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Monday, March 10, 2008

First Time Around: Space Monsters

Hello, all. You can call me RayRay, the name so nice you say it twice.

I would like to say that I am honored to have been invited to contribute to this page. I was pretty much offered an outlet for my opinions, on subjects which I love, which are monsters and horror movies. I assumed books and stories were also part of the fare. For that I have to say: thank you.

I have to confess that horror is not my favorite genre. I would have to say that I am a bit more of a science-fiction/fantasy fan more than anything, but from there you get some of the best monsters. And honestly, I love monsters. And that is the one thing movies have over books - you get to see the monsters. And science-fiction horror is a big sub-genre, and has some of the best monsters, so I guess I am in the right ballpark. And I love me a good space monster, be it intelligent or just plain mean. And there are soooo many good monsters from outer space.

Let's see, there are the hunters from the "Predator" franchise. They were a pretty good concept, and the first movie, with Arnold, had some very serious horror elements, especially when the small commando unit finally figures out that they are actually being hunted. The scene occurs during broad daylight (albeit in the jungle) which really adds to the tension. You have Schwarzenegger looking around, bug-eyed, at this unseen force which had just (if memory serves) picked off one of his own men. The horror implications of the movie wear off, though, once it is Arnold alone, and the creature's camouflage stops working, and you can see it is a man in a suit. At this point it more or less devolves back into a pure action flick, though it is still a good movie.

The monster in Predator is scary when you can't see him, and don't what he's about, except he really likes spinal columns. The ability to move about the trees is also disconcerting, as is the speed and obvious toughness. But when you get your first good look at him, when he emerges from the river and his camo-unit goes haywire, he is somewhat strange, but aside from his mask and his huge size, it's just a really big man, and all tension is dissipated.

But one of the great monsters from outer space, and of all time, are the bio-mechanical, H.R. Geiger-created "Aliens." Sure, I know, this is nothing new. Everyone has seen the movies of this franchise. Everyone knows that this is a very scary set of monsters. But I want to put my own 2 cents in. The original, Ridley Scott's Alien, is a pure classic, and the follow up, James Cameron's aptly titled Aliens, is one of the few sequels which actually stands up to the original [See: The Godfather]. (I will not comment at this time about the following movies of this franchise, or the AVP series.) The monster is the secret of these two movies. Simply, it is one of the most terrifying monsters ever thought up. To quote: "Its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility." It is tough enough to withstand hard vacuum, and even a good blast by a spaceship's engines. It is essentially a black insectizoidal armored shell over what otherwise appears to be a humanoidal skeleton, but with a barbed tail, and a haunting eyeless face over a double mouth with teeth that appear to be metallic in nature. It is the very visage of soullessness - it is malevolent beyond a vicious animal; perhaps manufactured, but to what end? Even without eyes you can feel an inhuman consciousness burning into you, like when it is contemplating the cat, Jones, towards the end of Alien. And I haven't even mentioned its blood type or its less than charming form of procreation. It is almost industrialized horror made animal - manufactured in an assembly line, one of a series, in identical rows, oozing the slime from within the machine, precise in its actions, measured in its movements, hidden in the nooks of its nest. What isn't human is insect; what isn't flesh is chitin or metal. It is almost a realization of Kafka's bad dream, but we don't get to be the bug - the bug comes from us. All in all, I have long thought of this creature as the #2 scariest monster in horror, all time.

Now, that last sentence is begging a question: well, RayRay, what's the scariest monster of all time? I can tell you, and it is, in my humblest of opinions, also one of the best movies ever made: John Carpenter's The Thing. The Thing, you say? That bomb from 1981? The remake that was missing a cameo from James Arness? Yeah, that one. If you never saw it, then do so, and make sure the lights are out. If you don't want it spoiled for you, read no further.

There is nothing about this movie that is lacking. It is cast wonderfully. It's got a great script. It's screen shots and angles are great. The effects are top notch, and have held up for a quarter of a century, well into the CGI years (Rob Bottin did it right, and did it old school). And it has the single most terrifying monster of all time. The film combines the alienation from civilization with the alienation between the characters, where trust becomes the most valuable and vanishing commodity, in the midst of an Antarctic winter storm. And all with the lurking, oppressive horror of a monster that could be......is........one or more of the fellow men you are trapped with. Even after the monster is revealed for the first time - when it attacks the dogs in the kennel - it is immediately hidden again. This is the type of movie you watch over and over again, looking in the background to see if there was a raised eyebrow or a glance that you missed.

The Thing is such an effective monster as it can infiltrate at will; it can change shape at will; the forms it can take on are essentially unlimited; it possesses the souls of its victims (rare for a sci-fi monster from space); and when it attacks it...........well, what it does is not exactly explicable but it comes with generous helpings of slime and tentacles and wholly inhuman shapes, a horror of Lovecraftian proportions (more on the great HPL another time). As a victim you become just part of the creatures' coterie or its repertoire, depending on how you think of it. Also, once you begin to give it thought, the ramifications of this creature that absorbs its victims are troubling. Clearly, early in the movie at least one member of Outpost 31 is infected by the alien creature via the dog from the Norwegian base. Yet that person is not revealed until much, much later (it is either Norris, Palmer, or Blair, you never find out; and that person infects at least one or more of the others). At what point does that person cease to be that person? During the scene when MacReady, the putative hero, is performing the "blood and hot needle" tests, just before he tests Palmer's blood, you see resignation flash across Palmer's face. Is that Palmer, or the Thing, who is so resigned, sighing to himself? If it creates a perfect imitation, does the underlying person EVER stop being?

It is often forgotten (at least by me until it was pointed out) that MacReady, the pilot and aforementioned hero, takes a long helicopter ride to the site of the actual spaceship with the two characters that must have already been at least infected, if not full blown 'things' at the time - Palmer and Norris. Does anything happen off camera we don't find out about? Probably not, but that gnawing doubt is part of the essence of this monster.

Continuing, the "Thing" is no dumb animal. Whatever it is, it knows what it wants, and it wants to get the hell off Antarctica. And in furtherance of this it is building itself a SPACESHIP (!!) from the parts of terrestrial vehicles (while distracting the humans from discovering this activity). This is an extrememly intelligent creature (even if it is acquired intellect), with a lot of technical know-how (same caveat). Couple the toughness to lie dormant and frozen for a thousand centuries with all of the above, and the result is the most capable and frightening movie monster I can think of. Ever. All time. Period. At least to this casual observer.

Until next time, watch the skies.................


Anonymous said...

Rob Bottin. Rick Baker. I mean, c'mon.

B-Sol said...

Well, at least it's better than "Anonymous". ;-)

Unknown said...

Wow, that was a great post.
Props for mentioning Kafka AND Lovecraft in the same post, too.

Anonymous said...

My information is correct, but I have no blog name. Your (collected) information here is unapologetically wrong, but you've endorsed it under a nom de plume. Mr. Bottin has a real name, under which he deserves his credit. I think your assessment of relative merit is a little wonked.

I love this blog, though.

Mr. Anonymous

B-Sol said...

Duly noted, Mr. Anonymous. Mistake corrected.

cindy said...

i loved 'the thing'...it IS a really scary movie! we used to torture my little brother with it when he was little, because he was TERRIFIED of the monster. he was quite bratty as a kid, and when we wanted him to go away, we would pop the tape in the vcr and he stayed away!

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