by Steve Habrat
As we look back on science fiction of the 1950s, most of the films that comprise the genre were filled with aliens attempting to make emotionless clones of human beings, extraterrestrials warning the United States to stop fiddling with the nuclear bomb, or giant mutated bugs attacking miniature cities and gobbling up terrified civilians. One thing you didn’t see much of was slithering and slimy invisible vampiric brains that suck out the brains and spinal cords of their victims. We can thank Britain for giving us the 1958 gem Fiend Without a Face, a moody, confining, eerie, and shockingly gory B-movie that certainly doesn’t shy away from reflecting the Cold War unease that was looming like storm clouds over much of the world. There is no doubt that Fiend Without a Face could have fallen back on its catchy title and awesomely creepy siege at the end, but the true terror lurks throughout the first half of the film, as a distrust of the U.S. government grips a small Canadian town. It is all nervous eyes and uneasy glances as satellites spin silently out in the woods and government planes roar suspiciously over the heads of simple small town folk looking to just be left alone. These images are far more chilling than invisible brains lurching through the foliage and curling around the necks of surprised victims. Well, those may be pretty creepy too.
Fiend Without a Face is set at an American airbase that has been recently set up in small town Manitoba, Canada. The airbase is far from popular with the local townsfolk, but fear really takes hold when one soldier is mysteriously attacked and killed by an unseen force in the woods that surround the base. An investigation is launched by Commander Major Jeff Cummings (played by Marshall Thompson) and base security officer Al Chester (played by Terry Kilburn), but neither man can find anything particularly suspicious about the soldier that was killed. Just as they are about to let local authorities handle the matter, the dead soldier’s sister, Barbara (played by Kim Parker), shows up and demands answers from Cummings and the local Mayor, Hawkins (played by James Dyrenforth). An autopsy is finally performed on the body and to the horror of the investigators; they discover that the man’s brains and spinal chord have been sucked clean out through two small holes on the back of his neck. As more and more townsfolk are attacked and turn up dead, the investigation leads to Professor Walgate (played by Kynaston Reeves), who is known for his interest in the paranormal. Cummings begins forcing answers out of Walgate, but much to the horror of the townsfolk, the unseen menace seems to be growing stronger and multiplying by the minute.
The highlight moment of Fiend Without a Face comes in the final fifteen minutes of the film, with a chilling siege that finds our group of desperate survivors boarding up the windows and doors of a secluded home. Outside, armies of gurgling brains are dangling from trees and leaping at the boards in attempts to rip the barriers away. It’s a special effects feast that is both tongue-in-cheek by today’s standards, oddly creepy, endearing, and abnormally brutal for a film released in 1958. The characters discover that a simple gunshot will stop the fiends dead in their path but once these creatures are struck, they ooze and spray a jelly-like blood that is pretty nasty. Yet director Arthur Crabtree doesn’t save all the good stuff until the very end. The first half of the film does a marvelous job at generating some seriously nerve-racking suspense. You’ll be at the edge of your seat while U.S. planes rip through the sky as suspicious citizens look up in unease and you can’t help but get a bit nervous as the soldiers experiment with a radar that is powered with atomic energy. The general aura of distrust that hums through the shadowy build-up is what really sticks with the viewer. This is all complimented with the hovering question of what is causing all the senseless murders.
Fiend Without a Face is also lucky enough to join the ranks of Cold War science fiction films that have some really awesome performances driving them. Thompson is levelheaded and likeable as the brave Major Cummings. You simultaneously root for him to get the girl and squash every withering brain that dares slither towards him. Parker is a strong and sharp heroine who, yes, needs to be saved quite often and shrieks in terror every time she sees one of the fiends, but her tie to the events taking place give her character some depth. Reeves is crack pot fun as the wild-haired scientist who may or may not be responsible for the carnage turning Manitoba upside down. Dyrenforth puts a bad taste in your mouth as the peeved Mayor Hawkins, who is quick to blame the air base for every single thing that goes wrong in and around the town. Robert MacKenzie also gets a chance to really freak audiences out as a local police officer, Howard Gibbons, who mysteriously disappears and then reappears in a very nightmarish way. He delivers a really great jump scene that will have you flicking on a nightlight or three.
