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Cloverfield – review

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member, Mark S. Deniz

[Part Two of Mark’s ‘Handheld Cinema Classics’ trilogy]

Something has found us…

So reads the tagline of one of the most powerful films of its type so far. Being as several of the monster obsessives I know have dismissed the film (for various reasons) and seeing as I, much as I am a lover of monster films, am not a monster film devotee, I am aware I may well be treading on thin ice in praising its quality. However, as I’m not known to easily shy away from making a fool of myself in defending a beloved movie, I take to the stage once more…

I agree the film starts quite badly, even though I understand why. There’s a distinct lack of personality from the protagonists and the hand-held camera action is hard work at times, even for me. I usually don’t have a problem with the camcorder effect but in the early stages of Cloverfield I really struggle.

 

The warning

There’s the shaky camera work, party gossip, revelations of flings at Rob’s leaving party and the wonder at this point is possibly why you’re watching the film.

And then…a little over eighteen minutes in, the film begins in earnest. We did need the intro for the characters but it was all leading to this, to the monster.

The film picks up in action, pace, intensity, and even though I adored the early pay off in The Host, where we see the monster in no time at all, I feel that the delay in showing us the Cloverfield monster was done to perfection.

I completely jumped out of my seat when the Statue of Liberty’s head came flying down the street[1], just before we caught our first glimpse of something big, something monstrous near a skyscraper.

 

The monster

A sense of panic builds as the party goers, along with half of New York, try to make their way out of the city before we see a massive tail take half of the bridge (and Rob’s brother Jason along with it).

This is where, like The Blair Witch Project, that Cloverfield stands out, as the filming feels real, you can’t understand why someone would keep filming at a time of such distress and faced with something so unbelievable but you also understand why it happens. It almost becomes an extension of ‘Hud’.

We then get a glimpse of the monster from another ‘screen’ as people in an electronic store stop to see the monster’s companions, the smaller beasties, grabbing a few civilians from the street before the best shot when the four protagonists flee down a subway tunnel to get away.

It’s here when I think the early stages of the film are justified, as we see Rob’s insistence on tracking down Beth, (which we would have had no feeling for otherwise) and Rob’s telephone call from his mother, where he has to explain that his brother, Jason, is dead.

They’re all running in the same direction. It’s like they’re running away.

From what?

And then we meet the little beasties, who are not actually so little, and where, unfortunately, the film loses a little again. As much as we want the camcorder to follow the action, we want it to be as believable as possible, to strengthen our suspension of disbelief. As ‘Hud’ is attacked by the monsters, there is no way he’s going to keep that camera running, or hold it while his companions are attacked. Again this is where The Blair Witch Project shines, as there is never a moment in that film where the camera action doesn’t gel, doesn’t fit.

The film blends the pace well, the direction keeping the dialogue within reasonable frameworks, before handing over to the action, which in turn is sharp and punchy.

After leaving the subways and the smaller monsters, we move into, what I consider the most disturbing part of the film, where Marlena starts to show symptoms from the attack and they are surrounded by the military, before Marlena is taken into quarantine. I’m not so sure whether this is disturbing because of what is actually happening to Marlena or due to the whole military involvement and what that usually results in in these kinds of situations. That they are befriended by an army officer, who helps them to get out of the building helps to counter this trope, but serves more to dilute than to diffuse.

We then follow Lily, Rob and ‘Hud’ as they make their way to the apartment block where Beth is, and here is one of the most gripping and enjoyable scenes, as they travel between collapsed rooms, at dangerous angles to get to their destination.

During the trip to Beth and the ensuing reunion, between her and Rob, we are witness to a cacophony of sounds, both from inside the apartment (as ‘Hud’ is forced to put the camera down to help them rescue Beth) but also from the battle outside between the monster and the military.

What’s that?

Something else, also terrible!

Leaving in the helicopter gives us much more scope, as instead of seeing everything up close and personal we get an overview of a section of the city and our up-to-now, best glimpse of the beast.

And for a beast he’s rather impressive, first as he razes the city, before knocking the helicopter (carrying Beth, ‘Hud’ and Rob) out of the sky.

We then get a couple of minutes of camera stasis, as we hear about ‘Hammerdown’ and how it is due to be initiated in fifteen minutes – we know now there is not much time for our gang.

