Classic Films

Gods, Devils, Sinners and Saints — Visions of Heaven and Hell in the Movies

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The Devil Himself! Darkness (Tim Curry) in Ridley Scott’s Legend

It’s the Time of the Season!

The Easter-Passover season has drawn upon us. And as such, we make note of this moment as a time for reflection.

Whether at a church or a temple, a synagogue or a mosque, or wherever one goes in order to be alone with one’s thoughts; to pray for a loved one or to ask forgiveness for one’s transgressions; whether attending a wedding ceremony, a funeral for a friend, or a baptism for a newborn babe — all these activities are a requisite part of the daily cycles of life we humans are regularly asked to partake in. And most of these activities tend to follow a religious practice of some sort.

That being the case, obtaining spiritual sustenance is something we’re all called upon to do in one form or another. In point of fact, religion comprises a large portion of who we are as individuals, which also reflects how we were raised as children. Henceforth, it becomes difficult to separate our faith (or its lack) from our inner selves, whether we’re fervent practitioners or doubting Thomases.

Whatever name one chooses to call these beliefs, or whatever faith we decide to adhere to and follow, in the movies religion is most often characterized by a fascinating mix of the familiar with the foreboding, and the ridiculous with the sublime.

We know there is good in the world. But oftentimes the good cannot coexist without the presence of its opposite number, evil, as writer-director M. Night Shyamalan forthrightly pointed out in his film Unbreakable (2000), a cinematic ode to comic-book lore. This singular battle for the soul — for either the dark or the light side of life to prevail — is the basis for most films about religious faith or that use religion in some way, shape or form, as their underlying theme or tone.

Good guys vs. bad guys: Unbreakable with Samuel L. Jackson & Bruce Willis

Let it be known, however, that “evil” as such is not always depicted in so-called traditional forms, nor is it nearly so obvious to the untrained eye as the presence of a pointy-tailed, horned-and-hoofed fiend would tend to be.

Nevertheless, the Evil One’s multiple manifestations and head-on clashes with the Almighty and His followers are what make up the stuff of movie legend.

Considering the importance of religion in people’s everyday lives, let me offer this brief overview of scenes and descriptions from a variety of motion-picture appearances of gods, devils, sinners and saints, in addition to cinematic portraits of Jesus and our old pal Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, or whatever moniker may strike your fancy, and his celluloid cohorts, as they’ve been portrayed on the silver screen throughout the years.

Physical and Not-So-Physical Manifestations

All right, then, we know who Satan is. He’s so easy to spot, isn’t he? Why, he’s the guy with that evil glint in his eye, right? But beyond that, he tends to sport those ignominious horns atop his shiny forehead as well as that spiked tail. Correct?

Oh, how wrong we are!

Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old. He’s Damien in Richard Donner’s creepy The Omen from 1976 (and in John Moore’s 2005 remake), a serious little boy not even his mother could love. In the sequel Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. The boy’s agents can be a Rottweiler dog or a surly maidservant, at other times an innocuous black crow.

Mean widdle kid: Damien (Harvey Spencer Stephens) in Richard Donner’s The Omen

He can change shape and transform himself into a bat, mist, or fog, as in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula from 1992, with the vampire as a main stand-in for Satan; or even as a deviled-ham icon of himself.

In Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985), he’s a big, badass dude named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match; a huge cleft in his pointy chin and that blood-red body suit, under makeup artist Rob Bottin’s layers upon layers of latex. Played to the robust hilt by the charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper named Jack Sprout (or shall we say “the little green giant”?).

On the positive side of the ledger, Jesus Christ, the saints, and other lesser mortals are viewed in slightly more humdrum fashion, which is befitting of their, shall we say, more human aspirations.

Whether they’re played by a young Jeffrey Hunter who is tempted for forty days and forty nights by an unseen voice in Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings (1961), or the more gaunt-looking Max von Sydow in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) who converses with a beady-eyed and nervously twitchy Donald Pleasence in the vast, open plains of Monument Valley, Utah, the Messiah has traditionally been envisioned as having Westernized European features, i.e. tall, blond and blue-eyed looks — in other words, your above-average, all-American kind of guy.

The Devil (Donald Pleasence) in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story Ever Told

Where did this representation come from, if the historical Jesus himself was purported to have been a denizen of the Middle East? Chalk it up to the middle-aged H.B. Warner in movie mogul Cecil B. DeMille’s silent version of The King of Kings (1927). Although the first recognizable images of Christ appeared in ancient artifacts as far back as the Byzantine period, producer-director DeMille has been credited, for good or for bad, as having laid his hands on a project where his leading man was forbidden from reaching out for the sauce (Warner was a confirmed alcoholic) under threat of expulsion from Hollywood Paradise.

In one of the most extraordinary sequences of all religious films, DeMille combines the Devil’s temptation of Christ with the age-old story of the woman caught in adultery followed closely by the expulsion of the moneychangers from the Jewish temple. It’s a masterly episode, told in purely visual terms, with Jesus bending down and writing in the spilled temple salt (salt of the earth?) words that implicate the woman’s accusers with their own sins.

Jesus (H.B. Warner) rescues the adulteress from the mob in Cecil B. DeMille’s The King of Kings

Later the Devil, dressed in black to Jesus’ all-white robe, offers him the kingdoms of the world if he would only fall down and worship him. “Get thee behind me, Satan!” Christ intones, after repeatedly striking his breast. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil makes a hasty retreat.

Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal form) but merely hinted at, as in Twentieth Century-Fox’s overly reverential The Robe (1953) or in M-G-M’s Ben-Hur (1959). In the former, the Messiah is voiced by Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him as heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; while in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we did get a good look at Heater’s backside, as well as his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.

God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, his portentous voice loudly booms forth each of the rules for life and good. In the Burning Bush sequence, Heston provided the reverent voice of the Lord — slowed down, of course, to a somber snail’s pace. But in the later Commandments scene, the task of uttering God’s lines was handed over (so rumor tells us) to DeMille’s publicist and biographer, actor Donald Hayne.

Moses (Charlton Heston) hears the Voice of God in The Ten Commandments

While never fully substantiated or revealed at the time of the film’s release, DeMille felt he had plenty of justification for his the use of Heston’s voice by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind.

A Matter of Life and Death

In Terry Jones’ monstrously irreverent, politically incorrect feature Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983), Death and its finality are represented by a rather fearsome, sickle-carrying Grim Reaper, interrupting a happy gathering of typically jolly British country types (“Hello Grim!”) as they become privy to the startling news that they will succumb to food poisoning and that this will be their last supper together.

The Grim Reaper points to a tasteless treat in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life

The Swedish-born Max von Sydow reappears as a disillusioned knight returned from the shock of the Crusades, playing chess opposite a black-cowled Bengt Ekerot as Death (the Devil, you say) in the Oscar-winning medieval drama The Seventh Seal (1957) by Ingmar Bergman. The game is over at last when the knight deliberately knocks down one of the pieces, to which Death takes full advantage of. He comes to claim his prize as the knight is about to enjoy his own “last meal,” in a scene reminiscent of Monty Python.

Fifteen years later, Von Sydow stopped by the doorstep again to play the aged priest Father Merrin in William Friedkin’s 1972 supernatural classic The Exorcist, with Jason Miller as the sympathetic and troubled Father Damien (there’s that name again) Karras. Both are tempted by the demon (or devil or spirit, or what-have-you) that has buried itself deep inside the possessed twelve-year-old body of the girl Regan (Linda Blair).

