by Steve Habrat
Considering how popular the classic Universal Studios monsters have become over the years, it’s no big surprise that the studio keeps digging them out of their graves. With remakes of three of their biggest ghouls already on the market (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Kenneth Branagh’s Frankenstein, and Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy), it makes sense for the studio to update one of their last big name monsters for modern audiences. In 2010, director Joe Johnston released The Wolfman, a CGI heavy update of George Waggner’s haunting 1941 classic that starred Lon Chaney Jr. With two Oscar winners in front of the camera and Rick Baker in charge of the werewolf make-up effects, The Wolfman should have been a smashing success, but there are several elements that caused the film to come out a major disappointment. While The Wolfman drips atmosphere and gothic set design that would make Tim Burton drool, this werewolf offering seems formulaic and misguided. At times it seems to want to be an action movie and the climax features a fight scene that looks like it would have been more at home in The Matrix rather than Universal monster movie. And then there is Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins, two award winners who deliver some of the most lifeless performances of their careers.
The Wolfman reintroduces us to Lawrence Talbot (played by Benicio Del Toro), a renowned Shakespearean actor with a traumatic past. When he was just a young boy, he witnessed his mother’s gruesome demise, and in the wake of the discovery, his father, Sir John Talbot (played by Anthony Hopkins), shipped him off to an insane asylum. One evening, John receives news that his brother, Ben, has mysteriously disappeared. Lawrence returns home to Blackmoor where he is met with news that his brother’s body was found mutilated. As Lawrence comes to terms with his brother’s death, he attempts to reconnect with his father and he strikes up a relationship with his brother’s fiancé, Gwen Conliffe (played by Emily Blunt). One night, Lawrence decides to visit a local gypsy that his brother was said to have associated with. While visiting the gypsies, the camp is attacked by what appears to be a giant wolf. During the attack, Lawrence suffers a bite that leaves him bedridden and suffering from horrific nightmares. With the town in hysterics over the violent attacks, Inspector Aberline (played by Hugo Weaving) arrives from London to launch an investigation before more bodies turn up. After being unconscious for many days, Lawrence wakes up and he initially believes he is okay, but when the moon is full, Lawrence undergoes a horrible transformation that turns him into a snarling monster. To make things worse, horrific family secrets come back to haunt Lawrence and new details about his mother’s death slowly start to emerge.
With Johnston kicking things off with the shimmering retro Universal Studios logo, you’d think that The Wolfman would remain a grounded tribute to what Waggner terrified audiences with back in 1941, but you quickly realize that is far from the truth. The opening werewolf attack is appropriately dark and gloomy, but it’s fairly obvious that this film is going to be drenched in rubbery CGI that instantly takes us out of the moment. And that is just the start of it. When blurry werewolves aren’t speeding across the screen, Johnston and Baker are having an extremely difficult time meshing the practical make-up effects glued to Del Toro’s face with the CGI extensions that are there to add some extra menace. We know Baker can do practical, especially after what he delivered with 1981’s An American Werewolf in London, but it seems that Universal urged the filmmakers to cut corners with the practical effects, something that is perplexing when we consider what exactly Universal is remaking. Part of the appeal of the classic Universal monsters is their practicality—the idea that we could almost reach out and touch them. They are unnervingly real, even if we can see some of the lines in their make-up. When the Wolfman starts leaping, slashing, and killing here, it feels more like its playing out in the pages of an old EC Comic. It’s almost an insult to the original film rather than a loving tribute.
While the copious amounts of CGI hold it back, The Wolfman does excel in the set design and costume department. The shots of 18th century London are absolutely exquisite. There is a grittiness to the city shots but there is also plenty of glamour to be found, especially when Johnston delivers a shot of the Wolfman crouched on a gothic gargoyle while howling at the full moon. It’s spectacular and it certainly holds up on a high-definition television. When we get to explore the Talbot manor, Johnston presents a shadowy mansion that you could very well see Dracula prowling around. There are cobwebs dangling from the staircase railing and there are dead leaves scattered about the marble floors. There are closed off rooms with ghosts of traumatic years past and characters peek through the darkness with candelabras in their clutches. The outdoor gardens are tangled vines that died many years ago and the local villages are as muddy and cruddy as they can get. Then there is the insane asylum, which features patients crouched in their cells wrapped in straight jackets. There is an observation room that is a stand in for a massive coffin, a maze that traps in a slew of doctors as they wait to see if Lawrence will really transform into a chopping werewolf. If there is any reason to see The Wolfman, it’s because of the extravagant sets that obviously cost a pretty penny. However, it was disappointing to see Universal remake The Wolfman and not give us a few scenes in a foggy forest. Here, we do get an eerie forest, but it never features the rolling sheets of fog that crept by Chaney’s hairy feet.
