Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The thing about The Thing, part one

Something terrifying, long lost and forgotten, has been unearthed and revived, and is preparing to sow fear throughout the population of this planet.

For fans of John Carpenter's 1982 sci-fi horror film The Thing, that may sound like a bad attempt to prĂ©cis the beginning of its plot. But for those same fans this is actually a piece of astonishingly good news about the discovery of an old book.

John Carpenter's intense and disturbing film was based on a short story by John W. Campbell* from 1938 called Who Goes There?, first published in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction**.

But it has recently been discovered that in order to create the short story, Campbell abridged one of his earlier works: a full-length manuscript called Frozen Hell. This longer story was presumed lost or destroyed until the writer and biographer Alec Nevala-Lee managed to track it down to Harvard University's Houghton Library. Nevala-Lee passed the manuscript to Campbell's literary estate, and they in turn took it to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter.
 At the time of writing, Frozen Hell has already shattered its Kickstarter funding goal and is preparing to commence its inaugural print run. If you're quick, you can be among the first to read the full-length book by backing it here.

In most versions of the story the alien creature is able to copy itself, absorbing and assimilating its hosts' memories, and combining them with its own, to create hybrid, not-quite-exact-duplicates of itself and its victims. 
This is similar to the way ideas take hold and propagate themselves through the minds of those that carry them, often mutating slightly as they spread. And that is exactly what has happened with Campbell's story. The concepts in the book, and especially in John Carpenter's film, have propelled themselves through a slew of new material, spawning prequels, sequels, copies and spin-offs in a variety of different formats.

So to celebrate the discovery of the new manuscript, over the next few posts I'll be listing some of the books, comics, TV shows, films and games that form the essential further reading, viewing and playing for fans of The Thing.

This week we'll start with the basics.

Who Goes There?

This is the book that started it all. John W. Campbell's original tale of an alien shapeshifter found frozen in the Antarctic ice and thawed out by a team of researchers in a remote U.S. outpost. The scientists suspect the creature is able to assimilate individuals in order to hide in plain sight, and this gives rise to a creeping paranoia, that eventually proves well-founded as gruesome violence flares up in the camp.

Although this eighty year old story is instantly recognisable from John Carpenter's 1982 movie The Thing, it still feels fresh today. This is probably partly due to its credible-sounding scientific content, and partly down to it containing a fair amount of material that didn't make it into the film, including the occasional, unexpected plot twist that differs from what fans of The Thing may have thought they knew

Like its subject matter, the novella has taken many guises over the years

Frozen Hell 
Although the above Who Goes There? is the story upon which all the others are based, we now know that Frozen Hell is the story upon which Who Goes There? is based. I haven't read this yet – very few people have – but Alec Nevala-Lee, who discovered the manuscript, says that some of the scientific aspects, including descriptions of the alien spacecraft, are greatly expanded in this version, along with an entirely different opening sequence.

According to website The Verge, Nevala-Lee had this to say about it:

'There are some interesting details in the restored draft, but the really fascinating thing is how it alters the structure of the entire story, which changes halfway through from a science fiction adventure into horror. I love that kind of unexpected shift in tone, and while I can see why Campbell decided to edit it down to focus on the psychological side, there’s something very modern – and effective – in the way that it switches abruptly from one genre to another.'

A more accurate strap-line would be 'The book that inspired the book that inspired The Thing'

The Thing From Another World (1951)
Although based on Campbell's short story, this film is only superficially similar to the book. Apart from its faithful depiction of the investigation of the crashed spacecraft, most of the story has undergone considerable adaptation. It is set near the North Pole, not in Antarctica, and the alien ship has only recently crashed in the ice, not been buried there for thousands of years. But it is the nature of the creature that is most notably different: a lumbering, plant-based, humanoid monster, with thorns for fingers, able to reproduce asexually by shedding seed pods from its body, and only really glimpsed in a handful of scenes towards the end.

With the film having been released a few years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, another subtle, yet notable difference is the inclusion of more nuclear science. Gone are simple magnetic readings and in their place are Geiger counters, often used to build tension as the frequency of their clicking tracks the creature's movement around the camp. As a cinematic device it became well-known to sci-fi fans after James Cameron repeated it to great effect in his 1986 film Aliens, by arming the squad of colonial marines with advanced, yet indistinct motion trackers.

The invention of devastating atomic weaponry also left a deeper legacy imprinted on The Thing From Another World. It was in the ideological conflict between the story's lofty scientists and the more practical Air Force servicemen tasked with helping them. The scientists are blinded by their need for progress, wanting to study and communicate with the monster, without thoroughly appreciating the potential negative consequences, 
ready to take unnecessary risks in the pursuit of knowledge; while the servicemen, more representative of the general American populace at the time, are quicker to see the severity of the threat, and realise the creature must be stopped at all costs.

