Wednesday, 30 November 2011

The Watcher - looking back at 2011

Rounding off this year is a tricky proposition. How to wax lyrical about the year’s best genre films after the buzz has died down and said films have already been assimilated or dismissed from the pop culture juggernaught. Instead this week, here are five films of 2011 that might have passed you by, but with the holidays looming - and some extra time on your hands - are worthy of your consideration.

The year got off to a cracking start with the release of masked crime fighter action comedy ‘The Green Hornet’, from director Michel Gondry and starring Seth Rogen. Despite intense scepticism surrounding the rather leftfield choice of director, more commonly known for thoughtful but visually inventive films such as ‘Be Kind Rewind’ (2008) and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ (2004), Gondry’s willingness to experiment with the usual superhero tropes delivered a film that provided both thrilling action and enough neat twists to keep the viewer hooked. Seth Rogen too, while seemingly more at home in slacker comedies such as ‘Pineapple Express’ (2008), nevertheless brought a bemused fish out of water quality which contrasted nicely with the largely uber confident and muscle bound leading men of the summer superhero movies. Villan Christoph Waltz, sidekick Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz and fan favourite Edward J. Olmos bring wit and class to this fun alternative to the mainstream superhero genre.

Drive Angry is a film so wrong that it turns out thrillingly right in almost all respects. Released early this year, Drive Angry is a chase/revenge movie in the ‘Grindhouse’ tradition with a supernatural twist. The film stars Nicholas Cage as hard drinking, hard driving loner who has escaped from hell to save his granddaughter from the clutches of an evil religious cult. Teamed up with relative newcomer Amber Heard, Cage gives a straight up, adrenaline fuelled performance that recalls the heady days of ‘Con Air’ and ‘Face/Off’ (1997), almost redeeming a decade of risible offerings in between. The film's villain, the cunningly titled ‘Accountant’ provides a suave counterpoint to Cage’s down and dirty hero, and is played by possibly the greatest supporting actor you never remember, William Fitchner. Director Patrick Lussier deserves some kudos for fun use of 3D for the cinema release, but even without this extra dimension, drive angry is a reliably raucous fun.

With the ‘found footage’ style of filmmaking proving to be surprisingly tenacious, Apollo 18 went largely unnoticed in a year in which the genre's most celebrated offering was the third in the increasingly ponderous supernatural horror series 'Paranormal Activity'. The aptly titled Apollo 18 take the premise that there was a final manned moon mission, which for reasons of national security and horrendous failure, went unreported. The format is a natural fit for the American space program for several reasons. Not only were all such missions filmed with handheld cameras as a matter of course, but the claustrophobic conditions and familiar yet alien environment on the moon, provide the ideal setting for the films mix of suspense, conspiracy theories and body horror. When the hype and negative buzz surrounding the found footage genre has died down, expect Apollo 18 to remain as a highly regarded sci-fi thriller in its own right.

Riding high on the critical, if not commercial success of 2009's original sci-fi thriller 'Moon', director Duncan Jones found Hollywood calling with the offbeat yet slick 'Source Code'. Starring Jake Gyllenhall, Source Code is a science fiction thriller with a time travel twist, as Gyllenhall's war vet turned Government agent is sent back to the scene of a terrorist bombing time and again in a desperate search for clues. So far, so Groundhog Day. While Gyllenhall gradually earns the trust of both his superiors and the audience after a slightly grating first twenty minutes or so, Jones avoids repetition by injecting a great deal of thoughtful character moments to offset the brutal thrills. It is pleasing to see Jones developing a distinct directorial style, characterised just as much by emotional resonance as the obvious intelligence he brings to his work. Source Code requires concentration, but is ultimately the years most rewarding watch.