What is perhaps the most frustrating part of The Wolfman is just how miscast Benicio Del Toro and Anthony Hopkins truly are. Del Toro certainly resembles Lon Chaney Jr., but there is also something faintly hard about the man that prevents us from viewing him as a tragic character doomed to a hellish fate. There are scenes where he seems be settling into the character, but some of the more dramatic moments seem put on. There is never any of the nervous shifting and antsy unease that kept Chaney pacing in his room waiting for the inevitable. Meanwhile, Hopkins is asked to fill the enormous shoes of Claude Rains, who portrayed Sir John as a compassionate but rational man who grapples with the wild story his son tells of a werewolf taking a chunk out of his chest. It’s best not to say too much about his role, but Hopkins seems all to eager to give away the big reveal. Blunt seems to enjoy playing the misty-eyed damsel in distress and mourning love interest. She isn’t given much to do beyond holding Lawrence’s head and skip stones at a local pond, but there is something about her character that you just can’t resist. Hugo Weaving rounds out the cast as Inspector Aberline, the rather bland antagonist out to get to the bottom of the brutal slaying happening around Blackmoor. He dashes around with importance and the unblinking determination carved into his face does do the trick, but we never come to truly like or loathe him.
As far as the scares are concerned, with so much CGI artificiality contaminating the screen, The Wolfman is never permitted to become very scary. Hell, not even the howls send a chill! However, if you’re in the market for some serious blood and guts, then you’ve come to the right gothic castle. Bodies are slashed and bitten into hamburger meat, with guts splattered on the autumn ground. Head’s go flying across the screen, werewolf nails shoot through open mouths, and limbs are sent flying through the air with a thin trail of—you guessed it—CGI blood. The gore is extremely entertaining and it is sort of fun to see Universal embracing such savagery, especially when the Wolfman goes berserk in the streets of London. All the savagery does spiral out of control by the end, as Johnston ends The Wolfman with goofy werewolf brawl that finds hairy beats flying all over Talbot manor. You honestly wouldn’t mind so much if they weren’t doing wiry flips and leaps that would have been more at home in The Matrix. Come to think of it, maybe that is why Hugo Weaving is on hand here. Overall, while Universal showered the project in money, The Wolfman 2010 never dares explore the monsters that can lurk in even the mot mild mannered individuals. It falls victim to what almost every other horror film falls victim to: CGI excess. It’s all to eager to top the original rather than acting as a respectful tribute to a classic.
The Wolfman is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
“Is it dead or alive!? Human or inhuman!?” Check out the eerie trailer for Universal Studios’ classic 1932 monster movie The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff. It’s perfect for Halloween night!
And now, for the results of the Halloween horror review poll. As of right now, it appears that we have a TIE between The Uninvited and Halloween III: Season of the Witch. So, the poll will remain open until OCTOBER 25TH. Make sure to cast more votes so we get settle on a winner!
by Steve Habrat
If there is one thing that Universal Studios can do, it’s iconic monsters. In 1923, the studio released The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Lon Chaney vehicle that was the first monster movie off their assembly line. Two years later, Universal followed up the successful The Hunchback of Notre Dame with director Rupert Julian’s classic The Phantom of the Opera, another Chaney picture that kicked off the monster craze that really hit its stride with 1931’s Dracula and Frankenstein. Based upon Gaston Leroux’s novel, The Phantom of the Opera is perhaps one of the best entries in Universal’s monster series—a grand and luxurious gothic tale rich with heavy shadows, spooky snaking passageways, and ink-black underground rivers. The Phantom of the Opera’s million-dollar sets will certainly keep the viewer in a perpetual state of awe, but it’s a small and simple sequence of early color that to this day makes the viewer sit up and take notice. Roaming around all the spectacular sets and flashy color is Chaney’s skull-faced phantom Erik, a spectral figure that seems to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. Often overlooked even by the studio that released it (the film was glaringly absent from the most recent Blu-ray box set and released in a stand-alone edition), The Phantom of the Opera is arguably the best monster movie to come from Universal Studios. And you know what? It’s probably the most horrifying Universal monster movie.
