Horror

‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956): No Sleep for the Weary

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Becky (Dana Wynter), Jack (King Donovan), Teddy (Carolyn Jones) & Miles (Kevin McCarthy) are speechless in Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

What if you went to bed one night with your significant other and woke up the next morning to find that he or she wasn’t exactly the same.

Oh, they may look like the same individual, all right. They even talk, walk, dress, feel, and act like your beloved spouse or relative. But there’s something totally different about them, something you noticed in their eyes. To coin a phrase from a well-known popular song, they’ve lost that “lovin’ feelin’,” that certain gleam, that emotional spark, that intimate connection to you and to past events that tell you your Uncle Joe or Aunt Sarah isn’t the man or woman you thought they were.

The horror and science-fiction genre is privy to all sorts of “what-if-scenarios” such as these. The films of the 1950s were especially prone to invasion theories, of little green men plotting to take over the universe for reasons known only to them. RKO’s The Thing from Another World (1951) told of one such intruder, an advance scout that turned out to be a monstrous blood-sucking “intellectual carrot” with super-human strength and a will to survive at all costs.

In Twentieth Century-Fox’s The Day the Earth Stood Still (also 1951), there were no “space invaders” as such but rather an amiable, cultivated emissary from another planet (played by an equally refined British actor). He wasn’t out to destroy humanity (at least, not yet) but to understand it. In case of trouble, however, this emissary relied on an eight-foot-tall robotic companion — an interplanetary armed guard, if you prefer — to ward off the offenders.

Taking this analogy a step or two further, the one-eyed gelatinous beings of Universal-International’s It Came from Outer Space (1953) were neither conquerors nor destroyers but explorers from a highly-evolved civilization that accidentally crash-land on Earth. Despite their loathsome visage, the aliens’ motives are benign in that they need humanity to help repair their damaged spacecraft so they could return to their peaceful mission.

From the same year, Paramount Pictures released The War of the Worlds, an updated version of H.G. Wells’ Victorian-era novel about those proverbial little green men from Mars. The film took the opposite tack, in that sheer firepower and coordinated attacks, along with a brutal frontline assault, would culminate in total victory. Ah, but those annoying creatures never reckoned with the tiniest of God’s creations: the multitudinous germs and bacteria that inhabit every corner of our planet. Where atomic weapons proved futile in repelling the invaders, infectious disease took over and decimated the Martians’ plans for world domination.

But there were subtler, more insidious methods of conquest yet to be explored. For example, what if you could merge the “alien invasion” picture with a more restrained, less blatant approach — in other words, the humans you are trying to take over would never know they were being taken over?

This is the premise for one of the most chilling, most hallucinatory sci-fi features to have come along in many a decade: producer Walter Wanger and director Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers from 1956, distributed by Allied Artists Pictures.

The story, adapted from Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatchers, involves an alien life form that assumes the innocuous shape of seeds. What’s so terrible about that? Nothing at all, really — until those same outer-space seeds plant themselves in a farmer’s field somewhere in Southern California. From there, the seeds grow into giant pods that slowly and sinisterly take over the minds and bodies of whoever happens to be around. Once the victims fall asleep, the “pod people” complete their transformation and dispose of the original body.

Becky Driscoll (Dana Wynter) meets up with former lost love, Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy), early on in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Such a preposterous idea could have easily been turned into a campy, low-budget frolic with schlocky special effects and over-the-top performances. In the hands of the gifted Don Siegel, however, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a bona-fide classic of the science-fiction/body horror genre.

The setting is a sleepy fictionalized town known as Santa Mira. One of its inhabitants, Dr. Miles Bennell (lantern-jawed Kevin McCarthy), is a general practitioner just returned from a medical convention. His nurse, Sally Withers (Jean Willes), greets him at the train station to convey the news that the town is in the grip of a mass hysteria. Miles’ office is full of patients who demand to see him and only him. Upon further inquiry, Miles is informed that various individuals have reported that the person they live with, or confide in on a regular basis, is not that person.