 

The monster meets 'Hud'

‘Hud’ then ‘meets’ the beast, in the most gruesome and well delivered of scenes before we are left with Rob and Beth in a tunnel, understanding the gravity of their situation. Rob decides the best thing to do is document what has happened from their perspective, and for those that may find the video afterwards.

The film then ends and we return to the past, and Rob and Beth’s date at the funfair, before the camera dies and the credits roll.

***

There’s a lot packed into 85 minutes, and it shocks me every time I watch it that it is actually less than an hour and a half. In fact the 85 minutes refers to the whole film from start to ten minute closing credits and the wonderful ‘ROAR (Cloverfield Overture)’ by the excellent Michael Giacchino, an accepted tribute to Ifukube’s Gojira theme. The film is actually 73 minutes long, the length of a DV tape, giving a greater authenticity to the piece.

Not only is there much within the story to feast your eyes on, with reviewers using superlatives like “chillingly effective”, and with a “whip-smart, stylistically invisible” (script) but there is so obviously a reaction to events, such as 9-11 and subsequent terrorist attacks that give the film a little bit more of an edge for the US public.

I’ve read an equal number of reviewers damning the film for its over-the-top in your face approach to the subject of terrorism as those praising its use. Referring back to James Willett’s Remake and Reboot article I can’t help but agree with his sentiments about why Cloverfield succeeds and why the Godzilla remake fails, as the former follows the themes and feel of previous monster films, those that look at society and the human persona, whereas the latter is a merely a big monster going around trashing New York, a pale shadow of its 1954 original. Whether it is less subtle than other films is, of course, up for debate, I merely state here that it at least falls into the same category of the greats, in terms of intention.

J. J. Abrams stated that he wanted to create a monster for the US, a monster that could rival Japan’s Godzilla and here I think he failed, more for the fact that less than five years after Cloverfield’s release we are getting ready to witness another remake of Godzilla. Why I think he might have failed is that he wanted to give the US filmgoers a monster that they could call their own, not entirely realising that they had already bestowed that title on the Japanese behemoth. It doesn’t matter that he is not from the US (the ultimate irony is that he was created as a response to the atrocities inflicted on the Japanese by the US) for he is already part of their cinematic make up and will remain so.

But, Cloverfield is a great monster movie, it works on all the right levels: the tension builds up superbly, once the monster appears, the monster itself is fabulous, especially with its smaller cousins/friends/offspring, the idea for the videotape length sublime, etc. It’s a film I thoroughly enjoyed the first, second, third…around and will, I suspect, enjoy more the more I watch it.

Exquisitely placed to end Monster Awareness Month, I leave you with Cloverfield!


[1] The head of the Statue of Liberty was actually inspired by the poster for Escape from New York

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Clean up in Aisle Five: The Mist – review

Written by author, Sonia Marcon

The_Mist_poster

The Mist will surprise some viewers because it’s not directly a scream-fest horror. In fact, the only thing that makes this film considered to be horror is that it’s based on the novella by Stephen King, who everybody knows as “that horror novelist”. The story of The Mist can be considered as more of a comment on human nature rather than a horror story. Sure, it has big scary monsters as the thrust of the story but, in my opinion, the monsters are not the point. This film contains much scarier things than a bunch of monstrous animals. The Mist is a film that really can’t go wrong for me. To begin with, I am a huge Stephen King fan and when King’s story ideas are adapted for the screen by Frank Darabont, there isn’t much room for a wrong turn. Everyone has to have seen, or at least heard about, The Shawshank Redeption, an amazing film adaptation by Darabont based on the equally amazing novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption by King. The Mist is, in my opinion, a very close second both as a novella and as a film.

