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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 Castle’s The Night Walker (1964) Finally Released on DVD

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

William Castle’s last truly accomplished suspense film is finally available on a DVD release.

As Wikipedia notes, “The Night Walker is a 1964 American psychological suspense thriller by genre specialist William Castle, with an original screenplay by Robert Bloch, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Taylor, Hayden Rorke, Judi Meredith, Rochelle Hudson, and Lloyd Bochner as ‘The Dream.’ The film was one of the last black and white theatrical features – photographed by suitably dreamlike monochrome by the gifted Harold E. Stine – released by Universal Pictures, and Stanwyck’s last theatrical motion picture, before she moved over exclusively to television work.

The film chronicles the ordeal of Irene Trent (Stanwyck), who is unhappily married to a blind, pathologically possessive millionaire inventor, Howard Trent (Rorke). Howard and Irene’s palatial mansion is packed with an endless assortment of clocks, all in perfect synchronization, and Howard tape records all conversations in the house for later reference, hoping to catch Irene plotting an illicit liaison.

Irene thus lives in a constant state of dread, wondering how far Howard’s jealousy will go. Yet despite Howard’s continual accusations of infidelity, Irene remains faithful to Howard, but has nightly recurrent dreams of a fantasy lover as a sort of escape from the reality of her tormented existence. She is also attracted to Howard’s personal attorney, Barry Moreland (Taylor), the only visitor allowed in the house.

Howard spends most of his time working in his laboratory on a variety of projects, the nature of which he refuses to divulge to anyone. As tensions mount, Irene feels trapped in a loveless, lonely relationship. But suddenly, everything changes: one night, Howard is killed by an explosion in his laboratory, and Irene inherits the house and Howard’s entire fortune.

The laboratory itself, a charred wreck, is secured from the rest of the house by a deadbolt so that no one may enter. Irene, after consulting with Barry Moreland, decides to move out of the house, into the back room apartment of a small beauty shop she owns, ‘Irene’s,’ which she operated before she met and married Howard. Almost immediately, the dreams of a fantasy love begin again, with increasing intensity, until they take the form of an “ideal” man—known only as ‘The Dream’ (Bochner).

Night after night, ‘The Dream’ appears before Irene, whisking her away to a bizarre wedding ceremony in which she ‘marries’ ‘The Dream’ in front of a group of wax figure witnesses, or engages in a harmless tryst over champagne in a deserted hotel. Irene begins to doubt her sanity and unaccountably finds herself wishing to return to the nightmarish house she shared with Howard. But the reality behind Irene’s dreams is a secret that The Night Walker withholds until the very end; a bizarre and complex tale of murder, betrayal, and deception.

Modestly budgeted, and shot entirely at Universal City, the film was a change of pace for Castle, who usually relied on gimmicks to sell his films, such as ‘Emergo’ for House on Haunted Hill, or ‘Percepto’ for The Tingler. This time, Castle relied on Bloch’s reputation as the author of the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is based, as well as the re-teaming of Stanwyck and Taylor, who had been married from 1939 to 1951, as being sufficient to publicize the film.

Nevertheless, the film was not a financial success. The Night Walker marked the end of Castle’s most influential period as a director, although he would go on to produce and/or direct a number of additional films for Universal, and later, Paramount Pictures – most notably producing Roman Polanski‘s Rosemary’s Baby in 1968.”

This has been available only on VHS since 1993; it’s really nice to see this sharp, atmospheric film get a legitimate DVD release as part of the TCM/Universal “Selects” series, on a double bill with director Harvey Hart‘s lost supernatural thriller Dark Intruder, another film that has never been available on DVD, with a strong link to the works of the writer H.P. Lovecraft. The DVD was released with almost no publicity on December 7, 2015, and I just stumbled over it by accident – I hope people will take the time to watch this intriguing and impressive film, a lost gem that really deserves greater attention.

The Night Walker – with a great score by Vic Mizzy – is well worth viewing.

Too Many Films Stuck in The Vaults

Saturday, October 24th, 2015

Too many great films are still stuck in the vaults, with no way to see them in any format.

As Michael Hiltzik writes in The Los Angeles Times today, “Will McKinley, a New York film writer, is dying to get his hands on a copy of Alias Nick Beal, a 1949 film noir starring Ray Milland as a satanic gangster. For classic film blogger Nora Fiore, the Grail might be The Wild Party (1929), the first talkie to star 1920’s “It” girl Clara Bow, directed by the pioneering female director Dorothy Arzner.

Film critic Leonard Maltin says he’d like to score a viewing of Hotel Haywire a 1937 screwball comedy written by the great comic director Preston Sturges. Produced by Paramount Studios, these are all among 700 titles assumed to be nestled in the vaults of Universal Pictures, which inherited Paramount’s 1930s and 1940s film archive from its forebear MCA, which acquired the collection in 1958. They’re frustratingly near at hand but out of reach of film fans and cinephiles.

Like most of the other major studios, Universal is grappling with the challenging economics of making more of this hoard accessible to the public on DVD, video on demand or streaming video. Studios have come to realize that there’s not only marketable value in the films, but publicity value in performing as responsible stewards of cultural assets.”

I, too, would love to see a legitimate copy of Alias Nick Beal, one of my favorite noirs, but it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. To date, Universal has done almost nothing in this regard. As just one example, I’ve been waiting for years for a DVD of William Castle’s The Night Walker (Universal, 1964), which, as Wikipedia notes, is “one of the last black and white theatrical features released by Universal Pictures, and Barbara Stanwyck’s last motion picture, [but] The Night Walker is one of the few William Castle films from his ‘horror’ period that is unavailable on DVD.”

