Directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.
Written by Eric Heisserer
Based on the short story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Joel Edgerton, and Ulrich Thomsen
When John Carpenter took a stab at making a new film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s masterful story Who Goes There? he chose to name it after the first movie version. So he took the title The Thing From Another World and shortened it to The Thing. That’s pretty much all he took from the 1951 film that wasn’t part of Campbell’s story to begin with. Audiences had changed dramatically in 30 years, as had effects technology. The more modern take was a showpiece for practical effects, drawing on the ability of Campbell’s monster to imitate the crew of the Antarctic base to create grotesque hybrid forms for the thing to assume between masquerades. The two adaptations are both good, although in different ways that speak to their times. The first reassured us that American determination and scientific achievement would win the day, and the second warned us that the best we can hope for is mutually assured destruction.
That’s where the story could have ended, but another 30 years on someone decided to show how it began. Carpenter’s movie started with the thing arriving at the American camp in the form of a sled dog. A helicopter from the Norwegian base pursues it but crashes. When the Americans finally check out the other base, the find it in ruins with no survivors. This adds to the feeling of isolation while heightening the danger. We don’t need to see how the previous base got wrecked; it’s happening again. Well, someone felt that we really needed to see it after all, and thus the prequel to The Thing, imaginatively titled The Thing.
Remember when Gus Van Sant did a shot-for-shot remake of Psycho and the world yawned? This isn’t really the situation here, but it sure feels like it at times. Mediocre CGI replaces the phenomenal puppetry and stop-motion while attempting to look the same. Same ideas for combating the thing. There’s one small difference in identifying who’s still human, but it makes absolutely no sense. We’re told that the thing can’t copy inorganic material, so only humans would have fillings. Okay, but the thing also imitates clothing; including zippers, snaps, and synthetic fabrics. The only place the movie breaks truly free from failing to ape Carpenter is with the space ship.
Where the earlier movie started with the mystery of the Norwegian’s hunting a sled dog, this one starts with the Norwegian’s almost literally stumbling into the discovery of the space ship. Seen only through the ice before, here it is largely dug out. Yet with this potential for exploring something different, once the thing is discovered the ship is forgotten until the climax. The filmmakers took a lot of effort to set up and explain the appearance of the Norwegian camp in Carpenter’s film, and by all the mead in Valhalla you’re going to see every bit of that explanation, down to the smallest minutia.
Finally granting us entry into the alien vessel at the end, the film refuses to show much of anything. No hint of the crew, bones or personal items or anything. Just immaculate science fiction halls. The one chance to break free of merely attempting to attach itself to a superior film — to create its own identity — and it fails to deliver.
It’s not a terrible movie, and I have certainly seen worse even during the Hubrisween project. It’s just so unnecessary. Watching it, I felt as though I was seeing a detailed facsimile that wasn’t quite convincing. It just made me wish I were watching the real thing.
Directed by Piers Haggard
Written by Robert Wynne-Simmons and Piers Haggard
Starring Patrick Wymark, Linda Hayden, Barry Andrews, and Anthony Ainley
Tigon had the distinction of not being Hammer Studios. It wasn’t even Amicus, which produced movies that casual viewers mistook for Hammer. Still, with modest budgets Tigon was able to make a few of the more memorable British horror films of the 1960s-1970s. Witchfinder General showcases Vincent Price in his most purely villainous role, and The Creeping Flesh is an enjoyable monster flick featuring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee as scientists combating evil itself. In my opinion, the studio’s greatest achievement was the 1971 satanic thriller Satan’s Skin, aka The Blood on Satan’s Claw.
Set during England’s interregnum, the action of the film takes place in a secluded village. An eerie humanoid skull, covered in clumps of fur, turns up when farmland is plowed. The bones go missing, and soon the youth of the village begin acting strange. They stop attending religious instruction and begin playing deadly games in the woods. Strangest of all, several grow odd patches of fur on their skin. It’s up to The Judge, local representative of order and modern society, to stop the Devil from assembling a new body on Earth.
This isn’t a perfect movie. The music is irritating and often at odds with the mood of the moment. While stalwarts like Patrick Wymark and Anthony Ainley anchor the cast, the many children are of wildly varying ability. The pacing compares unfavorably to glaciers. Yet there is much that works in its favor. Unable to afford the lush sets of richer studios, much of this film was shot in actual locations — locations that, by and large, were cramped and decayed. The dinginess of the movie, the claustrophobic rooms in the open countryside: it all sets a mood of fear and decline that fits nicely into the themes of ancient evil and religio-political upheaval.
The setting of the film is perfect. With the established power structures disrupted by the Interregnum, it’s unclear who can address the contamination of the youth. The local representative of the church is only barely able to resist temptation himself, and the only law presence is a judge who spends most of his time in London and considers the rural people to be ignorant and superstitious. The order of the land has been upset, and evil will make use of the disruption to gain a foothold.
All in all, it’s a nice little apocalyptic movie that shows what can be done within the constraints of a meager budget.