As if the shadowy anxiety and gore-drenched action weren’t enough to catapult Fiend Without a Face near the top of the list of best Atomic Age science fiction films, wait until your ears are treated to the ungodly disgusting sound effects that will surely have you fidgeting. The victim’s screams could cut right through glass and the repulsive sucking sounds that the fiends make will have you battling to keep down your lunch. If you have a great home theater system, you are really in for a skin crawling treat when you hear some of the sound effects this film has to offer. Just make sure they are turned up loud for maxim effect. If there is anything to criticize within Fiend Without a Face, it would most certainly have to be the soundtrack, which sounds like stock music that was just stuck in to spice things up. Near the end, the music seems just a bit too cheery and upbeat for something that is supposed to have us leaking dread. Overall, it may not be as well-known as genre gems like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Tarantula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Forbidden Planet, or Them!, but Fiend Without a Face is a B-movie that is more than deserving to sit proudly next to those films. It’s a creepy crawly treat with spirited special effects, above average performances, and an ending that could very well have been an inspiration for George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Watch with the volume turned all the way up.
Fiend Without a Face is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
One of the best science-fiction thrillers from the 1950’s is without question 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a paranoid creep out of a movie that follows a small town whose residents are being turned into emotionless drones by pods from outer space. It is a gloomy affair, boasting one hell of a bleak climax that features our hero screaming; “They’re here!” on a clogged highway filled with trucks transporting the cloning pods to other communities. It was a film that did not need a remake, let alone two remakes but that is Hollywood for you. While one of those remakes is really bad (2007’s The Invasion), one happens to be really, really well done. Philip Kaufman’s 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an unforgiving film, one with paranoia that surpasses the ’56 original in ways you can’t fathom. He accomplishes this through simple close-ups that repel the viewer, turning every shot of a leaf, flower, or human face into psychological torture that will practically have you tearing your hair out in dread. I can guarantee that you will never look at a plant the same way again.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers picks up on an unidentified planet that appears to be dying. The alien beings, which appear to be gel-like suds, begin drifting through the galaxy where they finally end up on earth. These gel-like suds are washed to earth in a rainstorm and end up in San Francisco. The suds grow into ugly pod-like flowers that catch the eye of Elizabeth Driscoll (Played by Brooke Adams), an employee at the San Francisco health department, who takes one of the flowers home to identify it. She shows the flower to her boyfriend, Geoffrey (Played by Art Hindle), who is equally perplexed by the flower. The couple leaves the flower on their nightstand in a glass of water and the next morning, Elizabeth awakens to Geoffrey cleaning up a broken glass and acting extremely distant. Concerned, Elizabeth confides in her friend and fellow health department employee Matthew Bennell (Played by Donald Sutherland), who attempts to calm Elizabeth and suggests that she speak to his friend and psychologist David Kibner (Played by Leonard Nimoy). The next day, Matthew hears a strange story from the owner of Chinese Laundromat that he frequents. The man tells Matthew that his wife isn’t acting like his wife anymore. As more and more stories emerge about people not being themselves, Matthew and Elizabeth begin trying to uncover what all the hysteria is about, only to make a horrifying discovery that there may be extraterrestrial beings walking among us, looking to clone us, and erase all human emotion.
While the ’56 version slowly crept up on you from the shadows, the ’78 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers doesn’t slowly mount the tension. There is something off about this film in the opening scenes of the alien suds washing down to earth. It helps that the soundtrack, which is filled with spacey chimes, fries your nerves down and makes you feel like you are plopped on a seat of pins and needles. From the first time we realize that there is something wrong with Geoffrey, our paranoia sets in and things get more unbearable from there. We are skeptical of every single person that walks onto the screen, right down to the individuals in the distant background. Director Kaufman knows that this film, with its surging no-one-believes-me jitters, can really mess with us psychologically. He knows we will be afraid of every single face we see and we will be second guessing everyone our protagonists come in contact with. When the pod-people finally reveal themselves, they make a horrible shrieking noise and they turn into sprinting zombies who will stop at nothing to get a hold of their victim. If you think they were creepy when they were lifeless drones, wait until you see them when they explode into this form.
Director Kaufman allows us to easily identify with the brainy heroes that are front and center in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We can feel for their desperation in trying to get someone to believe them that something terrible is going on and we do not even realize it. The increasingly frantic pleas from Sutherland’s Matthew are especially scary, his fear increasingly more erratic as each second passes. The scenes when he stumbles around downtown San Francisco as people push past from all angles is appropriately claustrophobic (a nod to the tightly focused original film), like chilling conformity is crashing in from all sides. His fate is especially devastating, mostly because he puts up one hell of a fight to stay alive. Brooke Adams also grabs the viewer early on due to her pleas for someone to hear her out. Everybody just dismisses her suspicion, instead advising that she see a doctor, psychologist, or to just get some sleep. We root for her to keep her hope alive, even when her optimism is slowly fading away.
