‘Annihilation’ is a Unique Sci-Fi Cinematic Experience

Annihilation movie poster

I have to give Paramount Pictures credit for taking risks in the past year or so on movies which defy what is considered these days to be mainstream entertainment. Last year, they released Darren Aronofsky’s “mother!,” a film which could in no way be mistaken for a comic book movie. Despite it earning a rare Cinemascore grade of an F, Paramount stood behind Aronofsky and his film defiantly, saying they were proud of the work he did. Keep in mind, the studio made this clear even after “mother!” suffered a weak opening at the box office, especially when compared to other movies starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Now in 2018, Paramount has released “Annihilation,” a science-fiction horror film which not only defies what many expect from Hollywood at the moment, but also proves impossibly hard to fit into any specific genre. This has led many to accuse Paramount of not giving the movie the proper promotion it deserved, but we will address this issue at another time. Whatever expectations you have for this cinematic experience, it would be best to leave them at the door as “Annihilation” deals with themes and situations other filmmakers have explored in the past, but this time they are handled in a way which feels truly fresh and not the least bit routine.

Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a biologist and former U.S. Army soldier who, as the movie starts, is in a depressed state as her husband, Army soldier Kane (Oscar Isaac), has been missing for a year, and many presume he has been killed in action. But suddenly, Kane reappears to Lena’s delight, but he resembles one of the pod people from Phillip Kaufman’s remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as he seems devoid of any emotion and cannot remember where he was. Before Lena can get a satisfactory answer regarding his whereabouts, Kane becomes very sick and is transported via ambulance to the hospital. As you can expect, military officials stop the ambulance, and it becomes clear Lena and Kane have stumbled across something those in power would prefer to keep under a heavy veil of secrecy.

“Annihilation” puts us right into Lena’s shoes as she desperately tries to understand the situation she has been thrust into. Finding herself at the United States’ government facility known as Area X, a name which implies a location always closed off to the general public, Lena is greeted by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist who finally gives her some answers and introduces her to an area known as “the shimmer.” We see a meteor hit a lighthouse, and from there an electromagnetic field has developed and continues to spread at a rate to where it will eventually absorb everything in its path. Soldiers have been sent into “the shimmer” to better understand this phenomenon, but Kane is the only one who has come back from it alive.

Dr. Ventress ends up recruiting Lena and two other women to join her on the latest mission to enter “the shimmer,” a mission they have every reason to believe is a suicidal one. This is where “Annihilation” becomes particularly unique as these characters are not trying to be heroic but are instead dealing with their own self-destructive tendencies. Indeed, self-destruction is a big theme as these four women are revealed to be individuals deeply wounded by life in one way or another to where they feel as though there’s nothing much left to care about or live for. But as they get deeper into “the shimmer,” their survival instincts become awakened almost immediately.

“Annihilation” was written for the screen and directed by Alex Garland who started out as a novelist with his book “The Beach” which was made into a movie by Danny Boyle and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Since then, he has graduated to writing screenplays for “28 Days Later,” “Sunshine,” “Never Let Me Go” and “Dredd.” In 2015, he made his directorial debut with “Ex Machina,” a brilliant science fiction thriller which dealt with the subject of artificial intelligence in a way which felt familiar and yet very fresh. Even if the story reminded me of “Frankenstein” in a way, the approach Garland took with the material and the characters felt invigorating and wonderfully unique.

Garland has brought this same kind of energy and enthusiasm to “Annihilation” as it follows a group of people caught in a situation much like the one in John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to where they are dealing with an antagonist who is not quite visible, and this leads them to become increasingly paranoid about one another. Garland does an excellent job of keeping the audience off-balance as he takes us through the story in a non-linear fashion. When Lena awakes in a tent inside “the shimmer,” she admits she has no idea how she got there or of what she experienced in the past few hours. Indeed, we end up feeling as lost as her as we are desperate to better understand the situation everyone has been sucked into, and Garland holds our attention throughout as a result.

