Blog Archives

What I Watched In… January 2016

Rear Window

Favorite of the Month: Rear Window (1954)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

  1. Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014), B+
  2. The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), A-
  3. Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (2009), B+
  4. Transcendence (2014), C-
  5. Galaxy Quest (1999), A
  6. Fever Lake (1996), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937), B
  8. Enter the Void (2009), D
  9. Hell and Back (2015), B
  10. The Revenant (2015), B+
  11. The Magnificent Seven (1960), A
  12. Rear Window (1954), A
  13. Icebreaker (2000), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  14. The Room (2003), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
  15. Jaws (1975), A
  16. Alien (1979), A
  17. The Phantom Planet (1961), D, MST3K Riff, B
  18. Jupiter Ascending (2015), D

What I Watched In… August 2015

Favorite of the Month: I Am Big Bird-The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)

Favorite of the Month: I Am Big Bird-The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

(School is back in session in August. My viewing time was drastically reduced.)

  1.  Dragonslayer (1981), B
  2. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  3. Comet (2014), B+
  4. Zombie Lake (1981), D
  5. WolfCop (2014), D+
  6. Grand Piano (2013), B
  7. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), A
  8. History of the World Part I (1981), B+
  9. A Deadly Adoption (2015), D
  10. The Producers (2005), B+
  11. Bedazzled (2000), B-
  12. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2015), B+
  13. The ‘Burbs (1989), B+

Building a Franchise

In this weekend’s episode of the All New Showcase podcast, Kenny Fanguy and I talked about the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as well as other studios that are trying to duplicate their success. Sony is trying to expand their one Marvel franchise — Spider-Man — into a full-blown universe, while 20th Century Fox is planning to merge their two Marvel properties (The X-Men and the Fantastic Four) into one world. Warner Bros is finally launching a DC Cinematic Universe, and Disney seems to have similar plans for the Star Wars franchise now that they own Lucasfilm. It’s the usual pattern in Hollywood, folks — whenever somebody finds success, everybody else wants to duplicate it. In this case, though, I applaud it. A lifelong comic book nerd, the shared universe style is something I dearly love. And in fact, it’s something that kind of surprises me has never been done in the movies before.

Oh, there have been small crossovers. Alien Vs. Predator comes immediately to mind, and Freddy Vs. Jason. Godzilla faced off against King Kong and a plethora of other kaiju back in the day, and if we go back to the 40s, Universal Studios had their “Monster Rally” sequence of films, in which the likes of Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf-Man, and Abbott and Costello would encounter each other over and over again. But nobody ever did it on the scale that Marvel has, or that these other studios want. In fact, I’ve heard some rumors buzzing that the big movie studios are looking at a lot of their different properties to see just how this may be done. So that gets me thinking: what other film properties might evolve into this sort of larger cinematic universe?

The first thing that comes to mind for me is Harry Potter. Granted, the books have all been adapted, but Warner Bros has recently announced a new sequence of films based on the spin-off book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This should surprise no one. For over a decade now, the top-grossing Warner Bros movie has either been a Harry Potter film or a DC Comics film. Since they’ve got neither scheduled for 2014, they’re no doubt looking to fill the gap in their schedule. If they can get creator J.K. Rowling on board for this, I’m fine with an expansion of the Potter universe. Now let me make something clear — I don’t want any more movies about Harry Potter. His story is over and done with, and I really don’t need to see his adventures as an Auror after the death of Voldemort, because frankly, anything else is going to be anticlimactic. But one of the best things about the Harry Potter world is that Rowling did, in fact, create an entire world — a rich, detailed world, one with many curious ideas and facets that she only brushed up against in her original seven novels. Fantastic Beasts will be the story of Newt Scamander, a wizard who lived centuries ago and cataloged the most amazing magical creatures in the world. There’s plenty of story potential there. Stories of young Dumbledore or McGonagall? I’d watch that. The story of the founding of Hogwarts? I’m there. There are ways to expand the Potterverse that don’t require Harry, Ron, or Hermione, and if anything, that’s the direction Warner Bros should go in.

Universal Studios is planning a remake of Van Helsing, which itself was an attempt to do a sort of modern “monster rally” film. I say they should go all-out. The Universal versions of Frankenstein and Dracula are still the most recognizable in the world, so why not use the new Van Helsing to relaunch a Universal Monster Universe? Throw in Frankie and Drac, put in a Wolf-Man, give us the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Tie in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films while you’re at it — the original Van Helsing had a very tenuous tie in the first place, and it’s easily the most successful Universal monster franchise in decades. Even kids who have never seen a Boris Karloff picture love the monsters, and this is a perfect time to bring them back.