Finally, the Watcher would like to recommend a film whose status as a piece of genre filmmaking is questionable, but which will certainly appeal to fans of this type of filmmaking. This film is Hanna, essentially a brutal spy/chase thriller from director Joe Wright (Atonement, Pride and Prejudice), with a cunning streak of fairytale weirdness. Raised by her father in an isolated cabin in the woods, 16 year old Hanna (Saoirse Ronan), has been raised as the perfect assassin following a traumatic event that has forced them into hiding. Forced out into the open, the pair must chase across europe to rendezvous in an abandoned Brothers Grimm themed amusement park (a real location). The action and thrills are as brutal and convincing as anything Bond or Bourne has to offer, and the supporting cast are chillingly portrayed as twisted fairytale archetypes by Cate Blanchet as the wicked stepmother and Eric Bana as the father/saviour. Taking in concepts such as eugenics, conspiracy theories and stealing a dash on this/next years hot topic of fairytale themes, Hanna is quite possibly this years finest thriller.

So, with only one month left of 2011, it will soon be time to look forward to next year's big releases, with a quick pit stop to consider the upcoming 'The Thing' remake.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is wishing his December away.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Lion's Share - Nelson (for Shelter)

It's getting cold outside isn't it? It's the time of year where we all worry about our own heating bills, then spare a thought for elderly relatives who might be struggling in cold houses with only a meagre pension to get by on.

Then, some kind souls spare a further thought for the homeless, who are trying to find a way to stay warm in the face of the elements themselves. The charity Shelter does great work in trying to help such unfortunate people. Christmas is especially hard for people on the streets.

This winter, Blank Slate Books has published Nelson, a 260 page full colour graphic novel featuring 54 UK comic creators who have joined forces to create a single story, documenting the life of one character, year by year from 1968 to present day. All the publisher profits from the first 4000 copies of Nelson will go to Shelter and I'm matching this by donating 100% of Proud Lion's gross profits from the sale of each copy of this graphic novel as well.

This is a unique and wonderful book - even if it wasn't for a worthwhile cause I'd urge you to add a copy to your collection. But since it is for Shelter, please, please pick one up today.

Below is an eight page preview of Nelson, put together by the publisher. Alternatively you can download the preview ashcan as a pdf here.

Ben Fardon would like to remind friends that he is only buying Christmas presents for family this year. Instead of buying for friends, he will be making a significant personal donation to Shelter. If you'd like to buy him something, why not buy a copy of Nelson (from anywhere!) and add your support. Many thanks.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Gift Vouchers!

Just a quick reminder that gift vouchers are available this Christmas, in denominations of £10. Stuck for a gift idea for a comic fan, or wondering how to explain to your family what you want from the store? Gift vouchers are the solution!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

The Mane Event - Fear Itself

Through 2011 Marvel has launched its cross over series Fear Itself. It has been a seven part story which has also influenced over 20 different titles. Some have been influential, such as Invincible Iron Man, some specifically designed for the event such as The Worthy and others which have been tenuous links to say the least.

It has spawned three epilogue issues (#7.1, #7.2, #7.3) which set up new storylines within the MU and also acted as a vehicle for the reinvention of a new Ghost Rider. Furthermore there are two new miniseries - The Fearless, a twelve part following Sin and Valkyrie in the aftermath and the slow burning Battle Scars.

The architect for the whole story was Matt Fraction, one of Marvel’s big writers at the moment, which is why there is also such a synergy with Iron Man too. That said there is a large emphasis on the relationship and interactions of Thor and Captain America meaning the original Avengers are very prominent. The story is well written and full of big moments but that has also meant that there is a potential for big troughs for the readers to fall into as well. You also have to consider that this is all built on the one shot, by Ed Brubaker, The Book of the Skull which set a very specific tone. This was not an arc that was going to be soft and fluffy with a sadistic and focused Sin leading the way strongly and even more so when Skaadi was forging forward. With such a high pace the question you begin to ask is, “Is this sustainable?”

Fear Itself is the product of a prophecy. One that Odin has been trying to avoid for the sake of Thor. That Odin’s brother will return and in the process of defeating him Thor will die. Unfortunately for earth this means that as the “host” for the event that things are not looking good. Especially when the fuel for Sin is in endless supply from all of the inhabitants, FEAR.

