This week’s double feature showcases two horror classics, both great remakes of films that themselves were classics and both directed by two of the greatest horror directors of the modern era. Watched this the other night and it was a great evening of classic horror cinema!
THE THING (1982)
Arguably John Carpenter’s best film and his masterpiece, The Thing was a remake of Howard Hawks’ 1951 classic The Thing From Another World, which was itself based on John W. Campbell’s story Who Goes There? Instead of using the 1951 film’s walking, blood sucking alien vegetable, he went back to Campbell’s story which featured an alien creature capable of imitating whatever it fed on.
Carpenter’s film opens with an isolated American research station in Antarctica being buzzed by a Norwegian helicopter that seems to be trying to gun down a lone sled dog. The incident results in the helicopter being destroyed and both raving occupants being killed, one by the station commander Gary (Donald Moffat) in defense of his crew. Now the team including helicopter pilot MacReady (Kurt Russell) are stuck with a bizarre mystery and the surviving sled dog. When MacReady and Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) investigate the Norwegian camp, they find it destroyed, it’s occupants dead and a huge hollowed out block of ice…not to mention a burned corpse of something barely human. The investigating of the evidence indicates the Norwegians found a strange ship in the ice and brought a specimen back to their camp that apparently was not dead when thawed out. The real nightmare is yet to come as the Norwegian dog reveals itself to be something quite unworldly and that an alien creature with the ability to absorb and become it’s prey may now be among them… or worse, may be one or more of them already. The paranoia and terror grows as the team try to discover who may be a creature in disguise and the creature feeds their paranoia and seeks to eliminate any of the men with the scientific knowhow to unmask it. Can those still human stop it and if they fail, what will happen to the rest of humanity?
The Thing is both a masterpiece of suspense and tension, as well as, of visceral horror. Carpenter along with Bill Lancaster’s script perfectly creates the paranoia of not knowing who around you is human and who is not. The setting of isolation is made all that apparent as Carpenter seals his characters in an ice and snow surrounded maze of hallways and dark rooms where the 12 men are trapped with something very inhuman and they can’t even trust each other as it could be anyone. The team all suspect each other, but as is human nature, turn to those they like for support and turn on those they may have not liked or not gotten along with before. We have 12 men who are social outcasts thrust into a situation where no one is coming to their rescue and they are forced to not only try to save themselves, but literally save the planet, as their failure to stop this creature will unleash it upon an unsuspecting world. Just so we fully understand the enormity of this creature’s threat, we are treated, via make-up FX master Rob Bottin (and Stan Winston who created the dog kennel creature), to some of the most gruesome creature transformation sequences ever filmed. Bottin convinced Carpenter to not go with a standard true form for the creature design, but an organism that is constantly changing and different once revealed and is made up of parts of all the beings it has absorbed during it’s journey through space. The results are visually horrifying and still hold their full impact even today. All this is brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Dean Cundey and accented by a haunting score by Ennio Morricone…who later voiced disapproval of how Carpenter used it. It is said the prominent electronic bits were actually written by Carpenter, though a lot of Morricone’s music is still used.
As for the human players, obviously this is Kurt Russell’s show, as he plays a man who is reluctantly forced to try to save a world he seems intent on hiding from and does so, honorably and selflessly. With 12 characters not everyone is given a lot of attention, but the cast all handle their roles well in presenting a bunch of eclectic social misfits who would rather be in the antarctic than with the rest of the world. The standouts aside from Russell’s MacReady are Dysart’s Dr. Copper, Moffat’s Gary, who crumbles when he really needs to take charge forcing MacReady to lead the rest, Keith David’s Childs and Brimley’s scientist Blair. Ironic, as Brimley has voiced his complete distain for the film. Maybe he should have read the script before signing on? Rounding out a solid cast are Richard Masur as Clark, David Clennon as stoner Palmer, Charles Hallahan as the meek Norris, Joel Polis as the quiet scientist Fuchs, T.K. Carter as the smart-ass cook Nauls, Thomas G. Waites as cowardly radioman Windows and Peter Maloney as complainer Bennings. Carpenter’s wife at the time, actress Adrienne Barbeau, also has a vocal cameo as the voice of MacReady’s chess computer.
