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A Letter from John Carpenter on “The Thing” – January 2, 1983

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

In 1983, shortly after the release of his film The Thing, I got a letter from John Carpenter about the film.

John Carpenter‘s 1982 version of The Thing is now considered a masterpiece, something I’ve always thought, but when it first came out in the Summer of 1982, roughly at the same time as Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, audiences opted for the cute little Reese’s pieces eating alien over Carpenter’s relentlessly nihilistic vision of a visitor from outer space, and the film was almost universally reviled by critics – proving, once again, that when a work is ahead of its time, it can almost be assured of an uncomprehending, hostile reception.

Carpenter had argued with Universal, who produced both films, that pitting them against each other would have disastrous results, suggesting that the release be delayed to Halloween, which of course is the title of Carpenter’s iconic 1978 indie film, which was shot for roughly $300,000, and went on to gross more than $70 million worldwide. But Universal insisted on putting the two films out within weeks of each other, and Spielberg’s film took off, while Carpenter’s film languished.

As Carpenter told one interviewer about the film’s initial reception, “I take every failure hard. The one I took the hardest was The Thing. My career would have been different if that had been a big hit. I don’t think the studio knew what kind of movie they were getting. I think they wanted Alien, a crowd-pleaser. And it was way too ferocious for them. They were upset by the ending—too dark. But that’s what I wanted: Who goes there? Who are we? Which one of you is real? The movie was hated. Even by science-fiction fans. They thought that I had betrayed some kind of trust, and the piling on was insane.”

In the Fall of 1982, I was teaching film at Rutgers University, and as part of my fall class schedule, I wanted to run The Thing in 16mm CinemaScope format, but figured it was out of my budget range. Nevertheless, I called up Universal’s non-theatrical booking agency in Manhattan, chatted with a young woman there who was as enthused about the film as I was, and eventually negotiated a rental price of $100 – a fraction of the going rate – for the class screening.

At the same time, I mentioned to her how disappointed I was in the poor critical reception the film was receiving, and asked if I could have John Carpenter’s address so that I could write a letter to him in support of the film. In those much more egalitarian times, this was no problem, and she gave me Carpenter’s production company address, and I dispatched a letter to him giving my thoughts about the film, and various related topics, on December 15, 1982.

On January 2, 1983, I received a lengthy response from Carpenter, which I’ll quote most of here – with the note that for many years, I considered this letter lost, until it surfaced only a few days ago at the home of a friend in New Jersey, where apparently I had left it one evening. (Parenthetically, I’m a terrible archivist; I once had a signed letter from Orson Welles, no less, and lost that, too!)

But in any event, here is what Carpenter had to say to about the film, and horror films in general: “My favorite Gothic directors are Roman Polanski, Mario Bava (simply for style alone), George Romero, Terence Fisher and James Whale. Each of these directors brought a personality and a style to the horror film. I’ve always thought that Freddie Francis was a better Director of Photography. William Castle was more a producer / entrepreneur.

You asked me about the issue of cinematic violence, which is really, I feel, the issue of stylistic realism. Sam Peckinpah popularized the ‘too real effect’ in The Wild Bunch [1969]. Human beings don’t really die with little blood bag explosions popping out all over the place, but the effect soon became a kind of realism used widely in movies and even television; you shoot someone, you pop a couple of blood bags here and there.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and even Halloween didn’t use this stylistic realism. The brutal, sadistic killings were suggested, sparing us any enjoyment of the sadism. We’re voyeurs, true, but there’s a point to which we want to be thrashed around in that dark corner of our minds.

The Thing was a monster movie, meaning simply that the protagonist was ‘an other,’ non-human alien. I felt that in order to convince the audience that The Thing was real, stylistic realism was in order. [Special effects artist] Rob Bottin came in to me with a concept of the actual visual manifestations that seemed to coincide with the amorphous, non-evil-acting ‘otherness’ reality that had to be a part of The Thing.

Systematic inclusion of graphic violence or sex or whatever may enhance a film, or may destroy it, or simply relegate it to pornography or exploitation. [That being said], there should be no restrictions, other than the intentions of the director.

Your idea of the ‘the icon’ is a sound one. Movies carry our mythology now [emphasis added]. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster is as much as legend now as Prometheus. Perhaps The Thing could be seen as an examination of exactly what constitutes ‘humanness.’ The creature itself is just simply non-human, but like a cancer, it grows and takes us over, distorts, ravages. It isn’t gory, at least not to me.”