The arrival of the Serpent in the mortal world also ushers in the return of Thor and his brethren to Asgard leaving earth’s hero’s alone in the world to fight an adversary they have no realistic chance against. To compound matters further the second issue is all about the introduction of the Worthy. Seven of earths heroes and villains imbued with the power of mystical hammers that land on the planet at the Serpent’s command. You could make an observation towards the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely as it matters little if you are considered evil (Attuma/Grey Gargoyle/Absorbing Man/Titania), good (Ben Grimm) or ambiguous (the rehabilitating Juggernaut/reclusive Hulk) because all of them have little or no control over the actions they then take. All of them become harbingers of a fate that will potentially end the world.

Each of the issues has at least one big moment but not all saved for cliffhangers, such as the departure of the Asgardians or the blitzkrieg invasion of America. Some are more meaningful. The best example of this would be issue #4’s cry for help from Tony Stark. For those who are not familiar with Iron Man and his history, Stark has had a huge battle in his past with alcoholism which was captured in the Demon in a Bottle storyline. Following this he has been completely teetotal. But, in this moment of absolute crisis, whilst calling out for Odin, Stark makes a huge sacrifice. When a show and dignity and integrity hasn’t been strong enough to bring down the All Father, Tony gives his only thing of value he has left. His sobriety.

You also have the iconic moments, or the breaking of icons, where we are given death and chaos or the destruction of symbols of hope. These events only go to further feed the beast, making the Serpent even stronger, creating a feeling of even greater futility and struggle.

The final book of Fear Itself is one of strength and hope. If you read Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man as well you will have seen his journey and return to bring the Avengers blessed weapons which can finally stand up to the Worthy, leaving Thor to face his destiny and Odin to see if prophecy and fate can be avoided.

For me, this is where the whole story starts to falter, although some may argue that after the first two issues things had started to slow. After taking two issues to establish such a good base the next four issues open the story out into relevant miniseries. These continued until the final issue where wrapping it all up in one final comic simply seems too fast. The issue is hefty but that is because it also includes three epilogues which only one of them bears huge relevance to the previous arc.

The three epilogues revolves around the original Avengers providing unique perspectives in the aftermath. What I found surprisingly refreshing is that they are not “happily-ever-after” stories. Cap struggles with some of the more harsh realities of modern warfare and the balancing of what is needed and what is necessary. The Thor title is more about rebirth from the ashes of war with the arrival of Thanatos. Finally Iron Man faces up to Odin to receive perspective in the after event and at the same time provided me with my favourite moment and phrase of the entire series. In an attempt to make him understand his lack of significance, Odin shows Stark a glimpse behind the curtain. All Stark can ask is why him? To which Odin coldly replies “Who ever would believe you?” Simple and very satisfying.

Considering that this series will be one of the cornerstones of future events in the Marvel Universe (for instance the new Incredible Hulk title is established at the end of book seven) it is a good read. It’s not necessarily essential but will answer questions readers may have about Thor or Bucky for example. It is hard to completely evaluate it as it started as a strong story which turned a little too much towards marketing other names and future titles. We wouldn’t have The Fearless were it not for this story line and is it a story that can hold twelve issues when the original Fear Itself couldn’t do it for seven?

I can imagine that it’s hard to write a title which revolves around no one specifically but also is in depth enough to hold a reader's concentration. On this occasion I feel that it started really well and petered off towards the end but in doing so set up some very new and interesting titles (and revivals). Fear Itself would be something worth collecting and reading all together as the wait between issues won’t have helped. I enjoyed the premise and some of the cross overs for my preferred heroes but the delivery wasn’t always there. Whereas Fraction may have stumbled, Immonen provided strong and consistent artwork throughout, giving the reader a great visual representation. I’m glad that I have the main story and also that I had Iron Man to read alongside as it filled in the gaps that I found pertinent but be aware not all of the crossovers are as effective!

Matt Puddy is gearing up for the return of the Phoenix in 2012!

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Watcher - In Time

In Time is a dystopian science fiction thriller from director Andrew Niccol and starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried and Cillian Murphy. The basic concept is that overpopulation has forced the powers that be to genetically alter the human race to live up to the age of 25, thereafter earning further time, which has now become the new currency. The result is that the population has divided between those who live day to day, eking out a living through manual labour, with the ever present threat of their clock running out, and those who have accumulated almost limitless reserves through banking or crime and are now effectively immortal.

