Saturday, 19 June 2010

Re/Made: The Thing [part 1]

For your consideration: I’m writing a spec script:  
A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Return. Click the sidebar poll to declare your interest. I thank you.
One of my readers – the kid Cody – asked me to give John Carpenter’s The Thing 1982 the Re/Made write up. So I said “yes”.

The Thing is no more a horror film than Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956. The latter is a sci-fi classic. Whereas the former hasn’t achieved that status amongst critics it is beloved amongst the Horror Folk. As such there are those who contest it is a horror film. Here at Thrill Fiction the definition of horror is distinct: it is a movie with intent to scare – with the story structured around that intent. The Thing is a paranoid thriller within a sci-fi setting. More than 25 years after its theatrical release Thrill Fiction deems it classic sci-fi.

The Thing from another World 1951 doesn’t have such genre confusion. It is sci-fi. It is not a classic. The original Invasion of the Body Snatchers has a casting link to the 1978 remake; ie Kevin McCarthy’s thunderous cameo. The Fly 1958 starred Vincent Price. Both examples serve to connect those originals to the public consciousness. The Thing from another World has no enduring stars. It is largely forgotten in an industry that churns out 500+ motion pictures per annum.

There are plenty of critics, publications and Horror Folk who contend that The Thing is horror. Here at Thrill Fiction argument is conducted over fact not opinion. Therefore I’m happy to consider their point of view as far as this article is concerned however The Thing will never appear in my Best Horror Films list. As it is this post is dedicated to the kid Cody and everyone else who enjoys their horror - even if I may call it something else.

John Carpenter’s The Thing
Ennio Morricone’s pulsating score immediately sets the tone. Its heart beats throughout this film. It is music that declares doom: trouble comes. Carpenter’s visualization of tone is of isolation in the vistas of snow covered Antarctica. It is severe environment for mankind. It is fertile environment for boredom and paranoia.

The 12 men of the United States National Science Institute Section 4 entertain themselves by playing table tennis, repetitively watching videotapes of game shows, drinking and pot smoking. These are men of a certain tone. They are working class/blue collar. They are one step above oil drillers - the antithesis of lab coats. Not a one has backstory. They identify themselves through deeds not words. These are men who prefer to act as opposed to ruminate; Doc makes the snap decision to investigate the Norwegian’s camp despite bad weather.

Garry shoots a Norwegian dead.

Anyone who’s ever worked in an all male environment or attended an all boy’s school knows the inherent tensions of the pecking order. There’s always a power struggle to be top dog. Not everyone’s involved. It only takes two. Ergo there’s forever a coup d’état in waiting. MacReady (Kurt Russell), Childs and Clark are the big dogs. Blair and Doc are the old dogs. Garry is an old dog with a gun. Palmer, Windows and Nauls are the baby dogs. Norris, Bennings and Fuchs are the passive dogs.
The plot is a perfect thriller; the opening scene has the Norwegians shooting at the fleeing dog. The whole story revolves around this plot point - until the end of Act 1 where the dog reveals itself. Thereafter the plot focuses on destroying the Thing. The plot is separated-at-birth from that of another modern sci-fi classic Alien 1979.

The respective plots mirror each other and converge at certain points; the discovery of a spaceship then return to base with the alien/thing, the chest bursting scene coupled with the blood testing scene. Even the story parameters are similar; the truckers-in-space concept becomes truckers-in-Antarctica. It is on terra firma that Carpenter expands the premise. By expunging women he removes all political correctness/distractions/love sub-plots. He further expands the premise by removing a chain of command; the research team will have to figure it out as the Thing takes them out one by one. Remove the Thing from Carpenter’s film and replace it with HR Giger’s alien and there would be no need for script revision. The Thing – much more so than Aliens 1986 – is the thematic sequel to Ridley Scott’s film.

