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It’s 1982, and paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is summoned to the Thule research station in Antarctica by a rather intense Dr. Sander Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen), who’s made quite the discovery. Her expertise is required early on in examining frozen remains of an alien life-form, but when Thule is threatened by this thing from another world, it’s her survivalist instinct and pyro-tendencies that save the day–for the most part. If you’re familiar with John Carpenter’s The Thing, a remake in itself, there’s nothing new here in terms of structure or story, which depending on your viewpoint is a good or bad thing; for the 2011 film, the 1982 original was formula perfected, and this formula is not only repeated in Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, it’s updated to satisfying modernity. We have, as we did thirty years ago, a team of scientists battling a malevolent alien creature capable of shape-shifting to the image of friends and associates, and gruesomely showing off in doing so. In this film, it’s the showing off part that sells.

When a member among the crew is suspected of being an alien in disguise, that’s bad news for him. When the alien then transforms into a more lethal form as self-defense, that’s bad news for everyone else. These transformations made the John Carpenter movie iconic, and in the new film, computer generated imagery and physical creature effects work in tandem toward sickening results. With a shudder of flesh and the grinding of bones, body parts sever, split, snake–and come after you. The creature makes a mockery of the human form, contorting it to mimic aliens it must have assimilated before, where heads meld together, and massive jaws rend out of stomachs to the tune of otherworldly wails. This is something you don’t want to become, be eaten by, or even look at–it’s easy to sympathize with the crew, who often turn on each other in the face of suspicion.

The crew of John Carpenter’s movie was a close-knit bunch of blue-collar boys, but at the first sign of trouble from the icy wasteland, tension brimming just below the surface begins to poke through. In Matthijs van Heijningen’s movie, potential factions are visible from the start: Americans vs. Norwegians, scientists vs. pilots, men vs. women, newcomer Kate vs. everybody, everybody vs. sinister Sander. As the film plays out, alliances and suspects shift–the alien could be anybody, and it isn’t telling. The prevailing question through not only this movie but the original is: who goes there? Human or alien? Characters only feel safe when they’re looking over their shoulder, and the alien certainly knows that frail human necks get sore after a while; paranoia manifests in tight grips on rifles and flamethrowers, and people are put into groups, examined, quarantined.

Moviegoers in 1982, when they did, came for the alien gore, and stayed for the psychological aspect. It’s a story akin to the greats in The Twilight Zone or Stephen King’s The Mist, where gooey creatures are portals to the much darker evils of man. Unfortunately, this piece de resistance of the story is not nearly as strong in van Heijningen’s film, though it does exist. A lot of it is that sacred law of diminishing returns, but mostly it’s the characters. For the most part, they’re enough to invest in but never truly cared for, as they occupy one of two roles: background detail or lazy stereotype.

There is precious little time for characterization; same as in 1982. But screenwriter Bill Lancaster was able to draw fully-rounded characters despite the forward-moving plot, placing great significance on every line spoken by individual members of the ensemble; they’re charged with defining not only the character, but the character’s place in the situation. Hefty work done efficiently, but not quite in 2011. The cast feels much larger this time, and that’s because we never get to know most of them by the time they’re assimilated. Names of the Norwegians were elusive, and it was difficult from the outset to keep track of everybody. By the time chaos hits Thule Station, these nameless guys are running around shouting things–often in a different language–which is appropriately panicked and confusing, so it works, but the audience is lulled into a distance from the action. It’s up to Kate to engage us, and whether or not she does is somewhat inconsequential, because the film would doubtless have been improved if the supporting cast wasn’t as expendable. For evidence of this, we can look to John Carpenter’s.

The film is written by Eric Heisserer (from drafts by Ronald D. Moore), based on “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, and he turns out a competent job, keeping the tension high despite mostly pale characters. Together with fine acting, the script is brought to life and touches all prerequisite bases for fun, alien-smashing action. As it checks steps off the list–unearth the creature, figure it out, deny it, suffer attacks by creature–the cast follows through in stride. Accents are masked and changed, tempers fluctuate organically, expressions speak loudly. In horror, strong emotions reign, whether it’s fear or anger or sadness. In science-fiction, suspension of disbelief is chiefly credited to the actors, and The Thing of course straddles both genres. Not an easy task on the part of the players, but one well performed here.

Unlike other modern creature features, physical actors could interact with equally physical monsters, though they were smartly enhanced by CGI. The creature itself is where the filmmakers stood apart from John Carpenter’s, as the original monster could seem to do anything–but move. The new creature is not only mobile but fast, and its new predatory nature adds a welcome element of suspense. Critics have noted that van Heijningen must have taken influence from Alien, with chases down hallways and even in some cases, creature design. One might of course argue that this is a necessary path the film needed to take.

