Best Albums of 2010


Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt


Kings Of Leon - Come Around Sundown
Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More


Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
Laura Veirs - July Flame


April Smith - Songs For a Sinking Ship
Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
Jesca Hoop - Hunting My Dress
Jonsi - Go
School of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire
Stars - The Five Ghosts
Wolf Parade - Expo 86


1. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
-A grower, but the best kind. There's only one song on here that I'm not madly in love with (it's the one that sounds like U2). I love that they've expanded but they keep their elements intact. Mostly I just love that their holding a mirror up to how badly we fucked up. A mirror that happens to be made up of the greatest songs of the year. "Month of May" and "Ready To Start" use guitars and drums like weapons, "Modern Man" is "Downtown Train" by Tom Waits, but sweeter, "Suburban War" is Nebraska by Springsteen, but in the middle it gets 50,000 volts to the heart, "Sprawl II" is like The Human League + New Order, but with humanitarian blood coursing through it's veins, turning them bright, neon red under the skin. Regine Chassagne and Win Butler's voices are still just as important to me as the day I first heard them, at the tail end of 2004. They may be older and wiser, but to have them singing the same blues I have every day is about as close to having them put their hands on my shoulder and saying "keep it up" as I'll come. Their songs have always resonated with me because I feel like they were written about me. Which I think is Win Butler's gift as a songwriter. He's a genius who only ever talks up to the willing in his songs. He and his band beg you to wake up and love each other before it's too late. Standout track: "Empty Room." That rare object of beauty you can blast from car speakers.

2. Holy Fuck - Latin
-Holy Fuck are the only band that could ever deserve the name they chose for themselves. No one ever said that these guys could top their first album, and I definitely thought it impossible. And yet and yet. Latin is, as Brian Borcherdt's video for "Red Lights" suggests, a muscle car that bathes in the morning sun on opener "1MD" then gets into all kinds of fucking trouble for the rest of the album. Whereas LP had hooks that you could shake your ass to, Latin gives them depth, meaning, a backstory. Latin is as imperative as it is unforgettably catchy. It's also so awesome that really there's only one thing to say when you find yourself in the mesmerizing grooves the band creates. And I think you know what that is.

3. Wolf Parade - Expo 86
-Dizzy and I have discussed this album at length and though I agree with her that the first song, "Cloud Shadow On The Mountain" is the best thing ever done by human beings, I still contend that the rest of the album holds enough majesty to serve as a worthy successor to their unparralleled debut album Apologies To The Queen Mary. Still weird and still wonderful, Wolf Parade have honed their skills as rockers and it turns out their instincts as rock gods work nicely with their old baggage, singing dadaistic, avant-garde lyrics about who knows what. Dan Boeckner is the MVP here, making his guitar scream and sing in turn (the man was born to punish six strings) and for the first time since that brilliant first album, he and Spencer Krug sing together perfectly on "Little Golden Age." Boeckner's rockers and Krug's space-age barn-burners are represented here and both are in top form. And of course Arlen Thompson's drumming and Hadji Bakara's squelching keyboards are never at rest; they give Wolf Parade the gown it wears to the wedding, after all. These four work together in perfect harmony and Expo 86 is a rock album for our uncertain times. It's never at rest, it constantly conjures beautiful endless vistas in our minds, it's powerless to the machinations that surround it, but that doesn't stop it from tearing shit up real nice. Standout track: "Cave-O-Sapien"

4. UNKLE - Where Did The Night Fall
-I always liked UNKLE, but more as atmosphere rather than as songsmiths. For the hundreth time I was happily proven wrong about a band's capability this year when UNKLE delivered Where Did The Night Fall which mixes dramatic delivery with beastly choruses. "Follow Me Down" starts things off perfectly, cool and aloof at times, digging into you at others. The choice of guest vocalists was inspired on this outing. Rachel Fannan of Sleepy Sun, The Black Angels, Joel Cadbury, TV On The Radio/Celebration's Katrina Ford, Autolux... There are great, creeping club rockers that would make Portishead happy, but I'm tempted to say that the best song is the slow-burning "Another Night Out" which proves why Mark Lanegan is one of the most sought after vocalists in the game. It's dark, huge and splendid, like the album it closes.

