Dear Owen Glieberman,
I have sat by and read your reviews for Entertainment Weekly for many years, both in print and online. Over that time, I have learned to give barely a glance to your horror reviews, or to skip them wholesale. The reason is this: it would be obvious even to the most casual observer that you have a complete and utter disdain for the genre. You walk around all high-minded and tend to shoot down horror flicks mainly on the basis that they’re horror flicks. High-minded easily becomes closed-minded, and the effect on me is that I have developed a complete and utter disdain for any horror film review of yours for EW. I know what I’m going to get from you, so there’s no sense in going beyond the title and your name. For a long time, I’ve held my tongue, but your recent comments on the special makeup effects of Rob Bottin in 1982’s THE THING are so ignorantly off-base, I can’t let this go.
Let me quote a long section of your argument, in which you state Bottin’s effects look fake. Here are your sagely words:
That said, the real problem I had watching The Thing a second time is that the special effects, much as I’d originally found them awesome, now looked fake. (Sorry, fellow fans, but that’s the only word that seems apt.) The thing is: Why? As a critic, I’ve routinely decried the overuse of CGI, the too-smooth quasi-unreality of digital effects. I have always stood up for the powers of analog. Yet had my eye, in the ensuing years, grown accustomed, or even unconsciously addicted, to the too-easy virtuosity of CGI? Bottin’s baroque nightmare ultra-contraptions, beginning with a Siberian Husky whose face splits open, now looked transparently like the cleverly rigged machines they were. I could still appreciate what a prodigious imagination he had, but no matter how hard I tried to sit back and enjoy the grotesque ride, I could see the artifice.
Having watched THE THING myself a few weeks back, I have to ask: What movie were you watching? When a dog splits open in the film, it looks just as real to me as it did when I first saw the film as a kid in 1982 on cable television. You call Bottin’s work a series of “baroque nightmare ultra-contraptions,” dismissing it as mere machinery. I call it some of the most complex machinery ever put to the test in front of an audience, a test it has easily passed for 30 years now. Bottin’s work is the standard of excellence in special effects makeup, unparalleled by any artist or computer program all these years later. And it never will be. Bottin is a genius the likes of which filmdom has never known before or since, the mastermind of his chosen art form. If only you, with your cynical opinions and snobbery, could claim the same.
But it’s not enough for you to take shots at Bottin. Instead, you go the easy route, and compare THE THING’s effects to those in ALIEN.
The obvious counterexample, in this case, is Alien. It was made in 1979, three years before The Thing, and far more than the stodgy (to me) 1951 version ofThe Thing, it was the real inspiration for the Carpenter remake. I’ve seen Alien a dozen times, and the effects, at least when that gnashing alien fetus pops out of John Hurt’s stomach, have never lost their power to shock and unsettle. Maybe it’s a matter of the director. Ridley Scott knew how to film the alien in subliminal flash cuts — whereas Carpenter, a prosaic low-style minimalist, showcased Bottin’s effects like old-fashioned production numbers, with nary a cut. Or maybe Bottin had almost too audacious a vision to execute with techniques derived from the Rick Baker inflatable-bladder school.
The effects in ALIEN are still lauded 30+ years later, but this is a new argument, that they’re preferable to those of Bottin. ALIEN spends most of its time concealing the creature, because Stan Winston had neither the talent nor the ambition of Bottin. I also appreciate how you include a picture of the new born alien from Ridley Scott’s film, yet don’t include a single shot of Bottin’s actual effects. Unless you think Kurt Russell’s beard came out of Bottin’s shop, which would make you an idiot. You also decide to use the argument to take shots at Carpenter, who I have never found to be “prosaic,” or “low-style minimalist.” In fact, his use of Panavision and constant camera movement raise his filmmaking to a level of art not many others in the genre can hold claim to. Nice of you to take a shot at Rick Baker too, he having just won an Oscar for his effects work on THE WOLFMAN. And you question Bottin’s ambition, when you should be praising it. He only went about and created the most audacious special effects show of all time in THE THING.
You end your argument praising KING KONG, despite its “herky-jerkyness,” as you put it. You state, “When you watch King Kong, you know that you’re watching special effects, yet the timeless enchantment of the movie is this: It doesn’t just get you to believe that a towering gorilla can move. Kong does more than move — he lives. Maybe that’s the real secret of the special effects that prove eternal: They find the soul of the machine.” Perhaps you’re missing the whole point of horror films, which is this: horror is the realm of suspension of disbelief, and when it’s done right, your brain doesn’t register that you’re watching special effects. You’re watching a giant ape on the top of the Empire State Building, or a creature pop out of an astronaut’s chest… or a dog split in half as an alien reveals itself. Try it sometime. It’ll not only make you enjoy horror more, but it may actually improve you to the point where you’re a competent reviewer, and not a film snob.
In closing, I recently had a conversation with John Caglione. You may know him as the Oscar Winner for the makeup effects on DICK TRACY, and his makeup job on Heath Ledger for the Joker in THE DARK KNIGHT. He echoed what everyone but you always says about Bottin’s work on THE THING; that it holds up and is the best makeup work ever filmed, visuals that no computer will ever match. It’s clear that you don’t like horror, so instead of taking potshots at some of the genre’s most lauded stuff, why don’t you go review a romantic comedy, and do us all a favor?
Founder and editor-in-chief of Death Ensemble