Friday, July 21, 2017

Stay Scared - DAY OF THE DEAD



Normally around this time of year, the week of the San Diego Comic-Con, I would tap into the nerdgeist and talk about a superhero movie, like I did last year with SPIDER-MAN 3.  I’m breaking that tradition (of the one time I did it) because an even bigger—and considerably sadder—event derailed my plans, the death of director George A. Romero.  Romero made a profound contribution to cinema, horror in particular, and he is an incredibly important artist to me.  He created biting commentary under the guise of blood soaked genre spectacle.  His movies didn’t focus on the monsters or the madness, but on how normal people cope with an impossible situation.  He literally wrote the book on how to make a modern zombie film, and inspired countless folks to pick up a camera and give it a go.  He was the first to send me down the horror movie rabbit hole with the ultimate "job from hell" parable, DAY OF THE DEAD.  

The Capsule:
Sarah (Lori Cardille) has a rough working environment.  She is a determined, confident woman in a male dominated occupation.  Her co-workers attitudes towards her range from dismissive to openly hostile.  Even though she does not have the resources she needs to effectively do her job, her unreasonable boss, Rhodes (Joseph Pilato), keeps demanding results.  Her co-worker Logan (Richard Liberty) is a loose cannon who's ¨off the book¨ projects could get them terminated.  Her relationship with a resentful boyfriend (Anthony Dileo Jr.) is falling apart.  As if all that wasn’t bad enough, she is also surrounded by thousands of walking corpses who want to eat her. Yes, it’s hard to be a woman in a (dead) man’s world.

DAY OF THE DEAD wasn’t my first Romero film.  I was traumatized by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD on TV as a wee youngster, and CREEPSHOW (also on TV) shook me up a few years after.  It was DAY that had the most impact on my cinematic tastes, however, and it happened long before I’d even seen it.  Back in 1985, when the movie came out, I was a total pussy when it came to blood.  No matter what kind of movie it was, I would cover my eyes at even the hint that something gross was coming.  I had a visceral reaction to the thought of viscera.    

So imagine when I saw DAY OF THE DEAD on the marque of my small town theater, followed by the rating of X.  It was the first time I ever realized a movie could be rated X for violence.  Additionally, the only trailer for the movie was a teaser showing one scene, the opening dream where an entire wall full of arms burst out at a woman.  That was creepy enough, and apparently it was the only thing safe enough to show on television.  I was horrified by the thought of what that movie held in store, and completely obsessed by it.  If R rated gore was too much for me, what would happen if I saw X rated stuff?  My head would explode like that scene in SCANNERS that I never watched but knew was there.

Eventually, I decided the only way to deal with my mounting anxiety/fascination was with flooding therapy.  I forced myself to watch all the gruesome scenes I had avoided in movies like JAWS and ALIEN.  To my surprise, I found that nothing I saw on screen even remotely compared to the orgy of blood my imagination filled in while my eyes were closed.  Incidentally, I didn’t just embellish the gore of horror movies, I did it with everything.  Do you remember that ridiculously extreme decapitation-by-rotary-saw-yoyo scene in OCTOPUSSY? If you watched in my brain you would.  I was an unconscious gorehound all along!  

After that revelation, I began to devour horror movies.  NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREETS, FRIDAYS THE 13TH, TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRES, EVIL DEADS, an entire wonderful world had opened up and I could stomach it all.  It was like I discovered I could see a new color.  No matter how excessive, bloody or innovative the effects got, they still couldn’t hold up to my ghastly imagination.  Finally it was time for the one that started off the whole experiment, DAY OF THE DEAD in all its X rated (technically Unrated) glory.  And my imagination said, “Fine, we’ll call this one a draw.”

Anyone familiar with Romero’s work will know that the effects, which are superb, are only part of what makes the violence so effective.  Romero was a master of atmosphere, and more specifically, mood.  DAY has the bleakest, most claustrophobic mood of his films.  The tone is set perfectly right from the start.  A helicopter touches down in the deserted street of a Florida town.  In case you haven’t seen the preceding films, all the backstory is beautifully summed up by the headline of a discarded newspaper, “THE DEAD WALK”.  The search party, including Sarah, Miguel, pilot John (Terry Alexander, sporting a fake Jamaican accent), radio man McDermott (Jarlath Conroy, sporting a real Irish accent), attempt to make contact with anyone left alive.  Aside from a few lounging alligators, all they find are zombies.  The party’s reaction is not of fear, but of deep disappointment.  There is no one left to rescue.

