‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ Shout Factory Blu-ray Review

Halloween III blu ray cover

It took several decades, but “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” did eventually get the special edition release it has long deserved. To date, it is the only movie in the “Halloween” franchise which does not feature Michael Myers, and it was lambasted by both critics and fans for the same reason upon its release in 1982. Over the years, however, this sequel has been re-evaluated by many and has since gained a strong cult following. This makes the special edition release of “Halloween III” all the more joyous as it comes with a plethora of extras which tell you everything you need to know about this movie’s making.

This special edition release of “Halloween III” came to us from the good folks at Shout Factory who are released it simultaneously with their equally special edition of “Halloween II.” To say this is the best digital edition ever of this particular film would be a severe understatement as “Halloween III” has never gotten much respect in any of its previous DVD incarnations. It is no surprise to say this movie has never looked and sounded this good since it first came out, and the colors look so vivid in this high definition release.

There are two audio commentaries on this disc, and the first one is with director Tommy Lee Wallace who is interviewed by “Icons of Fright’s” Rob G and “Horror Hound’s” Sean Clark. Wallace made it clear that his intention was not to make a slasher movie like the first two “Halloween” movies, but instead a “pod” movie in the vein of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” He also talked about how the assassins dressed in suits represented his fear of the corporate world, and the movie proved to be something of a commentary on American consumerism (a theme which was expanded on in “They Live“).

The other commentary track is with actor Tom Atkins who plays Dr. Dan Challis, and he is interviewed by Michael Felsher. This proves to be the most entertaining of the two tracks and this is even though Atkins goes off topic a number of times. The actor reflects on working with Frank Sinatra on “The Detective,” meeting with John Carpenter and Shane Black, and he also talks extensively about William Peter Blatty’s movie “The Ninth Configuration” which apparently was a disaster. Whether he is talking about “Halloween III” or not, Atkins sounds like he’s having a blast and is endlessly entertaining throughout.

The behind the scenes documentary “Stand Alone: The Making of ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch” does a great job of looking at the movie’s creation, its initial failure when it opened, and of how it has gained a second life on video and DVD. Carpenter and the late Debra Hill made it clear they were steering clear of the mask-wearing psychopath from the previous films with this entry as they wanted to turn the franchise into a series of anthology films which dealt with the holiday of Halloween. Universal Pictures, however, did not do nearly enough to prepare audiences for this shift in direction.

Executive Producer Irwin Yablans makes it no secret in the documentary of how he thought it was a huge mistake to make a “Halloween” movie without Michael Myers in it, and his only satisfaction from this sequel came in the form of a nice paycheck. Others like Atkins, Stacey Nelkin who played Ellie and stunt coordinator Dick Warlock state they always thought the movie was good despite its initial reception.

Other special features include an episode of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” which has host Sean Clark touring the original shooting locations of “Halloween III” with Wallace, and it proves to be a lot of fun watching these two go down memory lane to see what these locations look like today. There’s also the movie’s teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, TV and radio spots, and there’s even a commercial for its debut on network television. The latter is proof of how the producers of this special edition left no stone unturned.

For years, “Halloween III: Season of the Witch” has been treated as if it were the bastard stepchild of the “Halloween” movie franchise, but with the passing of time it has been reassessed as a clever horror movie which stands on its own merits. The Shout Factory Blu-ray release was done with a lot of love and care, and this especially shows in the brilliant artwork on the cover illustrated by Nathan Thomas Milliner. After all these years it is worth revisiting this sequel, and that is even if it you have to endure the “Silver Shamrock” commercial jingle just one more time.

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George Takei Reflects on the Significance of ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’

George Takei in Star Trek II

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2011.

George Takei stopped by the Egyptian Theatre for American Cinematheque’s tribute to the first six “Star Trek” movies. Showing on this particular evening was “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” After watching “The Wrath of Khan,” he remarked it’s still a “rip-snorting good space opera” and that Nicholas Meyer deserves all the credit for its critical and commercial success as he added so many layers to the story along with unforgettable literary quotes like the following one by Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”

Takei said watching “The Wrath of Khan” proved to be very poignant for him as he looked over the beginning credits and remarked how DeForest Kelley and James Doohan are no longer with us. He also talked about Merritt Butrick who played Dr. David Marcus in “Star Trek II & III.” Merritt sadly passed away from AIDS back in 1989, but Takei said he got the chance to see him in a two-character play in which he portrayed a sick gay hustler. Even though Butrick was very sick during this time and had to rest in between his scenes, Takei confirmed that he showed full commitment to his role and kept on with acting to his life’s end. RIP Merritt.

Takei then brought up Spock’s speech towards the end of “Star Trek II” of, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Hearing this again made him think about all the workers going into the damaged nuclear power plants in Japan, knowing full well what they were going to face. The deadly earthquake and tsunami which has shattered the country has been very painful to him, and he feels a deep connection with all those suffering there as the calamities keep piling on top of each other. George recently filmed a PSA asking for funds to help the people, saying these are indeed the worst of times, and at times like these “we are all Japanese.”

We are now approaching the 45th anniversary of “Star Trek,” and Takei says he owes all the success of it to Gene Roddenberry and his great taste in casting. When he got the job, he was doing guests spots on various TV shows, and he described the idea of steady employment as being “very enticing.” He also remarked how science fiction can play a big part in the future as the character of Pavel Chekov, a Russian was made a part of the Enterprise bridge crew while the world was dealing with the Cold War. There’s also the International Space Station whose crew is made up of people from all over Earth. Just try and convince us that “Star Trek” had nothing to do with any of this, I dare you!

George Takei remains a popular and well-respected actor to this very day. This July, he will be co-starring in “Larry Crowne” along with Tom Hanks (who also directs) and Julia Roberts. His character ends up falling in love with one of them, but you’ll have to see the movie to find out whom. In addition, he is playing a hologram of a character in “Super Ninjas” who is jokingly called “Hologramps,” and he is working on a musical about his experience living in a World War II internment camp with other artists called “Allegiance,” and they plan to take to Broadway. He also continues to reach a new demographic on the Howard Stern radio show, to which he replied, “Oh my!”