Witten and directed by Narciso Ibáñez Serrador
Based on the novel El Juego de los Niños by Juan José Plans
Starring Lewis Fiander and Prunella Ransome
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Tourists seeking an “authentic experience” go to a remote location where they discover that the natives are murderous. Or maybe this one: quite suddenly humanity faces danger from a previously harmless source. How about a woman is faced with the contamination of the child still in her womb.
At its best, ¿Quién puede matar a un niño? is a genre-masher that draws together elements of eco-horror, colonialist terror of uncivilized areas, and generational fears into a fairly unique mixture. At its worst, it is a dull affair that largely consists of two people wandering around a small village while children grin. There’s a lot of footage dedicated to watching people walk around, not finding anybody.
The premise is summarized by the lone surviving adult that our tourists (Tom and Evelyn, from England) find on the Spanish island of Almanzora. He reveals that two nights ago, at midnight, the children went into all of the houses and killed the adults. Nobody could stop them because “¿Quién puede matar a un niño?” (“Who can kill a child?”). It’s a concept that seems pleasantly naïve today. As the news shows us, plenty of people can kill children, and they do. The movie even tells the audience up front that children often suffer and are killed, as a narrator chronicles massive child casualties in conflicts of the mid 20th century. Germany, India and Pakistan, Korea, Vietnam, and Nigeria are discussed in order to hammer home the point: children are killed.
Here’s where we enter the realm of eco-horror. Just as the birds and the bees in other films, the children have had enough and spontaneously arisen in revolt against humanity — adult humanity anyway. Just as similarly, there is no cause provided for the sudden shift to aggression. It just happens. There is some evidence that the behavior is transmitted from child to child by proximity. In a chilling scene, the English couple find an isolate house on the far side of Almanzora. There are four children playing outside, but their mother and grandmother are fine and unafraid. Tom negotiates for a ride to the mainland once the men return from fishing, but he and Evelyn keep a nervous eye on the children. When two boys arrive from the village, the normal children run over to greet them. Much intense squinting follows, after which all of the children take on a predatory air.
Perhaps the most unnerving thing about the film is that the children are not relentless until they’ve decided to kill again. They giggle and run and play. Of course the clothing the girls dress up in has blood stains, and the boys are excitedly removing the clothing from a dead woman, and they use a body as a piñata. Just like normal children. Evelyn and Tom have several interactions with the children of Almanzora that don’t involve stabbing or chasing. After all, to the children it’s a game, and what’s more fun than letting the prey believe it’s running loose? As long as they don’t get close to the exit.
Directed by Mario Bava
Written by Mario Bava, Alberto Bevilacqua, Callisto Cosulich, Antonio Román, and Rafael J. Salvia
Based on the story “One Night of 21 Hours” by Renato Pestriniero
English version written by Louis M. Heyward and Ib Melchior
Starring Barry Sullivan, Norma Bengell, and Ángel Aranda
A crew of space travelers investigating a signal of unknown origin land on a murky planet, where they fall prey to an unknown stalker. Oh, and there’s an ancient alien craft populated by giant skeletons. Sound familiar?
It’s impossible to watch Planet of the Vampires without thinking that it greatly influenced Alien. Not just the high-level plot similarities, or the probable coincidences such as U-shaped spacecraft, but what really strikes you is the creative emphasis on creating a style-driven science-horror experience. It’s just that those styles couldn’t be more different.
Where Ridley Scott choose claustrophobic darkness, Mario Bava elected for bright openness. The bridge sets of the investigating travelers are ludicrously cavernous. The only trace of the creatures preying on the crew are fleeting glimpses of glowing light in a landscape of mists and garish hues. The result is an eerie fantasy world that looks amazing, but unfortunately it’s too ethereal to believe in.
The place where it works best is in the least necessary part of the movie. The interiors of the derelict craft are cramped, especially for the giants that used it. Strange equipment lies everywhere, and attempts to use it activate electric shocks, unintelligible recordings, and the bulkhead door — leading to a panicked effort to reopen it and escape. It’s a terrifically moody scene, and although it lends to the atmosphere and verifies that this planet is a trap, it’s a mostly superfluous diversion from the main story.
It’s a neat movie, and I adore it, but I’m afraid it’s not very good. The dubbing is never great and is often downright silly. While there’s a lot of visual interest (the costumes and some of the set designs are nifty), there are many times in which it’s painfully apparent that you’re looking at cardboard with a lick of paint. If you like style over substance — and when it comes to Italian cinema, I most definitely do! — then it can be a rewarding view.
One more note: if you’re expecting vampires, you will be frustrated and potentially aggrieved. The vampires exist solely in the minds of whatever marketing team came up with the American title. The original name was the less inaccurate Terrore nello spazio, or Terror in Space. There are some corpses that walk around. They aren’t exactly zombies, but they certainly aren’t vampires. Thank the marketing team at AIP for the misleading title. So now you know.
Directed by Dario Argento
Written by Dario Argento and Franco Ferrini
Starring Cristina Marsillach, Ian Charleson, and Urbano Barberini
I’m a Dario Argento apologist up to a point, and that point is his 1998 adaptation of The Phantom of the Opera that starred his daughter Asia and Julian Sands. That’s the point in his career where I throw up my hands and say that Susperia is terrific. Fortunately Opera falls in the defensible years by a safe distance; and if it seems ludicrous to hinge a plot on a vengeful raven identifying the killer, just remember that a chimpanzee avenging Donald Pleasence is not the most insane part of Argento’s previous film Phenomena.