John Carpenter’s purple patch began in 1976 with his sophomore effort Assault on Precinct 13. In 1981 he directed Escape from New York starring Kurt Russell. The purple patch ended in 1982 with The Thing which also starred Kurt Russell. Carpenter and Russell have worked together before and after the purple days but it is the New York/Thing double whammy that defines their partnership. The Thing is their best work together.

Russell leads a cast of character actors that perform as part of a whole. The script is tighter than Alien – indeed the writing is so focussed story and plot is barely distinguishable. There are no dialogue scenes to establish character and/or dynamics. In this film character unfolds with plot. This is a film of action, reaction and interaction; Blair’s destruction of the choppers and radio. The decision to keep him imprisoned despite the threat of the Thing. The palace coup over the vandalised blood samples.
Keith David plays Childs. With Clark and Gary forcibly bound Childs is in combat for Mac’s leadership position. He strikes when Mac is adrift in the sub zero temperature and has the men lock him out to die. Here Carpenter subverts the racial dynamic from Night of the Living Dead 1968. Mac is Ben whose intention is to save everyone. Childs is Cooper whose method is to sacrifice anyone who might be infected. It’s a battle between left and right where no one’s wrong.

When Mac accuses Childs et al of being a “lynching party” Carpenter is being overt. Whenever he uses African-American actors as hero (Austin Stoker in Assault on Precinct 13 1976) or villain (Isaac Hayes in Escape from New York) he does so without prejudice. There are no racist undertones or slurs in his movies. He’s in the minority.

With sparse dialogue and less exposition the story is told through action and acting. The performances are fine tuned and tension laden. Every time the Thing succeeds in consuming a researcher it is of significant loss to the viewer. The set pieces are cinema as entertainment: The Thing attacking the dogs, Doc’s attempt to revive Norris, the blood test.

In The Bad and the Beautiful 1952 Kirk Douglas describes how to make Cat People 1942 with no budget: if you can’t afford a monster don’t create one. Allow the audience to run themselves wild with imagination of what’s in the shadows. It is the ethos of less-is-more. The Thing has an abundance of reveals in an orgy of special effects. (The reasons for this are described by Mark Kermode in the Google online Channel 4 documentary on Carpenter. To wit it’s because he could.) The final confrontation shows the Thing in its uninhibited gory. For dramatic effect it should have stayed hidden.

There are other faults. Plot wise why keep the dog? The Norwegians wanted to kill it yet the Americans don’t even quarantine it. Doc’s explanation of “stir crazy” isn't sufficient. The radio not working is cliché – nowadays it’s the cell phone. Yet the plot would have worked without that ploy. Windows should have made distress contact. It would have meant that a rescue team was on hand but waiting for the storm to abate. That would add tension on the level of hope and of global contamination. Then there is the pre credit scene of a spaceship landing on earth. Like the mirror opening of Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 it’s extemporaneous.

Apart from the dog these faults barely detract from the narrative. The legacy and influence of this film lives forever in cinema. There have been lackadaisical copycats: The Thaw 2009, Whiteout 2009. There has been homage: Trick r Treat 2009. If Alien is a better film then it’s because it has a better monster. If Halloween 1978 is a better film it’s because it is a different genre. The consensus is The Thing is better than the original. You don’t have to be a seer to predict it will be better than the 2011 prequel. This is the apotheosis of John Carpenter’s purple period and of his whole career. He will never be better.

If I was to accept this movie as horror it would rank #10 on my Best Horror Films list.

The forthcoming Part 2 will focus on The Thing from another World thereafter I will compare and contrast the two movies and their source novella Who Goes There? by John W Campbell Jr.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The Wicker Man
Technorati Tags:, , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Shutter Island

For your consideration: I’m writing a spec script: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Return. Click the sidebar poll to declare your interest. I thank you.

Sacred Cow (noun) - an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning.

Origin: 1905–10; in reference to the traditional inviolability of the cow among Hindus.
Horror is genre. In the hands of the talented come forth the likes of Night of the Living Dead 1968. Through the lenses of a different type of talented comes The Box 2009. Talent is not all encompassing. The ability to tell stories in one genre does not necessarily translate to another. Michael Jordan sucked at baseball.

