to create such twisted and purely alien designs remain as impactful and effective today as they were in 1982.  That’s the work of a master, and it lead to him working on blockbusters such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Se7en, Mission: Impossible, and Fight Club.  It is a massive loss to the industry that he has been absent from it since 2002.  Bottin was a fascinating personality with a wild artistic mind that was ripe with brilliance.  This film is eternal testament to his talents.

Speaking of which, John Carpenter’s pure horror talents have never been more taut or focused than in this film.  It’s the perfect blending of paranoia, creepiness, gory horror, tension, and suspense.  Nobody does it like John Carpenter, and only from his expert direction could this film have become as timeless and consistently effective as it has become.  Also from him comes a perfectly selected cast fronted by Kurt Russell as R.J. MacReady – the cool and rational mind, the level-headed one of the bunch.  Also featured in this ensemble are Keith David, A. Wilford Brimley, Thomas Waites, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, David Clennon, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, T.K. Carter, and Donald Moffat.  They all inhabit their characters so distinctly and vibrantly.  Each man has their own look, and aren’t easy to mistake one for another.  Their personalities and characteristics set them all apart very nicely, and all of the cast grasped onto the growing paranoia excellently.  A beardless Brimley brings forth a fantastic performance as well as Blair flips out partway through the movie tearing apart the communications center.  He plays crazy to immensely entertaining effect.  Later, he is truly unsettling leading into the film’s climax.  Keith David is constantly entertaining as the gung ho, take-no-crap from anyone Childs.  However, Russell clearly remains the most central protagonist of the film bringing stability to the chaos, and handling all the various dimensions of MacReady awesomely.

The script written by Bill Lancaster is wonderfully constructed.  Sadly, Mr. Lancaster passed away in 1997 due to a cardiac arrest, and was not able to contribute his thoughts to Universal’s amazing Collector’s Edition DVD.  The Thing was the last piece of cinema Lancaster was directly involved with, and at least he could say that he bowed out of filmmaking on a seriously high note.  This happens to be a pure classic in the genre of science fiction & horror.  The dialogue is always great, never ever cheesy or cliché.  There are bits of humor, but nothing that works against the tone of the film or the scene.  Any director would be privileged to work with a script this well-conceived.

The cinematography is an absolute pleasure here, and that is forever to be expected from Academy Award winning director of photography Dean Cundey.  In the opening minutes of the film, we are given stunning shots of the immense arctic landscape that clearly establish how isolated our characters are.  The photography can even prove to be terribly creepy at times such as the storage room scene after MacReady breaks into the compound.  Kurt Russell looks ghostly with the brilliant blue lighting upon his snow covered self.  Cinematography in a Carpenter film has always been a strong point, and you cannot deny its strength here.  It helps evoke the proper emotions at the right times by capturing atmosphere in its compositions and lighting.  Another such element is Ennio Morricone’s score.  Right from the get go, it sets the tone for the entire film.  It grips you and never lets go.  This score is haunting, relentless, brooding, and terribly chilling.  This is such a powerful score, and despite that Carpenter did not compose it, it does have many elements of his own scores in it.  Morricone had scored many “spaghetti” westerns including The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, and we would later score The Untouchables.  To this day, Morricone continues to score many films, mostly Italian ones.

What makes this film so effective is due to the psychological aspect of the story.  The paranoia slowly develops in the company of these men while trust diminishes.  These characters are nicely setup from the start establishing their relationships and personalities so vividly that later you see how seamlessly the alien has infiltrated their ranks.  No one acts any differently, and it is surprising how complete the disguise is.  Under a human guise, the Thing turns down the chance to take over as the leader of the group.  The life form is not looking to be obvious.  It has no ego, and is possibly doing this out of fear for its own survival.  It wants to hide, be subversive so that it can keep doing what it does without suspicion.  Using covert methods, it can slowly take over the entire camp until it is in total control.  However, when threatened, it is a brilliant idea that each part of it is an individual whole that will fight for its own survival.  This makes it just that much harder to definitively defeat as even one molecule’s survival can be disastrous, in time.  Mixed in with the diverse and dimensional performances, every aspect of paranoia and fear that this film deserved is greatly fleshed out and realized here.

