THE THING (1982)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Directed by: John Carpenter

Written by: Bill Lancaster

(based on the novella WHO GOES THERE? by John W. Campbell Jr.)

Starring: Kurt Russell, A. Wilford Brimley, T.K. Carter, David Clennon, Keith David, Richard Dysart, Charles Hallahan, Peter Maloney, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, Joel Polis & Thomas Waites

Widely considered to be one of John Carpenter’s very best films and one of the best horror films of all-time, THE THING initially flopped at the 1982 box office as audiences clamored to watch a more family friendly extraterrestrial in Steven Spielberg’s E.T. Reviews weren’t exactly positive for THE THING in its original theatrical run as many critics wrote off this film as exploitative, cheesy, and overly gory as opposed to scary. Decades later, it’s baffling to look back on the mistreatment of THE THING and easy to see why this film has left a lasting legacy.

In a remote Antarctic research station, a group of rugged American scientists spot a Norwegian helicopter shooting at a dog. Being nice guys, the Americans welcome to the dog into their station with open arms and shoot the hostile Norwegian pilot. Something horrific happened at the neighboring Norwegian camp and a shape-shifting alien parasite has now infiltrated the American base. This evil extraterrestrial seems to ensure its survival by digesting animals and then imitating them with 100% accuracy. The Americans shouldn’t be worried about what this “thing” is. Instead, they become more concerned about who this “thing” has become.

Though its premise sounds like a simple creature feature on paper, THE THING is so much more than that. As the alien presence makes itself known, the film focuses on not just being a fantastic monster movie, but also weaving a paranoid mystery together. We know that at least two people have likely been infected by this mutating organism, but we don’t know their identities. The audience is aware that it’s only a matter of time before more people become infected as this monster seems hellbent on devouring/becoming anybody that comes near it. The film’s ever-growing suspense and extreme paranoia erupt from trying to figure out who is real and who is one of the “things.”

THE THING might seem like a vague movie title, but you’d be hard pressed to describe the monstrous forms that this “thing” takes on throughout this terrifying film. The tentacled, razor-toothed, and freakish shapes are brought to life through stellar practical effects that still hold up perfectly to this day. The frightening nature of these horrific “things” is amplified by tense build-ups to every reveal and the sense that one of these monsters might appear at any given moment. THE THING is riddled with classic scenes that have been lovingly referenced in plenty of other movies and TV shows. The blood test is easily one of the scariest moments, while rising paranoia between the researchers is just as dangerous as the monster itself.

The cast is made up of a few memorable faces and a lot of gruff beards. With so many grizzled guys in the same place, it might initially seem a little difficult to keep track of who is who. However, the film sets up certain characters early on and gives us a sense of who these people are. Kurt Russell is a big show-stealer as man’s man R.J. MacReady, while Keith David is intimidating as hot-tempered alpha-male Childs. The rest of the cast members stick out with individual characteristics, so we get an idea of when someone may have been changed into a “thing” and who seems totally normal. This character-building tactic puts the viewer in the same paranoid mental state as the film’s characters.

Though it runs at just under two hours long, John Carpenter makes each scene completely compelling, even during the slow-burn first third of the film in which we receive a few clues about the creature’s origin. Scientific explanations behind this monster don’t serve as mere exposition dumps either, because these informative moments amplify the viewer’s growing terror as we realize the magnitude of this hopeless situation. The film’s ambiguous ending leaves much to the viewer’s interpretation and concludes in an appropriately chilling fashion (pun fully intended).

THE THING is one of the greatest horror films of all-time! Its scares are very real. Its practical effects are nightmarish and hold up better than most modern effects. The monster designs look like something out of H.P. Lovecraft’s head, and Carpenter admitted that he was inspired by Lovecraft’s work. The acting is flawless, and thick suspense hovers over every single scene. THE THING is easily the best thing that John Carpenter ever directed. This movie isn’t just a masterpiece of horror, but it’s also a timeless classic that will keep scaring the hell out of people for decades to come.

Grade: A+

THE FOG (1980)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 29 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

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Directed by: John Carpenter

Written by: John Carpenter & Debra Hill

Starring: Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis, Janet Leigh, John Housman, Tom Atkins, James Canning & Hal Holbrook

Coming off the success of HALLOWEEN, John Carpenter and Debra Hill decided to go old-school with their next horror project. They decided upon an atmospheric ghost story as opposed to another slasher film. Their intentions were good, but the initial first cut came out looking like crap. This led to a lot of fine tuning, an entire new musical score being written, and reshoots that cut extremely close to the film’s release date. Due to the troubled production, Carpenter often cites THE FOG as one of the least favorite films of his career. This also led to him selling the rights for 2005’s abominable FOG remake, but the less said about that, the better. Taken as a cheesy slice of 80’s horror, the original FOG is a fun time that wears its small budget on its sleeve.

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The coastal town of Antonio Bay is about to celebrate its 100th anniversary. However, this appears to be one celebration that the townsfolk will never forget. From midnight until 1 am, a mysterious glowing fog moves in and causes random objects to break, strange noises in the street, and the entire crew of a fishing boat to suffer a chilling fate. It seems that the horror that lasted a mere hour is far from over though. The history of Antonio Bay was built on blood and a priest has uncovered the dark truth. As night falls on the town’s 100th celebration, the mysterious glowing fog moves in again and shadowy figures can be glimpsed within the fog bank. What’s in the fog? What is so mysterious about Antonio Bay’s past? Will any of the town’s residents (including a friendly fisherman, a local DJ, said DJ’s son, and a strange hitchhiker) make it out of this supernatural disaster unscathed? I guess you’ll have to watch this movie to find out.

