A special request leads me to a great episode of television.
Womanizer Charlie Harper (Charlie Sheen) begins dating a woman named Isabella (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe) who appears to be a satanist witch, though she never says it directly. When Charlie’s brother Alan (Jon Cryer) mocks her, he starts to find himself cursed. He tries to get Charlie to break up with her, but the sex is apparently amazing, so Charlie refuses. At a party, Isabella has her entire coven sleep with Charlie, who begins to look increasingly gaunt and drained the more he dates Isabella. He also begins to suspect that Isabella is using him to sire the Antichrist. Even Berta (The Late Conchata Ferrell), the Harper’s aggressive housekeeper, is afraid of her. When Isabella tries to get Alan’s son Jake (Angus T. Jones) to contact Satan, the two brothers finally try to confront her. However, she claims that Charlie has entered into a pact and that it will cost him his genitals if he reneges. Charlie is about to give in when his mother, Evelyn (Holland Taylor), dressed as the Wicked Witch of the West, arrives to force Alan, Charlie, and Jake to join her for a costume party. Evelyn apparently knows Isabella, who is absolutely terrified of her and flees. Evelyn then leaves for the party with the three men dressed as her flying monkeys.
Some of you may think this was an odd choice for a Halloween review, but I have two things to say to that: First, this episode is absolutely hilarious, particularly the quippy dialogue and Charlie Sheen’s reaction shots. Second, my dad loves this show and told me I had to do this episode or I was out of the will. I’m 99% sure he was kidding, but why take the chance?
I’ve often said that the fact that an episode was building up to one big punchline should never be considered a negative. One of the most-read reviews on my blog, “The $99,000 Answer,” is entirely dependent on building up a single, absolutely insane moment of hilarity. Unlike that episode, which always focused on the characters who were going to be the butt of the joke, this one actually plays up the joke in the background while we watch a completely different storyline. At one point, we see Evelyn calling Charlie for a favor, which he rejects. We also see Alan finishing a phone call where he tells his mother that he still isn’t on board with her “Wizard of Oz” theme, but not much more is made out of it. This means that Evelyn’s appearance as the Deus Ex Machina that saves the boys at the end of the episode isn’t coming out of nowhere, but also was left just ambiguous enough to be absolutely hilarious when it happens. The fact that Evelyn is the only person that is scary enough to not just threaten but absolutely terrify a supposedly real witch is just delicious.
The rest of the episode mostly just works because it’s Charlie and Alan, an average odd-couple pair, dealing with what might be, but is never confirmed to be, the supernatural. It’s like Abbott and Costello meeting Frankenstein, it’s just going to be funny to see the juxtaposition. Add in a bunch of dirty jokes and some fun dialogue about curses and various subcultures and the episode actually goes by pretty quickly because you’re laughing the whole time. The title is a reference to Jake’s attempt to talk to Satan which quickly bores him when he finds out he doesn’t get wishes.
Overall, this is a solid Halloween episode that really stands out in the show’s history. Even if you didn’t like Two and a Half Men, this one was pretty great.
This movie is the ultimate tribute to Halloween and a fun family story combined into one.
Marnie Piper (Kimberly J. Brown) is a 13-year-old who is obsessed with the occult despite the fact that her mother, Gwen (Judith Hoag), has banned Halloween in their house. Marnie’s younger brother, Dylan (Joey Zimmerman), tends to side with their mother, while her younger sister, Sophie (Emily Roeske), tends to side with Marnie. On Halloween, Marnie’s grandmother, Agatha Cromwell (Debbie “Singing in the Rain” Reynolds), visits. Marnie spies on her mother and grandmother talking and finds out that her grandmother is actually a witch from another world called “Halloweentown” which is populated by all of the monsters we associate with the holiday. Something evil is attacking the town and Agatha needs another witch to help her. Gwen refuses, so Marnie and her siblings follow their grandmother to Halloweentown. They quickly meet some of the residents, including warlock Mayor Kalabar (Robin Thomas), skeleton cabbie Benny (Rino Romano), and local bad boy Luke (Phillip Van Dyke). Together, the Cromwell/Pipers have to figure out who is trying to take over Halloweentown and stop them.
If you’re in my age range, you probably remember this movie from when it first came out. It was one of the better Disney Channel original movies from the window in the mid-90s to mid-00s when those were a big deal. It’s just the right level of campy-scary for a Disney film. It’s never going to have anyone crying or shaking, particularly since there aren’t any jump scares and the soundtrack is consistently playful and upbeat, but it does have some dark moments involving the villain when they finally reveal themselves. Despite the fact that the world of Halloweentown is filled with monsters, they all intentionally look like cheap holiday masks, so they’re never much more than colorful characters. It helps that a running gag in the film is that the monsters act almost exactly like normal people, doing things like yoga or bowling or running an ice cream shop, only doing so while having extra eyes or horns.