After a day of this dilemma, the anxious patients have all cancelled their appointments and the crisis (whatever it was) appears to have been averted. Once Miles gets settled in, he reconnects with lost love Becky Driscoll (winsome Dana Wynter), fresh from a trip to Reno for a quickie divorce. Becky calls on Miles in his office to report that her cousin Wilma (Virginia Christine) swears up and down that her dear old Uncle Ira (Tom Fadden) isn’t Uncle Ira.

A quick stop at Wilma’s place and a talk with Uncle Ira do little to alleviate her concerns. Still, Miles manages to convince the distressed Wilma to see a psychiatrist friend of his, Dr. Dan Kauffman (Larry Gates). It’s possible, in Dan’s later clear-eyed appraisal, that the stresses of modern life may have forced the townspeople to escape from reality. Hmm…

While Miles and Becky go off to rekindle their former relationship, they each take notice of peculiar departures from Santa Mira’s normal routine. For instance, that evening the couple goes out to dine at their favorite dance hall and restaurant. But instead of a crowded gathering, the establishment is curiously empty except for the maître d’.

Becky & Miles enjoy a rare moment of repose on the dance floor

Earlier on, Miles and Nurse Sally drive by an abandoned vegetable stand. The month before, “it was the cleanest and busiest stand on the road,” but now it was boarded up and littered with debris.

There are similar lines of dialogue spoken throughout the picture, minor references and random, off-the-cuff observations that elucidate the plot for viewers in subtle, indirect ways. Taken as a whole, when you’ve re-watched the film (as this author has) after so many years of neglect, you begin to notice, as the characters themselves do, that something is terribly out of kilter from the start.

More samples of what we are driving at: Becky Driscoll’s entry into the story via her spur-of-the-moment visit to Miles’ office. She’s been living in England for the past few years. “It’s wonderful to be home again,” she confides to him, but quickly adds, “I’ve been away so long …. I feel almost like a stranger in my own country.” She’s not joking.

Then there’s little Jimmy Grimaldi, who thinks his mother isn’t really his mother. Miles gives him a sedative, a pill to drive away the demons from his young mind. “Open your mouth. Shut your eyes,” he orders. “In the words of the poet … I’ll give you something to make you wise.” Make him “wise”? Not exactly, but certainly more complacent — a metaphor for what will happen in time to the town’s population as a whole.

Nurse Sally (Jean Willes) holds on to little Jimmy Grimaldi, who takes his medicine from Dr. Bennell

At roughly 80 minutes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a taut little film, with nary a wasted moment or superfluous occurrence anywhere. Everything is held together (and remains that way) thanks to a tidy screenplay by veteran mystery and film-noir writer Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, The Big Steal). There are noticeable noir strictures to be noted and followed, including the perfunctory narration (by Kevin McCarthy), the ominous black-and-white cinematography (courtesy of Ellsworth Fredericks), the crisply-edited footage (Robert S. Eisen), and the creepy musical score (by Carmen Dragon).

And true to the genre itself, Miles and Becky tease each other good-naturedly with quips and innuendos about the ups and downs of marriage and divorce. They also reminisce about being back together:

“I wish you didn’t have to go home for dinner,” Miles states emphatically.

“I don’t,” Becky counters. “Dad’s eating out with a friend.”

“I could pick you up at seven,” Miles hints to her.

“Well … It’s summer, and the moon is full. ‘I know a bank …’”

“… ‘Where the wild thyme grows’,” Miles completes the phrase, and then adds, “You haven’t changed a bit.”

Not yet she hasn’t.

That line about “the moon is full” is an obvious allusion to werewolves, who convert to vicious fiends once the moon is out and bright. It’s a none-too-subtle clue of the horror to come, except there are no rapacious night creatures, only deadly dull, emotionless carbon copies of former loved ones.

The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters

Miles and Becky meet up with Dan Kauffman, the resident analyst, who comments on the epidemic of mass hysteria that has taken hold of Santa Mira. He’s got a full plate on his hands, and just as many explanations for what’s been happening around town. Kauffman is that person of stature who appears in all these science-fiction flicks of the Fifties, the one individual whose sole function is to explain to the audience what the heck is going on.

