Monthly Archives: July 2011

Book shame at Hunger Mountain

The good folks at Hunger Mountain asked me and some other lucky people to own up to their greatest book shames.  I cannot tell a lie.  I have not read Catch-22 all the way through.

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The Thing is back, dammit.

For many years I’ve loved The Thing.  John Carpenter’s version, that is, made in 1982.  (I’ve never seen Hawks’s original film, and I haven’t read the story they’re both based on, “Who Goes There?”  Lapses, I know.)  Anyway, Carpenter’s a pretty uneven director as far as I can tell, but The Thing is one of my top-ten movies of all time.  Top-five, maybe.  Wait, just out of curiosity, let’s see what my top-five list looks like.  I think it goes something like:

1.  Jaws
2.  The Thing (1982 remake, John Carpenter)
3.  Little Miss Sunshine
4.  Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
5. Alien / The Host / Moonstruck / lots of other movies I can’t think of right now

All positions interchangeable except #1, always and forever. 

So, putting aside whether these are indeed the most artful and accomplished films of our time (I think they are probably not, at least not all of them), my main point is:  I love that movie.  I’ve probably watched it twenty times or more.  I know lines, sequences, and shots so intimately than when I see and hear them it’s like I’m talking to an old friend.  The Thing is my comfort food.

And now they’re remaking it.  Actually they’re calling it a prequel, because it’s the story of the Norwegian camp that initially finds the Thing in the ice, digs it out, and is (spoilers!) obliterated by it.  But they’re still calling it…The Thing.  And I don’t know if you’re familiar with Carpenter’s film, but if you are, I invite you to watch this trailer and tell me how many shots, lines, and setups you see that are faithfully reproduced from that movie.

I count…

  • opening helicopter pan over the ice
  • shot of dripping Thing remains (primed for reanimation)
  • hallway shot of the base, with claustrophobic boxes piled up along the walls
  • sled dog biting at the wire of its pen to escape a dire fate
  • “BURN IT!!!!”
  • body on the autopsy table…  “What was it doing to him?”  “Taking over his body!”
  • tense scenes of mistrustful people eyeing each other in silence
  • flamethrower standoff (with panicky bearded guy)
  • Thing-handed former human colleague, caught short mid-transformation (we hardly knew ye, Bennings!)
  • looks like a final showdown with the Thing in Big Bad form, fully grouped up and bigger than previously enjoyed.

And that’s not counting, obviously, that they chose to make this a prequel set just a few days before Carpenter’s film, so everyone’s in the same era of research-issue henleys and parkas in the same endless hostile blue-snow landscape.  Which kind of gives the movies a similar feel.

There are some new features tossed in–a few classic-horror shots like the frightened hero(ine) realizing something is slavering right behind her, and a few extra bullshit scares that Carpenter didn’t stoop to.  Mostly the new stuff looks familiar and tired, and while I think it’s interesting they’ve added a woman to the cast, and I loved Ramona Flowers, I don’t think Mary Elizabeth Winstead seems right for this role.  I’d love to be proven wrong on that point.

But overall this looks like dog food.

It’s disappointing, but not surprising, to see Hollywood trotting out another marketable property to be gracelessly milked for cash until it runs dry.  Or maybe I should say:  it’s been over twenty years since The Thing was last made, so I guess there’s a whole new generation to be introduced to the story–and while I don’t find Carpenter’s film to be too badly dated, maybe that’s because I grew up in that era and I can forgive its foibles.  Maybe it’s good that the story’s being remade for a newer, younger audience.

I just wish it didn’t look like it was going to suck so much.

And I also wish it looked like there was going to be some of the political, cultural relevance of the 1982 movie.  In 1982 the United States was wallowing in pretty deep cultural self-doubt, nuclear gridlock with the USSR, and renewed paranoia over the gains that Communism seemed to be making around the world.  The general national mood was tense, twitchy, and xenophobic.  In that context, The Thing–which overtakes people you know in secret, turns them into unwilling hosts, and goes on to absorb whole cultures–is a perfect analogy for a hostile or feared political philosophy.  (Same deal in 1951, when Howard Hawks made The Thing From Outer Space.)

Also too, in 1982, the USA was in a major recession.  There was backlash against the Carter administration and the Great Society policies of LBJ.  The Rust Belt was collapsing.  People were looking for a strong leader who’d whip the country’s economy into shape, and stop handouts to all those welfare queens etc. etc.  They got Reagan, a charismatic cowboy full of folksy wisdom and one-liners, someone they thought was ready to take the reins and do what had to be done.

Basically, the 1980s were a pretty strained time in the USA, and Carpenter’s movie knows this.  The men at the camp are isolated from the rest of the world, dependent on each other to survive.  In scene after scene, they wear huge, body-muffling coats, hoods, and goggles over their faces.  They look like aliens to us and to each other.  They’re impenetrable, unreadable.  Anyone could be anyone.  That works both in the context of the Thing among them, and in the larger cultural context of the time.  Your neighbor could be a Communist, and you’d never know it…until it’s too late.

And the (anti-)hero of the movie, the guy who takes the reins and gets things done, wears a cowboy hat and takes no prisoners.  Macready, much as I love him, is an idealized Republican, or maybe libertarian, hero.  He’s the President of Antarctica, and when things get real he doesn’t hesitate to take the house right down.

There’s plenty more to say about Carpenter’s movie–about race and masculinity, about how it plays with horror and science fiction movie tropes, and probably about a bunch of things I haven’t ever considered.  That’s one reason I love it so much.  It’s a stylish, thoughtful movie (with a kick-ass soundtrack) that manages to talk about big things in subtle ways.  It’s also a great action movie.  It hits all its beats.  It has great characters and it manages them well–there’s none of the miserable paper-doll shuffling of, say, Battle: Los Angeles.

I don’t see any of these, may I say, layers, in the prequel.  Mostly I just see a by-the-numbers action/monster movie, dropped on top of Carpenter’s film like a shellacked poop on an Eames Lounge.

Hollywood’s hunkered down for the recession, so good luck to anyone trying to get original, non-remake, non-sequel scripts through the process.  I’m resigned to the prequel, and I guess I’m a little bit curious, but mostly I’m ready to be disappointed.

Poor Thing.  I bet you deserved better.

The Reapers are the Angels

I picked this book up at ALA this year, and devoured it on the way home.  And now I want to say something smart about it, something that will make anyone reading this run out to buy a copy…but I just read some of the reader reviews on Amazon and honestly, people are already saying all the right things about it.  Highlights:

“I was not expecting this work of art that caught me up and shook me and broke my heart because it is both so beautiful and so sad. Zombies: the new face of magic realism. Who knew? ”

“I think I just finished one of the best books I’ve ever read. How did you do that, Alden Bell? How did you do it in a zombie novel? ”

“Alden Bell’s The Reapers are The Angels is the perfect combination of Charles Portis’ True Grit and the classic zombie flick Night of the Living Dead. If you are a fan of the highest quality literature, thought provoking themes and the supernatural then there is nothing lacking in this book.”

No kidding.  Those are taken from actual reviews–just the first few in the list.  The superlatives continue.

So this is just a little tiny signal-boost.  If this book passed you by, go get a copy now and read it.  And write a nice note to Mr. Alden Bell when you’re finished.  I did, and he wrote me back.  Classy as hell.

cover image of the reapers are the angels.  girl with hand over her face, peeking through fingers.