The issue surrounding The Thing is that most films of its kind–good science-fiction horror movies–don’t need to take paths in the first place. They don’t have to be engineered to a specific blueprint in order to please people, but in this hideous day and age, where remakes of reboots of franchises of adaptations reign, the audience is king. With The Thing, the audience was a notoriously difficult bunch to please–fans. In adapting a preexisting work with any type of fan-base, there will be complaints. The filmmaker then has forked-roads to travel, whether he stays faithful to the source material or creates something new, if modernizing it or not is the right way to go, etc. He’s beholden to this crabby audience, which typically perceives his final decision as the wrong one. Producers Marc Abraham and Eric Newman chose wrong when they decided to do a remake of a now beloved classic, and that was step one.

It’s a tragedy that The Thing was released to commercial failure in theatres, because it speaks to the greater realm of modern science-fiction film, a realm that’s slavish to the nerd kingdom. Not helping is of course that van Heijningen’s movie cannot stand on its own, where John Carpenter’s most certainly could, and felt nearly defiant, rather than adoring, in the face of its predecessor. This movie truly should have been titled Who Goes There?, but I suppose the distributors wanted to milk as much money from whatever marquee value The Thing brand name carries. Not much, as we discover. One is led to wonder exactly who was targeted to see this film. The big horror movie franchises of the day ring polar opposite to this one: Paranormal Activity, Saw, Final Destination–these days the creature feature has been displaced by the zombie flick, and those who appreciate monsters are used to the rubber or stop-motion dragons and Brundleflies of days gone by. CGI in The Thing? It was bad enough in 1982 when there was going to be animatronics and miniatures in The Thing, as opposed to only makeup effects!

So if not fans of The Thing, and if not modern horror fans, perhaps this will be The Thing to rein in a new generation of fans? Afraid not; the kids of the day would rather see ghosts and Death itself kill people, which, on a visual level, is to say nothing at all kill people. Movies (a visual medium, by the way) of that type also tend to feature kids, which is something of a selling point whether we like it or not. Compare Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character Wendy in Final Destination 3 to Kate in The Thing–there was romantic tension where now there is only survival and stern, commanding looks. While some might prefer the latter with more passion, a majority prefers the former, albeit casually. The youngsters of the day would just as quickly wonder what a Snake Plissken is as they would claim that the new Thing is a rip-off of the video-game Dead Space. Another audience not easily pandered to when sixty-year old aliens are concerned.

Additionally, and possibly most importantly, The Thing is a remake. It may technically be a prequel, but why then wasn’t it called Before the Thing, or The Thing Zero, The Thing 2, or One More Thing? Because those are all terrible titles–once again Who Goes There? was left wide open. The money-men were banking on its assets as a remake, not a prequel, and in late 2011, audiences have had their fill. Not only of remakes, but of horror remakes.

The giants in the genre have all been dried up in the last couple of years: Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Dawn of the Dead, even smaller titles like The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, Black Christmas, Fright Night, and of course, arbitrary entries in the John Carpenter canon: The Fog and Assault on Precinct 13. Maybe next year we’ll get rumblings of a Big Trouble in Little China remake, but dark. The Thing came far too late, though ironically it was just as late as John Carpenter’s was, following up Howard Hawks/Christian Nyby’s.

It may have felt like a good idea at the time, but revisiting The Thing was as fruitful as taking a tissue sample from the frozen alien specimen. It is as it’s always been–a film with a small, but significant appeal. Van Heijningen’s movie may not interest you on principle, but I’d advise you to seek it out on home video. It’s a creature feature in a league with Frank Darabont’s excellent The Mist rather than Underworld Evolution or Resident Evil: Apocalypse, and at its best moments, provides very real, very intense moments of terror that don’t merely recall the 80s days, but fill us with those same, welcomed feelings. It may not be the best sci-fi horror movie of all time, but it breaks this writer’s heart when a genuinely entertaining film is passed up because we were all expecting it to be bad. It’s the current climate–we’re done with remakes, and perhaps we could blame the victim here in saying that it shouldn’t have joined those ranks to begin with, but as the credits roll and we see how this story bridges into John Carpenter’s The Thing, I’m glad it did.