Throughout, Garland gives us much to think about such as the differences between suicide and self-destruction as well as the importance and inherent danger of discovery. While watching “Annihilation,” I was reminded of a scene in “Jurassic Park” between John Hammond and Ian Malcolm. Hammond doesn’t understand why anyone would stand in the way of discovery, but Malcolm leaves him with this to chew on:

“What’s so great about discovery? It’s a violent, penetrative act that scars what it explores. What you call discovery, I call the rape of the natural world.”

But while Garland has crafted “Annihilation” as the thinking person’s sci-fi movie, it is not at all lacking in the thrill department. Certain scenes have a visceral feel to where I jumped out of my seat for the first time in ages. On a visual level, it has a look which is as beautiful as it is haunting, and I am having a hard time comparing it to other movies I have seen recently. On top of this, “Annihilation” features a very unique sonic landscape courtesy of composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, both of whom combine an earthly sound with an electronic one as they work to separate the real world these characters have left behind and the alien realm they have dared themselves to enter.

Natalie Portman has a tricky role to play here. As Lena, she has to be vulnerable but also exhibit a reserve of strength deeply embedded in a character who has served her time in the military. That Portman manages to pull this off is not the least bit surprising, and she gives us a fully formed character whose experience and pain aid her in the movie’s spellbinding climax. Many still can’t shake the squeaky-clean image they have of Portman, but she has been around long enough to remind audiences of the amazing depth and range she has as an actress.

It’s great to see Jennifer Jason Leigh here as well, let alone in any movie she appears in. As Dr. Ventress, she creates a truly enigmatic character who keeps her emotion in check to where you constantly wonder what is going on in her head. Clearly, this doctor has more interests than in just exploring “the shimmer,” and Leigh keeps you guessing what they are all the way to the end.

I also have to give credit to Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Tuva Novotny for creating such memorable characters out of those which, in any other movie, could have been of the easily disposable variety. Some characters exist solely to further the actions of the lead protagonist or serve as mere fodder for an ever so lethal antagonist, but these actresses make theirs stand out in a way they would not have otherwise, and their final onscreen moments are hard to shake once you have witnessed them.

And when it comes to Oscar Isaac, you can always count on him to give an infinitely charismatic performance even in a role where the character looks to have been drained of all emotion. Telling you more about his character of Kane would be detrimental to your viewing experience, but once you watch him here, you will agree he has created a fascinating portrait of a man who once knew his place in the world, but who now is forever lost in it.

It has now been a few days since I have watched “Annihilation,” and I still find myself thinking about the movie quite intensely. Even if its pace lags a little more than it should, the questions it left me with remain endlessly fascinating. When we see Lena reading “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” is that a hint of some kind? What led Garland to include the Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Hopelessly Hoping” here? And more importantly, is the movie’s ending a hopeful one, or is it meant to be relentlessly bleak? Garland is not out to give us easy answers, but my hope is you will be open to the unusual experience this movie has to offer. Cinemascore may have given it an average grade of a C, but please remember this is the same research group which gave “America: Imagine the World Without Her” an A+.

Trust me, check this one out, and be sure to come into it with an open mind.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

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The Ultimate Rabbit’s Top Ten Horror Movies for Halloween

Halloween head tilt

So, without further ado, I present to you my list of my top ten movies to watch on Halloween night, and they are presented here in no particular order:

halloween-1978-poster

“John Carpenter’s Halloween”

Despite the many imitators and endless sequels, not to mention the two movies directed by Rob Zombie (which was actually pretty good), there’s no beating the granddaddy of them all. Carpenter’s film is a true horror classic with a music theme I never get sick of listening to. All these years later, the original “Halloween” has lost none of its power to creep you out as it offers audiences a truly terrifying experience.

There are moments which have stayed with me long after I saw “Halloween” for the first time. That moment where Michael Meyers kills the boyfriend and then tilts his head from side to side always gets to me. Plus, the ending leaves you with the unnerving truth of how evil never dies.

 

The Thing movie poster

“John Carpenter’s The Thing”

While his original “Halloween” remains a true classic, Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” is his masterpiece. The film bombed back in 1982, but it has since gained a huge cult following and is now considered one of the best horror films ever made. The story of a group of scientists doing research in Antarctica, one of the most isolated places on Earth, who get copied almost perfectly by an alien is far more effective today than when it first came out. “The Thing” is a great example of how to keep escalating tension throughout a movie’s entire running time, and Rob Bottin’s incredible work on the makeup and effects still looks disgustingly brilliant to this very day.