The performances in the movie are pretty solid for a Disney made-for-TV film. Debbie Reynolds has been charming and funny since the 1950s and having her play a slightly kookie but loving grandmother works out perfectly. It helps that they actually give her some fun stuff to do and say, including things like having a microwave which can duplicate the effects of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth, spitefully putting chicken wings back on the chicken, or having a Mary Poppins-esque a bag of holding. She always comes off as sincere and it helps sell the goofy premise. Both Reynolds and the kids consistently seem to be having fun, which adds to the effect. Also, the kids are a step above the usual level of bad acting that you’d find in a television film, particularly Kimberly J. Brown as Marnie and Joey Zimmerman as Dylan. I think that’s probably why they brought her back for two sequels and him for all three.
Mostly, though, the movie is just fun. It captures the spirit of Halloween that we all love when we’re younger. It’s not about scares as much as it’s just about enjoying the unusual and the unique. It isn’t super complicated or deep, although there is a nice message about not trying to make major decisions for your teenage children without their knowledge or consent.
Overall, it’s just a great film to put on during the holiday.
A team trying to clean up an old abandoned asylum find… I guess what you might expect in an old abandoned asylum?
Gordon (Peter Mullan) is the owner of a company who takes a rush job to remove all of the asbestos in an abandoned psychiatric hospital. His crew includes: Mike (Stephen Gevedon), who knows much about the building’s history; Phil (David Caruso), his second-in-command who is dealing with a breakup; Hank (Josh Lucas), a gambling addict; and Jeff (Brendan Sexton III), Gordon’s nyctophobic nephew (afraid of the dark). While in the asylum, Mike discovers a box containing a total of nine sessions of audio-recorded interviews with a former patient named Mary Hobbes (Jurian Hughes). As they start getting to work, Mike starts listening to Mary’s tapes, finding out that she had dissociative identity disorder. Soon, strange things start happening around the asylum. It turns out that some things might be more than just a trick of the mind.
The key to this movie is the atmosphere. It starts with the building itself. It’s a giant, sprawling relic of the past that clearly has a bad history, but it’s not as apparently menacing as many horror settings. It’s got a lot of light areas and white walls, but also a lot of hallways that quickly turn into underground tunnels. The open spaces being connected by tight and isolated rooms allows everything to go from “okay” to “oh no” at a moment’s notice, keeping the viewer always on guard. The fact that everywhere has signs of decay, death, and torment only serves to heighten the feeling that this is not a good place to be. But, again, it doesn’t always rely on dark corners and creepy hallways to have the threat. Sometimes, a room filled with an almost eerie light can provide the grounds for the feelings of dread that permeate the film. Also, it was an actual abandoned asylum, so there’s an extra level of authenticity to the creepiness.
The other key to the atmosphere is how well these characters come off as authentic. They all have their own reasons for taking this job and they all are desperate to get out of their current situations. Their interactions show a closeness and a joviality. That makes it even more disturbing when, as the film progresses, their talks start to get more and more strained and aggressive. Moreover, all of them have different reasons why they might suddenly be growing stranger. One of the best parts of the film is that you can never be sure who is being influenced by what, even when the really bad things start to happen. By having almost everyone in the film being a suspect and an unreliable narrator, you can never be certain of what is real.
The cinematography in this film, while not incredibly unique, does a great job of framing shots such that you can never quite get the full picture of what’s happening, even when there don’t appear to be any supernatural forces at work. It gets taken up a notch later when we find out that someone on the crew seems to have completely snapped, but we don’t know who and we don’t know if it’s even real. When the final revelations in the film start to snowball, the certainty comes almost as a relief even as the horror rises.
Overall, this is a great work of psychological horror. Give it a try.
Let’s just admit that this is the best Scooby-Doo movie.
Mystery, Inc. has broken up. Daphne (Mary Kay Bergman) has a hit TV show with her cameraman Fred (Frank Welker). To celebrate Daphne’s birthday and her new supernatural investigation series, Fred invites Velma (B.J. Ward), Shaggy (Billy West), and Scooby-Doo (Scott Innes) to reunite for one last ride. Unfortunately, despite looking for ghosts, all the gang finds are people in suits trying to steal things. The gang eventually winds up in New Orleans where a woman named Lena (Tara Strong) invites them to see Moonscar Island where her employer, Simone Lenoir (Adrienne Barbeau) has a real haunted house. The gang starts to encounter some strange happenings, but is it ghosts or a hoax? Hint: It ain’t a hoax.