This is the only one of Romero’s zombie films (and possibly any zombie film) where no additional characters are introduced after we meet the initial roster.  The entire crew of the underground research facility has been there since the project was founded.  Communications has been cut off and their numbers have steadily dwindled without a single government or civilian replacement.  They have searched 100 miles up and down the coast without finding any survivors.  The bikers from DAWN OF THE DEAD might have been a bunch of assholes, but at least they were alive.  There is a real sense that these guys could be the last living people on Earth.  Just imagine being stuck at work with the biggest jerks at your office, and multiply that by the rest of your life.  See what I mean about bleak?

Ask most people—even Romero fans—about DAY and they will probably go right to the overacting.  Which is valid, as Joseph Pilato attacks his role as Rhodes like a Doberman digging into bunny.  I don’t consider that a bad thing.  Pilato’s performance only ratchets up the claustrophobia.  Rhodes is so virulently unpleasant the zombies start to look like better roommates.  I don’t think DAY gets as much social commentary credit as Romero’s previous films, which is a bit unfair.  It’s metaphor my not be as important as calling out racism in NOTLD, or as self-reflective as DAWN’s satire of commercialism, but DAY OF THE DEAD’s take on the soul crushing futility of bureaucracy was just as appropriate for its Reagan era release.  

Sarah and Fisher (John Amplas) try to find a way of reversing the zombification, even though it is clearly too late.  Doctor Logan is super excited about domesticating the zombies into pets just like his star pupil, Bub (Sherman Howard), but his one on one training technique amounts to moving a beach one grain of sand at a time (while the rest of the sand tries to eat you).  The soldiers care only about orders and accomplishing one bullshit directive after the other.  Rhodes is constantly threatening to cancel the project if the scientists don’t provide him with results, as if the apocalypse was a war game that could be called off.  This blind dedication to their roles might provide a sense of purpose and a way of ignoring the reality of how truly fucked they are, but it also makes them waste the only precious resource they have left, their lives.

Only the contract workers, John and McDermott, have the right idea.  They stay away from the main facilities and have made a little oasis amongst the RVs and speedboats and other useless artifacts tucked away in storage.  John doesn't get a line as good as Ken Foree's "When there's no room in hell," but he does see through the delusion that their mission is going to fix the world.  He tries to convince Sarah that the best thing to do is for them to take the helicopter to an island and spend the rest of their days getting back to living.

Of course, Sarah is the worst workaholic in the bunch, because she has to be.  She is by far the most competent, driven, and fair character in the movie.  Without her, the entire compound would tear itself apart.  As frequent readers know, I love films starring ass kicking women.  I tend to highlight the literal ass kickers, fighters like Salma Hayek's Everly or Geena Davis' Charly Baltimore, but Sarah may be an even more impressive character.  Though she's able to defend herself from the dead and the living, her strength comes through in attitude alone.  Sarah takes no shit.  She is the only female in the facility, potentially in the world, and she is surrounded by knuckle dragging brutes toting machine guns.  It doesn’t faze her. Even in the face of their constant sexual innuendo and not so veiled threats, she stares every one of those motherfuckers down.  She even tells the insecure dictator Rhodes to go fuck himself (I'm paraphrasing, her actual line was "Yes sir, fuck you sir!").  He has to order one of his flunkies to shoot her before she backs down, and even then it is just to avoid a WILD BUNCH style firefight between the camp’s factions.  She does allow herself a few vulnerable moments when she is alone with John and McDermott, and she is obviously anguished to watch her boyfriend Miguel crack up under the stress, but she turns the badass back on with the flick of a switch.  

As usual with a DEAD film, the zombies are an ever present symptom of the larger problem. Keeping with the bureaucratic metaphor, they would be the paperwork.  A staple in zombie movies is finding a descriptor so the characters don't have to use the word "zombie".  They have been called "walkers", "biters", "infected".  DAY keeps it classy and calls them "dumb fucks".  Occasionally there is a spectacular one, like the jaw-less, tongue lolling beauty from the opening, but for the most part, Romero keeps the make-up simple.  He lets his taste for satire show with the occasional novelty zombie, though.  In DAWN he had a Hari Krishna zombie.  This time we get a football player zombie, a ballerina zombie, a cigar chomping zombie, and a clown zombie.  They are charmingly goofy reminders of how absurd the whole thing is.