 

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster

“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”

I finally got to see this movie all the way through for the first time a couple of years ago when I rented it from Netflix. What I thought would be a fun and hopelessly dated 1970’s movie turned out to be more horrifying than I ever could have imagined. Even while watching it on my 32″ television, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” proved to be a brutal cinematic experience which has lost none of its power to make you shrink in your seat. With a movie like this, it’s not what you see that gets to you; it’s what you don’t see which messes with your head, and that makes this classic of the most unnerving movie going experiences you will ever endure.

 

Suspiria 4K restoration poster

“Suspiria”

It was released 40 years ago, and it remains Dario Argento’s true masterpiece of horror. There are very few directors who can make a grisly death look like a beautiful work of art. The tale of an American female dancer who comes to a ballet school which turns out to be a witches’ coven doesn’t always make sense, but then again, a lot of Argento’s movies don’t. The movie is still scary as hell and beautifully horrific in a way most horror films can only dream of being today. A friend of mine once told me that if she were ever to be murdered (heaven forbid), she wants it to look like something out of a Dario Argento movie. I see what she means.

 

Alien movie poster

“Alien”

Be it the original version or the director’s cut, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” is still an overwhelmingly terrifying experience to sit through. When I rented this one on videotape years ago and watched it on my parents’ 13-inch television set in their bedroom (they robbed me of using the family room), I found myself hiding my eyes at key moments. The silence really got to me, and I impatiently waited for Jerry Goldsmith’s score to come back on. Keep in mind, I actually saw James Cameron’s “Aliens” before I saw this one, and it still scared the hell out of me!

 

The Exorcist movie poster

“The Exorcist”

I tell you, these horror movies from the 1970’s still have the same power to shock you today as they did when first released. When William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist” was re-released in “the version you’ve never seen,” it still had a visceral power to unsettle us regardless of the passage of time. The story of a girl who becomes possessed by an ancient demon benefits greatly from a documentary feel which has that “you are there” feel, and it almost felt like I wasn’t watching a movie, but instead a real-life event which somehow all got caught on camera.

 

Evil Dead II poster

“Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn”

All the “Evil Dead” movies are great fun, but if you have to go with just one, then I recommend “Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn.” On a budget of $3 million dollars, maybe even less than that, director Sam Raimi gave us one of the most endlessly creative and hilarious horror movies you could ever hope to watch. After all this time, it remains as scary as is funny. Plus, you have Bruce “Groovy” Campbell in his most iconic role as Ash, the pussy whipped salesman from S-Mart who keeps getting chased by the demons he was dumb enough to awaken from their slumber. Campbell gives a fantastic performance even if he keeps telling us he’s not much of an actor. This is so far from the truth, but you do have to admire the sense of humor he has about himself, and you haven’t lived until you listen to one of his “Evil Dead” commentary tracks.

 

28 Days Later movie poster

“28 Days Later”

“Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle was said to have reinvigorated the zombie genre with this propulsive horror thriller where they are anything but slow. In this film, the zombies, or the infected as they are referred to are not the real enemy, we are. The virus the infected have been stricken with represents our inability to face the darkness inside of ourselves which sooner or later rises to the surface. There is no let up on the tension in this movie, and the thrills come fast and furious.

 

Dawn of the Dead original and remake posters

“Dawn of the Dead” (the original and the remake)

This one is a tie because both versions of this movie stand strongly on their own merits. George Romero’s brilliant sequel to his classic “Night of the Living Dead” is really a satire of the consumerist society we all live in. You know, the one which encourages us to buy all sorts of things which are said to make you happy, and yet all the money and objects you purchase end up making you feel empty inside. This is what Romero is saying with this film, and he does this while providing us with a great deal of blood, gore, beheadings, eviscerations, decapitations, and whatever else he could afford when he made “Dawn of the Dead.” All of you in the Fangoria crowd will be more than satisfied with this one, but you knew that already.