Seeing that The Mist is a creation by Stephen King, I think it pertinent to talk about this story in relation to him whether you’re a fan of his writing or not. Something that I truly feel is a gift of King is his ability to create, be it story ideas, character relations or plot developments. There are many people who don’t like King as a writer, and that’s fair enough. Each to their own. But I think a gift of King’s is to bring the unbelievable and unimaginable right outside your front door. Film adaptations of King’s works, however, can be very hit and miss. Frank Darabont gets it right because his story adaptation and screen direction add a whole new level to the story idea. Even though a story in itself can contain brilliant characters and story nuances, things like emotion can easily be missed by both a writer and a reader. Frank Darabont brings this emotion to the forefront where the viewer cannot help but notice it.

the-mist-screenshot-2

There are two parts of this story that greatly benefit from the visual medium of film, which are the approach of the mist toward the shopping centre where this story is mostly set and the reactions of the townsfolk to the monsters. The scene where the mist comes in and envelopes the supermarket is terrifyingly brilliant and it is made even better by the sound effects of the film. As a viewer, you really do share the reactions of the townsfolk, who think that everything they hear can be easily explained. The thudding heard must be earthquakes, the mist itself must be a poison gas cloud from the military base on the neighbouring hill. This is the talent of King at work; they are normal people with normal reasoning who don’t immediately jump to extraordinary conclusions. Darabont works with these ideas to create a feeling of utter fear and despair by keeping the normality of the characters; he really utilises the whole ‘seeing is believing’ mindset. He also makes sure, in his adaptation of the story to screenplay, that there are no heroes because in this situation there is too much confusion for heroism.

the mist

One of the most fascinating parts of this story is, in my opinion, the fact that the monsters are just animals trapped in an unfamiliar place. They are not there to destroy the humans, they are just trying to survive. This works with the idea that there is no room for heroism because whenever any of the characters hurt or kill the ‘monsters’, it creates a real sense of sympathy for them because the ‘monsters’ are just acting in the only way they know how to when in a strange environment with hostile inhabitants. When they manage to get into the supermarket where the humans are, they are not there to kill the humans. They are just chasing the smaller monsters for food, which is obviously what they do in their home place, and if they do harm the humans, it is purely out of defence and fear. I personally find this scene the hardest to watch because I can’t help but feel sorry for the monsters. To me, it’s the humans in this story who act more monstrously than the apparent monsters.

Being regarded as a monster film means that it must contain something that is monstrously scary. To me, the animals that are regarded as monsters are nowhere near as fearful as Mrs Carmody, the religious zealot character who rounds up followers in the supermarket. This character made me realise that The Mist is not precisely a monster film. The Mist is ultimately a character drama that happens to feature monstrous animals. I truly feel that the character driven element of this story, initiated by Stephen King but enunciated by Frank Darabont, is what creates the most interest. The Mrs Carmody character is there to show how despicable and selfish human beings can be when placed in a situation of peril. I don’t think her presence in the story is a comment on religion by either King or Darabont, but more a comment on the ways in which human beings are ultimately not very nice. This film seems to be one of the many I like because it has believable characters in unbelievable situations.

The Mist - Face Off

I honestly could not think of a better director for this film than Frank Darabont. His adaptations of Stephen King not only make great films (admittedly The Green Mile is very long, but still) but also memorable narratives in their own right. I think The Mist is a necessary addition to Monster Awareness Month because it adds a touch of variety to the mix with its character driven story. If you like Stephen King stories, that’s one reason to watch. If you like Frank Darabont films, that’s reason two. If you like a film with some of the most imaginative monsters that look like bugs with big teeth, that’s a big reason three.

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Pan’s Labyrinth – review

Written by Monster Awarness Month team member, Harry Markov


Celebrating the monsters in cinema can’t be complete without mentioning the monsters in our mythology. Pan’s Labyrinth is the perfect example of how the monstrous in our folklore can be assimilated in the cinematic format, creating a modern, dark fairy tale for adults. Unlike a lot of the entries in the Monster Awareness Month, Pan’s Labyrinth is far from being a horror, while at the same time it displays a horrifying reality that has nothing to do with cheap scares.

I consider the setting a post-Civil War Spain in 1944 to be a dark ghastly land, where people are the true monsters as soldiers are wont to become during wars. It’s the inhuman that contrasts with the spark of innocence and humanity, though there are real monsters among their ranks. As a whole Pan’s Labyrinth impresses with how well it dances on the line of being startlingly real and tangible, and incorporeal and surreal. Yes, CGI remains a tool to bring the special effects to life. The fairies that aid Ofelia during her tasks, the sentient labyrinth that guards her from the Captain as well as the mandrake root Ofelia puts in a milk bowl to heal her sick, pregnant mother, all exist because of CGI. Yet, they are small creative touches compared to the Pale Man, who wants to eat Ofelia, or the Faun, who is Ofelia’s task giver. Guillermo resorts to older techniques such as animatronics and latex foam makeup, which transform the actor Doug Jones into both creatures.