In the exhausting exorcism scene towards the end, Father Merrin suffers a fatal heart attack. Taking over for the dead priest, Father Damien makes the ultimate sacrifice by offering himself to the demon, thereby rescuing Regan from the Evil One’s clutches.

Max von Sydow as the Tracker in What Dreams May Come, 1998 (Photo: PolyGram Filmed Entertainment)

Expanding his range of colorful film characters, Von Sydow was also the avuncular ferryman known as the Tracker in Vincent Ward’s surrealistic What Dreams May Come (1998). A New Age Charon for the Nineties, the Tracker paddles borderline delusional Robin Williams and charismatic Cuba Gooding Jr. (as his reincarnated son) over the gruesomely grisly Faces of the Damned (in other words, the River Styx in Greek mythology) in order to rescue Williams’ wife from purgatory.

(End of Part One – To be continued….)

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Carrie’ (1976): Be Careful Who You Pick On

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Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) & Tommy Ross (William Katt) at the senior prom in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)

Have you ever been bullied at school? At the playground? At work, or in your own home? We all have at one time or another. How did it feel afterward? Like crap, right?

Carrie White is a lonely, awkward teenager. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd, especially the girls. She can’t even play a decent game of volleyball. That’s made clear from the beginning. Her hateful classmates at Bates High School taunt her relentlessly for her failings. In this case, they badmouth and ridicule Carrie for her clumsiness in losing the game. Bullying is an everyday aspect of this high schooler’s lifestyle.

“Carrie White eats shit!” is their rallying cry. They write these words on the inside doors of the gymnasium, which a maintenance worker tries diligently to wipe off.

After the volleyball game has ended, the scene changes to the high school’s locker room and shower facilities. Most of the girls are in the nude, their femininity exposed to each other as the most natural, lighthearted thing in the world. But not for Carrie, who is out of their line of sight. She’s alone in the shower — an impossibly huge shower stall for the real world, exaggerated beyond all normal boundaries to accentuate the distance between her and the other girls.

Carrie (played by 24-year-old Sissy Spacek) is enjoying some down time, something she’s rarely been allowed to experience over the course of her young life. The slow-motion camera work focuses primarily on her hand as it reaches out for a bar of soap. She uses the soap bar to massage her body in a most pleasant, intimate manner. The music surges as Carrie cups her breasts in her hands. She likes the feeling it gives her, as she throws her head back in ecstasy. The water from the shower head splashes over her face and shoulders, soothing her bruised ego as much as it washes the sweat out of her hair.

Reaching down to her private parts, the viewer is made aware that Carrie takes pleasure in her own body, an all-too brief exercise in self-discovery. Naturally, this bit of business leads to what may be her very first orgasm. We see her hand brushing up and down her inner thigh, which borders on the voyeuristic but does not invite a puerile interest from the viewing audience. Still, it leaves no doubt as to what is happening. Minutes later, blood gushes forth onto Carrie’s hand and down her leg. Carrie takes immediate notice of the situation and reacts in horror at the sight. She has no idea what is happening to her.

Carrie is scared out of her wits at the sight of her own blood

In a panic, she rushes from the shower seeking help from her fellow seniors. But instead of aid and comfort, the girls in the locker laugh at and tease Carrie for her cluelessness. They corner Carrie in one of the stalls and throw white towels and tampons at her crouching form. Hearing the commotion, the fitness teacher Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley) pushes her way into the crowd and bends down to calm the hysterical girl. Ms. Collins slaps her hard across the face (there is a lot of slapping throughout the movie by both boys and girls, but mostly female to female — an early example of self-misogyny?) until Carrie gets a hold of herself.

What really gets their attention is when the overhead light suddenly bursts apart. Collins, along with the other girls — and especially the heartless school principal, Mr. Morton (who keeps calling her “Cassie” by mistake) — cannot comprehend why Carrie’s had no knowledge of basic female bodily functions. She’s given an early dismissal slip, which is tantamount to having her emotional and physical trauma dismissed as minor distractions.

Carrie’s body language reveals more about her predicament than anything else. Shy and reserved, her long reddish-blonde hair combed straight down the sides, which hide her raw-boned features, Carrie wears a shapeless, dull-gray outfit. She does this partly out of her mother’s puritanical dress code and Carrie’s own desire not to attract attention to herself.

Her dress is as formless and drab as her life has been up to this point. Her home, a rundown two-storey shack that’s up for sale, is in desperate want of a paint job. The chips and splits in the house’s framework signify a life that’s not at all what it’s “cracked up” to be.

Seeking the shelter of a mother’s arms, Carrie receives nothing but physical abuse and more holy-roller zealotry from her religious fanatic of a single parent, Margaret White (actress Piper Laurie, in a frizzy fright wig). Mom spouts pseudo-Biblical passages as a way of keeping Carrie in line. And Margaret’s solution to her daughter’s queries as to why she never told her about her monthly menstrual cycle is to lock her in a hall closet and demand that she ask forgiveness for her “sins.” Poor child.

As for the offenders, i.e., those nasty girls in the locker room, they are threatened with suspension and refusal to participate in the senior prom. However, one of the girls, Sue Snell (played by a young Amy Irving), has a change of heart and honestly tries to make amends. She asks her sometime boyfriend, a local jock named Tommy Ross (William Katt, in thick blonde tresses), to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. The suspicious Ms. Collins questions the couple when she learns from Carrie of Tommy’s plans. They insist it’s all on the level, but Collins remains unconvinced.

Earlier, in Carrie’s English class, the teacher Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) reads a love poem purportedly written by Tommy. This scene, which one can tell had a huge influence on the work of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (see The Sixth Sense, in particular the episode with Cole Sear and his teacher, “Stuttering Stanley”), is shot in such a way as to frame an extreme close-up of Tommy’s face at far left, placed directly in front of another student, followed by Carrie’s sad, downturned features at back and to the right. All three are in deep focus.

Tommy (Katt) listens to Carrie’s compliment in English class

Mr. Fromm seeks the class’s opinion about the poem, which, to the surprise of everyone (especially Tommy) Carrie volunteers a demure response: “It’s beautiful.” This has a positive effect on the jock, although at the prom he admits he did not write the poem. Nevertheless, Tommy thanks Carrie for praising his piece. In fact, she was the only one who did.

Meanwhile, another troublemaker, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen), has ideas of her own. Chris refuses to accept her punishment, so she hatches a plot with her none-too-bright beau, Billy Nolan (John Travolta, before donning the white suit in Saturday Night Fever), to get even with Carrie and Ms. Collins for being denied access to the prom.

That high school prom, however, will turn out to be the most “memorable” gathering in the sleepy town’s history. The flashing lights, the red-on-blue color scheme, the set design, and even the music (by Italian composer Pino Donaggio in the best tradition of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho) foreshadow a series of supernatural events that will be the downfall of practically everyone associated with them, including Carrie herself and the meddlesome Margaret and Ms. Collins. The tension is stretched almost to the breaking point as the slow-motion walk to the podium (calling to mind the music and mood of the shower scene at the start) drags out the inevitable climax ad absurdum.