When taking in all of this excellence, one can’t help but realize they are watching a classic piece of science fiction / horror cinema with John Carpenter’s The Thing.  From Carpenter’s expert direction, Bottin’s masterful effects work, the stellar production values, the power of Morricone’s score, the amazing cinematography, and certainly the stellar acting talents of this whole ensemble cast you will get a perfect film.  The atmosphere in this motion picture is something that many filmmakers fail to inject into their own films.  My interest in horror films has waned in past several years.  First, it was the torture porn trend, and now, I just don’t see much of anything out there with this level of atmosphere and craftsmanship.  John Carpenter’s masterpiece gets a perfect, solid rating from me – 10 out of 10.  I did see the 2011 prequel, and while it excelled in the horror and atmospheric areas, it didn’t have the memorable characters or amazing creature effects that set Carpenter’s film apart from the competition.  You surely can’t perfectly imitate a masterpiece.


Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

To say that the Halloween film franchise has been a very mixed bag with very debatable highs and lows would be putting it mildly.  Probably the blackest sheep of the family is Halloween III: Season of the Witch.  After burning Michael Myers alive in the second film, John Carpenter decided to take the franchise into an anthology format.  Each new entry would be generally unrelated to one another except for sharing a Halloween theme.  It failed, dismally.  Does that mean the film is particularly bad?  Well, that’s complicated.  The non-sequel was panned by critics and fans alike, and there is true reason to that.  In recent times, it has gained more respect apart from its franchise ties.  However, before I go further, let’s layout the plot first.

Dr. Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins) is a physician at a northern California hospital.  One October night, a man named Harry Cambridge is carted into the emergency room in hysterics.  Grasping a Silver Shamrock Halloween mask and screaming “They’re going to kill us all”.  Naturally, he seems to have lost his sanity, but when Harry is murdered in his hospital bed later that night by a mysterious man (Dick Warlock) who shortly thereafter enters into a car & blows himself sky high, Dr. Challis becomes very curious as to Harry’s claims.  His interest is furthered when Harry’s daughter, Ellie, tells Challis what drove her father into hysterics.  Harry Cambridge was investigating the origins of the Silver Shamrock masks, and to why no orders were being taken for the following year.  Daniel & Ellie trek to Santa Mira (the home of the Silver Shamrock Company) to find the answers they seek.  They are horrified when they discover that the company owner, Conal Cochrane (Dan O’Herlihy), has implanted microchips, partially made from mysterious Stonehenge rocks, into the masks, and when the Silver Shamrock commercial plays with its special jingle, it will kill countless numbers of children across the country in a horrific manner.  As the night goes on, time draws short, and Daniel Challis must attempt to thwart Cochrane’s evil, sinister, dreadful plan.  Through relentless android assassins (who all look like Dick Warlock), a treacherous factory, and more, Dr. Challis desperately races against time to stop this living nightmare from happening.

This film is good, but not great.  It has a tense and suspenseful story that plays out with some shocking visuals and lots of android gore (they ooze yellow fluid).  It’s sort of clever that the film still maintains the opening shot of the jack-o-lantern, but as a video graphic, thus, supporting the film’s technology motif.  The film starts off with a suspenseful and mysterious chase sequence which sets up an eerie tone for the film.  However, while there are several strong moments of horror and unsettling atmosphere, they feel very far between with little going on in the meantime to maintain a driving plot.

While the score is very identifiable as a John Carpenter / Alan Howarth creation, I think its main shortcoming is a lack of an iconic theme.  The music is either a pulsating, rhythmic vibe or just eerie underscore to enhance the danger and creep factor.  When the original Halloween is playing late in the film on a television set, the music from that film more than overshadows the original music for this film.  Still, this is certainly far from being a bad score.  It’s perfectly creepy and ominous from two master composers, but knowing the other work they have done, it seems a little lacking in creativity.  The incessant repeat usage of the Silver Shamrock jingle surely becomes irritating very quickly, adding another negative mark against the film.