The genuine interaction between Ofelia and the creatures is what imbues the movie with the power it has. If all the monsters were done with CGI, then the viewer would be aware that he is watching a movie. Instead, del Toro reinforces how real for Ofelia the fairyland is even if she is the only one that can see it, as is shown near the end, when the Captain captures her in the labyrinth talking to herself, when a moment prior Ofelia pleaded with the faun. Through the whole movie I wondered whether Ofelia really was the long missing princess Moanna or whether the tasks and the faun constituted her coping mechanism with a cruel step-father, a sick mother and civil unrest surrounding the Civil War.

Questioning in Pan’s Labyrinth runs as a central theme. The viewer questions the validity and the reality of Ofelia’s quest. Ofelia questions the motifs of the faun. The Captain questions the loyalty of his people, though really his questioning is far from being sympathetic. Mercedes questions the safety of her position in the house and her invisibility given by her social status in the Captain’s eyes. Guillermo del Toro has written one of the most depressing and dramatic movies about the monsters that hide within the shadows and our hearts.

Pan’s Labyrinth draws from known fantastic tropes and watching it feels as though you have been transported back into your childhood. For instance, Ofelia’s crossing in the otherworldly world, populated with giant frogs and shapeshifting insects, evokes an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere, which progresses throughout the picture. The constantly shifting labyrinth throws back to David Bowie and Labyrinth from the 80s. The magical number three resurfaces as the tasks Ofelia has to perform amount to three. Blood sacrifices, innocence and purity of the soul function as central themes.

Shedding the mortal self in order to return to the otherworldly as royalty is Ofelia’s quest in order to become Moanna again. Unlike other journeys of chosen, magical children Ofelia doesn’t return to her own world like Alice or the heirs of Narnia. The happy ending for her comes, but in the form of a bullet to her chest and her blood draining in the otherworldly king’s portal. What makes this ascent and claiming of one’s heritage as hard hitting is the uncertainty as to whether the world exists or remains Ofelia’s fabrication, a tool to escape. Yes, Pan’s Labyrinth falls into the fairy tale genre, yet, it’s a fairy tale geared for adults. Ofelia doesn’t always make the right decisions during her quest and faces the consequences of her actions.

Despite Pan’s Labyrinth’s strengths, the movie is far from perfect. Guillermo del Toro weaves three stories within the movie. First, the complex family dynamics between Ofelia, her sick mother and the Captain. Then comes the Captain’s hunt for guerilla fighters, where Mercedes supplies the soldiers with medicine and provisions. Third, Ofelia’s quest. While well acted as separate storylines, there is not much cohesion between them, in the sense that one distracted from the other two and created the effect of watching three distinct short movies pasted into one two hour extravaganza.

Even with its shortcomings, Pan’s Labyrinth remains a powerful movie, where the monsters are saviors and protectors. Where the inhuman extends a hand in order to preserve innocence in an era, where innocence died on the front line.

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Pan’s Labyrinth – review

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member Orrin Grey

While movies like Blade 2 and Hellboy had already put Guillermo del Toro in the geek movie spotlight, it was Pan’s Labyrinth, with its six Academy Award nominations and three wins, that really gained del Toro the worldwide critical acclaim and industry clout that he now possesses. And with good reason. Del Toro himself has many times said that Pan’s Labyrinth is one of his favorites among his own films, and it’s certainly the surest, most confident, and most accomplished entry in his filmography to date.

Listening to one of del Toro’s commentary tracks is always a fascinating pastime, and it always leaves me with a renewed sense of awe at his commitment to detail and the material. Listening to the commentary track for Pan’s Labyrinth takes this to a whole other level. The amount of care that went into the film is mind-boggling, as is the control that del Toro had over the material. Del Toro’s films are all carefully color-coded and stylistically controlled, with motifs that echo and repeat, but, again, never has any of his films felt more intricate, on close inspection, than Pan’s Labyrinth.