The supporting cast is just as awesome as the two leads, especially Hindle as Geoffrey, who will cut right through you with his icy stare. He is especially disturbing in the extreme close-ups that Kaufman chooses to show him in. Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright as Jack and Nancy Bellicec are equally pathetic as Matthew and Elizabeth. They form an alliance with Matthew and Elizabeth in trying to stay human after they have a memorable run-in with a slimy pod person that will have chills shooting up and down your spine. You will find yourself getting attached to this small band of survivors, making things even more piercing when one of them falls victim to the pod-people. Leonard Nimoy steals the show as David Kibner, who at first feels like there is some sort of reasonable explanation for all the hysteria but slowly comes around (Or does he?!).
Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78 is a lot more disgusting than the ’56 original, especially a scene where the group goes to sleep and while they are out, strategically placed pods begin birthing clones of the group. Between the gasping and gagging sound effects and the graphically evocative visuals, it is not only the most terrifying scene of Invasion of the Body Snatchers but also the one that will stick with you the longest of any scene in the film. The extended chase at the end, with the group of fugitives on the run from a conformist holocaust are wonderful, each route that offers hope ending in a dead end of roaring and silhouetted monsters. There is also a brief glimpse of a mutant dog, another highlight that will equally make you giggle and give you the willies. Yet it ends up being the frantic hopelessness that is what will make you a nervous wreck while watching this ageless remake. For fans of the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, keep an eye out for cameos from the original’s director Don Siegel as a taxi driver and star Kevin McCarthy as a man screaming his famous lines from the original’s climax. Overall, I still prefer the original Cold War/post-World War II suburban conformity that gripped the original to this strictly conformist-terror reimagining. The feeling that our backs were against the wall was greater in the original to this much larger vision of identity loss. Still, there is a lot to admire in Invasion of the Body Snatchers ’78, and lots to scare the living daylights out of you too.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1978 is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Feature: Attack of the Communists! Seven Notable Science Fiction Films from the Cold War and The Atomic Age!
by Steve Habrat
During the Communism scare in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the Communist party was viewed by the general public as being an unseen or outside evil that could strike and corrupt you at any second. The science fiction films that were made during the time of the Communist scare were heavy on promoting this idea. The outside evils that are found in these films are mostly found in the alien force that is threatening our world. I think that these films are a great window into the era and actually comment on the way that our government portrayed the Communist party and how we should react if we are to come in contact with them. The nation was perceiving them as monsters or aliens that could arrive at any moment and try to destroy our forms of government and destroy us as individuals. The alien attacks in these films could also represent the idea that the Communists would attack and try to start a revolution. These films also play well into the paranoia that was working its way across the country. They play on the fear of the atomic bomb and the idea that a force that we are not familiar with could have a weapon more powerful than anything that we have. These films suggest that we could be attacked at any time and that there would be no warning. Each one of these films presents a different aspect on the atomic bomb scare and the idea of a foreign or outside evil.
The film The Day the Earth Stood Still, directed by Robert Wise in 1951, is a very well known film from this era. The film is about two aliens, Klaatu and Gort, that come from another planet to Washington D.C. to send us a warning about our violent ways. Klaatu warns us that if we do not start living peacefully, then we will be destroyed by a race of super robots that were created by Klaatu’s planet. This film is implying the idea of an evil outside force that patrols the galaxy and tries to keep everyone in line. This is alluding to the paranoia of an outside evil attacking with a very powerful weapon that we are not able to control. This also goes along with the ideas that if we ignored this outside evil and kept living a certain way, then we would eventually be met with a revolution that would change the United States.
Throughout The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu is also portrayed as a normal man who walks around with the humans and is not even noticed. This can go along with the thought that Communists can be anyone and anywhere. The film implies that we could be mingling with a very someone very dangerous and we may not even realize it. It is also made very clear to us that the aliens are ahead of us when it comes to science and technology. Klaatu says that if we do not live peacefully, then they will unleash an army of super robots that are capable of destroying whole planets. This plays off the paranoia that was felt about the Soviets working to try to create an atomic bomb.