Director Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the artist strength of John Carpenter, and while the cinematography of Dean Cundey goes a long way to boosting the visual quality of the film, there’s still a definite fall-off in suspenseful innovation.  Furthermore, several of the sets and props seem budget-starved. and the $2.5 million budget re-inforces that statement.  The lesser grade production values really damage the film’s potential for being taken seriously.  If the film had double that budget, perhaps such things would’ve looked better, but it wouldn’t have saved the film.  There are simply far more fundamental problems with Halloween III that could’ve been salvaged with the right person at the helm.  Thankfully, the special make-up effects are of an excellent gory quality.

Now, Tom Atkins puts in a strong, well-rounded performance here.  He shows the desperation of Challis well, and even more so, the intense fear at the film’s finale.  It’s a good performance as this womanizing doctor, but at times, you may feel as if he is is out-of-place.  Atkins is a big, tall guy, and having him play a less than physically capable man comes off as awkward on screen.  He easily does well with what he’s given, but there’s not much of a character on the page for him to appear unique or compelling.  Challis doesn’t have a particularly distinctive personality to really distinguish him strongly enough in the story.  This is pretty common with every character.

For instance, Dan O’Herlihy does a decent job as the insidious and sadistic Cochrane, but it’s not a great performance.  Granted, he’s convincingly evil, but barely more than that.  We are given a preview of Cochrane’s intended fate for the youth of the country, and it is truly shocking and horrifying.  Unfortunately, that alone doesn’t amplify the character of Cochrane.  I feel he needed to be more devilish, more demonic, more purely evil, but O’Herlihy’s performance does not reflect that.  His motives are horrific, but the man himself acts exceptionally casual.  He exudes very little emotion beyond a slight foreboding tone when he explains his motives and intention to Dr. Challis.  Cochrane shows no anger, no contempt, no vindictiveness.  Considering his motives, one would expect a more driven, more passionately evil character to come through on screen.  A casual evil can entirely work, but it needs more under the surface to make it truly disturbing.  One part of it is the script, but the other is the direction.  O’Herlihy might’ve been capable of more, but Wallace does nothing to motivate a stronger performance.  Basically, there’s no true depth to the performances.  You can look back at the wonderfully subtle work of Donald Pleasance in John Carpenter’s 1978 film to see what dramatic depth truly is, and how a great actor can inhabit a role well with the aid of a talented director.

I personally feel that this movie had potential, and if someone were to be bold enough to revamp it into a modern day production, I think it could meet that potential.  These days, one never knows what Hollywood will want to pillage next.  The premise of mixing mystical forces with a science fiction tinge sounds great to me, but it wouldn’t be an entirely new.  I simply believe that, with a proper budget in the hands of a talented director and an updated script, Season of the Witch could be an exponentially better film.  As it is, we’ve got a low budget B grade horror film with a fading stain of spite.

So, in the end, we are left with an intensely fearful cliffhanger as Challis screams at the television station over the phone to shut off the final commercial.  It’s a thrilling and suspenseful finale, and it should stick with you for sometime.  As I said at the start, we have a mixed bag.  The story worked, and the film had it’s frightening and thrilling moments.  However, the production faltered.  Tommy Lee Wallace isn’t a real visionary director, and the score was truly sub par for both Carpenter & Howarth (latter of which would do great scores for the next three Halloween films).  There are a couple of films I like just based on their potential despite the film not realizing that potential.  I believe this is one of them.  I can enjoy certain elements of it, but Halloween III: Season of the Witch just doesn’t captivate me all the way.  In the least, I suggest checking it out just so you can make your opinion of it instead of blindly buying into the scorn of decades past.


