Monday, October 25, 2010

Never Trust a Swedish, er, Norwegian Dog

I am just going to be completely honest here. The Thing is one of my all-time favorite movies. It comes from the era of John Carpenter in which he could do no wrong (Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China). So, I will try to be objective in this blog, but know that I surely am not objective about this picture, I’m a fan.

The first thing I thought of when watching this movie (again) was how little the film seems to care about demographics, market share, or making everyone happy. There is no romantic subplot, no humorous aside. This is the best example of a full length feature film fitting into a short-story motif. That is, there is one mood, one of mounting dread and paranoia that culminates in a good old fashioned monster hunt. The cast is all male, and all business. I love that, it doesn’t get diluted in nonsense or obvious rewrites designed to broaden the audience. It is an unapologetic horror film with science fiction elements.

What makes this movie work is the perfect isolation of the characters. MacReady’s first line of dialogue (not counting the chess playing computer he loses to) just helps to ratchet up the micro-tension that much more: “First goddamn week of winter.” The men are just setting up for a long isolated winter when a Norwegian helicopter shows up with a stray dog and shoots at them. Later Blair destroys the radios, both helicopters and the mechanical land transports. They are beyond isolated.
This works on two levels. First, and most important, the characters can’t escape. They are there with The Thing whether they like it or not. Second, The Thing is there with them. Redundant? No. What I mean by that is the isolation saves the movie from having to show The Thing trying to infect the entire world.

Along with the unapologetic tone of the movie, the understated music really sells it. That simple bass line (ba-dum-bum … ba-dum-bum …) followed by the long strings/synth sounds. Carpenter really outdid himself with the music. His score for Halloween is probably more iconic, but the music in The Thing really sets the tone and ratchets things up in the subconscious for the viewer.

Along the lines of being unapologetic the movie doesn’t fall for the hackneyed slasher film clichĂ© of sex equals bad equals you must die. The Thing strikes as it can, like a predator. It doesn’t make judgment calls; it doesn’t care about your background, your skin color, or your station in life. It just wants to replicate … everything.

And that brings us to The Thing. It is an alien, but is it a monster? You could argue that it is just doing what it was designed to do: replicate other life forms and blend in. Isn’t it just an animal doing what comes naturally? Nope, and that is what makes this one of my favorite movies.

If The Thing can design a spaceship and travel across the stars, then it has intelligence. Intelligence implies a civilization or a society of some kind. It also implies that it knows that it is subsuming these other life forms. But it doesn’t care. It would rather have to freeze back to sleep amongst the burnt out rubble of the camp than live peaceably with humans.

Oh no, it is no mere animal. It is quite the monster. In many ways the most heinous monster we have studied this semester. It is wonderful and leads to all kinds of big picture questions.

The big one and this is the only flaw I’ve ever found in this story is this: how can a copy have the same memories and knowledge of the original organism? Copying a dog? No problem. It can pant and bark and lick your face. No need to communicate on anything but a canine level. But to replicate a human? How does it know the memories? Does the tissue itself contain the knowledge? In the “science” of this movie it does. I’m okay with this. Heck, if Star Trek and other stories can teleport people from place to place and they are fully intact memory-wise then why split hairs here, right?

This movie has some iconic imagery:

-The Norwegian dog going into the room with the silhouetted head that turns around. Who is that?

-At the Norwegian camp the frozen corpse with the bloody tendrils hanging down crystalized and solid.

-The grotesque melded flesh they bring back from the Norwegian camp that looks like pulled taffy melted and gelled together.

-Norris’s chest bursting open and eating Doc Copper’s arms.

-The big stinger: the blood leaping out of the dish when MacReady puts the hot wire in it.

The other thing about this imagery that makes this movie such a classic is that once the big reveal happens things seem worse not better for the viewer. In most horror movies, once the monster is a known quantity (big guy with a knife, serial killer, ghost, werewolf, vampire, whatever) the viewer measures that against what was in their own head and usually finds the movie version lacking. But The Thing was so groundbreaking with its imagery, so scary with the way things unfolded that even after you know what is going on you’re still freaked out and not sure what is going to happen next. The fear doesn’t diminish, it continues to increase.