Between 1969 and the present, there have only been 9 years in which no new Scooby-Doo media was released. Six of those years were between the end of A Pup Named Scooby-Doo in 1991 and this movie. The franchise was potentially on its last legs, aside from Cartoon Network’s occasional reruns and its annual 25 hours of Scooby-Doo marathon. But, it did well enough on repeats for the network to give this film a shot. It was assembled by people who had mostly worked on more serious shows than the traditional Scooby-Doo, like Swat Kats: The Radical Squadron. In fact, this film was basically a recycling of an unused script from that show. Because of that, this movie went in a new direction for the franchise: Legitimately kind of dark.
It’s not just that the zombies are real in this movie, it’s that by this point in their careers, Fred, Daphne, and Velma no longer even consider the possibility that magic could be real. While there had been some real ghosts or monsters in some previous Scooby-Doo works, most of them involved Scrappy-Doo instead of the human gang. When Velma and Fred encounter things that seem supernatural, they immediately move to debunking it, comparing it to other times that they’ve dealt with manufactured mysticism. The only ones who still appear to be humoring the idea of real ghosts are Shaggy and Scooby, which makes it better that they’re the first ones to encounter the zombies, because no one believes them. Despite the fact that the zombies are real, though, there is still a legitimate mystery as to why they’re attacking and how they came to be.
The soundtrack to this film is great. The theme song was performed by Third Eye Blind and there were two original songs in the film composed by the band Skycycle, “The Ghost is Here” and “It’s Terror Time Again.” I sometimes still find myself humming the latter whenever I see any kind of horror montage. That’s actually part of why I picked this film, even though the request was actually for “The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo.” The other part was that the only movie of 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo came out recently, and it was not great.
Since this film came out, Scooby-Doo has had five more series and thirty-eight more films, including Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, one of my favorite series ever, and it would not have been possible without this film reminding people that the franchise still had untapped potential. If you ever had any love for Scooby-Doo, give this film a try. If you have never seen Scooby-Doo, this is the best pond to dip your toe in.
Anton Tobias (Devon Sawa) is one of the laziest human beings on Earth. He lives with his parents, doesn’t have a job, and just generally smokes pot all day. Shortly before Halloween, his hometown gets attacked by a serial killer that claims Anton’s parents (Fred Willard and Connie Ray). Anton, however, is so oblivious that he misses the bloodstains around the house for several days. After trying to get weed from his friends Mick (Seth Green) and Pnub (Elden Henson) and failing, Anton finally finds his parents’ bodies. Mick and Pnub come over and discover that the killer is, in fact, Anton, or, more accurately, Anton’s right hand, which is now possessed by a demon without his knowledge. The hand (Christopher Hart) then kills Mick and Pnub and tries to kill Anton’s cat, making him run into his neighbor and crush, Molly (Jessica Alba). The two end up making out as Anton covers for his murderous hand. Mick and Pnub come back to life as zombies and the three have to stop the hand from sending Molly to Hell, with a little help from a druidic priestess named Debi (Vivica A. Fox) and Anton’s neighbor Randy (Jack Noseworthy).
I haven’t seen this movie in years, but my first thought on re-watching it was “man, Devon Sawa does some really good physical acting.” Throughout much of the movie, the humor is that he can’t control one of his hands and that he’s constantly fighting against it and he pulls it off pretty well. I know that later in the film, when the hand is cut off, it is played by Christopher Hart, the same actor who played Thing in Addams Family Values, but my understanding is that while it’s attached, all of the strange, angry, and inhuman motions were by Sawa. It’s not quite the level of comedic ability of Steve Martin in All of Me (which everyone should watch) or the amazing robotic movements of Logan Marshall-Green in Upgrade or even the horror/comedy of Evil Dead II, he still does a great job of playing a guy who is literally fighting his own body. I think the fact that I could even try to compare it to all of those great performances speaks highly of his acting.
Anton’s character is fairly different than most horror protagonists. His possession is seemingly a punishment for his sloth and, in order for that to make sense, he has to be far lazier and stupider than almost any normal slacker. He’s so oblivious and focused on getting high that he misses the obvious signs that his parents have been murdered. This level of ridiculous exaggeration should make him unlikeable, but Sawa plays him so naturally hapless that you can still end up rooting for him.
Seth Green, Elden Hanson, and Jessica Alba are all great supporting roles. Green and Hanson are both the perfect “slightly more productive” stoners to act as comic relief. Their easy adjustment to being involved in the supernatural, particularly after being resurrected, is particularly humorous, and they’re both naturally great at delivering absurd lines in an amusing way. Alba’s main role is to somehow justify being attracted to Anton despite the fact that he literally never removes any article of clothing he’s wearing in the film over several days. Somehow, she almost makes it seem viable by seeming like she’s kind of an odd duck herself. It’s still insane that any woman, let alone this one, would want to sleep with Anton, but at least her performance lets you move past it.
