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.

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) 70mm

This is the kind of treat that might keep me from moving out of Southern California in spite of the traffic, social culture and politics. You just don’t get to see “John Carpenter’s The Thing” in 70mm most other places.I’m a fan of the American Cinematique at the Egyptian Theater. While some of my blogging colleagues are dismissive of the programming [one said it’s great if you want to see Lawrence of Arabia four times a year (which I do)], there is a lot of programming that would not be the same in the smaller Aero Theater on the Westside. Tonight’s experience means more because it was shared with a sold out audience, a group of standby folks queuing up in the hopes that there are some cancellations and a sound system that does justice to the film in an audio space made for it.

 

 

The one drawback of the screening was that the film stock is a bit faded. Seeing how this 70mm print is one of the few in existence and that the film is thirty-five years old, that was a small price to pay to see this horror classic. The six track stereo sound more than compensates for the slightly red hue of the print. Listening to Morricone’s haunting electronic score while watching the images of Antarctica swirl by is a definite treat. The sound effects also benefit immensely from the complex sound design combined with the multi-track recording.

There are so many things to appreciate about this film that it is hard to stay focused. I will try to concentrate on three or four elements that always impress me whenever I watch this film. The first “thing” that jumped out at me tonight was how creepy the film is before we even know what is happening. The supposedly mad Norwegians tracking the sled dog across the snow and shooting at it without much effect is just the start of a disturbingly effective canine performance. When the husky reaches the American compound and Clarke scratches him around the neck to reassure him, the dog is sort of cute. Subsequently though we see that the dog is watching everything. It stares out the window at the search party that goes back to the Norwegian installation. It quietly observes the goings on at the American base with a steady eye. As it moves from room to room and encounters a figure that we only see in shadow, it seems to be acting so deliberately and thoughtfully that it can’t be a normal dog. Finally, as the dog is lead into the kennel with the other dogs, it’s approach is awkward and not dog like at all. This is all part of the methodical set up that builds to action rather than having action fill the screen constantly.

Once the dog is introduced to the kennel, the second great “thing” about the film that everyone who loves it talks about gets introduced. This movie is filled with special effects shots and monster creations that are not just on screen. This film was made with practical effects that the actors interact with and . Their presence in each scene feels so much more normal than the CGI creations that are found in the inferior prequel from 2011. The slime covered “thing” that is morphing into the dogs is disgusting to look at but we can’t look away either. The tendrils that penetrate the other animals wave in a manner that was not created in a computer but looks like it is organic as they flip around like so many air hoses without nozzles. When Copper applies the defibrillator to Norris, we get a real shock with blood and sinew and bones being snapped. Rob Bottin and his crew make these effects dramatic, disgusting and at the same time believable. When the legs sprout from the dismembered head of one of the scientists, after that head has used an elongated tongue to pull itself to safety, you might be tempted to say the same words that come out of Palmer’s mouth, except we know Carpenter is not kidding, he wants us to laugh sure but mostly to be horrified, task accomplished.

 

 

Since it is my daughter’s birthday at the end of the month, I gave her the gift I picked out a little early, it is a design from this scene on a great t-shirt provided by a company called Fright Rags. One of my online correspondents works for this company and they have licensed images from this movie that show how the practical effects look so much better, even when they are being rendered artistically.

 

 

One final topic to include in this brief post on what many would consider the greatest horror film of the last half century, the star Kurt Russell. R.J. MacReady is an intemperate iconoclast that somehow manages to be a figure that all the other men at the station look to. Part of  the reason may be that they trust his competence as a pilot, after all he makes two hazardous trips to the Norwegian camp and returns with more information each time. Also, he has a cool demeanor as the crisis gets hotter and he manages to best them all when their paranoia turns on him. Any of those things might inspire confidence in him as a leader, but the biggest asset he has is that he is played by Kurt Russell. Russell is in full badass mode coming off a previous Carpenter film, “Escape From New York” just the previous year. He has a thick mane of hair, much like the king of the jungle, and his machismo is indicated by the awesomeness of his beard. Only a guy with this much charisma can carry off the weathered and bent out of shape sombrero that he wears in the film.

 

There are dozens of other little moments of perfection spread through the film, but I will leave most of them for a more elaborate post, maybe in my series “Movies I Want Everyone to See”. It is a good film that shows how quickly character can be created on screen. There are a half dozen good laughs in the movie that would put some of today’s comedy films to shame. The cast of actors also deserves praise and credit that I simply don’t have time for today.  There is at least one more screening this week at the Egyptian. If you are within a fifty mile radius and don’t go to see this, you will hate yourself later.

Big films on the Big Screen, that’s why I love going to the Egyptian Theater!!!

The Howling (1981) Patrick Macnee Tribute/Joe Dante Festival

Werewolf films are plentiful but not as scary as they once were. “Twilight” seems to have turned shape shifting human/wolves into domesticated pets.  1981 however, was a landmark year for werewolf based movies. From April to August we got “Wolfen”, “An American Werewolf in London” and this subversive genre bender that combined humor and horror before it’ more famous counterpart was released in mid summer. “The Howling” is a low budget horror film that used humor to differentiate itself from more traditional drive-in cinema. A clever script and efficient directing and editing make this a film that everyone should see.