It’s a movie that del Toro himself has said is a “litmus test” for its viewers, with an ending that appears, at first glance, to be ambiguous. So as to avoid spoilers for those who maybe haven’t yet seen it, I’ll refrain from talking about the themes of the movie, or the objective reality of its fantastical elements, and simply say to watch the movie for yourself, and then treat yourself to del Toro’s commentary track, where he spells out his feelings on the film and its themes pretty plainly.

Instead of that I’ll talk about the monsters of Pan’s Labyrinth, since that’s kind of what we’re here for. As I’ve already said when talking about Hellboy, del Toro is a director who loves monsters more than just about anyone else I can conveniently think of. He’s been quoted as saying that “if there’s not a monster on the call sheet, I don’t show up for work.” And while the two Hellboy films are his most monster-filled movies to date, Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t far behind.

For a movie with a reported budget of around $19 million, Pan’s looks amazing. The creatures are almost entirely brought to life using practical effects. The most famous monster to come out of Pan’s Labyrinth is the incredibly creepy Pale Man, but the Faun deserves equal attention (especially the effect of his legs, which is only heightened by learning how it was achieved), and the movie also boasts fairies, a giant toad, and a mandrake root. Both the Faun and the Pale Man are brought to life by veteran creature actor Doug Jones, who previously played Abe Sapien in Hellboy.

In a lot of ways, Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy are two very different movies, one quiet and emotional, the other broad and pulpy, but they both show a visionary director working at the top of his game, bringing his considerable love of monsters to two very different tables.

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Hellboy – review

Written by Monster Awareness Month team member Orrin Grey

Guillermo del Toro is my favorite director. This probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s been following along, since I talked about his Cronos for Vampire Awareness Month and his The Devil’s Backbone for Ghost Appreciation Month. And later this month I’ll be finishing off my hat trick of his Spanish-language films by tackling Pan’s Labyrinth.

But long before I was a fan of Guillermo del Toro, I was a fan of Hellboy, and Hellboy’s creator Mike Mignola. When it was announced that del Toro was going to direct a movie version of Hellboy, I knew that there wasn’t anyone else more perfect for the job. Much like the oft-repeated story of Mignola and del Toro sitting down to discuss the movie and both saying “Ron Perlman has to play Hellboy,” I don’t think there’s anyone else who could get behind the camera and make this movie work as well as it does. That said, and while Hellboy is one of my favorite movies for a lot of reasons, as a fan of the source material first my relationship with any adaptation of it is always going to be somewhat troubled.

While del Toro’s Hellboy is closer to the comics than anyone could reasonably have hoped, it still deviates from them in innumerable ways. Some are things that I wish had been handled differently, others are ones that I understand the necessity of in translating the material from the comic book page to the big screen. Some, like the expansion of Professor Bruttenholm’s character, are probably actually an improvement. (The professor is now a major character in the comics, albeit only in “flashback” stories, but at the time the movie was made his presence had up ‘til then been fairly minor.)

What del Toro does achieve, though, regardless of my feelings about any of the changes, or his interpretations of the characters, or whatever, is to take a weird property that almost anyone could screw up and bring to it all the same love and attention to detail that highlights his Spanish-language films. In his commentary track (which, as always, is well worth listening to) del Toro says that Hellboy is the movie that merged his own artistic sensibilities as displayed by films like Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone with big-budget (comparatively) Hollywood filmmaking.

But this isn’t Hellboy Appreciation Month, nor even Movie Appreciation Month. This is Monster Awareness Month, and there’s no better movie to appreciate monsters in than Hellboy. In the commentary track for The Devil’s Backbone, del Toro says that he thinks horror is important because it teaches you to love “the Other,” the monster. And del Toro’s love for monsters is obvious in every inch of Hellboy. Not only are most of the main characters technically monsters, but in this movie the monster actually gets the girl!

The enemy monsters are at least as impressive as the good guys, though, from the beautifully executed Sammael (one of the most impressive monsters in the history of film) to a clockwork Nazi zombie to the giant Lovecraftian Behemoth at the end. (I don’t think I’m giving too much away here, it’s in the animated menu on the DVD.) The influences of Mike Mignola’s designs are certainly evident in the creatures, but so is del Toro’s unique vision. And of course there are plenty of scenes where Hellboy fights one or more of the above. Del Toro says that they wanted the monster battles to be Harryhausen-esque and, in fact, that they asked Harryhausen to be a consultant on the film, but he declined because he perceived modern movies as being “too violent.” What he did leave del Toro with was a nugget of wisdom that serves the movie’s monsters very well, that “most people animate monsters acting like monsters; monsters should always be thought of like animals.” This Harryhausen-esque approach gives the monsters (both good and bad) a sense of character that such creatures have rarely had since the days of stop motion, and also makes for some of the most satisfying knock-down, drag-out creature action ever put on film.