Martin Scorcese is a talented filmmaker. That is accepted fact. People like me pay good money to watch and own his work. Scorcese has hitherto never directed a horror film. The talented have an arrogance that tempts them to improve upon perfection eg formula. There are horror films with lofty intent – The Exorcist 1973 – that do not deviate from the paradigm. There are horror films with ambitions beyond their narrative – Dead Air 2009 – a failure in terms of art entertainment and allegory. Scorcese took the horror genre and tried to gentrify it. The result is Shutter Island 2010.

Mystic River 2003 was directed by Clint Eastwood ergo it was lauded by the critics so much so it won an Academy Award® nomination for Marcia Gay Harden (who should have won it for Millers Crossing 1990). The film was overblown overacted and overrated. Entertainment wise; at best it passed the time. It is adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane. He also wrote Shutter Island (pub. 2003).

I’m not a fan of Lehane’s prose. I bought Mystic River (pub. 2001) and it failed me. Hollywood – like music and fashion – is an industry of imitation. If a novelist’s movie adaptation scores box office then the subsequent novel and back catalogue will be purchased. Stephen King. John Grisham. Thomas Harris. The fact that the book is made into film is no indicator that the book is any good: James Patterson. Harlan Coben. By definition film adaptation should stand on its own feet. It cannot equal the novel in terms of story telling but it should be plot perfect.

Shutter Island is anything but.

Two federal Marshalls (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mike Ruffalo) land on the penal colony for the insane to investigate a missing inmate. Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) prefers to call them patients. He’s also obstructive. It seems the entire staff lies and blocks the Marshalls at every investigative point. The law enforcers are stuck on the island under a gale force storm. DiCaprio forces everyone out of his way to find the missing mad woman but on this island Dr Cawley is the law. It is he who determines who is sane and who is insane.

The film opens with a magnificent shot of a ferry emerging through fog. This is a stamp that we are in the hands of a cinematic craft master. The next shot is of DiCaprio talking to himself in a mirror – a dramatic bludgeon of a cliché. Indeed this film is a tale of two techniques: visually astute and dramatically puerile.

DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels is haunted by so many flashbacks they lose intended potency. Some of the special effects are out of TVs Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The raging storm that pens him on the isle is a device equal to the cell phone with no signal. DiCaprio’s blue collar accent is distracting and condenscending. Regardless of its plausibility it makes Daniels come across as an ignoramus in over his head. When he reveals his reason for being on the island – some sort of noble justice quest – the plot (unintentionally) descends into chaos.

This is a Martin Scorcese film.

The mainstream wouldn’t dare.

Shutter Island is Scorcese’s second biggest box office hit behind The Departed 2006 another overblown straight-to-video calibre. Casting DiCaprio is now paying off. Despite that Scorcese can do genre. He proved that in 1991 with Cape Fear but he isn’t doing it well anymore. Even though the trailer false advertised it as such Shutter Island is not a horror film. It is a thriller with pretensions of being psychological. The twist in the tale is a swerve worse than anything in the wrestling industry; the surprise is there is no surprise.

Technorati Tags:, ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator

Friday, 4 June 2010

The 100 Best Horror Films #1

Reader Alert! Click the sidebar poll to let me know your thoughts on my spec screenplay A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Return.
This article was going to be a review of The Wolfman 2010 DVD. It was going to be a Re/Made compare and contrast against the original The Wolf Man 1941. However the former is so bad I refuse to waste time watching it to credits let alone writing about it. Like every independent blogger I don’t get paid for this. Read and see that there are no Google Ads on this site. Thrill Fiction is a labour of love for the genre and for writing. I would rather write about films I love though I will write about any that makes an effort.

