Carly at the Movies: Reel fun at Halloween

Halloween is a real special time for us fans of old-timey monster flicks, horror films, and those beloved 1950’s science ficdtion schlockers. We drag out our dusty old VCR copies of classics like the original “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and Lon Chaney, Jr.’s portrayal of “The Wolf Man,” and spend the evening of October 31st salivating over the glories of black-and-white overacting.

That’ll be just fine for next week, but I’ve spent several days recently creeping about the local screen venues in search of some newer scary fare that might be worth your time. So join me, if you will, whilst we flutter (graceful as a bat) from  TV to motion pictures on the wings of “Walking Dead,” “Reel Steel,” and the current remake of “The Thing.”

Let’s take the bestest firstus. Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of Zombies. Those shuffle-along, single-minded carnivores have been the subject of scads of bad movies as well as a handful of good ones. But last year Frank Darabont created a TV show based on a series of graphic novels by Robert Kirkland called “The Walking Dead.” And it was simply spectacularly good because Darabont believes that good stories are about interesting people, whether they are sitting or walking or alive or dead.

The series was nominated at the Emmy Awards and a host of other kudo-type affairs and won an above-ground audience of ardent admirers, yours truly included. It was one of those catch-lightning-in-a-bottle things, and was able to portray that elusive Feeling of Impending Doom as well as “Rosemary’s Baby” or “Alien,” to name just two of the classics.

This story of a small group of people facing a horde of zombies in a post-apocalyptic world is not a brand new idea. But it is done with characters who have made you care about them – a trick not easy to do when surronded by undead critters lusting to gnaw on your gizzard. And the second season of the show, just recently started, moves the story forward with the same craftsmanship (although, admittedly, leaning toward the gorier aspects of .cannibalistic consumer consmption just a bit heavier).

The cast is not loaded with headliners, though you will probably recognize Jeffrey DeMunn as one of the better elderly character actors from his busy 30 year career on stage and screen. The assembled crew is well-cast, dedicated, and react as normal humans might in such an abnormal situation.

Trying to convince an adult fellow film buff to watch something called “Walking Dead” on TV is harder than pulling teeth, believe me. I’ll leave it to you, and gently place it among your hoped-for collection of future delightful surprises.

“Real Steel,” with Hugh Jackman in the starring role, was a pleasant surprise for me. It combines elements of “The Champ” and “Rocky,” set in a near-future where human boxing has been outlawed and robots have taken over that husky task. Rock ’em sock ’em robots? Yeah, kinda.

The story is told with a sly humor that makes the familiar turns more palatable. Jackman is no surprise as he resurrects a discarded hunk-o-junk ‘bot and takes it to the inevitable championship bout, a la “Rocky,” with the help of youthful Dakota Goyo (as The Kid) and Evangeline Lily (remember her on TV in “Lost” – glad to see this talented beauty moving on with her career).

It’s a fun film, just right for a family Halloween outing, and a sequel is already in development, due in 2014.

The thing about “The Thing” is, about halfway through it you begin to wonder why somebody remembered to bring along a flame-thrower and a box of hand grenades on a scientific expedition to the South Pole.

Otherwise, this little prequel fits in nicely just before John Carpenter’s 1982 gooey version under the same title. They both pale, of course –- one is tempted to call them “Polar opposites” unless one contains oneself — before the original 1951 “The Thing From Another World.”

Saturday morning I watched the prequel at a movie theater, came home and watched the 1982 version on Netflix, and then downloaded the short story (John W. Campbell, Jr.’s chilling “Who Goes There?”) they were all based upon to my Ipad. If I was a Mouseketeer, Saturday would surely have been “Any Thing Can Happen Day.”

What happens is, a whole bunch of Norwegian semi-scientists (who all look alike) accompanied by star Mary Elizabeth Winstead discover a flying saucer buried at the South Pole.

The unpleasant Thing inside starts gobbling up people and dogs alike and morphing into their bodies, proving once and for all that imitation is the sincerest form of forgery.

Now the alien monster is probably a second-cousin to the creature from “Alien.” It’s got the requisit Gaping Maw as well as slimey tentacles, gooey insides, spidery legs, bad breath, and an unpleasant disposition.

Time to break out the flame-throwers, gang. Only problem is, which one of us is truly the creature in disguise? Well that’s the premise of the film, and it careflly predates the Carpenter version, even perfectly dovetailing its own end credits with the beginning of the 1982 film. They make a great double feature.

The 1982 film is actually a lot better than the new one, stars Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley (sans mustache), and is quite enjoyable even though the viscous victims fall hither and yon before the vile villain. And it’s all set to a wonderful musical score by Ennio Morricone. Voila!

Can’t leave without a few words about that beloved 1951 film “The Thing From Another World.” James Arness (in his pre-Gunsmoke days) is the monster, come to conquer the earth all by himself, and arriving from some far galaxy’s fresh vegetable bin. This is the first truly naturalistic science fiction film I ever saw. The characters talk over each others lines (just like real people, who never listen to one another anyway) and it’s mostly underplayed and straight-arrow, which really convinced me – I was 17 at the time – that it would be great to explore the Arctic and interview monsters from outer space.

So all in all, there’s quite a variety of movies on local screens for Halloween. Having had my fill of them, I plan to stay home to watch a few old time classic horror films, heavy with makeup and dialogue that makes you want to groan. And to feel safe, maybe I’ll just clean and reload my trusty flame-thrower.

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen



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