Monday, October 21, 2013

The Thing (1982): A look at Morricone and Carpenter's Masterpiece

There really isn't enough room on the internet to describe how I feel about this film. It is one of the best films of the 80s, one of the best horror films of the 80s but I might also add, possibly one of the best horror films of all time.

The horror genre means a lot of different things, I think that horror to most people is about intense scares and ranked up tensions, the thrill of being terrified not knowing when the big bad thing is going to jump out next, and that is the expected norm since the genre began but horror films do a lot more than  that;  they explore important and timely themes,  philosophies and topics and they use the conventions of horror to explore themand  The Thing is a prime example of this. The Thing does this incredibly well.

Lets start  by getting down to basics. As we all know horror films are essentially about subtext; cultural, historical and geographical. The Japanese are still reeling from the effects of Hiroshima. The Godzilla films were  born from their anxieties about atomic/nuclear weaponry and even to this day these feelings are echoed in films like The Grudge and The Ring. Japanese horror explores themes about redemption of wrongdoings in the past and about spirits coming back to settle long forgotten scores. Even the way  that J-Horror ghosts/spirits  are portrayed as strange mutations  with clicky movements and strange walks (Samara's spider crawl from the Ring definitely comes to mind) suggest a kind of lingering afterthought on the effect of nuclear radiation.

So  what are American horror films about.? Every American horror film more or less is about one thing and one thing  only ; The Enemy Within. Since McCarthyism and the cold war and even a little bit before that, American horror films and literature have all been about one simple thought "Don't Trust Anyone. Not even your neighbour. Not even your best friend" In that regard The Thing is really  the quintessential American horror film.

Set and filmed in 1982 the cold war was still very much on. "Kill a Commie for Christ" was very much the the bumper stick du jour . In this cultural context the film wears its subtext on its sleeve.. The sense of paranoia and distrust perfectly mirrors America's feelings at the time. The fact that its set in the coldest place in the world almost stings like a bad cinematic pun. (Cold. Cold War. Get It?) but the original Howard Hawks film is also set in the Antarctic so maybe that is stretching the metaphor too much.

You also can't make critique of The THing  without mentioning AIDS. Blood is such a thematic element to the film, especially in the infamous blood test scene. 1982  was the year AIDS got given it's name;  rechristened after having  the horribly ignorant and accusatory title of GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome) for quite some time . The  press started making clear mention that the disease was not only just affecting  gays and drug users but haemophiliacs and heterosexuals were now contracting it and while these cases were being uncovered the publics knowledge of it was still very limited. It was an unknown element and again America was on high alert because annnyyybooddy  could now carry the disease. Remember TRUST NO ONE. Not even your friend. These cultural anxieties are also mirrored throughout the film but even more chilling in this context is this; the scene where Blair watches simulated cells over take each other, assimilate and reproduce on his lab computer screen is eerily prescient.

Did John Carpenter's film predict the discovery of the mechanism of the AIDS virus?

I know that's a huge claim to make but one thing you can't dispute is that when it comes to the horror subtext triple threat of Culture, History and Geograpy  The Thing is a masterful distillation of these three ingredients.

Morricone's score to the film is masterful as well. At first I really didn't know what to think of it  It has very few  bombastic segments, only one crazy string section, nothing of what you would expect of a film with such big action and gore sequences but the majority of the soundtrack is amazingly stripped back. A few refrains and a few lilting motifs and a single synth basss beat which works as a single beating heart throughout. When it does eventually go weird or crazy it is all together over before it even gets started. Particularly in the tracks Contamination and Bestialty on Side 1. The score, in it's majority, is  all about atmosphere which compliments the film and is a great testament to the films ability to not talk down to it's audience. Sometimes a film score can be a bit like an annoying friend poking you and asking "Are you scared yet? Are you scared yet? Are you scared yet? " and The Thing is able to weave it's tale of paranoia without relying on the music to hold the audiences hand. For one lets look at the most iconic  scene from the film and take note that the one thing markedly absent from the madness on screen There's no music at all.


This is something that the prequel in  2011 definitely didn't get right. Somehow modern genre cinema seems to think the musical score enhances every emotional beat of a film when in fact it doesn't. Strings will always make the heart swell in the more romantic or dramatic turns in a film but can ultimately distract from a horror film when  its time to crank things up a notch. What might work for Love Actually does not always work for Night of the Living Dead.

Another awesome element of the Soundtrack is the use of the pipe organ. It comes in on the track Solitude  from Side 1 and then returns at the end of Humanity Pt II on Side 2.  The  organ sound in these segments of  the score reminds us of horror films of old working almost like a sonic love letter to Howard Hawks original The Thing From Another World (1951) and also silent horror films like Nosferatu or Phantom of the Opera where the  pipe organ was the norm.