Zack Snyder, who later went on to direct “300,” “Watchmen” and “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice” helmed this remake which turned out to be the best of its kind since “John Carpenter’s The Thing.” This one is more of a straight forward horror action film with a surprising amount of emphasis on character development. It also features Canada’s greatest import in the lead role, Sarah Polley. The remake of “Dawn of the Dead” turned out to be a visceral thrill ride, and it allowed us to invest in the characters in ways most horror movies typically avoid.

 

Silence of the Lambs poster

“The Silence of the Lambs”

The specter of Hannibal Lecter, as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins, never fails to unnerve me like he did when I first saw this movie on the big screen. Jonathan Demme’s Oscar winning classic remains one of the definitive serial killer films ever made. Hopkins’ performance is like a perverse love letter to HAL from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” whose voice inspired his performance. We also get one of cinema’s greatest heroines with Clarice Starling, brilliantly played by Jodie Foster.

Have a happy Halloween everybody!

‘Encounters at the End of the World’ Takes Werner Herzog to Antarctica

Encounters at the End of the World poster

As a movie buff, I have to admit it is shameful on my part I have not seen more movies directed by Werner Herzog. I did see “Grizzly Man,” a brilliant documentary about Timothy Treadwell and his obsession with the grizzly bears, and like all brilliant documentaries made today, it did not get an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Thankfully, the Oscars did not ignore his documentary “Encounters at the End of the World” which is an endlessly fascinating look at his travels and discoveries in Antarctica. It is at times an incredibly beautiful look at an icy landscape, at others a bleak look at the inevitable end of the human race. At the same time, it also a rather humorous and interesting look at the people who risk their lives by living there to study the cutting-edge world of science.

Herzog narrates “Encounters at the End of the World,” and he allows us to go inside his head on how he views the icy wilderness of Antarctica, and of how he views the people and wildlife there. He makes it clear from the onset that when he was asked by Discovery Films to do this documentary, he agreed to it on the condition he would not be forced to do a “fuzzy” movie with penguins in it (a little jab at “March of the Penguins”). The first 10 or so minutes deal with the McMurdo Research Station which is full of buildings and tractors constantly moving all over the place. Herzog finds himself wanting to get away from McMurdo right away as he feels it is corrupting the Antarctic island with the inhabitants’ own self-interests as it is filled with horrors there like “yoga classes.”

Eventually, he ventures out of the encampment and into the far-off research facilities removed from the town. We see him and others there being put through safety drills and emergency preparations to deal with the worst of circumstances. The group leader speaks of how the wind can get so bad to where you can’t see even your hand in front of your face or hear yourself talk. This lends a chilling effect to an already chilled environment, and while it is exciting to be there, you feel the danger of it throughout.

The best part of this documentary, and the reason I wanted to see it, is the underwater footage where you follow divers underneath the glaciers of Antarctica. The visuals on display here are both beautiful and extraordinary to see, and there is a unique beauty to the underwater landscape you would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This is all reminiscent of James Cameron’s documentary “Aliens from the Deep” in which he went with scientists in submersibles down to the bottom of the ocean to see what things live down there. But while Cameron’s documentary was fascinating, this one is not encumbered with 3D effects and of looks at where the future will take us. It deals with the world we exist in right now, and it doesn’t hide from how everything will disappear in the distant future.

I was also eager to find out how these scientists were able to dive down into waters which they would not be expected to stay alive in for more than 5 minutes. They wear special suits which are heavily insulated to protect them from the cold, and they wear gloves that threaten to make them look like aliens from another planet. Herzog says the water they are diving into is -2 degrees Celsius, and the divers go in with no ropes attached to their bodies as it will give them more room to move around. Still, this is very dangerous work they are doing, and if they get lost underneath the glacier, they will become a permanently frozen resident. You feel the danger of what they are doing, but you end up getting overwhelmed by the spectacular visuals they discover underneath it all.

Another fascinating moment comes when some scientists on the island play recordings of the sounds the local seals make underwater. The seals themselves steal some scenes from the human actors as they lie back lazily in the sun and look too tired to get up and acknowledge anybody. The underwater sounds of the seals seem so unreal, and I could not help but believe they were all computer generated. But they are indeed the real thing, and you experience the sounds along with Herzog and the scientists as they put their ears down to the ground and take it all in. It’s an amazing moment to witness.