Hardly satisfied with Dan’s rationale, Miles takes Becky home. It is evening and the lights are out. In silhouette, Becky muses on the strangeness of what’s been occurring to the citizens of her hometown.

“Let’s hope we don’t catch it,” Miles jokes in response. In mock serious tones, he discloses, “I’d hate to wake up some morning and find out you weren’t you.” Prophetic words, indeed!

Towards the end, Becky and Miles are treated as fugitives from justice (another film-noir conceit) in their attempts to get away from the encroaching mob of pod people out to prevent the couple from alerting the outside world to their presence. Panic, paranoia, and suspicion cloud Miles’ judgment, as they do Becky’s and their friends, Jack (King Donovan) and Teddy Belicec (Carolyn Jones). No one can be trusted: it’s neighbor against neighbor, and relative against relative, until eventually the entirety of Santa Mira has been taken over by alien pods.

One of the scariest sequences occurs in Jack’s home, where he and wife Teddy, along with Miles and Becky, witness the pods’ literal transformation into lifelike replicas of (gasp!) themselves. It’s a genuinely unsettling moment: before their eyes, the lineless facial features and bubbling torsos begin to take shape. Destroying the bodies with a pitchfork and setting the corpses on fire, Miles tries to alert the FBI of the danger, but is thwarted when he realizes the phone offices have been usurped by the pod people, as have the police department and everywhere else. The friends flee for their lives but vow to meet up again in town.

The “developing” seedpod turns into Dr. Miles Bennell

Escaping to his medical office (a place that’s supposed to cure people of whatever it is that ails them), Miles and Becky hide out there temporarily, awaiting Jack’s return. They go down a long and narrow corridor, which heightens the feeling of claustrophobia. The walls are closing in around them — and fast. Prior to this, their attempt to enlist Sally in their cause backfires when Miles sees her take one of the seedpods up to her baby’s bedroom. The chase is on, as the police issue an all-points-bulletin to apprehend and detain the couple.

A comparable scene takes place near the end, where Becky and Miles are seeking shelter in a cave near the outskirts of town. They hide from their pursuers in an old mineshaft, placing wooden floorboards on top as they squish inside an empty hole in the ground. It’s tantamount to a gravesite, of being in one’s coffin or burial plot. While the mob runs over them, completely unmindful of where they’re hiding, the lovers cower just below the pursuers’ feet. It’s a real nail-biter of a sequence.

We, the viewer, can feel their unease, since the camera has followed the couple inside that dark, damp hole. But it only provides a temporary shelter. The sense of eeriness about this episode is elevated tenfold by the skewed camera angle and the intensity of the mob’s footsteps. When they’re finally alone, they leave the hole. Miles and Becky have either risen to new life as purposeless ciphers or reached the end of the line. Which is it?

Hints as to what’s in store for our heroes abound throughout the story. When later cousin Wilma encounters Miles in the street, she tells him she no longer needs a shrink. “I woke up this morning, and everything was all right.” She goes back inside her store and flips the sign on the door from “Open” to “Closed” — permanently, I’d venture to say. There’ll be no more need for work. No more ambition, no more striving to better oneself. No practicing of one’s profession, and no call for personal fulfillment. Existence is its own reward, and the pursuit of happiness can be stricken from our vocabulary.

The walls start to close in on the romantic couple as Miles & Becky leave his office

Released in the 2.00:1 aspect ratio (in this instance, called Superscope), Invasion of the Body Snatchers was originally conceived by director Siegel to be in the standard 1.33:1 ratio. But the distributor, Allied Artists, insisted on the wider screen size, possibly to attract movie viewers used to CinemaScope, VistaVision, and other such formats.

Allied Artists also requested that Siegel provide an expository prologue and epilogue to the production. Both Siegel and producer Wanger argued in favor of keeping things the way they were, with nothing bookending the completed film. However, they lost the argument and a quickie prologue and epilogue were added. These were set inside a hospital emergency ward, where a supposedly “insane” Miles Bennell is confronted by the attending physician (Richard Deacon) and the hospital’s skeptical shrink (Whit Bissell). Consequently, the tale is told in flashback from here on.