20th Century Fox, as we’ve said before, has both Aliens and Predator in its pocket, and regardless of the quality of the crossover films in those franchises, it’s a pretty natural pairing. The two concepts fit well together, and I think there’s still more that could be done with them. But you know what else Fox owns that could do with a bit of a boost? The X-Files. Think about it for a minute… a new X-Files movie, one that opens with Mulder and Scully sent to investigate a mysterious crash site uncovered beneath the arctic ice, and they wind up finding a Predator, or one of the Engineers from Prometheus. Ridley Scott may not be wild about it (especially if, as the rumors persist, he plans on linking the Aliens franchise back to this own Blade Runner film), but I think there’s room for connectivity here.

I’m just spitballing, friends, I’m throwing stuff around to see what sticks, but I think there could be fun had in any of these directions. If Sony insists on bringing back Ghostbusters, why not build that into a universe with not just ghosts, but all manner of supernatural entities and different squads of heroes combating them? Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones are probably done with Men in Black, but there’s plenty of juice left in that universe. Sam Raimi is already planning to tie the reboot of The Evil Dead back into the original Evil Dead/Army of Darkness franchise — why not take a page from the comics and have Ash encounter the likes of Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees, or Herbert West?

I know I’m throwing a lot of things around here, but that’s how these things start. Here’s hoping that somebody decides to run with this ball soon, and decides to do it the right way.

Who are the Long Runners?

Bond BluRayLast month, during the Christmas spending frenzy, I alerted my sister to a prospective birthday present for her husband. My brother-in-law (Happy Birthday, Will!), is a James Bond fan, and during one of their Christmas blowout sales, Amazon was offering a Blu-Ray box set of the entire Bond franchise for a great price. This was almost exactly the same set (including the packaging) that was released last year except this time it included the most recent Bond film, Skyfall. Amusingly, the previous set was also still available, but was not on sale, which meant on that day you would have paid an additional $75 to not have the most recent film in the series. You’ve gotta REALLY hate Skyfall to do that.

This did get me to thinking, though. Bond has appeared in 23 canonical films, plus two other non-official movies (including the original version of Casino Royale which I’ve never seen but which, according to my mother, was bad enough to convince her not to watch another Bond film for over two decades). That’s a pretty long run. But is it the longest run? I’m going to try to answer that question – what is the longest-running (in terms of the number of installments) franchise in movie history?

Now I’m not going to count things like the endless remakes of A Christmas Carol or The Wizard of Oz, none of which have anything to do with each other. No, a true franchise has to have some sort of official nature to it – the same copyright holder, the same producer, the same continuity, or some scrambled combination thereof. So who are the true long runners?

Man-of-Steel-Flight-Poster-550x801Action movies are the obvious place to start. Die Hard is at five and Rocky made it to six movies, but that’s amateur hour compared to Bond. Not counting old serials or direct-to-DVD animated films, we’ve had six Superman movies (four with Christopher Reeve, one Brandon Routh and one Henry Cavill so far) and eight Batman (one Adam West, two Michael Keaton, one each for Kilmer and Clooney and the Dark Knight Trilogy featuring Christian Bale). However, I think one could convincingly argue that these are different continuities, and therefor different franchises. In fact, Man of Steel is supposed to be the launch point for a DC Cinematic Universe, which will hopefully be a franchise of its own.

Avengers PosterSince we’re talking about the cinematic universes, though, let’s look at Marvel. They’ve had seven movies so far (Iron Man, Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Avengers and Thor: The Dark World), and with the intention of adding two more a year (including scheduled 2014 releases Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy), they could theoretically pass Bond by 2021 or so, depending on how many more Bond movies are made in the interim. Of the other Marvel franchises, those not part of the MCU, the only one close is the X-Men, with six films so far (X-Men, X2: X-Men United, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men: First Class and The Wolverine) and a seventh (X-Men: Days of Future Past) coming out this year.