5. The Besnard Lakes - Are The Roaring Night
-Mixing Shoegazing rock with chamber pop, The Besnard Lakes are the greatest band you don't know. Except maybe Holy Fuck. Get on that, reader, you're falling behind! Anyway, this album is everything it promises. Hazy skylines, blurring colours, canon-like bursts of guitar and drums, flying vocals, propulsive pop, rockers like runaway freight trains, the roaring night. Standout track: "And This Is What We Call Progress."

6. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
-I don't think I even need to go into why I love this. Does anyone question my love of Broken Social Scene at this point? Is anyone surprised when their records show up here year after year? For those who do listen to "Meet Me In The Basement." Yeah, how do you like that? Pretty fucking awesome, yeah? Broken Social Scene are always in my head. They were with me all throughout my teen years and are just always with me. "Art House Director" is a lot of fun, an Andrew Whiteman-penned romp all about authorial vision, getting at the line that separates music and film. "All To All" is just amazing. So is "Sentimental Xs." So is "Chase Scene." So is "World Sick."

7.Laura Jorgensen - Feathered Arms
-Am I perhaps slightly biased when it comes to Laura Jorgensen? We've made four movies together, one of which was an account of her playing a solo concert; I directed the music video for her song "Pulling Strings;" I sat next to her in Intro To Film Scoring. Perhaps. Those who'd believe me incapable of being objective ought to just listen to one of her songs. "Pens" for instance, in which she channels Joanna Newsom, Bjork and Devotchka, all imperatively, all gorgeously, all the while proving herself a talent in need of recognition. Her voice goes from a rousing roar to a breath-taking whisper, all in the name of getting us to realize the joy and stunning life that surrounds us even in squalor. Feathered Arms is like Never Let Me Go, a kind of quiet, post-apocalyptic account of what went wrong at the end of the world. Why didn't we stop cutting down forests? Why didn't we stop fighting wars? Why didn't we hold each other a little closer? Even still, those of us who've survived are privy to a truly excellent party scored by Jorgensen's stunning and reflective old-fashioned pop music. Standout track: "South." Sweet fucking jesus, that song.

8. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
-The thing that won me over immediately was the album cover. It all made perfect sense. James Murphy is Bernard Sumner and David Bowie and Peter Murphy and Bryan Ferry and Iggy Pop and Philip Oakey and he had the album cover to prove it. This Is Happening could be the best album of 78-86 were it not for the irony, the foresight James Murphy has looking back at his own behavior, his short but almost unbelievably successful career as the golden boy of self-aware, post-Daft Punk techno. There couldn't have been anyone like Murphy until Murphy. He worked his way up, built an empire in his image, gave the spotlight to like-minded geniuses like Hot Chip, Shit Robot and Black Dice. Bands full of guys just like him except that they're not him. As unlikely rock stars go, paunchy, self-hating James Murphy is at the top of the list, but lo and behold, he not only managed to recreate the noises from his favourite records full of charismatic sex symbols, but he also found his voice. So he can now not only say "Fuck You" to everyone who doubted he was a genius, but he can do it in a really beautiful voice he found in honor of his last album. Dude...fuckin' James Murphy. He wrote a song called "You Wanted A Hit" and then realized his album didn't have a hit, so he wrote "Drunk Girls" which is the greatest song ever written. And it's not even the best song on the album. Standout track: "One Touch" and "I Can Change" because they're both sides of his personality, the hit machine and the insecure pop star who doesn't want the spotlight.