The second film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, directed by Don Siegel in 1956, is much more outspoken about its themes about the morals of the Communist party. The film focuses on a small town that is being over run by a mysterious alien force that duplicates the people that make up the town. This force, which comes in form of alien pods that change people from unique individuals into mindless machines who show no personality or emotion. Once again, just like Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien duplicates are normal, everyday people that blend in. This plays along with idea that communists could be anywhere, in any town and that they were slowly building a following in the United States. At the end of the film, the main character, Dr. Bennell, has a conversation with Dr. Kauffman, who has been attacked by the body snatchers. During this conversation, Dr. Kauffmann says “Love, desire, ambition, faith-without them, life is so simple, believe me”. This line of dialogue alludes to what the United States public believed that the Communist party stood for. It points out that anyone who considers himself or herself a party member is someone who is trained to have no emotion and live by certain guide lines thought up by an outside force.
The weapon scare idea can be found throughout Invasion of the Body Snatchers although it may not be as obvious. The weapon can be found in the alien pods. These pods can be used as a weapon of mass fear. It is used to change the people from one way of thinking and then completely changing their whole personality. The pods are also used to keep the citizens in line and not to try to retaliate against the forces that are using them.
Them!, which was directed by Gordon Douglas in 1954, plays on the idea of an outside evil in a different way. Instead of aliens from space, the outside evil that threatens the country is giant, mutated ants. These ants slowly start emerging and killing anyone that they come in contact with. Soon two queen ants escape the nest and disappear. The army is racing to try to find these two queen ants before they can start other colonies of ants. Them! makes it very clear that it is tackling the subject of the experimentation of atomic weapons and the dangers that can arise. The film is quick to criticize that development of atomic weapons and the damages that they can have that don’t necessarily consist of destroy cities. The ants could be alluding to all the deformations that happened to some of the people once we dropped the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During this era of paranoia about outside evils and atomic weapons, it was widely known that atomic bombs caused body deformations from radiation. The ants also could be representing the weapons that have come from a foreign place. The army has a hard time trying to find a way that can stop the ants from their wave of destruction.
Them! also touches on the paranoia that Communists can be anywhere and that it is essential to find them and destroy them. This idea shows up in the two queen ants that escape and are trying to start other colonies. It mirrors the thought that Communists are somewhere in our country trying to make their numbers grow and eventually take over the world. This runs with the themes found in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The propaganda that was presented that the Communist party was growing in numbers in this country and that soon they would take over the world.
Forbidden Planet, directed by Fred M. Wilcox in 1956, is a film that explores outside evils and atomic paranoia in a different way than the other films I have discussed so far. Instead of the fear of attack on our own soil, we are presented with some of our citizens stumbling on a different way of life and how we react to it. The film is set in the future and follows the crew of a United Planets Cruiser who is set out to explore a planet that all life seems to have disappeared from. The crew meets Dr. Morbius, who warns them to leave the planet and to save themselves from some sort of danger. The perception of Communists soon presents itself in Dr. Morbius’ daughter Altaira. In one particular scene, Commander Adams and Altaira kiss and afterward she asks him what the point of kissing is. She tells him that she feels no emotion from the kiss but as the film goes on she slowly starts showing emotion for Commander Adams. It is also clear that Dr. Morbius is very protective of his daughter and has slowly trained her in almost a Communist way of thinking.
Outside evil also shows up in Forbidden Planet, and it comes in form of an invisible monster that attacks without any warning. The monster attacks the crew multiple times and plays into the paranoia of a foreign attack. It soon becomes known that the monster is being created by Dr. Morbius. The crew learns that the planet was made up of an extremely intelligent race that created all different kinds of inventions including a device called plastic educator that allows the user to increase their intelligence. This aspect of the film could be addressing the fact that the Soviets were racing to try to develop new technology. It shows that this is supposed to apply to the race to create an atomic bomb. It all points to the idea that Dr. Morbius may be a dreaded Communist! He only lives to work and push things forward rather than stop to experience other aspects of life.