Spoilers incoming

There are three routes you can take if you want to be a film-snob, these routes of course often intersecting at grotesque and pretentious crossroads. They’re arthouse, indie, and foreign, the big bad three. F the first two, but let’s pause for a moment and examine the last. I’ve seen a few foreign films in my time, mostly Korean as of late (representin’*), and I’ve seen a lot of shit because of it. Granted my least favorite film of all time is American-made, and science-fiction, but a lot of Takashi Miike movies would be up there, as would Irreversible if I were in a crass enough mood (it’s got moments). We tend to view foreign films as a higher form of film art because the mainstream stuff is filtered in. We get Shaun of the Dead and In the Mood for Love because they’re so good they deserve international release. But I don’t think they put the live-action Wicked City on the Criterion Collection yet (I know because I’m looking for it).

These foreign films most Americans see, in addition to simply being good, don’t steep themselves in their culture to the extent where we might not fully appreciate what’s going on. Then there are movies like Audition, which is perhaps the most well-known, or second well-known after Ichi the Killer, Takashi Miike flick — a good movie that can be enjoyed on a base level, but requires minor, but further, knowledge of Japanese culture.

The reason Audition makes it to US shores is because it’s one of the most acclaimed horror movies in recent times, its claim-to-fame being a climactic torture sequence, as well as a particular limbless guy-in-a-bag who eats vomit. Gnarly stuff, the kind of stuff that American teens (and Eli Roth or James Wan) would definitely be into. For me, I wanted to see if this would be another Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance — a comparison that will be revisited later — and I was interested in seeing a Miike jab at feminism. Here’s a spoiler: it involves a lot of needles.

Without speaking down to you (because this is basically trivia), the thing to be aware of going in is that Japan, historically, has been behind the times on the whole ‘women’ thing. They like women, as most of us do, but seeing them as equal I believe wasn’t instant — like… it was here. Characters treat women as objects in a game in this movie, which is the premise, so we aren’t totally lost going in, but knowing context is helpful to pick up what Miike’s putting down.

Is it possible that after years of being assholes to women, there will be repercussions? That’s the question being asked here, and it seems to have a pretty straightforward answer, as you might imagine. It fucks people up, bottom line. Also, burning little girls’ legs with fire, that fucks em up too. I was interested to see this movie because it is Takashi Miike, a man who deals heavily in violence against women and movie rape, things I’ve given up on — mostly because of him. This must be his penance or whatever, though there do remain those uncomfortable moments. The difference here is that they’re supposed to be uncomfortable.

Also uncomfortable is the cutting off of limbs; the torture scene isn’t nearly as hard to watch as really any moment in Ichi, or the more extreme bits in Chan Wook Park fare, but it’s worth the price of admission, even for non-torture-porn fanatics. The movie truly shines though in its first and second acts. The setup to the darkness we know is ahead in my mind takes greater directorial strength than the 2001-like trip through layers of unreality, or the transcendent pain — it’s a slow-boiling family drama, one with humor and small, touching moments.

This is where I was engaged the most, because as ghastly as holding wife auditions is, I couldn’t help but feel for the character, his supportive friend Ishikawa, and his son. I actually liked them — Miike characters. But then the movie goes a bit haywire and a dream sequence of sorts takes us out of the emotional realm and into the depths of hell.

The character is drugged, and as he’s falling to the floor he gets visions of backstory for the girl character. I take issue with this sequence for many reasons, but chiefly, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. We’re led to believe that he’s experiencing all of these things, that he now knows that the uncle tortured her. It’s possible he inferred it all in a fever dream, which also saw his late wife returning, but it’s hard to say. At this juncture, I was really lost, and it took me out of the movie. I knew what was coming next, so every time there was a false ending to this sequence I was getting more and more frustrated. Not necessarily because I needed to see the torture, but because I assumed it’d be up next.

So he goes all David Lynch, which stretches what could’ve possibly been a short film to feature length, and is an interesting move from an artist. It’s not something you see a lot, especially in a movie like this, which could’ve been just as satisfying with a pared down A-to-B-to-torture structure. I appreciate it, but didn’t really buy into it as fabric in the greater movie.

It’s not a huge problem, didn’t ruin the movie for me. I think the reason why I enjoyed Audition as much as I did is because I was able to see a real master work his craft without being demented by his own weirdly-o sigs. It’d be like watching Pulp Fiction for the first time after seeing Kill Bill and Death Proof — given you aren’t a fan of feet like QT is. Miike puts a lot of weight into detail. Notice the torture tools the girl uses — needles, wire, syringes — they’re feminine in that they’re finesse, less about blunt force and more about pinpoint tactics. She’s engineering his pain, talking him through it and being methodical. Half of the terror is psychological warfare, which trickles down to the audience very effectively: this chick is totally nuts (“deeper, deeper, deeper“).