Clearly, Romero has so much more going on than just gut munching gore.  Holy shit, though, the gore.  Greg Nicotero, who did make-up effects along with Tom Savini (in addition to acting as a soldier and a soldier’s head), has created more technically impressive gags in the decades since, but the gore in DAY has not lost its punch.  Much of the impact has to do with the setting.  Blood under the flat, harsh florescent lights of the compound has a disturbingly realistic look.  The sterile environment of Dr. Logan’s lab, along with his clinical detachment at vivisecting a moving body, give all his scenes an dank verisimilitude.  All the blood and guts seem like something you could see in a hospital if you poked your head into the wrong room.

More importantly, the actual (non-zombie) deaths are incredibly brutal.  With the exception of Rhodes, who totally gets what he deserves (and a legendary last line), I kind of felt bad for the soldiers.  True, they were racist dickholes, but without Rhodes pushing them around, all they would have done is smoke pot and tell dirty jokes.  It’s hard not to feel just a little sympathetic when one of these poor schmucks is getting his face peeled off.  The one that that still gets me is not so much due to the visuals—which are gross enough—but the sound.  One dude gets his head pulled off by a mob of zombies, and his scream is pitched up as his vocal cords get stretched out.  It’s those extra anatomical considerations that really bring the heebie jeebies.  

[Spoiler Ahead]  The irony is that Romero’s darkest movie also has his most optimistic ending.  George really makes us sweat before we get there, though.  As Rhodes makes his escape plans, he tosses Sarah and McDermott, unarmed, into the dark cavern where the zombie test subjects are corralled.  Even when a pistol packing John goes in to help, all of the intercut scenes of bloody soldier slaughter give the distinct impression that no one is getting out of this one alive.  Surprise!  After a jump scare at the helicopter, Sarah awakes from her bad dream on a peaceful beach.  John and McDermott are there too, fishing and soaking up the sun, without a dumb fuck in sight (although it would have been sweet if they had taken Bub along).  All of the same questions about the state of the world are still unanswered, but these guys are done asking.  They are making a new life and will enjoy it for as long as they have left.

Romero seemed to have taken that message to heart.  From the couple of times I met him and the stories I’ve heard, the man really enjoyed his life.  He loved talking with his fans and trying new ways to entertain them.  “Stay scared” was the classic line he added when signing pictures or posters or DVDs at horror conventions.  I think it was his way of telling people to wake up and appreciate life.  We certainly appreciated his.     
  
Farewell George.

C Chaka

Friday, July 14, 2017

Totally Rad – DANGEROUS MEN



The French came up with a little thing called the auteur theory.  The gist is that the director is the singular voice in the creation of a film, greater to its identity than the actors, writer, cinematographer, or any other element.  While I don’t entirely buy into that idea, there are some filmmakers whose instantly identifiable stamp defines the movies they work on.  Stanley Kubrick is a classic example, as is Francois Truffaut, or Steven Spielberg.  There is no mistaking their work.  Nowhere is the auteur theory more evident, however, than with John S. Rad.  He may not have been the most famous of directors.  He may not have been as skilled, knowledgeable, or comprehensible as the great ones.  Or the mediocre ones.  However, John S. Rad had an unrelenting passion that could not be duplicated.  His unique style is written all over DANGEROUS MEN, his action masterpiece of the ‘80s—and ‘90s, just as clearly as his name.  Which is also written all over the movie.

The Capsule:
Daniel (Michael Hurt) and Mina (Melody Wiggins) find their blissful engagement cut brutally short when they are attacked by a couple of bikers on the beach.  Daniel kills one of the bikers, but the other stabs Daniel to death in front of Mina.  Thirsty for revenge, Mina lures the murderous biker into an unnecessarily long and drawn out ruse which (eventually) leaves him dead on a hotel room floor.  From that moment on she dedicates herself to ridding the world of other trash like him, no matter the cost.  Soon the streets of L.A. begin filling with the bodies of would-be rapists, sleazy johns, and random dudes waiting in line for a hot dog.  Her noble pursuit eventually attracts the attention of the police, including her fiancee's brother, David (Michael Gradilone), who is hot on her trail.  Black Pepper (Bryan Jenkins, probably), the roughest biker in town, might also be involved in some vaguely defined way.  Mina finds out the hard way that no matter how many she murders, she just cannot get away from dangerous men.