The history of this film is as legendary as the film itself. The flick was critically panned for it’s gruesome gore FX and grim tone and audiences stayed away…not me, though, I saw it at least 3 times back in the day…and it has taken decades for it to finally be recognized as the masterpiece and classic it truly is. Simply a great horror/sci-fi film that has yet to be equalled. Followed by a Carpenter-less prequel in 2011 that is a moderately amusing companion piece at best.
A classic 4 (out of 4) Things!
THE FLY (1986)
Much like Carpenter’s The Thing, David Cronenberg’s The Fly is based on a 1950s horror flick of the same name and similar plot which itself is based on a short story, this one written by George Langelaan. Cronenberg’s telling is of brilliant scientist Seth Brundle ( Jeff Goldblum) who plans to revolutionize travel and change the world by creating teleportation devices which can instantly transfer people from one place to another when perfected. He meets and falls for pretty journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) and decides to reveal his work to the world through her, as she documents his progress. The two quickly become lovers and during an evening when Ronnie leaves to deal with slimy publisher/ ex-boyfriend Stathis Borans (John Getz), a jealous and drunk Brundle decides to use himself as the first human test subject for teleportation. At first Brundle seems to somehow have been improved through teleporting being stronger and faster, but soon his body and behavior starts to change for the worse and his health starts to deteriorate. An investigation into his teleporting session reveals a fly was in the telepod with him and the computer became confused and fused their DNA at a molecular level. Now the man is slowly turing into a monster and Ronnie is torn between staying to help the man she loves, or fleeing an evolving creature that becomes less human…and more dangerous…by the day.
Where David Hedison’s scientist in the 1958 classic simply became a human with a fly’s head and claw and the fly had his human head, Cronenberg, working from his own draft from Charles Edward Pogue’s script, uses the transformation as a metaphor for disease…some interpret it as AIDS, but Cronenberg himself nixes the idea he was being so specific. Instead of swapping part’s, Goldblum’s Brundle is merged with the insect at a molecular level and Cronenberg treats us to a grotesque and horrifying gradual transformation from man to insectoid monster. All the more effective because we like the charming and eccentric Seth so much and the romance between he and Veronica works so well, we are horrified to watch him degenerate in front of his helpless lover.
Davis and Goldblum have such great chemistry together and both give terrific performances which really makes the film work, as we become endeared to this cute and off-beat couple and watching her pain and his confusion and terror, as he mutates slowly into a human/insect hybrid, that can walk on ceilings and and could kill viciously if provoked, is mortifying . As performances go, let’s not forget John Getz who creates a slimy, self centered jerk in Stathis Borans yet, still makes him heroic and sympathetic during the films horrifying climax. Even minor supporting characters all perform well here. The SPFX from Chris Walas Inc. are stunning and rightfully won an Academy Award…though Goldblum was robbed of a deserved nomination. Walas and his team gruesomely take us from skin blemishes and fingernails falling off to a full blown insectoid creature in the film’s intense and heartbreaking last act. Their make-up FX not only show the graphic effects of the gradual transformation, but allow the human underneath to come through and enhances an already sympathetic and strong performance by our leading man. Assisting Cronenberg, his actors and his FX team is a wonderfully moody and intense score by Howard Shore and atmospheric cinematography by Mark Irwin.
The Fly is a true horror classic and arguably Cronenberg’s best film and was oddly praised for the same reasons our first feature The Thing was criticized for only 4 years earlier. It is a horrifying and yet heartbreaking sci-fi film about the price and sacrifice one man pays for delving into things possibly best left alone. Underneath all the grotesquery and horror, there is also a tragic love story and an allegory to the torment of dealing with the illness of a loved one or one’s self. A great horror, but also, simply a great movie. Followed in 1989 by an amusing, but far inferior sequel that had only Getz returning as a bitter and now handicapped Borans and was directed by Fly FX man Chris Walas.
A classic 4 (out of 4) flies!