As wild as this scene is, it really isn’t as bad as I imagined. I went into Audition as anyone would — anticipating some hardcore fuckedupperies. I wanted this to be another Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, a movie you could show to a friend, preferably a female one, and be like, “This is the charming tale that gets a little dark. It’s about these guys who kidnap a little girl, and then things go south.” When they go south in Mr. Vengeance, they go south and never let up. Movie gets pretty rude. Audition doesn’t really, and I don’t think it’s the director holding back, rather it’s a measured dose of violence, despite its craziness — and tameness.

Miike doesn’t want to chance the ending becoming tongue-in-cheek. Every time Ichi kills somebody, it’s a gore-fest, but he’s being a bastard screeching and running around like a jerk, so it’s madly challenging to take seriously. Or handle, period. It’s almost an affront to the institution of cinema violence, but that’s why we have the blonde dude, I suppose. Audition doesn’t need the blonde dude, because it isn’t really about the violence, though that is the clear centrepiece. He’s using violence this time, not being used by it. So this time I didn’t really feel had by Miike. I think that this time, he was simply trying to do a good movie.

This isn’t to say that he doesn’t every single time set out to make a good movie, it’s more that he isn’t full of himself in this case. Let’s go back to white Takashi Miike for a moment: Audition is like the Reservoir Dogs of the Tarantino canon. It’s a solid movie, and it isn’t bleeding with Tarantinoisms. I happen to like Tarantino, so I liked Death Proof and even Inglourious Basterds. I don’t like Takashi Miike, but I did like Audition. If you’re looking for a place to start with the dude, duck his latest effort and go straight to this one. It’s low-key horror, chilling and intense while intelligently stopping short of lame-o torture porno.

*Not really. I might be Korean in flesh, but not in spirit, which is good, because it’s opened my eyes to the stupidity of taking pride in one’s heritage

And how could you not? As much as I know I’ll enjoy the film when it hits theatres in October, I know it won’t last long or be well-recieved or good. It’s just not a movie that needed to be made, but I look forward to it anyway as a fan of the John Carpenter original, a fan of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and a guy who saw and enjoyed somwhat the Howard Hawks original original. The Who Goes There? story template is great, and even without that key casting I’d still look forward to it, even if it is seemingly just another in the line of horror remakes following the Wes Craven reboots of recent times and Friday the 13th and all that.

Horror is such a shitty genre nowadays that remakes don’t faze me. If original material turns out to be garbage like The Strangers, then I welcome familiar faces and ideas. I’ve come to peace with the fact that The Mist is the product of a brilliant filmmaker who probably won’t continue to dabble in horror (unless it’s Stephen King), and that M. Night Shyamalan is making some terrible, terrible choices years after his incredible Signs. Maybe it’s just fine by me because horror isn’t one of the genres I look for. I like horror/comedy, but I haven’t seen too many of those I’ve disliked. From Return of the Living Dead to Slither, the horror/comedy has been good throughout the ages, but I didn’t even like a horror classic like The Exorcist so how am I supposed to like its inevitable remake?

It’s a difficult genre, and I guess that’s why these filmmakers do it. Nothing is sacred, as people are bound to say, but I really don’t care about that. They’re not actively working to ‘ruin’ the original film, and the constant theory against the naysayers is that maybe attention will be brought to the old one with the release of the new one. Who knows? And that’s right – on some level John Carpenter’s The Thing was a remake, and it’s a classic, as is The Fly remake. Who’s to say that this new one won’t be? Aside from history and the formula it seems to be following…

In fact there are other things that concern me about this new movie. A long time ago I got into some farcical argument with a ’30 year old woman’ on, and it was on the video for The Thing 1982 trailer. Maybe you can still find it, I don’t know – I’m HeroOfCanton99, like Jayne and 1999 combined, the year I wanted people to think I was born in. Basically this lady’s stance was that she was uncomfortable with a girl being cast in the movie, because some seriously horrific things tend to happen to people in The Thing. I said “Damn it, I’m agreeing with you, you freaking moron,” but she didn’t really realize and continued to argue out loud to herself. It was surreal. Wonder what’ll happen when she finds out about the women in Gears of War “Curb Stomp Downed Enemies” 3?

