They Live, Nada, and “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”

John Carpenter’s They Live has been a favorite since I first saw it, and remains a pulp science fiction classic. My friend Tony Peyser told me it was based on a short story by Ray Nelson called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” which was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1966, long out of print. He also invented the propeller beanie hat, if you remember those.

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The story is very thin but of course, a very memorable premise of mind control and aliens among us. Carpenter filled it out a lot with Reagan-era class warfare from the yuppie class enslaving working people, and fed into the hatred of the soulless consumerists who inspired American Psycho. If you haven’t seen They Live, it’s a deserving classic for many reasons, and embraces its kitschy pulp roots, very much like the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The DVD is available on NetFlix.

You can read “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” here. In 1986 there was a comic adaptation by Bill Wray in Alien Encounters, which Carpenter saw and drew from. That’s where the infamous and silly final shot comes from. Instead of a girlfriend, Nada, played by Roddy Piper the pro wrestler, gets Keith David, one of my favorite actors, best known for playing Childs in Carpenter’s The Thing. When Nada wants him to “wear the glasses” that will awaken him from alien domination, they have a throwdown alley fight for at least five minutes, to play to Roddy’s wrestling strengths. It’s a lot of fun, and silly, and after so many mass shootings, Nada’s shotgun solution to the aliens in the infamous bank scene is a little creepy, but it’s as pure an action hero story as there ever was.

If you want to read the comic that inspired Carpenter, you can read it here. This is a snip:

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the thing about The Thing

John Carpenter’s THE THING has long been a favorite of both horror and science fiction fans for its perfect mood, taut pacing, and its faithful adaptation of John Campbell’s unforgettable short story, “Who Goes There?” First written in 1938, the tale lacks the Cold War paranoia of the Body Snatcher films, and touches an existential, primal childhood fear of the unknown. Are people what they seem?

The opening credits, with the dissonant, haunting score thrumming in the background as a helicopter follows a sled dog over the endless, snowy expanse of the Antarctic wasteland, is how most of us remember the story beginning, but first, we see our lonely planet in the darkness of space. But it is not alone; an object circles, then crashes and burns into the atmosphere. A tiny flaming speck, like an insect or even a virus to the massive planet, but we know how dangerous those tiny things can be. Every scene sets a paranoid, chilling mood that eases us into willfully suspending our disbelief for the fantastic tale to come, of an invasion on a cellular level. The dangerous speck of a spaceship is replaced by that of a grey dog fleeing across the snow, looking back over its shoulder eerily at its pursuers, in a way a dog never would. A man with a rifle is shooting at it frantically, panicked beyond reason.

The dog heads toward a research station, where we meet our only companions for the rest of the story, without introduction. They seem pretty laid back except for the one man in uniform, Garry, who represents the only presence of authority in this remote outpost at McMurdo station, and he is disrespected by his peers, treated almost as a joke. They seem more like fierce independents: bikers, mountain men, cowboys, MIT computer nerds, rather than scientists. In fact, we never even find out what they’re doing out there, except escaping the shackles of civilization. The dog runs into their camp as they come out to investigate the approaching helicopter, and their visitors immediately wound one of them, trying to kill the dog. They shout in a foreign language, and their aberrant behavior- who would want to kill a dog that isn’t attacking anyone?- is taken for cabin fever, and they die before any explanation can be given.

I don’t intend to synopsize the film, or do a shot by shot study of it, for that has been done. There are entire websites devoted to it, such as Outpost 31 or these reviews by people who’ve actually lived in Antarctica. I’m more interested in what makes the film so effective, and popular enough to spawn a prequel 30 years later. And yes, my expectations are quite low for that film, even if it ends with two Norwegians, the last alive, chasing a dog across the snow in a helicopter. Hollywood no longer takes risks like having an all male cast, unless the film is Oscar bait. While it has no basis in fact- women served in Antarctica since the ’60s- it makes for a tight screenplay that can safely ignore romantic subplots. Unless you think Blair and Doc Copper were a secret couple. Maybe that’s what Doc’s nose ring signified? That’s a nice little touch that we notice again now that big screen TVs and HD transfers are commonplace, that Doc has a nose ring, very uncommon in the ’80s, showing him to be a bit of an odd character like his compatriots.