I'm gonna probably turn a few heads by saying this. I enjoyed the prequel. If only because I'm such a fan of John Carpenter's film that returning to the familiar setting was a real treat and I relished seeing how the events at the Norwegian research base were going to be explored in detail. I think they used a few new tricks to play up the paranoia, specifically by having the characters divided not only by nationality  but by language. The scenes where the Norwegians use their native tongue  to undermine the American's efforts  to restore order are really well done. Being able to talk about your enemy in the same room as them without them knowing what you're saying makes for some great moments of paranoid drama  for which the original is so widely revered. That was well done, but for every well structured moment, there were a dozen things which they got wrong. In John Carpenter's film one truly endearing aspect (and by degrees the most intelligent) is the creatures only one true motivation is survival. It only appears in it's "true" form when it is under threat and in that way the creature is not evil or motivated by anything other than staying alive. In the prequel it is none of these things. It seems hell bent on destroying humanity and it appears malevolent in it's intent. It's obviously intelligent (it has a spaceship for fucks sake) but it never chooses to assimilate the other humans in any subtle way. In JC's film the Thing spends the first 20 minutes hiding in the form of the dog only coming out when in the presence of the real dogs in the kennel  and  it's otherness is exposed. In the prequel it tries to put one character off it's scent by implicating another might have been infected to then suddenly erupt into a mass of blood and tentacles without any real provocation. This seems in such direct contradiction to the original that it makes it seem like a different creature entirely. 

That indeed is the biggest grievance i have with the prequel. Too much music and  not enough subtlety. I mean the original certainly packs a wallop in the action and  gore department but, like a good lover knows how to hold back and tease us with a bit of  restraint. In this way the Soundtrack and the film work perfectly to compliment each other and makes for a truly great film. A horror masterpiece.

Thanks guys for indulging me

Luke Pencil Neck

Friday, October 4, 2013

Greetings from Ohio (an Interview With Geoff Burkman)

Vinylhound and record shop  raconteur Geoff Burkman

I've been meeting other collectors in the most weirdest of ways lately.

I recently got my tax return and so I was feeling like splashing out on some wax (as you do) and so I had my eye on a few things on eBay but they weren't up for auction yet so I put them on the watchlist and waited for them to go under the gavel. In the meantime I also  get a daily email from Discogs telling me when items on my wishlist are up for grabs elsewhere. Always handy to get the internet to do the cyber-digging for you when you're not able to do it yourself.

So my email arrives and the first item on the list is BAM! A mint copy of Joseph Lo Duca's Evil Dead! Now I know that you know that I already have a copy of this record but mine has a distinct warp in it which makes the needle jump out of the groove on side 2. Right in the opening of "The Dawn of the Evil Dead" which is by far the most iconic track from the album.

So I was feeling a might flush and the price seemed right so I didn't pay a second thought I pressed the "Purchase" link. I gave a little fist pump in the air and that was that. Done.

A few minutes later and I got a message from the seller saying "I'm sorry but I don't ship outside the US!" Curses!! I thought. Pipped at the post! Oh cruel fate why was I on the other side of the globe. Then the email said "If you have someone I can send it to I can send it there otherwise I'll have to let it go and put it back up for sale. I'll put a hold on it for 3 days.

Darn it!! I needed to find and intermediary! Someone on the inside.  A middle man. A go between. A vinyl interagent. I needed to find someone and fast. Within 3 days at least. But where?

You see I had tried this before. I'd asked a few overseas friends, a few facebook aquaintances, even a few sellers on eBay whom I had had brief conversations with,  but for the most part they all said the same thing. "Too much hassle", "Too busy" or "how did you get this email? Stop contacting me!!!" This was gonna be hard. I badly wanted that record!!

So I took a chance and contacted my friend Lisa Sumner of Just Cool Records again. She is becoming quite a regular on this blog here. She's cool. She stocks good stuff and as it turns out incredibly helpful.

I sent her a tweet asking if she was able to have the record sent to her and then sent onto me. She was more than happy to help out! SWEET!!

I contacted  the Seller on Discogs and he was more than happy to send it to Lisa across state lines. We got chatting. He was from Dayton Ohio (the home of DEVO- correction DEVO are from Akron Ohio- thanks for the heads up), he was a Robert Crumb fan and he once owned a record store. We exchanged a few emails and low and behold he was totally geared up to be interviewed for the blog. I asked  him a few of the old staples but also asked him to elaborate on his shop. He was more than happy to answer and throw in some photos to boot,\.

Name:  Geoff Burkman, often referred to throughout my record-dealing days as Mister G, a character I created for my radio and TV ads.


Age:  This is a state secret, but I can tell you that I'm over 60, and under 62...

Location:  I currently live in Kettering, Ohio, USA, named after the man who rescued us from having to crank our automobile engine each time we want to go somewhere.