The movie opened to mixed reviews in 1951, but it was still the most successful science fiction film at the US and Canadian box office that year, beating the releases of both the sci-fi classics The Day The Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide. These days history looks favourably upon it, as Time magazine describes it as the greatest sci-fi film of the 1950s – no mean feat in a decade often hailed as a golden age of big screen science fiction.

The Thing (1982)
'A peerless masterpiece of relentless suspense, retina-wrecking visual excess and outright, nihilistic terror.' So said Empire magazine when it included The Thing in its list of the 500 Greatest Movies of All Time. And although, since the 1990s, The Thing has generally been regarded as one of the best horror films ever made, it wasn't always so.

Upon its original release (the same day as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, and just two weeks after E.T. The Extra Terrestrial), John Carpenter's The Thing did not perform well at the box office. Nor was it well received critically. In fact it took quite a beating from critics, film buffs and fans of science fiction alike. So much so that John Carpenter felt it significantly lowered the trajectory of the rest of his career. A doubly barbed sting, as he himself thought it was one of his best films.

But fast forward nearly forty years and the world has caught up with him, leaving it almost impossible to see where all the negativity came from. The acting, story and setting, along with the sheer inventiveness of the practical effects combine to create a suspenseful tale of paranoia and distrust, wrapped up in a non-stop, action-packed adventure, that is now widely considered a masterpiece of science fiction cinema.

This film will drive much of what we talk about in the following articles, so we'll no doubt look at specific aspects of it in greater detail as we go on.

The Thing (2011)
Just as with the John Carpenter film before it, upon its release this prequel was considered both a critical and commercial failure. It scores badly on many review-aggregration websites, and hardly made a dent at the box office. 

The story is set at the Norwegian research base, Thule Station – the destroyed camp in John Carpenter's film, whose occupants originally dug the creature out of the ice. In this prequel we discover that Thule Station had Americans among its staff, and that nearly everyone spoke English (except the man destined to survive to the beginning of John Carpenter's tale). Complaints about the movie seem to be many and varied. Some don't like the way the action in the Norwegian base rehashed the previous film, while others felt it didn't stick closely enough to the established assimilation lore (like telling us the shapeshifter is unable to wear an earring, or never referencing the torn clothes cited in the earlier film). Others felt the story, and particularly the plotting, were clumsy and un-thought-through (asking, for example, why the alien didn't simply attack the lone heroine in the final scene). And it seems there's a general feeling that the ending in the spacecraft is an incongruous departure from what has gone before (although from what we now know about Frozen Hell, this thematic shift may have accidentally echoed a previously unknown feature of the very first version of the story).

And while I agree this film is not as tight as its predecessor, I strongly disagree that it's a write-off. It is almost unheard of for a second entry in a movie series to be as good as the first (you can probably count the times this has happened using just your fingers), especially when the original is among the ranks of the greatest films of all time. In my eyes not only is this an exciting action story, packed with all the hallmark paranoia and distrust of its forebears, but, apart from a few minor inconsistencies, it also stays miraculously true to John Carpenter's vision.

The film makers went to such great lengths to stay faithful to John Carpenter's film that they described the writing process as being like an autopsy of his movie, reverse engineering it to piece the new film together from their findings. It's an unusual method, and it leaves the reverence for the 1982 version palpable throughout, like a love letter inked in hideous, spidery, black handwriting.

And although The Thing (2011) treads new ground, it also (despite the protestations of many of its makers) simultaneously acts as a remake for an untried generation, using modern film making techniques to achieve its (usually, but not exclusively) impressive visual effects, finding fresh and intelligent ways to convey existing ideas, and then wringing them for every available drop of tension.

In the next few parts of this article we'll look at some of the less well-known spin-offs spawned by The Thing, starting with the various sequels, but in the meantime, if you are a fan of these types of stories, and enjoy reading more about them, then some of these other posts on science fiction, fantasy and horror movies may also be of interest.

And finally, seeing as today is Halloween, here is one last image: a pumpkin sculpted by Ray Villafane and the team at Villafane Studios. For fans of The Thing its influences should be clear.

