THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) Not So Magnificent

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magnificent-seven

A bully takes over a town, and the frustrated townspeople hire gunslingers to protect them.  It’s the story told in the classic western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), itself a remake of an even better movie, Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954).

So, you’d hope that the folks behind this latest remake would offer audiences something new.  After all, if you’re going to remake a movie, wouldn’t you want to put your own stamp on it, to make it stand out as your own?  And that’s the biggest problem I had with this new version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016):  it doesn’t give us anything new or stand on its own.

The biggest culprit?  A screenplay that never really gets to the heart of the matter.  In spite of the solid acting and crisp clear directing, the story never really moves beyond the superficial.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN opens with a baddie named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) terrorizing a small town in the old west.  He’s buying off the people’s land at ridiculously low prices, and if they won’t sell, well, his army of bandits will simply kill them.  And when some of the townsfolk object, that’s exactly what they do.

One of the men killed is the husband of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a feisty woman who then sets out to hire gunslingers to free their town from Bogue’s clutches.  She meets a hired gun named Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he turns her down until he hears the name of the man she wants stopped, Bogue, and then he changes his mind.  Chisolm and Bogue obviously share some history, which we learn about later in the story.

Chisolm rounds up a team of men to join him, with the total number eventually reaching seven.  They then spend the rest of the movie preparing to defend the town, setting things up for the obligatory climactic confrontation.

As you can see, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a very simple story, and for a movie like this to work, it needs to be carried by strong characters and a lively script, neither of which are in this movie.

The characters are okay and the actors are all solid in their roles,  but they’re all very plain and straightforward.  None of them are particularly memorable. Only Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as the high-pitched soft spoken trapper Jack Horne.  D’Onofrio gives Horne something the other characters all lack:  a personality.  He’s the one memorable character in the whole lot.

I’m a big Denzel Washington fan, going back to his early years with films like CRY FREEDOM (1987) all the way through to today, although some of his recent films have been lukewarm.  Washington is fine here, but there’s just not a lot to Chisolm.  He’s a cool customer, not saying a whole lot, but unlike Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, we don’t really see Chisolm back up his persona with action, and what little he has to say is flat out dull.

Chris Pratt plays the lively gambler Josh Faraday, and it looks like Pratt is having a good time, but the problem with Faraday is nearly every line he spews is a cliche.  It’s the type of role James Garner would have played, but Garner would have anchored the charm with some realism, and Pratt doesn’t give Faraday anything that is even resembling real.

Ethan Hawke is Goodnight Robicheaux, and the most memorable thing about him is his name.  Hawke is another actor I usually enjoy, but the role he’s playing here is shallow and underdeveloped.  The same can be said for Robicheaux’s buddy Billy Rocks, played by Byung-hun Lee.

As I said, Vincent D’Onofrio is the one guy who stands out from the rest here, as the burly trapper Jack Horne.  He also gives Chris Pratt’s Faraday one of the better lines in the movie when he says of Jack, “I do believe that bear was wearing people clothes.”

And the seven are rounded out by a Mexican gunman named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) and a Native American named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).  Both of these characters are like the other five:  solid but unremarkable.

I also wasn’t overly impressed by Haley Bennett as Emma Cullen.  She sure looks feisty with her heated stares at the camera, but again I’ll blame the script.  We know very little about Emma, and she remains largely in the background while the seven do their thing, rather than being in the middle of the action.

The one other actor who does make an impression is Peter Sarsgaard as the dastardly villain Bartholomew Bogue, but that all happens in the opening sequence of the movie. Sarsgaard struts his stuff in the opening scene, making for a very dark character, giving the film a rather chilling start.  But then he disappears for the remainder of the movie, and when he returns for the climactic battle, he remains in the background,reduced to reaction shots as his army goes toe to toe with the seven.  So, unfortunately, Sarsgaard is hardly a major factor in this movie, since his best scene is the first one.