How big is your collection and do you collect from any specific genre (i.e. soundtracks, jazz, rock or pop) or do you collect other kinds?
My collection has, at one time or another, delved into most every musical niche imaginable, although the core of it has always been rock.  My tendency has always been to collect by artist, thus the swollen roster of albums by The Beatles, Blondie, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, Devo, NRBQ, The Plasmatics, The Stranglers, and Frank Zappa, among others.  When I liked an artist, my tendency was to amass a complete collection of their albums.   My Discogs roster tells me I currently own 1600+ Lps and 12" singles.  I'm sure the total would be at least double that if I'd kept every album I ever bought, but the switch to digital media forestalled that.  I also own a couple-three hundred or more 7" singles, which I have yet to organize and catalog.  Shame on me, I know.   

How long have you been collecting?
Somewhere in the vicinity of 45 years, I'd guess.  The first album I ever bought was the soundtrack to "2001: A Space Odyssey."  The second was Led Zeppelin II.  The collection began to swell throughout my college years, with an emphasis on hard rock/heavy metal, yet still spanning much of the "scene" at the time.  I hate to think of how many artists I followed and then swapped off their albums for CDs.   A very large chunk of my collection went to provide inventory for my record shop when it opened.  As the business grew and thrived, you can bet I began rebuilding that collection. 

What's your most favourite record?

Wow!  That's just about impossible for me to nail down.  At this point, I'll go with my autographed copy of the "Dawn of the Dead" soundtrack.

What's the most valuable record you own?

Pretty sure that would be my copy of the second-state "Yesterday and Today" by The Beatles.

Do you have a  holy grail?  Is there a record you've been looking for  everywhere but still eludes you?

In a word: no.  Truthfully, I don't much collect records any more.  For one, I've got more than I could ever possibly listen to in the rest of my life, plus my collecting mania shifted a while ago to center on movies, and to a lesser extent, board games.
You used to own a record shop is that right? Tell us more about that?
I did, yes.  Renaissance Records in Dayton, Ohio (1979-2002), which I renamed Renaissance Music Media when I started carrying CDs in the early 80s.  I'd managed a used record shop for several years prior, and when the owner sold the business, I wasn't part of the deal, so a friend and I decided to open a competing shop.  We operated in the black pretty much from Day One, and after I bought my partner out when he graduated from college in '81, there was no turning back.  I hopped on the CD bandwagon from the get-go in '82 and dominated the local market for a good, long run until the big box stores finally wore me down and the rise of the Internet polished me off. 

 But buying and selling used (oh, sorry, "pre-owned") albums and the like, and providing the local market with the best selection of Euro and Japanese import vinyl was always the core of the business. Video was a sideline venture; VHS was always touch-and-go because of durability issues, and Laserdisc was a tiny, niche market at best.  Towards the end, one of my best profit centers was totally non-music related---golf discs; the sport was on the rise locally throughout the 90s and I made it a point to carry a wide selection of styles and brands, since I was quite near a local course.  Oddly enough, I never played the game myself.  At any rate, I had a good run overall, with a lot of good memories, and was able to raise a family while doing something that, for all its headaches, provided a lot of people at least some small measure of happiness.  I really can't complain too much about that...")  
This LP cover was one of my favorites in the wall display I had for many, many years

Do you still make your living from selling records? 

 Sadly, no, I do not.  I left that behind when I closed up shop.  I pursued professional acting for several years (not really a good idea in Dayton, Ohio) and then (briefly) being an insurance agent (I hated it) and for the past number of years have settled into the food service industry.  My sales on Discogs are strictly to generate spare cash while finding good homes for my beloved collection.

What was the first record you ever bought and do you still have it?

 See above, and no, I no longer own either of them.

You're only allowed to take one record to a desert island, Which one is it?
Wow, again!  I honestly don't know what to tell you.  Probably a Bettie Page picture disc...")

Throughout your collecting career have you lately noticed an increase on prices for collectible items now that Vinyl is apparently on the comeback?
I would have to say that certain collectibles have definitely appreciated in value, mostly the truly hard-to-find material in prime condition, at least from what I've been able to glean from sites like Discogs and CollectorsFrenzy and the like.  The vast bulk of vinyl has, however, essentially lost value in that there simply isn't enough demand for it to drive prices to keep pace with inflation.  I see tons of stuff going for the same price (or less) that it did a decade ago when I bailed from the biz.  That's sad, but at the same time it means that current collectors can still find some real treasures out there at pretty reasonable prices, and occasionally walk away with a real steal or two!  And for music lovers who prize their vinyl, that can't be a bad thing at all!   

So there you have it folks.  More adventures in vinyl from far off lands. Make sure you check out Geoff's vinyl on Discogs  and make sure you drop by Just Cool Records etsy shop and yes if you are asking it did make it to me, it arrived just the other day. It is flat and clean and plays very well.

I just might wet myself these both look so fucking good.

Til next time

Luke Pencilneck