Carpenter closed with the thoughts that he was especially fond of the films of director Luis Buñuel, and the films The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake, Invisible Invaders, The Big Sleep (the 1946 version, please) and Los Olvidados. I’ve always been grateful that Carpenter took the time and effort to type such a long letter in response to a total stranger at the time, and that he so carefully and perceptively articulated precisely what he was up to with The Thing, which was based on John W. Campbell Jr.’s novella Who Goes There?, and first brought to the screen by Howard Hawks as The Thing from Another World (1951).

Carpenter, of course, is a big fan of Howard Hawks, with excellent reason, and his first real feature, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) has distinct debts to Hawks which Carpenter readily acknowledges. Hawks’ version of The Thing is a brilliant film, but it has an upbeat, optimistic ending – as all Hawks films do – as a ragtag group of dedicated survivors pull together to defeat the threat of a hostile invasion from outer space. Carpenter’s film offers no such assurances, and as such is more in tune with the noirish temper of the present day era, in which “every person for themselves first” seems to be the governing principle.

So, if you haven’t seen The Thing, do so now, but only in the proper CinemaScope ratio; in addition to Bottin’s astounding and thankfully pre-digital special effects, the actors Kurt Russell, Wilford Brimley, Richard Dysart and Keith David – superb performers all – have seldom had better roles. Then, too, Bill Lancaster‘s astonishingly bleak screenplay and dialogue for the film make a distinct contribution to the proceedings. The production of the film was by all accounts grueling, but the end result is more than worth it. And so it’s nice to see this letter again after some thirty years (!!) and have a chance to share it with the readers of this blog.

A special thanks goes out to David Dutcher, who found this letter, and sent it on – thanks, Dutch!

William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man (1944)

Tuesday, June 7th, 2016

From the sublime to the ridiculous, here’s William Beaudine’s Voodoo Man on Blu-ray.

In the 1940s, horror films were really more like fantasies, in which no one was ever really at risk. At Universal, the studio put Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, the Mummy, and the Wolfman through their predictable paces; at RKO, Val Lewton was busy producing a series of low budget horror films such as The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With A Zombie (1943) which are now justly considered classics; Paramount tried and succeeded with Lewis Allen‘s memorable ghost story The Uninvited (1944), top-lining Ray Milland; and 20th Century Fox also tried their hand at horror, with John Brahm‘s marvelously atmospheric The Undying Monster (1942).

Columbia produced a series of films with Boris Karloff, most centering on the theme of “science gone mad,” the most effective of which was probably Edward Dmytryk’s The Devil Commands (1941). Producers Releasing Corporation also cranked out low-budget horror films such as The Devil Bat (1940) and Dead Men Walk (1943), but the circumstances of their production was so threadbare that the results were fatally compromised, while Republic Pictures, better known for their Saturday morning serials, still managed to create several memorable stand-alone films, such as Lesley Selander’s The Vampire’s Ghost (1945, and still unavailable on DVD), with an excellent script by the great Leigh Brackett.

Somewhere between the major studios and the bottom of Poverty Row was Monogram, an odd studio that built its “reputation” on westerns, horror films, and lowbrow comedies, usually shot in a week or less, and often directed by William Beaudine, one of the most prolific helmers in Hollywood history, along with the even more prolific Sam Newfield (aka Sherman Scott and Peter Stewart, to disguise his torrential output), who usually worked for PRC, which was run by his brother, Sigmund Neufeld.

Monogram’s films were made quickly and efficiently – as actor John Carradine once observed, “it was just like Universal, except they moved twice as fast on the set” – and more often than not had to be endured rather than enjoyed on any level, with a few notable exceptions, such as Beaudine’s The Face of Marble (1946), which was essentially remade in 2015 as The Lazarus Effect.

Voodoo Man is another Monogram film that manages to intermittently hit the mark, and has now been digitally remastered in a superb restoration by Olive Films, an interesting independent label whose catalogue swings all the way from Hollywood classics, to foreign films, to obscure contemporary releases, and in this case, program horror films.

As the British critic Graeme Clark describes the film’s preposterous yet oddly compelling narrative, “a lone woman driver is out in the countryside one night when she finds herself slightly lost, but as luck would have it she sees a gas station up ahead and stops to ask for directions.

A middle-aged Englishman appears and offers to help, giving his advice to carry on up to the fork in the road; she thanks him and carries on, little knowing she has been duped for the station owner, Nicholas (George Zucco) has sent her to her potential doom. He gets on the phone to two henchmen up ahead, and they uncover a hidden route, then place a detour sign on the official road, leading the motorist the wrong way, whereupon her car breaks down and the henchmen pounce, dragging her from it and towards a trapdoor in the bushes . . .