Right from the beginning, DANGEROUS MEN is a treasure.  It has some of the most entertaining opening credits of any movie.  Not the opening credit sequence, which is just a shot of waves crashing on a beach, but the credits themselves.  First of all, there is an exploding title, which is always a sign of a quality action film.  Secondly, every single credit is the same name: John Rad.  Writer, Director, Producer, Executive Producer (which I assumed would be redundant if you are the only producer), Editor, Music & Lyrics, all John Rad.  He was a man of many talents, though not many of them actually relate to filmmaking.  Still, any man named John S. Rad was destined to direct action movies.  And yes, he totally made it up, because he was really an Iranian architect named Jahangir Salehi. 

Filmed over a period of 20 plus years, DANGEROUS MEN borrows elements from many classic action films, chops them to pieces, and mutates them into something unlike anything else.  The closest comparison would be to fellow Iranian director Amir Shervan’s SAMURAI COP, but without that film’s lucid plot or authentic performances.  Rad exemplifies that magical case when a director has no experience or even a basic understanding of how movies are made (in America, at least), but fills in the gaps with pure enthusiasm and a total lack of self-reflection.  The result can be a beautiful, unpredictable disaster that can’t help but to astonish.  That is certainly the case here.

This movie has it all.  Dialogue that sounds like it was recorded through cheap walkie talkies, fight choreography in the style of two 10 year-olds playing in the backyard, and characters who almost seem like human beings.  Oh, and I hope you like Casio demo loops with goofy light rock guitar flourishes, because you will be hearing it A LOT.

Rad, who was also the casting director, assembled a band of actors whose credits mostly start and end with this movie.  It’s hard to identify everyone, even on IMDB, because aside from Mina and Daniel, none of the characters are listed by name in the credits, just by role description (Biker, Hotel Manager, Mina’s Dad).  Even the lead characters like David, whose name is said over and over in the dialogue, is only listed as Police Detective.  Just consider it part of the charm.

As incredibly entertaining as the parade of technical goofs are, it is the plot that makes this such a brain melting joyride.  I’m fairly sure the screenplay was just a transcript of Steven Seagal’s dream journal.  The movie starts with perpetually off duty cop David having a poorly dubbed romantic dinner with his wife (who we never see again) before switching to a non sequitur convenience store robbery.  Because all action movies must contain at least one foiled convenience store robbery.  

Then David disappears for a while and the movie is all about Daniel and Mina, as they go from one romantic montage to the next.  We get to see Daniel ask Mina’s dad, who appears to be the exact same age as his daughter, for her hand in marriage.  Now its nothing but long drives up the coast.  Everything is coming up aces for these two.



Obviously that can’t last.  While holding hands on a beach, the happy couple is descended upon by a couple of bikers up to no good (as all action movie bikers are).  A fight ensues, and Daniel strangles the one wearing ear flaps and Confederate soldier pants, only to be stabbed to death by the bald biker right in front of Mina. 

Things become a little strange at this point, as Mina enacts her incredibly drawn out, overly complicated revenge.  She fools baldy, who had moments ago been trying to rape her, into believing that stabbing her fiancĂ©e was a real turn on for her.  Then she lures him to a motel, were they have a pleasant dinner at the restaurant, allowing Mina to pull a Marion Ravenwood and swipe a steak knife.  Back in the hotel room, Mina takes a quick shower while baldy gets in the mood by licking Daniel’s blood off his knife.  Finally, after hours of setup, Mina distracts Baldy with some very specific foreplay (“gently rub my knees and lick my bellybutton”), pulls the steak knife from between her buttocks (no, seriously), and goes psycho on his tighty-white ass.  Having a taste for retribution, she vows to rid the world of trash like him, and sets off on a dangerous man-hunt.