Carrie gets drenched in pig’s blood at the senior prom

Director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 film adaptation of horror-writer Stephen King’s fourth novel Carrie, from 1973, while deviating partially from its original conception, actually enhances this coming-of-age tale by concentrating on Carrie and her obsessively-minded mother, Margaret. We learn, during the course of the picture, that Carrie was conceived by a drunken ex-father, in a violent rape of her mother that permanently turned Margaret off to the sexual act (in particular, to penetration). That led directly to mom’s preoccupation with religion and her use and abuse of the first woman, Eve, as the architect of original sin (a favorite theme of director Alfred Hitchcock’s).

Sissy Spacek, near the start of a 40-year film career, is flawlessly cast as the wimpy but telekinetic Carrie. With her gaunt visage and lissome body shape, Spacek is introspective and vulnerable in the movie’s first half, who is then magically transformed into a swan by the second. It’s a reversal of the Cinderella story where, instead of a glass slipper, Carrie is regaled with laughter (in her mind’s eye, we presume) for which she exacts a swift and terrifying revenge.

As her mother, Piper Laurie is utterly frightening. Her demise is a classic comeuppance: with her arms held up between an archway by kitchen utensils, her body is pierced (thanks to Carrie’s mind-bending abilities) with knives and other sharp instruments in a Saint Sebastian-like pose. Martyrdom comes to Margaret in a most convincing fashion. Bookending Carrie’s first orgasm from earlier in the picture, we see Margaret getting her jollies out of finally being “penetrated” for keeps. Her writhing death rattle, which sounds like extended moaning and groaning in orgasmic pleasure, is pure camp but nevertheless effective.

Although the story takes place in New England, she and Spacek speak in a perceptible Southern twang. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were once expelled from their place of origin for their antisocial habits. For a horror flick, the film is laden with nuances more subtle than one would expect in your average “horny teenager movie,” as the late critic Roger Ebert once coined these pictures.

A girls’ best friend is her mother? Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in a prayerful mood

I first saw Carrie in the theater when it came out back in 1976-77. I was impressed by the tautness and compact quality of its screenplay that emphasized character development and plot over special FX. Yes, there’s gore in that elaborate prom sequence, but again it’s not what one would expect. Carrie gets a bucket of pig’s blood spilled on her (telegraphed beforehand, we should point out, by that initial scene in the girl’s shower!), as well as on her revealing, self-made party dress. And the tuxedoed Tommy Ross gets knocked unconscious by that same bucket (in the novel, he too is bathed in the blood and instantly killed).

Seeing the movie again after, oh, 40 years or so, I continue to praise Carrie as an exemplary horror flick, one of the best screen versions of a Stephen King novel anywhere. More than that, this is an exceptionally well made feature. Director De Palma, who came from the same generation that spawned such rising stars as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Joe Dante, and John Milius, has been unfairly neglected for his past efforts not only in the horror and psychological thriller categories (Sisters, Body Double, Blow-Out, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Raising Cain) but for his financially lucrative ventures (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible). Though not as highly touted as some of the above-named artisans, De Palma nonetheless has been widely acknowledged as a master of his craft.

While it’s true his earlier features were often considered bastardizations of better work by others (some say his “admiration” for Hitchcock led him to outright imitation, the so-termed “sincerest form of flattery”), in the case of Carrie De Palma’s genuine ability for getting the audience to identify quickly with the protagonist literally carried the film through to its unexpectedly shocking end — a conclusion that today has become a standard horror cliché. Back then, in 1976, it was a bold and fresh move.

Sissy Spacek as Carrie with director Brian De Palma

Few directors from his perspective, working in any genre, have so successfully captured on screen the awkwardness and alienation that teenagers feel when faced with unsettling changes to their bodies. Indeed, body horror as a movie genre has long been the province of Canadian filmmaker, actor, and author David Cronenberg, whose own series of nightmarish variations on this theme (The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, et al.) have outflanked De Palma’s output by a factor of ten.

In that sense, and in many others, I’ve gained renewed respect and tolerance for De Palma’s brand of filmmaking than I have ever had for Mr. Cronenberg’s. Mind you, it’s a personal thing with me, and not meant to undermine the talents of either of these fine artists who continue to work at the absolute peak of their form. Along with Roman Polanski’s atmospheric Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), De Palma’s Carrie is a welcome addition to any horror buff’s expanding library shelf of shockers.

Experience these classics for their superb visual style and inventive casting and craftsmanship, say, around the end of October. During Halloween, or anytime, for that matter. You’ll be pleased and surprised at how well they have held up over time.        

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘It Came from Outer Space’ (1953): Strangers in a Strange Land

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The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)
The discovery of the alien craft in It Came from Outer Space (Universal, 1953)

An imaginary Arizona locale and desert town is the eerie setting for science-fiction author Ray Bradbury’s story of alien visitors from another world who, on their mission to a different part of the galaxy, accidentally crash land on planet Earth.

Writer and amateur astronomer John Putnam (sci-fi stalwart Richard Carlson), a recent resident of the aptly named Sand Rock, is sharing a cozy, romantic evening with local girl Ellen Fields (beautiful Barbara Rush), a grade-school teacher by profession. Suddenly, the couple witnesses a fiery meteor (or something close to it) streak across the nighttime sky.

Wasting no time, the curious pair drives out to the nearby crash site. As Putnam approaches what he believes to be a spacecraft of some kind, an unexpected landslide buries the contents within — but not before he (and the viewer, ostensibly) get a glimpse of what lies inside.

Hideous and horrible, the aliens are not your garden variety space invaders, but are instead intelligent and, it is later learned, benign beings with expansive minds and souls of their own. Unfortunately, they also have single bulbous eyes, amorphous, gelatinous bodies and the ability to assume the identity and appearance of the local populace.

Ellen (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) through the looking glass
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) & John Putnam (Richard Carlson) peer through the looking glass, or telescope in this case

Even worse, not everyone shares Putnam’s interest and curiosity about the alien visitors, especially after several of the town’s citizens mysteriously disappear and the only hardware store in sight is robbed of its electrical supplies. Hmm… what could those pesky aliens want with electrical supplies? Maybe, repair their damaged ship? Or get going with their interrupted mission?

Fear and paranoia soon grip the dusty abode, which is patrolled by chain-smoking Sheriff Matt Warren (Charles Drake). An old boyfriend of Ellen’s, Matt is overly protective of her and skeptical of Putnam’s crackpot theories about aliens. He’s not too keen on strangers either, benign or otherwise.

“Why don’t they come out into the open? Matt asks Putnam.

“Because they don’t trust us,” Putnam replies. “Because what we don’t understand we want to destroy.”

“I kill only what tries to kill me,” Matt fires back.

Putnam tries to talk some sense into the highly strung lawman. He points to an approaching arachnid.

“That spider. Why are you afraid of it? Because it has eight legs? Because its mouth moves from side to side instead of up and down? If it came at you, what would you do?”

“This,” as the sheriff crushes the spider under his boot. Point taken, point made!

Despite this seeming setback, Putnam is able to convince Matt to give him and the alien visitors more time to repair their ship. The aliens eventually release their captives and, returning to their original disgusting forms, leave the Earth in the same manner in which they approached, spewing forth a fiery trail in the sky.