Invaders From Mars, directed by William Cameron in 1953, is heavy on the themes of outside evils and paranoia of atomic weapons. But there are several small parts to this film that are different than the films I have talked about so far. The film follows a young boy named David, who sees a UFO crash into the field behind his house. He then tells his father, George, who is a scientist and believes that his son actually did see something. George goes out to investigate the field and to see if his son is telling the truth. After George does not return for several hours, his wife calls the police and reports him missing. Soon after his disappearance, George turns back up at the house and he seems very different. He is turned from a kind and loving father into a cold and emotionless person. We soon find out that George has had some sort of chip implanted into the back of his head and this chip is what has altered his personality. It turns out that some aliens have burrowed underground and have set up a base. The aliens once more are the outside evil that threatens our country. After George is brainwashed by the martians, he starts going out and finding other people that can be turned into emotionless machines who go out and do errands for the head martian. There is one particular scene where we see George lead the character Colonel Fielding out to the fields and we see the aliens capture him and turn him into a mindless slave. This goes along with theme that Communists could be anyone and even be a part of our own government and army. This theme also shows up in the character of the police captain, who has also been brainwashed and means to do harm. This theme alludes to the ideas that Communists were recruiting for their party in our own country.
The unusual part of Invaders From Mars is the aliens themselves and even the head martain that controls all the slaves. At the end of the film, we get to see the martians that serve the leader. They are presented to us as mindless slaves who only live to serve their leader. These slaves all look identical with their green suits and faces that look very similar to gas masks. The whole point of the martian attack is to try to sabotage weapon development that is taking place in the town where they landed. This film falls perfectly into propaganda and paranoia felt at the time of the films release. The slave’s uniforms eerily resemble the protective suits and gas masks that were worn by scientists and the suits that were advertised to the public to protect against an atomic bomb attack. The lead martian is also interesting because he could be mirroring the ideas of the people that made up the heads of the Communist party. It seems to say that they only wanted to benefit themselves and were not concerned about any of the general public. There is even one scene where David begs the head martain not to hurt his family or friends. We get to see the leaders reaction to his pleas, which is indifferent and he just disregards the young boy. Just like the other films, particularly Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the film is very vocal that it is attacking the Communist party and wants to explore the views of the Communist party.
The Angry Red Planet, directed by Ib Melchior, is the only film that I screened from the 1960s but still has quite a bit of meaning when it comes to outside evils and the fear of some kind of attack. The Angry Red Planet is about a group of astronauts that were sent to explore Mars but once they reached the planet, strange things start to occur. The themes of outside evils are present but they are presented in a very unusual way. In the other films that I screened, the outside evil was always very blatant, but in The Angry Red Planet the outside evil blends in with the landscape. At one point, the astronauts leave their spaceship to go out and explore the planet. One of the astronauts, Iris, breaks away from the group and happens to find a strange plant. Once she gets close enough, the plant begins to attack her and tries to kill her. This presents the outside evil in a drastically different way than the other films have so far. The idea that the outside evil could be around the corner and that we run the risk of walking straight into the trap of the enemy. This also shows up in the monster Bat-Rat-Spider-Crab monster that at first only appears to be some sort of tree. When the astronauts stumble upon this creature, they hack at one of its legs with a machete, which then awakens the monster and causes it to attack the astronauts. Near the end of the film, one of the astronauts, Thomas, is attacked by a giant ameba but survives. His arm is badly injured and seems to only get worse. When the astronauts return to earth, the doctors who examine the astronaut can’t seem to find a way to fix Thomas’ arm. The doctors trying to find a cure for his arm could be hinting at the hunt that was taking place across America. This could be a direct reference to the government trying to find a way to stop Communism from spreading across the United States.
At the end of The Angry Red Planet, the martians that inhabit Mars send a message to earth with the astronauts. The message goes: “Men of Earth, we of the planet Mars give you this warning. Listen carefully and remember. We have known your planet Earth since the first creature crawled out of the primeval slime of your seas to become man. For millennia, we have followed your progress, for centuries, we have watched you, listened to your radio signals and learned your speech and your culture. And now, you have invaded our home. Technological adults, but spiritual and emotional infants. We kept you here deciding your fate. Had the lower forms of life of our planet destroyed you, we would not have interfered. But you survived. Your civilization has not progressed beyond destruction, war and violence against yourselves and others. Do as you will to your own and to your planet, but remember this warning – Do Not Return To Mars. You will be permitted to leave for this sole purpose – Carry The Warning To Earth. Do Not Come Here. We can and will destroy you, all life on your planet, if you do not heed us. You have seen us, been permitted to glimpse our world. Go now. Warn mankind not to return unbidden”. This message heavily reflects the mentality during this time, playing on the idea that a foreign force is watching and studying us. The claim that they have weapons that could destroy us seems to be a reflection of the fear of atomic weapons that are possessed by a mysterious foreign power. This end warning is very similar to the warning that Klaatu gives at the end of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
It Came From Outer Space, directed by Jack Arnold in 1953, takes the issue of foreign outside evils and weapons scares in a slightly different direction form some of the other films that have been mentioned so far. The film still deals with the same fears that were circulating through the country, but it more attacks the propaganda that was very popular for the time. The film plays on lies and rumors that were getting passed along. The film is set in a small Arizona town and follows a scientist, John, and his girlfriend, Ellen, as they try to examine a strange meteor that falls to earth. They soon learn that the meteor is actually a UFO that has accidentally crashed. The alien’s possess bodies of certain civilians and turn them from normal, everyday people into emotionless machines. John soon learns that the aliens mean no harm and all they request is time to repair their ship in peace. This plays on the idea of an outside evil but it also suggests that sometimes we deem something evil when we actually do not know much about the subject. We go off what we pick up from certain places and lies that could be fed to us through propaganda. At the end of the film, the sheriff of the town decides that he does not trust the martains and sets out to kill them. The sheriff also has a large group of people with him that want to kill the martians. This could be reflecting the hostility that the United States had against the Communist party. The people who want to kill the martians in the film do not quite understand them and by not having all the facts, they label the martians as an outside evil.