The movie itself suffers from a lot of issues with pacing and never quite nailing the tone. The opening to the film plays out like a legitimate horror movie, but the rest of the film is a farce. Debi and Randy only show up for a few minutes and, with anyone less than Vivica A. Fox, would be completely forgettable. It also relies more on the fact that it has a naturally ridiculous premise to keep it interesting than quality writing. Still, I find the film pretty funny for what it is and I think the hand serves as a pretty decent monster throughout. I can say that it deserves more than the 15% it has on Rotten Tomatoes.
Overall, I’m not going to say that you need to see it, but it’s worthwhile if you’re a horror/comedy fan.
A teenage girl starts to find her body going through changes.
Brigette and Ginger Fitzgerald (Emily Perkins and Katharine Isabelle) are sisters who have long had an obsession with death. They even have a death pact which is supposed to be enacted when the two turn 16 if they haven’t left the suburbs. Despite the fact that Ginger, the older sister, is almost 16, she has yet to hit puberty. One night, while on their way to take vengeance on a bully, Ginger gets her first period. The blood attracts a creature which has been behind a number of dog killings in the area and Ginger is attacked and bitten before the creature gets run over by a car belonging to a local drug dealer named Sam (Kris Lemche).
Soon, Ginger starts to undergo a number of strange transformations. She starts to become aggressive, her wounds heal fast, grows hair in strange places, has heavy menstrual flow, and finds a tail coming out of her backside. Naturally, she’s told that it’s all part of becoming a woman. However, Brigette realizes that there is truly something wrong with her sister. She and Sam have to try and stop Ginger from really letting her wild side run free… or eat anyone.
If you’ve read this blog before, you’re aware that my favorite horror films are ones which use the medium as a way to address actual issues. This film is at the pinnacle of horror metaphor films, being a satire about how society treats women, particularly women’s health. The film can somewhat be represented by the scene in which Ginger and Brigitte explain Ginger’s symptoms, but all of them are dismissed by the school nurse as being parts of “becoming a woman.” In fact, any time that a person who doesn’t believe in the supernatural is told of Ginger’s condition, they assume it’s just part of puberty.
Ginger’s bloodlust from her lycanthropy is mirrored by her awakening sexuality. Carnivorous and carnal are constantly intertwined. As she grows more lupine at times, she also grows more confident and feminine at others. It’s made even more blatant when it’s revealed that the two ways to infect people with the disease are through biting or through sex. As her body and behavior change without her having any conscious desire for it, she becomes both more interesting and more repulsive. I swear that werewolves were created just for this metaphor.
John Fawcett, the director and co-writer, wanted to make a female-led horror movie and approached screenwriter Karen Walton about it. She essentially only agreed on the condition that this film treated women in the opposite way that the genre usually does. I think it would be hard for someone to say that the movie didn’t live up to that promise. Ginger and Brigette are both well-crafted characters who have way more personality than almost any main characters get in a horror movie, let alone female characters. They’re oddballs, but they’re believable. Their relationship is the core of the movie because they’re extremely close and it shows even when their friendship becomes progressively more strained. Focusing more on this than much of the traditional horror is one of the strong points of the movie. It depends heavily on the performances of the leads and they nail it so hard they got two sequels (well, a sequel and prequel).
Overall, this is just a fabulous movie and I really recommend it to everyone. It’s not as scary as many horror films, but it will change your perspective more.
Welcome to the 90s, when Neve Campbell was everywhere.
High Schooler Sarah Bailey (Robin Tunney) moves to Los Angeles with her father (Cliff DeYoung) and stepmother. She quickly draws the eye of the three local “witch girls:” Nancy (Fairuza Balk), Bonnie (Neve Campbell), and Rochelle (Rachel True). The three need a fourth to complete their circle and discover that Sarah has natural abilities. They ask her to join them and explain their deity, a primordial force called “Manon.” At the same time, Sarah goes out with Chris (Skeet Ulrich), a local boy, who immediately proves himself to be a crapbag. The four witches each cast a spell to help them get what they want, but they soon find out that magic can have a lot more consequences than they expect. Deadly consequences.
So, I was given the choice by request between either this or Practical Magic. I chose this and I regret nothing. I first saw this movie when I was 12 and thus started my crush on Neve Campbell and, thanks to her and Fairuza Balk’s Nancy, goth chicks in general. It was fairly formative, is what I’m saying. Despite that, I do have to acknowledge that this isn’t the greatest movie, but it’s probably top of my list of “young girl gets supernatural powers and hijinks/mayhem ensue,” slightly edging out Blake Lively’s sister Robyn in the 1985 movie Teen Witch. This movie is significantly darker than that one, of course, but I still consider them in similar veins.
