Saturday, October 19, 2013

Remaketober 2013: Week 3

Terribly sorry this is late, but to be honest, the degree to which you, my faithful readers, are lucky I managed to get this done this week cannot be overstated. I'm not going to go into detail (my personal life stays off my blog, as much as possible) but trust me, this entry was in serious danger of not getting done.

And in that vein, I'm sad to inform you that Mediocrity Week had to be pushed back to next week, and the pair of movies I had planned for the last week got moved up to this one, mostly cause I have easier access to the movies in question this week (I own the originals). So, this week is instead: Carptenter Week.

The Thing

1951

This version (technically entitled The Thing From Another World) is, like all versions, adapted from a John Campbell novella called Who Goes There? And weirdly enough, this version is actually probably the least faithful to the original novella. It turns the shapeshifting alien into a plant monster for...some reason, gives it a blood sucking M.O. and works very hard to give the story something resembling a happy ending.

This isn't to say that The Thing From Another World is bad, far from it. For a 1950s sci-fi film, it's quite good, in places it flirts with being excellent. The actors are all really heavily on board with the concept (one of them, the nominal human villain of the piece, some of you might recognize as the military general from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms) and while the special effects are...well very 1950s, especially the electricity parts, they're all convincing enough to be going on with. It's well paced, well written, solidly directed and quite engaging if you're willing to overlook it's age (which I am).

If I had to come up with a complaint about it, besides the fact that it cannot be as purely terrifying as the version I'm going to discuss in a moment, it would be the removal of the shape shifting aspect. This fueled the dark paranoia and worries of the alien conquering the world in the novella and losing it causes the film to lose some depth. Sure it tries for that aspect, with one character constantly sabotaging their attempts to destroy it because he wants to learn from the alien (I like to assume he works for Weyland-Yutani) but that doesn't quite work on the same level. It's still good, just plant monsters aren't as overtly interesting as shapeshifting monsters.

And speaking of shapeshifting...

1982

I've spoken about Carptenter's version here before, but it bears repeating: This is one of the best films of his career and a high point for the monster genre overall. It features some of the best directing, best effects and one of the better screenplays he's ever worked on. Carpenter's strength as a director has always been taking miniscule budgets and making them work, but as this, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China proved, he can work just as well with actual money.

The biggest selling point for this movie is still the special effects, which are still incredibly impressive to this day. The scene in the dog kennel, the ENTIRE insanity that is the scene in the kitchen, even the weird scene with the blood, all of it still looks great, all the effects still hold up, it's still a great ride. I've said before that I think it's my favorite monster movie ever, and it really is. It's still quite frightening in a way a lot of monster movies aren't these days, mostly cause it's special effects still hold up. It's also, it goes without saying, superbly directed, but I'll actually get more into that in the next segment.

But it's also smart, in it's own odd way. Rewatching it as an adult, with my eye on more than 'Holy SHIT, that guy's head just grew spider legs" I was surprised at how quickly and efficiently it establishes it's characters. Example, Kurt Russell's character's tendency to destroy himself and his opponent rather than concede defeat is literally established from the first scene with him in it. It's small details like that, that make the characters feel like real people, which really gives the movie some palpable tension, since you actually care what happens to these people.

Despite not being a critical or commercial hit in it's day, The Thing's fame has grown, Kubrick style, over the years and by the time 2000 rolled around it was considered and out-and-out classic of the monster and horror genres, and one of Carpenter's best works. So around 2011, some people decided to have another crack at it...

2011

Yes, yes I know, this is technically not a remake, it's a prequel to Carpenter's film set at the Norwegian Research Base where the prologue takes place. I was initially going to exclude it from this segment because of that, but I'd already checked it out of the library when I remembered that fact and I said 'Fuck it' and watched it anyway. And I'm sorry, but aside from some incidental details, and a tacked on ending that ties it into the 1982 film, it is a beat for beat retread of Carpenter's, so it goes on the list.

And here, incidentally, is where the aforementioned superb directing comes into play. See, the 2011 Thing forgoes practical effects, for the most part, in favor of CGI. Now this isn't necessarily a bad thing, this was 2011, the same year Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out (say what you will about the movie, the CGI was really impressive) so lord knows CGI should have been up to the task. But there are two issues with that. The first is that the CGI in this movie is incredibly out of date, I'd say a solid 4-5 years old at time of release.

The second is...look, there's no easy way to say this, but practical effects take work. They only look good from certain angles, with certain lighting etc. etc. This meant that the original had to be very carefully directed, so it would look good, which is why they were lucky it was being directed by John Carpenter. This one was directed by...some guy who no one has ever heard of, and since CGI takes the pressure off him to direct it well, the movie ends up being a bland looking mess.