Director Antoine Fuqua , who also directed Denzel Washington in THE EQUALIZER (2014) and the film which won Washington as Oscar, TRAINING DAY (2001), does a serviceable job here.  I mean, the action scenes are clear and crisp, but they don’t wow.  The cinematography is adequate, but it didn’t blow me away.  This wild west is nowhere near as grand or picturesque as the west captured by the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks.

Fuqua also glosses over one of the more interesting parts of the story:  the training of the townspeople to defend themselves.  There are a few fleeting scenes of our magnificent seven teaching these folks the art of self-defense, but there was so much more that could have been done.  It’s a missed opportunity in a movie that was begging for some captivating sequences.

And while the shoot-outs and fights are professionally shot— heh heh— they are way too sanitizied and neat.  First off, the film is rated PG-13, and so for the countless unfortunates who are shot, stabbed, blown up, what have you, there’s not a drop of blood anywhere.  Not that I want to see a gory bloodbath, but when things are as neat and tidy as they are in this movie, it takes away from the strength of the story.

The bigger drawback with the action scenes is that they are all so orderly.  There’s no sense of panic or pandemonium.  Take the climactic battle between the seven and the townsfolk and the army of villains.  There are people running everywhere, and yet everyone knows exactly who to shoot, without question.  It’s so precise you’d think they were wearing sports jerseys with their names on them, like having “Team Bogue” printed on their backs.  This is an all out war, people are being shot and blown up, and yet there’s no horror whatsoever associated with it, which really limits the story.

The best action sequence is when Chisolm and company first arrive in the town and put a big hurt on the thugs stationed there.  This dramatic sequence works well.  By contrast, the movie’s ending is nowhere near as riveting.

Again, the biggest culprit to this one being mediocre is its screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto, which surprised me because Wenk has written screenplays for films I’ve really enjoyed, movies like the remake of THE MECHANIC (2011) with Jason Statham, and the Sylvester Stallone all-star actioner THE EXPENDABLES 2 (2012), which I thought was the best of that series.

The screenplay to THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN tells a straightforward story without many surprises.  There are the occasional witty lines, but I’d hardly call it a lively script.  Plus it’s all so predictable, with the ending to this one never being in doubt.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a by the numbers western that never rises above its material or puts a distinctive stamp on the genre.

It’s not bad, but for a movie called THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, there’s nothing all that magnficent about it. Perhaps it should have been called THE STRAIGHTFORWARD SEVEN.

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PICTURE OF THE DAY: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

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The Thing (James Arness) moments away from getting set on fire in a desperate attempt to kill the blood drinking alien in this classic scene from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).

The Thing (James Arness) about to be set on fire in a desperate attempt to kill the blood-drinking alien in this classic scene from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951).

PICTURE OF THE DAY:  THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

 

In this scene from THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) – which happens to be one of my favorite science fiction horror movies from the 1950s- the Thing (James Arness) is moments away from being doused with kerosene and set on fire by the men fighting for their lives at the North Pole base.

This is one of the most suspenseful scenes in the movie.

The Thing, that alien being which slits its victims’ throats and uses their blood to “grow” new baby aliens, as played by James Arness is one of the scariest monsters to emerge from 1950s science fiction horror cinema.  He’s frightening to look at, to be sure, but this is another classic case in a horror movie where less is more.  The Thing is seen only fleetingly in this movie, appearing here, darting out there, and it only adds to the suspense effect.  Truth be told, the Thing wasn’t shown a whole lot because the filmmakers, Howard Hawks to be specific, weren’t pleased with the way he looked on film, and so the close-ups of the Thing were not used in the final print.

The scene pictured here is memorable for a couple of reasons.  It’s famous because it was a very dangerous stunt.  It was one of the first times that a stunt man was actually set on fire, and this was done in a room full of actors.  Supposedly there were so many things that could have gone wrong with this scene, it’s said that the stunt man and the actors involved were lucky to have escaped serious injury.