Miles tells his story to two disbelieving doctors (Richard Deacon & Whit Bissell)

Either way you slice it, the film works on many levels — with or without those appended sequences. While there is no “happy ending” as such, most viewers come away with the hopeful conclusion that maybe — just maybe — the invasion can be foiled. And that somehow, the long-suffering Miles will at last be vindicated.

The long-held notion that Invasion of the Body Snatchers was a cautionary tale against Communist encroachment, i.e. the so-called Red Scare menace, has not always held up over time. Sure, the U.S. had undergone years of House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, along with the ensuing Communist witch hunts, and accusatory fingers pointed at the movie industry. Once the McCarthy hearings had blown over, however, the dust settled to reveal that Siegel had not explicitly set out to capture those sentiments in his film, at least not overtly.

While not part of the director’s original concept, the themes of conformity and uniformity in 1950s North American life can be viewed as relevant to the main issue. Nowadays, diversity and multiculturalism are the “buzz words” that tend to dominate the conversation, although you would never know it by our highly-charged and exceedingly politicized atmosphere. That the film has resonance for our day is proof enough of its status as a timeless classic.

Here are some things to look for on your next viewing of this archetypal sci-fi flick: pay close attention to the shadows and darkness that slowly engulf the town of Santa Mira; make note of the studied calmness of the so-called pod people; take notice as well of background noises in Miles’ basement and elsewhere; and look quickly for Charlie, the meter reader, played by future film director Sam Peckinpah in a bit part.

More importantly, make yourself aware that the closer Miles and Becky get to one another as a loving couple, the farther apart they will seem relative to their “inhuman” counterparts. As at the beginning of the drama, everything appears to be normal and humdrum; people continue about their business except when those delivery trucks ride into town to deliver more seedpods to all comers. Observe for yourself how quickly they disseminate the pods to every town and village within the Los Angeles vicinity, and within a relatively short time. That’s chaos theory in action!

Remember, too, Miles’ look of utter despair — his expression of absolute shock and bewilderment at the realization that his beloved is now one of “them.” His earlier warning about waking up one day to find that Becky is no longer Becky comes back to haunt him in one of those rare cinematic moments of discovery, an indelible scene that’s sure to send shivers down your spine. There is nothing left for poor Miles to do but run away, right out onto the highway, to inform others of the nightmare that awaits them in sleepy Santa Mira.

Miles’ look of shock and awe in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

When last we see him, Miles stands in the middle of oncoming traffic, spouting the words of a crazed mystic, a male Cassandra that nobody listens to: “You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see? They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next …”

This is straight out of the school of nihilistic thought. Aren’t you glad you were warned?

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Invisible Man’ (1933) — Can You See Me Now?

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Jack Griffin (Claude Rains) explains his worldview to Flora (Gloria Stuart) in James Whales’ The Invisible Man (1933)

A solitary figure toting a large suitcase is seen braving the English countryside’s wintry weather. He hesitates for a moment before entering the Lion’s Head Inn in the village of Ipping. Upon opening the door, he startles a group of patrons inside with his peculiar looks and detached deportment. They recoil from him as he slowly approaches the bar.

Sporting dark goggles, a false nose, and a thoroughly bandaged head, the visitor insists to the innkeeper, Mr. Hall, on renting a room. “I want to be left alone, and undisturbed,” he later intones. If curiosity killed the cat, it certainly had a similar effect on the villagers, who gossip among themselves about the visitor’s secretive ways.

Bursting in unexpectedly on the stranger as he’s having his supper, the proprietress of the inn, Jenny Hall, makes note of an unusual facial feature: there’s nothing there expect empty space! “He must’ve been in some horrible accident,” she mutters.

A week goes by and the stranger continues to hole up in his room. In fact, he’s transformed the space into a chemist’s laboratory! Some humorous asides ensue between Mr. and Mrs. Hall. She insists that her husband take up the overdue bill, but he hesitates. “Let him cool off first,” he suggests. Nothing doing! She gives her husband an ultimatum: either the stranger goes or she goes.