The Phantom of the Opera opens in the Paris Opera House, with the original management in the final stages of signing the grand building over to enthusiastic new managers. Before the original managers depart, they warn the newcomers of a Phantom that terrorizes the opera house. The new managers laugh off the warnings and think nothing more of the eerie stories. The new management soon realizes that the stories of the Phantom may have some truth when opera prima donna Mme. Carlotta (played by Virginia Pearson) brings a letter that appears to be written by the Phantom to their attention. The letter demands that rising opera star Christine Daae (played by Mary Philbin) be able to sing the role of Marguerite. The managers do as the Phantom instructs, but when he makes the same demands again, they ignore him despite his warnings of grave consequences. That night, a horrific accident strikes the theater and leaves the audience in chaos. In the thick of the violence, Christine is abducted by a shadowy figure that whisks her off into the winding catacombs underneath the opera house. Deep in the shadows, the shadowy figure reveals himself as Erik (played by Lon Chaney), a masked man who declares his love for Christine. Ignoring his warnings about touching his mask, Christine decides to see what Erik really looks like, enraging him enough to make her his prisoner. Christine’s mysterious disappearance alerts her lover, Vicomte Raoul de Chagny (played by Norman Kerry), who races to find Christine before its too late.
Through its grandiose set design and Expressionist approach, The Phantom of the Opera gets very far on its gothic mood and dank atmosphere. It ushers us into a world of darkness, winding through halls of mirrors, torture chambers, heat rooms, and a lair that features a dusty old organ for our monster to pound away at like a maniac. The film lacks the cartoonish exaggeration of such films as Nosferatu or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but it does stand as an early blueprint for Universal’s other gothic efforts that would accompany the beginning of the 1930s. Director Julian seems to be aware of the quality of his sets, and he doesn’t miss an opportunity to let us explore these catacombs. After a while, you feel like you’ve stepped through the picture and are actually wandering them yourself, and with all of the shifting shadows, you start to wonder if there is more haunting these halls than a psychotic Phantom. This supernatural sensation is carried over into the intertitles, which speak about torture chambers and the opera guests being completely oblivious of the unspeakable horrors that took place in those brick and mortar tombs just below their feet. And then there is the Phantom himself, who seems to be capable of appearing out of thin air and then disappearing in the blink of an eye. No room or corridor seems off limits, which suggests supernatural capabilities despite the fact that Julian shows us all the smoke and mirrors.
Like all the great silent horror films, The Phantom of the Opera features an untouchable performance from its main headlining star, which in the case happens to be famed silent actor Lon Chaney as Erik, the antagonist of the opera house. While many different actors have tried to step into the role of the phantom, not one of them was capable of bringing the glowering madness that Chaney brought to the role. Underneath thick strokes of make-up that he applied, Chaney brings to life a psychopath who drools through curled lips over a young girl petrified by his physical appearance. When seen in shadows, your imagination works overtime filling in the details of his outline. Hidden behind his featureless mask, he seems harmless enough even if he did just drop a chandelier onto a room full of people, spreading his arms in celebration of his liar, and he appears unhinged as he hammers out tunes on his organ. When we finally get a look at that unforgettable face, it gapes in surprise, enraged that his love would dare try to rip that mask from his hideous face. With sunken eyes, rotten teeth, and protruding cheekbones, he resembles a malicious skeleton that points a finger down at the defeated Christine. He bellows about making her his slave and becomes almost bat-like in the way he hovers over her with his cape resembling wings. You won’t be able to take your eyes off of him, even if you would really like to.
