Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Thing, Again

Last month, I wrote about The Thing from Another World (1951), the first of three film adaptations to date of the novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr. This time my subject is the most recent of these adaptations, the 2011 The Thing.

I hate to criticize The Thing, because it has the pretty and winsome Mary Elizabeth Winstead in it, and any film that includes her can't be all bad. I've been following her career since she was playing a super-powered teenager in Sky High, and I keep waiting to see her break out into something I think worthy of her talents, such as the Greer Garson part in a remake of Mrs. Miniver. Anyway, this movie is not what I had in mind.

The key word here is derivative. The Thing 2011 is supposed to be a prequel to John Carpenter's The Thing 1982, but in all respects except continuity it is essentially a remake, and an inferior one. Once again a group of Antarctic scientists battle a shape-shifting alien that has been thawed out of ice. Once again the alien takes on the appearance of the scientists and a test has to be devised to find out who's who. Once again flamethrowers are the principal weapon against the thing. Everything good in it (aside from Winstead) is a copy of something that was done better in Carpenter's version.

Even the creature effects are not exactly better. They are more sophisticated, using CGI that was not available in 1982. But Rob Bottin did more with less in 1982, inventively using mechanical effects and puppetry to generate the deformed destructive being (DDB). The 1982 DDB was more innovative and more horrifying.

It is not that The Thing 2011 is terrible. It has some genuine jolts. Despite myself, when the creature first leapt out of the ice, I jumped sufficiently to spill beer on my basement sofa. (Beer is my favorite drink when watching a movie like The Thing, the basement my favorite location.) The Thing 2011 is a nice reminder of how good the previous versions of Who Goes There? were--and for that matter, how good a story Who Goes There? is. But it is, so far, the least of the line of cinematic incarnations.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Handsome Mr. Hyde

It is coming up on the one-year anniversary of this blog (March 26, 2011) and of the publication of the book on which it is based, Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films. To mark the occasion, I can't do better than direct you to Jon Towlson's positive review of the book in Starburst.

And now on to today's subject: Mr. Hyde, the evil creature into which the otherwise normal scientist Dr. Jekyll transforms himself by chemical means. The tradition in most film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is to present Dr. Jekyll as handsome and Mr. Hyde as hideous (Fredric March's portrayal in the 1932 adaptation) or at least unpleasant-looking (Spencer Tracy's portrayal in the 1941 version). The idea is to take some good-looking actor and then, in special-effects heavy transformation scenes, slather on ugly makeup to turn him into a brute.

What never makes sense in these movies is why Jekyll would want to take a chemical to make himself look worse. In real life, as the cosmetics industry and fitness centers attest, people go to great efforts to make themselves look better, not worse. If they do end up looking worse, it is by accident of the aging process and behaviors such as overeating.

That is why The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll, the 1960 Hammer Films adaptation, is so refreshing. Here Dr. Jekyll (Paul Massie) is a bearded, aging, rather plain-looking man who, when transformed into Hyde, becomes young, clean-shaven, and handsome. His low, weary voice becomes light and airy. And all this happens without the benefit of elaborate special effects. With a little editing, the camera simply cuts away from Jekyll (who, this time, is the one wearing the heavier makeup) and cuts back to Hyde.

Of course, Hyde is evil. He indulges in all sorts of wanton, lascivious pleasures, and he has a violent streak that issues in several murders. But at least one can figure out why Jekyll keeps turning himself back into Hyde. As Hyde he is youthful and good-looking, in addition to being able to fulfill any fantasy he desires. Hyde even has an interesting philosophy, based on "energy and reason."

The movie is not quite as good as I may be making it sound. No movie version that I have seen has fully captured the horror of Hyde in Stevenson's novella, including Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll. Even with the presence of Christopher Lee as a debauched friend and the lover of Jekyll's wife, the film is a little ponderous. But it is worth seeing if only because it presents a Hyde who makes physical sense.

George Ochoa

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Angel of Death

The primary purpose of the horror film is to present a deformed and destructive being (DDB), or monster. But not every movie with a DDB is a horror film. If the film's primary purpose is something other than presenting the DDB, then it is not a horror film. Even so, it can include a memorably horrific sequence in which a DDB is presented. An example is the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956).