Previously on Thrill Fiction I’ve listed the top 20 films in over a hundred years of horror. The top 30 is to come. I’ve decided to concurrently review every film on the list in descending order. If you haven’t seen a given movie on this chart I’ll tell you why you should. If you don’t like a given film on this list I’ll tell you why I do. These reviews will be intermittent as I continue to script A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Return. The reviews will be detailed. They may well influence you to take another look at a forgotten flicker in your childhood memory. They may invoke remembrance of the jolt of a first screening.

I love these films. I love horror. So do you.
United Kingdom: In 1988 Warner Home Video withdrew The Exorcist 1973 in anticipation of it being banned. The film would not receive certification for home viewing until 1999. During those banned years the film exploded in legend. It was during those years that William Peter Blatty wrote and directed The Exorcist III 1990. The first sequel directed by John Boorman in 1977 has been dismissed (by Blatty himself amongst others). This film has been declared ‘the first true sequel to The Exorcist’.

The Exorcist III is adapted from Blatty’s own novel Legion (pub.1983). The book itself became a quest for me during the 90s. It was out of print and no second-hand bookshop in Manchester or London stocked it or could order it for me. Then along came Amazon: problem solved. The film differs from the novel. The film is better.

It is 15 years after Father Damien Karras threw himself to suicide down those steps and a serial killer begins his work in Georgetown. His work is copycat of an executed serial killer ‘The Gemini’. Lt Kinderman is led to an asylum where a lunatic claims responsibility. Patient X knows details about the Gemini killings that weren’t leaked to the press. He also knows details about one Reagan McNeil and an exorcism performed by Father Karras. He promises to help Kinderman’s unbelief.
I am a Pentecostal Christian albeit lapsed. I believe.

A college campus is an oasis of calm shielded from the fury of the world. It is an educated fool’s paradise. Blatty invokes the tranquillity of Georgetown University and provokes the spirit of the original film. The famous steps are introduced pre credit as are two of the main characters – Lt Kinderman and Father Dyer. Both characters were part-players in the original. In this film both characters are played by different actors. It didn’t bother me as it might have done – in 1990 I had not seen the original. Actors George C Scott and Ed Flanders respectively immediately command both roles as their own.

This is acting that has to be witnessed. In a film full of great performances Brad Dourif delivers a searing cacophony to which Jason Miller is a symphony of malevolence. Scott and Flanders ground the picture while actors Scott Wilson and Nancy Fish imbue idiosyncratic impetus. Even the bit parts by Samuel L Jackson, Tyra Ferrell and Fabio have resonance. The dialogue is stylised almost to the point of film noir. It is at times pithy at others resplendent and at its best tsunami-like. This is the rage of a writer.

The story unfolds at slow boil. As Kinderman connects the riddle of Reagan McNeil’s exorcism the serial killing continues. Urgency outpaces the characters – and the audience. The details of the set designs and locations are always in the foreground. Not only is there the sense of Georgetown but also of the hospital, Temple’s office and the Disturbed Ward. Blatty then uses the frame to magnificent perfection not only to invoke a sense of place but also a sense of doom.
It is not often film of any genre casually addresses police racism as a matter of fact. This occurs at the first murder – that of an African-American boy. Kinderman uncovers a connection between the boy and Reagan McNeil. This film is a test of faith; why does God allow such evil upon his beloved? Lt Kinderman will face his fear. It will test his faith.

The ending of the film is disputed and is the result of reshoots. The critic Mark Kermode denounces it whereas I applaud it. Not since The Wicker Man 1973 has a dénouement enrapt and engrossed in genuine terror. I went to see this picture three times in the spanking new multiplex – one of the first in England and the first in my city. Other than horror only comedy conjoins an audience. There is nothing comedic about the terror jolt from the hospital scene. It is unfailing. The audience has succumbed.

Others have taken their appreciation further. It has now been adapted into a stage play.

The Exorcist III is the best film I’ve ever seen never mind the best horror film.

Read more Thrill Fiction: The 10 Best Horror Films
Technorati Tags:, , , ,
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator