The Thing

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: John Carpenter

REVIEWED: 11-02-98

Nosferatu is one of the first feature films to deal with the subject of vampirism. This silent classic is based on Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, and although the author originally went unmentioned in the titles, he is given proper credit in this version. The familiar plot has Count Orlock seeking the aid of a young real estate salesman to relocate from his castle in Transylvania to a large city. The film's finale is a departure from other versions of Dracula in that the vampire's destruction is brought about by a woman who sacrifices herself to keep Orlock occupied until the sun rises. The strengths of Nosferatu are Murnau's stylish direction and Max Schreck's performance as the vampire. Creepy and rodent-like in appearance, with elongated fingernails and a balding skull, Schreck truly looks like a creature who could bring death and pestilence to an entire city. The laserdisc of Nosferatu was created from a newly mastered 35mm print and is presented with the original tinting and at the correct projection speed. Side two is in CAV format (allowing the movie to be viewed a frame at a time) and includes a brief supplement with photographs and artwork.

Although eclipsed in both critical and box-office success by Universal's other major horror film of 1935, The Bride of Frankenstein, Werewolf of London is notable as the studio's first filmic study of lycanthropy. Many of the elements that later became part and parcel of the cinematic werewolf legend as presented in The Wolf Man and its sequels, such as transformations brought on by the light of the full moon and surviving victims of werewolf attacks later becoming lupine monsters themselves, make their debut here. However, it doesn't take a silver weapon to kill this werewolf, and there's an antidote to the condition in the form of an exotic moon plant. Henry Hull is stolid but acceptable as the obsessed botanist Dr. Glendon, and his fellow wolf man, Dr. Yogami, is portrayed by Oland (best known for his Charlie Chan movies). Valerie Hobson and Byington round out the cast as the neglected wife and her meddling aunt. Although a handsome enough production, Werewolf of London rarely rises above the level of a standard melodrama. The make-up and transformations are less impressive than in later Universal horror films, and the werewolf bears more resemblance to Mr. Hyde than Larry Talbot. Still, for lovers of Universal horror films, it's an entertaining enough 75 minutes and isn't likely to scare the kids. The first side of Werewolf of London is in CLV, with the film's climax presented in CAV format. There's also a trailer from the Realart re-release during the Fifties and a large selection of stills and lobby cards from the film. Although the image and sound are as good as can be expected, it would certainly be nice if Universal would remaster their classic horror library in DVD format. That would give die-hard fans something to howl about.

A number of movies from the science-fiction film boom of the 1950s are imbued with Cold War paranoia and a deadly fear of "the bomb." Producer George Pal's War of the Worlds, loosely based on H. G. Wells' novel, wasn't the first film to externalize America's fear of annihilation through the construct of invading aliens; Howard Hawks' The Thing had James Arness as a malevolent, blood-drinking "super carrot" from outer space. But where The Thing limited its conflict to an isolated battle between a group of humans and their alien antagonist at an Arctic outpost, War of the Worlds is global in scope. Although most of the film is focused on the Martians attacking the Los Angeles area, there are plenty of memorable images of worldwide destruction. Pal updated the mechanical tripods of Wells' novel in favor of more streamlined alien weaponry. The manta-shaped Martian war machines with their cobra-hooded heat rays is one of the seminal images of Fifties science--fiction films. Gordon Jennings and his crew of technicians won an Academy Award for special effects for their impressive contributions to War of the Worlds. Neither the script nor the lead performances are outstanding, but the film moves along at a brisk pace and is far superior to most other efforts in the genre. This remastered laserdisc is presented entirely in CAV format and occupies three sides of two discs. Also included are the trailer to another Pal science--fiction classic, When Worlds Collide, and for the first time a home video version of War of the Worlds is presented with stereo sound. With laserdiscs getting harder and harder to find, they're also getting less expensive in some cases, and War of the Worlds can often be found at less than its original price.

Carpenter's version of The Thing is less a remake of the Howard Hawks 1951 version than a more faithful adaptation of John W. Campbell Jr.'s short story "Who Goes There?" on which both were based. The film opens in Antarctica with a sled dog running from a pair of Norwegian men in a helicopter, who are attempting to kill the animal. The dog finds safety at a nearby American base and the Norwegians end up dead, leaving the Americans with a mystery and a whole lot more (although they don't realize it at the time) on their hands. After investigating the Norwegian camp and a crashed alien spacecraft, the Americans, led by pilot Kurt Russell, begin to put the pieces together. When the dog metamorphoses into something indescribable, the men are faced with the fact that they are up against an enemy that can literally look like anyone or anything. The Thing is paranoid, bleak, uncompromising, and thankfully devoid of a traditional Hollywood happy ending. Led by Russell, the ensemble cast is outstanding, but the real star of the film is Rob Bottin's imaginative creature effects. Bottin, who was responsible for the werewolf make-up and transformations in The Howling the previous year, takes full advantage of the myriad possibilities that the alien's power provides. Although he composes the music for most of his films, Carpenter elected not to do the score for The Thing himself, opting for Ennio Morricone instead. Morricone's music for The Thing, with its throbbing baseline, is reminiscent of other Carpenter scores and is quite effective. The laserdisc version of The Thing is letterboxed and includes the theatrical trailer. Truly disturbing at times, The Thing isn't for the squeamish or for dog lovers. Others looking for a Halloween treat might want to give it a try.

A haunted house in suburbia? Steven Spielberg and Tobe Hooper took this odd concept and ran with it, creating one of the best fright films of the Eighties, Poltergeist. The Freeling family, who reside in the sleepy subdivision of Cuesta Verde, seem about as normal as can be. Except for the fact that their youngest daughter talks to people who live in the family's television. Things go from fine to bad when the mysterious forces move from the television into the house itself, and from bad to worse when they kidnap the little girl during a thunderstorm. The parents (well-played by Williams and Nelson) first have to find someone who will believe them, then must find a way to reclaim their daughter from the malignant forces that have her imprisoned. Poltergeist has a wicked sense of humor, although it never crosses the line into camp, and leads viewers on a well-paced thrill ride. The special effects were created by Industrial Light and Magic, and are quite well-done. Zelda Rubinstein is also memorable as the diminutive psychic. As with many DVDs, Poltergeist has a letterboxed version on one side of the disc and pan-and-scan on the other, with subtitles and dubbed dialogue in several different languages. The picture and surround sound are crisp and well-defined. If your idea of Halloween is a haunted house, but you'd rather stay in your living room, try Poltergeist. Just don't leave the TV on when it's over.

--Bud Simons

Capsule Reviews
The Thing

Other Films by John Carpenter
Escape From L.A.
In the Mouth of Madness
Prince of Darkness
They Live
Village of the Damned

Film Vault Suggested Links
Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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