Star Trek 2009Again, none of this is getting close to Bond territory. Let’s move on to the world of science fiction. Star Wars has had seven theatrical releases (people often forget, perhaps deliberately, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars movie that preceded the cartoon show), plus two made-for-TV Ewok movies and the staggeringly bad Star Wars Holiday Special. I think we can agree not to count those. Depending on how we want to count the two big 20th Century Fox sci-fi franchises, we may have a winner. Four Alien movies, plus two Alien Vs. Predator movies, plus the Prometheus prequel equals seven. We could theoretically add the three Predator movies as well, though, if we want to count them all as the same continuity. That’s ten. But not so fast! Star Trek moves into the second-highest spot compared to Bond with 12 movies – six featuring the original cast, four with the Next Generation crew and two from the most recent reboot. Still, twelve compared to 23? We can do better than that.

friday01How about horror? Horror franchises go a long way, and now that we’ve reached a point of remaking the originals and making sequels to the remakes, it could go even further. Freddy Krueger starred in six solo films, a film in which he battled Jason Voorhees, and a weak-sauce remake. Not good enough. Jason? He had ten solo movies, the versus film and an adequate remake – twelve. Tied with Star Trek. How about Halloween? Without debating the relative merits of any of those movies, and even if we include the Michael Meyer-less Halloween III and the remake and its sequel, we’re still only at ten. Can nobody approach Bond? Nobody?

Wait a minute, though… we’re forgetting somebody. We’re forgetting somebody big. We’re forgetting somebody really big.

We’re forgetting Godzilla.

Godzilla-King of the MonstersThe King of the Monsters has appeared in three different series of Japanese films, all of which technically have different continuities, but can easily be considered part of the same franchise. The original Godzilla movie was released in 1954, and for the next 21 years the films followed a continuity in which he slowly evolved from an enormous monster to a sort of giant superhero that protected Japan from other enormous monsters. This era, the “Shōwa” period, included fifteen movies all on its own. It’s already taken the number-two spot from Star Trek.

Godzilla returned in 1984 with The Return of Godzilla, which ignored all of the movies after the original and was more sci-fi oriented, digging into the genetic nature of the creature and even giving him an origin. This franchise, known as the Heisei series, lasted for six more films bringing us up to 22, just one short of Bond.

Godzilla 2000But we’re not done yet. Beginning in 1999 we got a series of six movies, collectively known as the “Millennium Series,” which were mostly-self contained. There was little actual continuity between the films, and even Godzilla’s height tended to vary wildly from movie to movie. Still, the films went on until 2004, ending with 28 movies in the “official” Godzilla franchise.

And this is not counting any of the American Godzilla films, which include the 1956 Godzilla: King of the Monsters (made largely from cutting scenes from the original Japanese film with scenes of Raymond Burr reporting on the attacks), the incredibly bad 1998 Roland Emmerich remake (which was actually mocked in one of the installments of the Millennium series), or the upcoming Godzilla film directed by Gareth Edwards, scheduled for release this May, which I’m actually really excited about.

So depending on how you want to count it, Godzilla has racked up either 28 or 31 movies, and even more if you start counting his enemies and allies who went on to star in spin-off films of their own. So there you have it, my friends. Godzilla is not only king of the monsters, but the king of the movie franchise as well.

Snow White and the Seven DwarfsFrozenHmm? The official Disney Animated Canon, which is up to 53 films so far, and which tends to add a new movie every year? Including this year’s Big Hero 6, which is also coincidentally based on a Marvel comic, but is not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? The franchise which gave us the Disney princesses, Winnie-the-Pooh, Wreck-It-Ralph, and the unforgettable drama of Home on the Range? And even though most of them are not, technically, in continuity with one another, they are considered a single collection by fans and cinemaphiles alike?

Geez, could Godzilla really be toppled by a mouse?

Aw, I’ll let you guys fight it out.

It’s The Odyssey… IN SPACE!

It was recently announced that Warner Brothers is working on taking the epic poem, The Odyssey, and turning it into a science fiction film. Because the internet exists, responses ranged from the cautiously optimistic to the blindly cynical to several hundred ancient Greeks complaining that Hollywood is raping their childhood like they did with that Jason and the Argonauts debacle. Amongst all the responses, though, only one took me by surprise. At /Film, Germain Lussier said, “Even in our wildest, 11th grade English class imaginations, few could have seen this one coming.”

To which my response is… “Really? Is it that big a surprise?” If anything, I can’t believe it hasn’t been done before.