*Who Goes There? was originally published in Astounding Science FictionAt the time, Campbell had recently become editor of the magazine, so he published his short story under the pseudonym Don A. Stuart, based on the maiden name of his then wife Dona Stewart.
**Astounding Science Fiction is now known as Analog Science Fiction and Fact.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

A great big can of greenskin: the Forge World Ork mega dread

It's nearly the end of Orktober and I haven't yet posted a damn thing. That's partially down to the usual reason: I've been busy doing non-hobby stuff; but also because when I have had a free moment, instead of continuing with my Undead War Mammoths, I've used that time to bring some of my background projects a little further forward. It's arguable whether this is efficient time management, but I guess when inspiration strikes on a stalled project, you should make good use of it. Seize the moment. Never look that gift horse in the mouth*. Grab the ball by the horns and run with the bull. Or sumfin' like dat.

So, although a couple of old projects have progressed a notch or two, the upshot is that I have nothing new I'm willing to share right now. Thus I'm going to have to post another old model instead. 

But what a model! One of Forge World's finest. And only fitting that we take the Ork theme, and smash it face first into the walking heavy armour of that other famous hobby appropriation, Dreadtober.

I won't go on about it, except to say that the bike in among the junk on the base is an old model from Ramshackle Games; the target-headed skull logo painted on the shoulder guard is the unit badge of my Ork Dread Mob; and, if I remember correctly, the model itself was really tricky to build, but a joy to paint.

*Unless you are from Troy, of course.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Ork buggy bandwagon, part two

Earlier this month I shared three of my old Ork battle buggies. I'd made them a few years ago for an Ork armoured column I was assembling, but I only got about halfway through the project before my first child was born.

As a result of life being utterly turned upside down by the newfound responsibility of keeping a child alive, the Ork army got shelved in favour of smaller projects – that I was able to dip in and out of. As many hobbyists have no doubt discovered, it's quite hard to mix paint, superglue and the time needed to carefully wield them, with the 24 hour nature of early parenthood. Having real-life tiny people in your world is not conducive to pursuing a time-consuming hobby focussed on plastic-toy tiny people.

But I'm rambling off topic again. I'm not here to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of being a hobby-dad. I'm here to discuss Orks. In many ways they are not dissimilar to children, or at least to my children: eagerly learning to do things for the first time; leaving discarded food and broken valuables in their wake; gleefully and mischievously disrupting every aspect of life; and generally making places look like a bomb has just detonated.

In my previous post I mentioned that I had a few more half-finished Ork vehicles kicking around my home, waiting for a time when I might feel compelled to grab scalpel and plasticard, and start mek-bashing again. While that time is not quite here, the imminent arrival of Speed Freeks and its associated releases has started to get me excited at the prospect of 'going green' again. 

But before I show some work-in-progress shots of some of my remaining Ork vehicles, I thought it worth sharing another of those inspiration illustrations that I sometimes like to sketch out.

This one is ever-so-slightly different to the previous ones (some of which can be seen at the bottom of this post), in that while I was working on the vehicles I couldn't help but think about what a multi-part, multi-pose plastic Ork buggy kit might look like. Like many of my projects I lost interest before the picture fully demonstrated the versatility I had in mind, but I think there's enough to give a good idea of the kind of thing I had envisaged.

Drawing out ideas for miniatures creates a kind of feedback loop of inspiration. I base parts of the drawing on models I am already making, which I then use to provoke new ideas on paper, which can, in turn, make their way into the next model.

The two vehicles above are very much on their way to completion, with me having started to block in some of the basic colours. The truck was once a Ramshackle Games vehicle which I cut up in order to give it some extra bulk, swapping the wheels for bigger ones that I found on toys in a pound shop. The trike was my attempt to give my Orks that Mad Max feel: a bunch of disparate yet rugged vehicles, converted for battle from whatever parts could be gleaned in a society of scant resources.

These other two are considerably further back in the construction process. I'm pretty much building these from scratch in an attempt to construct two final buggy-sized vehicles with their own distinct looks. My feeling is that if I have six very different buggies in my collection, then any further releases from Games Workshop should sit comfortably alongside them, no matter what they look like. United by their differences, so to speak.

The thing that makes me ever so slightly apprehensive is that now that those new releases are imminent, it might not be too long before I'm putting that theory to the test.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Ork buggy bandwagon, part one

The new Ork buggies, from the forthcoming game Speed Freeks, are making a lot of noise on the internet at the moment. At the time of writing there are images out there of three new buggies and a kind of trike. Making noise is very much part of the Ork DNA, but for my part, I prefer making Orks. Especially their cobbled together, beaten-up vehicles, in mismatched design styles. With all the hype out there, it seemed like a good time to share some more of them. 

The buggies and half-track in today's post were completed many years ago, so no points off my Addiction Challenge, but I've got three more in the pipeline that I'll try to continue work on, once my Undead project is complete.