It’s also an incredibly potent scene, and the build-up where the men use a Geiger counter to track the Thing’s movements as it closes in on them calls to mind similar scenes in both ALIEN (1979) and ALIENS (1986).  When you see this scene in THE THING, it’s easy to recognize the influence it had on the later scenes in the ALIEN movies.

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD was directed by Christian Nyby, or at least he received credit.  It’s widely believed and has been pretty much substantiated that the man who really directed it was the man who produced it, Howard Hawks, one of the most talented American film directors of all time.  This is the only horror movie ever done by Hawks, who gave us such gems as HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940) starring Cary Grant, THE BIG SLEEP (1946), starring Humphrey Bogart, and RIO BRAVO (1959) starring John Wayne and Dean Martin, to name just a few.

It’s no wonder then that THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is as good as it is.  It ranks as one of the best, if not the best, horror science fiction films from the 1950s, grouped with a handful of other titles, like THEM! (1954), INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956) and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953).

In the mood to be terrified this winter?  Check out THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.   It’ll scare you right out of your snow pants!

Who goes there?  The Thing!

Thanks for reading.

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951)

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The-Thing-from-Another-World-PosterHere’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column on the science fiction classic THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951), up now in the January 2014 edition of the HWA Newsletter.

And remember, my book IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, a collection of 115 horror movie columns, is available from NECON EBooks as an EBook at www.neconebooks.com, and as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT

BY

MICHAEL ARRUDA

 

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD (1951) is one of my favorite horror science fiction films from the 1950s.  This one and THEM! (1954) are pretty much even in my book.

And while there are other classic horror science fiction movies from the 1950s, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD— which I grew up calling THE THING, because that’s how we referred to it back then— is certainly the creepiest.

I love this movie.

 

Of course, today the debate rages over which one is better, this original film version or John Carpenter’s graphic 1982 remake starring Kurt Russell. That’s a debate for another day, and another column.  They’re both great movies.

 

One of the main reasons why THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is superior to so many other genre films from the 1950s is the quality of the acting.  There’s no wooden or stilted acting here.  The cast features an enormous ensemble of actors, led by Kenneth Tobey as Captain Patrick Hendry, and they’re all excellent. 

 

And there’s a flow to the dialogue that is unmatched by other films of the time.  Characters talk quickly and at the same time. 

 

Of course, the famous story about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD is that producer Howard Hawks, one of the most talented directors in American film history, actually directed most of this film rather than the credited director, Christian Nyby.

 

Christian who?  Actually, in spite of the fact that nearly everyone who talks about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD refers to it as a Howard Hawks film, Nyby went on to have a very successful career in television, directing episodes from TWILIGHT ZONE (1962), GILLIGAN’S ISLAND (1965), EMERGENCY! (1972-73), and ADAM-12 (1970-75), to name just a few.

 

So, getting back to my point about the acting and the dialogue, if you’ve seen other Howard Hawks movies, you’ve seen this rapid fire style of dialogue before, and so it validates that Hawks had his hand in the production.

 

And it’s a great script too, by Charles Lederer, based on the story “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr.  Lederer had a ton of writing credits, including the classic Cary Grant comedy HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940), an early Howard Hawks film that contains some of the fastest, snappiest, and funniest dialogue in a movie this side of the Marx Brothers.

 

The story is simple.  A group of soldiers are sent from their station in Anchorage, Alaska to the North Pole to investigate what the scientists there say was a plane crash of some kind.  Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey) is only too happy to lead this mission up north because his girlfriend Nikki (Margaret Sheridan) is stationed there, where she assists the famous Dr. Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite).

 

Accompanying Captain Hendry and his men is reporter Ned “Scotty” Scott (Douglas Spencer, in a terrific performance), who gets most of the humorous lines in the movie.  Sure enough, they discover the wreckage of an aircraft now underneath the ice, and when they fan out to determine the shape of the thing, in a now famous scene, they discover that the craft is round— it’s a flying saucer. 