9. The Living Sisters - Love To Live
-Recently I was won over by whimsy, smiles, sunshine and hooks. I blame The Hidden Cameras to a degree and certainly years of listening to Regina Spektor (though her relentless cuteness can be like staring at the sun, you just have to stop before your eyes burn out of your head), but recently I've been totally won over by the bubbly likes of The Secret Sisters, Laura Marling and The Living Sisters, the newest Becky Stark side project, also featuring Inara George from The Bird and The Bee and mutual friend Eleni Mandell. Of the three these girls won me over with their three-part harmonies, plucky subject matter (the opening track is almost too happy), and old-school California melodies. A more easy and pretty listen you won't find this year; the perfect album to put on and pretend you have no troubles. Go on, you know you want to. Standout track: "Double Knots." Like swimming in a shimmering, rainbow-colored pool with your best gal.

10. Stars - The Five Ghosts
-Stars have yet to write an album that maintains the kind of mood that makes for a single listen. "Genova Heights" and "Today Will Be Better" are too definitive in opposite directions to be cohesive together. They're both great songs, indeed Stars write some of the best rock/theatrical pop music of the last decade, but I tend to do a lot of skipping depending on whether I'm feeling down or romantic or in the mood for a lot of headbanging and air guitar. The Five Ghosts is the closest thematically they've done since Heart and contains some of their best songs to date. Listen to Amy Millan's voice on the seemingly ordinary "Changes." What begins in that breathy, sweet way of hers morphs slowly into an impossibly beautiful plea. "Changes" has maybe her greatest vocal performance to date. Goddamn can Amy Millan sing. Like their previous albums The Five Ghosts also has some pretty massive personal significance for me and someone who will remain nameless (you know who you are!). These guys write songs that lend themselves well to soundtrack-of-your-life type situations, which really puts them in their own league as far as pop is concerned. A lot of pop music sounds like it's supposed to play during the end credits of a movie. Stars write songs that turn your life into a living film that you want desperately to have a happy ending. Standout: "Wasted Daylight." That song is fucking awesome.

11.The Hot Rats - Turn Ons
-I shouldn't count this as it's all covers but seriously this record rocks. As much as it grieves me to learnt that my favourite bands have broken up (this year I found out that Ambulance LTD. may have finally thrown in the towel, as well as French Kicks and World Leader Pretend) when I learned that Supergrass has called it quits, the blow was softened somewhat by the release of The Hot Rats' Turn Ons. Produced by Radiohead's angel-on-the-shoulder Nigel Godrich, Hot Rats is really just Gaz Coombes and Danny Goffy from Supergrass doing the work of three men and playing some of their (and mine) favourite songs and doing just as good or better a job as the fellas who penned them. I always thought that "Big Sky" by The Kinks could have used a harder edge, for instance. Apparently so did Coombes. I also thought that The Velvet Underground's "Can't Stand It' was a bit aimless; Coombes and Goffy give it a pulse and a purpose. I hate The Doors and never really thought I'd like anything of theirs that didn't open Apocalypse Now. Point Coombes. Their version of "The Crystal Ship" makes sense of Jim Morrison's formerly incoherent vision and brings a soaring chorus to life. Even songs I didn't really think deserved the Hot Rats treatment come away lively and catchy. Gang of Four's "Damaged Goods" and Beastie Boys' "Fight For Your Right To Party" are given such a nifty acoustic guitar treatment resulting in the kind of indefatigable kookiness that only hindsight can produce. The best of the 60s, 70s and 80s with a little of each thrown into the mix in the production, with Nigel Godrich's work almost akin to building a cabin around these songs and keeping a roaring fire going while Coombes and Goffy have a singsong. I'm just glad they invited everyone. Usually this tasteful experimentation winds up on the cutting room floor. But they enlivened the best of Elvis Costello, Pink Floyd and Sex Pistols in a way that I didn't know needed doing. Standout track: "Up The Junction," originally by Squeeze. Heartbreaking.