Live long and prosper George, and thanks for taking the helm on such a fun evening!

‘Tron: Legacy’ Digs Deeper into the World of the Computer

Tron Legacy movie poster

“There is no better moment than this moment, when we’re anticipating the actual moment itself. All of the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments. Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it is going to be perfect, when the moment actually happens. But, the moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks!”

-Lewis Black

I include this quote up above because it more or less symbolizes what I feel about the promotion Disney did for the long-awaited sequel to “Tron.” The company overhyped it to an alarming degree, making several different movie trailers and spent a good three years promoting it. With this kind of marketing, many may go into “Tron: Legacy” thinking it will be one of the greatest movies ever made.

As for myself, I weary of the hype and try to go into most movies with little to no expectations whatsoever. In fact, I think it’s better to watch most films with the lowest expectations possible. With the hype which has greeted movies like this or the “Star Wars” prequels or even “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” it is way too easy to be incredibly disappointed by the finished product. Nothing ever does come out as well as it does in our imaginations.

Well, reality may suck, but “Tron: Legacy” did not. I walked in expecting a fun time, tickled to death Walt Disney Pictures even bothered to make a sequel to a movie which was not a huge box office success back in 1982. At the very least, this sequel, which has been in the making for over 25 years, is more of a continuation of what came before. What it may lack in a fully coherent storyline, it more than makes up for with amazing visual effects, a fantastic score by Daft Punk, and a pair of great performances from the always reliable, and no longer underappreciated, Jeff Bridges.

So, here’s the story behind “Tron: Legacy:” after saying goodnight to his son Sam, Kevin Flynn rides off to Encom to work on a new digital frontier which will revolutionize the world of technology. Instead, he disappears without a trace. Shift to more than 20 years later, and Sam has become a rebellious young kid with strong technology skills he gleefully uses to thwart the executives at Encom who intend to profit and exploit Flynn’s work, work which Flynn wanted to make available to everyone for free.

Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) comes to Sam’s domicile one night to inform him he got a page from his dad the other night, and that it came from a line at Flynn’s Arcade which has been shut down for 20 years. Sam goes to the arcade to see what’s what, and we all know what happens from there as he gets sucked into “the grid” the same way his father was, and he is forced to fight for his life by hurling discs and racing light cycles in games which are deadlier than ever.

The premise behind “Tron: Legacy” is actually quite interesting. Kevin Flynn ends up developing a more advanced version of his Clu program who, of course, looks exactly like him. Together, they work to create the perfect system meant to bring about a new kind of life form, but somewhere along the line Clu grew resentful and comes to see a world of perfection far more different than his creator does. Soon afterwards, Clu turns against Flynn, making himself the ruler of all programs, and Flynn is trapped inside “the grid” with no way out.

Throughout, we watch as Clu coldly eliminates those programs which do not meet his high standards. It’s an interesting Frankenstein motif in how a creation runs amuck despite the master’s best intentions, and we all know what this leads to). It also reminded me of a line from “Star Trek: First Contact” which the Borg Queen says, “You’re an imperfect being created by an imperfect being. Finding your weakness is only a matter of time.”

The visual effects are unsurprisingly amazing, and they clearly reflect how far technology has come since the 1980’s. This time, they are much more fluid to where not everything is shown going in a straight line, and this gives the action scenes far more friction than they had in the original. The use of dark and neon-like colors doesn’t feel dated, and the costumes have been given a much-needed upgrade. There’s no more of those bulky suits which Sark’s guards and the MCP had, and the digital world presented here is a dark one and very un-Disney like.

By having “Tron: Legacy” focus on Flynn’s son, it seemed like Disney was desperately trying to court the youth demographics and would have been happy to cast the hottest teen or young adult heartthrob the role. Garrett Hedlund, however, turns out to be quite good and holds his own with Bridges. It’s not a great performance, but he does solid work here and keeps his character from becoming some annoyingly whiny brat whose daddy issues get the best of him. He does, however, have the disadvantage of saying the movie’s cheesiest lines like “this isn’t happening” and “this can’t be good.”

Another actor I enjoyed was Olivia Wilde who plays the warrior program, Quorra. She is a strong and engaging presence here, and her role as a Data-like figure eager to learn about the real world leads to some of the movie’s more intimate, as well as some of its funniest, moments. And yes, she does kick serious ass in the action scenes, easily derezzing those evil programs without even breaking a sweat.

But one actor I truly got a kick out of was Michael Sheen who plays Castor, the owner of the End of The Line Club. Stealing every scene he is in, Sheen holds nothing back as he gleefully hams it up as the life of the party, completely unbound by the soulless machinery at his disposal. We never really did see a program like this in the original “Tron,” did we?

And then there is Bridges who remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. His performance here reminded of just how good he was in the original as he never let the special effects overwhelm his work as Flynn. Even though he was acting against a green screen more than he wasn’t, he makes himself feel like part of the reality to where it seems like nothing is impossible for the Oscar-winning actor. Oh, and if you listen close enough, there is a line designed to remind you of his famous role as The Dude. Trust me, you will know it once you hear it.

Yes, “Tron: Legacy” does have plot holes and some wooden dialogue, but so did the original. Thankfully, none of the dialogue is as cringe-inducing as the kind George Lucas gave us in the “Star Wars” prequels. Also, the story does get slowed down by exposition which could have been shortened. All the same, I’m glad the writers didn’t get lazy and bring back the Master Control Program (MCP) as if it was never defeated back.

Joseph Kosinski made his directorial debut with this sequel. In the past, he has received acclaim for the “Mad World” commercial for the video game Gears of War, and he has since gone on to direct “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” For my money, he does a much better job of blending actors with special effects in a way Lucas never could, and he does well in keeping “Tron: Legacy” from becoming overly-cheesy or infinitely monotonous.