The Invisible Man (Claude Rains) makes a dramatic entrance

Mr. Hall rudely interrupts the stranger and tells him to pack up his belongings and get out. Pleading with the man that he’s the victim of an unfortunate accident, Griffin begs to be left alone. But his pleas fall on deaf ears. Unfortunately for Mr. Hall, the stranger throws the poor man down a flight of stairs. This drives the proprietress Mrs. Hall to a fit of hysterics as the other patrons go in search of a policeman.

It soon becomes apparent that the stranger, whose name is Dr. Jack Griffin, has a deeper affliction: a chemist by profession, Griffin has been searching in vain for a way back from his invisibility.

Although Boris Karloff was originally touted to star (he turned down the part of Griffin due to salary issues and the lack of “screen presence”), the 44-year-old British actor Claude Rains made a successful first impression on audiences in his American motion picture “debut” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ 1897 science fiction novella.

The Invisible Man is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalomaniacal dialogue (“Power to rule, to make the world grovel at my feet!” and “We’ll begin with a reign of terror. A few murders here and there. Murders of big men, murders of little men — just to show we make no distinction!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May on a cold and frosty morning!”) to satisfy any sci-fi addict.

What made this feature so memorable, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period (the work of FX specialist John P. Fulton, along with John J. Mescall and Frank D. Williams), painstakingly done with plaster models, mattes, process photography, and double exposures. There were times when the lead actor had to dress from head to toe in thick, black velvet, as well as endure being smothered in plaster casts, in order for the invisibility effect to register on film. When Rains, as Dr. Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head and face, he reveals … absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic!

The Invisible Man – Hands over his head

There are innumerable feats of legerdemain throughout the production, but none of them could stand a ghost of a chance at sci-fi posterity were it not for Rains’ unequalled vocal performance. By voice and body alone, Rains managed to do the impossible by investing the character of the ambitious scientist, on the verge of an earth-shattering discovery, with a huge measure of sympathy for his plight. Some may complain that his acting is over the top, that it’s theatrical and overly melodramatic. But I ask, how else would one play a delusional megalomaniac if not to the crowd?

Griffin is our modern-day Dr. Frankenstein (and part Mummy), with one major difference: he’s experimented on himself instead of a test subject. His inability to undo what he has wrought brings about his transformation into a homicidal, power-hungry fiend, obsessed with wielding his dictatorial rule over mankind to the detriment of those he holds most dear.

So pitifully poor in wealth and background, Griffin had nothing to offer his sweetheart, Flora Cranley. That is, until he stumbled upon the formula that would forever alter his universe: a powerful mind-altering drug called monocaine (a possible pseudonym for morphine), which renders its subject invisible while leaving behind a warped personality.

His scenes with the desperate Flora are pitiable in their futility: she realizes he has gone completely insane, but is helpless to dissuade him from his murderous path; while he, like an impatient child, can only rock back and forth in his chair, seeking solace and relief where none can be had. Grasping at his forehead, Griffin mouths his contempt for humanity and its weaknesses. He is incapable of accepting the truth of what Flora has to reveal, that the drug has altered his soul and his being. Won’t he let her father help him? Not a chance!

Griffin goes on a murder spree, first throttling a policeman to death, next sabotaging a speedy train, and then sending his former assistant, Dr. Kemp, over the side of a cliff for betraying him to the police. In the end, alone and doomed by his lust for power, Griffin is shot and captured by his pursuers. On his deathbed, the invisibility begins to fade, revealing the real man behind the bandages: calm, serene, and finally at peace.

The Ultimate Reveal: The Invisible Man (Rains) on his deathbed

Directed by James Whale, who also worked on the previous Universal hit Frankenstein (1931), the film was another of the studio’s highpoints in the expanding list of classic monster movies. Whale pointed his camera high above the ceiling for the scene where the British bobby (E.E. Clive) and townspeople climb the stairs to Griffin’s room. For others, he kept the focus low and to the ground which made Griffin loom physically larger and more menacing (Rains was famously short of stature), as well as rail from on high about conquering the world. Less dependent on the techniques of German Expressionism than either Frankenstein (1931) or its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), The Invisible Man spawned numerous sequels and imitators, none of which scaled the heights of the original.

