John Carpenter’s “The Thing” at the Million Dollar Theater

Let me give you a list here; “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Alien”, “The Thing”, “Dune”, “The Man who Would be King”.  Can you guess what all of these films have in common? If you have been a regular on this site you will probably figure it out. These are films, that I will never pass up an opportunity to see on the big screen. It’s not simply that they are among my favorites, they all have qualities that make a theater presentation worthwhile. Yesterday was a chance to once again experience John Carpenter’s masterpiece of science fiction horror in it’s natural environment, 40 feet tall and 60 feet wide.

This trip was a lot more than just a screening of the film however, it was a chance to go back in Los Angeles History a little bit. L.A. rightfully is criticized by some as not being a city so much as a collection of neighborhoods. There is a downtown section, and it does resemble a big city, but for many years it has been neglected. The classic movie palaces that lined Broadway have not necessarily been maintained as well as they might, but more and more, the residents of the city have begun to appreciate these venues and they are being reused for a variety of purposes. I think I visited the Million Dollar Theater as a child, but I know I have not been there in more than a half century. This month however, Cinema Phantasmagoria is offering horror films at the theater, along with an immerse experience, plus a tour if you are so inclined. So who can resist?

Parking in Downtown L.A. is iffy most days but Sunday evening it was exceptionally packed in the lot we chose, which was just around the corner from the theater.

We were about 45 minutes early to the tour time we had scheduled so we took a side trip to a different part of L.A. history, we went across the street to the Bradbury Building. Movie fans will recognize the inside of the lobby of this building from dozens of films. Two fairly prominent examples are “Double Indemnity” and “Blade Runner”.

The interior continues to be spectacular, and it’s use in “Blade Runner” also made it relevant to this post because the theater is prominently seen as Rick Deckard is entering the building for his confrontation with Roy Batty.

Our view of the theater from the front of the building shows only a few changes to the Marquee but otherwise the location and the general look are the same.

After we checked in, we went on the “haunted” backstage tour of the theater. Entering in a creepy alleyway on one side, we went into dressing rooms, the green room and several locations where a mysterious death occurred at the theater. The story is part of the charm of the tour so I will not repeat it here, but it does enhance the history of the theater a bit.

The prologue to the movie was not as elaborate as in the old days but there were costumed characters doing some skits as part of the haunted theme. “Archie” was our host and he invited one of the other dead ushers up to share some talent.

When the movie finally started it was the same great experience that has frightened fans for 37 years now. The dog in the opening section is really the best actor on screen during that time. The dozen guys who make up the camp are also pretty darn good.

It was just a couple years ago that I wrote about this film for a screening at the Egyptian Theater. That presentation featured a 70mm print that had not been modified so the colors were off from it’s original presentation in 1982. Still it had a lot to recommend it, including the awesome soundtrack and the correct aspect ration. I’m certain this was a digital presentation, there were no film signatures and the screen reflected no wear and tear at all. The sound was solid but not as impressive as the system and acoustics at the American Cinematique.

Three sequences of horror always standout when I watch this film. The first is the discovery of the alien organism as it attempts to take over the other dogs in the pack shed. As great as the special effects are, it is the dog trainer’s talent that comes through the most in this sequence. Those “real” dogs seem to be terrified and struggling to get away. The one dog trying to yank the chain link fencing of the kennel apart is particularly convincing. The sound effects here add to the confusion and fear among the human team, as the animals sound pitiful and frightening at the same time.

A second scene that gets us jacked up with fear adrenaline is the moment that Charles Hallahan’s character of Norris appears to be having a heart attack, and the Doctor tries using a defibrillator on him. We are treated to a gaping chest cavity opening up and chewing off the Doctors arms, but even more gruesomely, Norris’s head becomes it’s own entity, springing legs and crawling around like some nightmarish spider.  David Clennon’s Palmer has maybe the most quotable line from the movie at that point.

The third great sequence has less to do with Rob Bottin’s brilliant special effects and make up, but rather the suspense that goes along with it. As each of the characters tied to the couch awaits the verdict from the blood test, we feel tension mounting. The discovery that one of the guys there is not really their co-worker but a manufactured version, we get a visual treat to go along with it, but the payoff is another quote that got a great audience reaction. Garry, the CO played by Donald Moffat shares a controlled piece of impatience and then explodes with a stinger that provokes laughter.

We can have a discussion about the ambiguity of the conclusion of the film some other time. For now, I am going to wrap this up with a few more pictures of the venue to commemorate a great Sunday evening in October.