The soundtrack by Daft Punk is infinitely awesome, and the duo is a perfect fit for this kind of material which serves as their first official film score. Like the brilliant score Wendy Carlos did for the first film, their music is a strong mix of orchestral and electronic elements which, and brings a strong sense of humanity and emotion to a wholly technological world.

Could “Tron: Legacy” have been a better film? Sure, but why can’t we just be happy Disney took the big risk of making this sequel? For what it is, I enjoyed it and admired the fact it was made by people who respected its predecessor. More than two decades is a massively long period of time to wait for any sequel, but “Tron: Legacy” was worth the wait for me, and I would certainly be open to seeing it again.

Still, I have to wonder, can human beings really exist in a digital world even though they are users instead of programs? Can a program actually be brought into the real world? Oh, who cares! I had fun!

End of line.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Blade Runner 2049’ is Astonishing, Glorious and Mesmerizing

Blade Runner 2049 movie poster

Many words come to mind when describing “Blade Runner 2049.” Among them are mesmerizing, amazing, glorious, beautiful, and astonishing. I put special emphasis on the word astonishing because it is almost unbelievable to see what director Denis Villeneuve and company got away with here. Not only have they conceived a sequel which does its predecessor, Ridley Scott’s 1982 cult classic “Blade Runner,” proud, but they also got away with making an art house film with a budget of over $150 million and a running time of almost three hours. What were the studio executives thinking? Well, it doesn’t matter as this eagerly awaited sequel proves to be well worth the wait.

Taking place thirty years after the events of the original, the sequel introduces us to a new blade runner played by Ryan Gosling, and he comes to be known by a pair of names for reasons best left unsaid here. After enduring a brutal battle as he attempts to retire rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), he becomes aware of a long-buried secret which is overdue for a thorough investigation. In the process, he tracks down former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who has been off the grid for many years as he seeks answers only Deckard can give. What results is a form of evolution no one could have seen coming.

Telling you more about “Blade Runner 2049” will prove to be detrimental to your viewing experience as you should only know so much about its plot before going into the theater. What I can tell you is the future world portrayed is even more beautifully bleak than the one Scott gave us 35 years ago, something I didn’t even think was remotely possible. The colors are vibrant, but everything is still subject to a never-ending rainstorm, the kind we needed in California for the longest time. And in this fictional universe, Pan Am is still a corporate giant even though it ceased operations in the real world back in 1991.

While I was bummed to learn Scott would not be directing this sequel (he serves as executive producer instead), they couldn’t have found a better filmmaker here to fill his shoes as Villeneuve takes on what must have been a truly daunting challenge here. “Blade Runner,” despite being a critical and commercial disappointment, has long since been considered one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made, and it certainly is. Making a sequel to it interested many including myself, and yet it could easily take away from the original as nothing easily compares to what came before. But Villeneuve is the same guy who gave us “Arrival,” another sci-fi masterpiece which invited and deserved comparison with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and this gave me confidence he could bring something special to “Blade Runner 2049.” Indeed, he has made a sequel which will prove to be every bit as memorable as its predecessor as the years go by as he expands on the themes and delivers a cinematic experience which is equally profound.

Furthermore, Villeneuve allows things to go at the same methodical pace Scott went at back in 1982. If you go into “Blade Runner 2049” expecting something along the lines of “Star Wars,” you will be seriously disappointed as the original defied sci-fi conventions with a vengeance. What was unique about “Blade Runner” is how it enthralled audiences with big ideas more than with wall-to-wall action sequences. The same is true with “Blade Runner 2049” as it probes the idea of what it means to be human, and it deals with characters searching for something which doesn’t feel the least bit artificial in a world dominated by technology. For me, the key line of dialogue comes when Lieutenant Joshi (played by Robin Wright) tells Gosling’s blade runner, “We’re all just looking out for something real.” This is certainly the case here, but as we catch up with these characters, their chances of finding anything real seem very small.

By the way, if Roger Deakins does not get this year’s Oscar for Best Cinematography, I will be seriously miffed. For far too long, this man has been the Randy Newman of the cinematography category, and this feels criminal as has given us beautiful and extraordinary images in “Sicario,” “Skyfall,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “The Shawshank Redemption” to where it is not easy to compare his work to others. Deakins, however, really outdoes himself here as he gives each scene in “Blade Runner 2049” a stunning look which shows both the beauty and the emptiness of the world these characters are forced to inhabit. What he has accomplished here is simply extraordinary as it all feels incredibly unique.

Gosling has long since proven to be as good an actor as he is a tremendously sexy one, and he is superb in a role which is very tricky to pull off. Again, I can only say so much about his character as it is too easy to spoil certain aspects of this movie, but once you understand who this blade runner is, it becomes clear as to the kind of balancing act Gosling has to play here. While life in the rainy and futuristic city seems to have burned this blade runner out completely, there are still glimpses of humanity to him which come out in a way which feels spontaneous and never forced. As a result, the “Drive” actor proves to be a genius at playing someone who is no longer certain as to how he should feel about the discoveries he has made.

Harrison Ford doesn’t show up as Deckard until the movie’s third act, but he makes it worth your time to wait for his first appearance. After watching him have tremendous fun playing Han Solo again in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” it’s great to see him bring another of his iconic characters back to life. Ford makes Deckard into a burned out shell of a man who is forced to hide not just from those threatening his existence, but also from the things he yearns to connect with most of all, and he illustrates the character’s never ending internal conflict without ever having to spell everything out for the audience.

