The Thing (1982)
★★★ / ★★★★
In the icy landscape of Antarctica, a Siberian Husky attempted to outrun a helicopter because one of the people inside was shooting at it. When the dog arrived in an American research facility, the helicopter landed and came out a man speaking Norwegian. Nobody understood the dialect. He started shooting; Americans shot back. Everyone was baffled with how quickly everything happened and without an apparent reason. When the researchers took the dog to be with its own kind, in the dark, it revealed its true nature: inside it was an alien organism. Based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr. and written by Bill Lancaster, “The Thing” deservingly gained a strong cult following over the years. It took its time in showing us the alien’s abilities and how it was able to survive for so long. It was dangerous because it seemed to have both intelligence and great survival instincts. It was capable of copying an animal in exact detail but in order to do so, it had to absorb its victims’ cells. Although the picture didn’t quite delve into specifics, it made sense because cells house DNA. Humans in a contained area were right for the picking. R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell) was the helicopter pilot and the eventual leader of the group. Along with Dr. Copper (Richard Dysart), they had to figure out a way to find which of their colleagues were imitations. One of the best scenes involved MacReady and Dr. Cooper visiting the nearby Norwegian facility and finding the place in utter ruins. They saw deformed and charred human bodies as well as a hunk of ice which, from the looks of it, formerly preserved something. The grotesque and mysterious images allowed us to construct a narrative in our minds about what possibly happened. The film successfully captured a paranoid atmosphere. For instance, the camera’s attention shifted from one person to another. Characters were often in different rooms because they had jobs to do, some were on shifts depending on time of day, while others kept to themselves because certain personalities clashed. What happened to Person A when the camera was on Person B? Another element that added to the paranoia was its calculated use of score. It was able to generate so much tension by simply allowing us to hear heartbeat-like notes during key scenes. And it wasn’t only implemented when a person would walk into a dark room in an attempt to investigate something. It was used in broad daylight when danger was right around the corner. Unfortunately, I had serious issues with the film’s pacing, notably with its final thirty minutes. While it managed to maintain a certain level of creativity in terms of the build-up of who was possibly infected, once we knew, the point-and-shoot-the-flamethrower tactic became repetitive. There was nothing inspiring or surprising during the last fifteen minutes. Despite its shortcomings, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. The special, visual effects, and make-up teams should be applauded for creating images found in nightmares. Directed by John Carpenter, “The Thing” is one of the few movies I feel I must watch every year. I’m hypnotized by it each time.
Village of the Damned (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★
It was an ordinary day in an English village which suddenly turned extraordinary when the townsfolk fell asleep at the same time. Calls from people who wished to contact the villagers could not go through so they began to worry. Whenever someone from the outside crossed an invisible line, they, too, fell asleep. Officials concluded there must have been a force field or a biological agent involved that explained the strange phenomenon. When the villagers woke up, a few months later, the women made the discovery that they were pregnant. I found this movie fascinating because of its strong concept and consistency to keep me guessing. I admired it for not simply relying on the creepy blonde-haired children to generate chills. It actually took its time trying to explain the weird situation the village was thrusted into by monitoring women at various points in their pregnancies. We learned a handful of weird details even when the children were still in the womb such as their rate of development being faster than a normal human being which suggested, as my first hypothesis, that the kids may have been extraterrestrial by nature. But the picture did not give us defined answers. It asked questions like the children’s purpose, but the writers made an astute decision to simply offer the audiences several explanations and it was up to us which, if any, we wished to accept. The film constantly changed gears. When the kids were about three of four years old, led by David (Martin Stephens), son of a couple (George Sanders, Barbara Shelley) suggested to have been trying to conceive but to no avail, we learned that the kids had various psychic abilities. Paranoia covered the town like a permanent fog and the regular folks’ discrimination almost made me feel sorry for the kids. Wolf Rilla, the director, successfully tried to make us sympathize for the children so the material felt dynamic. Since they were so different, the people in the village did not quite know how to deal with the blonde-haired children. It was easy to relate the situation to the real world where educators struggle to find a way for gifted children to meet their true potential. The ostracization by their peers is another factor. “Village of the Damned,” based on John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos,” had imagination but it did not result to gore or violence. The small details were the factors that sent chills down our spines. The story may have taken place in a small village but the ideas surpassed borders on the map–or in this case, force fields.