The concept provides fertile ground for social commentary and interesting set pieces. From the outset, the threat of living against the clock is clear as factory worker Will Sallas (Timberlake) and his mother arrange to meet the next day after work, as their personal clocks slowly tick away. As we watch Sallas struggle to make it through the day, coping with inflation, low wages and passing the abandoned bodies of those unlucky souls who’s time has expired, while his mother misses the bus, forcing her to race against time to their meeting and inevitably meeting with tragedy.

The opening scenes neatly establish the mechanics of the central concept, but they are also where the film’s emotional content runs out of steam, as Sallas stumbles upon a caches of a hundred years and the film switches to a more breathless combination of James Bond and Crank as he sets out to restore some form of justice to society, snagging Seyfried’s reluctant socialite Sylvia along the way. There are a couple of interesting uses of the time concept, with one particular highlight being a high stakes poker game, where Sallis literally bets his life, going all in against the film’s defacto villain, heartless banker Phillipe Weis.

In time is an entertaining film, and the use of time as an analogue for money as a mean to manipulate and surpress society’s underclass in well handled, with particular resonance in today’s economic problems. It is however not without its problems. The idea that everyone stops ageing at 25 and thus the population appears perpetually youthful is potentially interesting, as character’s real ages are revealed, but this never has the dramatic value that it should, and is in most cases played for cheap laughs. There are also one or two interesting casting choices which rather stretch credibility such as Cillian Murphy’s under written cop/timekeeper Raymond Leon, whos appearance clashes noticeably with the largely young cast, who despite their best efforts, never quite match his innate gravitas.

The script too, as well as being rather thin on the ground in terms of characterisation, rather overplays the puns on the word time. Although a society in which time has become the currency would naturally develop a matching vocabulary, this never comes across as anything other than a slightly clumsy gimmick, however admirably the cast play it straight.

Overall, In Time is a heartfelt thriller, displaying a spark of intelligence. Kudos to writer/director Andrew Niccols for forging a work of intellince and heart of what appears to be a shoestring budget, but it appears sadly that this film could have used a little more time to iron out the kinks.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is lost in Cillian Murphy's eyes. Aren't we all...

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Temporary Revised Opening Times - w/c 21/11/11

Just a quick note about next week folks - due to a family commitment I have to revise our opening times for a couple of days next week, as follows:

TUESDAY 22ND NOVEMBER: 10:30am - 5:00pm

WEDNESDAY 23RD NOVEMBER: 10:30am - 6:30pm

THURSDAY 24TH NOVEMBER: 12:00pm - 5:30pm

FRIDAY 25TH NOVEMBER: 10:00am - 5:30pm (business as usual)

SATURDAY 26TH NOVEMBER: 10:00am - 5:00pm (business as usual)

It has also come to my attention that some of you have noticed that the store is occasionally open later than advertised. Please remember that I am the sole member of staff and as such I am on occasion held up at the bank, etc. on my way to work. Despite my best efforts, such things do happen and I ask that you show some understanding on these occasions. It is frustrating for me as well.

Please also remember that I get no guaranteed annual leave, so I do on occasion become quite run down. Again, understanding on these occasions would be greatly appreciated.

Christmas Opening Times 2011

Please note that over Christmas the new release day for comics moves to Thursdays due to the Bank Holidays. It will return to Wednesdays after the festivities.

Proud Lion is also open on the last Monday before Christmas, giving you an extra shopping day!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

New Beginnings - Marvel Point One

There is plenty going on in Marvel comics at the moment and their world is about to change. Some of it is in reaction to stories and events, other parts simply because things haven’t been working, but regardless of the reason as a reader something different is on the way.

This is the whole feeling behind Brubaker’s framing piece “Behold the Watcher”, the story loosely holding the comic together. It’s a retro-looking story revolving around a lesser known fact that the Watchers go offline for a small window of time every three years leaving a brief opportunity for an information heist. Which is exactly what our (semi) anonymous agents of the unseen have done. By delving into the different windows of reality and seeing through their eyes we, the readers, are given a glimpse of what is to come.