Underneath the crushing sets, the busy frames filled with thousands of extras, and the scene-stealing Chaney, the supporting actors struggle to stand out. Philbin’s Christine is pretty enough and she certainly plays up the damsel-in-distress, but you almost forget to pay attention to her when Chaney’s Erik bears down on her. She’s overly melodramatic when she clings to her lover and begs him to save her from the Phantom. Kerry is fine enough of the hero who races to reach Christine, but when he is stuck in the same scene as Arthur Edmund Carewe’s Ledoux, they become interchangeable. Set apart from Kerry, Carewe’s Ledoux is misleadingly sinister as he wanders the catacombs searching for the Phantom. It’s best not to reveal the secret to his character, but just know that the minor twist is pretty interesting. Virginia Pearson owns the room as the imposing prima donna revolted by the Phantom’s demands, and Bernard Siegel adds a bit of unnecessary slapstick comedy as the stagehand Joseph Buquet.
Amidst the gargantuan scope of the picture, The Phantom of the Opera really dazzles with a small color segment that finds Chaney’s Erik crashing an opera party. Dressed in blood red and donning a skull mask, Chaney struts up and down a grand staircase ranting about the ‘Red-Death’ and the blind eye that the guests cast to the suffering that took place in the torture chambers below them. It’s an absolutely amazing scene that pops in harsh reds and deep blacks. Another astounding moment is when the massive chandelier that dangles over the audience’s heads comes plunging down. For 1925, the scene is surprisingly violent, only to be followed up with a shot of a woman getting trampled to death as theatergoers scrambling for their lives. In the final moments of the film, Julian springs one more classic surprise. We find Chaney’s Phantom cornered by a bloodthirsty mob in the streets of Paris. Knowing that he is doomed to die, he unleashes one more surprise on the mob that gives him a good belly laugh. It’s an unforgettable climax that sends a deep chill. Overall, despite a notoriously bad shoot and studio interference, The Phantom of the Opera is a creepy, stylish, and consistent monster movie that deserves to be called a classic. Give even more credit to Chaney, who created one of the most recognizable fiends in monster movie history.
The Phantom of the Opera is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
We have arrived at our final classic Universal Movie Monster and we end this series with a true legend. The Creature from the Black Lagoon moves away from the supernatural flavor that was favored by Universal Studios and embraced a scientific fear that was popular after World War II. He may not emerge from a coffin at night and he may not be a walking corpse but Gill-man is certainly a monster that will continue to haunt our dreams for years. Without further ado, here is the final installment in Anti-Film School’s Universal Movie Monster series. Read on if you dare…
The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Of all the classic monsters in the Universal horror line, one of the most iconic is Gill-man, the underwater terror from Jack Arnold’s classic horror adventure The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Made in 1954 and originally released in 3D, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was Universal’s attempt at trying to remain in the horror loop. After World War II, the genre had moved away from the supernatural beasts like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy and embraced more of a fear of science, atomic age mutants, and extraterrestrials. Born out of the movement, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the finest creature features from the golden age of drive-in spectacle, an A-list horror movie that steps out of B-movie assembly line. With a timeless creature that refuses to show his age and a rollicking adventure with plenty of brains to spare, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a film that you just can’t pull yourself away from. And then there is Gill-man himself, a sympathetic specimen who was simply minding his own business when the men in the safari hats dropped in on his beloved lagoon and began desecrating it. In my humble opinion, he remains one of the most sympathetic of all the classic monsters that made their way out of Universal Studios.
After a geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers the skeletal remains of a link between land and sea creatures, a team of scientists is quickly put together and sent into the thick jungle to examine the remains. The team consists of leader Dr. Carl Maia (Played by Antonio Moreno), ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Played by Richard Carlson), financial backer Dr. Mark Williams (Played by Richard Denning), Kay Lawrence (Played by Julia Adams), and grizzled captain Lucas (Played by Nestor Paiva). Once they arrive in the jungle, the team that originally made the discovery is discovered dead near the remains. As the new team tries to figure out the cause of the death, they come face to face with Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman), an amphibious creature that is extremely territorial. Having made the discovery of a lifetime, the group grapples with how to capture the Gill-man but the creature plans on putting up a hell of a fight. But after Gill-man lays eyes on Kay and falls in love with her, he begins plotting a way to abduct her from the group.