The rest of the cast is superb as they bring a unique quality to roles which have them acting in both human and inhuman ways. Robin Wright kicked ass earlier this year in “Wonder Woman,” and she does it again here as Gosling’s superior officer who is a no-nonsense Lieutenant and eager to keep a war from being ignited. Ana de Armas, whom you might remember from Eli Roth’s “Knock Knock,” is perfection as Joi, Gosling’s hologram girlfriend who is definitely even better than the real thing as she comes equipped with a humanity which strikes at your emotions. Sylvia Hoeks is riveting as Luv, a replicant who can appear charming at one moment and incredibly lethal in the next, and she makes this character vicious and frightening as she is determined to make discoveries before others do. Jared Leto and Dave Bautista have essentially cameos here, but they make the most of their time onscreen and show the depth they are willing to give to even the smallest of roles.

My only real disappointment with “Blade Runner 2049” is we will never get to hear the music score by Villeneuve’s regular composer, Johann Johannsson. For some odd reason, he was removed from this project and is contractually forbidden from talking about why he was let go. His score to “Sicario” is one of my favorites, and it would have been great to hear what themes he could have brought to this sequel.

Having said that, the score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, the latter who recently did the music for “It,” is excellent as it captures the vibe of Vangelis’ score from the original without simply updating it for a new audience. It doesn’t even sound like the typical Hans Zimmer score as his music is usually pretty easy to recognize, although the last few cues do have a bit of “Dunkirk” in it. I feared “Blade Runner 2049” would get a more conventional score than the great one Vangelis composed years ago, but Zimmer and Wallfisch bring something wonderful, beautiful and thrilling to everything we see and listen to here.

The original “Blade Runner” came out in 1982, one of the greatest years for movies and one which many have called the year of the nerd. In addition to “Blade Runner,” we also got “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “The Dark Crystal,” “Tron” and “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” among many others. “Blade Runner” was not a commercial hit and critical reaction to it was sharply divided, but like “The Thing” and “Tron,” its stature has grown over time to where it is now revered as the great motion picture it always was.

“The Thing” and “Tron” managed to generate a prequel and a sequel more than 20 years later, but neither could equal the power of their predecessors. This makes the achievements of “Blade Runner 2049” all the more profound as it equals the original film and digs even deeper into its theme which Scott explored to brilliant effect. What Villeneuve and company have come up with here feels as unique in today’s cinematic landscape as “Blade Runner” did in the 1980’s. I had every reason to lower my expectations on this one as sequels which come out decades later are typically doomed to failure, but this one defies the odds and I am so thankful everything worked out so well. It may not have Rutger Hauer, but very few movies can ever be perfect.

And for God’s sake, give Deakins the Cinematography Oscar! No excuses!

* * * * out of * * * *

Is ‘Blade Runner: The Final Cut’ Ridley Scott’s Solution to his Masterpiece?

Blade Runner movie poster

I always wondered why Ridley Scott could never leave “Blade Runner” well enough alone. It was released back in 1982 and, at that time, was one of the few Harrison Ford movies to bomb at the box office. But, like many great science fiction movies, it has gained a well-deserved cult following which appears to be getting bigger and bigger each year.

One of my close friends is a die-hard fan of this movie, and he believes Scott went back to do another cut because the acclaimed filmmaker realized he would never ever have it this good as a director ever again. Ridley has made a lot of great movies since this one, but I can see what he meant.

“Blade Runner” remains, after all these years, one of the best science fiction films ever made as it has a look which is so unique to where I cannot easily compare it to any other movie from its genre. It puts a lot of other futuristic movies to shame; especially those made so cheaply (remember “Cyborg” with Jean Claude Van Damme?), and seeing it on the silver screen in all of its visual glory was a sight to behold.

Harrison Ford stars as Rick Deckard, a blade runner who is hired to track down and kill replicants who have escaped and are looking for their maker. Replicants are human clones created to serve colonies outside of Earth, and this shows how far we have gone in terms of space travel in regards to the time this movie takes place in. As a blade runner, Rick specializes in terminating replicants who have been labeled illegal after a bloody mutiny which they caused.

Ford embodies the character of Fred Decker as though he walked out of a detective story from the 1940’s. Decker is from a long line of burned out detectives who are the best at a job they no longer want to be the best at. But of course, they have to come out of retirement as no one else can do what they do so well. Ford looks as though he has had the life sucked out of him at the movie’s start, but he becomes resurrected upon becoming involved with a female replicant named Rachael, and she is played by Sean Young.

Watching Young in this movie is something else as she is perfect here as a female who is so clearly a replicant when we first meet her. However, as the movie goes on, we find ourselves forgetting this as she exhibits human emotions which we would not expect to see from someone like her. Decker becomes utterly infatuated to her, and you want to say he is falling in love with what is essentially a robot. But I guess when a robot is as pretty as Young is here, and she was in her 20’s when the movie was released, I guess you can’t really argue with that.

Seeing “Blade Runner” for the first time in years, it is funny to see how its themes have been used over and over again in popular culture This movie seems to suggest we made these replicants to remind ourselves of how human we used to be. Like U2 said, they threaten to be even better than the real thing. They exhibit a life force which has long since been burned out of us as we have become numbed to how brutal real life can be on our conscious mind. Or maybe they are here to remind of us how much of a slave we have become to technology. There are points where you have to wonder if any of these characters can tell the difference between what is real and what is not.

The leader of this group of renegade replicants is Roy Batty, a viciously passionate replicant played to the hilt by Rutger Hauer. He has ten times more passion than the humans he relentlessly torments, and his last speech in “Blade Runner” is one of the most beautiful moments ever in a 1980’s film. The “tears in the rain” part of it was something he actually improvised on the spot.

So, what is it about this “final cut” which makes it different from the other versions? To be honest, I’m not sure. My understanding is the director’s cut which came out previously did not have Scott’s input on it. So, it is safe to say this cut is his final statement, so far, on this movie.

After all these years, “Blade Runner” remains a true sci-fi classic which is ever so deserving of its huge cult following. Again, there is really no other movie I can easily compare it to on a visual level. Thematically speaking, there are many movies which deal with the future, dystopian or otherwise, but none of them will ever look like the one Scott conjured up here.

