Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Another Sort of Contagion that’s not COVID: “The Thing”

Once upon a time, John Carpenter was not well known. As a grad student studying at the USC school of cinematic arts, circa 1974, he was working on a 16mm thesis film with an outer-space setting. Most of the action took place in the cockpit of a deteriorating starship searching the cosmos for unstable planets. The bargain-basement budget (about $6000) of the original Dark Star was part of its charm. It was funny enough, and appealing enough, to catch the eye of Hollywood’s money men. That’s why the student film, following some major edits, was turned into a commercial feature, and Carpenter’s professional career was born.

 I focus on Dark Star because the guy to whom I’m married still bears a small grudge. As a young engineer who liked to tinker, he was persuaded to build the console of the movie’s command center out of craft-store plastics and electrical switches.  His efforts were much appreciated by Carpenter, who promised him a screen credit for his efforts. He also lent the production $50. You guessed it: once Carpenter went Hollywood, the promises didn’t get kept. This despite the fact that once he launched a little movie called Halloween in 1978, Carpenter was the hottest thing going in the horror genre.

 But Carpenter’s well-documented stinginess shouldn’t detract from his talent. Horror is hardly my favorite genre, but—with Halloween approaching—I couldn’t resist checking out one of his creepier efforts, 1982’s The Thing. This film, as I discovered, was hardly an instant hit. Critics were harsh (the Los Angeles Times called it "bereft, despairing, and nihilistic,” while Newsweek said it lost drama by "sacrificing everything at the altar of gore”). Audiences were no more kind. Though Carpenter’s career suffered, the film eventually found hordes of new fans on video. I agree that it’s grim, but also highly creative, with eerie visuals that won’t let go of your imagination.

 The origin of The Thing was a novella called Who Goes There? that first made it to the screen in 1951 as The Thing from Another World. Seeing it as a boy, Carpenter was fascinated.  Then he read the original version, which posits that an extraterrestrial life-form has come to earth to assimilate, then imitate, other organisms, including dogs and people. As a result of this otherworldly invasion, men who encounter “the thing” are turned into horrible globs of protoplasm who still bear the remains of human characteristics. Part of what fascinated Carpenter, obviously, is the technical challenge of replicating these weirdly evolving and very deadly creatures. The film gives special effects pros like Rob Bottin (a Roger Corman veteran, natch!) the chance to combine chemicals, food products, rubber, and mechanical parts into gelatinous monsters that sometimes replicate the features of the characters whose bodies they’ve invaded. A full $1.5 million of the film’s $15 million budget went into Bottin’s creature effects.

 The other attraction of this story is the chance it offers to play out an Agatha Christie-type thriller, with a cast of characters diminishing one by one. The story is set entirely in Antarctica (portrayed here by Alaskan and Canadian snowscapes), among an assorted group of American researchers—a  physician, a meteorologist, a biologist, and so on—who live together in a remote waystation. Played by reliable character actors like Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat, Wilford Brimley, and Keith David, they are vividly delineated . . . but it’s never clear who’ll be the next to turn into a monster. We do suspect that star Kurt Russell will endure, but the film’s bleak ending is sure to take us by surprise.

Happy Halloween! I can’t help mentioning that a new Criterion Shelf blogpost saluting Roger Corman’s creepy Poe films mentions my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers as a “highly recommended” look at the world of Corman.




Friday, October 27, 2023

Whodunit –and Why? “Anatomy of a Fall”

Having just seen, at long last, the classic courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, I couldn’t resist checking out a new French film with a deliberately similar title, Anatomy of a Fall. (In the original French, it’s Anatomie d’une chute). This Justine Trier film, which took top honors at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, also focuses on a emotionally fraught murder trial. But the emphasis here is less on cunning legal maneuvering than on the complex question of motive.  Exactly what, we wonder, is behind the sudden death of a man in the prime of life?  

 One of the pleasures of watching foreign movies is discovering actors for whom you have no prior associations. The blonde and slightly zoftig German actress at the center of Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra Hüller, was  brand-new to me. (No, I never saw Toni Erdmann, for which she won several awards back in 2016.) In the French film she’s a successful novelist who’s also a wife and mom. I sensed that, as portrayed by Hüller,  she’s an amiable presence within her picturesque mountain community, coolly self-possessed, someone well suited to shrugging off the disturbances of domestic life. Her seemingly mild, calm personality tended to put me on her side from start to finish. I might not have regarded her so unconditionally if I’d seen Hüller’s second film this past year, The Zone of Interest. She has just received a Gotham Awards nomination for this German-language movie, in which she plays the supportive wife of the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz.

 The film critics of the Los Angeles Times, big fans of this film, have noted that it was written by a domestic team:  Justine Trier collaborated with her longtime romantic partner, Arthur Harari, on the script. Since the couple has two children together, they are surely well aware of the stresses and strains within even the most successful marriage. They insist they have never been tempted to kill one another, but their script contains a key scene, introduced as a recording in the courtroom, that bluntly underscores the anger that can arise between two marrieds (one a successful writer and one still struggling at the craft) who discover they are not always on the same page.   

 A key character in the triangle of sorts that is their marriage is their pre-teen son, Daniel. A tragic accident a few years back has left him essentially blind, but despite this challenge he’s a keen observer of his surroundings. His father’s fatal fall from a window in their rustic chalet’s attic puts Daniel in the terrible position of having to choose sides. As we learn, Daniel’s parents responded to his permanent disability in characteristic ways. His father, who deeply felt (unwarranted) guilt about the lead-up to the accident, chose to devote himself wholeheartedly to the boy, including sidestepping his own ambitions to tutor Daniel full-time at home.  His mother, in line with her pragmatic approach to life,, has been matter-of-fact about his changed circumstances and has trusted him to make his own way through the crisis. Now that Daniel’s father is dead and his mother is on trial for his murder, it’s up to Daniel to figure out (with the help of a dog named Snoop) what he believes happened. Young Milo Machado Graner shines in this tricky role. He’s a pleasure to look at (where do filmmakers find these beautiful kids?), and when his character takes center stage in that courtroom, he’s more than ready for his close-up.