So last night I watched the John Carpenter version of "The Thing". While technically, it's a remake of "The Thing From Another World" (another fantastic film), it plays more like the short story "Who Goes There" than the aforementioned film. I had it in my head that I wanted to watch it, and just like when you have a craving for a particular kind of food, when I get a craving for a certain movie, it pretty much doesn't go away until I watch it.
But first, a little background. When I was a kid, I wanted, more than anything else, to be a hollywood makeup artist. I'm not talking cosmetics, I'm talking monsters. As a young lad, I distinctly remember two things. One, was the movie "The Howling". The debate rages eternal as to which movie had the best werewolf transformation, "The Howling" or "An American Werewolf in London" (The Howling gets it in my book) but whichever you prefer, you can't deny that an amazing amount of makeup and special effects work went into both movies, at a time when computers weren't used at all. I saw "The Howling" on cable one night (back when cable would show pretty much anything past a certain hour) and the werewolf transformation scene blew me away. The other thing I remember was having a copy of Fangoria magazine that showed scenes from the upcoming John Carpenter movie "The Thing". Rob Bottin did the monster make-up for "The Howling", and for "The Thing", so you can see why I would be drawn to both movies.
Aside from being a really well acted and well paced movie, "The Thing" had the same level of fantastic make-up and special effects as 'The Howling". I watched the documentary on the DVD about the making of the movie, and the things that these guys did to come up with these effects was absolutely amazing, and not from a technical standpoint, but from a creative standpoint. Even after knowing how they did certain scenes, when you watch them again, you still can't believe that it's special effects.
I used to go to the library and get out all of the books on monster makeup (2, I think) that they had and read and reread them over and over and over. I learned how to make squibs and fake knife wounds and more serious things like burns and bullet wounds. I never had the stones to actually try and make myself look like I had been stabbed or shot or burned as I knew that my mom would absolutely kill me, so there ended my career as the next Tom Savini.
I mention this now, this particular weekend, as I prepare myself to watch the last Star Wars movie to ever be released. George and co (including Rob Bottin, who worked on the cantina scene from "Star Wars") have come a long way from Star Wars in terms of make-up and special effect, but at the same time, things haven't necessarily gotten better. I mean, yes, the space battle scenes in the original Star Wars looked pretty crappy, and can't hold a candle to the battles in the prequels, but the best thing about the original three movies was the fact that when Luke jumped out of his X-Wing, he was jumping out of a big model of an X-Wing. Yoda wasn't some mark on a green screen, he was a character that the actors could react to. I can appreciate that some of my favorite movies couldn't have been made without special effects being what they are now (Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and Lord of the Rings for example) however what makes these movies so good, is that the usage of special effects is judicious. Doc Ock's tentacles in Spidey 2, are mostly puppets, only replaced by CGI for the big fight scenes. Yes, Gollum is a completely digital creation, but he's modeled after a person, a person that the actors could work with and react to. As impressive as the effects in the new Star Wars movies are, they seem so lifeless and sterile.
If you were to go and try to redo the transformation scene from "The Howling" or some of the many alien effects in "The Thing" with computer effects now, you may get something that looks slightly more impressive, but it wouldn't feel, or look, nearly as realistic. Computers have allowed us to do a lot in movies, but there's somehing only several pails of K-Y Jelly can accomplish.