* * * * out of * * * *

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John Carpenter’s ‘The Thing’ is One of the Best Horror Movies Ever Made

The Thing movie poster

Many of you probably know the story behind John Carpenter’s “The Thing.” It came out in the summer of 1982, two weeks after Steven Spielberg’s “E.T,” and while the alien from Spielberg’s movie was warm and cuddly, the one in Carpenter’s was cold, ugly, and utterly vicious. As a result, “The Thing” was quickly derided by both critics and fans alike, and no one hid their disgust towards Carpenter for what they saw as pornography of violence. In all fairness, however, the movie was released at the wrong time of the year. To release it during what Carpenter called the “summer of love” opposite not just “E.T.,” but also “Star Trek II” and “Tron” was a big mistake on the part of Universal Pictures, and they would have had more luck had they released it in the winter of 1982.

Years later, “The Thing,” like many of Carpenter’s movies, found the audience it deserved through home video and digital media. Perhaps it was ahead of its time, but it is now considered, and rightly so, one of the best horror and sci-fi movies ever made, and it is easily the best horror remake in a sea of horrendously crappy ones. It certainly plays better today than it did when first released, and it is still utterly terrifying 35 years after its release.Unlike the original Howard Hawks version of “The Thing,” Carpenter’s movie hews much closer to the short story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr. The movie takes place at an American scientific research outpost in Antarctica, perhaps the coldest place on Earth. We are introduced to a bunch of men who are studying the surrounding area, and they look bored and listless as they pass the days smoking, drinking scotch, watching “Let’s Make a Deal” reruns, and playing ping pong. One day, they are met by a wolf being shot at by a Norwegian for no discernable reason. This later leads to events which make them realize they have encountered an alien of unknown origin unearthed from the ice after thousands and thousands of years. It then proceeds to imitate every creature it comes into contact with, and it is revealed any of them could be the thing. They have to destroy the thing before it reaches civilization because, once it does, it would mean the end of the world.

The premise of “The Thing” is genius because it allows for an unending escalation of tension and suspense throughout. Like the characters, you have no idea who to trust. The paranoia which closes in on the characters puts them in an airtight cage, and this cage gets smaller and smaller as it heads to its infinitely bleak climax. There are no women to be found which eliminates any sexual tension and could have added an unnecessary element to the movie. Many say this makes the movie sexist, but it is a ridiculous charge.

“The Thing” was released when the whole world started to become aware of the AIDS virus. The idea of any virus infecting us completely and rearranging our body to the point may have seemed unreal to us back in 1982. But today, it is a reality more horrifying than ever, and it presents itself with no cure. This makes “The Thing” even scarier to take in when watching it now. The scene where Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) observes a computer image of the virus infecting a human host is one of the movie’s scariest moments, and it feels like an all too real a possibility today. The only thing truly dated about the scene is the computer graphics look like they are from some old Atari game, but it doesn’t change anything.

This movie also marks one of several collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who started working together on the TV movie “Elvis.” After all these years, Russell can still make you believe he is a regular guy like the rest of us, and his role as helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady is one of his best. You never get the feeling Russell is acting here. Instead, he inhabits the character he plays, and you follow him every step of the way without any doubt of who the hero really is.

Carpenter cast “The Thing” perfectly with actors like Richard Masur, Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and David Clennon. But one of the best performances comes from Brimley as Dr. Blair. In the past, we have seen him in countless oatmeal commercials and in roles as the grandfather we wished we had in our lives. But his role in “The Thing” offered him an opportunity to go completely against type. Brimley goes from curious to utterly horrified by what this unknown creature can do, and he ends up wreaking havoc in a way you would never ever see in an oatmeal.

Another great actor in this movie is Keith David who plays Childs. David has a don’t mess with me intensity, and he matches Russell’s intensity every step of the way. The tension between them is as frightening as is waiting for the thing to make its next horrifically gory entrance.

But let’s talk about who the real star of “The Thing” really is, and that is Rob Bottin who designed the movie’s horrifically brilliant special effects and makeup designs. Long before the advance of computer technology, Bottin had to make all these designs from scratch, and what he came up with is now considered a benchmark in his field. The thing mimics everything it touches, and this must have been a huge inspiration for him as it allowed his imagination to run amuck with infinite possibilities. You never know what’s coming next, and this makes “The Thing” even scarier.

Some have called this movie a “geek show” made only with the intention of grossing people out. Granted, a good case could be made for that, but “The Thing” explores a theme that is commonplace in many of Carpenter’s movies; the struggle to maintain one’s individuality. Of never letting go of who you are because it allows you to survive in a world which keeps finding new ways of robbing your individuality at any given opportunity. The threat of this loss is very real, and the characters have the unfortunate disadvantage of being stuck in one of the most remote and desolate places on Earth.

I also imagine a big complaint people have about “The Thing” is we never learn about the alien or where it came from. Basically, we know it’s from outer space which imitates whatever it comes in contact with, and it clearly deals with the cold better than any of us do. Here’s the thing, do we really need to know everything about this creature? Maybe not knowing is more terrifying than knowing. It leaves a lot of things to the viewer’s imagination which I love because it leaves so many possibilities open for how this horrific situation is going to play out.

“The Thing” truly is Carpenter’s masterpiece as it shows him to be a true master of horror and suspense. He endlessly generates unbearable tension throughout, and just when you think the movie has peaked, you realize it has not. Carpenter’s goal here is not just to make us jump out of our seats, but to make us feel the terrifying isolation and complete lack of trust these characters are forced to endure.

Carpenter has said “The Thing” was the first in his apocalypse trilogy (the other two were “Prince of Darkness” and “In the Mouth of Madness”), and it does have an unrelentingly bleak tone which made it seem completely out of place back in 1982. As time goes on though, many of us keep thinking the world is coming to an end with more deadly diseases like the Ebola Virus among others, and the scenario this movie presents us feels all the more frightening and immediate as a result.