I don’t feel entirely comfortable with it because I’m aware of Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s history – three horror flicks, one where she gets killed, probably gruesomely. She’s assumedly not afraid of it, but I am. I don’t want to see that. I wouldn’t want to see it if it was anybody else, not just Mary Elizabeth Winstead, though that certainly doesn’t help. In The Thing, it’s not the character deaths that are actually gruesome: people die when they burn by flamethrowers. The terror comes out of the creature’s mutations, where faces split open and heads tear off slowly and painstakingly while tongues lash around and it’s the most horrible thing you’ve ever seen done to a human body. So awesome. God just typing that makes me want to watch the movie again. Really ingenious horror, and really cool sci-fi – the perfect blend captured here in this totally underrated flick.

If Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s head falls off and turns into a spider I might just vomit, but I’ve made a speculation as to what happens in this new movie:

The Swedish guy at the beginning of The Thing was a guy, not a girl. That means that she either dies in the helicopter explosion, dies earlier, or escapes to the mainland. I think that she’ll escape and leave the male hero to chase the dog and magically become non-foreign. Maybe that’ll pave the way for sequels… which is an odd thought. Hm, if they made a Thing remake trilogy, that would mark one of the strangest movie series ever.

That’s only a guess. Chances are she gets killed by a massive Thing monster, because I hear that we’ll see different forms of the creature, which is a good change of pace. Maybe one form will be Frankenstein’s monster, like the 1951 movie. HRRRNGGG

Another issue I have is an idea resulting from a filmmaker’s passion for the original movie. When McG, a big fan of the Terminator movies, made a Terminator movie, he had a lot of visual call-outs to the earlier films, particularly the first. I didn’t mind; I thought it was cool because I share his sentiment that those two movies are totally sweet. But if the director of The Thing (I’m not going to try to spell his name) also does this visual homage deal and has similar things happen, for some reason I don’t see it as working, perhaps because of the proximity to this story to the 1982 one.

In other words, won’t it be silly if the crew of the 2011 had a blood test scene if only days later a different crew did? Eh it’s a nerdy complaint, but that’s why it’s an issue and not a problem, I guess. Also, will this movie take place in 1982? Or will it be like Casino Royale (2006) and take place in the future of the 60’s Bond films, despite its chronology as first in the series?

So that’s it. If Avatar and Machete were the most anticipated movies of years previous, well, that’s not a good track record, so The Thing better work out because I definitely look forward to it more than… Captain America? If they do things similar to the 1982 movie I don’t see much margin for error, but that’s probably what was said about The Phantom Menace. Well, that’s definitely what was said.

David Cronenberg is one of the most important names in cinematic science-fiction. From the 70’s to around 2002, Cronenberg’s main genre was sci-fi-horror, and much in the way that cosmic horror is attributed to H.P. Lovecraft, the concept of ‘body horror’ is a mainstay in Cronenberg fiction. Also similar to Lovecraft, and other authors such as Dick and even King, as well as filmmakers like Miike, Oshii, Park, and Shyamalan, the weirdness keys you in and you know for damn well certain that you’re watching a Cronenberg movie. He’s a visual storyteller, and this is perfect because the stories he likes to tell often involve things born out of the fires of dark imagination and peculiar interpretation of real events. Subjects range from twin gynaecologists who operate on mutant women to pornographic TV transforming a man into a machine. It’s original science-fiction, for the most part, and it’s brilliantly rendered for the screen.

As far as I see it, Cronenbergio is the film equivalent of Philip K. Dick. Even though he’s pretty popular for movies such as Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, I think years from now a wider audience will look back and fully appreciate the movies like eXistenZ and Spider, which is less sci-fi but still extremely overlooked. Philip K. Dick wasn’t afraid to tackle the bizarre and the macabre – fear never factored in; rather, strange near future drugdealers and other queer SF tropes were used to exorcise personal demons. The science-fiction was a necessity in some cases, and ultimately, it was simply a genre he liked to work in. Cronenberg brought a level of literary and philosophical seriousness to a cinematic genre that was and is historically mentally vacant.

The seeming move of Cronenberg from science-fiction/horror to a wider horizon of genres (crime drama, historical) isn’t necessarily unwelcomed or even unexpected, but it does give the genre haters something to latch on to. They could call it maturation, though all Cronenberg movies are distinctly Cronenberg regardless of genre. I’m sure there are those who would call it maturation, and it would be unfortunate if they exist, for Cronenberg as filmmaker would be lost on them. He’s a man who treats all genres equally, whether it be horror, crime drama, romance, or pseudo-pornographic sex thriller. I think first up will be either Dead Ringers, because that’s on its way from Netflix, or The Fly, because that’ll be easy.


Death Threats

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