It is 89 minutes into a 100 minute movie before we return to the horror movie standard of the hunted (humans) now hunting the monster (The Thing). For 89 minutes we get a slow burn that turns the heat up and picks off crew members one by one. There is very little “I’m going off by myself” nonsense. There is very little in-fighting. The crew grows paranoid and nobody trusts anybody until the blood test works, but even after they go for Blair … Childs runs out into the snow.

Which always begs the question as MacReady and Childs sit there at the end, drinking their bottle and watching the camp burn … is Childs a thing or not? I don’t think so. I think it is fitting that two humans survive only to freeze to death knowing there’s nothing they can do about it.

There is no happy ending here; no cavalry rides in to save them. They faced a monster and won, but it cost them everything. And maybe they didn’t win, that is up to the viewer. When spring comes the rescue crew will show up. What do they find? What if a very much alive MacReady, or so it appears, walks out of the rubble with a tall tale about the events of the winter? Scary wonderful.

Again, it is difficult for me to analyze this movie with anything but fanboy glasses on. I just love the whole thing (no pun intended). It is bleak and dark and believable and unapologetic and really just one of the best horror movies of all time.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Thinking It Won't Stop a Werewolf

Has the time of the werewolf come and gone? The underlying dichotomy within humans personified as the monstrous “wolf” within being the unbridled fury and passion side while the genteel human side represents the civilized potential of mankind. I don’t think the time is gone. In the grander scheme of things it is good versus evil only the eternal struggle is internal with the werewolf story versus external.

All that being said, I was given two werewolf stories this semester, Cycle of the Werewolf and The Wolfman, “A Novelization by Jonathan Mayberry” as the cover advertises. I fear this fact (a novelization) truly hurt this book, but more on that later.

First the nuts and bolts of the story. The Talbots are a mysterious family. The mother died while the boys were very young. Lawrence, the youngest, witnessed her death and was sent away to an asylum. He eventually recovered enough to become a highly praised stage actor. The elder son, Ben, stayed on at Talbot hall only to be killed in a gruesome and mysterious way. Now all that remains is Sir John the patriarch, his trusty man-servant Singh, and the grieving ex-fiancé of Ben, Gwen Conliffe.

Lawrence returns home to find Ben dead, Gwen enchanting, and Sir John as standoffish and stubborn as ever. The details surrounding Ben’s death are odd as it appears a madman or possibly a beast did the deed. This all takes place in and around Blackmoor, a semi-rural enclave in England where superstition can still motivate and the towns people don’t trust outsiders. The detective sent to investigate the ghastly crime, Aberline of Scotland Yard (who also sought The Ripper the reader learns) is not trusted by Blackmoor, neither are the gypsies who pass through.

So, all in all we have a pretty excellent set up, right? Mysterious death, rumors of beasts, the exotic influence of the gypsies, a bit of historic tie in with Aberline, Jack the Ripper, and Scotland Yard. All well and fine, all very nice.

But I bet most people could guess at the plot points and progression of the story. There is indeed a werewolf; the Talbot family is indeed cursed. The gypsies know more than they are saying, and Scotland Yard can’t quite keep up.

I guess if I was to pinpoint the glaring error of this narrative it would be how aware it is of itself. After Lawrence is attacked and mortally wounded in the act of saving a gypsy child the elder gypsy woman, Maleva, nurses him knowing all the while that if he lives he will become a werewolf (or wolf man) at the next full moon. Her young friend/assistant Saskia knows Lawrence should be put down as the wild beast he will become, but Maleva refuses:

“The young woman looked at the wound and then raised her eyes to Maleva.

“Why do you save him?” asked Saskia. The sounds of weeping and grief still filled the camp. She knew everyone who had died, and grief was a knife in her heart.

“He risked his life for one of ours. For a child that he did not even know.”

“He has been bitten! If you have compassion for this man, then you should end his misery before it begins.”

Maleva shook her head. “You would make me a sinner?”

Saskia set aside the needle and took Maleva’s hands in hers. “There is no sin in killing a beast”” (128).

As a story point this would have been much more powerful had one tried to kill him and the other stopped her, or they were trying to kill him when others arrived and thought them mad for trying to kill a wounded man. Their thoughts, and the thoughts of the reader, do not match their actions. This happens a couple times in the story and it detracts from the tension and the believability of the characters.

