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Talking Spectacles - Matt Houlihan

Sunday 3 March 2024, by Judy Harris

In the first instalment of Talking Spectacles I spoke to Matt Houlihan from The Garden Cinema about the drooling aliens of Alien, Event Horizon’s gothic spaceships and the wonderfully absurd animatronics of The Thing.

Alien - This is essentially a haunted house film since it’s set in an enclosed space where people are faced with a malign presence. My favourite scene is where Harry Dean Stanton sees the alien for the first time. The way it’s introduced is so clever, you don’t see it enter fully, you just see its head. There’s a real economy to it. So much of the let-down of horror films happens when you see too much, you can see it’s a guy in a rubber suit, but here the way it’s lit and shot means your imagination has to make up for a lack of visual information. It’s a beautiful yet terrifying sight as it comes down, it glistens like it’s covered in KY jelly, drooling and so organic - very visceral. And this glistening being is juxtaposed with the grubby, working-class environment where workers are engaged in industrial disputes. It’s a gothic, cavernous, dirty space and within it is a real H.R. Giger biomechanical, sexual creature. The way it looks encapsulates the themes the film touches on - the terrors of motherhood, birth and sexual violence. I watched it when I was way too young – I think I was 8 but maybe younger. You can forget how revolutionary it is.

Event Horizon – This is another haunted house film, set on a possessed ship which is like a gothic cathedral. The ship itself is the antagonist, it has an alien feel to it, but it also radiates cold, hard indifference. Rather than only using vxf they combined them with 30 miniatures of different scales and that materiality is what brings it to life. It’s such a leap of imagination to be in that place that you need a sense of the hardware. One of the models was incredibly detailed and 30 metres long, but it looks like it goes on for miles. You can see the mastery of the craftsmanship and the direction – the use of shadow and how it’s shot creates a powerful, haunted atmosphere. And, as in all these examples, it’s how the visual effects work with the sound effects and the score work to create a brutal, ghostly environment. It’s like the Marie Celeste ghost story of a ship that disappears and comes back.

The Thing – This is a great film with incredible animatronics that look organic. It’s another haunted house film where people are being stalked by something they can’t see. What I really like is its absurdity, it’s so extreme and comical at times. In the famous defibrillation scene the shape-shifting Thing is found to be a giant mouth within a character’s chest that bites the Dr’s arms off and then transforms into a spindly, spidery creature scuttling around. It’s so bizarre but believable in the context of the film and there’s a marvellous level of detail. It all works together including the script – when it scurries across the room in its new form someone says ‘you’ve gotta be fucking kidding’ and it breaks the tension and horror so delightfully, it’s a real cherry on top. The film is really smart in the way it straddles the line between horror and comedy because there is inherent comedy in the extremity of it.

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