The other thing I really loved was how it was just not another average science documentary filled with talking heads telling you all the things you need to know about the environments they are studying. There is science talk throughout the documentary which is fine, but Herzog also looks at the individual personalities he comes into contact with throughout his journey. Along with Herzog, you also wonder what could make all these people come to one of the most isolated places on the face of the earth and of how they stay there for so long.

Among the people Herzog meets throughout his travels are a philosopher who has a great quote at the end of the movie about how the universe is looking at itself through our eyes, and how we give life to everything in the way we view it. We meet one of the scuba divers who has a pensive moment where he takes in the fact he is about to making his very last dive into the icy depths. Then Herzog meets up with a Russian who had escaped the Soviet Union after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and the Russian almost loses it emotionally when he tries to describe to him how bad things were when he left. This Russian also has an escape plan at the ready with a big pack of supplies in case he needs to flee once again.

There are a couple of other people in the documentary who just talk and talk about themselves and the adventures they have been on. Herzog cuts them off in his narration by saying, “To make a long story short…”

“Encounters at the End of the World” does have a bleak view of humanity’s future, and the scientists are fully aware of this as temperatures continue to rise to where it is inevitable that ice will eventually melt completely in the future. This is also shown as we see a group of scientists watching “Them,” a 1950’s B-movie about radioactive ants which have grown to an enormous size. It turns out to be one of the many apocalyptic movies they show to each other from week to week. I wonder if they have ever gotten around to watching John Carpenter’s “The Thing.”

At the center of “Encounters at the End of the World” is not just Antarctica, but Herzog himself. His narration throughout could have been annoying, but it serves to illuminate what a funny and interesting person he is. Clearly, he is attracted to madness in various forms throughout the world as is shown here and also in “Grizzly Man.” I imagine this is a big theme in all of his movies. We discover all there is to see through his eyes, and of how he views the beauty of the ice and how it forms. As a result, it does make me want to see more of his movies.

Just remember what one of the men says in this documentary, and remember it always:

“Global warming is real.”

* * * * out of * * * *

‘The Thing’ Prequel Should Have Been a Sequel

The Thing 2011 poster

It says a lot about John Carpenter’s “The Thing” that it could generate a prequel almost 20 years after its release. A critical and commercial failure back in 1982, it has since been justly reappraised as a true horror classic and remains Carpenter’s masterpiece. It proved even more terrifying than “Halloween,” and it also holds a special place on my list of my top ten favorite movies of all time. These days, it is even more frightening as the scenario it presents feels all too possible.

Now we have Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s “The Thing,” a prequel to Carpenter’s movie which explores the events leading up to it. Remember the Norwegian camp Kurt Russell and Richard Dysart visited which had been completely burned down? Now we get to see how it got laid waste by both the thing and the humans. But therein lies the problem; knowing the events precede those of the 1982 movie and who survives, much of the potential suspense and tension gets drowned out almost immediately.

Frankly, I would much rather see a sequel to Carpenter’s “The Thing” instead of this. His film was very effective because we never had a clear idea of who to trust. But in Heijningen’s film, we know the characters on display will eventually bite the dust, and it becomes a question of when these characters turn into the thing. After a while, it becomes more shocking when a character dies but doesn’t turn into a gooey alien. What spoils it even more is we know of at least one character who will survive what happens very early on, and all we can do is wait impatiently for him to get on the helicopter with his rifle and take shots at the wolf.

Heijningen is respectful of Carpenter’s movie and pays homage to it throughout, but I kept wondering if this was a remake instead of a prequel. Various scenes are clear imitations of the 1982 movie’s most classic moments, and I wish he had worked harder at distinguishing the prequel from it instead of just presenting us with something way too similar. He does wring some suspense and strong tension at different points, and his unique take on the blood test scene is very clever, but he is unable to sustain the tension which made Carpenter’s movie so utterly terrifying.

The special effects are very good, but they pale in comparison to the genius of Rob Bottin. Audiences are always quick to tell when CGI effects are overused. As for the performances, they are generally good even though the characters could have come out of any monster movie.