Whatever its imperfections, Hellboy is a big, boisterous celebration of monsters of all stripes, and about as perfect a movie for Monster Awareness Month as could be asked for.

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The Mothman Prophecies – review

by Monster Awareness Month team member: KV Taylor

The Mothman Prophecies

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I was born and raised in a West Virginia-side Ohio River town. Not in Point Pleasant*–some many miles up the river–but the story of the Mothman in Point Pleasant is something we’re all pretty familiar with by early childhood, around there. Like the movie says when you fire it up, it’s based on actual events–but I’m going to try and not spoil the ending just in case you’re not a river rat.

The spin given to these actual events I mention comes from a 1975 book of the same name by John A. Keel. The Mothman Prophecies has long been a staple of cryptozoological/fortean research, though whether it’s been more useful for mocking or educating is a matter of personal taste. It’s an interesting read (once you get through the weird casual 70s misogyny and Keel’s perpetual reminding us that he’s not trying to say he’s amazing, but…), and whether it’s accurate or not, creepy as hell. Still, it’s really more of a disjointed series of interviews and strange occurrences centered around the 1967 events in Point Pleasant, interspersed with commentary on the state of ufology and paranormal studies in the 60s, than an actual narrative.

Mary Klein's drawings.

Mark Pellington’s Mothman film is a different story. We begin in Washington, DC, where John Klein (Richard Gere) loses his beloved wife Mary (Debra Messing) young. She leaves behind her drawings of a dark figure that a hospital nurse suggests is an angel, but looks a bit more sinister than that–an impression that’s helped along by the careful shot framing and impressive photography up to this point, in particular the visual theme of two glowing red circles that has been recently introduced and will continue to lead us down the path.

Also helps that said drawings are terrifying.

Fast forward two years, and Klein’s attempting to drive to Richmond in the middle of the night–and if you’ve ever driven from DC to Richmond, you won’t find that so insane, because that’s about the only time driving I-95 is tolerable. (Did I mention I now live in DC? Yeah.) Anyhow, he ends up stranded on the Smallwoods’ doorstep–unbeknownst to him a 400 mile drive from Richmond, in Point Pleasant. Cue a harried Gordon Smallwood (Will Patton) pulling a shotgun on him and backing him into the bathtub. Turns out he isn’t just being a bad stereotype–Smallwood thinks Klein has done the exact same thing several nights running, and is understandably freaked out.

Not even sure this is Point Pleasant, to be honest, but it looks like the sort of nice town where you'd expect this sort of thing.

Officer Connie Mills (Laura Linney) shows up to save the day, and between the two of them they sort out that he’s not where he’s supposed to be, and this is yet another Weird Occurrence in a growing list in Point Pleasant. This is a lucky thing for the viewer for a few reasons. For one, only Laura Linney can deliver a terrible line like, “Things have been… strange around here” and make it come close to working. She also gets to say, when asked if she grew up on a farm, “Shucks no! … We even had shoes for church and schoolin’!” Having delivered that line myself several times, I enjoyed this particular method of dispensing with the Appalachian stereotype portion of the film.

There follows a series of disturbing events, mostly centered around Gordon Smallwood, that take on the character of disaster predictions: plane crashes and earthquakes that a mysterious being known as Indrid Cold lets him in on before they happen. In the meantime, the strange occurrences Officer Mills talked about continue all over town: strange phone calls from alien voices, sightings of the mothman here and there, causing trauma, breakdowns, and bleeding eyes. These events are taken from Keel’s book, sometimes with extreme attention to detail that makes them even more chilling when you’ve read it. But they’re all filmed in a kind of artistic horror vision that does the job well. The dialogue is drab, but again, at least the actors and crew make the best of it.

Scary otherworlder emerges from the trees to commune with his chosen West Virginian oracle, Gordon. Please don't think my flippant attitude means this didn't scare the bejeezus out of me.