Opera is heavily influenced by Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera, without quite being an adaptation. There’s a young understudy (Betty, played by Cristina Marsillach) who gets the starring role when the prima donna is injured. There’s a mysterious killer, fixated on the ingénue. A performance is interrupted for the penultimate confrontation. The rest is a wild departure, as it is more of a slasher movie than a Gothic romance.
It’s a pretty good slasher, too. The killer strikes those near Betty, binding her so that she is forced to watch. There’s a reason for this fixation, and it’s honestly a tad contrived, but what I love about the film is the way that sight and voyeurism are emphasized by the camera. From the opening shot of a closeup of a raven’s eye, the lens is fixated on p.o.v. shots, eyes, and focusing the view through narrow spaces.
The ravens and Betty have seen things that we haven’t, and fittingly it’s what Betty doesn’t recall having seen that explains her importance to the killer. Further, it’s what she can’t see when her stalker finally blindfolds her that nearly kills Betty.
For all of the above I adore Opera. Even the choice of an opera based on Macbeth fits thematically, as not only is the play believed to be cursed but Lady Macbeth’s most famous scene is wrapped up in guilt for bloody deeds. This is a bit of a nod to the film’s back-story.
Here I’m just going to say it, so if you really don’t want to know the reveal for a movie nearly 30 years old, skip to the next paragraph. Betty’s mother made the killer torture and kill young women. Betty herself had seen it happen as a child but had repressed it, because repressed memories are a terrific substitute for good writing. So, the mother’s actions ate transferred to the daughter to expiate the killer’s guilt. Thus, Betty plays Lady Macbeth.
Anyway, it’s definitely a flawed movie. The pins under Betty’s eyelids are a good visual but infeasible as presented. The bit with the ravens is well-filmed but downright silly. I don’t even want to know who thought dubbing a creepy adult for a young girl was a good plan. The play’s director being a clear stand-in for Argento and making moves on his much younger star is downright gross.
Yet this is the Argento I prefer to remember. The one who put effort into artistic touches that rise above the material; not the one we have now, cashing in on what’s left of his reputation with artless cheapies where the main attraction is his own naked daughter.
Directed by Jörg Buttgereit
Written by Jörg Buttgereit and Franz Rodenkirchen
Starring Bernd Daktari Lorenz, Beatrice Manowski, and Harald Mundt
I don’t know why I bought Nekromantic. I don’t have any desire to watch simulated necrophilia, and I’d never heard anyway say they enjoyed the film. Actually, all I’d ever heard was rear it was an infamous entry on the British “video nasties” list. There’s a lot of reasons that something would be put in that company, and this was reputed to have essentially used those as a checklist. Maybe it was morbid curiosity then that made me shell out an unreasonable amount for the blu of this.
Since Nekromantic deals with necrophilia, murder, and rape, I’m going to give the weak of stomach an opportunity to bail out now. Also, if a pet kill is an automatic deal-breaker for you, you really don’t need to read any more. Additionally, if seeing a real rabbit killed, bled, and skinned repels you, move on. I think that covers the worst of it. Unless caterpillars freak you out, I guess. Oh, and shots of urination. And ejaculate from a fake penis.
My biggest problem with this movie is that what I listed above is all there is to it. It’s just an exercise in transgression. That’s fine, and if you’re into watching people bathe in corpse drippings then it’ll provide that. But in between shocks, there’s a nothingness that’s occupied by overlong establishing sequences and seemingly endless repetition of the rabbit footage. Anything to stretch the run time to a paltry 75 minutes.
Here’s the story, and I’m telling every important part of it. Rob and Betty love dead things. Rob brings dead bits home from his job at Joe’s Streetcleaners. One day he brings home a decayed body, which becomes Betty’s favorite sex toy. When Rob is fired, Betty leaves with the corpse. Rob can’t get it up with a prostitute until he rage kills her. Rob stabs himself to death in a sexual frenzy. Betty starts to dig up his body.
The dead space is filled with nothing meaningful. There are two tedious scenes about how people became bodies for Rob to clean up. There are numerous scenes of Rob dreaming of cavorting in a field. Rob goes to a horror movie, where he sees people getting aroused by the sexual violence. Some of this film spackle could have been interesting if it had been better written. The audience reactions fit in with a show that Rob had watched about desensitization, but so what? If that had anything to do with Rob’s state, that happened a long time before the start of the movie.
The dullness of these stretches leaves the viewer plenty of time to think about what be better. Like making an actual connection between the rabbit and, well, anything. Showing an actual progression in Rob’s behavior. In extremely quick order he goes from killing one animal to killing a person; but he since he seems capable of all of that from the beginning, where’s the change?
It seems a bit misplaced to expect narrative quality out of a movie that features a love scene of a corpse performing fungilingus on the female lead, but I really don’t ask for Oscar quality work here. Go ahead and nauseate me, push me why the hell out of my comfort zone, but don’t leave me bored while waiting for the next shock.