Last night I attended a return visit from master horror film maker Joe Dante, to the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood for another program sponsored by the American Cinematique. Just a couple of months ago we were treated to s special presentation of his two “Gremlins” films. Last night focused on one film but two film makers. Joe Dante, the director of “The Howling” and Patrick Macnee, one of the stars of the film. Mr. Macnee passed away at the end of June, and this was a fitting film to feature since it was one of his biggest roles in an American film. (The Cinematique will also be playing “This is Spinal Tap” in the near future.)

Mr. Dante shared a number of stories about Patrick Macnee, including the fact that he was a nudist, which somehow seems to fit in pretty well with the cult like atmosphere of this film. The budget for the movie was one million dollars. (That is not a mistake, that is a cheap budget for a cheaply made film). Dante revealed that his directors contract was non-union and he received no residuals for performance of the movie. He also acted as an editor and before he was paid, the film company went out of business. So although this is one of his big successes and his first big movie, he has never seen a dime of cash in relationship to it.  As the audience warmed up, a number of questions were asked and most of them were pretty simple: How did you cast Dee Wallace, What was the role of Rick Baker on the Film, how did you work with Pino Donaggio? The Rick Baker question may be the most important one. Baker was scheduled to do the film and had worked on much of the special effects make-up, but he was poached by John Landis for “An American Werewolf in London” and they had a bigger budget. Rob Bottin, was a protege of Bakers and he took over and made the film himself. Robert Picardo, who played Eddie in the film, had to endure a couple of overnight make-up and set design sessions. It’s hard to believe but he spent up to a dozen hours in some cases being set up for the transformation sequences.

I’ll get back to some of the behind the scenes material in a minute, let’s take a couple of minutes to talk about the film itself. With the first shots, we are plunged into the middle of a news story about a serial killer who has contacted a local newswoman who has agreed to meet him. The cops and the newsroom editors are on a radio link, but that’s as much back up as she gets. Hollywood in those days was pretty seedy (although according to Joe Dante, it had nothing on Times Square in Manhattan in the 70s). Karen White, the Dee Wallace character, agrees to meet “Eddie” the calling killer, in a porn shop. She is to look for one of the peep show booths marked with a smiley face sticker. In a modern world where emoji are ubiquitous, that might not seem a big deal, but in 1981, it was a little subversive to use the cutesy image as the talisman of a nut job killer. That sticker showed up in three other shots in the film and nearly stamps “LOL” on the screen for us. Karen survives an attack but is suffering from PTSD and can’t remember much about what happened. The TV psychologist who assisted in profiling the killer, invites her and her husband to a retreat, known as the Colony, to get some group help and recovery time. Dr. Waggner (a name that is based on the director of the original Wolf Man movie from forty dyers earlier) is a proponent that people be in touch with their wilder animal sides,although as played by mild mannered and dignified Patrick Macnee, you would not suspect any danger. Of course something is not right at the Colony and all kinds of hell breaks loose.

This is where you will get a lot of horror movie and Werewolf based tropes being used to build suspense and then being turned with a quick visual shot or comments. At one point, another couple is watching the original “Wolf Man” on late night TV and just as the issue of how one would become a werewolf comes up, there is Maria Ouspenskayain the background explaining it. Or as a call is being made to compare investigative information, one of the people on the phone has to put down their copy of Ginsburg’s “Howl”. It doesn’t hurt the humor at all that John Carradine, who had a fifty plus year career in Hollywood, also starred in films like The House of Frankenstein” and “The House of Dracula” so he fits in with all the Werewolf mythology like a bouquet of wolf-bane.

The real stars of the movie though are the special effects make up and the transformation scenes. A combination of prosthetics, air bladders and make up wizardry, produce some of the most authentic and frightening horror effects of the day. When you add in some of the scenes of sensuality and the medical descriptions  in the morgue sequence, you get a great set up but the payoff actually lives up to it. If you watch the trailer above, you will get a splendid preview of the kinds of inventiveness dominate the last third of the picture. Like most films of this time, after a quick opening, it is a slow build to the climax, rather than a series of mini climaxes along the way. (That sentence is also fraught with sensuality).

Dante pointed out last night that there was only one “Werewolf Suit” for the film, and that the attack at the end which seems to feature a dozen werewolves is all an accomplishment of editing. Somehow they got an extra fifty thousand dollars to work on the make-up effects. The studio was so thrilled with the dailies, they would not allow the scenes to be cut down. Although it had been the plan originally to have the transformation completed in one continuous shot, that concept had to be abandoned for cost reasons. It also would have created a story problem with the victims staring at the long transformation. In fact, when a group of kids auditioning for a show on the next stage, were shown the scene, one of them asked why the lady just stood there instead of running?.

In addition to Robert Picardo, who became a favorite of Joe Dante, B-Horror icon Dick Miller appears in this film as a bookstore owner. His interaction with the investigating journalist is some of the best material in the film. Dante says that originally, Miller was not very enthusiastic because the part was so small, but now thinks of it as his own favorite performance. You can see the future gun counterman from “The Terminator” in the bookstore owner. Dante said that the store they used was originally on Hollywood Blvd. but like most things from the old days, it is long gone. He said they needed to do virtually nothing to set dress the store for the film, it was exactly as it appears in the movie.

The script was considerably reworked by fellow director John Sayles, who added all of the new age cult material to the movie. That background is one of the things that raises the Howling above several other horror films of the day, it had a perspective connected to the times and it reflected that in the plot. So, a ton of good actors, a creative make up team, a shanghaied screenwriter and a novice director, manage to put together a pretty terrific horror film. It has it’s 1980s pedigree all over it, but I would say that is a medal of pride rather than a badge of shame.