Alien spacecraft from It Came from Outer Space
Alien spacecraft crashes to the Earth in It Came from Outer Space (1953)

A true classic of the genre, It Came from Outer Space tries to live down that egregious title and live up to its well-deserved reputation as one of the few soberly-minded and intelligently conceived sci-fi flicks of the 1950s.

Originally filmed in the 3-D process (though always shown flat in its television screenings), It Came from Outer Space was Universal-International’s first foray into the science-fiction field. In fact, the 3-D effects are rather subdued and less “in-your-face” than other examples from the period. For pure shock value, a creepy film score (credited to Irving Gertz, Henry Mancini, and Herman Stein) penetrates the soundtrack whenever the aliens are caught looming about. You may remember this theme from the old Saturday night Creature Features showcase from the 1960s and ’70s.

One of the unfortunate aspects of this and other similar releases was the studio’s bowing to Fifties convention, whereby the men are given the decisive, upright role as defenders of the realm — true movers and shakers, for good or for bad (see Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World).

This attitude relegated most of the women’s parts to pure window dressing or easily excitable observers. The scene in which Barbara Rush, as Ellen, answers the doorbell and screams her fool head off as she spots a boy decked out in a space invader’s outfit (with toy ray-gun in hand), is a good example of old-fashioned female hysterics.

Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space
Ellen Fields (Barbara Rush) screams for her life in It Came from Outer Space

Curiously, in another scene, the behavior of a sobbing Mrs. Frank Daylon (Virginia Mullen), the wife of one of the missing telephone linemen, contrasts sharply with that of the other missing lineman’s floozy girlfriend, Jane Dean (Kathleen Hughes). While Mrs. Daylon expresses spousal concern that Frank (Joe Sawyer) had skipped his meal and hasn’t been “himself” of late, Jane is more flippant about Frank’s partner, George (Russell Johnson):

“His landlady told me he skipped dinner. That ain’t like George, not with his appetite.” I’ll bet!

At 81 minutes, the film is compact and concise. The special effects (done via mirrors, split-screens, double exposures, swirling mists, and such) are state-of-the-art, for its time. And despite the description of the scene with Ellen, the acting is relatively low key. Subtlety and nuance, an inescapable feeling of being watched and an atmosphere of impending dread are underscored in the thoughtfully developed dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Harry Essex. The black-and-white cinematography (by Clifford Stine) stresses the silvery noir elements. The picture was partially filmed on location in the surrounding Mojave Desert area of California, which lent a good deal of authenticity.

Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in 3-D
Poster art for It Came from Outer Space, in incredible 3-D

The movie also boosted the career of veteran documentary-maker and director Jack Arnold. Arnold went on to lend credibility to the burgeoning sci-fi arena with his subsequent outings, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), with Carlson again in the lead, Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula (both from 1955 and both starring John Agar), The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), a classic of classics, and the underrated The Space Children (1958).

In many ways, It Came from Outer Space is as rich and timely today as it ever was. Its lessons about reaching out to those in need, who may be as different from us as night is from day; to extend a helping hand and grasp the thing we’re most repelled by — by learning to overcome our basest fears and extinct for survival, while trying to understand the abnormal ways of others — continue to fascinate as well as entertain.

As the bulbous creatures fly off into the night, Putnam looks back at them in wonder and awe:

“It wasn’t the right time for us to meet,” he contemplates solemnly. “But there’ll be other nights, other stars to watch. They’ll be back.”

Indeed they will — and quite a different message from the earlier The Thing, where audiences were issued a dire warning to keep watching the skies for trouble, or the one delivered by the cultivated Klaatu in The Day the Earth Stood Still, about our bringing violence to other planets.

We need only examine another “alien invasion” feature in French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated Arrival (2016), which starred Amy Adams in a glowing performance as a linguist charged with translating an indecipherable alien language that could save the world from unintended destruction.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘King Kong’ (1933): The Monster that ‘Aped’ New York

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Bright lights on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933(
The lights are bight on Broadway: King Kong on stage (1933)

A giant killer gorilla escapes its confines to wreak havoc on the streets of 1930s New York. What a premise for a story about a down-and-out film producer pining for his next big hit! Known as the picture that saved a movie studio — RKO Radio Pictures studio, to be exact — King Kong is the granddaddy of all those big-bad-stomping, monster-on-the-loose chomping fantasy epics. And it is every bit the classic it’s cranked up to be.

Labeled box-office poison by the press and hounded by insurance investigators and fire marshals alike, restless mogul Carl Denham (an overly enthusiastic Robert Armstrong) searches for the perfect angle for his upcoming project. Upon a chance meeting with the impoverished Ann Darrow (lovely Fay Wray, who bleached her dark hair blonde for the shoot), Denham impulsively decides to star her in his yet-to-be-announced adventure flick.

Cryptic and secretive to a fault, the wily producer nonetheless convinces Ann to trust him enough (“I’m on the level. No funny business!”) to accompany Denham and his shoestring crew as the only female member on board a ship “with the toughest looking mugs” anyone has had the misfortune to be associated with.

In the blink of an eye, they’re whisked away on a long sea voyage to … who knows where? Darrow and Denham are accompanied on their journey by salty seaman Captain Engelhorn and his lantern-jawed first mate, Jack Driscoll. Once our adventure seekers arrive on Skull Island, however, all hell breaks loose — quite literally. After unknowingly interrupting a native ceremony whereby a young girl undergoes elaborate preparation as the newly christened bride of “Kong,” Denham and his crew come face-to-face with the titular deity: an enormous anthropoid dubbed by Denham “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) conferring with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) in King Kong
Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) confers with Captain Engelhorn (Frank Reicher) on Skull Island

Amid the ceaseless pounding of native drums, Kong runs off into the jungle with Ann clutched safely in his arms. It’s love at first fright! But, as Denham prophetically warned, the danger lies when the beast allows himself to turn soft where the girl is concerned. In fulfillment of the prophecy, Kong comes to his bride’s defense by fighting off various prehistoric creatures, including incredibly thrilling battles with a vicious T-Rex (or Allosaurus, according to some sources), a slithering salamander, and a flying Pterodactyl. He also disposes of most of the crew members, leaving only a band of sailors guarding the gate, with Denham and Driscoll at opposite ends of a huge precipice.

Denham finds his way back to the village, while Driscoll follows Kong’s trail in order to rescue Ann. With Kong distracted by the local fauna, Ann and Driscoll brusquely make their escape by plunging down into the river bed below Kong’s lair. They manage to flee for their lives into the thick underbrush, with the raging Kong in hot pursuit.

After the giant beast has terrorized the village by munching and crunching the native population, he is knocked senseless by one of Denham’s gas bombs. But instead of coming to HIS senses, the publicity-minded producer can only see the biggest get-rich-quick scheme in the history of Broadway. He decides to ship Kong’s massage body back to Manhattan, where the monkey makes an unscheduled debut on the city’s streets — and atop its tallest building.

Top of the world: Kong meets his match
Top of the world: Kong meets his match

One of the greatest special effects extravaganzas of this or anyone’s time, King Kong did for the Big Apple what Godzilla would later do for Tokyo: that is, it immortalized a city, as well as almost single-handedly destroyed it — in cinematic terms, of course. It also lifted Depression Era audiences to ecstatic heights of visionary fancy, breaking attendance records at every showing.

