I introduced a pal last night to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982).

And she was predictably impressed.  Here are a few observations that came up for me, about the categorically rewatchable sci-fi/horror movie that keeps on giving.  (Yeah, I know I sound overly preoccupied with this movie, and that’s weird, but I’m just really into movies.  And John Carpenter’s “The Thing” is the same kind of classic for monster movie fans as “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story” is for people who like Christmas movies.)  [THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS MAJOR SPOILERS.]

1) It was fun watching “The Thing” with someone who was seeing it for the first time.  Not only did I have to stifle a chuckle at her cry of “That poor dog!” during the opening credits, but I also watched while she guessed (incorrectly, as most of us did) at which characters had been assimilated by the shape-shifting monster as the story progressed.  (I noticed something ironic last night that I couldn’t mention.  When MacReady delivers his short “I know I’m human. And if you were all these things, then you’d just attack me” speech, all of the men he’s addressing are also still human … Unless I’m mistaken, Norris and Palmer are elsewhere.

Which brings me to what at first occurred to me as a … remotely possible plot hole in this otherwise perfect masterpiece.  If The Thing truly wants to escape Antarctica and prey upon the rest of the world, it doesn’t need to assimilate (or “Thingify,” as I like to think) everyone in the camp.  It only needs to overtake a single human.  (This would be the silhouetted figure that the dog first approaches; my money’s on Norris.)  Think about it … nobody stationed at Outpost 31 remains at the research station indefinitely.  They’d cycle out at the end of a shift of … six months?  Eight months?  Longer?  (And what about vacations and holidays?)  Sooner or later, they’d fly home.  And, having perfectly replicated a human’s anatomy, The Thing need only sustain itself until that departure by eating the same food the other humans were eating.  Then, as soon as it arrived at any other, warmer location on earth, it could attack life in its abundance.

But this morning I realized that my analysis here is faulty.  First, the humans were already getting wise to The Thing and its means of procreation — thanks to a pre-diabeetus Wilford Brimley wisely intoning, “That ain’t dog.”  Maybe The Thing was smart enough to realize the humans could effectively quarantine it.  Second, I am assuming in my criticism that “The Thing” is acting as a single entity.  Yet it shouldn’t act that way at all; this is the entire point of MacReady’s “blood test.”  While one incarnation of The Thing is safely munching on canned goods disguised as a human, a separate incarnation was sitting in storage, exposed — presumably only until the humans finally realized it needed to be destroyed somehow.  That iteration of The Thing needed to attack and duplicate Redding if it wanted to save itself.

2)  The Thing actually shouldn’t need to reach civilization in order to begin attacking all life on earth; it only needs to reach the Antarctic coast. If it enters the water and begins assimilating sea life (and why shouldn’t it be able to?), then it’s game over.  I said last night that “a fish can travel wherever it wants,” which my friend found pretty funny, but it’s true.  A Thingified fish (or its fish-Thing progeny) could arrive at any continental coastline.

3)  If The Thing replicates a human perfectly on a cellular level, then … might it be reluctant to kill anyone else, because it would basically be a human?  (Obviously, the film’s plot-driving antagonist has no such reluctance, but … still, think about it.)  If it perfectly replicates a human brain, right down to its cellular structures and chemistry, then wouldn’t it have a conscience and experience empathy?  My friend pointed out the reductionist nature of my question, though — it assumes that conscience and empathy can have only physical origins.

4)  The movie’s characters (and most viewers) assume that The Thing is “a lifeform” or an organism.  Is it, or is it simply “live” tissue?  Somebody on the Internet Movie Database message board pointed out long ago that it’s “just cells,” and that’s … literally true; the film even shows this via crude 80’s-era computer graphic.  Is it an “organism” if it is simply tissue that replicates?  Or is it no more a “lifeform” than a cancer, or tissue grown in a lab?

5) I honestly opine that the film is perfect, or very nearly so.  It is the paragon of sci-fi/horror movies.  And I’d put it on par with other films that I hold virtually perfect, like “To Have and Have Not” (1944), “Alien” (1979), “Blade Runner” (1982), “Aliens” (1986), “The Accidental Tourist” (1988), “Alien 3” (1992) and “Vanilla Sky” (2001).

6)  My friend reaaaally likes Kurt Russell’s hair in this film.

Okay, enough.  I’m sorry about this.  Hey, at least I’m not obsessing over comics tonight.

 

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A short review of “Patient Zero” (2018)

I’d be lying to you if I told you that “Patient Zero” (2018) is an especially good movie.  It isn’t.  It plays a lot like the classic “28 Days Later” (2002) would play if it were produced by the SyFy Channel, and by that I mean it generally is a poorly written, low-budget cheese-fest.  (This is one of those movies where even the score was kinda bad.)  Still, there were some hints of greatness hidden within this lackluster zombie movie — enough to save it from being a complete failure — and I would reluctantly rate it a 5 out of 10.  (Most other reviewers are not even that kind.)