It’s debatable which cast member was the titular fiend for there were at least four options, but for the purposes of this we had to assume Bela Lugosi was that character . . . that said, the star wattage for vintage horror fans was not to be sneezed at, for producer Sam Katzman had hired three icons of the genre.

Lugosi here was ending his contract with the notoriously cheap ‘Poverty Row’ outfit Monogram Pictures, having made nine films with them of which this was the last, a selection that many buffs like to collect as if they were a matching set, though some are easier to come by than others.

Typically, the star would take the part of a mad scientist or practioner of supernatural arts as he did here, though he had a catatonic wife to add pathos since he wishes to revive her by transferring the life force of the kidnapped women into the body of [his wife] (Ellen Hall), a practice which appears to succeed for a few seconds before leaving the doctor distraught that he has lost her to the whims of fate once more . . .

Yes, those ritual sequences were quite something seeing as how it united the trio of horror stars – Lugosi, Zucco, and John Carradine – and had them act out a curious scene, the first two decorated in some striking Aleister Crowley-style decorated robes [while intoning] some nonsense about ‘Ramboona’ and Zucco makes a couple of lengths of rope tie themselves together (Beaudine pulled the ropes apart and ran the clip backwards), as the two ladies in question stare off into space.

In a spot of apparent autobiography on the part of screenwriter Robert Charles, the hero in this case is Ralph Dawson (stage actor Tod Andrews under the pseudonym he used for cheapo efforts), who is a screenwriter ordered to script a film about the disappearances by his boss at Banner pictures, S.K., who sadly was not played by the actual boss at Banner pictures, Sam Katzman, but it was an in-joke they could cheerfully make when working with such a low stakes production – just listen for the final line for the ultimate in cheek in that respect.

Ralph loses Stella (Louise Currie, the last member of the Citizen Kane cast to pass away) on that darned road, who in a coincidence is the cousin of Betty (Wanda McKay), the woman he’s supposed to be marrying that week – Stella was driving over to attend the wedding. With the cops not much help, Ralph and Betty take it upon themselves to sleuth, bringing together the cast for a denouement to a movie that paradoxically moves briskly under the prolific William Beaudine’s functional direction, yet feels oddly leisurely.”

It’s certainly no masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination – or lack of it – but at the same time, the “leisurely” pace of the film makes the entire effort somehow more claustrophobic and intimate, and Lugosi, Carradine, and the ever-menacing George Zucco throw themselves into their roles with abandon, well aware that the end result will be just another horror film from one of Hollywood’s most cost-conscious film factories.

Voodoo Man offers the viewer a look into the world of 1940s bread-and-butter horror films, which audiences, tired from the cares of World War II, flocked to in droves. Then, too, at 70 minutes in length, no one is going to get bored, and Beaudine does keep the project moving along “briskly” – even as it seems to inhabit a twilight zone of phantom reality.

Voodoo Man – newly restored – is thus an an authentic talisman of a lost era.

Son of Frankenstein Makeup Tests – In Color (1939)

Thursday, June 18th, 2015

Ever wonder what the Frankenstein monster, as played by Boris Karloff, looked like in color?

In this incredibly rare, one minute piece of 16mm home movie footage shot in Kodachrome color on the set of Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939), you can get a good idea of just how skillful Jack Pierce’s makeup was. In the opening section, the viewer is treated to a wide shot of Boris Karloff lumbering around the set in the heavy makeup, while a stagehand works behind the scenes, seen through the window, to prepare for the next take. Then there’s a closeup, capped by Karloff playfully sticking his tongue out for the camera, clearly taking the whole thing with a huge grain of salt.

In the film’s final moments, Karloff ostensibly sneaks up on Pierce and pretends to strangle him, but obviously, it’s all in fun. Son of Frankenstein is notable as the last time Karloff played the monster, although he continued to make horror movies, of course, for the rest of his career, and it’s also an odd film in that the sets were built and ready before the script was completed. The result is an eye-popping but somewhat disjointed film, yet still an honorable effort, and one of the last great classics from the Golden Age of Universal horror. And now you can see this rare piece of cinema history – a real find.

Thanks to the fan who posted this, with disabled comments, which is great – no comments needed!

Frankenstein 1970

Monday, August 6th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Frankenstein 1970.

“‘I, Frankenstein, began my work in the year 1740 A.D. with all good intentions and humane thoughts to the high purpose of probing the secrets of life itself with but one end, the betterment of mankind.’  So wrote my celebrated ancestor, but first he had to learn how flesh is made. He had to discover the art of transplanting vital organs from human beings into his creature and knitting them together until they all had all the attributes of God-inspired birth. Of course, I must admit that perhaps he was not too scrupulous about where he got his raw material.” — Boris Karloff as Baron Victor von Frankenstein in Frankenstein 1970.