John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978)

You know, the term ‘classic film’ is thrown around a hell of a lot.  There’s a great deal of times where it is simply not justified.  People jumping the gun the second a film is released, and saying it’s one of the all time greats.  Let’s see how it endures after 10, 20, or even 30 years.  Directors also get this treatment.  For example, Rob Zombie.  The man, in my brutally honest opinion, has yet to make a decently watchable film, but so many people hail him as some messiah because he makes dirty, ugly films.  It takes more than simple visual style to make you a good, let alone great director.  So, if you ask me who my favorite genre director is, who I feel has had the best run of things with the most diverse body of work?  I would say John Carpenter. The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live, In The Mouth of Madness, Vampires, Escape From New York…. all favorite films of mine.  He demonstrates a brilliance in everything he does – writing, directing, producing, and music composition.  When it comes to Halloween, there’s nothing quite like it.  Every other slasher film in the world goes straight for the gore.  After the years and decades have passed, filmmakers seem to have lost sight of what is truly scary in horror.  It’s not shock gore, cheap jump scares, or splatter films with ten thousand gallons of blood.  Taking the time to adequately build up an atmosphere of tension and suspense seems to become a dying art among the mainstream horror filmmakers.  I’m not going to turn this into a comparison to other films, I’m going to tell you exactly why this film has remained a justifiable and certified classic for over 30 years.

If you aren’t familiar with the film’s plot, I’ll give you a lean and mean version.  Michael Myers, fifteen years ago, murdered his sister on Halloween night.  Afterwards, he was put into a psychiatric sanitarium, overseen by Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasance), but on October 30th, 1978, he escapes back to his hometown of Haddonfield.  Come Halloween, he is stalking a group of teenage girls for reasons unknown.  Among these is Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a sweet, caring, and decent girl.  Loomis himself is in pursuit, fearing for what might indeed happen with Michael loose.  After fifteen years of treating the young man, Loomis is convinced he is purely and simply evil.  Someone without conscience, compassion, humanity, or any grasp of good or bad, right or wrong.  In clinical terms, a sociopath.  Donning a pale white mask of blank expression, Michael proceeds to methodically kill people throughout Halloween night.  Can the evil be stopped before too long?

You talk about film direction?  This should be shown to every aspiring filmmaker.  Even if they are not interested in the horror genre, this film gets everything right.  Music, cinematography, staging, acting, tone, pacing, editing….the list goes on.  Certainly the most impressive and crucial technical element is Dean Cundey’s high caliber artistry as the film’s Director of Photography.  Before Halloween, I don’t think any film had been shot in this fashion.  The beautiful, genius composition is the main element which crafts the horror so effectively.  You could take a still from about every scene, and you’d have something special and effective.  The composition creates striking images that serve the tension and terror.  How Michael seems to materialize out of the darkness just before slashing Laurie around the 76 minute mark is beyond known words to describe that brilliance.  Don’t forget all the steadicam work.  Very impressive for a film of this scale, and it adds so much to the production values.  Even these days, the lower cost ones will cost you around two grand, and back in ’77, they were brand new technology.  How shots glide from one place to the next, in and out of rooms, panning ever so smoothly around the action – it is masterful.  Where now, everyone’s gotta shake the camera so much, it makes you puke, it is a breath of fresh air to see filmmakers shooting a film like this.  Slow reveals, shots pushing in, pulling out, and oh lord….the gorgeous lighting.  Lighting creates atmosphere.  Subtle fills and key light.  Patterns across the walls and ceilings.  It helps to direct the eye, and envelope you within a certain mood.  Dean Cundey is a masterful cinematographer, and continues to showcase his artistry to this day.  He would also work on Carpenter’s The Fog, Escape From New York, The Thing, & Big Trouble in Little China.