The great thing about science fiction, friends, is its infinite adaptability. There is virtually no story you can’t tell in the proper sci-fi setting… in fact, many of the greatest works of sci-fi are largely metaphorical in nature. Both the Star Trek and X-Men franchises, at least early in their early incarnations in the 1960s, were often used to discuss the civil rights movement. Battlestar Galactica was known to deal with modern-day politics. Superman is often spoken of as an extraterrestrial Christ figure, despite being created by a couple of Jewish kids from Cleveland. Everything from 1984 to 2012 has taken then-current fears and put them on display through a sci-fi prism.

Then there are the stories that pick up on specific plots and tropes. Alien, as I’ve argued many times, is essentially a haunted house movie with the house replaced by a spaceship and the ghost replaced by a drippy, hard-shelled monstrosity with acid blood. Forbidden Planet shares much of its DNA with William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Throw the Swiss Family Robinson off their island — off the planet — and you have Lost in Space. That one didn’t even change the family’s last name.

Much has been written about George Lucas homaged big ol’ chunks of Akira Kurasowa’s Hidden Fortress when he wrote Star Wars. That’s probably the reason people were so willing to believe the recent rumor — since debunked — that Disney had Zach Snyder working on a Star Wars universe adaptation of another Kurasowa film, Seven Samurai. (You may know it better by the title of the American remake: the classic western The Magnificent Seven.) That story could easily work in outer space. Hell, why stop there? Take the death of Qui-Gon Jinn and retell it Rashomon style.

The Odyssey in space? Why not? Look at the basic DNA of the story: it’s about a general who has been gone from home for years who gets lost and goes through many dangers and adventures on his way home, where everybody but his wife and son believe he’s dead. Gerry Dugan and Phil Noto put that story in a contemporary military setting and called the graphic novel The Infinite Horizon. The Cohen brothers dropped it into the American south and gave us O Brother, Where Art Thou? The Civil War drama Cold Mountain picks up on parts of Homer’s epic. James Joyce loosely adapted it in Ireland at the turn of the 20th century and called it Ulysses, which the Modern Library declared the best novel in 100 years.

Hell, why stop at The Odyssey? Give us space opera versions of The Iliad and The Aeneid while you’re at it. Hollywood loves a trilogy.

Good science fiction can handle almost anything you throw at it.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

slitherDirector: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman

Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.

Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.

Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.

Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.

Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.

Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.

It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.

The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.

Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.

If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).

Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.

Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.

Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.

Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen: the eBook now available!

Reel to Reel - Monsters NO BLEEDLast year, you guys may remember that I spent the entire month of October watching and talking about assorted scary movies, chronologically tracing the evolution of horror films from the 1920s up until the present day. I really enjoyed that little project and I think a lot of you did too. And now, as Halloween approaches again, I’m ready to launch the next stage of that project, my new eBook Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters and Madmen.

This eBook collects the 35 essays I wrote last year, plus five brand-new ones written just for this collection. Over the course of this book, I look at how the things that scare us have grown and evolved over the last century, dishing on some of the greatest, most influential and most memorable scary movies ever made. This eBook, available now for a mere $2.99, is hopefully going to be the first in a series, in which I’ll tackle different cinematic topics the same way.

If you read the essays last year, check this one out and enjoy the new ones. If you haven’t read any of them, dive in now for the first time. And tell all of your horror movie-loving friends about it as well! After all, the reason I decided to write this book in the first place is because I wanted to read a book like this one, but I just couldn’t find one. The market is out there, friends. Help us find each other.

(And lest I forget, thanks to Heather Petit Keller for the cover design!)

You can get the book now in the following online stores:

Amazon.com (for your Kindle or Kindle app)
Smashwords.com (for every other eBook reader)

And in case you’re wondering, the movies covered in this book include:

*The Golem (1920)
*Nosferatu (1922)
*The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
*Dracula (1931)
*Frankenstein (1931)
*The Mummy (1932)
*Freaks (1932)
*Cat People (1942)
*The Fly (1958)
*Peeping Tom (1960)
*Psycho (1960)
*Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Terror (1962-New in this edition!)
*Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
*The Haunting (1963)
*The Birds (1963-New in this edition!)
*Wait Until Dark (1967)
*Night of the Living Dead (1968)
*Last House on the Left (1972)
*The Exorcist (1973)
*The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
*Jaws (1975)
*Carrie (1976)
*Suspiria (1977)
*Halloween (1978)
*Alien (1979)
*The Shining (1980)
*Friday the 13th (1980)
*The Evil Dead (1981)
*Poltergeist (1982)
*The Thing (1982)
*A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
*Return of the Living Dead (1985)
*Hellraiser (1987-New to this edition!)
*Child’s Play (1988-New to this edition!)
*Misery (1990)
*Scream (1996)
*Ringu (1998)
*The Blair Witch Project (1999)
*Saw (2004)
*The Cabin in the Woods (2012-New to this edition!)