★★ / ★★★★
Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson) and his wife (January Jones) arrived in Berlin to attend an important gathering for scientists. Just when the two reached their hotel, Martin realized that they had forgotten a suitcase at the airport. Incidentally, the suitcase contained important documents like Martin’s passport. On the way to retrieve the suitcase, an accident caused Martin and the taxi driver (Diane Kruger) to plunge in the chilly Berlin river. Four days later, our protagonist woke up with some memory problems. When he got back to the hotel, his wife no longer recognized him and there was another Dr. Martin Harris (Aidan Quinn) in his place. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Unknown” was an effective thriller during the first and last twenty minutes. Unfortunately, Martin’s journey from Point A to Point Z was hindered by the film’s failure to give its audiences small rewards in order to keep us fully interested. It spent too much time showing Martin looking lost and sad, like an unwanted puppy, as he tried to contact people in his life to no avail. There were small bursts of energy when Martin saw Ernst Jürgen (Bruno Ganz), a former member of the German Secret Police. For a price, the mysterious man was willing to help Martin. There was also Rodney Cole (Frank Langella), a friend with whom Martin had been trying to contact since he woke up from a coma. He believed that Rodney would be willing to testify that he was the real Martin Harris. Ganz and Langella shared one scene but their interaction was memorable because it was complex, suspenseful, and ultimately rewarding. The scene of interest, which lasted about five minutes, had a specific type of subtlety that the film lacked. The visit was more thrilling than a half of the movie’s obligatory car chases. What I enjoyed most about the film was it made me paranoid. Whether Martin was walking in a relatively well-lit tunnel or whether he was sitting in a crowded airport lounge, my eyes couldn’t help but shift to figures in the background. Martin thought he was being followed and I shared his vigilance. Who could he trust when he couldn’t even trust his own memory? “Unknown” had a maze right in the middle and the characters were lost in it. There should have been a balance between the growing conspiracy and character development. There were some awkward glances that hinted at a romance between Martin and his cab driver. It didn’t work because our getting to know the characters was secondary. Based on the novel “Out of My Head” by Didier Van Cauwelaert, I had a sneaky feeling that the majority of the complexity from the original material was lost because the filmmakers tried to make room for action sequences that weren’t always necessary. The premise and the revelation regarding Martin’s identity were fascinating but it needed a stronger middle portion. It was like reading an essay with a well-written introduction and conclusion but unfocused supporting paragraphs. One can’t help but feel disappointed because it didn’t quite live up to its potential.
★★★ / ★★★★
Throughout my time in the university, about seven to ten people have asked me about Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” in hopes of confirming their opinion that the movie “sucked.” All I could tell them was I had not yet seen it but would be getting around to watching it sooner or later. In short, I thought it was quite compelling. Psychologist Chris Kelvin (George Clooney) was called by a friend (Ulrich Tukur) to go to a space station located along the orbit of planet Solaris. Strange things had been happening and he thought that Chris was the perfect person to solve whatever was going on. Naturally, I asked myself why the government didn’t intervene because taxpayers usually fund space explorations but I chose to overlook that lack of logic. When Chris arrived at the space station, dried blood was all over the place. Some crew members were dead and the two who were still alive (Viola Davis, Jeremy Davies) were locked in their respective spaces. Little did Chris know that the planet had to power to create a person the crew members loved most out of thin air (known as “Visitors”) via taking advantage of their subsconsciousness while they slept. In Chris’ case, Rheya (Natascha McElhone), Chris’ dead lover, woke next to him. This was a different kind of a science fiction film because the visuals were not at the forefront (although it still looked beautiful). It was very heavy on the dialogue which, understandably, irked a lot of its viewers. But that’s exactly what I liked about it. Even though the story was set in the future, it tried to answer timeless questions that the most influential philosophers discussed (or obsessed about) during their careers. For instance, do other people only exist through our minds and our memories of them? In that case, do we exist only through other people’s minds? With each passing minute, the stakes were that much higher as Rheya started to gain memories in the way Chris remembered the original Rheya. In other words, she slowly became more human-like. If they kill her, is it murder? We get to observe the protagonist struggle morally and psychologically because he blamed himself for the death of his wife. However, I wish the constantly-on-edge Davis was in more scenes. She was voice of practicality in the picture and I just loved the conviction she infused in her character. If I was stuck in a space station next to a creepy planet capable of producing clone-like creatures, I would definitely want her to be on my side. I highly enjoyed the film because it was able to frame paranoia in an effective manner without trying to be flashy with shaky cameras and other more mainstream techniques. It relied on its story and took its time to explore its themes. I appreciated that it treated its viewers with intelligence. Based on the novel by Stanislaw Lem, “Solaris” is a success because it reminds us that our lack of knowledge about outer space and its many potentials may be equivalent to the untapped abilities of our minds.