Yet Hiltzik’s article demonstrates that there’s clearly a market for these older films, beyond the canonical classics. As George Feltenstein, who heads the Warner Archive imprint of on-demand DVDs of classic films notes, the WB service, launched in March 2009 with 150 titles, has proved “far more successful than we even dreamed. I thought that all the studios would follow in our footsteps, but nobody has been as comprehensive as we’ve been.” And that’s putting it mildly – to date, no other major studio has stepped up to the plate with the same commitment as WB has.

This isn’t altruism. As Feltenstein candidly told Hiltzik, “‘my job is to monetize that content, make it available to the largest number of people possible and do so profitably.’ That gives [Warner Archive] a window into values that others might miss. Take B-movie westerns made in the 1940s and 1950s that landed in the Warners vault. To Allied Artists and Lorimar, their producers, ‘these films were worthless and they said it’s OK to let them rot,’ Feltenstein [said].

Instead, Warner Archives packaged them into DVD collections, ‘and they’ve all been nicely profitable.’ Feltenstein says Warners is releasing 30 more titles to its manufacturing-on-demand library every month. ‘It’s growing precipitously and there’s no end in sight.'”

Yet much more work clearly needs to be done, and especially since all films made before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which decomposes rapidly and is highly flammable, things have to move along at a much faster clip if we’re going to preserve what’s left of our cinematic heritage. I’ve been noting this for a long time, in any number of articles, but even though Warner Archive is leading the pack, there’s plenty of films left that need a solid DVD release – not streaming, thank you, but on a DVD, which can be permanently kept in one’s collection.

Let’s get these films out where everyone can see them – now!

New Book – Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s

Tuesday, July 21st, 2015

I have a new book from Palgrave Pivot on the “sick” humor films of the 1960s.

As the promotional materials for the book note, “Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s presents six detailed chapters on various topics that relate to genre cinema, concentrating on films and filmmakers whose films offered wide ranging commentary on popular culture. Covering both little and well-known films and filmmakers (Vanishing Point, Marcel Hanoun, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Max Ophüls), Dixon’s writings draw on a multitude of critical, historical, and archival sources to capture the reader’s attention from start to finish.

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program, and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA. He is the author of Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical HollywoodStreaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, and Cinema at the Margins and editor, with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, of the book series Quick Takes: Movies and Popular Culture.”

Here are some early comments by reviewers:

“Dixon is a first-rate film scholar, critic, and historian, and the qualities he has cultivated and refined over the years are evident in everything from the clarity, lucidity, and liveliness of his prose to the accuracy of his research, the force of his arguments, and the perspicuity of his judgments.” – David Sterritt, Chair, National Society of Film Critics

“The Dixon dynamo’s done it again. In a swift and assured push, he opens doors to the sights, sounds—and smells—of the other world cinematic story. He peels back eyelids for us to see one built not only on the backs of the Griffiths, Hitchcocks, Bunuels, and Truffauts, but on the extraordinary creativity of those pushed into penumbric shadows; those cineastes like Max Ophüls, Juan Orol, Marcel Hanoun, and D. Ross Lederman who dared to bend minds and expectations at any cost. We have our world cinematic critic and he’s invited us to strap ourselves for a journey to the chaotic dark side of world cinematic history. As with Kubrick’s Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong, with Dixon you’re in for a hell of a ride!” – Frederick Luis Aldama, Arts & Humanities Distinguished University Professor and author of The Cinema of Robert Rodriguez

“Wheeler Winston Dixon’s new collection of essays, Dark Humor in Films of the 1960s, offers even more than its title promises.  To be sure, its opening essay presents a richly detailed and thoughtful meditation on the iconoclastic ‘sick’ humor of sixties films from Dr. Strangelove to Putney Swope.  But readers will also find much else of value, including pieces on the unsung Hollywood auteur D. Ross Lederman, the lost version of the 1971 cult road movie classic Vanishing Point, and the fatalistic noir films of Max Ophüls.  All are written with Dixon’s customary verve, wit, and attention to historical detail, making this book a must for any serious student of cinema.” – Ian Olney, author of Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture

“This book glitters with a treasure of informative, witty, and acute insights into films and filmmakers too long neglected in their unconventional but deeply provocative importance.  No one writes about film with more infectious vivacity than Wheeler Winston Dixon, especially in these pages.” – Murray Pomerance, author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect

A short and concise look at some of the films that shaped a decade.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

With Halloween coming up, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged on this classic horror film.

Please forget the terrible 1999 remake, which many people consider the only version of this film – this is the original, directed in stark black and white by William Castle, starring Vincent Price as an apparently eccentric millionaire who throws a “haunted house party,” where each of the guests will collect $10,000 for attending – if they survive until dawn.

As critic Fred Beldin wrote, “cinema showman William Castle’s best films are imbued with an infectious sense of mischief that overcomes deficiencies, and House on Haunted Hill is no exception. An excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price and one of Castle’s most beloved concoctions, this lightweight ghost story is lots of fun even without the director’s trademark theater gimmicks. Price is in prime form, alternating between pure ham and quiet subtlety, able to express a macabre notion simply by arching an eyebrow.

Co-star Elisha Cook Jr. has only one task here, to look shell-shocked and mutter predictions of doom, and he performs it with twitchy, sweaty aplomb. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with only ingenue Carolyn Craig standing out via her shrill shrieks and stilted line readings. Castle directs House on Haunted Hill to be spooky rather than frightening, with floating skeletons and flickering candlelight, but a few ghastly images of acid baths and hanged women slide in for the E.C. Comics crowd. Campy and creepy in equal measures, House on Haunted Hill deserves its status as a horror classic.”

You can see the entire film now, for free, by clicking on the image above.

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.

In The National News

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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