12. Jesca Hoop - Hunting My Dress
-Tom Waits called Jesca Hoop's music akin to "swimming at night." Having only heard one song "Four Dreams" I didn't quite get it. Now that I've got her excellent third album, Hunting My Dress, I get it. Managing to out-Brian Deck Brian Deck with her quirky production, Hoop doesn't create songs so much as she does little worlds with hierarchies, characters and dangers. Like Waits' newer albums, Hunting My Dress is at once a showcase for her unique voice and also a new and exciting endeavour every track. It doesn't make for cohesion, but it does make for an experience that's like reading a different novel every time the song changes. "Whispering Light" is a dark ugly place where the locals'd kill you as soon as look at you, "Angel Mom" is elegiac and fragile, fraught with loss, "Tulip" is hot, full of high-contrast light and sideways glances from nervous travelers. As for "Four Dreams," it's very nearly the best song of the year. A clicking, clacking deep and wonderful place that works like a clock. And at the end of the hour, more amazing music.

13. School of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire
-I have KCRW's Top Tune to thank for a lot of the albums on here (Jesca Hoop, Living Sisters, Joanna Newsom) including this, which introduced me to the best song on the album, the buzzing, expansive "Dust Devil." It showed me that School of Seven Bells have grown as a band, even if their favourite influences have stuck around. There's still plenty of My Bloody Valentine on Disconnect From Desire and Brian Eno, to be sure, but they've found a sound that extends past their ability to find a wavy, fuzzy groove. "Dust Devil" is School of Seven Bells conquering their influences and standing over top of them victorious. The twin vocals of twin sisters Deheza and the propulsive backing of Benjamin Curtis show a mastery of the kind of thing they did in their previous bands and showing what they've discovered on the trail they're currently blazing. There are hills and valleys to get lost in and if you're looking for a hiding place, an environment to discover yourself do what they did, Disconnect From Desire. Also, listen to this album cause it's pretty great.

14. Land of Talk - Cloak And Cypher
-Liz Powell has always been super impressive. I've seen her do two sets in a night, as opener and headliner, and she kept playing when the power went out onstage. Her albums until now have been mostly momentary distraction types. I need a song to rock out to between work and home? "Young Bridge" will do the job. But I never though her sweltering guitar and lazy vocals were never quite as imperative as her peers. Well, I take back my apathy. Land of Talk have proven themselves a band of amazing depth and incredible songwriting skill with Cloak And Cypher, an icy cool post-punk album that makes Powell's voice a deep and powerful force and puts her detuned guitar to work beneath layers of drums and hefty production. Cloak and Cypher sounds like The Pretenders produced by Martin Hannett. It's catchy and dark and detached and in-your-face at once. The choruses of "Goaltime Exposure" and "Color Me Badd" are monumental and will stay with you long after the album's finished spinning.

15. J Tillman - Singing Ax
-Like a wind kicked up a hundred years ago that's only just blown through your hair. You might know him as the guy who drums for Fleet Foxes but he deserves to be known as the guy whose aching, sweet voice, Cormac McCarthy-esque country songs and his distant lonely guitar will bring you to tears in the right mindset. This is isn't even as good as his previous records but this is still a haunting and winning record and better than most musicians that purport to be modern country. His voice melts in your ears and his songs will live for centuries; they already sound like they have.

16. Nels Cline Singers - Initiate
-Much more overtly jazzy than Draw Breath, a previous favourite around these parts, and much more spacious and psychedelic, too. Nels has been around long enough that when he experiments, it really sounds as vital as it ought to. After all, are there many jazz guitar players with his resume? He's played with Thurston Moore, Wilco, Mike Watt, Zach Hill and Charlie Haden. Anyway, Initiate straddles psych-rock and spacey, thoughtful jazz. "Red Line To Greenland" is way fucking awesome, loaded with instantly memorable riffs and burning theatrics, while "Scissor/Saw" is all experimental percussion and detuned disturbances. He still finds something exciting to say with the most over-used instrument on the planet and he's got a band that can keep up with him, too.