The best performance comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead as paleontologist Kate Lloyd. Such a terrific presence in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World” and “Live Free or Die Hard,” she holds our attention throughout and is one of the best reasons to see this prequel. While Lloyd is predictably inspired by Ellen Ripley from “Aliens,” Winstead makes the character her own and more than just another tough chick which movies like these typically rely on.

“The Thing” prequel is not terrible, but it will be of interest more to those who haven’t seen the 1982 film which itself was a remake and made back in a time when remakes were rare and actually worth watching. This particular version of John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?” feels like a lost opportunity, and it gets caught in the prequel trap of busily matching everything up to the film it leads into. It really sucks when you can see a movie’s ending long in advance. I did however admire the ambiguous ending shown before the end credits as it leaves you wondering if the alien really infected one of the last characters standing. Not knowing is always more unnerving than knowing, and at least the director got this right.

* * ½ out of * * * *

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.”

Alan Howarth Discusses Working on Film Scores with John Carpenter

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A screening of John Carpenter’s “Assault on Precinct 13” at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood brought out a number of guests such as Austin Stoker who played Lieutenant Ethan Bishop and Douglas Knapp who was the film’s director of photography. But the one guest I was really interested to hear from was Alan Howarth, the composer and sound designer who collaborated with Carpenter on a number of his film scores from “Escape From New York” to “They Live.” Howarth even took the time to do a live performance of his and Carpenter’s music, something I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime.

During the Q&A, Howarth talked about how he came to work with Carpenter, their process for scoring his films and his favorite film scores of the ones they worked on together. Howarth wasn’t actually on board for the original “Assault on Precinct 13” though he did work on a remastered version of the soundtrack for it and “Dark Star” for BuySoundtrax.com. It wasn’t until he worked on his first big film when he became inadvertently acquainted with Carpenter.

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“I came on board at ‘Escape from New York,’ and that was kind of happenstance because my very first movie, less than a year earlier, was ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture,’” Howarth said. “I had come on as the sound designer and created the sounds of the Enterprise like the warp drive and the transporters and stuff like that. The picture editor from that movie, Todd Ramsay, his next assignment was ‘Escape from New York,’ so I had slipped him some cassettes and he knew I was a musician. John had worked with another fellow on ‘Halloween,’ Dan Wyman, and there was some change up there, and so literally the guy comes over to my little, rented house in Glendale and set up in my dining room. It was nothing formal. I sat down and I played him a few things and he goes, ‘okay, let’s do it.’ That was it.”

“John always wanted somebody who knew about the technology,” Howarth continued. “In fact, a couple of times I tried to explain to him how it worked and he was all, ‘I don’t want to know that. It’s your job to make it work, make it in tune, and when I push down the note the red light is on.’ So that’s where I started, but he’s a collaborative person. I love working with people. I’m from the bands and rock & roll. I was one of those people. So, it was really great and my first film score was ‘Escape from New York.’”

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From there, the two of them worked on several projects all the way to “They Live.” As he continued discussing the work he did with Carpenter, we came to discover he played a larger part in Carpenter’s film scores than we ever realized.

“Next, he went off to do ‘The Thing’ and they wanted to make ‘Halloween II,’ so again John said, ‘I’m going to be busy. You’re going to have to do Halloween.’ Same thing, so I did ‘Halloween II’ and I used his original ‘Halloween’ music, overdubbed it and created new stuff.”

 

After “They Live,” they seemed to part ways for reasons Howarth never explained, but it gave him the confidence to start scoring films on his own. Of course, he was still eager to get Carpenter’s blessing when it came to a franchise the director never planned to start.

“I found out they were going to do ‘Halloween 4’ and I said to John, ‘they asked me to do this and you’re my buddy and I want to do something with this.’ He said sure, so I wound up doing ‘Halloween 4, 5 and 6’ and that really launched me as a composer which is what I love to do the most, and as we are in a world of economic stasis, I had to do it all by myself. As you see, this is my studio right here. It’s all down to a laptop and a guitar and some recorders when it used to be a million dollars’ worth of stuff. Not that that stuff isn’t valuable, but you can do without it now,” Howarth said.