Featuring a number of jaw-dropping underwater sequences, The Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a must see for these scenes, which I’m sure just astonish in 3D. The most beautiful of the scenes is when Kay decides to take a dip in the lagoon, only to be stalked by Gill-man, who swims just underneath her. When your eyes aren’t glued to Kay’s iconic bathing suit, you will marvel at the precise choreography of the scene, especially how Gill-man manages to mirror all of Kay’s movements. While the scene may make you swoon, there are plenty of suspenseful moments in that murky water that will have you holding your breath. David and Mark relentlessly hunt the poor Gill-man, who hides among the rocks and seaweed that cakes the bottom of the eerie lagoon. These scenes are given a shock from a hair-raising blast of horns that announce the Gill-man when we catch a brief glimpse of him. Arnold also allows his camera to take a plunge when the scientists use various methods to try to drug Gill-man. The camera lingers underwater as an array of chemicals trail down to the bottom of the lagoon, our monster hidden among the rocks and staring up in horror. It is scenes like this that make us feel for the slimy guy.
Then there are the colorful performances from the cast, who all do a bang up job with the characters they are given. Carlson’s David is the typical all-American hero who questions whether they are doing the right thing by capturing the Gill-man. His confliction makes him easily the most likable character next to Kay. While she is mostly asked to scream when she sees the Gill-man, Kay still is a stunner in that white one piece. In a way, it is tragic the way she fears the creature as he just has misunderstood feelings for Kay and no way to confess those feelings. The most monstrous of the human characters is Denning’s Williams, who is so desperate to capture the creature that it borders on obsessive. He is constantly at odds with David and he usually is the one who resorts to violence to solve their differences. Then there is Gill-man himself, who remains largely unseen for part of the movie. Still packing a mean visual punch, the Gill-man’s desperation to stay in his swamp and rid it of these human terrors is what ultimately tugs at your heartstrings. For a while, he just stays submerged and watches, reading the actions of these intruders. The creature does pop more underwater (when underwater, he is played by Browning and when on land, he is played by Chapman) as he glides around David and Mark. On land, he shuffles like the Frankenstein Monster, emitting guttural growls that sound vaguely like demonic pigs. He can truly be a frightening force, especially to those who have never been exposed to him.
There are points in The Creature from the Black Lagoon where the film ceases to be a great horror movie and becomes a great adventure into the unknown with plenty of action that will be enjoyed for many more years to come. It introduces us to a creature that will continue to grab our imagination and haunt our dreams. Over the years, many audiences and even critics (!) have been calling for a remake of the movie and there have even been rumors that Universal has been considering giving Gill-man a face lift. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen and that the studio leaves the film alone. I fear that they will resort to senseless bloodletting, a CGI makeover for the green guy, and a slew of disposable pretty faces that can barely act their way out of a paper bag let alone the Black Lagoon. No, Jack Arnold’s film is perfect as is, one that still can pack a mean spook and white knuckle action scene with the best of them.
Revenge of the Creature (1955)
Apparently having survived the events of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Tom Hennesy) is once again preyed upon by nosy scientists eager to study him. This time, animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (Played by John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Played by Lori Nelson) capture him and have him transported to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida. Soon, the Gill-man falls in love with Helen and he begins trying to escape from his tank. Naturally, he manages to free himself and he sets out to find his true love, killing anyone who gets in his way.
Lazily made and devoid of any suspense or atmosphere, Revenge of the Creature is a massive step down from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon, which happened to be one of the finest films in the Universal library. Originally released in 3D, it is fun to see the Gill-man terrorizing swarming masses of innocent civilians but yanking him out of his legendary lagoon may not have been the smartest idea out there. I found myself longing for the confrontations in the Black Lagoon and almost bored with the tedious scenes of Clete and Helen trying to communicate with the angry creature. Gill-man certainly does win our sympathy, maybe even more here than he did in the original film. The first time around, we saw his beautiful swamp desecrated by careless humans but this time, he is chained and forced to sit still as curious citizens swarm to his tank to point and gasp. Poor guy! No wonder he is angry when he breaks out of those chains.