Actually, it’s the darker elements that make me remember this movie. First, we see the darkness that drives each of our main four girls. Sarah feels guilty because her mom died giving birth to her and thinks her dad resents her, leading her to be suicidal and depressed. Nancy lives in a trailer with her mom and abusive step-dad. Bonnie has severe burns on her body that she feels make her a monster. Rochelle is mistreated by Laura (Christine “Marcia Marcia Marcia” Taylor), the racist captain of the dive team. Each of these background stories is wildly more exaggerated than most films would do, but since it’s a movie with real magic, the disbelief is already suspended. Then, we see the decline of each of the girls as they indulge in their fantasies. Sarah enjoys teasing Chris who is now in love with her. Nancy gets a nice new apartment and gets rid of her step-dad, but starts to crave power. Bonnie becomes vain from her new appearance (although, this one is more implied than shown, since she still looks like Neve Campbell in the 90s). Rochelle gets revenge, but eventually regrets it so much her own reflection won’t look at her. It’s a basic plot, but it’s just how far they’re willing to take each storyline that sets it apart.
Mostly, though, it’s the aesthetics and the insane imagery that make this movie. The costumes evolve with the characters, going darker as the characters do. Then there are shots that just come out of nowhere, like a toilet full of mealworms or a beach full of dead sharks. They’re powerful images that stick with you. The CGI is very ‘90s (AKA bad), but many of the practical effects shots are solid and hold up well. Again, it’s how over-the-top the film is willing to go that matters.
Overall, I still liked this movie. It’s not going to win any awards for best screenplay, but it was the second best movie with Skeet Ulrich and Neve Campbell that came out in 1996 (admittedly, comparing it to Scream might be a tad unfair).
One of the few sequels I like better than the original.
Gomez and Morticia Addams (Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston) welcome their third child, Pubert (Kaitlyn and Kristen Hooper). Unfortunately, the older siblings, Wednesday and Pugsley (Christina Ricci and Jimmy Workman), don’t take well to the new child, attempting to murder him, as Addams are wont to do. To help, the Addams parents hire a nanny named Debbie Jellinsky (Joan Cusack) who is, in reality, a serial murdering black widow. She seduces Gomez’s brother, Fester (Christopher Lloyd). When Wednesday becomes suspicious, Debbie has her and Pugsley sent to summer camp under relentlessly chipper Counselors Gary and Beck Granger (Peter MacNicol and Christine Baranski). Fortunately, the Addams family can handle more than a mere serial killer and a summer camp. Also featuring Christopher Hart as Thing, Carel Struycken as Lurch, and Carol Kane as Grandmama.
I am a fan of the original Barry Sonnenfeld Addams Family movie from 1991, but it’s more for the stand-out scenes than the film as a whole. The plot of the original film was pretty incoherent and is wrapped up by one of the strangest series of dei ex machinae in history. Still, the cast was so good that it was still incredibly fun. This film has the same cast, but also comes up with more entertaining things to do with them and a more compelling plot. It doesn’t hurt that the slightly lighter tone here allows for some more varied, but actually ultimately darker, humor.
I really can’t understate how perfect the casting was for this film. I don’t think I will ever envision Morticia Addams as being anyone other than Anjelica Huston. She was born to play the role. I mean, I loved Carolyn Jones in the live-action series, but Huston nails it as hard as Hopkins nailed Hannibal. Raul Julia and John Astin are both very different but equally good portrayals of the ultimate loving husband, although Julia unfortunately was sick during filming and it does make his performance a little less energetic than the first movie. Christina Ricci proved herself to be an incredible Wednesday in the first film, but in this movie she also has to play Wednesday dealing with both puberty and her captivity within a camp that promotes “normalcy.” Honestly, the scenes of the kids rebelling against the counselors are some of my favorite gags. Christopher Lloyd’s portrayal of Fester always surprises me because it’s so very different from any of his other iconic characters, but he disappears into it just as much. In this, he has to be the lonely man who believes he’s found love and is willing to constantly overlook the obvious red flags. Speaking of red flags, Joan Cusack was a great addition to this cast. Her ability to play a sociopath who is able to put up with the oddities of the Addams family and, in fact, able to manipulate them presents an actual, believable obstacle to the perfect family.
It also is impressive that this movie can get away with so many of the jokes it does. The older Addams children repeatedly attempt to murder a baby, only to be thwarted in borderline slapstick ways. If it weren’t for the cartoonish nature of their attempts, we might be put off by the infanticide. Similarly, after Wednesday leads a revolt at the summer camp, it’s implied that at least some of the children have been killed and that the counselors are going to be roasted to death on a spit like Saint Lawrence, but it’s mostly offscreen and played for laughs by every character, so you can ignore it. The darker and more dryly humorous tone of the first movie only allowed for dark references to the horrors, this movie gets to show them off.
Overall, just a great movie and a fantastic sequel. It’s still my favorite incarnation of the Addams family.