17. Lullabye Arkestra - Threats/Worship
-I love Lullabye Arkestra because they constantly remind me that even with the simplest formula (one bass, one drum kit, two Canadian spouses with indie rock credentials) something new can come bursting out. Like a charging bull, Threats/Worship takes a harder edge than their debut Ampgrave, and the soul influence is a little less prominent, but what these two do with a lot of distortion is like alchemy. Kat Taylor-Small's voice is soulful even when in the throes of a screaming fit and this time she even allows herself a moment of reverby cool on the album's best track, the sexy "Fog Machine." It's not easy to do something new with bass and drums and even harder to swim the waters between metal and soul but Lullabye do it with panache. "Sad Sad Story" sounds like it could have been written for someone on Deep City Records, while "Get Nervous" and "We Fuck The Night" are more punishing and cool than the best on Relapse Records. I'm always glad to see something totally unique spring to life when lovers make music.

18. Eric Chenaux & Ryan Driver - Warm Weather
-It doesn't quite compare to their otherworldly live show, but this collection of collaborative tracks does hint at the mysterious majesty of their harmonizing. The two men compliment each other with their wonderfully human voices and rambling guitars. Constellation Records' secret weapon for some time, Chenaux mixes the likes of Ohad Benchetrit's guitar and Vic Chesnutt's lonely singing. A fall day living room record.

19. Holly Miranda - The Magicians Private Library
-Brilliant, almost industrial post-pop that soothes and cuts in equal measure. Miranda's voice is just as interesting as her compositions; a sort of smoky, jazzy thing complimented by Dave Sitek's keyboards and Eno-like repetition and ethereal orchestration. There are sun-drenched highs ("Sweet Dreams") and noisy lows ("No One Just Is") and it all makes sense. Standout: the Kyp Malone-assisted "Slow Burn Treason." Simply astonishing!

20. Joanna Newsom - Have One on Me
-Previous albums have alienated me with their sheer outre cuteness, but this is the first album where her mammoth, baroque vision has seeped into my brain. I'm a recent convert but I really do think that this is the one record of hers that everyone could enjoy. Some really beautiful compositions that she finally does herself the favour of singing clearly on. A beautiful, beautiful collection of songs.

I'd just like to POINT out

*congretates, congegates.. hunkie-dorie.

my dream

I had this dream last night that while I was sleeping on the couch downstairs, my mom filled my bedroom up with cages of exotic animals and aquariums of fish, and that my plants were growing out of control- huge! Blocking out the window and covering my bed with leaves.
And at first I was really mad, but then I saw that there were some seahorses in one of the tanks and I was just so amazed and couldn't even believe it, and I wasn't annoyed or upset anymore.

So I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that my mom kept a bunch of cats in my room when I was away at college, and that my new morning glories are just starting to sprout, and that I had a fever at the time.

Home feels different to me after being away from it. Even though ten weeks isn't all that long, especially compared to the ten or so years that I've lived in this house, it's more of the fact that it's becoming less of a home to me. Most of my stuff is still here, but I've sort of already started to put my roots down somewhere else, in Bar Harbor. And I really like it there, but I was also pretty homesick at times there too. But I think that's okay?

So I'm struggling with this idea of "home" or even just my room, which, after sharing one with a roommate, seems oddly empty and inhospitable.

People move from place to place, and children have to grow up and find their own way somehow, but it all seems very big to me still, and I miss people who are in Boston and Montreal and California. And one of my one good friends from school might not be coming back next trimester, which I don't really know how to cope with.

But I'm glad that I'm not sick anymore, and that I've figured a few things out. And I'll get to see a few more people soon. My big sister, who I haven't seen in probably a year and a half, is flying here from Texas tonight. It will only take her about three hours. Doesn't that seem impossible?