The acting of Revenge of the Creature is certainly nothing to write home about, although do make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a cameo from a young Clint Eastwood. As the story plays out before us, it is easy to assume that the film is going nowhere fast. We are subjected to one bloated conversation after another as the Gill-man bobs around in the background. Director Jack Arnold seems to realize this and he frantically tries to make up for it in the final twenty minutes of the film with an extended chase. Basically, all he does is hit the lights and let the Gill-man wander the dark as police try desperately to prevent him from escaping with Helen in his slimy arms. Trust me, you’ve seen this sequence before in countless other Universal monster films. Overall, there was plenty of potential here but the lack of enthusiasm with the material hurts the final product. It’s obvious this was made simply to make money for the studio and it is a shame because Gill-man deserves better than what he gets. This film drowns right before our very eyes. Someone grab the life preserver! Grade: C
The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)
Somehow surviving the hail of gunfire at the end of Revenge of the Creature, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Don Megowan) is once again hunted down by a team of scientists led by the deranged Dr. William Barton (Played by Jeff Marrow). After a lengthy search, the Gill-man is discovered and captured in the Everglades. During the capture, the Gill-man is seriously wounded, which forces the scientists to race to save his life. He undergoes a procedure that radically alters his appearance and has him using his lungs to breathe rather than his gills.
An even bigger dud than Revenge of the Creature, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the franchise sinking fast under a bizarre premise that has Gill-man evolving into a towering human being with vaguely human features. The beginning of the film finds some of that effective atmosphere from the first film creeping in but things go south quick when the film sails out of the swamp and arrives at a sprawling mansion compound where the Gill-man is forced to live behind an electric fence. Riddled with plot holes, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the human beings acting more monstrous than the Gill-man, who once again nabs our sympathy in his electric prison. Tour guide Jed Grant (Played by Gregg Palmer) lusts after William’s wife, Marcia (Played by Leigh Snowden), and he makes a very half-assed attempt to hide it. William relentlessly accuses poor Marcia of seducing every man she comes across, something completely untrue. The savage bickering and arguing finally ends with one of the men killing the other and then trying to blame it on the Gill-man.
Clunky and bogged down by a slew of rotten humans doing terrible things to each other, The Creature Walks Among Us is a messy and overwhelmingly bleak conclusion to the Creature franchise. What hurts the worst is seeing Gill-man edged off the A-list of horror icons and relegated to B-squad of atomic age abominations with very little intellectual purpose. Halfway through the film, Gill-man is stripped of his original trim appearance and morphed into a hulking brute in a Halloween mask that just stands around and stares at everyone. While it can be argued that there are minor traces of what once was here and there, the film wouldn’t scare even the jumpiest horror fan. Overall, I wish I could say it wraps everything up in a satisfying manner, but there is no muggy or buggy inspiration or creativity on the filmmaker’s part. I’m afraid that the Black Lagoon is all dried up. Grade: D+
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Revenge of the Creature, and The Creature Walks Among Us are available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I really wish that more people out there were familiar with Universal Studio’s atomic age science-fiction film This Island Earth. It may not be the best science-fiction film from the 50’s but it sure is a cool and minor drive-in classic. Served with a heaping glob of cheese, This Island Earth overcomes its unintentionally hilarious moments with some seriously crisp color, icky monsters, and an egghead script that science-fiction fanatics will happily gobble up. A cult classic in its own right, you may be familiar with the grotesque aliens that inhabit this picture, as you will often see them included in collages of the other more famous Universal Studios monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Wolf-Man). This Island Earth also found itself released on June 1st, 1955, proving that even before the rise of the summer blockbuster in the late 70’s, there were still spectacles released to entertain kids who were on summer vacation. This Island Earth, however, does prove to be a smart spectacle.
This Island Earth introduces us to Dr. Cal Meacham (Played by Rex Reason), a well-known scientist who receives instructions and parts to build a mysterious device called an interocitor. Along with his colleague, Joe Wilson (Played by Robert Nichols), the duo puts the interocitor together and suddenly receives a video transmission from a man who calls himself Exeter (Played by Jeff Morrow). Exeter tells Cal that building the interocitor was all a test and that he wants Cal to join him in special research project. Cal reluctantly accepts and is soon ushered off to a secluded research facility in a remote area of Georgia. Cal is reunited with an old love interest, Ruth Adams (Played by Faith Domergue), and together they begin to snoop around the facility, suspicious that they are not being told truth. After trying to escape, Cal and Ruth are abducted by a UFO and taken off to the war-torn planet of Metaluna. It is on Metaluna that Cal and Ruth learn why Exeter recruited them to work for him and after meeting the sinister head of the planet, they have to quickly devise a way to get back to earth.