Some movies are robbed of their greatness through the passage of time, and we watch them and wonder why we liked them in the first place. But “The Thing” is an exception as the passage of time has made it all the more effective. You can’t help but think its story was ahead of its time, and it remains one of those movies I never ever tire of watching. It has more than earned its place on the list of my all-time favorite movies.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

John Carpenter Revisits ‘The Thing’ at the Aero Theatre

John Carpenter Dummy Magazine photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” was held a few years ago by American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater. In addition to being treated to a double feature of “The Thing,” which is widely regarded as his best film, and “The Fog,” the writer, director and composer also showed up in between both films to give us more insight on their making and took questions from the audience. Even though these movies are now twenty to thirty years old, they still resonate deeply for movie fans today. This was proven true by the fact these screenings were sold out and packed with Carpenter’s biggest fans.

While “The Thing” was not a big hit upon its release, it has since developed a huge cult following and been critically re-evaluated as the masterpiece it always was. Eighty percent of the audience had probably seen this movie several dozen times, but they still jumped during its most shocking moments.

The Thing movie poster

After the movie ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was met with a standing ovation and thunderous applause. He thanked them for coming on out to see this movie when they could have just watched it at home. One fan in turn thanked him for coming on out to visit with us as he has millions of fans all over the world, and yet he chose to hang out with us.

Today, as the emcee pointed out, many are surprised “The Thing” was not a big hit when released back in 1982. Carpenter put it all the more bluntly:

“It tanked! 1982 was supposed to be the summer of love. It was the summer of ‘E.T.’ and it was the summer of freedom and hope, and ‘The Thing’ was about as bleak a movie as any that could have been released that year. People hated it for that, and all the sci-fi fans out there absolutely hated it and trashed it when it first came out.”

As Carpenter pointed out to actor and friend Kurt Russell on the movie’s DVD commentary, “We came out two weeks after ‘E.T.’ And while there’s was all warm and cuddly, ours was ugly and hideous.” Universal Pictures, which released both movies that summer, attempted to make it the summer of extra-terrestrials, but the timing did not work at all in Carpenter’s favor and it later cost him the job of directing the Stephen King adaptation, “Firestarter.”

One fan pointed out how “The Thing” was unique in a sense as it is one of the few Carpenter movies he did not compose the score for. While the score does have the Carpenter sound, it was actually composed by Ennio Morricone. Carpenter said Morricone is one of the greatest film composers ever, and he did point out there is one synthesizer piece of music which was not composed by Morricone. Now he wouldn’t say who composed it, but it’s safe to say he did, and in association with Alan Howarth.

Another fan pointed out several of Carpenter’s movies have been remade like “Assault on Precinct 13,” “The Fog” and “Halloween,” and a remake of “Escape From New York” is in the works. This fan said he found remakes blasphemous, and to this Carpenter replied, “I actually find it flattering. They also have to pay me a lot of money when they do that.”

Dean Cundey, director of photography on “The Thing,” worked on several of Carpenter’s movies including “Halloween.” Carpenter has not worked with Cundey for some time now, and one man asked why and if there had been a falling out between them. Carpenter replied they have not fallen out, and he recently caught up with Cundey at a movie shoot in Canada. Carpenter did, however, point out why they haven’t worked together for a while, “Dean wanted to be a director. And when you have a director on a movie, and a director of photography who wants to be a director, that’s just not going to work out.”

Everyone who knows Carpenter knows he is a big fan of westerns, and he recently recorded a commentary track for the special edition release of “Rio Bravo.” Many wonder why he still hasn’t directed a western of his own, and Carpenter replied he honestly didn’t know but that he came close several times. The closest was when he wrote the script for “El Diablo” which was made into a cable movie that earned him a Cable Ace Award. If you look closely, all of his movies do have western elements to them. The closest he has ever gotten to making a western is “Vampires” with James Woods.

Many also wondered, and it was asked, what future projects he has on tap and of what his current passions are. His reply was, “Current passions? I’m playing Ninja Gaiden, I just got Metal Gear Solid 4 for PlayStation 3… No seriously, I have a couple of things I’m looking at doing, so we’ll see what happens.”

Before he left, he did have some things to say about “The Fog,” “I have heard that the print for this movie is not in the greatest shape, and that it is pretty faded. But keep in mind that when we made this movie, we made it for only $1 million dollars, so please be kind.”

‘Creepshow’ Remains a Benchmark in Horror Anthologies

Creepshow movie poster

Ah, “Creepshow!” One of the best horror anthologies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is immensely enjoyable if you’re into this sort of movie. It brings us the combined talents of Stephen King and George Romero as they give homage to the E.C. comics of the 1950’s with five different stories of terror. In some ways, this can be seen as more of a comedy than a horror movie. Granted, it does have its scary moments, and a hand coming out of a grave is always good for a jolt, but it is presented in such an over the top fashion to where you have to thank both King and Romero for not taking the things too seriously.

As I write this review, filmmaker Eli Roth is having a two-week festival of his favorite movies at New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. This film was playing on a double bill with “Mother’s Day” which I missed, unfortunately, but it was probably because I was more excited about seeing this one. I vividly remember seeing the trailer for it when I went to see, and cry again at, “E.T.” When the image of The Creep first appeared, my brother responded by saying, “Whoa!”

The trailer was amusing and funny, at least until those cockroaches came in during which I had to cover my eyes. Granted, it would years and years before I would have the stomach, let alone the time, to check this one out. Anthology movies and series like “Masters of Horrors” are always intrigued me because they were filled with so many possibilities. Going from one story to the next, you are eager to see where it takes you. The only downside with anthologies is there is usually a weak story among the whole bunch which can weigh down the whole enterprise, but “Creepshow” doesn’t have this problem and is endlessly enjoyable to sit through.