First, it has some fine performers. These include two “Game of Thrones” actors who are always fun to watch — the mesmerizing Natalie Dormer and the consistently likable John Bradley.  (The latter seems to specialize in winning audiences over as the “hero’s-affable-friend” role.)  “Doctor Who” fans will of course recognize Matt Smith in the lead role.  But by far and away, they’re overshadowed by a fantastic performance by Stanley Tucci as the zombies’ surprisingly eloquent leader.  (More on that in a moment.)  Tucci is truly a great actor and he makes a perfectly menacing bad guy; his voice, diction and line delivery are goddam perfect.  His talent for voicing a magnetic, highly intelligent antagonist reminds me of Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s portrayal of Negan on “The Walking Dead,” or one of the better “big bads” seen on “24” (2001 – 2014).

Second, there are some really clever ideas hiding under this thin, hasty script.  (I strongly get the sense that “Patient Zero” was a rush job for screenwriter Mike Le and director Vincent Newman.)  The hyper-kinetic zombies here are afflicted with “super-rabies” and are reminiscent of their ilk from “28 Days Later.”  But there is a truly intriguing plot conceit — their roars and screams are perfectly intelligible to Smith’s protagonist.  He speaks their “language” because he’s infected, but also mysteriously asymptomatic.  When he interrogates the zombies for the military, their interaction is filmed as normal dialogue (creating the opportunity for Tucci’s terrific turn here).  Then things get even more interesting when it’s demonstrated that the ostensibly mindless zombies are quite proficient at planning an attack.

I … might be treating this movie a bit charitably simply because I liked some of its ingredients.  Again, I don’t actually recommend it.  But your mileage may vary.

 

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Throwback Thursday: NBC’s “Knight Rider” (1982 – 1986)

NBC’s “Knight Rider” might be the granddaddy of all 1980’s high-tech super-vehicle shows — if I had to guess which one was the most popular or most fondly remembered, this would be it.  (I suppose the other leading contender would be “Airwolf,” which we talked about a couple of months ago — but that was aimed at an older audience.)

“Knight Rider” was cheesy.  But most 80’s action shows were cheesy, and I still remember it as being decent enough.  Lord knows I and Mikey Wagner, the kid on the next block, were fascinated by it.

As anyone who remembers this show can attest, there is a key character that isn’t even hinted at in the intro below.  The car was sentient.  His name was K.I.T.T. (Knight Industries Two Thousand), and he was an artificial intelligence who actually who had a hell of a lot of personality.  K.I.T.T. was a super-intelligent, talking, futuristic, sleek, black sportscar, and he was an incongruous damned hero to us kids.

The other star was Davis Hasselhoff as Michael Knight.  We looked up to him too.  Hasselhoff, of course, is now better known for his subsequent starring role as a moronic lifeguard on the categorically awful “Baywatch” (1989 – 2001).  I remember seeing snippets of “Baywatch” in the 1990’s — it was constantly playing in the newsroom at my first job as a cub reporter.  (The guys there loved it.)  I remember being disappointed that one of my childhood heroes had somehow morphed into a male bimbo on the most saccharine and brainless TV show I had ever seen.  Hey, “Knight Rider” was a show for kids … but it was goddam “Masterpiece Theater” when compared with “Baywatch.”

Weird trivia — the voice actor for K.I.T.T. was none other than William Daniels, who also gave a stellar performance as John Adams in 1972’s film adaptation of Broadway’s “1776.”  It’s so weird seeing that movie and hearing the voice of K.I.T.T. come out of Adams’ mouth.

 

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) is actually slow and will leave you feeling low.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982) is a pop-culture sacred cow that needs to be skewered.  I’d rate it a 2 out of 10 for being a surprisingly inept and poorly scripted 1980’s “classic.”

I just don’t understand the fervent popular reverence for this movie among people in my age bracket.  It was a minor legend when I was growing up.  I was a fourth grader in 1982, and gradeschool boys could be divided into two groups: 1) those who had seen the “Phoebe Cates pool scene” and 2) those who had not, but wished they had.  When I mentioned on social media a couple of months ago this year that I’d never actually gotten around to seeing this movie, my friends were roundly astonished.

Why do they think this film is indispensable viewing?  Maybe there’s something I’m missing.  I’m tempted to group “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” together with other beloved 80’s films that just don’t resonate with me — like the understandably campy “Tron” (1982) or the unexpectedly sleep-inducing “The Big Chill” (1983).  (I couldn’t even finish the latter.)  But I can’t compare, because I know those movies are objectively good in a lot of ways, even if they weren’t to my taste.