After Lawrence wolfs-out and goes on a killing rampage through London he awakes naked and bloody, and overcome with grief. He seeks out Gwen and says he wants to kill himself. He says it … but he never tries to do it. If he really is so overwrought with emotion why doesn’t he do it? It would be much more effective for Lawrence to have gone to Gwen’s father’s pharmacy and downed a bunch of pills or a toxic tonic and then Gwen has to save him.

Yet another example of action that should be taken but is not is Singh, Sir John’s trusted man servant. Lawrence discovers that Singh has a veritable anti-werewolf arsenal and that he’s known about the Talbot family curse almost from the beginning. He knew from minute one how Lawrence’s brother Ben died. He probably knew what really happened to Lawrence’s mother. Yet with all this knowledge, with all this evil unfolding before him, much like Lawrence … he does nothing. He thinks the right things, but he doesn’t act on them.

I guess that is what kills the book for me. There is a lot of intense emotion alluded to, a lot of grief and anger and knowing of the next action, but the next action is not taken. It reminded me of Interview With The Vampire, a book in which much is spoken about but nothing is really done, lots of emotion, very little action. Hey, that book had Louis; this one has Lawrence, coincidence? But I digress.

On top of all that emotion without action the book started to be a historical fiction piece with references to Jack the Ripper and how ice blocks were stored with straw and the like, but the details really weren’t there. The world of the book, and Blackmoor and the nightly forests and cityscape of London really could have been fleshed out with a few concrete details. Instead that opportunity to ground the reader and to give The Wolfman a more real flavor did not ever come about.

So, is there anything to like about this book? Yes, the werewolve(s) themselves. The description of Lawrence’s miraculous recovery from his grievous wounds is well done. Much of the description of Lawrence’s body as it transforms and as he discovers himself after a transformation is excellent. There is no mistaking the wolf takes control when the full moon rises. The difference is Lawrence tries to fight it; the other werewolf relishes the change.

The wolf personas are beyond savage. This was a good touch. When the original werewolf tears through the gypsy camp it destroys everything it comes across. They aren’t just furry men, they are eight feet tall, covered in sinewy muscle that can rend flesh and trees and more. They can leap great distances and run faster than a normal wolf. In short, they are supernatural creatures. This is a good thing, and it does add some level of emotion to the futility of trying to bring one of these things down.

Ultimately this book doesn’t hold up. I don’t know if it is because it is a movie first and a novel second, though I have read some good books that followed that timeline. The characters, all of them, end up being too passive. In the face of the werewolf they react only in spirit. In the flesh they do not respond. When facing werewolves you have to respond in the flesh if you are to best the fur.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

So who exactly is the monster in Alien?

Alien is one of the great mind-games of modern cinema. It is an excellent film by nearly every measurable category. The production is first rate, the look, the tension, the attention to detail. The ships is craggy and industrial with pipes and steam everywhere, looking like what it is: a simple freighter. The planet looks like a surreal nightmare dreamscape, all fog and dark with constant wind. The alien vessel is just that, alien in nearly all aspects. It is huge and weird and full of … things.

Once the face-hugger gets Kane things really start to roll and the crew is so focused on the threat from without (the face-hugger and eventually the alien the movie is named after), they forget to look at the threat within. Many people say the best, most horrifying scene in the film is the one in the tunnels where Dallas buys it. That is probably the best stinger or “gotcha” scene, but the best scene is later, when Ripley is in the Mother interface room and Ash pops into view behind her.

Ash is the real monster in this movie. By far. And when he freaks out and tries to kill Ripley (or tries to not kill Ripley, the fact that this is never fully answered is wonderful and will maintain the debate for eternity) that is the real horror.

Yes, we’ve all seen the movie a hundred times now, but try to remember the first time you sat through this masterpiece. Try to remember the first time you saw Parker hit Ash in the face with the fire extinguisher and his head flops off … and he keeps fighting with white goo spewing everywhere. Talk about a freak-out. To this day when I see that scene, the headless torso flailing about with weirdly wet mechanical sounds and screeches going on while Parker and Lambert try to stop it, I just cringe. Nobody saw that coming.

As I’ve discussed with classmates and friends over the years, the alien is a tough hombre. It is definitely something to be feared and planned for. If at all possible it is to be avoided. Why the company that runs things in the Alien universe wants one for a weapons division pet (and spends several movies pursuing this goal) is beyond any sane and logical thinker.