While It Came From Outer Space is heavy on the issue of propaganda, it also finds time to address that atomic bomb paranoia. The martains do say that if we are not to leave them alone while they work, they have a weapon that can destroy our planet. This is revealed to us at the end of the film in a speech given by one of the aliens, which is very similar to the messages in The Angry Red Planet and The Day the Earth Stood Still. The film encourages a more peaceful way at looking at certain topics but it leaves a slight sense of unease, as we are still unfamiliar with these visitors.
All these science-fiction films of the 1950’s and 1960’s were obviously made to dazzle the audience. It is hard to believe that these films were also presenting more intelligent information rather than just entertaining you for an hour and a half in typical B-movie fashion. They are perfect reflections of a time when paranoia had the upper hand over a majority of the population and the constant fear that something foreign could cross over and find a way change our way of life. These films could almost be looked at as parodies of all the propaganda films that were being shown. If you look beyond the surface, you will see more than just flashy special effects. You will also find well-stated ideas.
by Steve Habrat
Around Halloween, if one was unsure what horror film or films to make the hairs on their arm stand at attention, you can find many in the John Carpenter department. In 1978, Carpenter crafted the classic serial killer flick with Halloween, which spawned several god-awful imitations and limp sequels. In 1980, he spooked us with his campfire ghost tale The Fog, a favorite of mine come Halloween with its disfigured ghost zombies and its ominous atmosphere. In 1982, he delivered The Thing, a heart pounding science fiction horror film that features some truly hideous make-up and puppet effects that have yet to be topped. They fill us to the brink with pure fear and it has one of the most memorable heroes aside from Ripley in Alien: MacReady. Carpenter heavily relies on atmosphere in his horror films, making the environment just as much of a character as Laurie Strode, Stevie Wayne, and MacReady. Whether it’s the stillness of Haddonfield, the looming evil in the small town of Antonio Bay, or the howling winds and whipping snow in Antarctica, these films could scare you without their otherworldly monsters lurking in the shadows. The Thing makes the best use of environment, making the bone freezing chill in the air just as deadly as the enigmatic alien copying it’s prey and becoming almost indistinguishable copies of the paranoid researchers who are slowly turning on each other.
I still believe that Halloween is Carpenter’s masterpiece, the ultimate slasher flick and also one of his most thought provoking films. The Thing, however, is an exercise in how to scare the living hell out of an innocent viewer. From the start, this film is disorienting, gloomy, and isolated, lacking even the slightest bit of hope that help could swoop in at any given moment and save the group of scientists. The way the film springs it’s infected antagonists on the viewer makes every frame an unpredictable nightmare and cloaks us in mistrust. But what really puts The Thing in another world completely is the jaw dropping make-up and puppets that leap out at us and make our skin crawl off the bone and hide under the couch we sit on to watch it. There is some disturbing imagery in this film, steeped more in gore than Halloween and The Fog. Carpenter has a way with monsters and I wish he would grace the silver screen again with another horror film. We need another reason to be afraid of the dark.