Our heroes John and Connie are trying to collate all these happenings as the town, in particular the tormented Gordon Smallwood, is losing it. A discussion with the mysterious Indrid Cold, who seems to have the ability to read John’s mind and, more importantly, knows all about the death of Mary, sends John flying to Chicago to meet with a specialist in these sorts of things, a trove of fortean information called Alexander Leek (Alan Bates). He sort of fills the John Keel role, providing us with our necessary, harried neurotic paranormal investigator infodump .** Leek explains that these mothlike or birdlike creatures show up just before disasters and have done throughout human history. When Klein asks him why, we’re treated to more terrible dialogue: “Their motivations aren’t human.” And later, “You’re more advanced than a cockroach. Have you ever tried explaining yourself to one of them?”

Regardless of the lines, the man has a point both with that, and when he says they drew Klein (and, we can assume, Gordon) into this because, “You noticed them.” And most people don’t. He also deigns to offer, during a later visit, that something terrible is clearly going to happen in Point Pleasant, if mothman is showing up there.

Ancient mothman, or Leek's persecution complex in watercolor? You be the judge.

This is where the movie starts to break down a little, pacing-wise. Klein becomes obsessed with the idea that something terrible is about to happen and that he has to stop it like he couldn’t with his wife, to the point where he’s actively screwing up everything in his life between bouncing back and forth between Point Pleasant, Chicago, and DC, and Gordon Smallwood is finally consumed by his association with the (frankly, extremely scary) Indrid Cold. Klein makes another late night drive to West Virginia from DC just in time–

For The Bad Thing to happen.

Red = Bad. Sorry, kid.

The movie has its good points and bad points. I do think the writers made a valiant effort at eking out both relevant and scary details and events from the book in their scene selection. It lacks what people in my generation would probably think of as the X-Files feeling of the book (which came long before that show, but you know what I mean), but it’s a decent way to tell the story. For some of the baffling deviations and additions, many were welcome and necessary for an effective screen adaptation: the loss of the Men In Black***, the reporter-friend Mary Hyre being transformed into the quietly bad-ass Officer Mills, and even the reworking of the Indrid Cold entity from a benevolent alien abductor into a more sinister-feeling prophet of doom.

The photography, as mentioned, is extremely effective, and perhaps the movie’s greatest strength. The use of the horror movie cheap shot with a sudden shocking image is relatively subtle and leaves an indelible impression–particularly if you watch it late at night with the lights off, as was no doubt intended. The framing and even camera pacing can feel a little overdone, but overall are extremely cool. The soundtrack is great for all the tension floating around, and the sound itself, particularly in the strange phone voices, is often shiver-inducing.

As for odd deviations, I’ve seen this movie some dozen or more times now, and I still don’t really get why they had to do the whole framing thing with Klein’s wife dying and seeing the mothman and… all of it. Well, no, I do get it: Klein, as a kind of slick, successful, but sad city fellow, is an outsider in provincial Point Pleasant, and as he becomes familiar with the town and its people, so do we–as his personal stake in discovering what this mothman is up to grows, so does ours. Except that the former seems unnecessary (I realize I’m not the best judge, but small town Ohio Valley… exactly the same as every other small town known to your average horror movie watcher) and the latter almost feels like it just serves to junk things up.

The movie doesn’t offer definite answers about the provenance and intention of the mothman–even less than Keel’s book, and in some ways, less than reality****. But I think that rather than falling flat, as leaving questions open often can, it actually adds to the mystery, uncertainty, and darkness that makes the movie worth watching in the first place. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but odds are good that if your phone rings soon after watching it, you’ll at least consider jumping out of your skin.

Wake up, number 37.

*Check out that mothman statue!
**One that is not wholly accurate, as he has some weird theory that “mothman” is a translation of something this same entity is called in the Ukraine. Which is possible, of course, but Keel’s book says that “mothman” was coined by a newspaper because Batman was popular at the time.
***Don’t get me wrong, I loved the MIB in the book, but it would’ve derailed the movie.
****The Bad Thing that happens? Yeah, they know why. Also, they changed the number of people–which may simply have been out of respect for the tragic reality of the event.