Nor am I squeamish about raunchy sex comedies.  (C’mon.)  I pretty fondly remember “Porky’s” (1981), “Porky’s II: The Next Day” (1983), and “Revenge of the Nerds” (1984).  I mentioned “Porky’s” to the friend with whom I watched “Fast Times” — I told her that it wasn’t highbrow entertainment, but I still remember it being crudely, blasphemously funny.

This movie was just a thinly scripted small collection of vignettes, with no overall plot outside of teenagers having sexual encounters that are … awkward and bluntly sad, for the most part.  (Sean Penn’s character does drugs.)  The dialogue is terrible.  None of the characters are likable — even the story’s nerdy, well-meaning protagonist is grating.

I didn’t really laugh once at anything the director intended — I only laughed at the haircuts and the clothes.  I just can’t believe that the screenwriter here was Cameron Crowe, who also wrote what is possibly my favorite movie of all time — the widely but unfairly maligned “Vanilla Sky” (2001).  (Crowe apparently adapted the screenplay from a novel he wrote.)

There is some enjoyment to be had in watching Penn’s stoner character.  It was fun seeing a well known serious actor in an early comedic role.  Penn is a decent character actor, and it looks like he was having fun.  I do get why kids in the 80’s found him funny.

It’s also fun seeing the handful of other young actors who would go on to great careers (Judge Reinhold is always funny) but, again, this is something that the filmmakers can’t take credit for.

Hey, if you want a slice-of-life dramatic comedy about teenagers in the 1980’s, then go rent “The Breakfast Club” (1985).  It wasn’t perfect, but it was damn good movie that tackled many of the same issues as this movie, but with intelligence and effective humor.  Or, try the oddball “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986).  Both movies portray teenagers in the 80’s who are smart, likable and emphathetic, in varying degrees.  I myself went to high school in the 1980’s, and I assure you they were around.

 

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A review of “Jeepers Creepers 3” (2017)

Jeepers.

The first two “Jeepers Creepers” movies are vastly underrated classics, in my opinion — they’re well scripted and boast a truly original and frightening bogeyman.  The third, regrettably, struggles to retain even a B movie charm.  It’s a substandard horror film that I’d only grudgingly rate a 4 out of 10.

“Jeepers Creepers 3” (2017) is cloddishly written and awkwardly filmed.  The film also suffers from action sequences that are absolutely cartoonish.  A lot of this stems from the titular Creeper’s antique vehicle, which is now inexplicably depicted as being … conscious?  Possessed by the Creeper?  It drives itself, deflects bullets, launches projectiles, and contains booby traps that defy physics.  This leads to some Wile E. Coyote-style fight scenes with the story’s various protagonists, in which the saddest victim is the franchise’s credibility.

About those protagonists — there are far too many to examine with any real success; the two ostensible teenage main characters fall a bit flat.  There are so many characters that have backstories connected with the Creeper (and his signature, decades-hopping supernatural murder sprees) that the film simply becomes confusing.  And that confusion is made worse by this film’s chronology with the previous movies — it takes place immediately after the first, but before the events of the second.  (In all fairness, maybe the problem is me … I am being quite honest when I write here that I just do not follow movies as well as other people.)

With all of this exposition, though, one bit of lore is egregiously omitted – contrary to some of the movie’s advance press, we learn nothing about the creature’s origins.  And this is extremely odd, because a bunch of characters do.  There is a befuddling central plot point where the good guys methodically gain knowledge of their otherworldly foe by … touching one of its severed body parts.  But we, the viewers, learn nothing.

Even the makeup and special effects were inferior to the prior films.

I’m confused by all of the things I’ve written above, as “Jeepers Creepers 3” was written and directed by Victor Salva, who wrote and directed the excellent previous movies in 2001 and 2003.

I hope I’m not being too hard on the movie, because there’s still some fun to be had.  Jonathan Breck still chews the scenery quite nicely as the Creeper, and the monster’s character concept still manages to please.  In a horror movie market often dominated by seemingly interchangeable serial killers and undead little girls, the Creeper is a truly inventive monster — part human; part gargoyle; part body-stealing, feral Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s fun to watch, particularly for horror fans who’ve grown tired of the Patrick Batemans and the various angry ghost children that endlessly haunt the zeitgeist.  You could do a lot worse for a plot-driving antagonist.

And, thanks to so brutal a bad guy, there are occasional moments of tension in the movie.  It’s a bit scary, for example, when he attacks a group of teenaged motorcyclists.

This isn’t enough to make recommend paying for the movie, however — even if you’re a fan of the franchise, as I am.  I’d wait for “Jeepers Creepers 3” to hit Netflix or Hulu, or wait until it’s playing on SyFy again.

 

 

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