A young man and his horror-genre savvy friend try to figure out what’s happening at a summer camp stalked by a masked murderer.
The movie starts in Medias Res with Sam Wescott (Fran Kranz) escaping from what he believes is a real life horror movie slasher. He calls his friend Charlotte AKA “Chuck” (Alyson Hannigan) and asks her for help. She asks for information and Sam starts to recount the events he remembers from the last few days. Sam owns the Camp Clear Vista summer camp and has just brought in a group of his fellow counselors. It turns out that a number of them have been killed by a man in a wooden mask over the last few days as Sam has been helpless to stop them. Sam tries to figure out who the killer is with Chuck’s help, only for Chuck to come up with a horrifying theory: The Killer might be Sam.
Okay, so, I say “Spoiler-Free… ish” because the title of the movie is You Might Be The Killer. With a name like that, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that part of the movie involves Chuck trying to convince Sam that he might, in fact, be the killer. Chuck proposes, despite the fact that this takes place in a world very similar to ours, that Sam might be the victim of an ancient magical curse that compels him to take on the role of a scary movie slasher. It doesn’t help that Sam had just relayed a story of such a slasher to the group at the beginning of the Summer, nor that Sam has been suffering some stress-induced blackouts when the killer is nearby.
The story is not conveyed chronologically, which helps with some of the suspense. The fact that Sam is not only an unreliable narrator due to his blackouts, but also due to potentially deliberately ignoring events, puts us in the same position as Chuck. If you’re a horror movie aficionado, you’ll enjoy having her run down lists of tropes as she tries to figure out what exactly is happening, and they’ll likely be the same tropes that you would be running through. The key to this movie is that the people behind it very clearly love horror films and it shows. While the movie Scream was based around deconstructing most of the tropes from 70s and 80s horror by having characters who were aware of horror tropes, here we have a character who is aware that their self-awareness of the trope is now itself a trope. It’s basically the meta-evolution of the genre.
The strongest feature in the movie is the interplay between Sam and Chuck. Despite the fact that they never have a scene together in the movie, they have such a natural chemistry and such a steady back-and-forth that you feel like they’re really part of the same events. The supporting characters are mostly stereotypes from horror films, but they’re done so earnestly and over-the-top that you really enjoy being reminded of the films that inspired the characters. The killer is very derivative of old-school slashers, but it’s supposed to be, and the design is pretty neat. The kills are also a nice balance of classically gory and creatively shot.
The biggest downside to the film is that, because it’s a horror movie dedicated to tropes, it’s still beholden to them. Because of that, it always feels like it is somewhat constrained by the premise and doesn’t go far enough in the commentary or the fun. Some of the humor is also going to be too niche for a lot of viewers, but will make some horror lovers feel like they’re hearing someone lecture them. Also, it’s not on the same level of clever dissection of the genre as Cabin in the Woods, which means that it doesn’t quite feel as distinct as it could. It sometimes feels like they’re trying to say “hey, we’re awesome for doing this super meta film,” without realizing that other meta films have been done and, frankly, better.
Still, if you’re a fan of horror, you probably need to give this one a shot.
I take on the task of looking at three takes on the same idea over 3 generations.
*Update* I have reconsidered these films now and I would like to say the following: The Carpenter film will literally always win. It’s a masterpiece. However, I do admit that the 2011 film has a lot more going for it than I thought the first time.
Each of these movies is an adaptation of the story “Who Goes There?” from 1938.
The general plotline of the films is that an Antarctic, or Arctic, research station finds a frozen alien spacecraft. The alien is revealed to be a threat to the world, because it consumes life forms and then propagates itself at a rapid pace, sewing a large amount of distrust among all of the humans. Everything else is going to be part of the compare and contrast.
This is the conclusion of my 13 reviews of Halloween. Four of the reviews were classic movies, four of them were reader requests, and four of them were independent movies/lesser seen films. This review has all three of those, but they’re all adaptations of the same story. This review originally ended up being over 3500 words. I’ve edited it heavily in order to get it to a reasonable length for a blog post. Maybe one day I’ll post the full thing, but… well, due to my own stupidity, I didn’t save a copy of the full review, I just cut it down. Long story short, this is a long story, short.
A little background here:
The Thing from Another World was made in 1951 by Christian Nyby, who really was just an editor throughout most of his career. It was in black-and-white and was produced by Howard Hawks’ studio, the makers of Scarface and The Big Sleep. It was a low-budget sci-fi horror film that was designed mostly to capitalize on the anti-scientific-exploration mentality that was prevalent after the world realized that “oh hey, atomic bombs are bad now that Russia has them” as well as the growing threat of “communism.” It was a big hit both commercially and critically, doing better than more well-known films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s still considered a classic monster movie and holds up better than most movies from 1951.