Produced by Carl Laemmle Jr., the picture co-starred the lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in James Cameron’s Titanic) as Griffin’s fiancée Flora, William Harrigan as his treacherous assistant Dr.Kemp, and Henry Travers (the angel Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) as Flora’s father and Griffin’s employer, Dr. Cranley, along with the excitable Una O’Connor as Jenny Hall, Forrester Harvey as Herbert Hall, Dudley Diggs as the Chief Detective, and E.E. Clive as Constable Jaffers. Others in the cast include the dependable Dwight Frye as a reporter, John Carradine (under the pseudonym Peter Richmond), and Walter Brennan.

The screenplay is credited to R.C. Sheriff, who wrote the play Journey’s End, which kicked off Whale’s stage career in 1928 and that also took him to New York. Whale later directed the screen version of the play.

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes

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 you’re 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 participate in. And most of them 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 co-exist 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. Here, the presence of evil is portrayed by the least likeliest character, an individual so fragile and accident prone it’s amazing he can get out of bed without crushing himself to death. He is pitted against the forces of good by a clueless stadium guard in a green hoodie and baseball cap.

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 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 treatments 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 or what 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 prominently spiked tail. Correct?

Oh, how wrong we are!

Sometimes the Devil is shown as an innocent six-year old child. He’s called 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. There’s mischief afoot (and that portentous-sounding soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith) whenever the tiny tyke is caught traipsing about the household. The simplest of childhood toys — a tricycle, for instance — can become a deadly weapon in Damien’s hands.

In the sequel, Damien: Omen II (directed by Don Taylor and Mike Hodges), he’s just turned thirteen and attends a military academy. Nothing so ominous about that. It’s the actions that swirl around and about him that make this moody teenager a powerful antagonist in the long run. 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, aptly named Darkness, with stereotypically long black nails, along with standard-issue hooves, horns, and tail to match, topped off with 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 ever-so-charming Tim Curry (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) on two-foot-high stilts, this “devil of a fellow” is far livelier (and far, far sexier) than the wet-behind-the-ears Tom Cruise, a goody-two-shoes groundskeeper with the garden-hose appellation of 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. No casting of stones here!

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 chest. “It is written: ‘Thou shalt worship the Lord, thy God — and Him only shalt thou serve’.” The Devil beats a hasty retreat. The iconographic image that DeMille has conjured up recalls his early upbringing in the Presbyterian church, as well as the influence of art history (with reference to such figures as William Blake and Henry Fuseli). Note the Devil’s positioning vis-à-vis Christ, similar in many respects to painterly representations of Virgil guiding the poet Dante to the Inferno.

Sometimes Christ is not really seen at all (at least, not in full frontal view) 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 actor Cameron Mitchell who forgives the populace for crucifying him, while the heavy-lidded Victor Mature as the slave Demetrius looks on in anguish; in the latter opus he’s performed by opera tenor Claude Heater. No singing was involved, although we do get a good look at Heater’s backside, along with his broken body during the dolorous Crucifixion sequence, thus giving credence to the film’s subtitle, A Tale of the Christ.

Switching to the top dog, God as the Burning Bush speaks to Moses (Charlton Heston) in respectfully hushed tones in DeMille’s spectacular Technicolor wide-screen remake of The Ten Commandments (1956). At the giving of said Commandments, His portentous voice booms forth loudly after reciting each of the ten 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 use of Heston’s baritonal timbre by citing the Biblical passage where Moses insisted the Lord spoke to his mind. It would have scared Moses out of his headgear if he had been forced to listen to someone else’s voice (we now quote the classic Bill Cosby routine where Noah is called on by the Lord to build Him an ark: “Riiiiiiiight …. Who is this, really?”).

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 that very night, 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 medieval 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 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 Catholic 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 perpetual 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 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