It might be an extreme reaction, but her low opinion of men is immediately confirmed when the very next dude she encounters, the middle aged businessman who gives her a ride, decides to use the opportunity to rape her.  This doof, listed as Truck Driver in the credits but more accurately described as Inconsistently British Fake John Cleese, gets as far as undressing before Mina has a knife to his dick.  She steals his truck and leaves him stranded naked in the desert.  Now, in any normal movie, that would be the last we saw of him.  But thanks to the mad genius of John Rad, we ignore Mina and follow this bumbling nitwit through the desert FOR FIVE FULL MINUTES.  He covers his naughty bits with branches, argues with himself, gets made fun of by passing motorists, and does an impromptu fan dance to “The Blue Danube”.  It sort of defies description.  And just as I was hoping the movie would become a ‘60s sex farce revolving around this sad sack, he is gone.

Meanwhile, Mina interviews a prostitute to learn the secrets of attracting horny men, such as making eye contact and, well, that’s really all she needs.  Eager johns follow her back to her apartment where she just as eagerly murders them.  But throughout all the wanton bloodshed, she still has flashback montages of her life with Daniel, like the time she gave him a googly-eyed shell sculpture which she insists was handmade and not bought at any cheap beach souvenir shop.  Eventually all of the john stabbing and would-be rapist shooting (this movie is like an after school PSA against hitchhiking) gets the attention of the cops, who scour the city looking for her with ‘70s stock footage of police cars and helicopters.   She eludes the dragnet until an undercover cop, whose badge just reads “Policeman Police”, arrests her while she casually walks around the city in broad daylight.  Thus ends—somewhat anticlimactically—the story of Mina.

Except that the movie has another half hour left to go, so now it becomes all about David.  He is still determined to track down his brother’s killer, even though everyone knows his killer is dead and the person who killed his killer has been arrested.  Undeterred, he goes on a hunt for Black Pepper, reportedly the most badass biker of them all and not a stripper like his name would imply.  The first step is to nab Black Pepper’s friend, Dutch (credited as Head Biker).  Dutch is also bald, but can be distinguished from the previous bald biker due to his prominent forehead tattoo (or decal).  David lays a trap for him using his new friend Darts Playing Woman, as bait, which is a scummy thing to do given that he just saved her from Head Biker in the last scene.  Seriously, the title of this movie should be RAPEY MEN, though thankfully none of the many, many rapists are ever successful and they are all either arrested, humiliated, or killed.

Ironically, the most dangerous of the dangerous men, Black Pepper, turns out to be a fairly decent fellow, despite looking like the lead singer of a Winger cover band.  He’s introduced making out on the couch with his girlfriend while a belly dancer shakes and shimmies around the living room (at this point in the movie, that doesn’t even count as weird).  Then he compliments the dancer on her routine and makes tender love to his girl, focusing on her needs first, if you know what I mean.  He doesn’t have any visible connection to crime and doesn’t seem to even be aware of what happened in the beginning of the film.  So it’s a little confusing when the entire police force raids his house.  He does have a bunch of armed guards, but even though he tells them to do whatever it takes to keep the cops from getting in, they all surrender without firing a shot.  At least his sassy girlfriend stalls the cops long enough for BP to escape.

The big fist fight between David and BP is all you could hope for and more.  Hilariously, Rad uses the exact same punch and grunt sound effects over and over, no matter who is swinging.  Punch, ow, punch, ow, punch, ow!  It’s like a live recreation of playing Double Dragon in the arcade.  In a turn that is both surprising and completely justified, BP wins the fight, leaving David unconscious but alive on the desert ground.

But John Rad isn’t done with us yet.  David's boss, Chief (Carlos Rivas), who until this point has been a side character, mostly talking on the phone and reading from the script on his desk, now steps into the newly vacated hero role.  I must admit, I did not see that one coming.  The old man single-handedly chases Black Pepper across the desert, up hills, through a cave, and into a residential neighborhood, all while shouting dialogue, but not moving his lips.  When Black Pepper finally breaks down and does something villainous by terrorizing a blind homeowner (who is packing a gun under her needlepoint work!), it’s Chief who busts in and [Spoiler] arrests him.  MOVIE OVER, ROLL CREDITS!

Trust me, I’ve only touched on a fraction of what this movie has to offer. Every minute has some bit of delicious ineptitude.  Regrettably, John Rad did not have another 26 years left to make another film.  Who knows what other wonders he could have given the world.  At least we will always have this one.  I think the credits say it all with its lone Special Thanks dedication... to John Rad.



