The Thing (1982) and Pontypool (2009)

September 2, 2009 § Leave a comment

John Carpenter’s The Thing was inspired by both a film and a novella: as a youth he saw The Thing from Another World (1951), a film inspired by Who Goes There, a science fiction novella by John W. Campbell. In telling the story of an isolated outpost in Antarctica that discovers a buried alien organism, the 1951 film opted for a guy in a suit as the monster, and it’s perhaps fair to say they had no other options available at that time. Carpenter apparently loved the film, but wanted to return to the original idea about a shape-changing organism that, given time, could imitate any living creature through a hideous process of absorption — and even the smallest particle of it could strike out. If the organism were to succeed in getting away from the outpost to infect a city, the rest of the world would follow from there. Needless to say, this heightens the tension considerably, compared to a tall guy in a suit lumbering around smashing things.

Beginning with a heartbeat-imitation score by Ennio Morricone, the 1982 film is an excellent production: tightly written, with good performances from both the supporting cast, and lead actor Kurt Russell. Years before CGI effects, the wildly imaginative stuff invented for the film scared the living daylights out of me as a child, and remains etched in my brain. Time has dated the film a little, in terms of how shocking it is, and it’s fair to say the film puts little or no time aside for characterisation, but a solid supporting cast helps immensely here, and insures a certain level of believability. Quite simply, audiences had never seen anything like it in 1982, and it remains a solid and chilling suspense film. The imaginative and shocking effects may have threatened to become the centrepiece of the film decades ago, but today viewers are more likely to notice other details, like the careful shots set up by Carpenter that imply someone else might be watching the character on display.

The Canadian film Pontypool may have arrived decades later, and after dozens of films have made it increasingly difficult to shock audiences, but it neatly sidesteps the entire issue — what’s wildly original here isn’t the effects, but the ideas behind this psychologically gripping film. And again, solid performances give the whole thing a credibility it would not otherwise have. Tony Burgess adapted his original and hugely enjoyable novel Pontypool Changes Everything into a screenplay for director Bruce McDonald, who handles it in a skillful, understated way. At a radio station in Pontypool, Ontario, DJ Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie), his producer Sydney (Lisa Houle) and assistant Laurel (Georgina Reilly) begin getting conflicted, increasingly strange and horrific reports about local disturbances.

There’s enough left to the imagination here that it could be theatre, or radio drama, but as a film it also works remarkably well. I don’t want to give away the original and utterly creepy directions the film eventually goes, but I’ll say that it’s another epidemic film, and though it’s something of a zombie film, it doesn’t even really need the z-word. Highly recommended, but avoid online reviews that gleefully give away far too much. I only hope more Canadian films will be produced that make budget nearly irrelevant, in favour of  highly original scripts.

Watch a teaser clip here.

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