The issue gives six stories by a variety of writers and artists across a variety of characters, which is given away a little by the cover but not in its entirety, it still has a few surprises inside as well. Each is a snippet as well which paves the way, quite literally in the case of Nova, who is a herald for one of the most Earth shattering revivals to come. it's no secret for those who read the last issue of fear Itself or have seen the teasers online - the Phoenix is coming...

We also have Doctor Strange and Kaine (Peter Parker clone and incumbent Scarlet Spider) - giving the reader a taste of their current lives, each with their own views and problems. The former is the quite widely advertised new beginning for The Defenders, which is also promoted later in the comic, whereas the latter is a whole new twist with a really interesting identity struggle and internal conflict being prominent, offering a potential redemption common theme emerging.

Interestingly, there is a showcase for a new title (I think as I couldn’t find anything else on it anywhere!) called Yin and Yang. I think I’m almost genetically predisposed to like it as it’s one of my favourite artists working on it, but I wonder if the story will be strong enough. Unlike all of the other tasters you’re given there isn’t really much depth given to this brother and sister combo, so it’s asking a lot of the reader. I also feel like it is vaguely emulating DC’s Firestorm or Hawk and Dove. Still nice and clean but time will tell.

Brian Michael Bendis is taking on the Avengers and also bringing in a big hitter to face off against them. It’s a lovely dark - almost desperate - view we’re given as well and I really liked what was providing. Building on the glimpses of the Age Of Ultron in the first Avengers storyarc and Avengers #12.1, this has great potential to be as huge as the return of the Phoenix.

Finally - and I have taken this out of order for my own selfish reasons - there is an Age of Apocalypse title. I’ve always liked these and this is one of my favourite villains in the Marvel Universe. There is a huge twist to it too. There's a new band of renegades looking to oppose the plans that Apocalypse has strived for - some well known human antagonists from the X-Men stories. This is a really nice version of a future which I am looking forward to.

Overall the Point One is a good little one-shot; the titles are exciting and I’m certainly looking forward to seeing them. It's worth taking a look at and will tease readers, especially as it shows that right now Marvel are happy to build on existing stories, launch new ideas and embrace the future without resorting to a copycat reboot. 2012 looks set to be full of promise.

Matt Puddy questions the marketing of this Point One, but suspects it's an issue we'll all be revisting with fresh eyes next year.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Watcher - Rare Exports

Rare Exports is a Finnish fantasy film directed by Jalmari Helander which is shortly to join the likes of Bad Santa and Elf on your list of alternative Christmas films. Originally released in 2010, this week sees the general release of Helander’s take on the Santa Claus myth on DVD and Blu-Ray, just in time to generate some all important buzz to capture the Christmas market before the big chill sets in and mentioning the C word once again becomes a cardinal sin for months on end.

Set in an isolated community on the Finnish border with Russia, where the annual reindeer cull is threatened by the strange goings on in a nearby mountain, Rare Exports is a film that keeps you guessing. Although from the outset, with the discovery of the ‘largest burial mound in history’ and two children’s speculation about the existence of the real man behind the Santa Claus myth, it seems reasonably clear where the action is heading, the film avoids the obvious. The setup, with its isolated setting, teasing images of the monstrous demon-like Santa Claus of folklore, seems to point towards the traditional gore-fest of films such as Dead Snow and The Thing, but what Helander delivers is a fantasy action film that sits more comfortably alongside the likes of J.J. Abrams’s summer blockbuster Super 8 and the children’s adventure films of the 80s from which Abrams drew his inspiration.

The central concept of a malevolent being, buried in the ice for and age, uncovered by unwitting scientists is not exactly a new one, neither is the idea that figure of fairytale and myth are as innocent as the childhood stories that bear their names, but the hints that the once benevolent childhood figure of Santa Claus was in fact a tormentor of children, trapped at the heart of a mountain by a fearful community give Rare Exports an edge of your seat thrill, as we wait for the full horror to reveal itself.

Some ominously large footprints in the snow, followed by a field of brutally slaughtered reindeer and the mysterious theft of the town’s radiators all keep the suspense coming, but it is the central relationship between father and son Rauno and Pietari, played so convincingly by Jorma and Onni Tommila that really provides the film with ample substance and a nice emotional context that reminds us exactly why Christmas is so important in the first place: family.

