Monday, October 17, 2011
Quick! What's the scariest movie you can think of? No! Not...*sigh*...not "Paranormal Activity." Sure the movie was pretty awesome but that's the wrong...that's the wrong answer. No, technically this question doesn't have an empirically defined right answ- ya know what? Let's just do this. Let's pretend you said John Carpenter's 1982 horror classic, The Thing. Ok? *Ding Ding Ding* That's right! To this day, The Thing remains one of the most disturbing, most disgusting horror movies of American cinema. Even when it came out - knowing full well the movie was supposed to be a horror flick - critics derided it for being too gruesome. In the years since its release, however, The Thing has enjoyed a gradual lessening of the negative critical reaction that characterized its initial release. Going on to become something of a cult-horror-classic - The Thing spawned a prequel. So what's up with this Thing?
First, allow me to give a brief synopsis of the first film. The film opens with a dog running across the Antarctic wilderness, pursued by two men in a helicopter who are desperately trying to kill it. The dog reaches an American outpost and seems to find refuge in the company of the Americans, as the Norwegians in pursuit are killed when the helicopter crashes. The American team goes to investigate the Norwegian camp several miles north of their position, only to find that everything has been destroyed. The only thing left seems to be some half-melted...um...thing, that looks like two men melted together; somewhere between a Salvador Dali painting and...something else utterly horrifying and revolting. They take the specimen back to their camp, examine it, (along with videos and documents from the Norwegian camp) and come to find out that this thing is actually a (*sigh* I'm sorry I have to keep doing this) thing that somehow imitates the cells of its prey and then manages to become a completely indistinguishable copy of it. The dog also turns out to be a similar thing and before you know it, the characters are all turning against each other for fear that their compadres might be, ya know, *things* themselves. It's a great premise - Ten Little Indians plus massive amounts of gore and viscera.
So, with all that context, The Thing (the 2011 prequel in question) seeks to tell the story of what exactly happened at the Norwegian camp in the days and moments leading up to the beginning of the original.
This 2011 prequel really feels more like a remake than anything else. That's primarily due to the fact that both films share essentially the exact same plot, and consequently feature many of the same plot devices. There are only so many ways to nuance the "stuck-in-the-Antarctic-with-a-group-of-people-you-can't-trust" structure and to its credit, The Thing doesn't try too hard to break that mold. It's a good - if not great - hook and allows for some exploration of sci-fi, horror, and psychological thriller simultaneously and the movie does a good job of weaving all those elements together. A handful of cast look-a-likes also give The Thing (2011) a feeling of Déjà vu.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who plays the lead, paleontologist Kate Lloyd) does an admirable job of providing an emotional foundation for the audience. She (fortunately) shies away from her previous reputation as "scream queen" and delivers a much stronger performance, without veering into the even more tired "kick-ass-gunslinger-girl" cliche. Think Eleanor Ripley...before that whole franchise got out of hand, anyway.
Other commendations are to be given out as well to the rest of the cast, who play the movie with an appropriately straight face. It's also balanced and refreshing to have a female join the cast, as a remake/prequel featuring a bunch of dudes - again - might have felt unbearably familiar. Marco Beltrami's score, much like the Thing itself, imitates Ennio Morricone's original music perfectly; occasionally weaving in that ominous synthesizer that characterized the original film's score.
And true to form, the movie manages to resist the temptation to fully show just exactly what the Thing looks like in its native form. Much of the suspense and tension of the original came from the fact that we never fully get a look at the Thing; the most we get is a gander at some half-mutated, not-fully-formed version of whatever it was trying to imitate. I went into this version half-expecting the film makers to use that as a hook: we finally get to see what this thing actually looks like! Fortunately, while we do see a little bit more of the creature, the majority of this alien life-form remains - as it should - in the shadows. In trade for not actually getting to see the creature, we are treated to an inside look at its space ship; buried deep beneath the ice. For me, it's an appropriate trade.
Personally, I couldn't find *too* much to gripe about. The movie falters a bit in its opening moments, unsure of how to depict certain characters. Some of the acting doesn't really flourish until about 15 minutes into the movie, but if you can sit tight and wait for the film to really get going it's not all that great a deterrent.
Another drawback is a pretty moderate dose of predictability. It doesn't take too long to figure out who's real and who's not - or who is going to make it to the end alive. (A black guy in a horror movie? So much for that...) If you've seen the original, you can practically match each character to their counterpart to figure out who is going end up where.
My biggest problem with the movie was actually the sound. The old addage "Sound is half of what the audience sees" was apparently not part of this movie's mantra. In an attempt to wring every bit of shock out of the film, The Thing opts to be an incredibly "loud" movie. Rather than simply allowing for occasional stings in the score or the soundtrack, The Thing practically blasts the audience with a sound bomb every time something "scary" is going on. It was literally so loud it sounded like the speakers were peaking. In the theater. So you definitely get a jolt of adrenaline, but it's a lot less because the film is genuinely scary and more because you fear for your own hearing. That's not to say The Thing is without a proper set of horror-movie moments; it made me jump once or twice in my seat. But ultimately the blaring of score and sound effects became so distracting it was hard to just enjoy the movie without plugging my ears.
Horror movies aren't as scary as they once were, and it's largely due to advances in CGI. While CG makes things look more realistic, or allows for filmmakers to achieve spectacles never before possible - there is just something about the way old-timey puppets and animatronics moved. It was precisely because they didn't imitate reality exactly that they were so scary; for me it was an uncanny valley situation. That's what made the 1982 version so terrifying. When that one guys' head drops off his body and sprouts legs and eyes and starts crawling away...it's movement was so unnatural it made the images infinitely more terrifying. When the Thing grabbed that one guy (I'm purposefully being vague so as not to give away anything to those who've yet to see either film) by the head and started shaking him around, it was obvious that puppets were employed for both bodies. And witnessing the otherworldly appearance, slightly disproportionate, of the mutated head shaking around a mannequin whose limbs kept bending at weird angles...I could barely look at the screen when it was happening. And fake blood from the 80s always seemed too red, and congealed in weird ways...adding another layer of "something's just off" to movies like The Thing. As much as the atmosphere and psychological tension of the original contributed to its achievement as horror milestone, so did the technology available at the time.
On the flip-side of that coin, The Thing (2011) uses much more realistic and up-to-date technology, but at the cost of what truly - in my opinion - made the original so downright revolting. It's not "un-scary" - but it's far from the visceral monument of its predecessor.
To its credit, the filmmakers behind this film put a lot of diligence in "reverse engineering" the look of the destroyed Norwegian base from what was shown in the original. For example, the axe lodged in the wall - covered in blood - that Kurt Russell finds in the original; we get to see what happened that led to that axe being put, and ultimately left, in the wall. It's a minor detail, but it makes for a good wink at the knowing members in the audience. Though unfortunately, we don't exactly find out why that one guy ends up slashing his wrist and throat, leaving all his blood frozen in mid-spill. We do see that he happens to be there by the end of the movie, but I suspect a deleted scene or two could have been left in the theatrical cut just for good measure.
As a mild fan of the original (it's not my favorite movie, but I enjoyed it) I found this prequel/remake to be quite adequate. It updated what needed to be updated and left the same what should have been left the same. It's by no means perfect, but it's sufficient. You'll probably get more out of seeing it if you've seen the original at least once, but familiarity with the 1982 version is not a prerequisite. I wouldn't recommend watching either of the movies on a full stomach, though.