This box-office champion of champions was the brainchild of two men, veteran movie-maker Merian C. Cooper and his partner Ernest B. Schoedsack, both of who directed and produced the feature, based on an idea conceived by Cooper and an original story by Cooper and Edgar Wallace. David O. Selznick was the executive producer. For the stop-motion wizardry, Cooper turned to FX expert Willis O’Brien (The Lost World), who in turn looked to model maker Marcel Delgado for the gorilla and dinosaur miniatures that figured so prominently throughout the picture.

Back and front projection and traveling matte shots were extensively employed, in addition to grisly close-ups of Kong’s denture work. His full-sized bust took 40 some-odd bearskins to cover! Not all of the effects shots were filmed perfectly to scale, mind you, nor did they blend seamlessly into the frame. Still, this picture was destined to become a landmark in the annals of horror fantasy films. It remains the lone monster flick from which all others need be measured.

King Kong: Ready for his closeup
King Kong: Ready for his close-up

The sturdy cast is headed by the rambunctious Robert Armstrong, who makes mincemeat out of his manic character’s ambition and drive. He’s both FDR and Horatio Alger: crippled by his inability to have audiences take him seriously (“Because the public, bless ’em, must have a pretty face to look at”), his ego refuses to admit defeat; this is one overwhelmingly optimistic venture capitalist. His is the unquenchable spark (and, by design, that of the film’s real-life producer-directors) that ignites the audience’s interest and imagination, particularly in the way he sums up the misadventure to its final, philosophical conclusion:

Police lieutenant: “Well, Denham, the planes got him.”

Denham: “Oh, no, it wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.”

Fay Wray is the all-time champion hog caller (or, in this case, “scream queen”), but don’t let that fool you — she’s as full of pluck and spunk as they come. The softness and beguiling femininity she brings to the story’s ebb and flow make Ann Darrow an appealing contrast to the unbelievable horrors she’s forced to confront. Wray never had a better part,  even though she also appeared in the equally shocking The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Her peak period of popularity spanned the 1930s to the mid-1940s.

Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong's clutches
Love at first fright: Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) in Kong’s clutches

Lankily-built Bruce Cabot is crusty sailor Jack Driscoll, who falls in love with Ann upon snatching her from Kong’s humongous clutches. On the “strength” of his acting, though, he’s no match for the King. Frank Reicher is the stern Captain Engelhorn, Sam Hardy the wisecracking theatrical agent Weston, and James Flavin the second mate, with Victor Wong as Charley the Cook, Noble Johnson as the Native Chief, Steve Clemento as the Witch Doctor, Roscoe Ates as a press photographer, and Lesley Mason as a theater patron.

Look for cameos of Cooper and Schoedsack, who piloted the airplane that eventually brings the big guy down. Cooper was a World War I aviator who put his knowledge of flight to good use. He was also a pioneer in the three-strip Technicolor process. Film historian Rudy Behlmer interviewed Cooper back in 1964. During that interview, Cooper denied there were any “symbolic” or “phallic” overtones in the movie’s depiction of the Kong-Darrow relationship. According to Cooper, there were no “hidden meanings, psychological or cultural implications, profound parallels or anything resembling intellectual ‘significance’ in the film. King Kong was escapist entertainment pure and simple,” Cooper insisted. “A more illogical picture could never have been made” (The Girl in the Hairy Paw, 1976, foreword by Rudy Behlmer, p.13).

That may be. But for years, the film was shorn of many of its most, ahem, “revealing” sequences, the prime example of which finds Kong delicately peeling away most of Ann’s dress, leaving only her dainty negligee. An obvious vestige of the pre-Code period, this and other “politically incorrect” snippets (i.e., Kong tossing a woman he mistakenly takes for Ann out of her apartment window; scenes of Kong’s rampage at the native village; the odious connection of the wild and crazy natives with their skin color) were, for die-hard fans of the film, re-inserted in the mid-1970s. For better or worse, most movie prints include these once-severed sequences.

It would be a shame not to mention the powerful and highly influential movie score by Max Steiner, one Hollywood’s Golden Age best. Although dimly recorded, the picture would never have achieved the worldwide notoriety it deservedly merited without Steiner’s magnificent music. One of the most typical elements of which involved the split-second timing of the score with the action on the screen. This was known in the industry as “mickey-mousing,” in the way that music for animated cartoons always seemed to follow the characters’ movements.

None of the other remakes, including Peter Jackson’s three-hour 2005 effort, has come close to toppling RKO’s original from its throne. And no home theater should be without at least a DVD/Blu-ray disc copy of this superb film.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’ (1951): A Message for Mankind

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Klaatau (Michael Rennie: "We come in peace and with goodwill" in The Day the Earth Stood Still
Klaatau (Michael Rennie) speaks: “We come in peace and with goodwill,” in The Day the Earth Stood Still

The eerie sound of the theremin (two of them, in fact) begins this early fifties feature. The instruments are accompanied by two groaning Hammond organs and bass-pedal notes in the lower strings. Next, the brass section takes over with a muffled fanfare, suspiciously reminiscent of the opening theme to Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also Sprach Zarathustra, famously used in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968.

The sensation we get is of being taken for a ride through the vast regions of space. Slowly approaching what appears to be the Earth, the soundtrack starts to fade away, leaving behind a staccato accompaniment for piano. The music now follows the trajectory of a mysterious craft hurtling itself toward our atmosphere at tremendous speed.

All the while, the spacecraft is being tracked by military intelligence and radar. Foreign countries are also monitoring the ship’s progress, as its final destination is revealed: the city of Washington, D.C., capital of the United States of America — the bedrock of freedom and democracy in a troubled world.

Almost immediately, newspapers and radio and television commentators from around the globe broadcast the event in cautious but barely controlled concern for what this might mean. One radio personality boasts of the lovely spring weather amid the burgeoning tourist season.

Klaatu's ship circles over Washington, D.C.
Klaatu’s spaceship circles over Washington, D.C.

Without warning, the brightly lit form of the spacecraft hovers into view. It flies directly above the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and the castle-like structures of the Smithsonian Institution. This startles the gathering crowd who follows the ship as it lands softly on a grassy lawn.

Army and military personnel, as well as tanks, jeeps, guns, and soldiers, have been dispatched to the scene. They assemble and surround the craft in nervous anticipation of what is to come. After a few tense moments, a walkway juts out from the body of the craft. An invisible door slides opens and out pops what looks like a male figure in silvery spacesuit and bubble helmet.

The visitor is an alien emissary from space who has come to Earth bearing only peace and goodwill. His sign of friendship and understanding, however, are taken for aggression when he draws what may be a weapon from inside his suit. An anxious soldier opens fire, hitting the helpless visitor in the shoulder, who instantly falls to the ground. The other soldiers approach the wounded visitor reticently, but just as suddenly Gort, a metallic eight-foot tall robot, comes into view. The soldiers and crowd are aghast at this incredible sight. The robot’s visor slowly opens and a powerful, laser-like beam is thrust upon the military’s tanks and weapons, immediately disintegrating them.

The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin)
The giant robot Gort (Lock Martin) aims his light beam at the military

Struggling to take control of the situation, the visitor halts the onslaught with a few carefully chosen words to the gigantic being. Recovering from the fall, he rises to his feet and retrieves the damaged “weapon.” The visitor then tells an uncomprehending soldier that it was a gift for the U.S. president. “With it, he could have studied life on the other planets.” So much for friendly greetings!