The Thing is a movie made by the legendary John Carpenter in 1982. It could represent any number of potential social issues, because the central focus is that anyone could secretly be an alien and you’d never notice. That said, it could represent absolutely nothing and still just be a great horror film. The Thing was a critical flop of epic proportions, with most of the people saying it was too bleak and too slow to be a decent film. However, as time passed, the film was reconsidered by most audiences, where it went from being one of the most hated films of all time to one of the most celebrated films. It stands today as one of the best examples of practical effects in the 1980s and of suspense in films. The fact that it is so dark and depressing, what made people hate it when it came out, is now what sets it apart from other horror films. It’s just a masterpiece through and through.
The Thing is a prequel to the 1982 movie that was made in 2011 because you can always cash in on nostalgia. While the Carpenter film depended heavily on practical effects, the 2011 movie tried to replace it with CGI. Sadly, the CGI did not improve the film. While the Carpenter film has a slow pace to increase the paranoia and uncertainty of the audience and the characters, this version seems to go slow solely because the Carpenter version did. It also suffered because the end of the film had to correspond with the observations of the location from the Carpenter version. Ultimately, it wasn’t very successful either critically or commercially.
The big constants in every version are the alien, the setting, the team, and the paranoia. I’d originally intended to go through each, pick a winner and a loser in each category, and then do an overall analysis to determine the best movie. The problem was that I immediately knew that the one done by John Carpenter was going to win every category. It’s one of the best horror films ever made and one of my favorite movies, so… yeah, that one is going to win literally everything. Instead, I’m just going to explain WHY it wins.
1) The Alien
The alien is a global threat. In The Thing From Another World, the creature feeds on blood and is plant-based. It’s blood subsequently grows other plants, which will eventually feed on more blood. In this way, if it were to get out of the tundra, it would cause carnivorous plants to take over the world. In the 1982 The Thing and its 2011 prequel of the same name, the alien consumes living matter and can absorb the memories of anyone it eats, allowing it to perfectly duplicate its victims. After it consumes enough mass, it can duplicate itself into another organism, making any number of itself until it could eventually consume everyone on Earth without anyone even knowing it.
If it comes down to why The Thing wins here, it’s a combination of, ahem, things. First, the alien in the older movie, while it is played by the legendary James Arness, is nowhere near as scary. It’s also nowhere near as focal to the threat of the film. It basically shows up, gets injured, drives a guy insane, then dies in an incredibly stupid trap. It’s still fairly lethal, but much easier to deal with, due to it not propagating on its own. Also, it’s extremely humanoid, which removes some level of intimidation.
Meanwhile the Carpenter alien is a nightmare. It not only infiltrates with ease, but quickly consumes and spreads itself at such a fast pace that neither the characters nor the audience can ever be sure who is human and who isn’t. Now, you may point out that this is the same monster from the prequel, and that’s technically true, but A) it’s inherently not original, B) the creature is nowhere near as creative in its killing, and C) the digital special effects for it just don’t match up to the practical effects of the Carpenter film. *Update* Admittedly, CGI did allow for a lot of shots that couldn’t be done practically, but Rob Bottin and special-effects legend Stan Winston really came up with some disturbing shots for the Carpenter version.
2) The Setting
Every version of the movie takes place in a frozen wasteland. This is essential to the story, because it is the only reason why the creature doesn’t immediately start taking over the world.
In The Thing From Another World, the setting is the North Pole, which is unique among the movies in the sense that it’s on the exact opposite side of the world, but… how the hell would you know? I mean, it’s just a snowy desert. However, unlike the other two movies, the setting is much more tied in with the military. It’s ostensibly an arctic research base, but it is run by the air force and staffed by airmen. The base also is designed to be visited more often, keeping the feeling of isolation at a much lower level than the other films. To be fair, the movie is supposed to be more of a monster epic, as opposed to a psychological thriller, so the lack of isolation isn’t as noticeable.
The 2011 version takes place at the set which the cast of the 1982 film briefly visit, that of a Norwegian research station called “Thule,” an ancient term for the border of the world (solid reference there, guys). Similar to the 1951 movie, though, the fact that people keep coming and going from the station removes some of the elements of isolation compared to the Carpenter version. The station is also designed for more clinical research, which makes it seem more pristine and somewhat unloved. However, the movie does include the inside of the alien ship, which… actually is kind of a disappointment. The ship looks similar to most spaceships from alien movies, with hallways designed to accommodate humanoid inhabitants. This is despite the fact that the alien that inhabits it is a shapeshifter who wouldn’t need such regular dimensions. It still looks cool, but not as cool as it could be. Yes, we technically see part of it in the original, but there was a lot of room to expand on this in inventive ways that I think didn’t happen.