C Chaka

Friday, July 7, 2017

Monster Magic - THE THING



Well, June is over, and with it comes the last selection in my series inspired by Junesploitation.  And yes, I have once again neglected to mention that I was doing a theme month until it’s all over.  I did the same thing February when I highlighted African American lead actors, and again in March where I highlighted female directors.  There are probably others.  I should write myself a note in the future.  

For those who don’t know, Junesploitation was a thing created by the folks at the misleadingly titled F This Movie website.  It was designed to celebrate the many forms and definitions of exploitation cinema.  Those participating in Junesploitation chose which movies they watch, but a calendar is provided as a viewing guideline.  Each day of the month is dedicated to a particular subject, like Aliens, ‘80s Action, or Sybil Danning movies.  All you need to do is watch at least one that in some way qualifies.  

I found out about this challenge, I believe, on June 1st.  Being a sucker for exploitation, I jumped straight in.  Since I was doing it anyway, I also decided to write about one of these selections a week.  I tried to pick the Sunday category, since I usually watch what I’m going to write about on Sunday anyway (seriously, I’m that slow).  I started with Animals (ALLIGATOR), went to Killer Kids (DEVIL TIMES FIVE), then Teenagers (DEADKIDS).  June ran out before the next Sunday (and because I missed the first Sunday due to my aforementioned lack of planning), so I’m going with the June 30th category: Monsters.  Mostly I stayed with lesser known movies, but I wanted to finish big.  Presenting what I consider to be the most imaginative monster design ever: John Carpenter’s THE THING.

The Capsule: 
                                                                                                                                 
An alien craft loses control while exploring Earth and crashes into the icy wastes of Antarctica.  The poor pilot survives, but spends the next 100,000 years frozen solid until a helpful group of Norwegians dig it up and thaw it out.  Minor cultural misunderstandings arise from the alien’s greeting customs.  The situation becomes tense, and the alien decides it’s best to leave the Norwegian’s camp.  Even though the alien adopted the form of a cute Earth dog to make the humans more comfortable, the Norwegians can’t let things go and follow after it in a helicopter, shooting and chucking grenades.  Thankfully, it finds refuge at an American science station.  The Americans welcome the alien much more warmly, even allowing it to make friends with the other dogs in the camp.  However, just as the alien is opening up to its new canine comrades, xenophobia rears its ugly head and the Americans rush in and bring an end to all of the alien’s inter-species dialogue.  With a flamethrower.  From that point on, the American, led by the hotheaded MacReady (Kurt Russell), abandon all attempts at diplomacy and focus on mercilessly hunting down the alien, hereafter referred to, rather insensitively, as the Thing.  While the Thing is eventually able to develop a rappport with several of the more open-minded humans, MacReady, Childs (Keith David), and others become increasingly paranoid about becoming infected with the Thing’s radical new viewpoints on communal living.  Blair (Wilford Brimley) even goes so far as to sabotage the camp’s radio and transportation to ensure the Thing cannot spread his ideas (though it and Blair later reconcile).  Will the Thing finally break through the American’s distrust—and physical bodies—or  will MacReady’s self-destructive intolerance to alternate lifestyles spell the end for alien, human, and alien/human(/dog/etc.) alike?
 
I’ve probably seen THE THING dozens of times.  I was completely blown away the first time I saw it, and I cannot understand why people didn’t go crazy over this when it was released.  Of course, I can’t understand why people do anything, so that’s no surprise.  Even so, how could someone watch Charles Hallahan’s detached, upside down head spout crab legs and scuttle away and not be in awe at the creativity.  Even if they were revolted by it, no one had seen that before.

The creature design for the Thing is absolutely boundless.  Before the Thing, monsters were most often restricted to a man in a suit, like the Gillman, a giant or mythological creature, like any of Harryhousen’s creations, or an exaggerated but recognizable animatronic, like Bruce the shark.  Even when the monster didn’t match anything in nature, they still conformed to our basic ideas of what life looks like.  Arms are in reasonable places, it has a face, watch out for the teeth.  