He also brings with him a dire warning which he intends to deliver at a proposed mass meeting of Earth’s leaders. But his intentions are misunderstood by a paranoid society unwilling to listen or to compromise. Impatient with the usual authority figures, including the president’s cynical secretary Mr. Harley, the gentlemanly alien named Klaatu escapes Walter Reade Hospital and his Washington, D.C., confines to learn for himself what makes these mysterious Earth creatures tick.

Michael Rennie is the cultivated, intellectually superior (and veddy British) Klaatu. He’s joined by sympathetic office worker Patricia Neal as Helen Benson — not exactly a love interest, but someone to play off of; Billy Gray (before his Father Knows Best period) as her inquisitive son Bobby; and soon-to-be popular sci-fi staple Hugh Marlowe (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers) as Tom Stevens, who later fingers the alien for capture by the U.S. Army (darn those pesky diamonds!).

Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery
Mr. Carpenter (Rennie) & Bobby (Billy Gray) at Arlington National Cemetery

This is science fiction film noir at its finest, and one of the very best of its kind. Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still became an instant movie classic upon its release, which, despite the Cold War origins, has not aged a single day since its premiere.

Compare this flick to RKO’s The Thing from Another World, also from 1951, which took a more skeptical view of science by giving the “grunts” the last word. Here, military might bows to sheer brainpower in the person of the seemingly benign Klaatu. The central section has Klaatu rendering the Earth helpless by literally stopping it dead in its tracks — everyone and everything, that is, except planes in flight and ships at sea, along with hospitals, emergency wards, and the like.

The film gathers strength when Klaatu, after calling upon the friendly but eccentric Professor Barnhardt (the “smartest man in the world,” according to young Bobby), becomes a hunted fugitive. Gunned down while trying to make his escape, Klaatu charges Helen Benson with the survival of mankind. The fate of the world rests on her remembering three words: Klaatu barada nikto.

Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: "Klaatu barada nikto"
Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) speaks the immortal line: “Klaatu barada nikto”

Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe plays the scholarly Professor Barnhardt in a proto-Einstein hairdo. His initial meeting with the alien, as well as Klaatu’s growing (but unrealized) friendship with Mrs. Benson and especially her son Bobby, are the movie’s closest encounters. However, jealousy and suspicion permeate the ethos where Mrs. Benson’s self-centered boyfriend Tom is concerned. Tom is representative of humankind as a whole, i.e., always in a hurry to move on and get ahead, but failing to look at the damage being done to those who fall behind. Sadly, this movie’s tenets are as true today as they were over six decades ago.

Others in the cast include Frank Conroy as Mr. Harley, Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee in the Andy of Mayberry series), Olan Soulé, Carleton Young, Fay Roope, Freeman Luske, and real-life news personalities Elmer Davis, Drew Pearson, and H.V. Kaltenborn. The role of the menacing robot Gort (a truly awesome creation) is played by seven-foot-four-inch Lock Martin, who was an usher at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. He had to wear two different metallic costumes, one for the front view and one for the back, due to a conspicuous, non-photogenic zipper running down the length of each costume.

Former movie editor Robert Wise directed in clinical, almost documentary-style fashion, while film composer Bernard Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) provided the spare music score. As indicated above, his and fellow colleagues Miklos Rozsa and Dimitri Tiomkin’s use of the theremin gained widespread exposure for this exotic-sounding instrument.

Keep alert to the many Christian and allegorical references spread throughout the script — for example, Klaatu’s untimely death and miraculous “resurrection” near the end, and his earthly alias (“Mr. Carpenter,” get it?). The original short story, “Farewell to the Master,” by Harry Bates, was considerably altered for this movie adaptation, which is credited to screenwriter Edmund H. North (Flamingo Road, Young Man with a Horn).

The basic plot was semi-reworked for the excellent 1999 animated picture The Iron Giant, directed by Brad Bird and released by Warner Bros. Do stay away from the hopelessly inept 2008 Keanu Reeves/Scott Derrikson remake, or face obliteration! Late in his career, Michael Rennie made a well-received 1966 comeback in the two-part “The Keeper” episode for the Irwin Allen-created Lost in Space. Prior to that, Rennie starred as Harry Lime in the Anglo-American series The Third Man (1959-1965).

The film dares to ask: What is man’s place in the universe? And how can his destructive nature be contained? At this stage in our development, Klaatu’s apocryphal sendoff is worth repeating: “Should you extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.”

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) and ‘The Thing’ (1982): Who Really Goes There?

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The iceman Cometh: Howard Hawks' The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)
The Iceman cometh and went: Howard Hawks’ The Thing From Another World (RKO Pictures)

One is an old Cold War relic, the other a modern-esque tale of paranoia run rampant. Which is “better”? And which is the more “relevant,” in terms of translating the original source material into a viable shocker for present-day movie audiences?

These are good points to ponder, but do we have an answer? No, but it’s worth spending a little time on the relative merits of these two equally effective science-fiction classics: RKO Radio Pictures’ The Thing From Another World released in 1951, and Universal’s The Thing from 1982. Both pictures address the theme of overly-aggressive visitors from outer space; both attribute their themes to issues prevalent at the time of their release; and both require their ensembles casts to come up with ingenious solutions to the problems presented by unfriendly aliens.

In addition to the above criteria, there is the presumption throughout that science, for all the sanity and wisdom it has imparted to explaining the unexplainable, is simply incapable of overcoming the complexities that humanity will face when confronted by factors beyond their knowledge or control.

The Thing From Another World (1951)

"Keep watching the skies" - The Thing From Another World (1951)
“Keep watching the skies” – The Thing From Another World (1951)

The premise: A flying saucer is found frozen in the Arctic Polar Region. Alerted to its presence, a salvage team of American research scientists, along with various military types, head out to the icy tundra in order to intercept and retrieve it.

In attempting to free the saucer from the permafrost, the military accidentally destroy the ship, only to discover that the alien passenger onboard has been flung into the ice. Instantly frozen by the subzero temperatures, the alien is rescued, in a manner of speaking, and brought to the scientists’ compound, with an around-the-clock guard keeping close tabs on the block of ice.

Unfortunately for the guard on duty, he places an electric blanket over the block so as not to gaze at the loathsome visitor’s creepy eyes, not realizing that the blanket’s warmth melts the surrounding ice. Within hours, the creature escapes the compound and goes on a violent rampage in order to preserve its kind.

A quintessential fifties sci-fi thriller, The Thing From Another World eerily mirrors the gathering Communist storm — and existential threat of that era — by echoing the American response to it. In addition to which, it took into account the increasingly frequent UFO sightings made after 1947. The film is in director Howard Hawk’s inimitable “chatty” style, i.e., abounding in overlapping dialogue with staccato delivery, spoken by a predominantly male cast and the lone wise-cracking female scientist (now there’s a modern angle to boast of). Although the direction is credited to Hawks’ assistant, Christian Nyby, the style is unmistakably that of the veteran of such classic pictures as The Big Sleep, His Girl Friday, and Red River.

The film provides a fair amount of suspense — the creature’s nighttime attack, and its being doused with flame throwers and gasoline buckets, as well as the claustrophobic surroundings, are major assets —but it’s too timid in its execution to furnish more than casual thrills.