Then there’s the original. The people staffing the American research station aren’t scientists, they’re blue collar workers. They wreck stuff. They put their feet on stuff. You really believe this is the kind of place where a bunch of guys get stuck together for months at a time. But mostly, it drives home that this is the kind of place that is separated from the rest of the world. They can barely go outside for any amount of time, so the inside is kind of dirty and crowded and lived in. The shots of the landscape just show whiteness and emptiness everywhere; it’s perfectly bleak and isolated.
3) The Team
This is probably the category in which each of the movies is the most fundamentally different. It’s a little unfair that John Carpenter had Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, and Donald Moffat, although the 2011 film did have Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Joel Edgerton. The Thing from Another World’s biggest star was James Arness as the monster, and he had only just started his career at that point.
However, it’s not just the performances and the caliber of actors that set the John Carpenter film apart. It’s the kind of people being portrayed. In The Thing from Another World, most of the cast are either military or scientists. A lot of them don’t know each other and thus, any distrust between them is kind of easy to create. Several of the people already have inherent issues, because the scientists don’t like the military and vice versa. None of the characters are particularly memorable aside from Carrington (Robert Cornwaite), a scientist who becomes obsessed with the alien. In the 2011 Thing, the team is composed almost entirely of scientists who were working at the Norwegian Antarctic research station. They have history together, but they trade out fairly frequently. They’re also always rational about the situation, reacting to it more analytically than would maybe be natural. Then, there’s the Carpenter version.
The 1982 The Thing features a team of blue collar workers who have all been stuck together for a long time. They’re close, almost to a familial point, but they’re not a pleasant family because they keep getting stuck together for such long periods of time. They have a level of “f*ck off* that they wear on their sleeves. Additionally, these are mostly normal humans who frequently react with emotional outbursts. One of my favorite scenes in film is when R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), gets mad at losing to the chess computer on site and pours scotch into it, destroying it. It’s such a perfect representation of the kind of people who are at this station, and they’re so much more relatable to the viewer than teams of scientists or military personnel. By making the characters more normal, it makes the horror of their situation more understandable to the viewer and more powerful.
4) The Paranoia
Since this is the core theme of the original story, each of the versions has tried to convey it with varying levels of success.
In the black-and-white film, the paranoia comes from the fact that the monster can propagate an entire army via the seed pods on its body and that it can convince people to follow it based solely on its superior genetics. It was apparently seen as a metaphor for Communism in the McCarthy era. The monster, while humanoid, drains its victims and grows new emotionless soldiers to replace them. I don’t think it’s a great metaphor, but then again I have the benefit of knowing how the Soviet Union panned out so far. Ultimately, while everyone is afraid of the threat of the monster, it still doesn’t give the same level of “trust no one” as the other films.
In Carpenter’s film and the re-make, the paranoia is because you actually can’t trust anyone. Moreover, in the 1982 film, the audience is in the same boat as the characters. We see a character get eaten and absorbed by the thing, but only in shadow, and we never get any confirmation who that character was. That’s the point, though: Anyone could be the Thing and you’d never know. Now, the creature appears fairly early on in the movie and nobody knows that it is an alien at first because it appears as a sled dog. That means, in retrospect, it could potentially have killed and assimilated anyone, because no one was even aware of the threat. Ergo, anyone can be the monster. Trust no one.
The prequel has a similar premise, because it’s ostensibly the same monster, but it has two major flaws. First, it takes almost an hour to get the thing into the movie and we know that it wasn’t there before. In other words, everything we’ve seen before then had to involve only humans, so we can’t read anything into those actions. Also, the people are aware of the Thing and its powers almost immediately, meaning that while the paranoia is palpable, it goes from 0 to 60 in about 2 scenes, rather than the slow build of Carpenter’s film.
So the winner is: Carpenter’s film. I literally said that it would at the beginning. There was never a question. However, I like all of these movies, although I admit that the 2011 prequel feels mostly unnecessary. *Update* It does have some good performances and a few added locations that at least expand the story a bit. The Howard Hawks film is a great monster movie that, while definitely dated, still can keep your interest and the prequel, while flawed and derivative, still does an amazing job of keeping the continuity of the previous film. However, Carpenter’s movie is not just one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best movies ever made. Rather than being a metaphor for a particular idea like Communism, Carpenter managed to make a film about one of the most perpetually disconcerting inherent aspects of human consciousness: You will never, ever, truly know another human being. Now, you can have people you are close to, people you are completely honest with, or people you think you can understand, but you will never be positive that they’re that way with you. They could always be hiding something or, more likely, they could just change in a way that isn’t reflected physically. In this movie, Carpenter plays upon one of the most basic issues in the human experience and points out that, when we are forced to confront that fact, we immediately start turning on each other. It’s truly a bleak outlook that most movies wouldn’t even try to take on.
Happy Halloween, my readers. Regular schedule will come back in November, with probably a few hiccups due to plans.