I watched an episode of House where he was on a plane and someone got really, really sick and then all the passengers started getting all of the symptoms too, and they all thought they were all going to die and they were flying over the south pole, but then it turned out that it was just all just hysteria and it was only the one guy in the first place who was sick, and he wasn't even really all that sick, he was just a scuba diver or whatever. In the end it all turned out okay.


My Favourite Film Volume 18

If I had to pick one film to show to an alien race to try and explain the concept of horror, specifically the horror film, I think I’d pick John Carpenter’s The Thing. It can be understood without any significant reading into the zeitgeist that produced it. You don’t need to be an American or have much understanding of the political climate of the early 1980s, you don’t need to have seen the Howard Hawks produced The Thing From Another World, of which Carpenter’s film was an ostensible remake, nor do you have to have read Who Goes There? the story by John Campbell, which both films take inspiration from. In fact you don’t need to know much at all. I was maybe 5 or 6 when I first saw The Thing and I connected immediately with its desperate characters and thoroughly enjoyed repeat visits to the cold Antarctic setting. As with Aliens, another childhood favorite, I could follow the action, enjoyed the brutality of both the heroes and the villain(s), the blunt poetry of the dialogue (casual swearing, a 6 year old's delight), the creature design, the relentlessness of the story and as I got older came to see it as a film so carefully designed and meticulously constructed that the idea of calling it a horror film doesn’t really do it justice. It is a story of paranoia, of loss, of Lovecraftian terror, of man’s multifaceted struggle with things he can only attempt to comprehend, of men trying to apply science, reason and finally common sense to the unexplainable. Though to be fair it is first and foremost the story of an alien lifeform that really wants to take over the bodies of twelve men trapped in an isolated location who in return really want to kill it. Because it is such a simple story, it’s possible to scour it for subtext (Vietnam, Reagan, AIDS and socio-feminist-related readings have all been offered) and while I think that’s a valuable and telling exercise, I’m going to simply judge it in terms of its place in the genre because it is in many ways the ultimate genre film.

The Thing
by John Carpenter

In the endless expanse of the Antarctic landscape, a helicopter and its two occupants chase after a dog. The dog looks back at them as they unload bullets and grenades feebly; it seems to be knowingly outfoxing them. The dog makes it to United States National Science Institute Station 4 before the two men can do much damage. The pilot accidentally blows himself and the chopper up with a grenade and though the survivor tries to explain himself to the Americans at Station 4. The only problem is he’s Norwegian and they don't understand a word he says. They understand when they’re being shot at however. When the Norwegian misfires and hits Bennings the meteorologist in the leg while aiming for the dog, Garry, the camp's lone military man. The guys take the dog in and begin wondering what it is that would have caused two men to want to kill a dog so badly. The men, besides Garry and Bennings, are Norris the geologist, Childs the mechanic, helicopter pilots MacReady and Palmer, physicians and biologists Fuchs, Blair and Copper, radio operator Windows, Nauls the cook and Clark the veterinarian. After stitching up Bennings’ leg, Copper opts to go find the Norwegian camp and gets MacReady to take him there. What they find is chilling, in every sense of the word. Looks like the fellow with one of Garry’s bullets in his crown got off easy - one of the men has cut his own throat with a straight-razor (but seems to have frozen to death before he finished bleeding) and another looks to have been burnt alive, though he doesn’t look all human either. They also find a big block of ice that looks to have lately held something big. They bring back the burnt man-like mass to camp where Blair attempts to perform an autopsy. Everyone watches in shock and horror as new discoveries are made but no one is more shaken than the dog. It’s almost as if he recognizes that burnt-up mass of flesh. When Clark the vet puts him in with the camp's other sleigh dogs that night, something rather unexpected happens. The dog quickly sheds it’s skin and becomes something unspeakably hideous and gooey and starts wrapping tentacles around the other dogs. The men burn it before it can lift itself into the rafters with the giant fists it sprouted from its back.