As the action progresses, so too does the plot, which goes from suspenseful chiller to a fight for survival, as the dangerous old man is discovered and begins to wreak havoc on our unwitting heroes, who - like the viewer - have an even bigger surprise in store, just as everything seems to be figured out nicely.

I highly recommend, Rare Exports. This is an example of a foreign film that will appeal to the Western market thanks to a familiar theme and setup, and a very impressive overall look despite its modest budget. It’s a shame the film carries a 15 rating, as this could perhaps appeal to a slightly wider audience so easily enthralled by the aforementioned Super 8, but that shouldn’t stop you tracking it down, and for once, being in on the ground floor of an inevitable cult hit.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is determined to avoid being on the naughty list this year.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

New Beginnings - Wolverine & The X-Men #1/Uncanny X-Men #1

There has been a great divide throughout the world of X-Men. Lines have been drawn and hearts have been followed. Led by two very strong characters - Cyclops and Wolverine - two distinct teams have formed around, each around a different ethos. (For more info see Schism or the recent Regenesis one-shot)

Over the past fortnight, Marvel have released two of the re-launched titles - going head to head with Wolverine’s School and Cyclops’ vision. Initially after reading Regenesis I felt I was firmly on the side of Wolverine, but has this held after reading them both?

Wolverine & The X-Men has been written by Jason Aaron which was released last week. The story revolves around a very tense and nervous Wolverine who is under quite an assault which is completely out of his comfort zone. For once it’s not an alien force or the horsemen of Apocalypse but it is in fact the new school inspectors. This is the first day and normally it should have been the children who are apprehensive but instead it’s Logan. The issue is also an opener and reaffirms the main characters who are going to be found and also how the new school is structured. There are many familiar faces in unfamiliar roles but also someone who is incredibly comfortable, Beast.

What was nice about the writing was that it was a simple and straight forward piece to read. It was aimed well at an open market for everyone to read. That said there isn’t really a huge amount of depth in the issue either. As an issue one it didn’t really hit me with anything and could have well been a one-shot or even a point one issue.

The artwork is a strange affair. Chris Bachalo has a fantastic way with backgrounds and expansive imagery. There is a particular spread about five pages in which shows the school off in all of its external variety. It’s full of detail and imagination but then conversely it changes when you have a person in frame. The lines become heavy and bodyparts are distorted somewhat, even worse is that over distance lots of detail is lost in the individuals (sounds like Ramos. BF). You do get the general feeling of it all but when I wasn’t impressed by the story, the art didn’t push any boundaries either for me.

Uncanny X-Men takes a different tack altogether. Whereas Aaron wrote to Wolverine’s weaknesses Keiron Gillen has written to Cyclops’ strength. My small knowledge of X-Men has always had Scott as decisive and focused but most of all a tactician and master strategist. His grasps of the bigger picture leads to how he is structuring his entire team for the best possible outcome. It’s a very well planned out premise for the comic which then leaps straight into action.

Now I knew that Mister Sinister would come into the story at some point as he appears on the very first page in the intro. I’ve only recently seen him in the Age of Apocalypse so what appeared to be a revival of a character made me smile and even more importantly is that he sets about doing what he does best. Creates havoc and instigates Scott’s Extinction Team to jump to action.

This is another example of the depth of thought that has gone into the team. It has a bit scary name but there is a reason behind it as well. Scott has realised the position of the team in the scheme of things and understands that as much as the team has to protect humankind it also has to be feared by them. If ever there was an offspring of Xavier and Magneto’s thinking, here it is.

The writing that wraps it all up is incredibly considered and structured very well. You also get the feeling that this then flows into the story itself as well. Gillen has done a good job and also not been shy about getting stuck into the action as well. He’s portioned time out for establishment but then strode headlong into an new opening arc which will span a few issues at least.

The artwork by Carlos Pacheco was also a good choice. A cloudy and indistinct style would have simply watered down the work that Gillen had done. It’s fine and detailed and also has some new takes and slight changes to characters as well. It kept my eye for the whole comic, even down to the peculiar “wonderland” at the end where you can’t help looking to see what else there is.