This Island Earth is one of the rare science fiction films that doesn’t have the human race portrayed as the inferior beings. The alien race within the film wants to work directly with us and is in need of uranium deposits to aid Metaluna in their fight against the relentless Zagons, who attack with planetoids that are guided by spaceships. Heavy with nuclear willies and brimming with mentions of UFO sightings up in the clouds, This Island Earth is certainly and shamelessly a product of the Cold War. The film applies paranoia at its core, our protagonists convinced that they are not being told everything they need to know, suspiciously peaking around every corner they come to. When Cal boards an unmanned airplane, Joe begins pleading with Cal to not make the journey to Georgia, exclaiming that something stinks about the entire operation. With its use of color, the film is able to slip into pulp territory, resembling something that would have been printed on the pages of an EC Comic. The color also alleviates some of the heavier subtexts, allowing moments of This Island Earth to feel more like hot-weather escapism rather than chilling mushroom cloud reflection.
This Island Earth ends up being a slower moving film, one that takes its good old time getting to the staggering world of Metaluna. Director Joseph M. Newman uses the slower moments to allow us to get to know our protagonists and also send us into confusion over the character of Exeter. Cal quickly is established as the All-American guy, a brainy and thoughtful hero right up to the last frame. At first, Ruth sidesteps being the usual damsel in distress and she dashes right alongside Cal as they flee from destructive lasers being shot at them. Sadly, once Cal and Ruth are abducted and whisked off to Metaluna, she crumbles into a hysterical heap, one that cries out at incoming planetoids and shrieks in horror as one of the monstrous Mutants stalks her around a spaceship. Exeter is a guy who we can’t fully classify up until the very end of the film. At times, he seems villainous but he will the quickly say that his alien race is a peaceful group. My one complaint is that Cal and Ruth at first overlook Exeter’s bizarre physical appearance. His forehead is quite unlike a regular forehead—something that you would assume would jump out at the two scientists.
There are moments of This Island Earth where the atmosphere is so tense, it could be cut with a laser beam. Just check out the scene where Cal, Ruth, and Exeter arrive on Metaluna, an eerie place with explosions that look suspiciously like nuclear blasts in the background. It becomes mushroom cloud after mushroom cloud as our heroes dodge attacks by the lumbering Mutants, who swipe their claws after the terrified humans. It’s a shame that This Island Earth has been waved off by many science-fiction/horror gurus (The film was featured in Mystery Science Theater 3000, forever ruing its reputation.), as there is plenty to appreciate in this science fiction extravaganza, both visually and intellectually. The films trippy final half-hour more than makes up for the droning and uneventful first half. Yet director Newman keeps the humanity that is shrewdly established in tact and it never becomes a cynical vision of nuclear destruction. It never looses faith in the human race and it proudly stands by the fact that we are capable of making the right decisions when it comes down to it. Overall, if you have the patience and you enjoy this sort of thing, open your windows, allow the summer evening air to creep in, fix yourself a big buttery bowl of popcorn, grab an extra large soda, find a date, and loose yourself in the world of This Island Earth. There are plenty of thrills, chills, and sights to behold in this slightly flawed Cold War drive-in classic. Make it a double feature with another Cold War science fiction classic!
This Island Earth is available on DVD.
Hey boys and ghouls,
We sincerely hope that you guys have enjoyed our Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular. We have crossed 3,000 hits and the hits keep coming. In celebration of the day all things scary walking the earth, lets do the Monster Mash with Boris Karloff and a hoard of go-go dancers to celebrate! Tune in tomorrow for our final review of the horror film you guys chose. Happy Halloween!
by Steve Habrat
Another month, another horror remake coughed up from lazy Hollywood and this time it’s the prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 chiller The Thing. August saw the remake of another 80’s horror flick, Fright Night, which was playful, spry, and hip. The Thing 2011 fits nicely along with the original 1982 classic, but after establishing no mood, it becomes a showcase for the latest special effects Hollywood has to offer and to be perfectly honest, they are not much to write home about. The creature effects are what made the Carpenter original such a standout. They were appallingly real where here they seem rubbery and computerized. In fact, they are only a notch above direct to DVD effects. The Thing 2011 is also the furthest thing from hip, seeming appropriately old school but never really utilizing the effect (the film begins with the classic Universal Studios logo). It’s drenched in fakery when it could have benefitted from a real scare. It’s also certainly not playful, never elaborating on the original story but rather simply resorting to rehashing the original plot with different actors. It only adds B-movie princess Mary Elizabeth Winstead gripping a flamethrower and a big, laughable UFO at the end.