The Thing was the first creature to abandon all those rules.  On one hand, it could take the appearance of any living creature it encountered.  It can perfectly mimic any animal or human.  This leads to the fantastic and completely justified air of paranoia throughout the film.   Shapeshifters are nothing new, from werewolves to classic Cold War sci-fi allegory pod people.  Those monsters were limited to shifting from one form directly into another in a linear progression.  As amazing as those transformations could be, we could see where they were going.  Even the three life stages of ALIEN, as mind-blowing as they are, followed a logical extension.

The Thing is not linear.  We never see its original form because it doesn’t have one.  It is a vast genetic amalgam of every other creature it has absorbed.  No need to choose when you can be everything at the same time.  It changes its body to whatever the situation demands.  Need to grab something, just throw out a few tentacles from your back.  Want to kill a guy quickly, turn your entire ribcage into a set of jaws.  Looking to freak out some dogs, split open your face like a banana.  It’s the ultimate extension of form as function.  

There is a great scene that didn't entirely register with me until this watch.  Blair is starting an autopsy on the twisted blob body of the recently fried Dog-Thing. He is trying to wrap his head around what kind of life form it is.  His first cut reveals the half-formed skull of something hiding under the skin.  If the body had remained functional for a few more seconds, it would have burst out and attacked anything close enough.  It is literally a thought made flesh.  Now that is alien.

Speaking of which, I’ve always been curious exactly what the Thing was composed of.  We get to see the faces of the absorbed station crew pop out like a rash across its body, and dog skulls are popular, but it was already carrying around some critters before it ever got to Earth.  The claws that tear out of its dog form aren’t from anything terrestrial.  The monstrous heads and tentacles are decidedly alien as well.  If there was an intergalactic version of 23andMe, the Thing's results would be fascinating.

Not only was the concept of the Thing perfectly realized, the effects that brought it to life were equally revolutionary.  CGI has gotten to the point now where this sort of radical shape shifting can be done smoothly and realistically (so to speak).  As good as they are now and will be in the future, the Thing was REAL.  The creature was made up of latex and cables and bladders, but it was a physical performance just like all the other actors on set (better than some, David Clennon as the stoner Bruce Dern wannabe Palmer was a bit one note).  It’s hard not to see any of its many forms as a real creature, even when you are specifically looking at it as an effect.  Even Thing-blood all by itself was a totally believable creature.  So, sorry David Clennon, you got upstaged by a dish of red syrup.  

I’m unfairly knocking Clennon only because it’s so hard to find fault with this cast.  Russel and David are known, legendary badasses. This viewing cemented my opinion that Brimley’s Blair is the unsung hero of the movie.  He is the first one to grasp the magnitude of what would happen to the world if this creature was allowed to escape.  His actions doomed everyone in the camp, including himself, but potentially saved the entire human race.  And his reward was to be locked up alone in the cold, guaranteeing his fate to join the Thing.

Along the same lines, it’s interesting how the crew divide into two groups, the ones who think there is a chance for them to make it out alive (like Nauls, Windows, pre-Thing Norris) and those who know that isn’t the point (MacReady, Childs, the doctors).  Donald Moffat’s Gary seems to be riding the middle, hoping for a miracle, but not willing to save himself over killing the Thing.

There are a few new details I noticed this time.

Richard Dysart looks pretty much the same as when he was on L.A. Law, except that he’s wearing a nose ring.  That’s a bold fashion statement for an old white dude in 1982.

The scene where MacReady checks on Blair through the door of the storage shed is heartbreaking.  The resolve that enabled him to destroy their only hope of escape is gone, and now he can't even bring himself to take the easy way out.  The hollow desperation on Brimley’s face when he's asking MacReady to take him back inside, and his line, “There’s nothing wrong with me, and if there was, I’m all better now” makes me think he hadn’t been infected yet, but he can see it coming.  We’ll never know for sure.


Finally, was every low to mid budget production from the mid ‘70s to mid ‘80s sponsored by J&B Scotch?  That green bottle was everywhere they pointed a camera in those days.  Did the company just call up any working producer?  “Say, I hear you’re going to be filming a movie.  Have you considered J&B for your bottom shelf, working class whiskey prop of choice?  I see.  Well, would a couple of cases of J&B change your mind?”  

The last shot of the film?  MacReady sharing a swig of J&B with Childs. 

Wait a minute, maybe that’s the clue to whether or not they are still human.  Even a 100,000-year-old shapeshifting alien would have more taste than to drink J&B.

C Chaka