But guess what? You could say the same thing about a great white shark, a grizzly bear, and a black mamba snake. The alien is bad news, but is it evil? Is it doing what it does with malice? Does it prey exclusively on humans? Nope. One of the sequels in this film series features a dog-alien that hatches from a dog on a prison planet. Throughout the series you get the impression that the alien bugs simply adapt to whatever their environment is and seek to take the top rung on the food chain. Every organism does this.

No, the monster in Alien is Ash, and the company who deems the crew of the Nostromo expendable in the quest for the perfect organism to use as a weapon. The first time you watch the movie you don’t catch all that Ash is up to, but after you know the story and know the film it is fun to watch Ash and all that he does.

He quotes regulations that make them land on the planet in the first place, threatening to take away bonus money the crew has earned. He overrides Ripley, ranking officer when Dallas and Kane are off the ship, and lets the face-huggered Kane back into the ship after the extra-vehicle search. Later, when Ripley starts to suspect things Ash is obviously not surprised when Ripley and Mother decipher the beacon signal that brought them to the ship. The signal is a warning, not a distress call. Finally, there is Special Order 937 that takes away all ambiguity. The company wants the bug, the crew is of no value, Ash is to ensure the alien makes it back to earth.

Sure, he’s a synthetic, a robot. Sure he has to follow orders. Sure, as you pay attention to him in the film he displays little or no emotion and defers to everyone else in normal dealings (the scene where Parker chases Ash out of his chair early on indicates this).

It’s the scene that freaks me out that tells the story. When Ash surprises Ripley (and the audience) in the Mother interface room she slams him against the wall, then flees. She’s furious, she’s confused, she’s terrified. Then we get to see Ash’s face up close and a single dribble of white fluid is running down his left temple. Later we understand this is what passes for his blood.

Did Ripley damage Ash? Is that why he comes after her, tearing tufts of hair out and tossing her around medical? Eventually he rolls up a magazine and jams it in her mouth. Why? He seems to be deeply conflicted during this. Again, is he broken or is he fighting his orders?

I go to the dark side of things here. It makes Ripley more heroic and Ash more evil. I think had Ripley not slammed him into the wall in the Mother interface room, surprising and damaging Ash, that Ripley would have died by Ash’s hand before Parker and Lambert got in the room. I believe Ash was trying to kill her, but Ripley broke something pretty important inside his tin head and that saved her life.

What do I base this on? It is a quick little shot, but it is crucial to the characterization and flavor of the entire film. After they reduce Ash to white oozing spare parts they put him back together enough to get some answers out of him. He quotes Special Order 937 and then proceeds to talk about his admiration for the alien. Right before they pull the plug, something they could do without fanfare or further discussion, Ash has other ideas:

Parker: Look, I am, I've heard enough of this, and I'm asking you to pull the plug.
Ash: Last words.
Ripley: What?
Ash: I can't lie to you about your chances, but … you have my sympathies.

Even that isn’t enough. But then, what does Ash do? What does that order following plastic man do? He smiles. Smiles. That smile tells the story. He is happy to watch them die so that this alien can grow stronger. He’s happy to follow Special Order 937.

If that isn’t evil, then I don’t know what is.

All in all, Alien is, without a doubt, one of the best science fiction/horror movies ever made. It is relentless in tone and mood, shocking without being cheesy, and will be scary a hundred years from now.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


World War Z is so grand in scale it boggles the mind. Max Brooks did his homework, did his research, and it makes for a compelling read and a truly impressive work.

In the Acknowledgements Brooks thanks George A. Romero, director of the masterpiece zombie trilogy of Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead (and other zombie movies in that same continuum). Romero’s influences are numerous in this book. The giant one is the assumption that zombies, slow moving unthinking zombies would be able to overrun all of society and effectively rule the planet pushing humans into pockets of survivors and clinging day by day counting supplies and praying for a miracle. I don’t share this notion, but I am going to put that aside for the sake of the book.

As I said in the opening, the book is impressive. It does what no other zombie tale has ever done. It has gone epic. Yes, every zombie story allows the undead to overrun the entire planet. In that sense they are all epic in scale. But the central focus of the tale is always a small band of survivors holed up in a farm house or a mall or a bunker while all around them legions of the moaning undead wander mindlessly waiting to get at them and feed.