The primary purpose of The Ten Commandments is to tell the religious story of Moses, not to present a DDB. Nevertheless, at least one sequence in this film is straight out of a horror movie. Moses has been demanding that Pharaoh let the Hebrew slaves go, and Pharaoh has been refusing. So God, through Moses, sends ten plagues against Egypt to persuade Pharaoh. The one that most strikes fear into the Egyptians is the one that works best as a miniature horror movie: the death of all the first-born children of Egypt.

The perpetrator of this plague is the Angel of Death, a luminous green mist that creeps and branches across the night sky as if it were a web being spun. Little by little it descends, and when it reaches the earth, it rolls with a sickly cast along the ground, leaving unharmed those who are not first-born but killing the first-born, whether they are adults or children. It also leaves the Hebrews unharmed; they are preserved by staying indoors and marking their doorways with lamb's blood, according to the instructions of Moses.

The sequence cuts back and forth between the Hebrews inside--who are terrified by the screams of the dying outside, even as the Hebrews partake of their first Passover--and the Egyptians dying in the streets. Not many deaths are shown, and there is no gore, but a couple of deaths are highlighted for emphasis: that of a soldier who is the first-born of the commander of the host, and Pharaoh's own little boy.

The metaphysics of the Angel of Death are not spelled out, but presumably, if this is his job, he is present whenever anybody dies. In that case, what is deformed about his appearance in this film is that he is not felling people at the usual rate or with the usual rationale; instead, by God's order, he is selecting, all in one night, the first-born of an entire nation, as a punishment and a means of persuasion. The persuasion works, and a defeated Pharaoh allows the Hebrews to leave Egypt. So the Angel of Death is not only a deformed and destructive being--a DDB--but a powerful one.

Cecil B. DeMille made many movies besides The Ten Commandments, but as far as I know he never tried his hand at a horror film. Judging by the effectiveness of the Angel of Death sequence, he might have done a good job of it.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sharks Meet Torture Porn

Unfortunately, I missed Shark Night when it was in theaters in 3D. I had to settle for the 2D DVD version. Even this was pretty good.

Much of the purpose of a film like Shark Night is to ogle bodies, and the bodies here are nicely formed. There are the bikini-clad babes, the buff young men, and, of course, the sharks, fierce CGI-and-animatronic creations with stiff fins and ugly teeth. A particularly nice body is that of the lead, Sara Paxton, who plays a college girl named Sara. Shark Night is the type of movie in which, during the day, Sara wears a bikini and then at night, to cover up, she puts on an unbuttoned sweater and continues to wear the bikini.

Also of interest is the way the film mixes subgenres to create a brew that is, if not original, at least up to date. The film is a mix of slasher film, torture porn, southern Gothic, and berserk biota. Like the Friday the 13th-type slasher films, a group of friends (this time from college) go off for a pleasant lakeside getaway, with the intention of having lots of sex. Instead they get slashed, this time by the hungry sharks that inhabit the lake. Like Hostel-type torture porn, the group of friends is tormented by a cabal of sadistic bad guys who have planted the sharks in the lake to make snuff films to distribute on the Internet. Like Deliverance-type southern Gothic, the bad guys are backwoods southerners (this time in the Louisiana bayous). Like Jaws-type berserk biota, the chief agents of destruction are animals preying on people, sharks.

There are many mysteries to Shark Night. How exactly did the bad guys, who do not seem like the brightest bulbs in the bayous, manage to collect all these sharks and populate the lake with them? Did anyone ever settle the issue of how saltwater sharks manage to live in a freshwater lake (the question is discussed feverishly in the film, then abandoned to provide more time for escaping from sharks)? How did Tulane University get convinced to allow Shark Night to use its logo? Was it a good career move for Katharine McPhee to strip to her underwear in the film? It must have been, because she now has her own TV series, Smash.

Shark Night is reminiscent of another recent film, the 2010 remake of Piranha, but I enjoyed it more because it did more with less. It is no Jaws--it is not even Deep Blue Sea--but it is entertaining.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films