Set in the secluded Arctic, a group of American researchers witness a bizarre event when a Norwegian helicopter shows up on the premises tracking a fleeing dog. The helicopter has a sniper on board firing at the dog, desperately trying to kill it. After a freak accident, the helicopter crashes in the American outpost, leaving one American wounded by a stray bullet. Pilot R.J. MacReady (Played by the ultimate cinematic badass Kurt Russell) and Dr. Blair (Played by Wilford Brimley) venture out to find the Norwegian research camp, only to find the camp in ruin and all the foreign researchers dead. The evidence at the foreign camp hints at the discovery of extraterrestrial life, a deadly organism that copies it’s prey and imitates them. After returning to the American outpost with a charred alien body, paranoia grips the group with the researchers turning on each other. After a string of horrifying discoveries and the alien showing it’s repugnant face, the group finds themselves trying to protect themselves from the alien and each other.
Isolation is key in any great horror film, a touch that shakes the viewer up and fries the nerves. There is no hope in this story and things will end badly. THAT is what scares most people. Look at Night of the Living Dead, a film that boasts a remote setting and the threat that no one will help the desperate survivors locked in that iconic farmhouse. I’d compare The Thing to Night of the Living Dead in that regard, along with its jumpy Cold War paranoia. Furthermore, the uninfected men are just as dangerous as the ones who are being mimicked. The isolation, however, is what really makes this film a keeper. Carpenter really gets under our skin by driving the point home that these men are alone. Every time they venture out into the cold and snow, there is an unsettling dread that washes over us. And what if one gets trapped outside? The conditions outside are just as deadly as the ones lurking in the hallways and rec rooms. Carpenter hits us with two monsters, a natural one and an alien one. As their numbers slowly trickle down, you may start to consider getting up and hitting the pause button just to have a moment to calm yourself down.
There are two other reasons The Thing is a horror masterwork even though it was a bomb upon its initial release. Kurt Russell’s MacReady is a classic movie hero and the monster effects that are downright staggering. You can always count on Russell to be an ultimate hardass in any movie that announces his presence. The man is Snake Plissken! Yet I like MacReady for his resourcefulness and his bursts of sarcasm. He will always be standing proud in my mind, armed with dynamite and a flamethrower, looking the roaring beast in the face and after the roaring ends and the growls begin, dryly yelling “Yeah?! Well fuck you too!” and sending a lit stick of dynamite right at the alien. His reassured buoyancy in himself that he is not infected is also positively noted by this movie fan and this lets him sit securely on the great protagonists list. His antagonist is also beyond belief, a true beast from Hell that looks like Satan himself created it. Making awful howling noises and gurgling growls, severed heads sprout legs and walk off, stomachs open up and rip off arms, heads split open and turn into fang riddled jaws, and dogs grow tentacles and morph into towering juggernauts. Some of it really has to be seen to get a good mental image. It’s that rare film where the more you see; the more it leaves you looking like a heap of shivering jelly. It keeps topping itself, only finding competition with that other legendary extraterrestrial horror in Alien.
A nice break from the ghoulies, ghosts, classic movie monsters, zombies, vampires, and slashers, The Thing is a good Halloween freak out. It’s twisting halls forebodingly lit, it’s monsters constantly up to the challenge to leap out and genuinely scare the life out of you, and with a final showdown that only Carpenter himself could pull off, there is a reason this film has evolved into a massive fan favorite in the horror genre. More horror than actual science fiction, The Thing is perfect for Halloween simply because, much like the Halloween season, it’s dependent on the atmosphere. Lacking a clear explanation about the beast (Jason Zinoman would be proud!) and shrouded in mystery, The Thing is a modern classic in monster horror, coming from the studio that knows monsters—Universal Studios. The Thing is a flawless achievement featuring one of the greatest one-liners in movie history. Grade: A
by Steve Habrat
It’s a great time to be a fan of comic book movies. The quality of these products have never been better and in the wake of The Dark Knight, there has been a scramble to craft another megahit superhero film that can submit both the spectacle and the complex storytelling that the mighty The Dark Knight mixed so brilliantly. While May’s Thor surpassed many of the recent releases as downright entertaining even if it was a bit hollow, the closest to perfection is without question X-Men: First Class. I always wrote off the X-Men films mostly because I found them to be quite inaccessible and their only appeal was to X-Men fanboys who were familiar with the countless hoards of mutants invented by creator Stan Lee. What ultimately rubbed salt in the wound was the flimsy origin tale Wolverine, which seemed to exist simply to be an indulgent pet project for the limitedly talented Hugh Jackman. It also put the bullet in the head of the X-Men film franchise.