The story isn’t perfect; do we ever learn who sabotaged the blood supply? Like that famous murder in THE BIG SLEEP, where even author Raymond Chandler was hard pressed to explain who did it? Some things are best left unexplained. I don’t want to know where the aliens from ALIEN come from; I didn’t want to know about Hannibal Lecter’s childhood, much less Michael Myers’. The unknown is an important function of horror, and coupled with the isolation of the Antarctic continent, the paranoia of the hidden menace, and the fear of a death that ends with your identity truly stolen, THE THING offers up a panoply of terrors from the beginning. The creature itself, a mockery of the living form, doesn’t just steal your face or your corpse; it turns your organs into modern art sculpture and uses them as weapons. We see a flower of dog tongues that H.P. Lovecraft enthusiasts love to point out, because it resembles the Elder Things from his novella “At the Mountains of Madness,” and Carpenter is definitely a fan of his work. Not until a year later with David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME would body horror stand on its own; here at least you’re dead and being mimicked. Cold comfort.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Another risk taken is the infamous ambiguous ending, which thankfully never spawned a film sequel. There was a comic book mini-series called The Thing from Another World that took off with the ultimate fan betrayal by making Kurt Russell’s MacReady be the infected one. I never want to know if Childs or MacReady are real, or a thing, to use Mac’s words. It is unnecessary for the story, and it robs us of that unease in the pit of our stomachs when the film’s unsettling soundtrack rises up again for the end credit roll. We know Mac and Childs are slugging whiskey, watching the camp burn, and the two men- or the man and the thing- will be frozen statues staring each other down when the rescue team comes after the long winter. The script by Bill Lancaster- whose only other credit is another fave of mine, THE BAD NEWS BEARS (full review)- is so sparse that Carpenter’s direction seems to fade into the background, as if it’s a documentary. The reveals often occur in the back of the frame, like the famous spider-thing head that tries to sneak off on its own. The rest is close, accentuating the cramped quarters of the compound or the loneliness of the outpost, with nothing but mountains for miles and miles around.

My favorite scene.

It was a brave thing for Carpenter to tackle this one after getting panned for THE FOG; he could’ve done another slasher, or another post-apocalyptic hit like ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but he once again chose to go in a new direction. Horror, science fiction, but something we’d never seen before. And one we are likely to never see again, with the advent of computer generated effects. Pioneers Rob Bottin and Stan Winston used every effects trick in the book, even stop motion, to create the Thing, and its visceral design is effective even today. On occasion you can see its slip showing; something done in reverse perhaps, but all you need to watch is Doc Copper getting his hands amputated and his “patient’s” head tearing itself off to be impressed at the horror effects, which are arguably the best of the traditional model work you’ll ever see. Carpenter took this level of detail down to the title sequence, paying homage to the 1951 Howard Hawks film THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, which due to budgetary concerns changed the original mimic creature into a plant-based, bloodsucking lifeform that brought its own set of challenges.

I don’t think of this film as a remake, but another adaptation of the story, one truer to the simple question it asks: what if something could mimic us perfectly, down to our personalities; would that really be us? Taken over cell by cell, betrayed by our own DNA, would we know we were a “Thing” until it decided to strike our friends, or defend itself? The film never answers these questions, but does ask them. Amazingly enough when compared to its life on video, THE THING was both a commercial and critical failure upon release, panned by viewers and critics alike for its brutal gore and bleak ending. Being 11 years old at the time, I never had a chance to see it in theaters, but it was one of the first things I taped off HBO, and watched until it shredded. Along with ALIEN, this was one of the formative films of my early years, and skinless, bizarre dog-like creatures are what populate my nightmares. IMDb trivia states that this is Carpenter’s favorite of his own films, and I have to agree.

This post was written for the John Carpenter blogathon this week at RADIATOR HEAVEN. Make sure to go there and check out J.D.’s posts there. I always learn something new, even about films I’ve seen a dozen times.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