There are a couple effects that look alright, but that leads into the other issue with this movie: It's fucking BORING. The characters are one note, you can tell who lives, who dies and even who the Thing will be appearing as for the climax, from literally the first 10 minutes. It skips merrily past some things that might be interesting, like the inclusion of gender and nationality in the paranoia about who might be the Thing (as far as I can tell, the only reason any of the characters are American is to have a really obvious excuse to have all the characters speak in English. Overall it's just completely dull, which is frankly worse then being bad. Which isn't to say there haven't been some straight up bad remakes of Carpenter movies. Speaking of which...


Halloween:

1978: 



Like The Thing, I’ve reviewed John Carpenter’s Halloween here before and like The Thing, it’s hard to undersell it. It is, on a fundamental level, the perfect slasher flick. That doesn’t mean it as a movie is perfect or that there aren’t horror films or even possibly other slasher films, that are better than it, far from it. But it is the perfect expression of the slasher flick as a concept, uncomplicated perhaps but free to be the best a slasher film can be. And while the franchise as a whole is tainted by its increasingly awful sequels (see also: Hellraiser, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the- okay that’s not fair, they were never any good) the original film is still a benchmark classic in the horror genre.

Watching it again, as I do every October, I am struck by how much it does with so little. As I said earlier, one of Carpenter’s strengths as a director is using very little to do a lot, and I can’t think of another film that embodies that as much as Halloween. The lack of any SFX keeps the violence off screen or in the shadows but somehow makes it even tenser. The decision to film Mike in broad daylight just standing there seems like it shouldn’t be frightening, but anyone who’s seen the movie knows otherwise. The theme is minimalist on a good day, something like 2 chords, but it works.
Even Mike’s backstory is minimalist. I have no evidence to back this up, but it seems to me that they realized they didn’t have the time or the energy to come up with a unique, deep villain and so just set out to make the scariest simple villain ever. Mike, in this one at least, has no explanation behind his behavior, no motivation, no rhyme or reason. He simply is, a pure and uncomplicated monster, the boogeyman made flesh. His signature look, a simple jumpsuit and a William Shatner mask painted white, reflect this and somehow make him even more frightening.

Remaking genre classics though, is an awkward thing to do and verrrrrrry difficult to do right. This goes double with classics that have, for better or worse, defined and influenced their genre to any great degree and I honestly can’t think of a movie that has more heavily influenced the slasher genre, or even the horror genre in general, than Halloween. But some people can’t be dissuaded from bad ideas.

2007:

It is utterly impossible to discuss Rob Zombie’s Halloween without discussing Rob Zombie, so you’ll have to bear with me here for a moment. See, to me, it’s still up in the air if Zombie has a legitimately great horror film in him, or even a very good one (note: At time of writing I’ve not seen Lords of Salem, might try to watch it before the end of the month). All 4 of the movies I’ve seen of his so far have not worked…even a little, but they’re all bizarrely fascinating to me. Take The Devil’s Rejects, a movie, I will remind you, that wants us to sympathize with a group of psychotic brutal murders, who we see kidnap and torture a group of innocent people in the previous film. You’re probably already spotting the issue, in that no matter how awful the pair of bounty hunters looking for the leads were, I was consistently rooting for them, but the movie doesn’t seem to realize this and keeps trying to make them look like the good guys. Hell in one scene, directly after the leads savagely murder a bunch of hotel employees, we’re then treated to a sequence of them arguing about what kind of fucking ICE CREAM THEY WANT! This is rather emblematic of Zombie’s issues, the biggest one being of tone. I’m never certain how I’m supposed to regard any given scene in one of his movies.

This problem is in full display in Halloween but it’s compounded not only by inevitable comparisons to the original but also by some truly bizarre choices with the story. In the original, Mike had no explanation behind his behavior, he was simply born evil and while such things are rarely true in real life, I’ve also never found that solving a rubiks cube causes a bunch of chains to attack me, so I was willing to overlook that. But Zombie apparently wasn’t, so the entire first hour of his version of Halloween is given over to endlessly detailing Mike’s backstory, and I’m sorry but EVERYTHING becomes less scary when you fucking explain it.

Then there’s the weird way it treats the actual kills.The movie spends literally a solid third of it's time making it's characters some of the least likeable victims in any slasher flick I've seen and then spends the actual kills trying to make them disturbing and horrifying. The complete awfulness of the characters keeps me from feeling bad when they get killed but the presentation keeps me from enjoying them. It wants to have it both ways and ends up having neither.

It's also an awkwardly put together film. It's basically only got two acts, with the second act being an extremely cut down retread of Carpenter's original. It's well directed (Zombie is at least a pretty solid director, even as he's an awful storyteller) and it's got an intense ending, but it's ultimately a complete failure as a movie.


And with that, week 3 of Remaketober ends. Sorry it took so long. So next week we end with Mediocrity Week. See you then.

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