The movie opens with a prologue where a father (Tom Atkins) berates his young son (Joe King, Stephen King’s son) for reading these “crappy” horror comics. The kick of the scene comes from the son calling out his dad for the hypocrite he is when he points out it’s a lot better than the magazines he reads. I couldn’t help but think this kid’s dad has a wide variety of porno magazines hidden where his wife can’t find them. It’s funny how we see fathers not wanting their kids to read “crap,” and then they sit in a recliner with a can of beer boasting of how God made fathers. Poor schmuck.

“Creepshow” then goes straight into its first episode entitled “Father’s Day,” a story of revenge. The patriarch of a family was murdered for being an annoying prick as he furiously demanded his cake to be brought out to him, and now he’s come back from the dead to get that tasty cake he has long been denied. Of all the stories, I consider it the weakest because “Father’s Day” is very short and threatens to be pointless. It does, however, succeed in defining the look of the movie. The acting is over the top, and there is a fantastic use of colors which dominates the movie and gives it a wonderfully pulpy feel. If Dario Argento had ever created a comic book, I’m sure it would look like this.

The great about “Father’s Day” is it allows us to see Ed Harris in a role where he is loosened up. Harris is a great actor who plays mostly dramatic roles in movies, and one day he will win an Oscar. But here, we see him get his boogie on while dancing to some crappy disco music which somehow sneaked its way into a 1980’s movie. You listen to that music, and you’d figure it would have died a fiery death before the 70’s ended. No such luck.

The next story, “The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill,” is both funny and sad. It features King in one of his few acting performances as the title character, a dimwit farmer who discovers a meteor which has crashed into his backyard. Jordy gets excited at the prospect of selling this meteor to the local college for a handsome profit, but when he tries to salvage it, it breaks into two and a liquid quickly seeps into the barren ground of the farm. Soon after, everything it touches starts growing green plant life which cannot be contained. It also grows on anything it touches, including Mr. Verrill himself. Seeing King turn into a bush is frightening and morbidly amusing. King may say he is a better writer than an actor, but you can also say he is a better actor than a director (“Maximum Overdrive” anyone?). In the end, he is perfectly cast as the seemingly brainless farmer, and his performance fits both the story and the film.

After that, we get “Something to Tide You Over,” and this one was my favorite of all the stories in the movie. It stars Leslie Nielsen, before his image was permanently altered by “The Naked Gun” movies, as a millionaire husband who takes his revenge on Harry (Ted Danson), the man having an affair with his wife. The way he lures Danson’s character out to the beach and gets him to bury himself in the sand up to his neck is priceless, and you can say there is a bit of “The Vanishing” here as we have a man willing to do anything to find out the fate of his loved one. Danson’s fate, being stuck in the sand as the tide rushes over him is frightening and unnerving to witness. You feel stuck in the sand with him, and it shows how fiendishly clever both King and Romero are at exploiting what we fear the most in life.

Watching this segment today may seem weird as Nielsen is forever known as Lt. Frank Drebin of “The Naked Gun” movies, and Danson is best known for playing Sam Malone on “Cheers.” Seeing them in a serious, albeit a highly exaggerated, story might be hard, but these actors have their serious chops as well as their comedic ones, and both talents serve them well here. Nielsen is a particular hoot as a man so confident of his deviant plan of revenge, yet quickly haunted by the possibility of his crimes coming back to do him in. Nothing can stay buried forever.

Next, we have “The Crate” which features Hal Holbrook as a Professor at a New England college who is saddled with an eternally inebriated wife (played by Adrienne Barbeau) who constantly embarrasses him and herself in front of anybody who happens to be watching. Holbrook’s character is a coward who doesn’t have the cojones to stand up to his wife, but then a colleague of his and a janitor discover a crate beneath the stairs which has not been opened for decades. It turns out to contain a monster who eats human beings whole. After Henry hears of this, he concocts a plan to lure his abusive wife over to the crate.

Holbrook is great at making you feel sorry for his character even while we berate him for being a wimp and not standing up to his wife. Barbeau gives a one-note performance as a humongous bitch with no real redeeming features whatsoever. In the end, this is not a big criticism because Barbeau is given a one-dimensional character to play. The characters are not meant to be complex in the way they handle themselves, and they are here to represent different types of people who meet their predestined fate.

Then comes the last story of the movie, appropriately titled “They’re Creeping Up on You.” This one I had the hardest time sitting through, and I doubt it will be easy for you either if you have an intense phobia of bugs. E.G. Marshall plays Upson Pratt, a thoughtless and hateful bigot who has no sympathy for anyone other than himself. He gleefully takes delight in the suffering of others and lives in a completely sterile apartment which makes him look like he’s a doctor. But his problem now is with the bugs in his apartment, specifically cockroaches. They keep popping up out of nowhere, and their numbers keep growing and growing…I found myself looking at my shoes a lot during this segment, and it reminded me I need to get a new pair soon.

I remember watching one of those “scariest moments in movies” episodes on the Bravo channel. They featured the cockroach segment from “Creepshow” in it, and it turned out the segment was more of a socially conscious piece than people realized. This is after all a Romero film whose “Dead” movies are loaded with social commentary, and the whole point of the “Creeping” segment was to look at bigotry how what we fear the most we end up empowering. We invite our fears to mess with us, and sometimes they eat us whole. Suffice to say, this is very much an anti-racism piece, and it’s the strongest episode in the movie. Marshall gives a brilliantly zany performance as a man who cannot control the world around him any longer, and who could never really control it in the first place.

Eli Roth had programs for his festival entitled “The Greats of Roth,” and in it he summed up this “criminally underrated” movie perfectly:

“It’s amazing to see how many comic book and graphic novel adaptations today are praised for getting the ‘look’ of the comic perfect, and nobody ever seems to mention this film. This was the first time that Romero was really surrounded with a star-studded cast, and you see Romero, King and Tom Savini all coming together to create one of the most visually spectacular and fun horror films of all time. They set out to recreate the look and feel of the old E.C. Comics and nailed it perfectly.”