It takes some imagination on Blair’s part to discern what went on but considering that every man in the camp saw the transformation with their own eyes they’re willing to buy just about anything. Blair pulls the creature apart and finds evidence of it trying to look like a dog, like it was in the middle of imitating the camp dogs when they killed it. After inspecting some tapes they collected from the Norwegian base, MacReady and Norris head to the spot where they pulled the block of ice from the snow. Not only do they find where it was pulled out, they find the charred remains of a gigantic spacecraft buried beneath a hundred thousand years worth of ice. MacReady draws a timeline which the guys take with a grain of salt. He’s no scientist after all. The Norwegians thaw the thing out, it gets to some of their bodies, they try to contain it by killing whomever it touches (and themselves to prevent being taken over), but it gets out in the body of one their dogs, which tries to occupy other dogs. Though that makes a kind of sense, it’s hardly a comfort to the men at Station 4. How long before the man-thing defrosts and decides it would prefer, as the film’s slogan promises, a nice warm-blooded body to inhabit? And if it can imitate any organism it wants to, how will anyone know who’s human and who’s not? It’s either going to be a very long or a very short winter.

The Thing is John Carpenter’s best film, it is one of the best remakes of all time, one of the best genre movies of all time, features some of the best special effects of all time and one of the most terrifying and interesting premises of all time. Not bad for a little sci-fi/horror movie with three locations, is it? It is superbly crafted to ensure that every scene shocks and surprises and to make sure you never feel at ease. It is only on second viewing do you understand how loaded every gesture is (even the simple act of a dog licking your face becomes foreshadowing in the take-no-prisoner’s world of Bill Lancaster’s script and John Carpenter's direction). Every element that would ordinarily damn a film like this (simple sets, the odd bout of pseudo-science, the lack of female characters, the no-nonsense direction, a seeming reliance on effects over characterization [though under scrutiny this turns out to be false]) becomes a strength. The film had few allies upon its first release. If the critics of 1982 could see just what’s happened to some of the classics since Carpenter’s film, they’d perhaps have kept their mouths shut instead of trashing a film they didn’t understand. The problem was they were not willing to play The Thing’s game. They wanted a film that showed respect to them and to Howard Hawks’ original; Carpenter’s film does neither on its face. The Thing’s atmosphere is built in to every frame, the performances are invisible, everyone taking a backseat to the crisis on their hands, and the effects are quite gruesome. Carpenter’s characters are not exactly charismatic (though most are likable) and it's only when he kills them off at times you least expect it that you realize how much you like and depend on them. In some regards it seems like we have the makings of an Italian horror film. The scenes at the Norwegian camp resemble some gory painting halfway between Fulci and Argento, the Ennio Morricone music beautifully underscoring the action (of all his film scores that simple ‘dun dun’ theme gets the most impact with the least movement), even the characters seem drawn from an Italian film (Windows looks a touch like some Italian character actor, Fuchs like Richard Dreyfuss by way of Al Cliver in The Beyond, Bobby Rhodes made his career pretending to be as naturally cool as Keith David is here and thanks to all that hair Kurt Russell looks like a cross between make-up man Rob Bottin and Ray Lovelock in Let Sleeping Corpses Lie). Carpenter had shown his affinity for Italianate visuals and atmosphere in his previous film, The Fog, but The Thing manages to synthesize the visuals of his and his crew’s inspiration (Argento, EC comics, Lovecraft, Hawks, I detect shades of Jaws, but that could be because Spielberg and Carpenter were both students of first generation of film schools) and craft a language all its own.