These three models are all based on old Games Workshop kits. The one above has undergone the most work, having slowly evolved over the years, as I hacked away at it and added replacement guns and armour. Somewhere underneath all those extra plates and engine parts is the very first Ork Battle Buggy shown here, although I'm honestly not sure how much of it is really left.

This next one is a lot more obvious. It was the plastic Wartrak Skorcha, minus the fuel trailer (which I converted here), but with some relatively straightforward additions instead, including that Grot making some subtle calibrations with a hammer (possibly based on a Gnoblar from the old Ogre Kingdoms range).

And finally, for now, this last model is based on the Gorkamorka era buggy that you can see at the bottom of this link. A kit that I detested from the moment it was released, but faced with few alternatives was pretty much forced to buy and chop up.

I have three more Ork buggies that are still mere works in progress which I'll probably rush right in and share in the next post. After all, a true Ork never waits for the right moment, but just comes straight out, guns blazing. Probably without looking where he's going first. Or checking that his guns are loaded. Or even that he has any guns in the first place.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Immortal remains

Today I've got nine more completed models joining my little skirmish band of re-animated warriors. They are the remaining half of a small unit of converted skeletons and zombies that I started back here.

I wanted all these hollow-eyed fighters to appear to have had previous lives in a variety of disparate units and armies, so that their Undead ranks are made up of troops brought back to life from different battlegrounds and burial sites. The way I see it, this has three major benefits over the more common approach of making Undead armies look like they are the skeletal version of a once-living force, all wearing matching colours.

1) The army will be visually more interesting, as most of the colours and markings are different, and each model is unique. Effectively meaning there is more for someone to look at.

2) It also makes it more interesting to build and paint. It means there are fewer rules constraining what can and can't be done. Totally different helmet design? No problem. Bored of painting red? Paint a different colour. I can bring in any Undead model I fancy, and it should just slot right in – especially at the individual warrior level. It also means I can add varying degrees of decay and decomposition to the miniatures, and don't have to constantly reference what I've done before.

3) And finally, because the miniatures' livery isn't matched to their leader, they aren't all tied to a single narrative history. Their ad hoc appearance means their backstory can be changed to suit whatever impromptu background the game design requires. By simply adding a different central character, perhaps a necromancer, a vampire lord or a cabal of Chaos sorcerers, the story behind them can change dramatically. Maybe a crazy, grudge-wracked warlock has been travelling the land, raising the remains of the finest dead warriors to build his unstoppable force. Or an ousted bloodsucker is surreptitiously visiting mausoleums, slowly growing a warband with which to challenge his rivals. Or a barbarian raiding force, cut off from their homelands, has called upon the dead in a last-ditch effort to boost their depleted ranks. The options are many and varied, so trying to keep them open should pay dividends.

You can see the other completed half of this unit here, or take a look at my whole Undead project so far by clicking here.

And the good news for me is that as of this squad, I'm over halfway through my painting challenge. So another couple of these and I'll be free gain.


Friday, 10 August 2018

Werewolves, pyschos, zombies and robots. The many ways training missions can go wrong

So you and your team need to go out in the field to practise some of the skills you’ve all been learning. To make the exercise feel as realistic as possible, the location is somewhere remote and inhospitable. You get out there excited and ready to tackle the new challenge, but it soon becomes apparent that everything is not as it should be. Something somewhere has gone badly wrong and the feces is starting to hit the fan.

Are those live rounds? How badly is that person hurt? What do you mean they're dead?

The situation has escalated at lightning speed, the ante has been upped, the stakes have been raised, and you’re going to have to seriously step up your game if you want to survive.

Now if you can only manage to do that vital thing and get to that crucial place...

Here are five films of varying genres where the teams of unwary protagonists find themselves neck deep in doodoo creek, and sh*t out of paddles.

Dog Soldiers (2002)

This werewolf movie, written and directed by Neil Marshall (who also wrote and directed the terrifying, potholing, horror film, The Descent (2005)) does a great job of making the creatures look scary. They aren’t those werewolves that simply look like big dogs, going around on all fours, but the more fantastical, unknowable, Minotaur-like, half-man, half-wolf, upright monsters: lithe, yet muscular, big, strong, feral, but perhaps possessed of human level intelligence. Like something out of a nightmare. Proper scary-ass bad guys, that pose a serious, and co-ordinated threat to the people they hunt. And in this film those people are a unit of strung-out British Army soldiers, inventively swearing their way to oblivion, as they hole up in a remote cottage somewhere in the Scottish Highlands.