Certainly the Frankenstein-monster getup for the alien invader is an egregious faux pas. The Thing, played by six foot seven inch James Arness (Them, Gunsmoke) in his salad days, is nowhere near as frightening or repugnant as it ought to be, considering the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 short story, “Who Goes There?” and how it’s described on the screen. Apparently, the less one sees of The Thing, the scarier and more intense things get (no pun intended).

The camaraderie and forced bravado of the military men, for example, along with their testosterone-fueled tendencies toward combating the wily creature, are, quite naturally, understandable, in view of the times in which the film was made: science takes a back seat to sheer bluster and Yankee gung-ho ingenuity in addressing the impending peril. Just the thought of a blood-sucking alien vampire on the prowl, turning humans and sled dogs into lifeless carcasses in order to sustain a growing brood of “super carrots,” was enough to send movie audiences into a tailspin.

It's the little "Things" that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington's findings
It’s the little “Things” that count: scientists inspecting Dr. Carrington’s findings

Carlos Clarens, in his An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films, came up with a novel theory regarding his interpretation of The Thing from Another World: with reference to the creature’s intellectual superiority over his human counterparts, Clarens postulated that “omniscience does not mean human feelings, generosity, or understanding. In this respect, the film is something of a parable: superior science unencumbered by moral scruples will bleed us to death” (Clarens, p. 124).

He cites the example of chief scientist, Dr. Carrington (he’s very “caring,” if you know I mean), who argues for opening up communications with the alien being, only to be brushed aside not only by his fellow scientists and those itchy-trigger-fingered military men, but by the creature itself (violently so). As a matter of fact, the military treat Dr. Carrington a helluva lot better than The Thing does, which only proves the point.

The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)
The Thing (James Arness) meets the Scientist (Robert Cornthwaite)

The great ensemble cast mentioned earlier features many familiar faces, among them the reliable Kenneth Tobey as Captain Pat Hendry, Margaret Sheridan as Nikki, Dewey Martin as Crew Chief Bob, Robert Cornthwaite as Dr. Carrington, George Fenneman as Dr. Redding, James Young as Lt. Dykes, John Dierkes as Dr. Chapman, William Self as Corporal Barnes, Eduard Franz as Dr. Stern, Paul Frees as Dr. Voorhees, and Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the jocular newspaper man, whose final call to “Keep watching the skies” is a none-too-subtle alert against future Red menaces.

The eerie theremin-based film score is by Dimitri Tiomkin, and is in a category all its own. Although in our opinion it’s not the “classic of classics” some critics have made it out to be, I regard it as being very much like Puccini’s opera Tosca: it’s a “shabby little shocker” that still packs a tremendous wallop — when the titular Thing is out of plain sight, that is. And remember this, folks: Keep watching those not-so-friendly skies…!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter's The Thing
Kurt Russell as Macready in John Carpenter’s The Thing

With Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) having rejuvenated the vogue for chest-bursting monsters, doomed crew members, and outer-space horror flicks, director John Carpenter (Halloween, Escape from New York) undertook to remake that old fifties staple The Thing — this time with modern cinematic elements.

Carpenter returned to the original idea (the script was written by Bill Lancaster, actor Burt Lancaster’s son) of a shape-shifting alien being, suggested by sci-fi writer John W. Campbell’s short story, “Who Goes There?” (written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart). It told a terrifying tale of paranoia and loss of identity, long before the threat of Communism and invaders from Mars would “bug” us out.

However, after the real-life horrors of the Vietnam War, the ensuing Watergate scandals, and the revved up military spending spree vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, the 1982 remake of The Thing spoke solemnly to audiences of the mistrust inherent when individuals, charged with the responsibility of working together as a functioning unit, drop all semblance of so-called “civilized” society (see William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies for a similar viewpoint) to let mindless fear, panic, and isolation seep into their existence.

The story takes place at an Antarctic research facility (scene of the original tale, by the way), where American scientists are investigating the strange deaths at a nearby abandoned Norwegian installation. An Alaskan malamute appears to be the only survivor. Taking the dog back to their compound, one of the scientists, Clark, pens it up with the other sled dogs — but they sense this is not one of their own. Before long, the Thing they have brought back gets loose and starts to take over the minds (and bodies) of the individual researchers. In no time, the researchers turn on one another until in the film’s final frame only two “survivors” are left to toast their troubles away.

A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing
A cold day in hell: Kurt Russell (center) as MacReady in The Thing

While faithful to the original work in cast and story line, and besides possessing top-notch special FX by the talented team of Rob Bottin and Stan Winston (using stop-motion techniques and animatronics), the film is so enamored of gore and viscera that it forgets to keep its mind on the main plot. The elements of fear and suspicion are present throughout, but there’s so little insight into the characters (and little if any background to them) that they serve as mere backdrops for the real showcase, i.e., those amazing transformation sequences.

Indeed, the creature that erupts all over the screen is without a doubt the vilest, most repulsive-looking Thing imaginable. It reminds one of a giant Venus flytrap. After a while, though, it even starts to take on the comic mannerisms of Audrey II, the “mean green mother from outer space,” in the hit musical The Little Shop of Horrors, which robs it of its ferocity.

Despite this mild handicap, in recent years the film has taken on the status of a cult favorite. At the time of its release, The Thing was in direct competition with the more benign E.T. the Extraterrestrial and Blade Runner. Movie critics eviscerated the work, which while tailored to mature audiences, is really an FX connoisseur’s dream come true (more like a nightmare).

The rugged, all-male cast is headed by Kurt Russell, at his swaggering best, as R.J. MacReady, Wilford Brimley sans his walrus mustache as the paranoid Blair, Richard Dysart as Dr. Cooper, Donald Moffat as Garry, Keith David as Childs, David Clennon as Palmer, Richard Masur as Clark, T.K. Carter as Nauls, Charles Hallahan as Norris, and Peter Maloney as Bennings. Gut-wrenching scenes, along with a dynamic, pulsating electronic score by composer Ennio Morricone, are the main pluses. The final confrontation between MacReady and Childs leaves it up to the viewer whether this Thing has been vanquished or not. It’s one of those truly nihilistic endings.

Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)
Keith David as Childs in the final scene of The Thing (1982)

Strictly for lovers of elaborate effects, the Howard Hawks-produced version was much more fun than this deadly-straight, coldly distant, starkly dark rendition. But be warned: do not, by any means, let your kids see this alone (heck, I wouldn’t see it alone, either).

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Mark of Zorro’ (1940) — Robin Hood of the West

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Don Diego (Tyrone Power) fights a duel to the death with Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone) in The Mark of Zorro (Photo: film.thedigitalfix.com)
Diego (Tyrone Power) fights a duel to the death with Captain Esteban (Basil Rathbone) in The Mark of Zorro (Photo: film.thedigitalfix.com)

Fancy sword-play, above-average horsemanship, dashing derring-do, a fair damsel in distress, padres and peasants in open revolt against their Spanish oppressors — all this, and lovely Linda Darnell, too! These are just some of the fabulous goings-on in this classic Twentieth Century-Fox swashbuckler, a film that defines the adventure genre as few others from that period have.