A jealous redhead with a big set of headlights

Christine, Carpenter and King’s disturbing tribute to the American mystique with the automobile, came out in the perfect year. In the late 70’s, EPA regulations and piss poor engineering coupled to bring us the most emasculated cars from Detroit, but by ’83 the Mustang and Camaro were nearing 200 horsepower again; there was no official Corvette that year, but in ’84 it came back with a vengeance. The Fury was long gone by then and Plymouth was mostly re-badging other cars, but the 1958 Fury was perhaps their most iconic model, other than the Road Runner Superbird. The early ’80s was also the beginning of ’50s nostalgia, culminating with Michael Mann’s excellent Crime Story TV series. The car was the perfect choice, with its massive shark fins. Only the ’57 Chrysler 300C and the ’59 Cadillacs were more impressive. The chugging hemi engine that rumbles over the credits and serves as the monster’s roar before it crushes its victims is the throaty song of the American muscle car. The car of Christine’s enemy Dennis is a 1968 Dodge Charger, the most memorable of the Dodge-Chrysler-Plymouth muscle cars at the time.
They did an excellent job in making a horror movie about a killer car, with effects that still stand up today, and a classic tale of a nerd who finds brief glory with a devil’s bargain, before it destroys him. Set in 1978, the last production year of the Plymouth Fury, we meet nerdy Arnie as he leaves his domineering parents for a ride to school with football jock and good guy Dennis, his only friend. Everything gets set up in the first few minutes as we meet the New Girl, Leigh, and the Douche Trio of switchblade bully Buddy, and his toadies Fat Fuck and The Pompadour Guy (or Pompadouche for short). Dennis, and later Arnie, have eyes for Leigh while Buddy and crew torment Arnie in auto shop. Dennis comes to the rescue but it’s three on one, and Fat Fuck grabs his nuts in a particularly brutal scene. The shop teacher catches them, and they get expelled… vowing revenge.
Dennis is played by John Stockwell, who’d show up in the underrated ’80s flick My Science Project; he’s kind of a low rent Kevin Bacon, but he’s very likeable. Just a bit bland. Leigh is future “Baywatch” beauty Alexandra Paul, and Keith Gordon, who plays Arnie, would go on to direct Mother Night, A Midnight Clear, and many episodes of the TV series “Dexter.” The real standout is Robert Prosky, who plays Darnell the junkyard owner. In a role completely different from his excellent mobster in Michael Mann’s Thief, he’s a cigar-chewing slobbish force of nature here who practically steals the show.
When Arnie and Dennis are driving home from school, nerdy boy sees a wreck parked in a field with a For Sale sign, and is immediately captivated. It turns out to be a faded red 1958 Plymouth, banged up and in need of serious repair. A scrawny, hunched-over old man like a troll from a fairy tale sits on the porch, staring into the big nothing, as Arnie starts drooling over the car. Dennis tries to talk him out of buying it, but he insists. The man says the car was his brother’s, who bought it new. He tells him the car’s name is Christine, and Arnie takes it home.

“My asshole brother bought her back in September ’57. That’s when you got your new model year, in September. Brand-new, she was. She had the smell of a brand-new car. That’s just about the finest smell in the world, ‘cept maybe for pussy.”

His parents aren’t too happy with his decision, as they make all the decisions for him; but Arnie has finally grown a pair of balls, and drives it to a local junkyard and self repair auto shop, run by Mr. Darnell. In his grimy suit and perpetual scowl, Darnell gets most of the good lines; as Arnie begins work on restoring the banged-up road monster, he mutters, “You can’t polish a turd.” Slowly the restoration project takes all of Arnie’s time; Dennis tries for a date with Leigh and is rebuffed, and spends his time playing football. One night we see Arnie go off in a blue ’76 Eldorado. Who’s driving the blue Cadillac? Does he sell his soul to the Devil? In the novel, he’s smuggling cigarettes with Darnell the auto shop owner. This subplot was left out of the film and for good reason. It’s left a mystery how Arnie first repairs Christine, which would cost a fortune, because when the car first repairs itself after the vandalism, it’s a surprise to him. We later find out it’s Darnell’s Caddy, but it’s mysterious and makes us wonder what’s happening to Arnie as much as Dennis does. I like to think Christine was slowly repairing herself as Arnie bungled his way through the job, until he was fully under her spell.
Arnie talks to the car much like many of us do when confronted with a piece of machinery that’s not working. Whether it’s Han Solo whispering to the Millennium Falcon, or Michael Bolton cursing out the printer in Office Space, we personify machines. He loses his glasses and gains confidence, and attitude. His Mom asks Dennis for help, because he’s obsessed with the car, and he senses something is off. He visits the old man who sold them the car, and finds out that the previous owner had the same obsession.

Probably the only thing my brother ever loved in his whole rotten life was that car. No shitter ever came between him and Christine, if they did… watch out! He had a five-year-old daughter choke to death in her… he wouldn’t get rid of her. He just rode around with the radio blaring, not a care in the world except for Christine.” Even Darnell remembers, “I knew a guy had a car like that once. Fuckin’ bastard killed himself in it. Son of a bitch was so mean, you could’ve poured boiling water down his throat and he would’ve pissed ice cubes!