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 28: The Thing (1982)

thingDirector: John Carpenter

Writer: Bill Lancaster, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell

Cast: Kurt Russell, Donald Moffat, Wilfred Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Joel Polis

Plot: An American antarctic research station is rocked when a Malamute dog rushes onto the base being pursued by a Norwegian helicopter, whose pilot is throwing explosives at the dog. The helicopter lands, but one of the two men on board fumbles with an explosive, blowing up himself and the helicopter. The remaining Norwegian opens fire on the dog, injuring one of the Americans, and is finally brought down with a bullet to the head fired by the base commander, Garry (Donald Moffat). Base pilot R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) and doctor Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart) decide to take their own helicopter to the Norwegian base to investigate what happened, while the rest of the Americans adopt the abandoned Malamute. Arriving at the Norwegian base, they find it devastated – burned, holes blown in the sides, an axe embedded in the wall and more. They also find a strange organism frozen in ice and another strange, semi-humanoid body burned to a husk. They bring the burned body back to their own base so Dr. Blair (Wilfred Brimley) can perform an autopsy, but all it shows is that its internal organs appear to be normal. As the Malamute begins to get underfoot, Clark (Richard Masur) puts it in with the other dogs. The Malamute suddenly transforms, its body splitting open and strange appendages attacking the other dogs. As Clark comes to investigate the barking, the dogs flee, and he sees the tendrils of the Thing. Seeing the creature, MacReady hits the base’s fire alarm and tells somebody to come with a flamethrower. He tries shooting the beast as it assimilates the other dogs, but part of it ultimately escapes by breaking into the ceiling. The flamethrower arrives and Childs (Keith David) burns what’s left of the monster.

Blair examines the body and declares it’s some sort of creature with the ability to absorb and imitate other life forms… and what’s worse, the Malamute was free to roam the base for a full night before it was kenneled. A film retrieved from the Norwegian camp shows a spot where they blasted a hole in the ice, and MacReady takes off to investigate. In the hole the Norwegians blasted, they find what appears to be an alien spacecraft, which could have been buried for over 100,000 years. Blair runs some computer projections on the creature’s reproduction rate and, calculating that it could take over the entire world in three years if it reaches civilization, kills the remaining dogs and sabotages the base radio and helicopter. The creature assimilates its first human, and the rest of the crew kills him, rounds up all the bodies, and torches them. While they try to clean up, they find Blair with a gun and an axe, holding off the rest of the crew. Once he runs out of bullets, they manage to overpower and sequester him, but he warns MacReady – watch Clark. Copper proposes testing each person’s blood to prove if they’re really human, but finds that the Thing (whoever It is) has destroyed the supply of untainted blood needed for the test. The men begin hurling accusations at each other, each suspecting the others of being the Monster in disguise. MacReady logically argues that they can’t all the disguised creature, and sequesters Garry, Clark and Copper, the most likely suspects, while Norris (Charles Hallahan) prepares to test them. With a storm approaching, a fuse is blown, Fuchs (Joel Polis) disappears and MacReady separates the crew into groups to search. They find Fuchs’ body, burnt, in the snow, and Nauls (T.K. Carter) finds some of MacReady’s clothes, shredded. He returns with dynamite and the crew debates his fate. In the middle of the standoff, Norris explodes into a creature, killing Copper. MacReady torches the Thing, but the question of who among them may be infected still hangs in the air. He orders the men to submit to a test, but kills Clark when he tries to attack. MacReady’s test is to draw blood from each person – including the dead – and burn it, having learned from Norris’s Thing that each piece of the creature will react. The test begins to exonerate people, including the dead Clark, but when he tests Palmer (David Clennon)’s blood, Palmer transforms into a Thing. MacReady torches It and blows up the body in the snow. The four remaining men – MacReady, Nauls, Childs and Garry, all test clean, and plan to go test Blair, but his shed is empty. They find a tunnel beneath, where Blair has been trying to reconstruct the alien ship. Realizing they can’t risk the creature surviving or even freezing again, MacReady declares they have to blow up the base, even at the cost of their own lives. After a final explosive confrontation, only MacReady and Childs remain. Sitting by the fire, waiting to freeze to death, they decide to wait… and see what happens.