This sound remake of Douglas Fairbanks and Noah Beery Sr.’s 1920 silent feature is superior entertainment all around. Stylishly helmed by Rouben Mamoulian (Queen Christina and Blood and Sand, which also paired Tyrone Power opposite a saintly Linda Darnell and vampish Rita Hayworth), the director concentrated his efforts on atmosphere and flair, thereby giving the movie a touch of class. In addition, The Mark of Zorro boasts a marvelously memorable, one-of-a-kind music score by one of Hollywood’s most decorated film composers, Alfred Newman. Once heard, the main melody will remain with you for days on end.

Poised and handsome leading man Tyrone Power has a field day in the dual role of Don Diego Vega, foppish fool and carefree caballero by day; and the masked bandit Zorro (“an angel with a flaming sword,” as described by the excitable Fray Felipe), a devil-may-care swordsman and good-guy avenger by night. The script was adapted from Johnston McCulley’s original 1919 story The Curse of Capistrano, with hints of The Scarlet Pimpernel thrown in. Darnell plays the alcalde’s young niece, the beautiful Lolita Quintero.

Basil Rathbone takes over for Beery as bad-guy soldier Captain Esteban, who shows off his remarkable fencing skills in a fast-paced duel to the death with the youthful Power (thrillingly choreographed and doubled by Belgian fencing-master Fred Cavens). Ironically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of King Vidor’s Solomon and Sheba while filming a sword duel in Madrid, Spain, with the nefarious George Sanders.

Bullfrog-throated Eugene Pallette is the typically harried Fray Felipe, with J. Edward Bromberg as the alcalde Don Luis Quintero, Gale Sondergaard as his fawning wife Inez, right-minded Montagu Love (a silent cinema star in his day) as Don Diego’s stern father, Don Alejandro Vega, Janet Beecher as Señora Isabella Vega, and George Regas, Chris Pin-Martin, Frank Puglia, and Pedro de Cordova in minor roles.

Promo ad for The Mark of Zorro (20th Century-Fox, 1940)
Promotional ad for The Mark of Zorro (20th Century-Fox, 1940)

The plot revolves around Don Diego returning to nineteenth-century Southern California after having spent his youth at a military academy in Spain. He finds his hometown in turmoil, thanks to the greedy Don Luis (Bromberg) and the abusive Captain Esteban. Peasants are being provoked and tortured into paying their taxes, while the captain’s soldiers run roughshod over the populace. Conferring with his father, the former well-intentioned alcalde, as well as the revenge-seeking friar, Diego realizes he must take action, but decides instead to hide his true intentions in order to operate under cover of darkness.

Slowly but surely, Don Diego hits upon a plan whereby, with the aid of the bellicose padre, he begins to take the town back from the rich overlords by performing daring night raids on their purse-strings — sort of a Spanish-style Robin Hood, if you will. The Robin Hood angle is played to the hilt, with the obvious casting of Rathbone, formerly the malevolent Sir Guy of Gisbourne in Warner Bros.’ The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), as well as the rotund Mr. Pallette, who costarred as Friar Tuck.

In a comparison of the two films, there are many scenes in which the actions of Errol Flynn’s upstanding Robin of Locksley are mirrored in Tyrone Power’s bandito: his despoiling of the rich to give to those in need; the use of a knife to replace Robin’s skill with a bow and arrow in putting up so-called “special notices”; their wooing and winning over of an unconvinced love interest; the climactic sword fight at the end; the revolt of the downtrodden with the aid of a champion do-gooder; and, of course, the many bold escapes.

Publicity Shot of Tyrone Power as Zorro (www.tyrone-power.com)
Publicity Shot of Tyrone Power as Zorro (www.tyrone-power.com)

One in particular is especially exhilarating, as Zorro plunges his black Andalusian steed over a bridge and into a stream, while the military takes wild potshots at their form — and missing them both by a mile. In the meantime, Diego throws the suspicious Esteban off the scent by flirting with Don Luis’ wife, the social-climbing Doña Inez, while simultaneously attempting to charm the highborn Lolita (and everyone else) with distracting magic tricks. Diego manages to fool even his own parents up to a point, until such time as he reveals himself.

Considered a lightweight when he first came on the movie scene, Power earned praise for his performance as the effete Don Diego and his suavely sophisticated alter ego, Zorro. Power’s previous experience in the theater gave him an edge in the way he managed to smoothly switch from one character to the other, never overplaying the dandified aspects to the detriment of Diego’s scheme. Viewers should pay close attention to the sequence in which Diego (as Zorro) hides out in Fray Felipe’s chapel, while the soldiers are searching the grounds outside. His back-and-forth dialogue with the troubled Lolita Quintero, where Zorro’s physical features are all-but covered in shadow by a monk’s habit and cowl, is wonderfully clear and cleverly delineated by voice and figure alone — Power is especially effective throughout their banter.

The movie was remade for television, in 1974, with an appropriately languid and polished Frank Langella as Diego, villainous Ricardo Montalban as a scowling Captain Esteban, and old standbys Gilbert Roland and Yvonne De Carlo as Diego’s parents. There’s also a 1975 French adaptation with romantic lead Alain Delon as Zorro and Welshman Stanley Baker. In 1998, The Mask of Zorro appeared, starring the athletically-inclined Antonio Banderas as the man behind the mask, and an equally dexterous Catherine Zeta-Jones as the vivacious female lead (deadly with a rapier), along with Sir Anthony Hopkins as an over-the-hill Diego. Earlier, a spoof of sorts, entitled Zorro, the Gay Blade, was released in 1981, with lounge lizard George Hamilton as both Don Diego and his fey twin brother, Ramon.

Guy Williams in the Disney series Zorro (1957-59) (AllPosters.com)
Guy Williams as Don Diego in the Disney TV series Zorro (1957-59) (AllPosters.com)

As far as Zorro himself was concerned, most of my generation was heavily weaned on the popular Walt Disney TV series (1957-59), which starred the mustachioed Guy Williams (pre-Lost in Space) as a debonair Don Diego. He basically played the role straight, with no foppish mannerisms or effeminate flourishes within eyeshot. Williams was supported by comic foils Henry Calvin as Sergeant Garcia and Gene Sheldon as the mute servant Bernardo. The TV series was also a haven for veteran bit players Don Diamond (F Troop), Jay Novello, Eduard Franz, and Everett Sloane, as well as fresh faces, including that of ex-Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

Here’s an interesting bit of Hollywood lore: Fred Cavens, who trained Doug Fairbanks, Flynn and Power in their respective parts, also served as Guy Williams’ fencing master for Zorro. Power’s version, however, is still the best of the breed by a long shot. Sumptuously photographed in gorgeous black and white by Arthur C. Miller, the 1940 film accomplished in 93 minutes what it took the other versions hours to complete, but never quite made the big leagues. A winner in every way!

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

Produced by Raymond Griffith for Darryl F. Zanuck; directed by Rouben Mamoulian; screenplay by John Taintor Foote, adapted by Garrett Fort and Bess Meredyth from the novel The Curse of Capistrano by Johnston McCulley; photographed by Arthur C. Miller; costumes by Travis Banton; music by Alfred Newman; starring Tyrone Power, Linda Darnell, Basil Rathbone, Gale Sondergaard, Eugene Pallette, J. Edward Bromberg, Montagu Love, Janet Beecher, Robert Lowery, Chris-Pin Martin, George Regas, Belle Mitchell, John Bleifer, Frank Puglia, Eugene Borden, and Pedro de  Cordoba. Released by Twentieth Century Fox, 93 minutes.

Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes