Off-the-Wall Christmas Movies: an Introduction

Well, Thanksgiving’s over so I guess I have to accept the inevitability of Christmas.

It’s not that I don’t like Christmas, mind you. I love Christmas. It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun, and I think it’s always rewarding to see everything come together at the end of the month. I think the main reason I find it hard to accept the beginning of the Christmas season is the sheer over-commercialization of it.

Seriously, it seems like Christmas ads start popping up in magazines and whatnot in October, and that is just TOO DARN EARLY. I do not want to think about Christmas before Halloween has even happened. I kind of build up a resistance to it, because it seems like people are always trying to shove Christmas down my throat. I would rather just take it at my own pace and get into the Christmas spirit when I’m ready to, not when people who want to sell me stuff tell me I should be.

Anyway, now that I have accepted the arrival (or imminent arrival if you prefer) of the Christmas season, I am going to be writing about unusual Christmas movies, or movies that maybe you didn’t know were actually Christmas movies. These include my number one favorite movie of all time, which for some unfathomable reason I have yet to write about on this blog. Well, that is a situation that will soon be remedied.

This is a short post because I need to actually watch the movies I am going to write about, so if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a (Christmas) movie (or three, or four) to watch.

Another fun movie to start things off again

Hey hey, I’m back! Apologies for my prolonged absence, I was working a temporary job that required a lot of driving and walking, and was always too tired and/or lazy to write when I got home. But now that job’s over so I’m going to start writing again.

So… what to write about? I’ve seen quite a few movies since my last post about Total Recall. Let’s see… I saw Looper, Taken 2, Argo, and Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter (which I actually liked and will probably write about soon). There are a lot of good things to write about regarding all of those, but for now I think I will go in a different direction.

Like many people, I enjoy scaring myself silly by watching scary movies during the spooky month of October. So, last month I embarked on a quest to scare the bejeezus out of myself by watching a barrage of scary movies. Only the scariest would suffice! I would accept nothing less than full-on, pants-crapping terror.

Ha ha! I’m kidding of course. I actually wimped out quite a bit for most of the month by watching movies I considered Halloween-appropriate (e.g. Resident Evil, Underworld) that are full of zombies, werewolves, vampires, etc. but which I do not find to be particularly frightening (Resident Evil and Underworld are more action that horror anyway). But hey, they counted as Halloween movies (hooray for loopholes!), so what the heck. As the month progressed, I gradually amped up the scariness of the movies I watched, until I actually was watching movies I considered to be genuinely frightening.

Most frightening among them was John Carpenter’s 1982 masterpiece THE THING which I am a huge fan of but had not watched for some time, because, you know, it scares the bejeezus out of me (As a side note, I am going to refer to the movie as THE THING in all caps just because it looks so much better that way).

I first encountered THE THING one night on some random cable channel when I was flipping channels one night. I don’t remember when this was, all I remember was that I was the only one home at the time (never a good idea with scary movies). I had no idea what the movie was about at the time, but it looked more interesting than anything else that was on at the time so I started watching it.

It scared me so badly that I promptly went out soon after and bought the DVD and watched it again. It was just as scary the second time around. And it was this very same DVD I dusted off last week and popped into my Xbox to watch near the end of October. And I’ve got to say…Man, what a movie. THE THING is easily my favorite horror movie, which may not be saying a whole lot because I’m not generally a big horror fan, but re-watching THE THING reminded me of how very awesome it is, and so I resolved to write about it as soon as my temporary job was over.

So. All of that was about 500 words to say that I am going to write about THE THING both because it is awesome, and because I love to write THE THING.

THE THING is set in an isolated research station in somewhere in Antarctica. Snowy, Arctic settings make for good locations for horror movies. They increase the characters’ isolation and helplessness. If you’re stuck in the middle of Antarctica and there’s a monster on the loose, you’ve got nowhere to go and no one to rely on, and not much hope of rescue. This also eliminates the cell-phone problem that many scary movies have, since if you’re in the middle of Antarctica it’s not like you’re going to be able to call anyone. Carpenter makes the setting of THE THING as much a character as the titular THING itself, as the unforgiving iciness of the Arctic landscape mirrors the way in which the monster unrelentingly whittles down the population of U.S. Outpost Research Station 31.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

THE THING opens with a helicopter flying after a dog. The dog is running through the snow, and he looks like a friendly husky, the kind you would pat on the head and give a treat and tell him he’s a good boy while he looks at you adoringly and wags his tail. So maybe the guys on the helicopter lost their dog and just want to get him back, right? Surely their intentions are entirely benign?

No. No, they’re not. They shoot at the dog with a rifle and try to blow him up with thermite grenades. But who would shoot at a sweet-looking, friendly pooch? What possible explanation could the occupants of the helicopter have for such a heinous action? Well, the problem is that they’re Norwegian and apparently don’t speak English, as the members of the American camp find out when the dog runs into their base, Norwegians still in hot pursuit. The Norwegians continue to shoot at the dog, wounding one of the Americans and managing to inadvertently blow up their own helicopter before the gun-toting Norwegian is shot and killed by the commander of the U.S. outpost.

Turns out that the Norwegians were from a nearby Norwegian Arctic base, and when the Americans investigate, they find some, shall we say, disturbing things, including some nastily-burned corpses, which they unwisely bring back to their own base. Bad idea, fellas. Really, seriously bad idea.

As you can imagine, things go downhill from there. I’m not going to fully describe the rest of the plot because that would be tiresome, if you really want to find out exactly what happens next, you can read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia or, better yet, see the film yourself, if, you know, you have the stomach for it (There were a lot of commas in that sentence. Sorry about that). Also, be aware that the rest of this post will contain SPOILERS.

Turns out that the dog the Norwegians were chasing is actually a vicious alien monster, which we discover when it transforms into a horrific creature and attempts to assimilate the other dogs in the kennel the Americans have put him in (seriously, don’t watch this movie if you like huskies, very bad things happen to them here).

And when I say horrific, I mean HORRIFIC. The dog’s head splits open and tentacles shoot out of it, ensnaring the other dogs. There are teeth where no teeth should ever be, and by the time the Americans torch the dog-thing with a flamethrower it looks like a zombified Venus Flytrap with tentacles and a mutant dog-head sticking out of it. We’re talking seriously high-octane nightmare fuel here, people.

The creature effects in this movie are really something, made even more impressive by the fact that all of the effects were done using practical methods, since this movie was made 30 years ago. There’s no CGI in this film, the horrific monsters are things that people actually designed and created. Sure, it looks a bit dated by today’s standards, since the animatronics the filmmakers used had a limited range of motions, but it holds up remarkably well after three decades.

The Americans discover that the creature is capable of taking over other living organisms and imitating them completely, and that any one of them might already be infected.

This is such a great idea for a horror film. In most horror movies the antagonist is clearly defined: it’s the ghosts or the zombies or Freddy or Jason or whoever, but in THE THING, it could be anyone. This is another way in which the film’s setting complements the story. If you’re stuck in Antarctica with nowhere to go and a bunch of people who may or may not be horrific shape-shifting alien monstrosities, well what the hell do you do then? It’s a very convincing scenario, and one that cleverly sidesteps a lot of problems I frequently have with scary movies. (Why don’t they just call the cops? Why don’t the people in the haunted house just, you know, move? In Antarctica there’s nowhere to go, especially when it’s like 50 below or whatever outside.)

The story unfolds mainly from the perspective of R.J. MacReady, the camp’s helicopter pilot, played awesomely by Kurt Russell with what has to be one of the most epic beards in cinematic history. Not much time for haircuts in freaking Antarctica, I suppose.

This movie is so awesome that there is a scene in which, I shit you not, a guy tries to defibrillate another guy who appears to have had a heart attack, when the guy’s chest cavity opens up with rows of razor-sharp teeth and bites the first guy’s arms off!! Then the monster-guy’s head detaches itself from the rest of his body and grows spider legs and tries to escape before it is torched by a flamethrower!!

The first time I saw this on TV that fateful night, I nearly crapped my pants. I wonder now what channel this was on. A movie this gruesome would have to be heavily-edited to be broadcast on TV, right? And yet I don’t seem to recall many of the gory details being left out. Maybe it was on Starz or something.

Anyway, I don’t have a whole lot else to say about this movie, other than that it has more flamethrowers than any movie ever made and one of my all-time favorite movie endings, which perfectly captures the film’s nightmarish quality. When it’s over you feel like you just woke up from a dream, a dream that was so terrifying you’re glad that it’s over, but at the same time it was so freaking cool that you want to see it again.

Wait! I do have more to say about this movie that I just remembered. I wanted to talk about unanswered questions. This movie has quite a few of them. When is each person assimilated? How exactly does THE THING assimilate its victims? Are they aware that they’re being taken over by an alien presence? Is Kurt Russell actually a THING by the end of the movie? The film provides no definitive answers to any of these questions.

The lack of answers in a movie with a lot of questions can be extremely frustrating. Take Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” for example, which raises dozens of questions and doesn’t bother to answer any of them. THE THING is similar in this regard, but it’s better handled here than it is in “Prometheus,” since THE THING at least provides potential answers, even if none of them are definitive. What I’m trying to say is that the possible answers for the questions in THE THING all make sense. Maybe Theory A, maybe Theory B. Both are plausible. The problem with “Prometheus” was that nothing was concrete, any one crazy theory was as good as anyone else’s. THE THING doesn’t require wild theories, since the film supports multiple interpretations and all of those interpretations actually make sense. It is for this reason that I think THE THING’s unanswered questions actually add to the film’s quality instead of detracting from it. It still manages to be a complete and satisfying story without feeling cheap.

As a final note, I saw the 2011 prequel to Carpenter’s original, also called THE THING, recently, and I have to say that it was actually pretty good. People are pretty cynical when it comes to remakes/prequels/sequels etc. of classic horror movies (and rightly so since most of them are terrible) but I thought that the 2011 THING was surprisingly good, and worked quite well as a companion piece to Carpenter’s original. Interestingly, Carpenter’s film flopped on its initial release in 1982, and was mostly panned by critics and audiences alike. But then, so was “Blade Runner,” released the same year. Both are now widely-loved sci-fi classics, which just goes to show you that reviews aren’t everything.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a movie to watch.