Severance (2006)
Before Danny Dyer was famous for pulling pints in The Queen Vic, or having his daughter win Love Island, he was a bona fide, Essex boy geezer, and something of a Mockney movie star. In this film he plays one of a group of office workers from an arms manufacturer on a team-building exercise in the mountains of Hungary. For my money Severance achieves the tricky feat of striking a delicate balance between co-worker comedy and genuine pyscho-killer horror. Very much a product of its time, it’s probably as much an anthropological dig into outdated lad culture as it is a gory and disturbing black comedy.

13 Eerie (2013)
One day I’m going to write about the Great Zombie Invasion of Movies. About how every conceivable movie idea has been adapted and remade to feature the living dead. You take a film like Jurassic Park (1993), replace the genetically engineered dinosaurs with the gruesomely enigmatic dead and remake it as The Rezort (2015). Or take a classic Jane Austen novel and set it against a rampant zombie plague to create the period costume action horror, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2015), or take a teen romance and swap out the chiselled male lead for a similarly high-cheekboned ghoul to create a zom rom com like Warm Bodies (2013). 13 Eerie is the ‘undead instead’ version of a training mission gone wrong. A bunch of forensic students go to an abandoned facility on a remote island to examine staged murder scenarios, recreated with real bodies. But in a twist that is in no way unexpected, the dead don’t stay dead for long.

Kill Command (2016)
So we’ve had werewolves, slashers, and zombies, but in this film it’s state-of-the-art military robots that are causing all the havoc. And by havoc I mean the ruthless murder of most of the team, simply to advance the learning curve for the robot’s AI. If you watch these films in the order I’ve presented them here, then, by this point the premise might be wearing a little thin, but the cool robot design and military hardware still make Kill Command a worthwhile watch.

Southern Comfort (1981)
This could be the primogenitor of our little micro-sect of movies: the superior film that helped spawn all the others. It was written and directed by Walter Hill, who also wrote and directed The Warriors (1979), and 48 Hrs. (1982) and was one of the creative driving forces behind the Alien franchise. Said to be an allegory for the Vietnam War, this action thriller stars Keith Carradine and Powers Boothe as members of a U.S. National Guard squad on manoeuvres in the Louisiana swamps, where they get accidentally caught up in armed conflict with Cajun trappers. Tense and inventive it not only determines many of the tropes from the later films on this list (last men standing, facing nasty death traps, out of their depth against a superior force), but also manages to explore some intriguing scenarios many of the other films avoid (like the sliding scale of decency among 'good' guys leaving us questioning who is actually at fault, and what could happen if one of the enemy is captured). If there's one film off the list to watch, this would be my recommendation.

That's it for now. As usual, if there are any films you feel should belong on this list, please leave a comment below and I might even try to dig up a photo.

Thursday, 26 July 2018

Mammoth undertaking

I think I'm probably approaching the halfway point in my drive to create a small Undead skirmish force, using only parts and miniatures I've already got at home. (Most of which I've had lying around in boxes since I was a child in the 1980s.)

By today's standards, where people seem to paint up armies of several hundred miniatures in just a month or two of evenings, this project would appear quite modest (it's only somewhere between 30 and 50 miniatures in total), but for me it's already likely to be one of the largest, continuous efforts I've made in years.

And these next two additions are probably my favourite so far. I'm expecting them to form the centrepieces of the finished force.

They are based on the two Grenadier Masterpiece Editions shown below. Both of which are wonderful miniatures that my 13 year old self fooled himself into thinking he'd have any chance of doing justice.

When I dug these out of my past, they were badly glued together, covered in thick paint, and had multiple broken or missing parts. They were so horrendous, I couldn't even bring myself to document their condition with a photo. I think, all these years, somewhere at the back of my mind I had been aware that I owed them a duty of care. A nagging feeling that they deserved to be finished with a little more skill than mini-me offered them.*

So the first thing I did was drop them in a bath of acetone for about a week, then scrub them vigorously with an old toothbrush till most of the paint and glue had gone. Although this didn't make them pristine, I figured any lasting filth could be incorporated into the finished model to represent the accumulated dirt and disrepair of the Undead.

Then I glued them back together, added a few extra bits 'n' pieces (mainly off-cuts from the Plague Marines I chopped up at the end of last year), sculpted replacements (out of green stuff) for any vital parts that were missing, and scratched together a new plastic skeleton crew.

Hopefully, once I get a little paint on them, it'll all be worth it.

*Or perhaps by someone with the exact same skill levels, but much better tools. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether I'm better at painting miniatures, or whether it's just all the new brushes, paints and washes that create the illusion of this.