Before Dennis can do anything, we see him at a football game. Buddy and his crew are in the bleachers, booing the home team. Dennis is running long for a pass when he sees Arnie pull up in a fully restored Christine, with the hot new girl Leigh coming out of the passenger side… and while he’s distracted, he’s slammed by a tackle and put in the hospital. Nearly paralyzed, he’s taken out of commission while Christine cements her hold on Arnie. Buddy and crew decide to get revenge on Arnie by trashing the car, and we see them sneak into Darnell’s that night to smash up Arnie’s baby. Now I’m a car enthusiast, and I tell you it hurt more watching them smash that car than any of the death scenes in this movie; and that’s what King and Carpenter are getting at with this movie. Either you’re a car person or you’re not. If you drive a Toyota, you’re probably not. Though Prius drivers get enthused in their own way. If a car’s just transportation, you won’t ever understand.
When Arnie finds his car vandalized beyond belief- it is mentioned that someone shit on the dashboard- he is of course devastated. All that work, lost. But it’s more than that. He identifies himself through his car, like many young men; it is a personal injury. A car becomes sort of a home on wheels, and invasion of it is unsettling, even if only a thin sheen of safety glass separates the inside from the rest of the world. Keith Gordon’s portrayal in this scene is perhaps the best, as the new hard-ass Arnie crumbles back to his apoplectic geek self. And his soul becomes irrevocably sold later that evening, when he looks at the wreckage with knowing eyes and murmurs, “Show me.” To the haunting sax of “Harlem Nocturne,” Christine rebuilds herself. Fenders reform, the tires inflate, crushed metal pops back to shape. Other than the incredible scenes of the car repairing itself, which were performed with plastic replicas and hydraulic pumps- the most memorable visual has to be the demonic marauding vehicle ablaze at the gas station.
Vengeance is first delivered on Fatty, who runs into a repair bay where the car can’t fit. The windshield is dark, so we don’t know if Arnie is behind the wheel, or if Christine is prowling on her own. Amazingly, the car pushes itself into the narrow alleyway, fenders crumpling as the tires squeal with demonic fury. Later, a detective tells Arnie, “they have to scrape his legs off the wall with a shovel.” But Arnie only replies, “Isn’t that what you do with shit? Scrape it up with a little shovel?” Detective Junkins drives the last year of Fury, the 1978 cop model, a nice touch. He’s played by the always dependable Harry Dean Stanton, but his cop skills aren’t all that great. I know it’s the ’70s, but you could match the paint from Christine’s fender to the corpse. Let’s just assume that possessed demon cars don’t leave forensic evidence.
The best scene is when Christine kills off the last of the two shitters- this time literally, they shit on her dash- by playing a night time game of chicken. Buddy’s driving in his ’67 Camaro when a tailgater is blinding him. He stomps on the brakes, goes in reverse, but can’t touch the car. So he races them to a gas station, pulls over and takes out his tire iron… only to see Christine plow into his ride and T-bone it into scrap metal. Before he can react, the cars, now locked together, are smashing through the service station and crushing his pals. Soon the whole place is ablaze, Christine has real flames on her fenders and is coursing after him like a living inferno.
After Leigh dumps Arnie because she nearly chokes to death in the car at a drive-in (on a sandwich, ya perv), she teams up with Dennis to try to free him from Christine’s clutches. But Arnie’s obsession is complete. As they drive the highway, he plays chicken for no reason, throws beer cans out the window, and has become the mean sonofabitch who can eat lava and piss ice cubes. Dennis lures him to Darnell’s by carving a challenge into Christine’s hood, and going there to hot wire a bulldozer. And the final duel between a demonic land yacht and a Tonka toy is something to behold, with Christine able to repair herself between clashes.
With an absolutely fantastic soundtrack that varies from whimsical to macabre, including the now famous “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood and the Delaware Destroyers, “Pledging my Love” by Johnny Ace, “Keep a Knockin'” by Little Richard, and especially “Boney Maroni” playing while Christine crushes one of her victims, the movie manages to wink at us just enough so we’ll swallow a killer car from the ’50s. Things to notice. Arnie’s clothes slowly revert to ’50s era, including a red jacket like James Dean wore in Rebel Without a Cause. His hair and manner resemble a “greaser.” And Christine’s mileage counter goes backward through the film, as if it’s sucking the life out of Arnie. It finally rolls over to zeroes during the final battle.

I love this shot which makes it seem like the car is watching this guy.

Is Christine a horror film? Of course, but a different one. I’m eager to read the book. The movie shows the car being “born” on the assembly line, a lone custom Ford Red among the other beige models. She kills a worker who gets cigar ashes on her seats, and chomps her hood closed on someone’s hand, too. I like this addition, because it lends an urban legend feel to it, and makes us wonder if we’ll get one of these “bad luck” or worse, evil cars. Well, perhaps back in the ’80s, when cars were less electronic, and seemed possessed by gremlins. But as the final shot warns, Christine may still be out there, prowling the roads, looking for a new driver.