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The Thing – review

Written by author, James Willetts

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Between 1980 and 1982 John Carpenter made three films which have stood apart as his greatest. ‘The Fog’, ‘Escape From New York’, and ‘The Thing’ are a perfect run of films, perhaps equalled only by the infamous McTiernan run of ‘Predator’, ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Hunt for Red October’.

‘The Thing’ is itself considered to be the first in an unconnected apocalypse trilogy, along with ‘Prince of Darkness’ and ‘In the Mouth of Madness’.

A remake of the 1951 film, ‘The Thing from Another World’, and influenced by equal parts Alien and Lovecraft’s ‘At The Mountains of Madness’ Carpenter used the snowbound setting and unusual enemy to create one of the greatest base under siege scenarios in movie history.

The plot is engagingly simple. A group of researchers in the Antarctic are confronted by an alien creature which takes on the form of those it kills. Introduced into the camp through the body of a dog it swiftly begins to replace them. With communication and transport gone the rapidly dwindling survivors have to work out how to stop an enemy who could be any one of them.

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The best horror films all have simple themes; there’s something out there that isn’t like us and it’s coming to get you. From ‘Alien’, to Zombie films the set up of something outside that wants in works every time. ‘The Thing’ is no different, existing as a near perfect example of this trope.

That in itself is a pretty common theme in alien films. Just think of all those other classic invasion movies; ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, ‘Village of the Damned’ and even ‘They Live’ all have an undercurrent of suspicion and paranoia that comes not just from the fact that an invasion is underway but that it is so covert.*

Many of these films hold themes of Communist designs on America, the fear of Fifth Columnists and enemies within. The idea that your neighbour might not be who you think he is, that the monsters outside may already be in the home adds a layer of real world paranoia.

But ‘The Thing’ is not your typical alien invasion movie. ‘The Thing’ has no long term plot to rule the world, no doomsday weapons or space fleet. There are no humanly obvious reasons for it. It is an alien in the truest sense of the word; a virus or a parasite, infiltrating and replacing those around it until it takes control.

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But for all that, it’s still a remake by the guy who gave us ‘Ghosts of Mars’ and ‘Vampires’ – why should you care about this film?

Well, firstly, it’s got a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Yes, that Ennio Morricone. It’s not as flashy as some of his other work, but it’s pretty good, and it works for the suspenseful, paranoid workings of a movie about a shape shifting alien.

Then there’s a central performance by Kurt Russell, in a role previously turned down by Jeff Bridges. From an introduction that sees him pour his drink into the computer he’s playing chess against, to the moment when he picks up a flamethrower and starts to try and burn back the monstrous abomination in their midst he brings life to a character who carries the movie.

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It’s famous for the panning it got on release – two weeks after ‘E.T’, the same week as ‘Blade Runner’, both of which it suffered in comparison to.

However ‘The Thing’ is probably most well known for its ground-breaking special effects, in particular the incredible prosthetic and model work from Rob Bottin, who also worked on ‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’ and ‘Total Recall’. The various transformations that the alien goes through were all designed to keep the audience guessing. In fact it was deemed so shocking that distributors were advised to only play it in screens near the toilets – just in case viewers needed to flee the cinema.**

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In fact, much like ‘The Fly’, this is a film which is best viewed to marvel at just what could be done with prosthetics, models and a lot of imagination. The plot is fairly basic, and the real meat of the story comes from working out just who is still alive and human.

The common complaint about ‘The Thing’ is how slow it is, and it’s a fair comment. Whilst not overly long it doesn’t exactly fly by, being more concerned with a slow build up of tension followed by a shock, a reveal and another build up. It’s not as though the outcome is unexpected; the few survivors clinging on as the alien attempts to oust them. The very end, leaving questions unanswered is neither the happy ending that most cinema goers crave, nor the out and out failure that might warrant a sequel.

But perhaps the real reason to watch ‘The Thing’ is this; for all its flaws it still stand as one of the most inventive, original and disturbing films about those things outside the door, and what to do when they replace your neighbours.

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*More recent examples of alien infiltration can be seen in ‘The Invasion’ and ‘The Faculty’. A subversion can be found in ‘V’, where everyone is aware that ‘aliens walk amongst us’ but not that they are hostile, and ‘District 9’ where the aliens are amongst us but apart from us, thanks to their obviously inhuman look.

**This is in all probability an urban myth – but it’s a good one!

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