Remember in the Carpenter original when MacReady (Krut Russell) and the resident doctor ventured into the charred ruins of the Norwegian camp at the beginning of The Thing 1982? The place looked like hell had rained down upon it. It was also especially creepy because our mind filled in what happened to these people. Well, Hollywood found it necessary to show us what happened and it doesn’t look that much different from what happened in the American camp. After a group of Norwegian scientists stumble upon a UFO and a crablike alien buried in the snow of the Arctic, American paleontologist Kate (Played by Winstead) and her partner Adam (Played by Eric Christian Olsen) are recruited by a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Sander Halvorson (Played by Ulrich Thomsen) to come to the site and help them remove the alien from the snow. She takes on the job and upon her arrival, she meets a pair of American pilots Carter and Jameson (Played by Joel Edgerton and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Once the scientists remove the alien from the ice and bring it back to the camp, it soon wakes up and breaks from its icy confines. It begins attacking the scientists one by one and duplicating the helpless saps. Paranoia rips through the group and soon the alien begins rearing it’s fangs and tentacles all over the place, ripping out from heads, arms, stomachs, etc. As the group awaits help to arrive, they desperately search for a way to figure out who is normal and how to quarantine the alien from spreading outside the camp.
This Thing isn’t a terrible movie and it actually has a bit of potential buried beneath the snow and ice. Winstead is a talented actress and her toughness is believable, but she’s not the reluctant hero the MacReady was. Edgerton also attempts to fit ol’ Kurt’s boots but he doesn’t fair any better. The film segues nicely into the ‘82 original and I will pat it on the back for that, but other than that it really seems to have no reason to exist. Furthermore, it’s empty headed and without commentary. The Cold War paranoia was part of what makes the original a classic to this day. It’s a frosted over mirror of paranoia, dread, fear, and suspicion. It comes as no surprise to me because the trailer boasted that the same people who gave George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a CGI makeover produced this film too. The 2004 Dawn of the Dead was much more fun than The Thing 2011 and that is mostly because it wasn’t afraid to stray a bit from the original concept.
So what exactly is the potential here? For one, the characters could have been a bit more interesting. None of them grabbed me and when one of them crumpled into alien bits, I wasn’t filled empathy. I never really cared. The film could have also had some more memorable moments in the alien department. The original film works because it has moments of pure exhibition. Who will ever forget the severed head sprouting legs and trying to walk off? Or how about a dead man’s chest caving in and revealing a set of teeth, which proceed to bite off another man’s arms? There is nothing like that here and all we get is a computerized dog-like human that crawls around and has two heads. And how about the alien itself? Well, it would have been better left charred and on an autopsy table rather than actually seeing it scamper about the camp. It was creepy never truly knowing what it looked like. I could have also done without the end, which finds several of the characters chasing the alien around its massive UFO. The film climaxes with another perfect grenade toss, unfortunately missing a one liner as good as “Yeah! Well fuck you too!” And how about the blood test in the original? Here, there is nothing that suspenseful and instead we get a tooth-filling test. It never comes close to the unbearable intensity of the original scene.
The Thing 2011 pulls the same stunt as Dawn of the Dead 2004, making the audience sit through the end credits and watch brief flashes of the set up for the original film. Over these scenes, the original Ennio Morricone score slithers over the footage. I kept crossing my fingers for a cameo from MacReady but don’t get your hopes up too high. The Thing 2011 needed to discover it’s own identity and it never does. I never minded sitting through the film and spotting the references to the original, but it became tedious after a while. It never offers up any new information on the alien, just a few minor hints at how it duplicates its prey. None of the explanations are riveting and they slowly suck the terror out of the film. Much like the gooey, roaring antagonist, The Thing 2011 is just a duplication of the 1982 film. And just like any duplication or copy, there are a few imperfections that eventually give it away. And what does The Thing 2011 give away? It slowly reveals that the filmmakers had absolutely no idea how to build upon this story. Grade: C+