 

They attempt to melt the ice so they can examine their find, but the thermite charges prove to be too hot, and the entire ship goes up in flames and is destroyed.  However, they do discover the body of an alien being frozen in ice, apparently frozen after he had attempted to leave his ship.  They bring back the chunk of ice containing the frozen alien.

 

This being a horror movie, the ice melts, and the alien awakes, and lo and behold, we meet The Thing (James Arness) an eight foot walking vegetable who possesses superior intelligence as well as incredible strength.  He also has regenerative powers, and so when he loses a hand early on, he grows it back.  He needs blood to survive, and he quickly kills two of the scientists, hangs them upside down in the base’s greenhouse, and slits their throats, using their blood to feed seedlings so he can grow others like him to, in effect, take over the world.

 

The rest of the movie pits Captain Hendry and his men against this seemingly unstoppable and very brutal creature.  It’s all very exciting and suspenseful.  You won’t have many fingernails left.

 

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD includes some really neat and scary scenes.  The Thing itself isn’t in the movie very much, but the film makes the most of his brief screen time.

 

The scene where Captain Hendry and his men, while searching for the Thing, open the door and he’s standing right there on the other side of the door, is scary as hell and provides a nice jolt, the kind of scene absent from most 1950s movies.

 

This scene also has one of the funnier moments in the movie, when Captain Hendry asks Scotty if he took a picture of the Thing.  Scotty answers that the door wasn’t open wide enough and so Hendry asks if he’d like him to open the door again.  Scotty quickly says, “NO!”

 

The scene where the Thing runs into the snow and fights off the dogs is another creepy one, and you can’t see THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD without mentioning the sequence where the soldiers try to kill it by setting it on fire.  This scene is famous because supposedly Hawks used real fire and shot it in one take, so it’s about as authentic a scene using fire as you’re ever going to see.  The stunt doubles earned their money in this scene.  It’s a violent, raw, and intense.

 

Just before this flame sequence, as the Thing approaches the door, off-camera, and the soldiers track him with their Geiger counters, counting down the distance between him and them, is reminiscent of similar scenes used years later in ALIEN (1979) and its sequel ALIENS (1986).

 

The Thing itself has a great look, and it helps that we usually see him in shadow or with a strange eerie glow around his head.  It’s one of James Arness’ first movies, and he does a nice job acting scary.  He got to play the good guy in the other classic science fiction horror movie from the 1950s, THEM! (1954) as he plays FBI man Robert Graham in that one, who has to save the world from an invasion of giant ants.

 

THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD  has a great cast.  It’s one of Kenneth Tobey’s best performances.  Toby also appeared in the Ray Harryhausen movies THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953), and IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA (1955), but he’s so much better here in THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD.  Tobey enjoyed a long acting career, appearing in movies all the way up to the late 1990s.  He passed away in 2002.

 

Other than Tobey, my favorite performance belongs to Douglas Spencer as “Scotty” the reporter. He certainly gets some of the best lines in the movie, and his performance here is a nice foreshadowing of Darren McGavin’s performance as reporter Carl Kolchak in THE NIGHT STALKER (1972).

 

Margaret Sheridan is also very good as Nikki, and Robert Cornthwaite makes a very effective Dr. Arthur Carrington, who’s constantly at odds with Captain Hendry, as he wants to keep the Thing alive at all costs, in the interests of science.  Cornthwaite also played a scientist in THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953).  Like Kenneth Tobey, Cornthwaite also enjoyed a long acting career, acting all the way up to the 2000s, and he passed away in 2006.

 

Everyone in the cast seems so relaxed.  Now, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s incredibly refreshing not to have people running around screaming and overacting.  They’re constantly trying not to attract the Thing, and so they’re frequently whispering.  There’s lot of soft spoken crisp dialogue, and it’s full of humor throughout.

 

You also can’t talk about THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD without mentioning the powerful music score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  It’s an amazing score, and it captures the strength and brutality of the Thing itself.

 

Howard Hawks only made one horror movie, THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD. After seeing it, you can’t help but wish he had made many more.

 

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