Bottin’s visual effects are unrivaled, even today. He and Carpenter were both wary of staying away from H.R. Giger’s designs for Alien, still fresh in their minds when they began planning the film in 1981. I think it speaks volumes about their various successes that not only does The Thing not resemble Alien in anyway, it completely avoids seeming like a sci-fi movie. I for one have never really thought of it as anything in the universe of Alien as it speaks a different language (though check out the extra appendages on the queen at the end of James Camerson’s sequel; they’ve got Bottin’s signature writ large. That Stan Winston worked on the scenes with the dog thing I think could be seen as pre-proudction on Aliens). The stories have a lot in common, though Campbell covered the ground in Who Goes There? before Ridley Scott had ever read Dan O’Bannon’s script. First of all, Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography is half-business, half-mood, all great. The gorgeous snowy landscapes and the scenes of the camp at night have a kind of blue-collar poetry about them; this is truly the end of the world. And what was Ridley Scott trying to achieve with his space ship if not the kind of broken down and hopelessly average interiors that Carpenter’s characters dwell in? Also I think that Bottin’s creatures avoid looking earthly in a way no one’s ever seconded. For all the genius behind the design of Giger's titular Alien (of which there was plenty), it does retain a humanoid shape. The only thing human about Bottin’s creations is in their feeble attempt at looking human. The rest is so far from normal, so freakish and distorted that they become works of art in their own right. Everyone from Stuart Gordon to James Gunn has tried their hand at copying Carpenter’s work with Bottin but no one’s come close. The Thing was by Carpenter’s own admission all about the monsters. If they weren’t the most fucking awesome monsters you’d ever seen, the film wouldn’t have worked.

The reason I think that The Thing manages to be unnerving when we aren’t staring down the snout of some hoary beast, is because for the first and last time Carpenter and co. had total control over the look of the film; he had it once again on Ghosts of Mars but that film wound up a pale imitation in this and every other regard. Your average cinemagoer in the early 80s had no clue what an Antartic research station looked like so both the drab interiors (with their indefinably spooky corridors and maw-like doors) and the frozen exteriors all set the viewer on edge. The outside looks like a jagged and macabre ice castle in the thick of the weather conditions and the effective but natural lighting design is all manufactured blues and oranges. The frame jumps with strange colours once the action picks up and never rests. The film’s final location, the generator room is a special creation, the camp’s own inferno where the final and most terrible monster of all dwells. It is here that Carpenter and Botton hark back to Harryhausen as well as every creature we’ve seen thus far. The lighting, all hellish chiaroscuro, compliments the final clash with the unknown perfectly just in time for Russell’s final put-down. The blue-collar angle I mentioned before is most evident in the dialogue. When not in Hawksian rapid-fire-yet-lackadaisacal conversation, the men sound conspicuously like a couple of bored, stir-crazy working stiffs. How often do people attempt and fail at that sort of thing? I think Lancaster understood that when ordinary people take on something, their fight becomes your fight in a way it doesn’t if you’re watching he-men or detectives or gladiators taking on something supernatural. Those characters are more likely to rise to the occasion because they've been written to do so. Carpenter’s guys don’t want the beast to win but mostly they don’t want to get killed. An impulse I think we can all understand. Even as paranoia mounts and no one’s sure about anything, their dialogue remains refreshingly human. The film’s best lines are gut reactions to some pretty horrifying images; I don’t know whether Keith David's Childs, Richard Masur’s Clark or David Clennon’s Palmer has the film’s best line, but almost everyone gets an instantly quotable zinger that would just be so much swearing in any other film. What’s more, upon further inspection, you realize that no line gets wasted. Take the petty argument about who’s going to search for Fuchs with whom. Knowing what we do about everyone involved and who turns out to be a thing, it makes perfect sense. The dialogue and Carpenter’s camera miss nothing. In other words the film wastes no time, no words, no glances and no energy. Everything helps the action along, everything contributes to the miasma of mistrust and the end soon comes hurdling at us at lightspeed. It is efficient, grisly and creepy, like the organism at the core of the story. And just like the thing of the title it gets under your skin. In other words, it is a horror film par excellence, full of writhing shocks and spider-legged creatures from another world. Like the best of Lovecraft it knows no master, plays by no rules and scares you to death, but in the end I keep coming back for more.