Thoughts: Although a great number of the movies on my list have been remade at some point or another, this is the only time I’m going to discuss the remake of a movie in lieu of its original. John Carpenter’s film is far more faithful to John W. Campbell’s original novella “Who Goes There?” than the less-remembered 1951 Christian Nyby movie The Thing From Another World (which, you may remember, was the movie the kids were watching in Carpenter’s previous entry on this list, Halloween). I picked the remake for several reasons: it’s a better movie, first of all. It’s far more memorable than the original. And pretty much every cultural reference made to this story today is based not on the 1951 film, but on this 1982 outing. Simply put, people remember Carpenter’s film. They don’t really remember Nyby’s. Carpenter himself hasn’t turned out many impressive films in the last few years, but this and Halloween give him two very well-deserved spots on this list.

This is different from a typical horror movie in several ways, beginning with the setting. The Antarctic location is different enough in its own right (let’s not forget many of the films we’ve looked at lately have been set in the woods or suburbia), and the constant snow makes it look very different than any other film, even the similarly snowbound The Shining.

This is another one of the few entries in this experiment that crosses the line between science fiction and horror, but this is even easier to place in the horror camp than Alien was. Whereas that film is sci-fi through and through, its only the extraterrestrial nature of the monster that puts this movie in the science fiction category. Had it been supernatural instead – a change that could have theoretically been made without substantially altering the plot – the movie would be a pure horror romp. As it is, it fits in the horror category without any trouble.

Like the best horror, John Carpenter uses fear itself as the core of the movie. The fear actually doesn’t come from the unknown this time, though, but from the perversion of what is known. Before anybody realizes the true nature of the monster that threatens them, it’s already begun to infect the population of the camp. Suddenly any living creature – any of the dogs, any of your fellow researchers – may in fact be a monster in disguise (and this time in a far more literal sense than old Norman Bates was). That fear that something you know and trust can be perverted and turn on you is chilling under any circumstances… and even more so in a setting like this one, an Antarctic base where there’s no way to contact the outside world and no hope of rescue.

Of course, let’s not discount the effectiveness of a great makeup and puppeteering department either. The first inkling that we’re dealing with something inhuman is the corpse at the Norwegian base – a horrible thing that looks like two separate human bodies were somehow melting together. When we see the dog-creature actually alive, actually moving, it gets far worse. Sometimes, hiding the beast works better. In this movie, where the monster can perfectly imitate any lifeform, there’s not really a “true form” to reveal, so showing it in mid-transformation gives us a jolt of horror that carries us through when we start to wonder what – or who – has been subject to that very process. The Thing that bursts out of Norris is especially grotesque and powerful – it’s an ugly beast that has a very realistic way of moving (considering that its primary means of locomotion is an absurdly long tongue, anyway). But nothing is as mind-bendingly horrible as the creature’s final form, where it attacks MacReady as a sort of horrible biomass in which we can see the trace elements of the different people and beasts it assimilated over the course of the movie. These are the kinds of effects that you know – you know – most filmmakers today would try to create with CGI, and which wouldn’t be one iota as effective.

The new version of The Thing, released just a couple of weeks ago, I find somewhat odd. It’s not a remake of the remake, but supposedly a prequel that shows what happened at the Norwegian base, using all of the visuals Carpenter created in this movie as its blueprint. It’s not a bad idea, and I’d certainly rather see that than watch them try to remake this one, but why call it The Thing again? That’s just going to lead to confusion, my friends. This is why subtitles were invented. On the plus side, from my understanding the creators of the new movie are insistent on using practical effects – makeup and puppets – instead of relying on CGI, and for that at least, they’ve earned my respect. And quite possibly the price of my admission ticket.

Brr. I think we need to warm up tomorrow, don’t you? We’re going to leave behind the frozen waste of Antarctica for the warmth of hearth and home and a scorching boiler room… in a nice, quiet community where dreams are growing disturbed. We’re going to have a bit of a Nightmare on Elm Street.

Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 23: Alien (1979)

alienDirector: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.

Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.

Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.

In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.

Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.

Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.

When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.

Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.