I have always had a peculiar affection for this film, and since right now I’m teaching a course on the Gothic Horror film, but not running this title, I thought I’d say a few words about it here. It was shot in December 1957 in exactly eight days, on sets left over from Too Much, Too Soon, the Diana Barrymore biopic directed by Henry Blanke. The main set was a huge, baronial castle, which fit Frankenstein 1970 perfectly, and the film’s director, Howard W. Koch struck a deal to use them on the Warner Bros. lot, inasmuch as Jack L. Warner seemed favorably disposed to the idea.

Karloff was then on a “play or pay” deal with Koch and his partner, Aubrey Schenck — they had to come up with something for Karloff to appear in, or else pay him $30,000 for doing nothing. Karloff’s services were too valuable to waste, and so the film was summarily scripted by George Worthing Yates, Aubrey Schenck, Charles A. Moses and Richard H. Landau in record time, going under a number of titles until the team finally settled on Frankenstein 1970.

Actually, I’ve written about this film many years ago, an essay in a book entitled Approaches to Frankenstein, but since I no longer have a copy, I’m quoting it from memory. Karloff, as Baron Victor Von Frankenstein, is the last surviving member of the line, and has suffered horrible tortures during World War II at the hands of the Nazis, with whom he refused to cooperate. Now, a quarter of a century later, he is alone in his castle, still working on his experiments with life and death, but funding has dried up.

To raise capital for his work, he allows a rather aggressive and intrusive exploitation film crew to shoot a Frankenstein TV special in his castle, which will pay for the nuclear reactor the Baron desperately needs to continue his labors. When body parts prove in short supply, however, he starts systematically killing off members of the film crew, and even his own butler, to obtain the vital organs he needs to continue his research.

In the end, of course, the whole plan falls apart, and the Baron’s illicit experimentation is discovered, but in the film’s final moments, it’s revealed that rather than fashioning some sort of crude human form, the Baron has given the creature his own face, before it was so horribly disfigured by the Nazis. When the police and the remaining members of the film crew break into his lab, they discover that the Baron has audiotaped a record of the entire process, and the film ends with a close-up of a tape recorder playing back his final words, “I gave you a heart, a brain, eyes . . . ” and the film fades out.

Shot in what Raymond Durgnat has famously called “the most irredeemable of genres,” black and white CinemaScope, Frankenstein 1970 is a cheap film, with numerous defects, mostly on the part of Tom Duggan, a real life newsman who plays one of the supporting roles in the film for added publicity value, and does a very poor job of it. But faced with a mere 8 days to get the film in the can, Koch smartly decided on using long, langorous takes, in which Karloff effortlessly dominates the proceedings.

As an added touch, and for extra revenue, the Baron agrees to act as the narrator of the television special — hence the quote at the top of this post — and as the director tells him after one lengthy take, “Baron, you pick up lines pretty fast.” Indeed he does, and the film, with its mournful sense of death, doom, and decay, and more than a little nostalgia for the past, proceeds faithfully along its predestined lines, and has finally been released in its proper CinemaScope aspect ratio as part of a four film box set on Warner Bros. DVD.

It’s no masterpiece, by any means, but there’s something desperate and appealing about it; it’s as if the Baron is rehearsing for the end he knows must come soon, and while shunning publicity, simultaneously embracing it, even as he hurtles headlong into a series of experiments which he fully knows can only end in disaster. Other than an episode of the television series Route 66, this was Karloff’s last association with the Frankenstein legend, which he’d rocketed to fame with in the 1931 original film. Everyone involved with Frankenstein 1970 ultimately seemed displeased with the results, including Karloff, but to me it’s an inspired riff on the original tale — perhaps because it so deftly deconstructs the legend it traffics in.

Worth a look, but only in the CinemaScope format, which is a revelation.

Boris Karloff on Critiquing One’s Own Work

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

Boris Karloff was an educated, soft-spoken gentleman in real life, in stark contrast to his often horrific roles, and he had to make a lot of films he really didn’t believe in during the course of his career to pay the rent. Nevertheless, he always took his craft as an actor very seriously, and in 1946, offered this succinct and cogent yardstick for measuring the success of one’s own work:

“I usually wait a year before seeing one of my films. It’s the only way I can learn anything about my acting. It’s like reading something you’ve written. The next day it sounds pretty good. But a year later it stinks.”

Sounds like good advice to me.

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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