Rejoice, fanboys! Marvel has cleaned house in their quality control department (Did you SEE some of the movies they were releasing before this summer? Seriously? Elektra? Ghost Rider? Anyone?!) and brought in Matthew Vaughn, the competent director of such films as last year’s underrated gem Kick-Ass and the ferocious dark comedy/gangster pic Layer Cake to shock the franchise back to life and infuse it with some fresh blood. Paired up with Bryan Singer, the director of the respectable X-Men, X2, and the lifeless Superman Returns, the two make a heady, personal, flashy, and swinging thrill ride that turns out to be the best origin film for superheroes since 2005’s Batman Begins. X-Men: First Class is set during the Cold War and finds itself besting the recent Cold War superhero extravaganza Watchmen in almost every way. It’s funny that this film would be the knockout punch to Watchmen, which many consider to be adapted from arguably the greatest graphic novel ever written.
Marvelously weaving history with the atomic age heroes, X-Men: First Class harkens back to when Professor X (Wanted’s James McAvoy) meets arch-nemesis Magneto (Inglourious Basterd’s Michael Fassbinder). Professor X, or Charles as we know him here, is a beer swilling genius whose groundbreaking studies on mutants is earning him a large amount of notoriety from the academic realm. Magneto, or Erik, is a bitter, shattered victim of the Holocaust. He is subjected to cruel experiments after it is discovered that he can manipulate metal. Erik vows revenge on the evil scientist who tortured him as a boy in a concentration camp. Jumping ahead into the early 1960s, a CIA operative discovers that mutants exist and are hell-bent on igniting nuclear war. The CIA seeks out telepathic Charles to locate and round up an army of mutants and train them to battle against the Hellfire Club, lead by one of the greatest superhero villains since Heath Ledger’s unforgettable turn as the Joker, Sebastian Shaw (an undeniably wicked Kevin Bacon). Shaw can absorb kinetic energy used against him, which grants him super strength and speed.
In writing, it sounds absolutely absurd. The film is aware that it is absurd and embraces its own absurdity, which remarkably, makes it impossible to resist. It’s campy one moment and the next; it’s ominous and heart wrenching. Perhaps Vaughn and Singer studied at the Chris Nolan school for superhero directors, because like The Dark Knight, the film features an electrifying climatic stand off that, as layers pull away, reveals one horrifying revelation after another.
X-Men: First Class also ends up breaking the golden rule when it comes to big budget blockbuster films—it has many subtle personal flourishes from its makers, mostly stemming from Singer, who is an open homosexual. The film becomes a rallying cry for acceptance from society. This actually adds to the power of the film, giving it a voice rather than just opting for the businesslike route it could have so easily taken. Marvel and the filmmakers have embraced some depth and given the characters some fleeting personality. While some of it is brief, the film does take place during a time when homosexuals were facing a great amount of prejudice as at this time, the American government deemed homosexuals un-American. Funny enough, the mutants face an eerily similar dilemma in the show-stopping climax.
This is a summer movie, after all, and the film does offer up its fair share of summer movie moments. The film becomes a showroom for stellar special effects, but Vaughn makes sure he does not loose his characters in all the action. The performances from its young leads are the true reason to see the film and they will leave you wanting a hell of a lot more. James McAvoy plays the party boy genius Charles with some unforgettable charm. And Michael Fassbinder flexes his acting muscle as snapping from sinister to heartbroken in the blink of an eye as Erik. One scene in particular hints that in the future, this man may have an Oscar in his possession. And bombshell Jennifer Lawrence as Raven/Mystique continues to prove that she is, in fact, more than just a bombshell and a serious actress even if she is spending much of the movie nude and blue. I also cannot ignore the impressive turn from Kevin Bacon, who plays one self-centered and cold-hearted bastard.
The X-Men series has finally returned to form and has left this guy wanting much, much more from it. Even at 132 minutes, it feels too brief and will have you hounding for a sequel if it doesn’t lure you back to experience it all again. While some of the characters are not fleshed out enough, you are willing to forgive as the film is taking on quite a few characters. It does it’s best and it’s best shapes up to be one of the greatest superhero movies ever made. You’ll be replaying the aerial battle between Beast and Azazel in your head for days. It thrills you to the core, but it will also creep on your emotions, which any great film should do. With expert direction and a seriously well-written script, X-Men: First Class strikes a perfect balance between blockbuster and character driven epic. You will not be disappointed. Bring on the sequel. Grade: A
X-Men: First Class will be available on Blu-ray and DVD September 9th.