World War Z goes beyond that. Its narrative scope is literally the globe. All the continents are featured, and all manner of character are brought into the narrative. There are soldiers (of course), but there are also politicians, doctors, filmmakers, scientists, divers, blind gardeners, and others. All of them share their side of the war, their story. The shared identity of hatred for the zombies and a collective moving through the stages of the event from Warnings, to The Great Panic, and finally to Total War and Good-Byes is compelling and believable.

Brooks knows the pressure points to hit in a reader. The section on the K-9 units being invaluable scouts, decoys, and bait in the war with the zombies was gripping. The tale of the downed C-130 pilot being guided back to safety by what probably amounts to a voice in her head. The blind Japanese gardener who survives in the forest with nothing but his wits and a sharpened shovel also brings the story from satellite level point of view down to a very personal narrative.

I’ve neglected up to this point to go into the zombies in depth so far. As with the better zombie stories Brooks is never exactly specific with what starts the undead rising. Patient Zero, or the first known zombie, is a boy in China and the book is written to imply that the infected undead originate in China. The zombies themselves are pretty standard issue. They are old-school slow movers, and they can only be killed by destroying the brain.

Brooks adds in a couple of very nice touches. First, the signature moan of the zombies is turned into a calling signal, like the howl of a wolf or the chirp of a cricket. It implies the zombies have some level of communication, albeit rudimentary and simplistic. The other Brooks addition to the zombie canon is having them survive and thrive under the water. This was an element I found particularly horrifying. The idea that there are still 20 to 30 million zombies roaming the sea bed, still hungry is freak-out inducing. It takes the scare of Jaws and the water being unsafe and turns it up about, well, 20 million times.

Another perfectly executed detail was the little things. The battle at Yonkers, NY contrasted with the later battle at Hope, NM. The army makes a big show in Yonkers using standard operating procedures for fighting other armies, other ground forces. They are being showy for the cameras and the general public. The tactics are nearly useless against the zombies and they get creamed.

Later in Hope, NM the army has learned, adapted and returns to its efficient lethality. They have in many ways regressed to a simpler army designed to take on individual zombies versus fortifications and vehicles.

If I have one beef with the book, it is the ambiguity with the timeline and the extreme length of time it takes for people to learn to engage the zombies intelligently. Brooks, in the Total War section lists off the tactical advantages the zombies have: they slay a human it adds to the zombie horde effectively doubling their advantage as it weakens the humans while strengthening the zomies, they don’t need to be fed as that is all they exist to do (eat), and they have no need for leaders. They also have no supply lines, no political philosophy to negotiate with; no level of diplomacy will work. They are as single minded as an enemy has ever been.

What Brooks fails to do, however, is show that this single mindedness, this idiocy on the part of the zombies is also a huge liability. Displaying one live human, heck just making a bunch of noise, and you draw them in. Once they are massed any number of things can be done to take them out, and in large numbers. Brooks refers to lemming operations inducing zombies to literally walk off of tall buildings to their death.

Yes, the sheer numbers are a factor, but Brooks hints at massive herds of them stretching across the Midwest like the buffalo used to. The battle at Yonkers was the front end of a group of millions moving out of New York City. Especially in the early going, when fuel and supplies were plentiful, having an easy target like that it is hard to believe it would take years of preparation to return and fight intelligently.

As stated above, the timeline is a bit fuzzy as well. The conflict goes through several cycles of winter as the freezing and thawing of the zombies is referred to in several areas. With the interview style of the book it would have been easy to include times and dates to go along with the names and locations of the interviewees. It would have given the story even more of a documentary feel.

Finally, though, I have to recommend this book. The style can be seen as less tension filled as it is obvious the interviewer and all the interviewees have survived World War Z (or they wouldn’t be available to hold or give interviews). However, this method works wonderfully for the shell-shocked grim ruminations of almost everyone. Ultimately what Brooks has done is to take the zombie from low budget small group attacks, the farm leagues of the horror genre, and put him up there as viable global destructor. The zombie has been called up to the majors with this book. That level of upgrade all while maintaining huge levels of detail and capturing various voices, regional quirks, and even maintaining a bit of humor (dark as it may be) is great stuff.