“Creepshow” is indeed one of the most deliriously entertaining horror movies ever made, and it is a visually stunning achievement made on what must have been an especially low budget. There were many other movies to come out of this which tried for the same look, but none of them succeeded at it quite like this one did. This is just a fun, fun, fun movie for people who dig this sort of thing, and to see it on the big screen was a real treat. As the movie’s tagline says, it is the most fun you will ever have being scared.

* * * * out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was originally written in 2008.

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Nicholas Meyer Talks About ‘Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’ at New Beverly Cinema

Star Trek II movie poster

Nicholas Meyer was the guest of honor at New Beverly Cinema on August 12, 2012 where “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” was being shown. This classic sequel was being screened as a double feature with John Carpenter’s “The Thing” as part of the New Beverly’s tribute to movies from the summer of 1982. Meyer thanked the sold-out audience for showing up and admitted it was “preferable to being outside in this weather” where the temperature was inching closer to triple digit territory.

Actually, seeing Meyer appear in person for a screening for “Star Trek II” was a bit of a surprise. Last year, American Cinematheque presented a film program of the first six “Star Trek” movies, but Meyer politely declined to appear for the “Star Trek II” screening because he felt his head would explode if he was asked another question about it. In a sense, you have to be sympathetic to him because this is now a 30-year-old movie, and he has probably been asked every conceivable question about it. Meyer even went out of his way to tell audiences at the start, “I’m sorry if you’ve heard all these stories before. These stories can also be found in my memoir entitled ‘The View from The Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood.’”

Meyer recalled how, after directing “Time After Time,” he wanted to do an adaptation of a Robertson Davies novel and would not consider anything else. But one evening while he was “flipping burgers” in his backyard, Meyer said a friend of his, an executive at Paramount Pictures, encouraged him to meet with producer Harve Bennett about the new “Star Trek” movie. Meyer ended up asking his executive friend, “Is that the show with the man with pointy ears?”

He met with Bennett who had gotten his start as a television producer on shows like “The Mod Squad” and “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and Meyer said they both remain friends to this day. Bennett ended up getting Meyer to watch “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and episodes of the original “Star Trek” series so he could get familiar with the show and its characters.

Watching the show, Meyer said, “reminded me of something I loved as a kid” but he couldn’t recall what exactly. But it was late one night when he woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning that Meyer suddenly remembered: “Star Trek” reminded him of Captain Horatio Hornblower, a fictional sea captain who sailed the sea during the Napoleonic Wars in novels written by C.S. Forester. Meyer then envisioned this movie as “Captain Hornblower in space,” and from there he said he got a “hard on for doing a space opera.”

Four drafts had already been written for “Star Trek II,” and Bennett told Meyer Paramount was currently waiting on number five. Meyer said he had asked Bennett for the fifth draft and eventually got it after a delay, describing it as being 180 pages long and that he didn’t understand what he was reading. Meyer said he then asked Bennett if he could read the fourth draft, and he said Bennett ended up telling him, “Look kid, you don’t understand, all those previous drafts were just attempts at making a second ‘Star Trek’ movie.”

Meyer said he then suggested to Bennett they get all the previous drafts, read them over and then make a list of things they liked so he could try and weave them into a new script. The only problem was Industrial Light & Magic needed a script in 12 days so they could prepare the special effects for the opening. Meyer said he then asked Bennett, “What opening?”

“Star Trek II” already had a date it was set to arrive in theaters on, and this made writing a new script problematic. Bennett said it would take too much time to make Meyer a deal to get an additional writing credit, and Meyer ended up telling him, “Look, forget about the deal, forget about the writing credit, forget about the money. We don’t work on this new script now, there will be no movie.” Among the ideas kept from the previous drafts were the Genesis Device, Lieutenant Saavik (played by Kirstie Alley), and Captain Kirk as a dad.

When asked about what it was like working with the “Star Trek” actors, Meyer responded, “Have you seen the movie ‘Galaxy Quest?’ That movie was made for me!”

Meyer said the actors were very helpful in terms of crafting the script as they had already inhabited these characters for many years. Much of the talk, however, was on William Shatner whom Meyer described as “a very good actor.” Meyer also said Shatner was “very protective” of Kirk and that he is always the hero and in your face. In directing Shatner, Meyer described him as getting better the more he did a scene because he started getting bored to where he stopped striking an attitude and just became Kirk. This led Meyer to creating excuses to shoot scenes with Shatner over and over again like saying, “The sound’s not right there…”

There was also much talk about the late Ricardo Montalban who played Khan, and Meyer recollected he gave Montalban a copy of “Moby Dick” when they first met to talk about the movie. As an actor, Meyer said Montalban “hit all his marks” perfectly, but that he had to rein the actor in during Khan’s introduction. The character’s opening scene sounded like a rant, Meyer said, when Montalban first performed it, and he ended up taking the actor to the side and told him about a famous piece of acting advice once given by Sir Laurence Olivier:

“You shouldn’t show the audience your top because if you do, then you will have nowhere to go.”

When asked why Kirk and Khan never shared a scene together, Meyer said he didn’t realize this was the case while he was writing the script, and he found it impossible to put them together in a two-shot. Meyer then joked that these characters have Skype and that their conversations had to take place this way. He also answered the question he is most asked when it comes to talking about Montalban, “Yes, that is his real chest.”

Looking back at “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” these days, it does appear to represent one of Hollywood’s first attempts at a franchise reboot as the original, while a commercial success, was not well-received critically. While he probably has answered every conceivable question regarding this movie, it was still great to see Nicholas Meyer at New Beverly Cinema as he has been responsible for some of the very best “Star Trek” movies made so far, and his talent as a writer and director remains strong to this day.