While most might not take conscious note of Cundey’s work, everyone knows the value of Carpenter’s score.  His themes have become legendary and iconic.  No other film in the entire franchise has a score this prominent or effective.  It drives so much of the film, creating a taut, nerve-racking strain of suspense.  There is one theme that I call the “Stalking Theme” because that’s when you hear it.  Michael begins to stalk Laurie through the Wallace house, across the street, and all throughout the Doyle home.  This is a relentless theme which accurately and powerfully reflects the intentions of The Shape.  I continue to firmly stand by my belief that Nick Castle was the absolute best Michael Myers.  While the direction and camera work make the Shape truly effective, making Myers appear to move like a ghost – appearing and disappearing in a heartbeat – I want to specifically address Castle’s performance.  Where later Michaels were more thoroughly rigid and mechanical in their movements, Castle brought a fluidity to The Shape.  He moves like a man, reacts like a man, but has a quality which is simply unsettling.  He’s creepy.  He feels like a realistic homicidal maniac, but with a clear, calculating intelligence allowing him to stalk and kill at the most opportunistic moment.  He’s not just running around like a nutcase, screaming and wildly slashing up people.  He’s conscious of his actions, and acts deliberately.  In addition, Castle injects a violent intensity to the role.  He is relentless, and continues to come back with increased violent ferocity.  It can tend to seem like he needs to kill Laurie, that he is compelled to make sure she dies.  Compare how he strangles Laurie at the end to any other time Michael chokes someone later in the franchise.  In those later instances, it’s very cold and empty.  Here, there’s an apparent rage that cannot be satiated.  Some twisted, unwavering obsession at work, it would seem.  Michael actively and endlessly pursues Laurie.  He is the living embodiment of death.  He is inevitable and unstoppable.  And yes, this specific mask adds so much that subsequent ones lack – it has very human features, but clearly, they are fabricated.  He appears to have human features, but what he appears to be is not what he really is.

Speaking of performances, you would be hard pressed to find a substandard one here.  Everyone fits their role just right, slipping into it like a finely crafted glove.  Jamie Lee’s acting really shows what she was at the time – fresh, young, and eager.  I would take her performance in this film over what she offered in Halloween H20.  She showed genuine vulnerability, compassion, and emotional innocence here.  The performances throughout this film just feel authentic, believable, and tangible.  No one feels out of place or over the top.  Everything is very grounded and honest.  Charles Cyphers holds his ground as Sheriff Leigh Brackett, offering up a very real perspective against Dr. Loomis’ “fancy talk” about pure evil.  You could see any small town Sheriff thinking and saying the same thing in reaction to such claims.  All of the ladies really bring energy and life to their roles.  The youthful enthusiasm, again, feels purely authentic.  Makes a lot of the “teenage” performances of today seem flat and cliché.

As I say in reviews for the sequels, Donald Pleasence is the glue that binds the film together, and provides it with a weight and urgency it needs.  His performance in this first film is more low key than his incensed sequel appearances.  You can see Loomis’ fear surfacing as he speaks about his escaped patient.  Michael frightens him down to his core, and it is his own fear which motivates him.  He knows the hollow, emotionless, indifferent monster that Myers is, and cannot bare the thought of what will happen now that he’s loose.  I believe, in the sequels, it drives him rather mad.  His obsession is enhanced by the volume of bloodshed spilled by Michael, and is why he becomes so deadset and crazed later on.  Pleasance demonstrates a real brilliance in this role.  The dread and fear in his voice gives every last one of his words credibility which is so crucial to building up Michael to being more than just a mentally ill murderer.  He is the boogeyman, a presence, an indomitable, elemental force that cannot be reasoned with or destroyed.  The final look that Loomis gives, which came from Donald’s own brilliance, conveys to the audience, “I knew this would happen.”  It does not shock him, only frighten him further.  What he has believed all these years has been proven true – you cannot kill pure evil.

It is refreshing to watch the original film after weeding through the sequels.  John Carpenter’s Halloween is like a revelation, and reminds me how none of the sequels measure up.  It was never simply one element that made this film so great – it was every element.  The cinematography is worthy of awards alongside the direction and music.  The acting is, mostly, understated and firmly based in reality.  Characters like Loomis and Brackett keeping cool heads instead of either going way off the deep end, or being complete buffoons.  This film is an undeniable and justifiable classic.  I can’t say it’s the most frightening film I’ve ever seen, that honor goes to The Exorcist (which I still can’t pull myself to watch again), but this film will keep you rattled and unnerved to significant degrees.  While, I’m sure, there are minor technical gaffes here and there, it’s nothing that you will pick up in a casual viewing.  No film is perfect in all aspects, absolutely, but what this is, is an excellent piece of cinema that should continue to endure for all time.  There is no reason not to give this a full ten out of ten rating.