 

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One audience member asked which of the scores he did with Carpenter is his favorite, and the answer was a little bit of a surprise.

“I think ‘Halloween III’ because it was really an artistic departure for both of us, and ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ is the most produced and has the widest range,” said Howarth. “We had rock and roll and scary things and chases and this whole Asian influence, so it was really a broad scope of things. That’s one of my favorites.”

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Like many in the audience, I was eager to hear how Howarth and Carpenter would go about working on a score. Did they start working on it before shooting began? Did they work on it after shooting was finished? Did they think about the music while making the film? We hear how composers spend so much time preparing the perfect score for a movie, but Howarth made his process with Carpenter sound quite simple.

“It’s all one big jam. It’s improvised,” Howarth said. “Sometimes he would come in with a theme in mind. I’d set up the piano before he came over and started something. A lot of it we just made up on the spot. In fact, I introduced him, because I’m a technical person, to the synchronization between a videotape and a tape recorder. It almost seems like we were the first to do it. Before that, everything was done with a stopwatch. So, you would make a cue that was three minutes long and kind of set a tempo, and then you would go back and literally copy it on a Moviola and fool around with the scene.”

“This was the first time you could watch the movie and play at the same time, so he referred to that as the electronic coloring book which made it even easier to improvise,” Howarth continued. “Through that whole period we also benefited from the evolution of electronic music instruments, so from analog synthesizers and a 24-track machine to midi and digital sequencers, these scores had a new installation in the progress of musical instruments, so it’s almost a chronology or a music lesson in the gear.”

Another audience member asked Howarth how long he and Carpenter would jam until they found something they really liked. His answer illustrates how fast these two worked on their music.

“We did a cue a day,” Howarth said. “One quote I always get from John, and it’s just really true, he said, ‘Alan if you want to be a director you only need two important words, yes and no. Just be very decisive. Even if you say no today or yes today and tomorrow, you change your mind. You got twenty or thirty people that are taking direction, and you don’t want to leave them in a lurch, so it’s better to just be decisive.’ So, it was a couple of times we did something and came back and said that wasn’t working, but it wasn’t very often.”

Having worked in movies and music all these years, Howarth clearly has a wide knowledge of musical instruments and electronics. When asked what he would consider as the go to synthesizer, Howarth’s answer shed some light on how far musical technology has come over the years.

“I chose all the gear and I arrived at being a fan of the Prophet 5,” Howarth said. “It sounded good, but the other reason was that it was the first programmable synthesizer. Prior to that, you had to literally make little diagrams of where all the knobs and switches were to get back to the same sound, so this was the first time you could do something and save it. That really moved things forward a lot, and I brought in the programmables and the sequencers.”

One big question many had about the music Carpenter and Howarth worked on was the score to Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing.” This was Carpenter’s first big studio movie, and it allowed him to work with his all-time favorite composer Ennio Morricone. However, when you listen to the score, some it sounds like it was done by Carpenter and Howarth, and this is especially the case with the movie’s main theme. Howarth went into detail about who really composed the score to “The Thing.”

“They (Carpenter and Morricone) took a meeting, and he (Morricone) saw a little bit of the footage and he scored his score,” Howarth said. “He comes back and, of course, how does John talk to his hero about what just went down and where he wants to go? And there’s a translation issue between English and Italian and all this other stuff. So John played the stuff we did for ‘Escape from New York’ and he says, ‘Can you do something like this?’ Ennio goes back for a second pass now with keyboards, and that’s where ‘The Thing’s’ theme came from. So it’s Ennio Morricone doing John Carpenter really. At the very end after all that, there was one more pass on about four or five cues where John came over for just an afternoon and we did some cues that kind of sound like ‘Christine’ that you can tell is basically our synth stuff. So basically, it took three scoring passes on the show to get it.”

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It was a real treat to have Alan Howarth talk about his musical collaboration with John Carpenter. The film scores they worked on are among my favorites of all time, and I never get sick of listening to them. Howarth continues to work as a film composer, and his more recent credits include scores for “Backstabbed,” “The Dentist” and “House at the End of the Drive.” Here’s hoping we get to hear more scores from him in the near future.