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Running at under 90 minutes, THE FOG’s plot is all over the map. We follow various groups of residents and see their encounters with the supernatural fog. Some of them meet up at certain points in the story, while others never encounter a single other major character (e.g. a creepy old fisherman). That’s not to say that these characters aren’t interesting or enjoyable to watch. This cast contains a lot of familiar faces from other horror films. As far as the most memorable character of the bunch, we get Adrienne Barbeau (who later went on to star in Stephen King’s anthology CREEPSHOW) as the lighthouse DJ. Barbeau plays one of the stronger female characters to come out of 80’s horror, though she mostly does her heroine arc by being a voice on the radio. Jamie Lee Curtis (from HALLOWEEN, duh) plays a somewhat pointless, but enjoyable to watch, hitchhiker who gets picked up by Tom Atkins (who later went on to star in HALLOWEEN III and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS). Atkins is far more of an actual character, but Curtis shows off convincing chemistry alongside him. Janet Leigh (Curtis’s mother and star of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO) has a small part, while Hal Holbrook (who went on to star opposite of Barbeau in CREEPSHOW) is great as a drunken priest.

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You can tell that John Carpenter had a tight budget while making THE FOG and that shows through the lack of any actual ghosts that get up close and personal. Instead of revealing the shadowy figures in the glowing fog bank (something that the remake did entirely too much of), Carpenter leaves his phantoms as silhouettes with bright red eyes. We do get to see a couple of kills, but they almost feel like an afterthought. These death scenes were actually most of the reshoots. What THE FOG excels at is building a creepy atmosphere. Seeing as fog constantly attributes to a spooky atmosphere in many other horror films, this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, but still remains creepy nonetheless. The basic storyline of the film is pretty easy to predict and fairly straight-forward. In many ways, it does remind one of older ghost movies where the mystery of the haunting was simple and to-the-point.

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THE FOG isn’t among Carpenter’s best films (HALLOWEEN and THE THING), but it stands as a good entry in a long filmography of horror entertainment. At its center, this is just a simple ghost movie and can be enjoyed as such, though a strong atmosphere and good performances elevate it to another level of creepiness. If you’re a fan of John Carpenter or ghost movies in general, then this should be right up your alley.

Grade: B

PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1987)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Prince Of Darkness poster

Directed by: John Carpenter

Written by: John Carpenter

Starring: Donald Pleasence, Lisa Blount, Victor Wong, Jameson Parker, Alice Cooper

Out of all the horror directors from the 70’s and 80’s, I would consider John Carpenter to be the absolute reigning champion. This man knew how to scare you and told original stories! Even when the film was a remake, he knew how to make it fresh. Looking at his filmography is enough to make any film fan fall head over heels in love with the man. He may have specialized in the oddball movies, but he most definitely knew what he was doing. PRINCE OF DARKNESS is John Carpenter’s take on the devil and it’s one of his lesser recognized films, but is this for good reason or because it’s been forgotten to the realms of time?

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The plot revolves around a group of students who have been recruited to analyze a giant container of an unknown green ooze. As the researchers soon discover, the fluid is actually the physical form of Satan himself. One by one, the group members find themselves being either possessed or killed at the hands of liquid version of Lucifer. It’s up to the surviving members to escape with their lives and stop the apocalypse.

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Having been recently released on Blu-Ray and Special Edition DVD, one might assume that the cult following of this film and the accomplished director would speak to the quality of PRINCE OF DARKNESS. While I may get crucified for saying this (pun slightly intended), I think that PRINCE OF DARKNESS might be one of Carpenter’s worst films. The set design is pretty to look at and some scenes are put together fairly well. The ending actually carries a solid scare. This doesn’t make up for the rest of the film taking far too long to get where it’s going and when it does get there, having nothing really new or particularly interesting given to the viewer.

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Essentially, we have some possessed people spraying ooze from their mouths to infect other people. There’s even the obligatory characters realize they are trapped when they keep trying to escape sequence. It certainly doesn’t make matters any better than none of the characters are remotely worth caring about. Even Donald Pleasence, who has been great in many other movies, can’t seem to pull off his role as the priest very well. The cast may as well have been composed of cardboard cutouts of people for all the emotion they garner from the viewer. Then there’s the most annoying cast member, Dennis Dun. He tries to be funny and spout off jokes to relieve the tension. This joker never winds up being charming, endearing, or remotely funny. I wanted him to die a painful agonizing death.

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While others might say that the film is subtle and a different flavor from what we’re used to from John Carpenter, I was bored senseless. There were some good ideas here, but they are either never fully realized or devolve into things we’ve seen from other movies before. While the idea of possessed people spreading the demonic force like a virus is pretty awesome, it nearly becomes another in a line of zombie flicks. While the idea of killer homeless people who may be the drones of Satan is cool, it’s not quite given enough time for us to care.

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PRINCE OF DARKNESS has some solid ideas that could make for a great film, especially with John Carpenter at the helm, but for many reasons, nothing seems to jive well here. The set designs are cool and there are a couple of jump-scares that work. Alice Cooper also shows up as the quasi-leader of this psychotic hobos, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. PRINCE OF DARKNESS winds up being a big disappointment on a mostly great filmography.

Grade: D+

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