In Dreams (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
The movie started off with a breathtaking tour of a town submerged in water that Claire (Annette Bening) saw in her dreams. She also had dreams of a little girl who was kidnapped by a man (Robert Downey Jr.) who lived in a place full of apples. Obsessed with the details of her dreams because they came true before, her own daughter was eventually kidnapped and she had to find a way to get to the man who kidnapped her child while trying to persuade her husband (Aidan Quinn) and psychiatrist (Stephen Rea) that her dreams were real. Even though the movie asked its audiences to take a leap of faith time and again about visions eventually becoming reality and strange coincidences, I could not help but get really into the story because of the way Bening invested in her character. I mean the following as a compliment but she made a very convincing crazy person when she eventually was sent to a mental hospital. I was entertained with how some scenes were supposed to be scary or haunting but they had strong hints of comedy and even tragedy. I liked that quality because although I knew where the story was going, it still managed to surprise in small ways so I did not lose interest. Neil Jordan fascinates me as a director because of the masterful way he balances elements of surrealism and realism. I noticed he would play with the extremes but there would come a point when it became difficult to discern what was real or what was fantasy. In other movies, I am usually aware of the intermediates of the extremes. What I was not very excited about, however, was how useless some of the characters were which negatively impacted the movie’s middle portion. I saw the cops and the psychiatrist as mere distractions or hindrances instead of figures that genuinely tried to help the main character. It was one of those horror movie clichés that just did not work and I grew frustrated with the material because I knew that the director was more than capable of doing something completely different with his characters like in one of his films called “The Butcher Boy.” Since the movie was based on the novel “Doll’s Eyes” by Bari Wood, perhaps Jordan was just trying to remain loyal to the book. Nevertheless, when adapting a novel to film, there should always be an artistic leeway in which the writers could tweak certain aspects in order to avoid the obvious. Upon its release, “In Dreams” did not receive good reviews which I thought was understandable because it tried to do something different in terms of not everything making complete sense in the end. I thought it worked because we don’t necessarily understand our dreams at times and I believe Jordan was deliberate in leaving certain strands unsolved.
The Box (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
An unsuspecting couple (Cameron Diaz, James Marsden) from the suburbs in the winter of 1976 received a box with a red button from a man with a deformity (Frank Langella). They were told that if they pressed the button, they would receive a million dollars in cash. However, upon their decision to press the button, someone they didn’t know would die. I’ve read and heard all sorts of frustration about this film and I have to admit I was really excited to see it. I like debate as opposed to just everyone agreeing that something is horrible or a masterpiece. It was a weird movie but definitely not as strange as I thought it would be. I liked its ability to keep me guessing. At first I thought the strange events that were happening were driven by some sort of a government conspiracy or some sort of an alien life form. But as it went on, I started wondering if the happenings were really happening. It was like watching “The Twilight Zone;” the more unbelievable the story became, the more I wanted to know what was really going on. Unlike most people, I didn’t feel frustration with it. I learned to embrace its enigmatic nature because I rooted for the couple to succeed. The primary moral question was always at the forefront for me. Admittedly, I would have made the same decision they chose (yes, they did press the red button–which is not a spoiler because if they didn’t press the button, there would be no movie) because they really needed the money. However, as much as I enjoyed watching the strange happenings unfold–like people becoming sort of possessed and having unexplainable nosebleeds (think “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”)–the picture desperately needed focus. While I was able to follow it with the best of my abilities, when I looked at the big picture, it was a bit confusing and some scenes needed to be trimmed off. In a way, it became redundant as it went on and the movie probably should have only been approximately an hour and twenty minutes. Nevertheless, despite the mediocre rating, I’m willing to give it a slight recommendation because it entertained me and it worked as a hybrid between science fiction and a paranoid thriller. “The Box,” based on a short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson and directed by Richard Kelly, kept the mystery alive throughout because of some nice twists. It was not as focused and as tight as I would have liked but it definitely had the potential to be really good.
The House of the Devil (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
Set in the 1980’s, “The House of the Devil” was a horror film about a second year college student named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who took up a babysitting job from a husband and wife (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) so she could pay the rent for her new apartment. Desperate for the money, she still took the job despite many weird signs that perhaps the people she was babysitting for had something up their sleeves. I was surprised by how good this movie was. Written and directed by Ti West, the film had a sense of authenticity; it looked and felt like it was made in the 1980s because of the music, the fashion and hairstyles and even minute details like the lighting, the lead character’s plucky and funny friend (Greta Gerwig), and the font used during the opening and closing credits. During the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was very curious how West managed to get such various elements together to make such a convincing small horror film. I loved that this picture had such a great sense of timing and well as rising action. This is not the kind of movie for teenagers of today because it doesn’t have jump-out-of-your-seats moments like in more common slasher flicks. This is a patient movie that thrives on the details. Strangely enough, like Sam, I found myself becoming more and more paranoid the longer she stayed in the house, especially when she started hearing odd noises in the kitchen sink. Although built on the classic false alarms and increasing sense of dread without actually showing anything, I was also impressed with the fact that it could turn grizzly if it wanted to. Those moments pulled the rug from under my feet and I couldn’t help but voice out my thoughts. I really rooted for the character because she was a very nice girl who just really needed the money so she wouldn’t always rely on her parents. She wouldn’t even take a little harmless revenge earlier in the film when someone stood her up. The last twenty minutes of this film was pure terror. All the tension it built up finally burst and I found myself having no idea where it was leading up to. “The House of the Devil” is an effective exercise in giving its audiences small bits information and chilling us to the bone. I think people who have no idea what to expect will love this film the most because of its ability to surprise. With a little bit of patience, one will come to realize that this small picture is really one of the better horror flicks of 2009. I just hope that more people will seek this out on DVD. It’s not very often that horror movies assume that their audiences are smart. I’ve seen a plethora of horror movies from the 1980s and “The House of the Devil” was a really good homage.