Monday, June 11, 2007

25 Years Ago This Summer . . .

Summer 2007 marks a very special occasion for cult/genre film fans, as it is the 25th anniversary of perhaps the greatest summer film season in motion picture history . . . the summer of 1982. What was so special about that summer you may ask? Talk to anyone who lived through it, and they will tell you that practically every weekend a new sci-fi/horror/fantasy classic was released (and sometimes several). Sure your typical summer is filled with blockbuster spectacles, but since that year the quality has steadily declined with more and more empty showcases for special effects taking the place of great storytelling. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy computer-generated eye-candy (e. g. Spider-Man 3, Fantastic Four 2, Transformers, etc.) as much as the next person, but they're not films I'm likely to remember a year from now (much less 25).

Some of the titles from that summer include masterpieces such as Blade Runner, John Carpenter's The Thing, Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist, Tron, Conan The Barbarian, Cat People . . . I could keep going, but you get the idea. In honor of the summer of 1982, I'll be blogging about some of the films in greater detail over the next couple of months. To kick things off, I'm going to start with my personal favorite - John Carpenter's The Thing!

By the summer of 1982, director John Carpenter was riding high on a string of three highly successful films: Halloween, The Fog, and Escape From New York. All classics in their own right, these films showed Carpenter to be a full-fledged auteur, and not just a one-hit wonder. Following the terrific box office performance of the modestly budgeted Escape From New York, Universal Studios felt the time was right to give Carpenter a shot at the big time. As such, they greenlighted a big budget remake of the 1951 classic The Thing From Another World. A lifelong fan of the film, the remake offered Carpenter the opportunity at a dream project that seemed like a surefire winner. Unfortunately, it would signal the beginning of a falling out with Hollywood for the maverick director.

In approaching the project, Carpenter opted to go back to the short story upon which the earlier film was based, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell. Campbell's story was the tale of an Arctic research team who discovers a malevolent alien buried in the ice. When the creature thaws, a battle is subsequently waged with the researchers. In the 1951 version, the filmmakers opted for the creature to be a full-fledged monster (Gunsmoke's James Arness in heavy makeup). Thus the threat was fairly straightforward. This was a departure from the source material, as Campbell's story found the creature able to shape shift into perfect copies of the researchers (after dispatching them of course), adding a significant amount of tension to the proceedings. By adopting this model, Carpenter not only gave the remake a fresh angle, but also provided the film with greater depth . . . not to mention numerous opportunities for special effects guru Rob Bottin (The Howling) to provide gory images that astound to this day!

Released on June 25, 1982, John Carpenter's The Thing met with ferocious attacks from critics, and audiences stayed away in droves. The chief critiques aimed at the film were that it was excessively gory and nihilistic. Many even saw the film as an affront to the original, which was long considered a masterpiece. However, unlike many gorefests that were prevalent in the 80's, the effects in The Thing were entirely appropriate to the story and perfectly fit with the nature of the creature. It's the very outlandishness of the transformation sequences that draw the viewer into the film, and allow them to identify with the fear of the characters. As to the complaint of nihilism, would one seriously expect a film called The Thing (which bore the tagline "man is the warmest place to hide") to be heart-warming?

Perhaps the greatest stumbling block to the success of the film, was that it was released just two weeks after the premiere of E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (one of the sappiest, over-rated films to date in this reviewer's opinion). After the feelgood experience of the summer, which had been lavished with praise, it's not a stretch to imagine that audiences were not ready for the beast unleashed by Carpenter. Consequently, the film was practically dead on arrival and has been maligned for decades. Fortunately, in recent years the film has be reappraised by critics and fans, with many citing it as Carpenter's best work (despite a number of amazing films to his credit, I'd have to agree).

On a personal note, I saw the film on opening day while in the throes of a monster head cold. As a result, I was probably even more on edge through the film and remember it as an extremely intense experience. To this day, the blood test scene remains as one of the most memorable shocks I've experienced in a movie theater (if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about). Of course the heart resuscitation scene with Norris and Copper is right up there as well. No doubt we'll be screening this at a Fantasmo in the near future, so you can experience these delightful moments for yourself : )


Kim said...

The gore, as realistic and gut-wrenching as it is, is still second to the t-e-n-s-i-o-n. Can't wait to see this at a future Fantasmo!

Da Weave said...

It would be cool to see the 50's Thing with this version. Or maybe just go for a full Carpenter night - Escape from NY - The Thing - Big Trouble in Little China .


Jim Blanton said...

Definitely couldn't agree more about the tension! The gore is window dressing (albeit expertly done window dressing), compared to the story, mood, and great performances.

As for a Thing night, that's the plan. We're going to show the original and the Carpenter version back-to-back . . . keep watching the skies . . . er I mean the blog for more details : )

On a related note, so far we've shown ESNY, They Live, Prince of Darkness, and The Fog at Fantasmo -still plenty of titles in Carpenter's oeuvre left to go though!

bblackmoor said...

The Thing (1982) is one of my favorite films. I might have to make the trek down from Richmond if you guys screen it.

Jim Blanton said...

If ever there was a film worth the trip, The Thing is it! On an unrelated note, being a fellow Vincent Price fan I think you'll appreciate this. Witchfinder General (aka Conqueror Worm) will be released in its uncut form on 9/11/07! Can you say Fantasmo?!?