Considering that before this review I was firmly in the Wolverine camp I have to say I am very pleasantly surprised. Wolverine and the X-Men feels like a good intro title and is an easy read so will be good for new readers. Uncanny X-Men is a little more hard hitting and is more adult in a way. Scott, combined with his control and clarity and also his team (I’m liking the expansion of Collossus’ conflict with the Juggernaut persona from Fear Itself for example) have actually made me cross the line.

Matt Puddy is gearing up for a Marvel's Point One - essential reading out next week!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

The Watcher - John Carpenter's The Thing

As discussed last week, December sees the release of the long anticipated prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 Sci-fi Horror ‘The Thing’. Although Carpenter’s film was ostensibly a remake of Chris Nyby’s ‘The Thing From Another World’ (1951) (reviewed here last week), critics and fans alike today widely acknowledge Carpenter’s film as the definitive take on the source material, John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella ‘Who Goes There?’

The extent of fans’ passion for Carpenter’s film belies the fact that unlike its 1951 forbear, ‘The Thing’ was a relative box office failure on its original release, turning off audiences who were dazzled by Stephen Spielberg’s ‘E.T. The Extraterrestrial’ and stalling the director’s still burgeoning career. Although Carpenter himself cites ‘E.T.’ as a factor, it is also true that the R rated ‘The Thing’, while innovative, also displayed a level of violence and gore that shocked even horror audiences in the early 1980s.

On settling down to view ‘The Thing’ today, it still unsettles and it is possible to see why it has since become such a cult hit. From the opening scenes, in which a flying saucer crashes to earth and the title appears on the screen in flames, the roots in 1950’s sci-fi b-movies become clear, with a clear homage to ‘The Thing From Another World’ - a childhood favourite of the director’s. The appearance of the name Ennio Morricone, most famous as composer for spaghetti western ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ also harks back to the director’s early love of westerns and it becomes increasingly apparent that this project is something of a labour of love.

As the titles fade and we cut to an almost silent scene, as a helicopter desperately chases a husky through the Antarctic. There is an immediate sense of jeopardy, with an unsettling edge, as the silence is punctuated only by gunshots, the low thrum of the chopper and the pulsing score. As the chase unwittingly leads to an American scientific research base it quickly becomes clear that the film’s protagonists are a far cry from the largely clean cut military types who populated the 1951 film. The idea of a disparate collection of working men - similar to 1979’s ‘Alien’ - immediately introduces conflict, and as the horror that has emerged from the ice is quickly revealed the struggle becomes all the more desperate because of it.

Although populated by a fine group of character actors, it is Kurt Russell, as helicopter pilot ‘Mac’ MacReady who provides the films focus, and whilst proving to be a magnetic screen presence, he manages to stay just the wrong side of all out heroic, remaining almost an anti-hero as the situation unravels and the situation quickly goes from bad to worse. It is testament to Russell’s skill perhaps that he holds his own against the full horror of Carpenter’s gruesomely realised monster, which is a tour de force of practical effects work, as it rips its way from Husky to man, ever changing, keeping both the crew and audience guessing.

For all this, two standout moments truly mark Carpenter out as a great film maker, the first being the scene in which MacReady administers a ‘blood test’ to the captive crew, which is a remarkable example of nerve shredding tension as we wait for the thing to be revealed as Russell slowly touches a hot wire to the blood samples of his colleagues. The final scene too, is one of the all time great cliff hangers, as the survivors sit, with little or no chance of rescue, still unsure whether or not they are finally victorious.

To say any more would be preaching to the converted and robbing newcomers of the many delights of this masterpiece of sci-fi horror. With the forthcoming prequel only a month away, now is the time to revisit this sci-fi horror classic, with the lights and the heating off, all the better to appreciate the chills.

One final thought - given what we learn from this film about the ill-fated Norwegian research base, it will be very interesting to see how the makers of the upcoming prequel manages to dovetail and homage with Carpenter’s masterpiece.

Robert Barton-Ancliffe is dismayed by the negative reviews for the prequel - and he's not alone!